Mike Neff · Monday September 12, 2011
Two weeks ago there were complaints from many NASCAR fans once again that the old Bristol was far better than the new one, primarily because there was little to no wrecking. Well, the drivers were apparently listening and attempted to make up for all of that Saturday night at Richmond. The first caution flag flew on lap four, when Andy Lally spun in turn four, and didn’t stop until the 15th caution period ended on lap 388 after Paul Menard spun through the infield on the front straight. In between, most every driver who had a chance to work their way into the Chase at Richmond was involved in at least one incident, with many involved in more than one.
Heading into Saturday night’s race Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart held their destiny in their own hands. Earnhardt needed to finish 20th, Stewart 18th. It seemed a simple endeavor for two drivers in the top 10 in points.
That changed on lap eight when, as cars were slowing for a spin by Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears got into the back of Earnhardt and all heck broke loose, with a total of 13 cars being involved in the fracas. When nearly a third of the field gets caught up in someone’s mess less than 10 laps into a race, there is a decent chance that it will be a night filled with beating and banging, and Saturday night at Richmond did not disappoint.
Marcos Ambrose also had a chance to make the Chase if he could just win the race, but those hopes were dashed shortly after the third caution. After the race was slowed for Kasey Kahne making a tight loop, the field scrambled out of turn 2 a couple of laps after a restart and, as some cars checked up, Earnhardt got into the back of Ambrose and turned him around. The damage wasn’t terrible but it was enough to heighten the Australian’s anxiety.
After the race went back to green, Ambrose was pushing his luck and stuck his nose inside of Brian Vickers heading into turn 3, which resulted in Vickers taking out his teammate Kahne. During the ensuing caution laps Vickers swerved in front of Ambrose, hitting his nose and blocking the track for a short period of time. The end result was damage that would prevent Ambrose from winning the race, while Vickers was invited to spend some time in the garage by NASCAR to contemplate his actions.
When the race got to lap 72, fans were finally treated to their 10th consecutive green flag lap (there were only six instances of 10 or more consecutive green flag laps during the entire race, with a 71-lap run being the longest of the night.) One of those long green flag runs was ended when the fans were reminded that even the best of drivers can drive like impetuous little kids; after Kurt Busch had driven too hard into the first turn and spun him on lap 187, Jimmie Johnson sailed it out of control into turn 1 with the sole intention of taking out Busch. The end result was Johnson back in the garage for repairs, while Busch was soldiering on to a fifth place finish.
Technically Saturday night was not a full moon, but within two days of being at its maximum, as its gravitational pull was obviously having a direct impact on the minds of the competitors in the Cup race. Fans who miss the old Bristol must have been ecstatic over the carnage that took place at Richmond. 15 caution flags for 85 laps meant that over 21% of the race was run behind the pace car. No fewer than 25 cars were involved in incidents that resulted in caution flags. There was more bare bond on the front of cars than chiffon covering innocent girls on prom night. Cars were dragging and dropping parts, while drivers were dropping expletives on their radios and viewers were wondering if the race would ever finish.
In the end, NASCAR wanted excitement leading up to the Chase and hoped there would be plenty of fireworks during the Richmond race. While the 12 people who were eligible going into the race ended up being the 12 who made it, there was plenty of fender scraping and bumper rubbing that threw the eventual outcome into doubt, resulting in the cars looking like they ran 500 laps at Martinsville instead of 400 around the high speed surface at Richmond. Richmond has always been one of the most popular tracks on the schedule, and might be the most popular now. Add in a bunch of drivers acting like they were running in the 4-cylinder class at Bowman Gray Stadium instead of at the elite level of NASCAR and you get a race that everyone is talking about on Sunday morning.
The racing in the Cup series has most definitely changed over the years; there is certainly a reduced amount of contact between competitors. Part of that is because there is so much more money at stake for the season championship, and the competitors don’t want to hurt their chances at having a shot at it. Another part is so many races are contested on tracks that are more than a mile in length, meaning bouncing off of your fellow competitors at the speeds attained on those tracks is simply dangerous and could lead to serious injury. Saturday night was a throwback to the old short track days when competitors leaned on each other to try and gain and advantage – or, to prevent someone from getting by.
There is no question that seeing sparks fly at night along with tempers flaring and the resulting sheet metal damage that results is exciting when the time is right. The problem with so much of the rough driving on Saturday night was that it was taking place in the middle of the pack with people who were racing for 20th position. The members of these racing organizations put in so much time and effort to get the cars to the track every week. The added time and effort to fix cars that have been beaten to death is worthwhile if the driver was tearing up the equipment to get to the front, or close to it. When drivers are ripping off fenders and tearing up cars because they’re trying to prove their manhood during a dispute for 23rd spot, it is simply unnecessary.
Short track racing is fantastic and the Cup series should have at least 20 races on tracks that are less than a mile in length, but the competition needs to be about racing hard and with respect. It does not need to be about driving like Billy Bob with Cooter’s Towing Service painted with a roller across the deck lid of the car. The Cup regulars are the best drivers in the world, or at least that is what we’re repeatedly told. They should drive like it.
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