The Frontstretch: Mother Nature Plays Racing God: Victors And Victims From Pocono's Sunny Ending by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday August 9, 2011

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When we look back on the 2011 Chase field, likely to include Brad Keselowski NASCAR’s new “iron man” has but one woman to thank for his inclusion. No, it’s not his mother, nice as she is or the nurses that helped him heal in the hospital after Road Atlanta. It’s not even the Lady In Black, a Darlington track whose third-place result spurred Keselowski’s initial comeback in May. Instead, the answer comes as simply as standing outside, looking up at the clear blue sky one sunny day and appreciating the type of perfect weather for racing we weren’t supposed to have for long on Sunday afternoon.

What a nice little assist Kes got from Mother Nature, right? After a raging thunderstorm stopped the racing, forcing out the red flag on Lap 124 for all intents and purposes, most fans and drivers thought the 500-mile race would be rain-shortened. Indeed, a quick look at the forecast and the radar meant no one would have blamed NASCAR if they didn’t dry the track, pronounced it a lost cause and ended the event right then and there. The fact that they didn’t, rolling the dice and making an ending happen changed the face of the race and in some cases, perhaps altered the course of driver’s seasons. How important was restarting this race? These drivers can tell you… let’s start with the losers first.

MOTHER NATURE HATERS

A weekend filled with promise for young Joey Logano ended with the youngster wondering what might have been – especially if Mother Nature kept interfering…

Joey Logano
Lap 124 Rainout: 1st
Lap 200 Finish: 26th
Net Loss: -25

For “Sliced Bread,” his heart was sliced in half once the track dryers finished up their work. As the rains came, it was pure elation for the 21-year-old who’d seemed to finish a picture-perfect weekend: win the pole, keep his 2012 job (with an assist from Carl Edwards), then use a two-tire stop to bolt into clean air and pull away. Jimmie Johnson had the faster car, but it was Logano still out in front when the raging downpour and subsequent yellow left the youngster in position to score his second career win.

Instead? The restart left his Toyota filled with handling woes, the final 74 circuits filled with pit road gaffes and flat tire follies which left him hobbling home a distant 26th.

“What can you do?” said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. “We did all we could. We sat on the pole, we led a bunch of laps, we had a very respectful top-5 car. I think [it’s] one of our better performances in the last two and a half years so I’m not going to hang my head and be miserable over something on the race track. I can’t control that.”

But note those answers came from the guy who sits on a pit box every Sunday… not the one who presses the accelerator pedal. At an impressionable age, just hours removed from free agent relief one can only wonder how this ending messed with Logano’s confidence. Because for all the wonderful things he did, the 44 laps led on Sunday Home Depot executives out of the loop Monday turned on Sportscenter and saw four things: A smiling Carl Edwards finishing well ahead of their driver, a different “young gun” in Victory Lane (Brad Keselowski), their home improvement rival in the news again (Jimmie Johnson), and Logano down in the bottom half of the final results.

Sources tell me different things about Home Depot’s contract, but this much we know: other big names, like Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers have yet to be fully locked down. It’s not quite Mr. Edwards, but Mr. Logano had a chance to nail down his job in 2012 with superglue; instead, there’s still just the slightest bit of a loose connection. And that’s tough to swallow.

Crew chief Mike Ford is at his wits’ end over at the No. 11 shop after another careless mistake cost the team a top-5 finish – and precious points.

Denny Hamlin
Lap 124 Rainout: 3rd
Lap 200 Finish: 15th
Net Loss: -12

For Hamlin, third was not quite a win but part of a Joe Gibbs Racing trio that each got what they wanted by Lap 124. For Logano, it was a victory that would have actually left him a “wild card” in the Chase (talk about adding insult to injury); for Kyle Busch, it was a fourth-place finish that proved an amazing, confidence-boost recovery after a spin. And for Hamlin, it would be the jolt upwards inside the top 10 in points; he’d scoot past Tony Stewart while firmly pushing the Fed Ex Toyota towards the right side of the Chase bubble.

Instead, what’s being pushed is Hamlin’s crew, a “come to Jesus” meeting led by Mike Ford inside the JGR shops after an ugly ending – again – left the power players at the No. 11 completely exasperated. This time, it was a loose lugnut that left Hamlin in dirty air and disastrous position on the restart; falling out of the top 20 at one point, it was all he could do to rally back to 15th. At a track where Hamlin should be slaughtering the competition, not getting snakebit that’s a crucial loss of points considering his average finish last year at Watkins Glen, Bristol’s Night Race and the Atlanta Labor Day event was a gaudy 38.0. Hanging on to the second “wild card” spot, it makes a possible Michigan sweep even more important for this team; otherwise, they’ll need to win Richmond just to be safely in the field. And the more pressure that gets put on them leading up ‘till then…

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Lap 124 Rainout: 5th
Lap 200 Finish: 9th
Net Loss: -4

No, I don’t have it out for Junior. I perfectly understand how the ninth-place Pocono finish, at a track he runs so badly at simply finishing on the lead lap is an accomplishment could be a confidence boost. But… and it’s an important but… when the rains came on Lap 124 Earnhardt was in perfect position to sign, seal, and deliver his Chase bid. Not only would he be 15 up on Hamlin, who moved inside the top 10 but the sport’s Most Popular Driver would have leapfrogged Tony Stewart. With Watkins Glen looming, one of Stewart’s most popular tracks Junior would have carried a 20-point cushion on him, the now-11th place man in the standings and have definitive room to breathe.

Instead, Earnhardt finds himself still smack on the bubble, 10th in the standings with a slightly worse ending than he could have had. Now 23 points up on Denny Hamlin, he’s still vulnerable with the road course looming and will lose ground to ninth-place Stewart barring a major, unexpected surprise. The door is still open to exit the postseason… and, because of that, Junior Nation can’t rest easy for a few more weeks. If Hamlin needs to get in on points, 23 is still easily enough made up with five races left…

Clint Bowyer felt physically terrible through much of the 500-mile race at Pocono. But that’s nothing compared to how he felt after a late-race fade left his Chase chances on life support.

Clint Bowyer
Lap 124 Rainout: 7th
Lap 200 Finish: 18th
Net Loss: -11

Clint Bowyer, already feeling like junk didn’t mince words during the rain delay. “Everybody I’m racing for the Chase is in front of me,” he said. “So I better get my butt back out there.”

Turns out in hindsight, a seventh-place finish would have been OK for the Richard Childress Racing veteran; he’d still be within striking distance of making it in on points. Instead, an 18th-place freefall cost him crucial positioning, now nearly a whole race’s worth (41 points) from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with precious little momentum left to mount a charge. Considering Bowyer’s numbers (just three top-5 finishes in 21 starts), a rough road course record and off-track free agency distractions it’s hard to see any type of turnaround coming. This No. 33 team would have to win, not once but maybe twice to get in and there’s nothing here to indicate they have that type of hot streak in them.

Jimmie Johnson
Lap 124 Rainout: 2nd
Lap 200 Finish: 4th
Net Loss: -2

Sure, it doesn’t seem like much but it’s the emotional ending, not the stats that ruined Johnson’s weekend. If the race had stopped during the Lap 124 red flag, J.J. and company could leave knowing they had one of their best weekends in recent memory. Picture this alternate ending: they run second, come within 2-3 laps of stealing a victory and have a lightning-fast day by their pit crew, their Achilles’ Heel of about the last 18 months. There would be no negativity to focus on, only positive vibes as the No. 48 team settled into their usual pre-Chase rhythm.

Instead, an awkward dip to fourth led to the last-lap contact with Kurt Busch, putting the Lowe’s team in the news for all the wrong reasons. And while yes, Johnson has been through the ringer before and yes, distractions were all part of five previous Chase bids don’t you get the feeling now “it’s always something” lately with this program? Ruffled feathers is not exactly the way this team goes about its business, and with Johnson’s Loudon outburst they’ve now got two dramatic news items within a four-week period.

MOTHER NATURE LOVERS

Tony Stewart
Lap 124 Rainout: 28th
Lap 200 Finish: 11th
Net Gain: +17

Where there’s Smoke, there hasn’t been fire lately but something got lit under Tony Stewart’s belly this Sunday. With a flat tire leading to a 28th-place run, one lap down, it was looking like this Chase team more than any other, even Junior was vulnerable to losing their spot in the postseason. But blessed with a second chance, Smoke made the most of it by both using the Lucky Dog and then blowing by the competition en route to a shocking top-15 comeback. In the process, he went from bubble to burning Junior out of taking over the ninth spot in points; Holding on, he’s now 24 ahead of Denny Hamlin with five races left.

“They never gave up today,” said Stewart of his crew. “And we won’t give up until it’s over.” Considering there’s a month still to go in the summer… watch out for a team capable of heating up at any time.

Greg Biffle
Lap 124 Rainout: 14th
Lap 200 Finish: 8th
Net Gain: +6

For Biffle, Sunday’s rain-shortened ending would have been a self-inflicted postseason dagger. An ugly penalty for changing lanes on a restart, coming just before a long green-flag run had limited the ability of the No. 16 car to work its way back through the field. Add in strong runs by Chase rivals Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Denny Hamlin, even Clint Bowyer and The Biff was looking at a near-impossible mountain to climb over the final five weeks. Now? The Sunday sun gives him a hint of life, closing the gap to 44 over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and keeping the door ever-so-slightly open to make it on points. Remember, Biffle has quietly been a top-5 car at Watkins Glen, Roush Fenway Racing has owned Michigan in the past, and the team started second and finished eighth at Bristol this Spring. If there’s one team other than Hamlin who can get in the “old-fashioned” way, it’s now this one.

Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch
Lap 124 Rainout: 24th and 26th
Lap 200 Finish: 1st and 3rd
Net Gain: +23

Of course, this one’s so obvious we won’t repeat the story you’ve heard 1,000 times; Keselowski can thank the weather and his crew chief, and an “iron man” attitude for bringing the car home first. But let’s not underestimate Busch’s boost, too, the cagey veteran leading 38 laps all his own while serving notice that Five-Time won’t have a halo around his car in a couple of weeks.

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