Thomas Bowles · Monday May 30, 2005
Sunday’s race at Lowe’s was one of those head-scratchers that makes you sit back in the office on Monday and wonder “What the heck was that all about?” NASCAR’s longest race, usually a test of survival due to mechincal problems and long green-flag runs, appeared to have been swapped out for the weekend demolition derby at your local Saturday-night short-track. Yeah, Sunday was about survival of the fittest, alright: as in who could make it to the end with all your fenders intact. Sounds fine to me if you’re on a 1/2 mile short-track; but that’s completely unacceptable for a mile and a half superspeedway.
The statistics of the year’s Coca-Cola 600 are mind-boggling. Lowe’s (Charlotte), not known for cautions, popped up with an all-time record of 22 for 103 laps. That’s right, a NASCAR ALL-TIME record; nothing like this has happened since 1949, and the number of yellows beats even the biggest crash-marred Bristol races from over the past deacde. And we can’t even blame NASCAR for any sort of “mystery” debris cautions this time to bunch up the field; 18 of the 22 cautions were for legitimate wrecks, with only one for an engine failure and three for true debris, related to parts of the track sealer which were continually breaking off the track for most of the night.
The wrecking was so bad that in one stretch, from laps 200 through lap 255, we had the following statistics:
- Seven cautions for 31 laps, all of which were caused by wrecks involving a total of 13 drivers.
- Just 24 green-flag laps, with the longest green-flag run occurring between laps 205 through 209 (five laps).
- Seven free passes given to five drivers. By lap 250, all the drivers lapped early had gotten back on the lead lap, so drivers two and even three laps down began receiving free passes.
In fact, by the 16th caution on lap 264, Kevin LePage’s 37 car, once 3 laps down, had gotten all the way back on the lead lap because of the free pass. He went on to finish 12th.
Sure, the race featured one of the best finishes of the year between Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte, an edge-of-your-seat thriller that will help sweep some of the ugliness under the rug. Still, the question needs to be asked: how in the world did this debacle happen? How could 43 teams and drivers labeled as the best in the United States resort to punting each other around on Sunday night like a bunch of 10-year-olds playing in the bumper cars for the first time?
Well, the track surface is one obvious answer: for more on that problem, be sure to read last week’s article, which touched on the ridiculousness of the track “levigating” process. I may have not had the most scintillating column last week, but the overall point I was trying to make was made PERFECTLY clear Sunday. If a grinded, resealed, whatever-you-want-to-call-it track surface causes the cars to become much faster than the track intends them to go, you have disastrous racing and wrecking results. The Cup cars on Sunday were running in the 29-second bracket all night, which used to be a bonzai, hang-it-all out qualifying lap just a few short years ago at the Lowe’s facility. Now, that speed has become race pace, and it’s just way too fast in these cars for the drivers to hang on. Especially when one needs to pass; the new aero package makes the cars way too loose going into the corners as it is, and being able to race side-by-side with drivers, once a formality at this great raceway, has now become nearly impossible at these speeds.
The frustration that comes with being unable to pass leads to another big reason why Sunday’s race turned the best cars in the world into your local junkyard: no patience. Simply put, in today’s fast-paced Nextel Cup world, there’s no time to sit back and wait for results. If you count only the “regular season” Chase for the Championship, the year is just 26 races before we reach the “postseason,” which is the shortest “regular season” schedule the sport has had to date. Add to that the exposure teams learned they would receive by making the Chase during last year’s initial experiment, along with the millions of dollars sponsors are paying to get that “postseason” exposure, and pressure on today’s circuit is at an all-time high. You can’t hang back and finish 20th with a mediocre car; you have to do whatever it takes to move that car up into the Top 10, no matter who or what stands in your way. Your place in the points chase, as well as your job, depends on it.
Putting aside Sunday’s race for a minute, that’s even what all the off-track stories revolved around this week as well. Five years ago, there’s no way Pete Rondeau and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be parting ways as driver and crew chief after 11 races, especially when the team has put up good, although not great, results to start off the year. Up until the recent past, a new crew chief and driver have a whole year, sometimes more, to work out whether or not they have chemistry. Billy Wilburn & Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin & Ben Leslie are just some of the more recent driver-crew chief combinations that were given a year plus to see whether or not they could actually work together. Building chemistry with a crew chief and driver takes time, and it’s only in rare cases where the two can build an overnight success story when working together.
But in today’s lightning-fast, high-priced corporate NASCAR world, those answers don’t fly in the boardroom. With a company spending $20 million today compared to $1 million 20 years ago on a sponsorship, it now makes the driver and team that much more important to the advertising success of the company. Bad results mean the product isn’t receiving enough exposure, and changes have to be made. It’s the same reason why #11 FedEx driver Jason Leffler will soon be following Pete Rondeau to the unemployment line; time for growth is no longer an option. You either run fast every week, make yourselves the best in the business, or end up sitting on the sidelines.
And that anxiousness has slowly begun to translate onto the racetrack. It feels like the frustrations out there are building up quicker and faster for drivers more than we’ve ever been, especially when a simple mistake on pit road or on the track could puts them from 5th to 25th in the matter of one lap. It’s not like the old days when mechnical failures spread out the field over the race; now, 43 cars start the race, and if the cautions fall right, 30 could end up on the lead lap at the end. The competition is closer, the cars are built to last, and about 40 of the teams that make the race every week have the ability to run with the leaders on any given day.
Add to that an inability to pass under the aero rules, and suddenly drivers are now finding themselves stuck in traffic when they shouldn’t be, and boiling their tempers as a result. If you had the fastest car on the track, but had to restart 25th after a bad pit stop, only to find yourself battling the 24th-place guy for 20 laps because there’s no grip to pass him, wouldn’t you bump him out of the way? If it’s a one-groove race track and you’re fighting for the lead and those 5 bonus points, wouldn’t you give a little nudge to get out front in that clean air? And if you see the leaders pulling away while you’re stuck behind a line of 10 or 12 cars, won’t you try and get that extra “oomph” out of the car exiting turn 4 on cold tires, even if it means you might lose control? The advantage of track position has become so outrageous that teams need to do whatever it takes to get in front.
That is, in a nutshell, what appears to have caused more wrecks in races all season long. And the frustration was all over the place this Sunday. It happened with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wrecking his teammate on the straightaway while trying to battle through traffic on lap 253. It happened with Brian Vickers, who had perhaps the best car all night. He was heading towards perhaps his first ever Nextel Cup race win before being trapped under a yellow flag after making a pit stop. The result through him in the back of the pack, and he found himself with the usual “aero push” and struggling to pass any traffic. Brian’s end result? Frustration, annoyance, bumping Bill Elliott on the front straightaway, and taking out a quarter of the field.
It’s a modern-day problem that’s something NASCAR won’t be able to fix; in fact, the pressure will only increase as these drivers move more into the mainstream of professional sports. And, with Dover looming on the horizon, a track which last year gave us one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest wrecks with a 20+ car pileup, I don’t see the green flag coming back out anytime soon.
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