Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 22, 2010
For being the first race of the 2010 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, Sunday’s Sylvania 300 looked more like Thunder Valley than Magic Mile. Trying to make it through the first of 10 frames in the title race took a back seat to beating, banging, spinning, and taking unnecessary chances that may come back to haunt some teams well before Halloween.
If there was a clear trend over the course of the last month leading up to the Chase, it was running conservatively with a concerted effort being made to both race safe and stay out of trouble. Some may have had mechanical issues (i.e.: Denny Hamlin), while others were caught up in wrecks not of their doing (read: Jimmie Johnson). But what was on display at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday was neither tepid nor strategic; instead, the only caution being thrown to the wind were yellow flags for spinning championship contenders.
Sure, this may be nothing more than second-guessing or Monday-morning quarterbacking, but I prefer to call it “analysis.”
In years past, the mantra has always been that to stand a chance at winning the title under the current playoff format, you had to average a seventh-place finish. But with Hamlin realizing a narrow 60-point edge over most of the field to start the Chase, and the four-time defending champion just 10 points behind, it seemed that virtually the entire championship class felt forced to take undue risks in the first of 10 postseason events.
Tony Stewart’s late-race gamble on fuel came up a lap short, dropping him from the win to a 24th-place finish, coasting around the flat 1.058-mile oval the final two laps of the race. When the caution flew for the final time with 57 laps remaining, only a handful of cars elected to stay on the track; Stewart, as well as RCR teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer. While Bowyer was able to milk his fuel just a bit farther than Burton (who traded a top 5 for 15th), he was spurred on, ironically, by a carburetor issue that may have actually helped him save just enough gas to make it to the end.
While he has won the last four titles, I am probably not in a position to tell Johnson how to race or conduct himself on the racetrack, but considering he was three-wide just about as often as he is at Talladega — and on a flat track — the move did not pay any dividends. Johnson was nearly knocked spinning by Hamlin, then was collected by Kyle Busch to avoid his spinning brother – at one point earning a thinly-veiled admonishment from crew chief Chad Knaus for putting his Lowe’s Chevrolet in positions it did not need to be. After a botched pit stop that resulted in a loose wheel, Knaus cleared up any ambiguities in his prior statements.
“We are doing everything we can to **** this thing up.”
I know NASCAR has been pushing this “drama” thing a lot this season, but for it to be unexpected, self-inflicted, and literally reckless has placed another hurdle in place for many Chase racers to overcome.
Stewart had one of the two fastest cars all weekend, and was at the point for 100 laps on Sunday. Passing up an opportunity to stop for fuel with 57 laps to go meant a final run of 92 laps; and that’s not counting the possibility of any late-race restarts that you can virtually sense coming these days once it looks like the outcome has been all but confirmed. The decision by crew chief Darian Grubb was right in line with comments Stewart made earlier in the week regarding the mindset of challenging for the championship:
“You can’t race with the Chase in mind; you’ve got to race the race, and take it one week at a time.”
Stewart also cautioned against over-thinking things – which, in retrospect, might have been a good idea. Because for the No. 14 team, under-thinking things like a fuel gamble with a fast car could prove detrimental to their championship effort after just one week in. Week 1 is not the time to be gambling on fuel wins when you have a car fast enough to drive through the field at will.
Kurt Busch was critical of himself for what he admitted was “over-driving” for much of the day. His Blue Deuce Dodge was involved in a pair of multi-car incidents, which in each instance he was the catalyst. New Hampshire should not have been a race for him to try to win while running midpack, but is one to survive until the series gets to tracks where the No. 2 has been nails in 2010: the downforce tracks, where Penske horsepower and handling have made the difference.
Sure, Kurt has an enviable record at Loudon – a win with a pair of thirds – along with sixth-place finishes in the previous five races. But riding rather than wrecking, as admirable as that is, may have squeezed a few more points out of the day.
Many eyes were on defending champion and second seeded Jimmie Johnson. Johnson qualified and finished 25th, and seemed to be near the eye of the storm all day long. Looking more like a featherless dart — like David Ragan a few years ago — than the unflappable four-time champion, Johnson was three-wide, sideways, and spinning throughout the 300-mile race. This, coupled with a loose wheel that required an additional pit stop, and the vulnerability that many have cited in the No. 48 camp was exposed a bit on Sunday – though a less combative approach at this stage in the game may have helped garner a few more points in his Drive for Five, as well.
If there was one driver and team that looked championship primed this day, it was Hamlin and the No. 11 crew. From his bumping incident with Johnson to getting doored by Carl Edwards and looped around two-thirds of the way through the race, Hamlin was able to regain his composure and nearly clip Bowyer for the victory in the closing laps. While he did go off over the radio for a moment following the incident with Johnson and the spin from Edwards, Hamlin was able to get his mind focusing back on the task at hand – something a few years ago the No. 11 pilot would have eschewed in favor of completely melting down and running into something.
While Hamlin’s JGR group wasn’t exactly conservative (their car was taken to the NASCAR tech center for further evaluation) he did not take any chances or put himself in a poor position. The spin with Edwards was not of his doing; Hamlin made room for Edwards, who could not quite catch his car in time before collecting the No. 11 car.
Playing it safe can also backfire. Witness Jamie McMurray missing the Chase, largely because of lackluster performances at Pocono and Michigan late in the going – the result of selecting a conservative and comfortable setup rather than the one that resulted in a Brickyard 400 win, or runner-up performances at Darlington and Charlotte.
To play it safe the first Chase race, however, is not exactly cowardly. Take a look at Kevin Harvick. The season-long points leader had a miserable day, but by taking it easy and not rolling the dice on fuel, they put themselves in position for a solid top-5 finish. Not a win like teammate Bowyer, but more effective than that of stablemate Burton, who ran short of fuel in the closing laps.
What was the motivation behind the devil-may-care behavior this weekend? The bottled up stress of the past few weeks finally coming uncorked? Maybe some encouragement from on high to race every lap like it’s the last to help conjure up some excitement and drama at a time when fantasy football dominates every computer and television outside of NORAD could be an explanation as well.
For the last month, we’ve all been told how wide open the Chase was and that anybody could win it. With that in mind, following the events of this past weekend in New Hampshire, might it be more prudent to go Carlos Hathcock rather than channeling your inner-Berserker? With two of the next three races at the Zen-like tracks of Kansas and California’s Auto Club Speedway, it will be interesting to see if those teams in the Chase continue to go all out, or pace themselves a bit, preserving something for the end when it really counts.
If not, the 2010 Chase for the Championship will continue to be close, simply due to self-induced attrition of the field of twelve.
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