Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 29, 2010
Following a strong kickoff to the 2010 Chase for the Championship at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the talk all week was who would build upon their early success at the Monster Mile in Dover, Del.
Instead, what followed for the majority of the Chase competitors was a Monster Meltdown.
The surprising trend towards self-destruction started well before the green flag fell on Sunday afternoon. Friday morning in the media center, Clint Bowyer was prepared with a legal pad full of reasons why his car may have been a smidge off kilter in the rear – six one-thousandths of an inch, to be exact. As Bowyer cited everything from the wrecker with a three-foot tall iron plate on the front, along with getting nicked by Jamie McMurray in the race and receiving congratulatory donuts and rubs on the cool down lap, the quarter he pulled from his pocket served as evidence of his innocence.
As far as Denny Hamlin was concerned, though, Bowyer should have gone Travis Tritt and called someone who cared. Claiming his defense was “a crock,” the point leader pointedly claimed the RCR organization had known for weeks NASCAR was unhappy with their exploitation of the rules. That being said, Bowyer’s car did make it through its inspections every time the first time at New Hampshire – which is more than can be said for Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson’s machines.
Once the cars finally took to the track the next day, Kevin Harvick took umbrage to Hamlin’s verbal barbs to the press and began bumping into the rear of the No. 11 FedEx Camry. As the rest of the field strode by on the backstretch, Hamlin and Harvick were making contact with each other, with Harvick taking a swipe at Hamlin’s front fender as he went by. Both drivers were then summoned to the garage area afterwards, an anger-filled meeting where words were exchanged until the tensions finally de-escalated. Following the incident, Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, was critical of his driver’s incendiary comments, going so far as to call them “just stupid.”
Turns out that eruption was just the tip of a lava-filled volcano. When the AAA 400 started, the eruption that had been burbling since Loudon started to spit out gooey wads of magma in the form of drivers shooting themselves and their Chase chances in the foot. Given the pressure these men are under now, they aren’t so much Barney Fife blasting themselves with one bullet from a .38 Special; rather, Martin Riggs emptying the magazine of his Model 92 Beretta.
While Bowyer and RCR remained defiant in the face of being slapped with a crippling and championship-deterring 150-point fine, as well as six-week suspensions of crew chief Shane Wilson and car chief Chad Haney, he did not exactly do himself any favors by washing up into the wall after chasing it halfway down the backstretch exiting Turn 2. The damage incurred on the slick concrete surface relegated him to a 25th-place finish with no laps led, leaving him 235 points in arrears in the standings. That means even if Bowyer’s penalty is reduced by, say, 100 points (which is highly unlikely), he’d still be eighth heading towards his home track in Kansas this Sunday. Call off the dogs here, folks; it’s over.
If it’s any small consolation for Clint, he’s not the only one. Since the departure of Robbie Reiser from his pit box, Matt Kenseth has struggled to regain the form that saw him coast to the 2003 championship. The final year of what was known as the Winston Cup (as well as the Latford points system that recognized year-long consistency and excellence) was captured by Kenseth and his No. 17 Roush team by scoring just one win, but avoiding costly mistakes on pit road or excessive mechanical maladies on the track. Unfortunately, that’s the type of mistake-filled pattern he’s actually embraced in 2010. With visions fresh in my head of Kenseth botching a pit road entrance and killing three innocent water barrels (‘04), the Wisconsin driver misjudged his entry speed coming onto pit road, locking up and flat-spotting a left front Goodyear tire. As he made his way back around the track, the tire exploded as if hit by an Iraqi IED, blowing the fender to bits and ruining any chance of a decent finish for the Crown Royal Ford.
Kenseth and company salvaged an 18th-place result, but at 165 points behind first with no semblance of speed, his 11th-place Chase seeding was indicative of what was to – and has – come once the Chase started.
Speaking of speed, it’s probably a lot easier to make up positions on the track when you have a top-10 car during an extended 100-lap green flag run rather than screaming into the pits and getting hammered by the pit road police. Both Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart — two drivers and teams that personified self-flagellation last week at Loudon — did so yet again at Dover by way of those costly speeding penalties. Busch was fortunate to get off easy, by way of a fast Miller Lite Dodge, while Stewart stumbled to a 21st-place finish after getting caught in the worst-case scenario: under green.
While Busch has been able to rebound from his own admitted over-aggressiveness, Stewart’s situation is much more dire. Had he saved just a thimbleful of fuel at New Hampshire (he radioed his crew late in the going with, “I could give a **** about saving fuel right now”) and taken it easy getting onto pit road, he likely would be the points leader. Instead, he sits in 10th, 162 points out of first.
So much for his championship chances, then. That minor mishap could not have come at a worse time for him, as the series moves to the 1.5-mile downforce tracks which have been the domain of the No. 48 in Chase years past, as well as the No. 11 team in 2010.
When this year’s Chase for the Championship began, I was quick to be critical of the claims that this playoff would be the closest Chase we had ever seen, unlike any before in recent memory. But while Hamlin and Harvick’s backstretch tussle isn’t exactly Carl Edwards trying to choke Harvick at Talladega, it’s still been a rather tense and heated two races, with drivers and teams displaying behavior and exhibiting moves not seen the first two-thirds of the season. With the next two tracks on the schedule being Kansas Speedway and Auto Club Speedway (aka, Caliborin’ya), the first two Chase events have served up enough action between them to stave off what is normally a tame tandem of races to follow.
Either that, or they are serving simply as a harbinger of what is to come as we head straight into the meat of championship battle.
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