Each week, Frontstretch Staff Writer Becca Gladden looks at the prior weekend’s NEXTEL Cup race from a reporter’s point of view, covering the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” of the race, the drivers, the TV coverage…even the commercials. Check back every Wednesday for Becca’s fun and thought-provoking commentary.
Who: Denny Hamlin.
The FedEx driver has been flying below the radar lately – despite the fact that he’s the first rookie ever to compete in the Chase and this year’s only representative from Joe Gibbs Racing. If there were any concerns about his ability to handle the pressure of a title run (and there shouldn’t be), he quashed them on Sunday with a solid fourth place finish, boosting him three spots in the points to second.
What: Nicked tire rims.
The biggest controversy of the week – perhaps of the season – started late Sunday evening when SPEED TV reporter Bob Dillner told viewers, “As darkness falls upon New Hampshire International Speedway, we have learned that there was an issue with the winning car of Kevin Harvick and also his teammate, Jeff Burton, in post-race tech.” Dillner said that the teams had created a 0.003-inch nick in the rims to act as a bleeder valve for the tires. Since then, NASCAR, Childress, Harvick and Burton have all adamantly denied the story, while Dillner and the execs at SPEED stand by it. Trust me, guys, this story has legs.
When: March, 1999.
It was the month that “The Matrix” first hit movie theaters, Monica Lewinsky released a book about her affair with Bill Clinton, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 10,000 points for the first time ever. It was also the last time a Richard Childress Racing driver (Mike Skinner) led the Cup series points – until Sunday, when Harvick’s win put him atop the standings for the first time in his career.
Where: The garage.
That was Jimmie Johnson‘s location for 67 of 300 laps on Sunday after getting caught up in an early wreck. Johnson took the biggest hit of anyone in the Chase, falling seven spots from 2nd to 9th, and now finds himself 139 points behind the leader. I acknowledge that the No. 48 team excels at recovering from adversity, but Johnson and Knaus are once again looking like the Chase’s perennial bridesmaids much earlier than expected.
Why: It’s a team sport.
In an era when NASCAR drivers are some of the most recognizable athletes in the world (we’ll argue about the term “athletes” another time), the team aspect of the sport is often overlooked. Prior to Sunday’s race, Matt Kenseth was asked whether his experience as 2003 Cup champion will help him in this year’s Chase. Kenseth scoffed at the idea, explaining that the key to NASCAR success is two-fold: Great cars and a great team.
How: Two Separate Races.
That’s the solution – according to two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, outside the Chase for the first time since its inception – to fix problems with the current points format. Stewart said he felt “timid” driving around the Chase drivers and proposed a rather unfeasible solution – separate races for Chasers and non-Chasers during the playoff period. Hmm…”Stewart” and “timid” – two words I never expected to hear in the same sentence, especially from Stewart himself.