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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Nice Guys Finish Last, NASCAR’s Diversity Nightmare & Chase Vulnerability

Did You Notice? That one of the compelling themes in NASCAR as of late is proof of the phrase, “Nice guys finish last?” David Reutimann is the latest example; known as a man who won’t bump anyone out of the way in order to get to the front, Reutimann got loose with Clint Bowyer oh-so-close behind him in the final laps of the Nashville race on Saturday night. While Brad Keselowski went on to win, Reutimann – who had been in position to take the checkers before a late-race caution bunched up the field – fell back to a fourth-place finish on older tires.

“The No. 2 got a good start and we got down into [turn] 3 and he was real close to the back of me and got me loose,” Reutimann claimed when it was all said and done. “He didn’t touch me – we were racing.”

“Once the No. 2 got to us, it was game over.”

Reutimann may have cut Bowyer a break in that interview; the replays showed the cars were awfully close entering that corner, and it’s my opinion that just the ever so slightest bit of contact could have been made. But even if there wasn’t, Bowyer himself fell victim to overaggression on the race’s last lap when David Stremme just plain hit the No. 2 car going through the final turns to grab second place. And that behavior’s in line with what we’re seeing throughout NASCAR’s top-three series: everyone seems to be falling victim to a case of bump ‘n’ run. Forget about racing side-by-side; the handling of these cars has become so difficult, instead of taking time to make the pass, it’s simply easier to just bodyslam people out of the way.

KEITH: NATIONWIDE SERIES BREAKDOWN AFTER NASHVILLE

The proof is in the pudding… er, results sheet. One of the most aggressive drivers of our time, Kyle Busch, has entered the limelight of victory lane over in Sprint Cup, while the passivity of Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t paid off. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver isn’t known for bumping people out of the way, but racing clean in a few different instances has allowed his winless streak to rise to 76 – in contrast, Busch had no problem making contact with the No. 88 while fighting for the win at Richmond.

The movement’s quickly spread to NASCAR’s other divisions, too. Over in the Craftsman Truck Series a few weeks back, it was rookie Donny Lia laying the bumper to squeaky clean David Starr to take the first checkered flag of his career at Mansfield. Other drivers accused him of driving dirty; but it was Lia walking away with the trophy, not anyone else. And even the drivers known for a “gentlemanly” reputation are going through a little phase of laying the chrome horn. Who can forget Mark Martin’s ill-timed bump during the Las Vegas Nationwide Series race this March, a mistake which caused a wreck that ruined the chances of both Carl Edwards and Keselowski to take the win?

Whenever these incidents have come up this season, our sport hasn’t laid down any penalties; in fact, they’ve labeled each case the outcome of good, hard racing – a throwback to the NASCAR of old. But for those drivers who hate engaging in such tactics, they might need to take heed of how the aggression’s ratcheting up. With the laps winding down and the win on the line, what are you going to do? You can take second place by racing a guy clean, and then hear it from your sponsors, your fans and your car owner as to why you’re not winning races. Or, you can lay a bumper to the guy, hope for the best, and get out of there with a race-winning trophy – which, five years from now, is all everyone is going to remember.

It’s an interesting quandary, and one in which there’s no clear answer. The honorable thing to do is to race somebody clean; but more than ever these days, I’m noticing the paychecks get written when contact gets made. For every Jeff Burton win at Bristol, there’s five Donny Lias trumping them all…

Did You Notice? That the obsessive dominance of the Big Four – Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports – isn’t just limited to the Cup Series? After Nashville, those teams occupy six of the top-eight positions in owner points, with Rusty Wallace Incorporated’s No. 64 and Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 the only interlopers. You’ll notice I count the No. 88 owned by Earnhardt Jr. as a HMS entity – as much as I was happy to see the kid get his first series win, right now I think we’re all in “common sense” agreement that team receives a great deal of chassis and technical support from Hendrick.

Of course, the influence of the “Big Four” in this series is nothing new, and it’s a great study of how extended dominance by a few select car owners can turn out over a period of time. Their reign atop the series began in 2006, when the “Big Four” swept the top five in owner points – all with Cup drivers at the helm. Last year, they occupied the top-four slots while combining to win 27 of 35 Nationwide races in the process.

So in year three of the Big Four invasion, what are the long-term effects? Eight cars in the field of 43 started and parked at Nashville, and about two dozen teams are struggling to find a viable primary sponsor. The Big Four continue to become a viable entity – phenom Joey Logano just picked up sponsorship from GameStop for Joe Gibbs Racing – while some of the strongest Nationwide-only teams, like Baker-Curb’s No. 37, don’t even have the money to buy tires and run the full scheduled distance.

If you think this kind of collapse can’t happen in the Cup Series, don’t be fooled. Just look at the stories coming out this week: Michael Waltrip Racing in trouble, Petty Enterprises getting an investor – but still needing a sponsor, BAM Racing shutting down last month, etc. With the ratcheting cost of participation, sponsors aren’t going to pay $20 million to run 20th at best each week; and why should they? And if you’re a mid-pack team, what past results can you point to in order to show you’ll one day be competitive again? Those days are slipping further and further into the distance…

All I can say is if you thought 2004 was bad in terms of Cup field fillers, I shudder to think what the possibilities for 2009 could behold.

Did You Notice? That as attention swirls around the pending lawsuit involving fired African-American official Mauricia Grant, there’s going to be additional scrutiny given to the sport’s Drive For Diversity program? And as Tommy Thompson so expertly pointed out on this site the other day, the track record simply isn’t good. Right now, there’s no African-American racing in any of NASCAR’s top-three series. Bill Lester – the man once championed to fill that void after competing in a handful of Cup races in 2006 – is now 47, and hasn’t had a ride in either Cup, Nationwide or Trucks since mid-2007. Chase Austin was promised a part-time schedule in RWI’s No. 64 car; instead, Stremme’s experiencing such success they’re letting him drive the thing full-time.

Of course, NASCAR’s track record with women ain’t so great either: look up Crocker, Erin for the latest example. But while the IRL has become the poster child for women entering motorsports – and Formula 1 has a dark-skinned racing superstar in Lewis Hamilton – NASCAR is clearly behind the times. You can throw out all the statistics you want about drivers racing in the lower divisions, but the bottom line is that it’s Logano moving up the ladder at JGR… not development series driver Marc Davis. It’s Austin getting released at HMS, while white driver Landon Cassill gets plenty of time to develop. And so on, and so on… and as for the Grant story itself, it clearly bears watching. This isn’t the first discrimination lawsuit NASCAR’s faced… and with the list of people named in this report that also claim they got harassed, it’s very possible this won’t be the last.

Did You Notice? That after the halfway point of the regular season last year, 11 of the 12 drivers who made the Chase were already in the top 12? Only part-timer Mark Martin fell out, replaced by Kurt Busch as the season wore on.

I think that number will be lower this year – and based on history, you’d expect at least one guy currently listed in the Chase to fall out. So, while the obvious choice is Tony Stewart, I’m going to go with Kevin Harvick as my personal pick to flop. At the beginning of this season, I thought it was a mistake for Harvick’s team to not change things up and leave crew chief Todd Berrier behind. In February and March, they proved me wrong, but the last two months of the season have flushed out the car’s continual inability to consistently run up front. In the last nine races, Harvick’s led just one lap, and the most aggressive driver in the RCR stable has instead been settling for 13th-place finishes.

It’s clear something isn’t right over at the No. 29; and I’m not sure if keeping the status quo is the right way to go. Perhaps if they do miss the Chase, the addition of a fourth team will be the loophole Childress needs to do a crew mix-up; because right now, it seems that team needs one more than anyone else in the organization.