NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Greg Zipadelli’s Class, JJ Yeley’s Free Pass & Ryan Newman’s No No

Did You Notice? That, to me the man who showed the most class of all during the Tony Stewart – Joe Gibbs – Haas CNC Racing saga is Greg Zipadelli. Here’s a man who’s been paired with Stewart through thick and thin for the past decade, providing the foundation needed for his driver to mature into the two-time Cup champion he is today. The longest crew chief/driver combination left on the circuit, they’ve stuck together like glue through the highs and the lows, becoming synonymous with success to the point neither one expected to part ways with the other.

“Zippy and I talk a lot, even in the offseason when we don’t get a chance to see each other,” said Stewart in an interview session this January. “We have the same passion and desire to win, and when you have that and when you have a combination like that, you work really hard to protect it. I think Zippy and I are now that position to where we don’t see [either of us] doing something away from the other. If one of us decides to retire, the other one is going along with him. If he says, ‘I’m done, I’m ready to do something different,’ then that’s probably when I’ll say I’m ready to do something different, too, or vice versa.”

With that in mind, it had to be the toughest decision of Zipadelli’s career to leave Stewart behind when his driver did decide JGR was no longer for him. If Zippy left, no one would have faulted him for taking the plunge – it’s similar to how Tony Eury Jr. stayed by his cousin’s side in the move from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports. But in the end, loyalty to Gibbs proved just as deep for Zipadelli as his personal friendship with Stewart.

“Over 10 years ago, they gave me an opportunity to start something that most people in this world only dream of,” he said. “They hired a driver and asked me to come in and start [the No. 20 team.] They’ve stuck with me through the good, the bad. For me to leave and pursue something different than what I’m doing and where I’m doing it, it’s just not me.”

To stick with his head and not his heart – for Zipadelli loves the type of challenge Stewart is undertaking – had to be gut-wrenching. But in this era where it’s rare for one person to stay with one organization their whole career, you need to give Zipadelli credit for doing what he believed was right – and that one decision in itself could keep the No. 20 on course and Stewart with a bigger load on his plate for 2009 than he ever imagined.

Did You Notice? That Ryan Newman’s decision to leave Penske Racing comes just one month after he said the team had to become more competitive in order for him to remain with them. OK, well since then, the car’s had three top-15 finishes in four starts – with the lone exception a wreck at Daytona when Newman was running in the top 10.

KEITH: NEWMAN AND PENSKE TO PART WAYS. NOW WHAT?

Whoops, Ryan! Looks like the team called your bluff a little bit. Man, I hate when drivers do this stuff… don’t lie to everyone and pretend you’ll stay if things improve. A college-educated man, Newman should know better; the wool hasn’t been pulled over anyone’s eyes, as he’s been linked to Stewart’s operation for weeks. I can understand the need to hide your true intentions – sponsors don’t like to hear their driver is leaving in June – but don’t pull your team’s chain on the way out the door. That just ain’t right.

Did You Notice? The penalty for the No. 96 team removing weight before the race wasn’t exactly a penalty at all? OK, OK; I understand there’s confusion revolving around whether there should have been a penalty to begin with. ESPN.com’s David Newton reported the team had removed a water bag without an official present, a move which NASCAR thought was intended to lessen the amount of weight on the car. But subsequent follow-ups after the race seem to have proven the move was not intentional, with the bag simply placed in after post-race inspection to ensure driver JJ Yeley’s water was cold enough to drink.

The whole thing is enough to make your head spin, but here’s the most confusing part of all: if the sanctioning body was truly intent on penalizing the No. 96 for the infraction, why in the heck did they call for a pass through penalty and then give the car their lap right back??? Shortly after the team fell a lap down, the sanctioning body threw a competition caution on lap 37 to allow teams to check for tire wear – since most of practice and qualifying was rained out. That was far too early for anyone in the field to get lapped, which meant Yeley was the immediate beneficiary of the Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap.

Call me crazy, but I’ll take that type of slap on the wrist anyday. “We’ll wag the finger at you now, JJ, but don’t worry – it’s only for 37 laps, and then you can get about right back where you started (Yeley began the race in 40th place).” Even if the penalty was unjustified, NASCAR didn’t appear to figure out the circumstances until the end of the race – so at the time, that penalty should have been far tougher. I mean, they were accused of removing freakin’ weight from the car! At the very least, Yeley should have been disallowed from getting the Lucky Dog pass and forced to get his lap back the hard way.

When all was said and done, the leniency wound up giving Hall of Fame Racing a gift of about 24 points, as Yeley stayed on the lead lap and fought to a 24th-place finish. That doesn’t seem like much right now, but if the No. 96 ever knocks a team outside the Top 35, you’ll bet the “victim” will point to this confusing night as one that made a difference.

Did You Notice? That since we’re on the topic of the Top 35, a very underreported incident occurred early in the race when the No. 00 of Michael McDowell – whose team is now 35th in owner points – was pushed up into the wall by the No. 70 of Jason Leffler. What’s the significance of the crash? Leffler drives for Haas CNC Racing, whose No. 66 car is fighting hard to move into a “locked-in” qualifying spot for new driver/owner Stewart in 2009. Because of that, McDowell found it just a little too coincidental the team car was the one who suddenly “broke loose” into his No. 00 less than 10 laps into the race.

“I don’t know if he got loose or what he did, but it’s awfully convenient we’re racing the No. 66 for the Top 35 and the No. 70 takes us out,” said McDowell after the race. “It’s all right. We’ll just bounce back. If they want to play that way for the Top 35, then we can do the same. We’ve got three cars to their two. We can take care of it if we need to.”

Wow… a couple of things. First of all, while in watching the replay I believe Leffler did just break loose – making the wreck unintentional – McDowell does bring up a good point for the future. With these multi-car teams getting bigger by the day and the Top 35 critically important, who’s to say someone won’t get team orders to take another driver out as subtly as possible? Especially when you consider the fate of a “lame-duck” driver or someone like Leffler – who’s just driving part-time in Cup with no chance of getting the ride full-time in 2009 – there’s less incentive to keep them from driving dirty.

Let me make things clear in this case: Leffler wrecking McDowell was an accident, and the rookie seemed to show a little immaturity in his responses (in fact, I’m half-wondering if NASCAR’s going to talk to him about the reaction, because threatening to take cars out is serious business). But could such a scenario happen in the future? It’s honestly not out of the question…

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