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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: Junior Aces One, Nationwide Notes & a NASCAR History Lesson

As I listened to the Jim Rome Show while sitting at my desk on Tuesday, I cringed when I remembered that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was to be a guest. Don’t get me wrong, I like Junior – I’m no rabid diehard but I’d like to drink a beer with the guy. Thing is, I really didn’t know how he’d handle Rome’s up-in-yer-grill style and combative, machine-gun line of questioning. Junior’s a man of many things, but aggressive he ain’t; not in an interview setting, anyway.

Turns out I had no need to worry: Junior aced that bad boy.

See, Rome plays a little disclaimer montage any time he interviews one of the good ‘ol boys. Goes something like this: “Great guy… always on time… well spoken… I get it!… they’re all like that!… total pro.” The clip goes on and on (much like Rome himself). And that’s bad for Junior, or so I thought — for as sincere and straight-up as he is in interviews, he oftentimes looks and sounds more than a little uncomfortable with a mic in his chops. “Ummm, well, da car run good… and ah… I don’t know, I’m proud of Tony and da guys. And ummm, y’know… we’ll jus’ keep workin’ on things and ummm… hope to win a couple ‘a these before the season’s over.” You know, like Junior wants to get on the chopper and get back on home.

Well, that wasn’t the same driver who sat for a segment on this show. The boy was playing along with Rome’s schtick, joking with the host and even taunting the one-time NASCAR hater at the end of the spot when he told Rome that he’d be expecting a call; because Junior knew after Rome’s first race this weekend, he’d be hooked and looking for more.

Say what you will about Rome – I could really care less if you like him or not, because that isn’t the point here – that interview was a big deal for the sport. Keep in mind that Rome’s syndicated radio program reaches millions of people every day who are sitting in their cubicles typing away, many of whom are not NASCAR fans and could care less about making something as simple as a left turn. But it’s Indy week, and that was the sport’s poster boy who drives for the sport’s most decorated and recognizable operation, in position to turn up the hype in a place where hype didn’t previously exist. I honestly didn’t know if Junior would deliver the goods, but he did – and on the heels of a revealing interview with a former college and pro football player whose story concerned a descent into drug addiction and subsequent rehab, at that. Believe me, that’s not an easy guy to follow.

So good job, Dale Junior. You represented the sport well, like most of the drivers we follow each week. At a time when other professional athletes are being busted daily for a myriad of offenses, you guys continue to make us proud… and that’s not said often enough.

OK, on to a few questions. We’ll start with two that were answered, actually, just this week:

Q: My question: Have you heard anything about penalties on Carl Edwards’s Nationwide Series No. 60 car? NASCAR found illegal brakes on the car after the [Chicagoland] race. Thanks.  Jasper

A: Yeah, NASCAR confiscated Edwards’s brake calipers following the Dollar General 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. The parts in question were deemed “unapproved” – never did I hear the term “illegal” used. Thus, NASCAR announced this week (after Jasper here sent his question) that no penalties were forthcoming.

Nationwide Series director Joe Balash explained that, “The two front calipers we took from the car were not on our approved brake list. As we have done on some other parts, the first offense is we just take the components from the team.”

Now, I’m not sure what it being the “first time” for the team has to do with anything, but we have seen teams bring parts and pieces to the track in the past that NASCAR didn’t like, and they simply told them not to bring those things back (I tend to remember an entire car one Ray Evernham built which was banned from the garage back in the ‘90s). That philosophy seems to be at play here. And before someone labels me a NASCAR apologist, just remember that racing was built on innovation. Besides, how are jimmied-up brake calipers going to help at Chicagoland, of all places?

Q: What, if anything, has NASCAR found on the engines they dyno’d from the Nationwide Series? That happened after the Chicago race – will we hear of findings before ORP? The way Toyota is winning everything, I bet NASCAR scales them back. What is the latest? Or is it still quiet? Any update would be cool. Thanks Matt.  Jacob Schmitt

A: Another impeccably-timed query. I had a whole response written up that changed a couple hours before deadline for this one, but I got to vent at the end – so I don’t mind. Here’s NASCAR’s official release, which is basically a rules amendment:

Effective as of July 23, 2008, section 20A – 5.10.4 is amended as follows: At all events, unless otherwise specified, all engines with a cylinder bore spacing less than 4.470 inches must compete using a tapered spacer with four (4) 1.125-inch diameter holes. At all events, unless otherwise specified, all engines with a cylinder bore spacing of 4.470 inches or more must compete using a tapered spacer with four (4) 1.100-inch diameter holes. Unless otherwise authorized, the carburetor restrictor will be issued by NASCAR.

In other words, NASCAR is restricting Toyota’s oxygen mix in the fuel in order to reduce horsepower; that way Chevy, Ford and Dodge can all get participation medals, even though a Gibbs Toyota will probably continue to beat the crap out of them.

Again I cry, “What happened to innovation in NASCAR?” Seriously, if Toyota found a way to generate more ponies, pat ‘em on the back… don’t penalize them. Someone in TRD or JGR’s engine department is beating the pants off the other three makes – which is what he’s paid to do – and NASCAR is so set on having every race come down to a door-to-door battle off turn 4 of the final lap that it, once again, is stifling the one thing this sport was built upon: ingenuity.

Q: Hi Matt! Before Indianapolis was added to the schedule, I always considered the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, and the Coca-Cola 600 (or World 600 as I remember it best) as the three crown jewel races in NASCAR. Can you tell me if any driver has won all three of those races in the same year? Thank you. We enjoy your column.  Harold and Beth Vigil

A: I can tell you all have caught onto my affinity for researching the history of the sport, because I seem to get one of these per week. And that’s a good thing.

Yes, Vigils, this feat’s been accomplished three times in the past. LeeRoy Yarbrough was the first to do so, driving a Junior Johnson-owned Ford to victory in all three events in 1969. Yarbrough enjoyed his most successful season on tour that year, racking up a career-best seven wins while participating in only 30 of 54 races.

Next up was the Silver Fox. David Pearson, in his Wood Brothers Purolator Ford, pulled the trifecta in 1976. That, of course, was the year he and Richard Petty wrecked coming off turn 4 in the Daytona 500 and Pearson, by virtue of being able to keep the engine fired, beat Petty to the line in one of the greatest finishes ever.

And last but not least to do it was Lil’ Jeffy Gordon in 1997. Between ’96 and ’98, the then-Rainbow Warrior won damn near everything, so it was only natural that he won all three of these races in the same season. By this time, the Indianapolis date had been added (and Gordon had already won it once); but he couldn’t pull the superfecta, finishing fourth at the Brickyard.

A couple of other notes, if you’re still reading: Ol’ Darrell Waltrip won two of the three in 1989; Gordon won the 600, the Brickyard, and the Southern 500 in ’98; Jeff Burton went two-for-three in ’99; and Dale Jarrett came closest to winning all four when he won the Daytona 500, Coke 600, and Brickyard 400 in ’96 – but when about to make history, he finished 14th in the Southern 500.

Boom. Outta here.

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