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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Talladega Blights – Regan Smith Disenfranchised, Jimmie Johnson 1 Step Closer

I am going to forego the normal flowery introduction to this week’s column with a decidedly blunt statement: Regan Smith got screwed out of a win Sunday at Talladega.

As I see it, the rules are pretty clear… even if the interpretation is not. You can’t go below the yellow line unless you are forced below it – and that’s exactly what millions of fans saw unfold. Smith faded high coming to the checkered flag in the tri-oval, and Tony Stewart drifted up to block him; when he did, Smith turned down the banking and got a fender inside of Stewart’s quarterpanel. Stewart then turned down in an effort to block once again, made slight contact with Smith, and knocked him below the yellow line. Stewart then continued to run down to that yellow line itself, preventing the rookie access to the racing surface he needed to make a “legal” pass. But Smith continued on his path, coming back up onto the track inside the yellow line and made it to the flagstand first with some awesome moves on the apron. Stewart, however, was flagged the winner instead.

How on earth is this possible?

The whole situation is fraught with more irony than a Mark Twain novel. Here you have Stewart, wheeling a Toyota in a state where they build Hondas. And he’s is not all that popular at Talladega – fans not wanting to forget his “Obnoxious Talladega Race Driver” t-shirt following his taunt of “Obnoxious Talladega Race Fans” from a few years back. As happy as he was to visit Victory Lane for the first time in central Alabama on Sunday, Stewart dedicated his win to his fans in attendance – a move that led to a chorus of boos and only a small smattering of applause. And the man was not driving his familiar orange car on this day, but rather, a yellow one – one promoting sandwiches that advertise their propensity to promote weight loss. Suffice it to say by Smoke’s generous girth, they only make an appearance a couple of times year on both his car and his dinner plate.

KEITH: TALLADEGA EVERYTHING RIGHT, WRONG WITH NASCAR TODAY

On the other side of pit road, we had Smith. Driving an unsponsored DEI machine, Smith is one of DEI and Mark Martin’s protégés, having split time with the veteran driver last season in the No. 01 car. They started together as the new drivers for the then-Ginn Racing operation, before that franchise went Wachovia and was absorbed by DEI in the summer of 2007.

Martin’s first race in the No. 01 wasn’t much different than Smith’s. Making his debut for the team in the 2007 Daytona 500, that race marked the first time since 2003 that cars were allowed to race back to the yellow flag amid the mayhem and devastation of a green-white-checkered finish in The Great American Race. But as virtually the entire field was involved in a fourth-turn calamity, the No. 01 of Martin was clearly ahead of Kevin Harvick’s mustard yellow and hemorrhoid red Monte Carlo when the caution flag should have come out. Keep in mind that during this time, Clint Bowyer was on fire, sliding shiny-side down along the frontstretch while flipping and flinging sod. But Martin made a move to get ahead long enough for the yellow that never flew; so, Harvick nosed him out at the line instead once Martin checked up just a bit too much.

Of course, the reaction from NASCAR Nation wasn’t exactly all that great. Fans groaned and tilted their heads in confusion like your dog does when you change his food on him. But that’s to be expected.

Now, this time around it was the same car, same number, and the same wishy-washy interpretation of NASCAR’s loosely-stated litmus test. Had they not capriciously applied the rules in regards to which driver would be affected best by the outcome, Smith would indeed have been the one “doing burnouts out there,” as he flatly stated after the final decision came down from on high. Burnouts aside – assuming the Goodyear tires didn’t go Fat Man and Little Boy and Ginsu a corner of the racecar – it is even more of a disaster for Smith, as his car is in desperate need of sponsorship to keep afloat for 2009. And what better medicine would there be than for an unsponsored DEI car to win at a track that is nearly synonymous with the Intimidator, with his final, and arguably most impressive, win coming at the 2.66-mile superspeedway? As it is, following yesterday’s cruel and crass decision, the only products that could now fittingly be applied to the flanks of the No. 01 car would be what can best be described as “personal” lubricant or any number of prophylactics.

While this injustice was taking place at the head of the pack, about a quarter-mile behind the Stewart/Smith saga was a race of quiet competence. Jimmie Johnson soldiered on to a ninth-place finish Sunday, fourth among the championship Chasers at ‘Dega. But more importantly was how he got there… and who among the other six he eclipsed.

Johnson started the race in the back after an engine change following Saturday’s qualifying session. Unfortunately, the new engine was just as flaccid as the old one, and although he was able to avoid trouble early in the event, Johnson promptly lost the draft and was overtaken by the field and lapped on the 25th circuit. But starting in the back probably wasn’t all bad considering the carnage that ensued on Sunday. After all, it was Johnson, who for all of his success still carried a bit of a stigma for being involved (if not the cause) for a few Big Ones in his restrictor-plate tenure. However, Johnson battled back with a car that was lacking some steam under the hood, as the nut behind the wheel had his game as tight as always. As a result, Johnson was seemingly dodging wrecks and tire carcasses all day, including the Big One on lap 175 that left main rivals Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards sitting in the garage. Chalk it up what you will: destiny, divine intervention or driving with your eyes closed; but the fact is that the No. 48 car seems to have what the No. 24 car had in its heyday of the mid to late ’90s… dumb luck.

No matter what the Chad Knaus-led crew does or touches these days, it turns to gold. If they aren’t winning their 10 races a year, they’re contending for wins in races they had no business competing in. If they aren’t doing that, they are taking a car that was an absolute sled – like the one they had all weekend – and have it missing wrecks and detonating tires en route to manageable top-10 finishes. It’s the little things that win championships in this sport, and yesterday was a prime example. This team will get their wins, poles and top fives to be sure; but they can also take a bummer day and still get a respectable finish out of it.

Surprised? Don’t be. Keep in mind that Knaus was one of the original students at the University of Evernham, and Johnson is cut from the same mold as Jeff Gordon. Together, they are orchestrating a three-peat season that has not been accomplished since Cale Yarborough and Junior Johnson did so in 1976-1978. It’s a performance that is punctuated by preparation, persistence and luck not seen since it started pouring after Jeff Burton knocked the wall down at Darlington while leading in 1999.

Yes, this weekend was an exercise in the study of two drivers on decidedly different ends of the spectrum. On the one hand you have Smith, the hard-luck case that became the stock car incarnate of Charlie Brown having the football pulled on him by Lucy at the last second. His ride in jeopardy, a win in his unsponsored DEI car would have certainly gone a long way towards retaining the seat for him in 2009 – or, at the very least, landing a decent gig elsewhere. But that was ripped from him by another NASCAR eye-roller of a judgment call, one that favored a popular Chase driver who is in danger of going winless as he moves on to start his own team next year.

And on the other end of the spectrum you have Johnson, the driver who is California cool and unflappable in seemingly any circumstance. Johnson had it all on display yesterday as he threaded through the eye of the needle on two occasions, thereby preserving, and ultimately extending, his points lead over the Roush Fenway duo of Edwards and Biffle.

If only Smith had a sliver of the good racing fortune that Johnson has. Perhaps he can pick some up at a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse the next time he’s there; because chances are after Sunday’s result that dropped him from a win to 18th, he might end up working there next year. And, it’s safe to say, he won’t be seen shopping at the Home Depot anytime soon.

Or Subway.