NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? The Jimmie Johnson Backlash, Rainout Ridiculousness, Awesome Bill Retires & Starbucks?

Did You Notice? How much rainouts are unfairly affecting qualifying these days? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much excitement from potential Sprint Cup debuts ruined by something as simple as the weather. Scott Speed, Brad Keselowski and Bryan Clauson were all coming off exceptional test sessions where they clearly showed the speed to qualify for the 500-mile race at Lowe’s. But the rookies were all shut out of the starting lineup because NASCAR chose to set the field on 2008 owner points; and since they all were driving part-time machines, none of the three came close to making the cut.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in research and development from something as simple as a few raindrops. If you’re wondering why there’s fewer and fewer part-time teams out there, this threat is precisely the reason they hesitate to show up; people can’t afford to automatically endure a $250,000 waste of time. It’s happened to Boris Said far too often this season, as well as Front Row Motorsports on the rare occasion they have the speed to crack the Go or Go Home crowd.

With NASCAR having plenty of time on their hands the following day, there’s no reason why they couldn’t let all 47 cars practice, then qualify. Who knew Mother Nature could command such respect she makes you take a rain check on the concept of open competition? And the effect of canceling quals is a little bit more far-reaching than just the part-time guys who get left out. As far as I’m concerned, you should never have a Chase race set by owner points, as a true champion isn’t one who’s simply handed out a freebie for filling out an entry form.

We’ve had eight – count ‘em, eight – qualifying sessions rained out this year. How many more of those do you need, NASCAR, before you finally make a change for the better?

Did You Notice? Bill Elliott’s career is down to its last five races? News flash: this future NASCAR Hall of Famer is officially retiring at 53. We’ve known it all year, but as Elliott heads down his final month of competition, nary a peep has been written about one of the top 10 drivers ever to put on a uniform and compete in this sport.

The 1988 Cup champion, Elliott’s also a two-time Daytona 500 winner who won the inaugural Winston Million prize in 1985. Back then, series sponsor R.J. Reynolds offered a $1 million bonus to the man who could win three of NASCAR’s four “majors:” the Daytona 500, the Talladega spring race, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Elliott captured Daytona, Talladega and Darlington to win the prize the very first year of its existence. It was the highlight of an ’85 season in which he won 11 times while placing second in the standings to current FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip.

With 44 career wins, Elliott has one less than Ricky Rudd and Terry Labontecombined. But those two received 10 times the press that Elliott’s gotten in his final days. While we plan to do a story before the season is out, hopefully others realize this living legend is on his way out the door. Never one to welcome publicity, you wouldn’t expect Elliott to be a familiar face like Waltrip or Rusty Wallace on TV. So, let’s get a little tribute going before Homestead is over, he goes back to Georgia, and it’s officially deemed too late.

Did You Notice? After last week’s column reminding us that NASCAR is damned if they do, damned if they don’t with the Car of Tomorrow, the sanctioning body announced they’ll make no changes to the new car for 2009.

A lot of people will criticize that move, but I do think it’s the lesser of two evils. We saw at Dover just a few weeks back that when Goodyear finds a compound that matches the setup on these cars, they’re still capable of throwing together one heck of a show. I’m not denying these new contraptions need to be fixed; they’re far from perfect. But maybe, just maybe, if we allow Goodyear to catch up a little bit, we’ll know more about exactly what to fine tune instead of playing guess and check with data from a bunch of races where the tires were just as bad as the cars… if not worse.

Did You Notice? All the backlash surrounding Jimmie Johnson’s recent finishes of ninth and sixth? Everywhere you look, there’s someone bashing Johnson for choosing to “stroke it” en route to putting himself in position to win title number three.

But before you get yourself carried away, let’s go over a few things. Johnson’s sixth-place finish at Lowe’s was a little different than Talladega. He clearly charged after Jeff Burton for the lead on that final restart, and when he couldn’t get it was ready to settle for second. That’s a big difference from, “I’m going to go at 80% throttle and finish in about sixth place.” Do you really think Johnson was taking it easy when the second-place points man is winning the race they’re competing in? I find that hard to believe.

Now, Talladega was where I found Johnson’s explanations implausible at best, condemning at worst. Assuming he had a top-five car there, Johnson’s ninth place finish left about 16–25 points on the table. Add those numbers to the 20 markers Johnson lost by dropping from second to sixth, and all of a sudden, that’s a sizable number of points left on the table. The difference between a lead of 69 and 109 points pretty sizable, enough to finish off Burton’s comeback before it even got a head of steam. Because of that, for their sake I hope the No. 48 hasn’t been stroking it one bit, because if this title slips out of their grasp, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. There was a golden opportunity to make this thing almost exclusively a one man race at this point, but Johnson has left the door ever so slightly open for Burton in the second half.

And for those complaining about Johnson looking to finish and not to win… what else did you expect? Remember, the points system new and old is about consistency and not aggression. The whole reason the Chase got installed in the first place was after Matt Kenseth’s one win, 25 top 10 season in 2003 that allowed him to take it easy for virtually the entire second half of the season. Even in the worst case scenario, it’s a little unfair to blame Johnson for simply working the system with such a historic accomplishment at stake. It’s not like he’s wrecking everything that moves out there… Johnson’s just feathering the throttle a bit to bring it home safe, in one piece. Really? We condemn him for that?

Did You Notice? The apocalypse is nearly upon us. Thursday down in the Lowe’s garage, I was surprised to see a line of people snaking around a booth beyond the NASCAR inspection bay. Crew chiefs, crewmen, PR people and reporters alike were waiting patiently in line for… Starbucks coffee.

Yes, that’s right kids; Starbucks is now conveniently located within a NASCAR garage near you. But don’t think their coffee’s for free… throughout the day, you saw crew chiefs handing others gobs of money to go get a mocha. Who knew what was once dubbed America’s “redneck sport” would submit to crew members sucking down some pumpkin spice latte?

Just shows you how irresistible those freaking things are.

Until next week…

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