NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Haven’t I Seen This Show Before? Deja Vu All Over Again in the Lone Star State

Have you ever got the feeling while watching a movie, that you may have seen it once or twice before? You’ll notice it when viewing virtually any action movie made over the last 20 years that it is essentially a slightly disguised ripoff of Die Hard – with the exception of Ironman – which by the way, is awesome. I’ve had similar feelings before watching races. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you swear you’ve seen the same one before – and I don’t mean just because there’s been another 30-car pileup at Talladega. Those similarly uneasy feelings came over me again this past Sunday while watching the Dickies 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. Well, at TMS. I was in my living room. Thank you for the English lessons, U.S. educational system. But I digress…

Empty Seats: Yes, this has been an epidemic that has grown more noticeable the last few years, but to me, this really hit home on Sunday. I do not recall ever seeing as many unoccupied seats at past TMS races than this past Sunday. And, after suffering through most of the event, I can understand why, although I had always felt that the DFW track was immune to this sort of thing. A check of the stated attendance figure shows that 165,000 were on hand to avoid being subjected to the Denton County Parade televised on ESPN. Back in 2005, when Texas was included into the final 10 races for the Chase, approximately 194,000 were on hand.

A swing of nearly 30,000 attendees is far from insignificant; a 15% drop in attendance will be surely noticed and the economic impact felt as well. I would also venture to say, judging by the amount of real estate surround the track, that the 165,000 number is probably the result of some generous rounding. Yet another very real sign of a contracting economy, as well as declining fan interest in what but a few short years ago was the hottest thing going. Perhaps the lack of perceived (or very real) competition in Sunday’s race at Texas is the culprit. Then again, the action here was probably equally as satisfying to the average Texan as the Cowboy’s latest huge and embarrassing failure. Brooks Bollinger is not the answer to your problems, Cowboy Fan.

Black Car = Black Cloud: Back in 1961, there was a hit single recorded by Faron Young (and subsequently written by Willie Nelson) entitled, “Hello Walls.” It is not uncommon for bands to record covers of the original tracks, often to disastrous results. I was reminded of one such hit on Sunday, when Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 42 Texaco car went head on into the backstretch wall at about 170 mph. In 1994, Ernie Irvan’s black Texaco car went headlong into the backstretch wall at Michigan in a very similar fashion, and at a very similar speed. He was left in a coma with a slim chance of survival; kept alive by machines with Vaseline smeared over his eyes to keep them from drying out. In Irvan’s case, he was felled by a blown tire during practice.

In Montoya’s incident, he was turned head long into the wall by a driver of less than credible credentials.

To say that David Gilliland has a habit of executing ill-advised maneuvers on the track would be something of an understatement. David Ragan was once decried as a dart with no feathers; if that’s the case, Gilliand would be akin to a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel, powered by one of those 358 cid Roush-Yates stump pullers.

No, JPM might not have the most envious record of restraint or anger management either, having done pretty much the exact same thing to Kyle Busch at New Hampshire back in June of this year under caution. However, let’s take a look at the context here: Getting looped at 60 mph is quite a bit different that meeting an immoveable object at nearly three times that speed. Even more off-putting was his incredulous explanation following his ejection from the race that he simply, “misjudged” trying to fall in line behind Montoya. His statements amounted to air heated to extremes not seen since the Hindenberg got a little too close to some powerlines – or since the comments uttered by Goodyear engineers at the Brickyard 400 this year.

The potential physical threat aside, it was another strong run ruined for the No. 42 Ganassi team who have struggled mightily this year with slow cars and vanishing race teams, ruined by the “misjudgment” of another driver. Thankfully, nobody ended up getting a helicopter ride to a trauma team.

That is not being melodramatic either.

Pulling a Knaus Out of The Cat In The Hat: Following Carl Edwards’s Atlanta victory last weekend, the talk had been primarily how Jimmie Johnson’s second-place run in the face of a day gone wrong had spelled doom for the No. 99 team’s championship hopes. How on Earth could Edwards possibly bounce back and manage to contend with the nearly infallible No. 48 Lowe’s team?

BOWLES: CARL EDWARDS AND CO. WITH NOTHING TO LOSE

Easy. Take a page from their playbook.

Recall back to April of this year at Phoenix. After having lead most of the race, Johnson had been overtaken by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and future teammate Mark Martin. Martin had victory seemingly in hand, while Johnson faded back a bit. Knaus had Johnson wait until the leaders pitted, then had Johnson back it down to Driving Miss Daisy speed all the way to the checkered flag.

Much the same, Edwards had the dominant machine on Sunday, but fell back in the field after a late pit stop saw him take on four tires while many drivers, including teammate Jamie McMurray, took two for track position.

With clean air on the nose of his Crown Royal Ford, Captain Hair Gel had positioned himself to get the No. 26 Roush Fenway Fusion into Victory Lane and fire those Colt Single Action Armys into the air. While virtually every team on the lead lap pitted with less than 20 laps to go for two tires and a can of fuel, No. 99 crew chief Bob Osborne began coaching Carl to conserve fuel, much like Knaus did with Johnson at Phoenix. Running at what looked and sounded like half-throttle for the final 10 laps, Edwards was mimicking the same strategy Johnson used to win with in April.

It’s kind of hard to beat the cars in front of you by doing the exact same thing in a fuel-mileage race. Osborne made the right call, and Edwards sailed home unopposed to his eighth victory of the year, and one that has pulled him to within 106 points of Johnson, who soldiered home in 15th place.

Just for the record, under the traditional system, the difference with two races remaining would be all of 21 points. Hooray for change.

One thing that has not changed, however, is the inevitability of Johnson’s third consecutive championship. Much was made of the day Johnson endured at Texas, running as just another car one lap down for most of the afternoon. As it was, he finished as the third car one lap in arrears just behind Chase competitor Jeff Burton and teammate Casey Mears. Even as he understatedly said that it was not the day he had wanted – and Edwards was bitterly clinging to his hopes of a disastrous couple of weeks for the No. 48 Hendrick team – the future became a bit clearer: Johnson needs only to average a seventh-place finish in the next two races to secure his claim to the 2008 Sprint Cup.

For a team and driver that have won the two previous championships and are managing an average Chase finishing position of fifth, it is safe to say that the scene we will witness at Homestead in two weeks will indeed be another instance of racing déjà vu all over again.

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