Tony Stewart took Lowe’s Motor Speedway by storm Saturday night, as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy smelled victory and found it in the 25th annual All-Star Race. Stewart’s first win as a driver/owner and first All-Star win came in a race that saw tepid-at-best racing in the first three segments turn into a barn-burning, fender-banging mix of talent and anarchy in the final 10-lap showdown. Stewart’s triumph, combined with the string of recent success at Stewart-Haas Racing, makes him the HOTTEST driver on the circuit. Richard Childress Racing’s poor showing at Lowe’s and, it seems, at almost every track of late, makes that whole team among the COLDEST in the sport. Since Saturday’s event was purely a smash mouth exhibition, the HOT, WARM and COLD driver rankings will return after the marathon enduro that is the Coca-Cola 600. In the meantime, here are some of the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: The last segment of the Sprint All-Star Race – This is not the first time that someone has said this, but how about those final 10 laps in the All-Star Race? Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch got bent out of shape during a real-estate dispute on the track, prompting them to bend a little sheet metal with each other early in the segment.
Then, Ryan Newman’s comeback from a broken shock almost became the story of the All-Star Race, when the No. 39 drove to the outside of Busch and Jeff Gordon and into the lead, causing the three-wide sandwich to lop off the Gordon slice of bread. Gordon, who had been in the top five much of the night, spun sideways in front of the field and eventually hit the outside wall, ending the night for the No. 24. Teammate Jimmie Johnson, the dominant driver for the first half of the event, also spun out of contention late in the race.
The contact with Gordon ended up damaging both the No. 18 and No. 39 enough to take those cars out of the mix as well, leaving Stewart to chase down leader Kenseth, who had been lurking all evening. Kenseth left the door open on the bottom of the track one time for Stewart, allowing Smoke to streak into the lead and cap an impressive victory. What a great handful of laps!
NOT: NASCAR making the game up as we all go along – As if there were not enough changes to the All-Star format, some of the late race developments Saturday left many scratching their heads. When yellow flags fly at points-paying events, the field is frozen to the running order at the last scoring loop passed, before the caution comes out. During the All-Star Race, NASCAR threw out that rule and instead lined up the cars in the order they were when they last crossed the start-finish line, nullifying any lead changes that could have happened in and up to the last 30 seconds. Even the boys in the FOX/SPEED TV booth had no idea what was going on at the time and were even more shocked when, during the best racing of the night, NASCAR threw a “debris” caution with just a couple of laps to go.
Maybe NASCAR simply does not care what other people think of the sport or even of what people in the sport think of some of the ridiculous decisions handed down by the governing body. As some old-school fans have told me, NASCAR’s constant rule-tweaking and gray area decision-making makes the sport seem more like wrestling than auto racing. If the drivers, the ones that the whole show revolves around, do not even have a clue of what rules to expect in a single event, then something is definitely wrong.
NASCAR, of course, has a colorful track record involving rules changes – especially in the All-Star Race. Who can forget the mess made in 2001, when NASCAR allowed the green flag to fly while a rainstorm was falling on part of the track? NASCAR decided to correct its problem by allowing teams that wrecked cars to bring out their backups, preparing them during the red flag in preparation for the restart of the race. One of those teams, the No. 24 and driver Gordon, took the checkered flag first that year.
Other examples of “making it up as they go along” include the scoring fiasco that prompted an extended red flag after a big crash at Dover in June 2004, the gross un-enforcement of the yellow-line rule, aggressive driving at Talladega a few weeks ago, the broadness in the new drug testing policy, and the allowance of some teams to buy others’ old owner points – and there are many more.
NASCAR acts like it has nothing to lose by continuing to be inconsistent in its rulings, but judging by the dips in TV ratings, track attendance, track revenue, and sponsorship commitments to the sport, some entities must care. And NASCAR should, too….
HOT: The stove right now – After the past two Silly Seasons that saw landmark announcements involving two of the sport’s biggest names (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart), 2009’s Hot Stove probably will not burn as intensely. Nonetheless, several decisions about marquee drivers and teams will be made. As talk heats up about the coming game of musical chairs, here are some scenarios to watch:
- Who knows how many crew chiefs are sweating the in the late spring heat? At least one, Tony Eury Jr., probably feels like he is sitting in a sauna after setting up yet another car with inferior handling for Earnhardt Jr. in the All-Star Race.
- Martin Truex Jr. says that he will soon make a decision on his future in the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevy. Truex came close to leaving the team last season before signing an extension, and has seen little to no improvement in the team’s performance since then.
- Brad Keselowski is looking for a full-time Cup ride next season and will not find one in the auspices of Hendrick Motorsports… unless Stewart-Haas Racing expands teams. If not, he may be shopping elsewhere.
- Roush Fenway Racing has to dump a team, and all signs point to Jamie McMurray’s No. 26 entry, though David Ragan and the UPS Ford have performed well below expectations this year. Roush is unlikely to dump a big name sponsor and a promising young driver, however, causing him to keep his original team in favor of the No. 26. Now, McMurray’s team likely will become part of the Yates Racing operation and remain highly affiliated with RFR.
- Elliott Sadler continues on with the No. 19 Richard Petty Motorsports team, despite bad results and constant rumors about his future with the organization. Forget about the offseason with that one – the relationship may not last the summer at this point. A future destination for Sadler could be Richard Childress Racing if that organization feels that the 11-year veteran (yes, he has been in the Cup Series that long) is an improvement over struggling Casey Mears in the No. 07. Sadler was seeking the Jack Daniel’s ride last year before Gillett Evernham Motorsports (now RPM) executed a team option to keep him with the No. 19.
- Kasey Kahne says he will remain with RPM through at least the end of his contract in 2010 and would like to stay if the equipment improves. Though that is an honorable move, Kahne has been known to get out of a contract early before (remember his commitment to Ford Racing that got scrapped when he signed to go Cup racing with Ray Evernham at the end of the 2003 season?) And precedence for jumping ship early has certainly been set in recent years by McMurray, Kurt Busch, Stewart and others. If a fourth ride at Joe Gibbs Racing starts up, even Kahne may be on the prowl to leap from the sinking ship that is RPM.
NOT: Truthiness – (n.) “The quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” This is the definition of the word, (made popular by Stephen Colbert), according the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. And this term applies directly to the latest developments in the Jeremy Mayfield v. NASCAR drug saga.
Mayfield claims that too much Claritin D caused his drug test failure two weeks ago in Richmond, but NASCAR CEO Brian France said at Lowe’s Motor Speedway this weekend that Mayfield’s violation was serious.
As drivers, the media, and even fans are calling for less ambiguity in NASCAR’s policies and findings (see the earlier NOT segment to find more examples), France and other NASCAR officials say that they cannot release every detail in the matter for several reasons.
According to France, “Number one, we do say it’s serious. Number two, there is a privacy area because we’re talking about someone’s medical records and someone’s health records.”
“Our view of it is that there’s nothing to be gained by disclosing exactly what the substance that tested positive in Jeremy’s case or anyone else’s case, other than to say it was not of the variety, as I said earlier, in a wide spectrum of things that you could test positive for in theory, and be resolved without a suspension. Under our determination, something didn’t impair your ability to drive the car at any one time. And that is entirely possible. Even then we would not disclose because there is no benefit to the competitors, there’s no benefit to anyone to jeopardize someone’s privacy.”
“If we thought there was a benefit, we would probably rethink that. But there is no benefit in our eyes to revealing the substance.”
But if drivers and many others are saying there is a benefit to revealing the info… then maybe there is.
Both sides are swearing up and down that they are telling the truth. Who should everyone believe, then? Mayfield is refusing to go to rehab, and says that NASCAR did not tell him what substance turned up in his failed test and NASCAR disputes Mayfield’s claims and says that rehab is the only option for Mayfield, if he wants to ever re-enter the sport. Someone is not being truthful and is expecting the public to believe the half-truths – the truthiness – that they are spouting.
Maybe the tiebreaker that we all may need to make a correct judgment is to find out who has more to lose by having the real truth come out. Why would NASCAR lie about Mayfield taking allergy medicine? That makes no sense; they have nothing to gain, unless they are covering up their own mistake. Mayfield, on the other hand, can easily take advantage of NASCAR’s ambiguity and claim that he only took allergy medicine since NASCAR will not release the real results. Given the track record of both, truthiness is easy to expect.
But since we cannot really find the truth at this point, let us all be better and shut up about the whole thing. There is so much else going on in the sport, and this issue is distracting attention from the good.
Listen to Doug on Captain Herb Emory’s racing show The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.