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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Looking Back at the Brickyard: Clichés, Controversy & A Questionable Call

As Jimmie Johnson and his team kissed the bricks (with Chad Knaus pulling up short) along the start/finish line following their second consecutive win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Brickyard 400 was in the books and the attention turned immediately to racing at Pocono. I guess that’s to be expected; after all, we are in the grind of the summer stretch, and NASCAR’s scheduling is a smidgen more intense than the IndyCar Series docket. As I watched the race Sunday – well… most of it at anyway, while slipping in and out of a pizza-induced and five-second lead supplanted coma – there were three common threads which began to emerge as they do every year during this event.

What were they? Let’s take a look back and find out….

Cliché upon Cliché: Playing second fiddle to the Daytona 500 doesn’t mean that Indy’s a weak sister in the department of tired and trite expressions. And that’s just for open-wheel’s Indy 500. The Cup Series event brings its own set of worn storylines and setups for previews, news pieces, and interviews. For instance, is it possible for any piece about the Brickyard 400 to not address the location of the race as, “the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway…?”

Note to all other media: would it be possible to stop perpetually fawning over this place? It isn’t exactly the Vatican, so let’s not make this track something it isn’t. There’s a stupid golf course in the middle of it, for God’s sake.

To me, Indy’s simply a racetrack that used to hold one race a year until 1994, whereupon it was determined that NASCAR was actually the most popular form of motorsports in North America. Only then were stock cars allowed to make an appearance at what used to be Eddie Rickenbacker’s (and Tony George’s) masonry depot that’s been in existence since 1911. But judging by the wide-open sections of seats that looked surprisingly similar to Fontana or Michigan International Speedway this past Sunday, the big, flat 2.5-mile oval looked like any other track of that length – old or new.

I remember back in 1993, when the first test session that took place was open to the public to gauge fan reaction and to help promote the upcoming race. Back then, Kyle Petty expressed concerns with allowing NASCAR stock cars to compete at Indianapolis, saying that, “they don’t run dogs at Churchill Downs.” It was probably the last original comment about this track that was ever made; and thankfully, it was a memorable one.

Even back then, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about Indy, and I’m admittedly a sucker for tradition, accepting change only while kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth. While there have been some great races at IMS, and it has been around for 100 years – making it an epicenter for motorsports – I don’t see Indianapolis much different than Daytona. It is a great venue for racing, so why not run what you can there? In recent years at Indy, they actually hosted Formula 1 until a tire fiasco (sound familiar?) caused their abrupt departure. Now comes word there might be another exhibition later this year with NASCAR and the Grand Am Series machines joining the MotoGP motorcycle series in running the infield road course.

Tradition run amok, you say? Hey, they race dirt bikes at Daytona, while Grave Digger and Maximum Destruction run amok on the same field where Peyton Manning is rewriting NFL passing records during Monster Jam. Nothing is sacred in motorsports.

A Nap: If you did not doze off at one point Sunday, you were either A) Lying, B) Jeremy Mayfield in positive-sample mode, or C) In the race.

To say things can get a little boring at Indy is to say that PBS pledge drives bring a lull to those Nova marathons. Keith Richards and Layne Staley didn’t get as strung out as a Brickyard 400 field can, and this past Sunday was another exercise in passing futility.

I know I’m one who likes to harp that not every race is going to be a three-hour Talladega nail-biter, but these 400-mile Indy races seem to challenge even the most seasoned spectator to gut it out from flag-to-flag. Flat, one-groove racetracks don’t offer much in the way of passing, particularly when they’re entering those corners at over 200 mph in cars that have exacerbated aerodynamic balance issues. I remember going there for the race in 2007, sitting at a picnic table to get something to eat and drink and to take a knee from the noise (and the mutant in front of me who had his shirt off, exposing what appeared to be a tattoo of Castle Grayskull on his entire back). My brain was warm applesauce from the constant ear piercing exhaust blast off turn 4, and I was shaking my head, telling my buddy Brian that “It’s just too much….” Oh, how I yearned for some Caldwell Shooting noise-canceling headphones….

So it seemed a little more than a coincidence, as I drifted in and out of alpha-wave, that I had a dream that something happened to Juan Pablo Montoya’s Target Chevrolet; and as I awoke, he was getting popped for speeding on pit road. Right about this same time, the engine in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 machine blew more chunks at the speedway than… well, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

While I would never wish bad luck upon either one of those guys, it was a welcome relief as The Great Gatsby on wheels was mercifully paused.

Controversy: That moment brings me to my final point. Seldom does a Brickyard 400 conclude without some sort of controversy, something being thrown in either a race team’s pits or in a fan’s living room. Last year, it was Goodyear’s new IED Eagles, and the year before that was Tony Stewart bumping his friend (and part-time employer) Kevin Harvick out of the way so he could swear on TV. This year, the centerpiece was Montoya, surrendering a near-certain win by exceeding the 55-mph speed limit on pit road.

The official published numbers put JPM’s speed at a blistering 60.06 and 60.11 mph – though NASCAR says they allow teams a fudge factor of up to five mph, and that Montoya exceeded it. Yet considering the advantage he had at the time, coupled with the notion that these are cars without speedometers (and driving something with 900 horsepower off the tachometer is an inexact science at best) the fan response surrounding the ticket-issuing shows that NASCAR’s response was a bit Roscoe P. Coltrane-ian for many.

No matter what you believe, the timing of the penalty could not have been worse for either NASCAR or Montoya, as green flag pit stops were in the process of being completed when Junior’s engine took a dump all over Mari Hulman George’s hallowed grounds I’ve heard so much about. That caution alone would have set up quite a battle between Montoya, Johnson and Mark Martin, as all three cars proved just about equal by the end of the race. The resulting scenario, however, had plenty of red meat for even the most passing of conspiracy theorists.

Those who see Hendrick Motorsports as the shadow arm of NASCAR pointed to this as their Grassy Knoll moment, with Johnson waiting in the wings to capture his second straight win at the Brickyard – even though his teammate was in position to take said win away had he made the slightest bobble on the final lap. And let’s be honest, it isn’t like many Martin fans would for a second believe that NASCAR would pull any strings to benefit him during the course of a race – if he was in contention for anything. In the end, the penalty may have done nothing than to conspire to provide some semblance of a close finish in the closing laps, since the only other resulting action was Montoya himself struggling worse than Joe Namath hitting on Suzy Kolber to get around rookie Joey Logano for 11th.

Considering Montoya is a driver who has been rock solid all season long, a model of consistency and good behavior, his was a sweet story that was sacrificed for a combined .17 mph of justice. The Colombian, in an Indianapolis 500-winning throwback paint scheme, was set to make a major statement and justification for his spot in the 12-driver Chase field, as well as becoming the first driver to win here in both open wheel and fendered competition.

Instead, after leading 116 laps, he was left only with the sick satisfaction of knowing what likely would have been. You can say it was a balls and strikes call… but balls and strikes are subjective. To say that he broke the speed limit even with a little wiggle room is a non-sequitur. If the speed limit is 55, but you’re allowed to go up to 60, why not just make it 60 and anything over that is illegal? After all, weren’t pit-road speeds enacted and enforced in the interest of safety?

Taking all of that into consideration (look how much I just blabbered on about this for five paragraphs), this is the kind of stuff that NASCAR thrives on, as it certainly helps to generate interest in a series that has suffered its share of attendance and ratings losses this year. This kind of attention is even more welcome than normal, since the nap to end all naps is coming shortly; remember, there’s yet another 500 miles at Pocono to endure next weekend. However, it usually rains at one of them each year, and those turn out to be rather interesting…

Either way, it’s OK, because as a lifelong follower of Mopar, I know the real reason why they black-flagged Montoya’s No. 42: It’s because NASCAR was just penalizing him so a Dodge wouldn’t wi… oh wait… never mind. I’m sure something else will happen next year at the Brickyard 400 for me to write the same column, causing you all to fall asleep – or to put your fist through your monitor.