Did You Notice? How much pit-road mistakes have played into the momentum of teams this season? It started in Daytona, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed his pit en route to what’s been a disastrous season. Between Juan Pablo Montoya’s speeding penalty causing controversy at Indy, failed gas gambles like Michigan’s 1-2 stumble by both Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle, and botched pit stops by Carl Edwards’s crew early on in the year, it’s a place where momentum can be lost in the blink of an eye… er, lugnut.
Nowhere was this more evident than Pocono, where pit strategy proved critical in putting drivers like Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Clint Bowyer up front when it counted. But for every pit-road winner, there’s also a washout, and this week I noticed that Team Red Bull’s No. 83 crew were the ones making the biggest mistakes. Check this out: During a series of four yellow-flag stops, Brian Vickers lost a total of 31 spots, dropping outside the top 10 each one of those times and having to fight back during those frantic double-file restarts. Eventually, he’d work his way through traffic (finishing sixth), but it was too little, too late as the leaders were halfway to Watkins Glen by the time he broke free.
I mention this problem because Vickers is clearly emerging as the biggest threat to crack the top 12 of anyone currently outside the Chase. Right now, he’s just 104 points behind 12th-place Biffle, with two tracks ahead in Michigan and Atlanta where he could easily start from the pole. Leading the series with five of those already, the No. 83 has certainly learned how to start a race up front. Now, they need to figure out what Denny Hamlin finally retaught himself during Monday’s final few laps – how to close the deal.
Time and again, TRB puts itself in position only to make some sort of costly mistake. How many times have we said about Vickers, “What if…?” What if that left-rear tire doesn’t go down during the final laps at Indianapolis? What if the crew makes sure all the lugnuts are on during the 600-miler at Lowe’s last year, a race Vickers dominated until a loose wheel came off? Or what if Vickers had a setup capable of leaving him out in clean air during those five pole-winning races, where his car has been so far off he never even led a lap during two of them?
Red Bull has done a fantastic job of playing the underdog these last two seasons. But here’s the thing about being an underdog; they’re named that for a reason. More often than not, that label comes packaged with the penalty of a mistake or the cold reality of being slightly less talented than the favorites.
Don’t get me wrong; I feel like Team Red Bull’s No. 83 is on the verge of top five contention week in, week out. But to get there, they need to act like it. Mistakes like the ones on pit road we’ve seen over the course of the year are simply not acceptable for someone going for a title.
Of course on the flip side, good pit stops don’t always get you to the promised land. Just ask Edwards, who had his crew have one of their best days of the season at Pocono only to not have a car capable of working through traffic on restarts. But on a day when the driver is clicking on all cylinders, it’s critical no mistakes are made on pit lane to back them up. So don’t be surprised if days like Vickers’ at Pocono come back to make the difference after race No. 26 at Richmond.
Did You Notice? That in the midst of entertaining the masses with their antics on the race track, both David Stremme and Robby Gordon were hit with a five-lap penalty for rough driving? Man, what is this sport doing to itself… I was talking to several people after the race, and one of the first things they mentioned was how fun it was to see two drivers go at it on the track like the old days. But instead of letting Stremme and Gordon settle the matter amongst themselves, NASCAR decided to play the role of high-school principal and sit both drivers on pit road to think about what they did, wrecking not once but twice to cause two cautions within the matter of 10 laps.
OK, now let’s think about this one for a second. First of all, a five-lap penalty really didn’t matter for either driver at that point; both Stremme and Gordon had their cars so beat up after not one but two wrecks, neither one was going to be all that competitive. And did NASCAR consider what would happen to both drivers after that penalty? They returned to the racetrack right next to each other for double-file restarts, the only two cars five laps down fighting for position all the way to the end of the race. That’s like sitting the bully with the kid he just beat up, punishing them both equally, and then saying, “Please don’t do that again,” leaving the room and turning your back – giving the bully a free shot at making another swing. The way Gordon was talking on the radio just before he and Stremme tangled a second time, it was clear he wasn’t afraid of any NASCAR officials; so to be brutally honest, they were lucky the duo didn’t go at it again.
Look, I personally don’t think either driver was more at fault. Gordon was mad that Stremme turned him into the wall (even though that hit wasn’t the one that caused his first major spin). Stremme was the one that eventually turned Gordon a second time, something he chose to do after Gordon was acting like a pesky fly around him after the restart. It’s the type of tit-for-tat stuff that happens at local short tracks all over the country, all the time; and while it put fans on their feet, it also taught both drivers a lesson by messing up their racecars and robbing them of top-20 runs each one so desperately needed.
So why did NASCAR have to step in and keep order here again? Sometimes, things work themselves out on their own; but as we’ve seen with this sport all too often this decade, they have a tendency to rock the boat for no apparent reason. Yes, I know you have to have some sort of order on the racetrack. But in this case, I think NASCAR was a bit too conservative, and in the process may have set a precedent that could come back to bite them later in the Chase (should the same thing happen to two drivers running inside the top 12.) Can you imagine if someone lost the championship due to rough driving? Come on… that’s like an official calling too many fouls in basketball. What a doomsday scenario that would be….
When are we going to sit back and just let these drivers race?
Did You Notice? Every time the Nationwide Series takes one step forward, it seems to wind up taking another step back. Last week, in announcing the addition of Ford’s Mustang for a mid-2010 debut – part of the new Car of Tomorrow initiative that looks 10 times snazzier than its predecessor on the Cup side – it looked like the series was on the verge of establishing an identity.
And then, just like that, two bullets came flying at the series, cased the form of two Cup drivers taking rides from Nationwide guys fighting for a spot in the top 10 in points. First, Scott Lagasse Jr. was released from his ride in the No. 11 Toyota despite four top-10 finishes in 21 races that left the team a solid 12th in the standings. Instead, as our own Bryan Davis Keith reported on Friday, the team has now turned to Cup veteran Hamlin to run the next few races with no concrete plan for 2010. Not even giving the rookie a full season to prove himself, the CJM team moved forward even though their sponsor was interested in seeing their driver continue to develop.
Meanwhile, over at the No. 1 car James Finch has chosen to release veteran Mike Bliss following a 14th-place finish at Iowa. If Lagasse was a bit of a head-scratcher… well, let’s just say this one was absolutely mind-boggling. Bliss had not only a win but 10 top-10 finishes this season, consistently being one of the few drivers capable of running with the Cupwhackers in a series where a dozen still participate each week, running roughshod over the rest of the competition. Sixth in points, Bliss has already surpassed the three top-five finishes he’d accumulated during all of last season (he has four through 21 races). And Finch responds to that success… with a pink slip? What more did he want his driver to do? After all, the Cup drivers get double the practice time and they often have double the resources, which kind of makes them hard to beat. But apparently, Finch has decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em… so Ryan Newman is the driver expected to replace him at Watkins Glen and beyond.
Earlier this season, it looked like the Cup drivers were slowly scaling back in a series that doesn’t offer the benefits it used to now that their Sunday cars are different. But when two of the stronger “Nationwide-only” teams (and I put that in quotes, because both programs get some degree of support from Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick, respectively)… anyways, when teams focused on the Nationwide Series feel forced to use Cup drivers in order to remain competitive, the series loses its individual identity as a result. And after a bit of a lull, it’s still an awful reminder that this problem won’t go away until the series mans up and finds some way to even the playing field when the Cup drivers come to play.
Did You Notice? Kasey Kahne has as many top-five finishes in the last three races (two) than the other cars on his team have during the entire season? No wonder RPM can’t find sponsorship… Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson and yes, even AJ Allmendinger, it’s time to step up to the plate.
Did You Notice? Today is the birthday of both Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and Mark Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson? I knew the Hendrick teams shared a lot of information, but this is a first. Add in a birthday by Jeff Gordon this Tuesday, and there’s a whole lot of cake-eating going on in the HMS shop this week. No word on whether this is Chad’s real birthday, or he’s just stretching the rules to get an extra cake….
See you at the Glen!