NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2009 Food City 500 at Bristol

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Everybody knows he can run a road course, but the man who was introduced to Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” on Saturday night showed he could handle one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks with ease. Marcos Ambrose started 25th at Thunder Valley, but had a real shot at winning before the night was over. The slightest bobble by leaders Kyle Busch or Mark Martin could have handed the lead to Ambrose, who also has his JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota in the top 20 in points. Ambrose is doing a lot this year without much. Kind of makes you wonder what he could go with good equipment.

What… was that?

Most readers know by now that I’m not a fan of the Chase system. That’s no secret, but the new rule that took effect last year, where all 12 drivers start on even footing and then are given 10 bonus points for wins is just ridiculous. That wasn’t immediately clear last year, when the points lined up after the reset pretty much the way they already were. But this year that could be vastly different. Martin, who has four wins, is 10th in points, and the reset stands to vault him into the lead. I understand that winning is important, but punishing guys who ran better all year long is just plain wrong. There is a reason Tony Stewart has the points lead, and he doesn’t deserve to have it taken away. Perhaps balancing the 10 bonus points with a 10-point “take-away” for each finish of 30th or worse would at least make running well mean more. I’m all for winning being more important, to the point where I’m not opposed to the concept of making winning in the first 26 a requirement, along with being in the top 12, for making the Chase (this year’s Chase would feature just eight drivers as of now under that format). But handing the points lead to someone who is nearly 600 points off the mark? That’s just cheap.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Because he’s a nicer driver than most, Martin finished second, solidifying his Chase berth a bit more and maintaining his squeaky-clean reputation. However, a well-timed bump-and-run is not a dirty move, and Martin should have been more aggressive in the closing laps. If I was his car owner, I’d have been disappointed in the performance this week.

When… will I be loved?

There were several incidents at Bristol, and it would be easy to levy blame on any of half a dozen drivers, but really the villain (and to most fans, she’s really not a villain at all), is just plain short-track racing. There were no incidents in the Cup race at Bristol that couldn’t have happened on any short track in America during any Saturday Night Special. I love racing, not wrecking, but the beating and banging on a short track is an indelible part of it all. That’s why the short tracks offer the best racing to be found on the circuit; actual racing, not a wreckfest, and not parading around yet another interchangeable cookie-cutter that could be anywhere. This is what NASCAR needs more of, not Kentucky and Las Vegas.

Why… the team orders, Mr. Hendrick?

In general, I don’t mind a driver letting a teammate lead a lap, and then the teammate giving it back. From what I could piece together from radio transmissions, however, this was not the case on Saturday when Jimmie Johnson got by Martin and then gave the spot back. To fans and even the commentators, it looked like standard procedure; let me by and I’ll give it back. But, if Johnson’s radio chatter was any indication, this was not the case. Instead, Johnson raced his way past Martin on his own and was promptly told to give the spot back. Helping a teammate is fine, it’s part of the game. However moving over for a finishing position is not, and this isn’t the first time such orders have been issued at Hendrick Motorsports. Casey Mears was told to let then-HMS teammate Busch pass him late in a Chase race (Busch was a Chase contender and Mears was not). From a classy organization, this type of thing shows no class at all.

How… is the Chase picture shaping up?

Busch made a huge step toward making the Chase by winning at Bristol, but with two races remaining to get in, someone already in the top 12 has to fall out to allow either Busch or Brian Vickers in. Both Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth could stumble out of the picture with a bad race, and either Busch or Vickers capitalize on it. 15th-place Clint Bowyer is probably a non-contender at this point, and 10th-place Martin is likely in. The big question is why did ESPN bother to show drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick as “on the bubble” for the Chase? Mathematically, they might have had a shot, but realistically, they were done a long time ago.

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