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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? The Death of NASCAR’s Killer Instinct, Sauter’s Surprising Resilience & Who’s Desperate Already?

Did You Notice? Joey Logano’s state of mind after that horrifying wreck heading into turn 3 at Dover? If you check out the interview, what you’ll see is the equivalent of a 19-year-old scared out of his wits. In case you missed it, here’s some highlights of what was said once he had a chance to stand back on solid ground for a minute….

“It just really scared the heck out of me. I’m not sure I want to see a replay. It started rolling and I was in there like, ‘Damn, please make this thing stop.’ And it wouldn’t. It just kept going and going. It just startled me.”

“It was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on. You can’t go on a roller coaster any worse than that. When I was on my side, that’s when I was getting worried for a minute, but it came back down. Thank God the good Lord was with me on that one.”

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with how Logano reacted after that incident. 99% of the population would feel the same way, and in fact a good many people wouldn’t be able to even speak, much less form sentences in front of a camera with millions of people watching. It’s by far the first major wreck the teenager’s been involved in throughout his racing career, a wake-up call to the dangers within his chosen profession he hadn’t seen firsthand – so no wonder he’s frightened.

But with all that said… my mind wandered a bit while watching in the media center. I thought of the Daytona 500 in 1997, when Dale Earnhardt flipped his car over and back again, yet was so determined to finish the race he got back in and drove the second he realized the car would start. I thought of Jimmy Horton flying over the wall at Talladega in 1993, emerging just a few minutes later as if it was no big deal his mangled car wound up a pile of scrap metal in a parking lot just outside the track.

And I think of the soaring popularity of the X-Games, where BMX riders, skateboarders and rally racers go through death-defying crashes only to jump up, say “That was awesome” in so many words, and then go out and prepare to do it all over again.

When I compare that to the innocence of Logano, a teenager scared of the danger instead of welcoming it with open arms… it makes you understand the difference between this generation of racer and the last. Since Earnhardt’s death, risk aversion has been the goal for drivers, eerily uncomfortable at times with the natural consequences of pushing a car to its ragged edge. In the “points racing” era, they aren’t always doing what it takes to win… they’re doing what it takes to finish, and there’s a difference. Banzai moves of the kind Carl Edwards made in Kansas last September are too often replaced with the “hold back and play it safe” attitude of not putting yourself in a bad position on the racetrack so a wreck won’t ruin your day.

I feel guilty for bringing it up because I try and write from other peoples’ shoes and if I were Logano and I flipped seven-and-a-half times, then my God, I’d be petrified. But at the same time, I’m not a professional racecar driver for a reason. And there’s no question some of the best racecar drivers in our sport’s history didn’t cower from the danger – they reveled in it. In fact, it’s fair to say a few had that “killer instinct” that left them immune to anything but trying to win a race, period. Earnhardt alone with the blue-collar version of the X-Games on steroids… he wasn’t going to cower away from anything.

In the current generation of drivers, I see that type of instinct in Brad Keselowski. And… that’s about it. Instead, the Logano mentality wins out… and as horrible as it is to say, I wonder if that’s not what fans want to see even though they won’t consciously admit it.

It’s a tough call, but on a weekend where popularity continues to be dropping, that interview just stood out to me as to how much the personality of racers have changed in this series. For the better or for the worse, I don’t know; but it’s just different.

Did You Notice? The third time might be the charm for Johnny Sauter? This guy has had not one but two chances at Sprint Cup, failing to last beyond one full season each time. Back in 2004, he was simply too immature to handle a full-time Cup ride at Richard Childress Racing, forcing a two-year stint back in the Busch Series where he did things the right way and started readying himself for another chance. Once he got it, though, sponsorship and ownership changes in ’07 left him on the outside looking in after an admirable first year with Haas CNC.

That left Sauter in a less-than-admirable position where he had to rebuild his career yet again in a sport that isn’t even keen on second chances. The low point came shortly thereafter, where a brief partnership with James Finch in the Nationwide Series lasted only the first five races of ’08. With both sides mutually agreeing to split, a lack of full-time rides available left Sauter in the awkward position of starting and parking in a half-dozen starts late in the year.

Yet somehow, Thorsport Racing saw the talent that lay buried underneath, signing him to a full-season deal that qualified him for the Rookie battle in this year’s Truck Series. Looking back, all you can say is what a steal: five recent top-five finishes got capped off with a dominating win in the Las Vegas race on Saturday night. Teammate Matt Crafton is also benefitting from the recent success, enjoying the bonus of a teammate finally running just as well as the No. 88.

It’s one of the underreported yet wonderful stories of the season; for now, at 31, Sauter might even have one more shot at the big time in another year or two. With brothers Jay and Tim forced out of the business due to a lack of sponsorship money, he’s the only one in the famous racing bloodline with a chance at something father Jim never achieved despite 76 career starts: a Cup Series win.

Did You Notice? So many things in NASCAR are being blamed on the bad economy? It’s true that the last time the field was filled with start and parkers in 2004, the series eventually recovered and bounced back with the addition of Toyota and several other top-tier organizations in 2007.

Here’s where I feel the problem comes in this time, though. Check out final results from Dover, including the number of car owners and teams with at least three cars, five years ago compared to now:

2004Penske, Roush, Hendrick, Yates, Evernham, Ganassi, Gibbs, DEI, Wood Brothers, Petty Enterprises, Childress, Bill Davis, BAM, MMM, Joe Auer, Cal Wells, MB2, Shepherd, Haas, Mach 1, Shelmerdine, Phoenix Racing, Arnold. Total: 23 owners

2009Penske, Roush Fenway/Yates /HoF, Hendrick/Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi, RPM, Michael Waltrip Racing/JTG, Childress, Gibbs, Team Red Bull, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row, Robby Gordon, PRISM, TBR, TRG, Phoenix Racing, NEMCO. Total: 17 owners

As you can see, the owners doing stuff at least partially on their own shrank by about 25%. That’s a pretty extreme consolidation of power, and with seven teams now possessing three cars or more, trying to jump in and compete against all that is a tall order at best. It’s clear new owners will need manufacturer-type money to play the game, but I’m told our next Toyota is at least two years away.

In the meantime, some of the smaller teams will spend the next two months trying desperately to not go broke. Not exactly what we expected at the beginning of this season, was it?

Did You Notice? The Chase teams behind the eight ball heading to Kansas?

Here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands, and then I’m out:

Cruise Control – Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin. Guaranteed top-five finishers unless lightning comes down from the sky to strike them.

Overconfident – Juan Pablo Montoya. No wonder why I smell a 20th place while wrecking a Chaser in his future….

Emotional Roller-Coaster – Denny Hamlin. Just the wrong place at the wrong time to have a sports psychological breakdown last week.

Desperation Mode – Edwards, Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon. These two guys have their specialty, intermediate tracks, staring dead ahead as they try and become unlikely title contenders. But with both in a deep early hole, anything less than a top three is unacceptable. As for Gordon, he knows how on point his two Hendrick teammates will be during the playoffs. At over 100 points outside the championship, he can’t afford to drop any further behind.

Don’t Panic Yet… But A DNF Would Kill Us – Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman. Perfect timing for that faulty Hendrick equipment to show up!

Title? What Title? Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch. This trio has too many distractions going on for even you to pay attention to them.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)

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