As the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress whistled over the grandstands during the flyover at Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday, I felt the same warm and fuzzy feeling I did as the season began nine months ago in Daytona Beach, Fla. Maybe that’s just because I’m the son of an H-model mechanic and a sucker for Cold War airpower. Bearing witness to the majestic instrument of what once was Strategic Air Command – the most ominous military enterprise ever assembled – with Veteran’s Day just around the corner, coupled with the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I had ample reason to feel a swelling of pride and a tickle of the adrenal glands. For while celebrating the humiliating defeat of communism, as well as honoring those lost in yet another tragic event on our soil days earlier at Ft. Hood, the sights and sounds of the pre-race ceremony helped honor and recognize the events of the previous 60 years.
Along those same lines, the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend in some way served as a microcosm for the entire 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While many may have brushed it off as little more than a formality for the No. 48, as Jimmie Johnson and company strolled to their fourth consecutive championship, the race in part defined the season for a number of drivers – and put a championship once considered clinched back into play.
By all rights, this was supposed to be Kyle Busch‘s race. Having dominated the bulk of the weekend by winning the Nationwide Series O’Reilly Challenge and leading 179 of 200 laps, after winning the WinStar World Casino 350 Truck race a day earlier, Busch was the talk of the Lone Star State. The wins put him in position to do the improbable: Win all three series’ events at one track in the same weekend.
Then, the race actually started.
What followed was a sample of how so many weekends have played out for the younger Busch this season. In 33 starts in the Nationwide Series, Busch has produced eight wins – along with 10 second-place finishes. His Billy Ballew Toyota Tundra in the Camping World Truck Series has won more than half of the races it has entered, with seven wins and three runner-up finishes to his credit. But race wins on Friday and Saturday, followed only by late-race disappointment a few hours later on the Cup side, have been the norm for Busch this season – and Sunday would be no different.
Crew chief Dave Rogers was primed to start off his new role as the leader of Busch’s No. 18 Cup team with a win in convincing fashion, as well as make a little history. But while the crew collectively did just about everything they could to do so, it just was not to be, as older brother Kurt benefited from Kyle’s thirsty Toyota gasping its final breath coming off turn 2 with only three laps to go. After leading 232 of the first 332 laps, Kyle radioed Rogers and announced, “I’m out, coming to you – I’m out.”
Now, what once would have been a profanity-laced tirade similar to an R. Lee Ermy outburst from Full Metal Jacket was rather restrained; it’s something Busch has made a conscious effort to resolve recently, following criticism from some circles of an act that many had grown weary of earlier this season. Yet the unhappy ending remained exactly the same during a year in which too many Sundays haven’t gone his way.
If there is one reason why some prognosticators are skeptical of Danica Patrick’s chances of success in NASCAR, they will almost immediately point to Sam Hornish Jr. This one isn’t really fair, but for Hornish, it was as if an entire year was encapsulated into just three short laps. Having qualified 11th for the race and remaining consistently fast through practice all weekend, the No. 77 car looked to be nearly the equal of the team car that started third – and would ultimately win the race.
On lap 3, he was in the middle between David Reutimann and points leader Johnson. As Reutimann’s No. 00 slid up the track and into Hornish, the nightmare scenario that the No. 48 team had feared – and that I actually predicted involving Hornish in a staff email prior to the race – came to fruition. Hornish slid up into the No. 48 car, sending the Lowe’s Impala into a lurid slide that resulted in Johnson nearly saving the car, only to overcorrect ever so slightly back into the path of the AAA Penske Dodge.
This maneuver sent Hornish spinning around into the outside wall, while Johnson’s car lurched wildly towards the inside HARDER barrier’s tried and true impact-resistant concrete technology. Afterwards, most of the attention was centered on Johnson surrendering 111 points to teammate Mark Martin – but what was equally disheartening was Hornish having a strong qualifying run reduced to rubble in only a few short laps. He was able to continue until another accident on lap 88 finally put down the AAA (Accident Avoidance Adverse) Dodge Charger R/T for good.
So if 2008 was a rude awakening for the two-time IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, 2009 has been the cause of many more sleepless nights, with nightmarish weekends punctuated by flashes of brilliance. His pair of top fives and seven top 10s have all but been overshadowed by the last month, with a 36th and three 40th-place finishes in the last four races.
The cynic in me wants to say, “at least he’s consistent.” But the other part of me wants to send him a poster of a kitten clinging to a branch with “Hang In There!” written in cursive above it.
For as quickly as he turned the NASCAR world on its ear this season, Martin’s quest for his first Sprint Cup title was nearly over before it even started. Following a rain-shortened Daytona 500 that had him mired mid-pack with a 16th-place finish, back-to-back engine failures at California and Las Vegas saw top-five efforts reduced to start-and-park status with two results of 40th place. That left the No. 5 team 35th in points, and a season that once held so much promise was suddenly left on the brink of disaster.
Such circumstances presented themselves again this weekend. Following a requisite wreck not of his doing at Talladega, a 184-point deficit to teammate Johnson seemed nearly insurmountable.
Martin needed a miracle.
That miracle just so happened to manifest itself on lap 3 when a ricocheting Reutimann and a hapless Hornish made contact with Johnson. As the Lowe’s Chevrolet clobbered concrete, Martin’s No. 5 team was thrust back into the thick of title contention – something that seemed unthinkable as he was tumbling over on his roof a week earlier at Talladega.
Though he ranks second in wins this season with five, Martin’s hallmark has always been about quiet consistency and putting himself in a position to take advantage of any opportunity that may present itself – a strategy that produced three of his five wins this season. So while he didn’t lead a lap at Texas, and could never quite get close enough to the front to make a real race out of it, he did what he needed to do to stay in contention. Most important of all, he didn’t do anything that would have spoiled the one chance he’d been afforded to once again challenge for the championship.
On the other end of the Hendrick horizon is Dale Earnhardt Jr. If there is anything that the No. 88 car has proved this year, it’s that just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they invariably – and with alarming speed – do.
That predictable storyline played out for the No. 88 AMP Energy Chevrolet once again, as a potential top-five run was spoiled by a fuel cell which ran bone dry, causing the engine to stall on pit road. Junior would end up finishing three laps down in 25th, bringing the number of races since his last top-10 finish to 10.
There are many who will pile on Earnhardt, only too happy to celebrate the latest embarrassment to be suffered by the No. 88 car. This week was no different; but now, when something goes wrong, the difference is at least the car is somewhat fast and competitive. While that is little solace to the driver who recently said he feels that he’s at the end of his rope, it should provide some encouragement and hope for his newly confirmed crew chief for 2010, Lance McGrew, along with the rest of the team. They have had several of these outings of late that, while in the face of gloom and doom, provided the sort of inspiration only Joel Osteen could see the bright side to. Sooner or later, it has to turn around, and the trials and tribulations of the driver and team will produce some positive results.
So all in all, an event that looked like a Kyle Busch benefit and one more brick in Johnson’s championship wall instead helped to defibrillate a series championship that had all but gone stale. And while the start of the race certainly did my heart some good, the events of the three hours that followed not only captured a season’s worth of frustration, failure, and fortune for many teams and drivers, it also gave hope to a couple of competitors who hadn’t quite given up on the season, realizing that a 500-mile race is as unpredictable and uncertain as the 36-race schedule that makes up this sport. What might have started out as another race at another cookie cutter may prove to play a pivotal point in the Chase, all the while posing as a snapshot of what could have been – and still may be.
But if not, at least I got to salute the airborne deterrent my dad helped keep aloft and on guard at the height of worldwide nuclear tensions during Operation Chrome Dome. So to all of those out there who have served or are helping to do the same in similar or other capacities, we all would like to wish to salute you on this Veteran’s Day, as well as those who died this past week, and their families who are mourning the loss of their heroes.