NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Labonte Spin Intentional?, Underdog Spotlight & Too Silly, Too Early

ONE: New drivers stole the spotlight this weekend – especially in Nationwide

Races at Talladega Superspeedway have a long history of equalizing competition. And when parity gets the nod over power, we get to see some drivers running up front that do not ordinarily do so.

One example was Parker Kligerman in the Smith Ironworks No. 42 for Team 42 Racing. As Frontstretch found out a couple of weeks ago, this Nationwide Series team was not even originally planning to attempt Talladega. However, due to the rainout at Daytona, the team failed to qualify, leaving them with a squeaky clean restrictor-plate car that was suddenly on the verge of becoming obsolete. So, since Talladega is a relatively short haul from the team’s North Carolina base, they made the trek to Alabama, attempting the race unsponsored before the old car gets replaced by the Nationwide CoT for the next plate event (Daytona in July). For the most part, that gamble could be considered a success. Kligerman qualified the No. 42 in ninth and ran up front for most of the race’s 300 miles. However, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time on lap 114, crashing hard into the outside wall exiting the tri-oval. That left him forced to settle for a 31st-place finish.

Another example of someone who had a great run in the Aaron’s 312 was Johnny Borneman III, driving his family’s No. 83 Dodge. According to Johnny himself, the car he drove was purchased from Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, giving him the best shot yet to finish the race at or near the front of the pack.

Borneman had to sweat qualifying on Friday, eventually putting up the 31st-fastest time in the session. This made him the second-to-last driver to lock into the field (out of the cars that had to qualify on speed, only Mark Green was slower). During the race, Borneman kept the No. 83 up in the main draft for most of the event. However, he lost the draft after his green-flag pit stop late in the race, appearing destined for a finish well outside the top 15.

However, the caution for the Kligerman crash allowed Borneman to catch up to the leaders. For the green-white-checkered restart, he was in 14th position, right behind the No. 35 of veteran Jason Keller. For the next two laps, Borneman followed Keller around the track, moving up the order through the middle. The duo, working together, then moved up to the high side on the last lap in turn 3. Little did they know it, but this maneuver put both drivers in position to dodge the big wreck, sparked by Jamie McMurray coming down on Clint Bowyer in front of them. Borneman just squeaked by a spinning Brian Vickers, then came back to the line just behind Keller to claim a career best fifth-place finish.

Previously, Borneman’s best run had been a 16th last year at Iowa Speedway. The finish earned him his first ESPN interview with Shannon Spake, interrupted when a crew member ran across the hood of his car and hugged him.

What a real underdog story; and for years, that’s what Talladega has been all about.

TWO: Carbon Monoxide is still a big issue in NASCAR

These days, carbon monoxide is not really talked about as a serious problem in stock car racing. However, judging by the events of Sunday, perhaps NASCAR should make a bigger deal about it. During restrictor-plate races, there is not a whole lot of airflow going into the racecars. With every hole in the car changing its feel within the draft, getting more fresh air in to the drivers can actually hurt performance.

Carbon monoxide inhalation is by no means a new issue in restrictor-plate racing. In 1989, during their coverage of the first post-Allison crash Daytona 500, CBS did a feature on carbon monoxide, the so-called “silent killer.” At that time, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning was even higher due to the fact that almost all the drivers in the Cup Series wore open-faced helmets (Geoff Bodine was a notable exception). At the time, Richard Petty was actually experimenting with a mask similar to what a fighter pilot might wear.

20 years later, drivers simply cannot avoid inhaling carbon monoxide in their racecars during 500-mile events. However, driving cars that have been damaged can increase the potential of exposure, especially if the crush panels have been compromised in any way. In a very unusual instance, this happened to Brett Butler during the Camping World Truck Series Nashville 200 on April 2. In that instance, a blown tire blew out a crush panel and caused fiberglass to enter his helmet cooling system. Butler had to drive with his visor up the entire race in order to cool his face and thus, inhaled carbon monoxide.

Brad Keselowski on Sunday was involved in the crash on lap 190 in Turn 4. This caused a spike in his carbon monoxide levels to more than twice NASCAR’s allowable limit for drivers to drive. A quick dose of oxygen allowed Keselowski’s CO-levels to drop to the acceptable level so that he could drive the No. 22 in the Aaron’s 312. McMurray, who finished second in the Aaron’s 499 before getting into the JR Motorsports No. 88 for the Nationwide race, also complained of headaches under green and took some Ibuprofen under caution. It could be argued that his mental faculties had been slightly impaired by CO exposure, which could have played a role in McMurray’s move to cut off Bowyer on the last lap.

THREE: Should NASCAR have thrown a caution for Bobby Labonte’s spin?

Considering fans’ reaction to any sort of late-race yellow flag, we’re shocked throwing the caution for Bobby Labonte‘s one-car incident isn’t getting a little more press. Sure, it wasn’t like it was mystery debris that had NASCAR bunching up the field, but the circumstances surrounding the crash itself were enough to arouse a little suspicion.

Let’s take a minute and examine what happened. You had Labonte and David Reutimann involved, two lead-lap cars running by themselves in a tight draft far behind the leaders. However, Reutimann in particular had a car capable of winning the race, one where he was increasingly frustrated no one would work with him. Even if Labonte was passed, this potential candidate was staring at a finish outside the top 15 even if he got back by the No. 71.

With his back against the wall (three engine failures in eight starts), that wasn’t going to be good enough for the No. 00. But as we all know, there was just one other way for Reutimann to improve his position: bunch up the field by either hoping for or causing a caution. So how plausible is this scenario: he takes a few quick looks around, realizes no one’s within shouting distance of the two of them, then punts Labonte in the perfect spot: the backstretch, where he’ll likely keep it off the wall, save the car, and get them both in position to catch up. That’s exactly what happened, with Labonte stalling the car just long enough to draw the yellow and while ironically giving both drivers a much better chance at a good finish in the process.

Sound like a crazy conspiracy theory? Perhaps. And for those that don’t believe it, remember the Denny Hamlin – Keselowski incident in Homestead: when a smart driver wants to spin someone out, they know the right place to do it, one where it won’t cause the other guy any harm. In the end, Reut wasn’t helped much, finishing the day in 14th, while Labonte got the short end of the stick. But their efforts also sent 10, maybe more into the garage with the carnage that ensured afterwards.

FOUR: Did Kevin Harvick really pass below the yellow line?

When the green flag flew on Sunday’s third and final GWC attempt, it was Kevin Harvick who came out victorious after pushing the No. 1 of McMurray for all but about 200 feet of the last two laps. But when all was said and done, car owner Felix Sabates made it clear: it was McMurray who belonged in victory lane rather than the driver of the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet.

“He (Harvick) was below the yellow line,” he said. “They either have [the rule] or they don’t have it. He was definitely below the yellow line. That’s just pure b.s. It’s just b.s. He was below the yellow line when he passed. He passed Jamie under the yellow line and the rule is very specific. You pass below the yellow line, you’re the last car on the lead lap.”

Um, not quite Mr. Sabates.

It’s easy to see where Sabates would think Harvick made his winning pass below the yellow line since the margin of victory was so close. In fact, I’ve even seen the argument that Harvick’s left tires were on the yellow line when he first initiated the pass on McMurray.

But thanks to the wonderful invention of the DVR and the wide variety of video on the Internet, I was afforded the chance to watch the replay 10-15 times before making a final decision. And the video answers the question in black and white. Harvick had his nose out in front of McMurray before his tires came in contact with the yellow line. Don’t believe me? Check out this video at the 2:40 mark. If you pause, you’re able to see a few inches of track between the No. 29’s left-side tires and a pass already in progress.

That being said, it would be a good idea for NASCAR to go ahead and clarify where on the yellow line a legal pass can be made so there’s no confusion in the future. In this case, it wasn’t an issue since the pass was already in progress when Harvick came in contact with the yellow line, but it would be better to have as clear an understanding as possible of what can be a very subjective rule.

FIVE: Is it really too early for Silly Season?

Each year, it seems to start sooner and sooner. This year, Silly Season came out with a bang following Kasey Kahne‘s big announcement that he would join Hendrick Motorsports starting with the 2012 season. Last week brought more big news, with the announcement Shell/Pennzoil is moving to Penske Racing with Kurt Busch to the No. 22 Dodge. But when is it too early for these moves to start?

The simple answer is never.

As much as we don’t want it to be, NASCAR is a business, and along with business comes decisions that have to be made no matter the time frame. We don’t have to like it… but we might as well embrace it. When a sponsor has their mind made up, it’s not really up to the teams to try to set the deadline. If they tried, I’d fully expect that sponsor to move on to another one willing to commit.

Aside from the business standpoint, the idea that Busch has his plans for 2011 and beyond already in place he won’t face contract negotiations in the heart of his Chase run (assuming he makes the playoffs). Instead, he and crew chief Steve Addington will have their sole focus on winning races and, if they’re in that position, the championship.

Now, I can understand the theory that an early Silly Season is a recipe for disaster when it comes to distractions for the remainder of the season – especially in the case of “lame duck” operations not staying together (like Kahne’s No. 9). And one hazard of changes in progress is that at least one driver is left hanging in limbo wondering what’s next for his future. That’s what Harvick faces right now, though Sam Hornish Jr. at least knows which team he’ll race with next season.

That being said, the need for a driver to have his future planned is just as important as knowing where you’ll be working next week, next month and even next year. Despite the large sums of money drivers bring in, they’re just like us and have bills to pay. There’s no reason to expect any given driver to wonder where they’ll be racing next year when it’s just as easy to solidify those plans as soon as possible.

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Bryan Davis Keith

Phil, do you happen to know why Kevin Conway was allowed to race at Talladega, but wasn’t allowed to race at Daytona. What changed between February and now?

The last few weeks I have been suspicious of these late race cautions when drivers are spinning by themselves. I really hope this is not done on purpose and just a coincidence and not Nascar finding another way to minipulate a finish.

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