For many a year I’ve listened to a plethora of complaints regarding my home track: It’s boring. You can’t pass. It’s impossible to find the right set-up. If you don’t have the right pit stall, you might as well pack it in… the guy out front is gonna be the guy who will win.
I’ve discounted these perceptions ever since Tiregate, when in 1998 Jeff Gordon spent the entire afternoon losing 7-10 spots with each pit stop, but proceeded to push his way to the front with each green-flag run. Of course, since the field held the above stated perception of the Magic Mile nobody believed that Gordon won that race without doing something fishy. It couldn’t have been just good old fashioned racing — not in New Hampshire.
Times have changed, the banking has since been tweaked, but ask a racer what they think of that track, and the old opinion appears to hold sway.
Sunday morning I had the privilege of doing a meet n’ greet with AJ Allmendinger, courtesy of the No. 43 team and Best Buy. As we know from his television interviews, the ‘Dinger is a smiling young man who appears to enjoy himself most of the time. But when we talked about how he felt about the upcoming race, there was a moment of hesitation and even a slight grimace.
Unable to put a finger on his previous inability to score a decent finish at NHMS, he admitted in years past that it was a combination of missing the set-up and sometimes just dumb luck. How about today? Well… “I wish I had a better qualifying run.” Starting 28th, that No. 43 was mired in the back-half of pitroad and in the back of the field.
“But we made some changes yesterday, and I think we should do pretty good.” AJ repeated the sentiment a few times.
If you say it enough, despite the funky track, pit stall in the middle of nowhere and a starting position nearly back with the S&Pers, it might just come true.
We parted ways and headed off for our own pre-race festivities; AJ to the drivers’ meeting while the opening bars of the Foghat concert summoned me to the start/finish line.
Let me tell you something, if you thought the Star Spangled Banner was pretty pathetic, you missed all the good stuff. Foghat rocked out! I’m thinking they used it all up before they were summoned for the ceremonial song, because I haven’t seen a better live performance in years. Hey, maybe some of the kids in the crowd walked by with their fingers in their ears, but the older folks standing around me sported just as monstrous smiles as me.
Eventually, I returned to the pits for the second half of the VIP treatment all revved up. We were provided with seats on the pit box of the No. 43 for the first half of the race. A unique perspective, this opportunity returned me to those early years of my racing fandom where I would watch a race through the telescopic vision of one who cheers for a singular team.
Plugged into the No. 43 team radio, instead of hearing a set of complaints or reassurances over the blind airwaves, I stared over Crew Chief Mike Shiplett and Engineer Phil Surgen’s shoulders as they studied fuel charts, tire usage and coordinated the team’s actions. Without a view of the entire field, I became focused on what that Berlin City Auto Group machine was accomplishing, and nothing more.
During the first quarter of the race I realized something that Allmendinger spoke about back in the hauler. We weren’t hearing anything from him on the radio. What did that mean? It meant he wasn’t pushing, he wasn’t loose, he wasn’t complaining. He had anticipated talking a lot about being tight — this was New Hampshire.
However, his No. 43 was making steady progress through the field ever since the green dropped. During that first early caution, both ‘Dinger and Shiplett agreed — no changes.
While the rest of NASCAR Nation dozed off during the next 200 green laps, those of us in the No. 43 pits smiled as the unusual orange and white car kept eating up the field. Solid pit stops and continued silence on the radio, save for a brief spate of comments about chattering in turns three and four, meant one thing — the No. 43 had a top-five finish in its sights.
What of my usual slew of cars I keep tabs on during a race? I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you. But then again, watching each team member handle their pre-assigned tasks with the focus and coordination expected of a Cup crew sort of held my total attention.
The restart on lap 245 gained ‘Dinger two more spots, bringing my newly found favorite driver all the way up to fourth. Really, this wasn’t such a surprising turn of events, I told myself. The No. 43 had enjoyed five top-15 finishes in a row. This team previously known as an also-ran machine has been looking suspiciously racy of late. Maybe this would be the day where Allmendinger could even find victory lane!
‘Dinger must’ve been thinking the same thing.
On the next restart, the boys up front got a little pushy. Ryan Newman squeezed ‘Dinger and those hard won positions started to disappear.
Suddenly, the radio got a bit noisy. Allmendinger was unhappy! Through all the grumpy words, one thought was clear… the ‘Dinger wanted that vanished fourth-place finish with all his heart. Shoulders on the crew members slumped a bit. We looked up at the scoring pylon.
We started 28th. We were running in the top 10. This was still a really good day for Allmendinger.
Yeah, yeah, I know who won. I even know who went door-to-door with Mr. Four-time in an effort to steal that win away. But for me, as I lived vicariously on the edge of a team on pit road, it just didn’t matter.
There’s one reason to chase those checkers… you want to catch them. Anything less is less.
Perspective is hard to earn. A parting question for you, Mr. Allmendinger:
When you return to New Hampshire in September, how will you answer when asked what you think of this tight, flat track? Will there still be that hesitation and grimace? Or will you think back on this overcast June Sunday where your team nailed the setup, managed to miss all the really bad luck and brought home almost the finish you deserved and smile?
I hope it’s a smile. But I’ll understand if it’s not. For even this race fan walked away from the best possible racing opportunity available to one who lives in the stands with a bit of a frown… and it was a wonderful day.
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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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