NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points To Ponder: It’s On, a Crew Chief’s Plea & Dr. NASCAR Evil’s Biggest Mistake

In the past decade or so, the preponderance of mile-and-a-half, “cookie-cutter” circuits added to the NASCAR docket has been the subject of much controversy and hand-wringing angst amongst the rank and file that fill the stands week-in, week-out. The argument goes that these races are little more than 500-mile processions, more dependent on aerodynamic factors than the actual innate ability of the wheelman to navigate the track. From time to time, that’s certainly been the case, although let’s be fair; I don’t care what sport you like, not every game, match, race, etc. is going to be epic. Sport doesn’t work that way and frankly, nor should it. But give credit where credit is due because Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 was an absolute barnstormer of a race – an instant classic – some of the best competition we’ve had all year, without question. So let’s start this Tuesday’s edition of Five Points to Ponder with the big winner of the weekend: Chesterfield, Va.’s very own Denny Hamlin and what his victory has meant in the 2010 championship Chase.

ONE: “It’s on…”

After four straight years of finding new and unique ways to decimate his Chase chances, Hamlin sits in the catbird’s seat with just two races remaining. From the minute this playoff started, the No. 11 team, lead by the unflappable, calm guiding hand of veteran crew chief Mike Ford, has approached each race with a plan (and an expected finish). It’s a tactic that’s served Hamlin extremely well, thus far, although the real challenge is still to come. With two races to go, Hamlin has everything in place to win a maiden championship, but needs to withstand a likely charge by the No. 48 in Phoenix (where Jimmie Johnson has four career victories) and the pressure of being the possible points leader heading into Homestead to get the job done.

At this point, though, why can’t Hamlin pull it off? Perhaps, more importantly, you sense that this season is the one where Hamlin has finally matched his burgeoning talent with the mental fortitude necessary to pull it all together when it counts. Fact is, even if he doesn’t win the championship and Double J picks up an unprecedented fifth crown (or Kevin Harvick pulls off his own first title), Hamlin has proved this year he has the patience and the cojones needed – unlike his irascible stablemate, Kyle Busch, which is where we’ll go next.

TWO: “Kyle, please, stop. We work too hard…”

So said crew chief Dave Rogers over the radio to his ranting driver on his anniversary of assuming head wrench duties for the No. 18 car. Now, there is a line of thought that suggests if Kyle was going to melt down, he did it at the right time – the race was lost, and the championship, too. But the truth is until Busch learns to control his emotions, he’ll never sit at the top table in his hometown of Las Vegas at the end-of-season banquet. No one can deny Busch’s indisputable mastery of a racecar, but flipping off the NASCAR official when you’re legitimately caught for speeding smacks of both immaturity and desperation. To some extent, it’s understandable – fans want the drivers to show emotion – but as with life, there is a time and a place for these sort of reactions and that was not, repeat not, the way to do it despite the fact that it was deeply amusing. Simply put: talent, however outrageous, will only take you so far. For an example, Busch needs only to look at his JGR stablemate to see how things can turn around, Hamlin’s immaturity eliminated with the reward of a possible title in 2010.

Busch has got two more races to start righting his own ship. Will he? Doubt it. Should be fun to watch either way.

THREE: Two unlikely pugilists…

While we’re on the topic of amusing things to watch, how unexpectedly cool was the fight between Senator Jeff Burton and the original four-time, Jeff Gordon? To see two veterans go at it like kids in the schoolyard following Burton’s asinine move shoving the No. 24 into the wall in what was a clear fit of pique was as shocking as it was scintillating television. You have to hand it to Gordon for expressing his emotion (and wasn’t this the definition of “Have At It, Boys.”) Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a recording of the conversation in the ambulance on the way to the infield care center. The bigger picture, of course, is that these were two drivers who know their chances of running for a championship (yes, a fifth in Gordon’s case) had long since evaporated in 2010. The only real shame was that the zealous NASCAR officials got involved too quick. I’d have loved to see some more action. Maybe there’s an offseason cage “rematch” in their future? Good times, folks…

FOUR: Dr. Evil makes a huge mistake…

Love him or hate him, the one thing no true NASCAR fan can deny about Chad Knaus is that he is an absolute master of strategy and forward planning – a crew chief savant, if you will. So, to see him switch up the No. 24 and No. 48 pit crew midway through the race was just mind-boggling. I don’t care what Knaus says afterwards about the two teams working symbiotically, that move was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen in my time in NASCAR. Yes, Harvick and Clint Bowyer swapped pit crews in the Chase, but that was during the week. I’m not sure there is even a precedent for this swap (although I’m sure some nice reader will tell me why in the comments below, if it is indeed the case.) Now we learn that this move marks a permanent switch for the final two races of the season. Mystifying! Of course, if Jimmie wins out, as we know full well he can, he’ll win his fifth straight and everyone will be heralding Chad as a total genius. While that still may very well happen, you can’t help but feel a little bad for the now discarded No. 48 team crew. Bet the Monday morning meeting was a right bundle of laughs, huh? And speaking of laughs…

FIVE: Good job, Elliott Sadler…

As I’ve admitted in the past, Elliott Sadler’s form (or lack thereof, to be more accurate) has been low-hanging fruit for me as a columnist. I’ve poked fun and picked mercilessly on the veteran of some 427 races. I’m happy, then, to report on a weekend that was, despite a 23rd-place finish, a real promising one for the new father. First up was the news that Sadler will pilot the No. 2 CitiFinancial Chevy for KHI for the next two years in the Nationwide Series. As the man himself tweeted following the announcement:

Second, the pole position for the Cup race – his first since 2006 and just the eighth of his career – was icing on an already blossoming cake. “I’m looking for my first championship as a driver,” said Sadler. “We’re definitely going to win some races.” Here’s hoping…

And finally, one last point:

As a Brit living in Manhattan this past decade, whenever folks find out I cover NASCAR they look at me with a mix of sympathy, curiosity and bemusement. This weekend I sat down to watch the race with someone who’s never seen it before and had wondered what all the hype was about. Suffice it to say, my brilliant friend is already a convert after just one 500-mile event. And that, gentle readers, is a very fine thing: a very fine thing indeed.

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