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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Frustration vs. Venom, Start-And-Park vs. Start-And-Back

*ONE: The Fine Line Between Frustration and Venom on Display*

Outside of Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya’s latest excuse for a dustup, the three hottest drivers under the collar at Richmond this past weekend, at least on the radio, were Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Johnson’s angst was evident early; with the No. 48 team mired nearly outside the top 30 and the car handling like junk, the usually methodical pairing of Johnson and Chad Knaus was sounding strained, with the two trading exasperated remarks about adjustments and pit strategy.

But for all the exasperation, all the frustration, never once did the two go for each other’s throats. The frustration stayed on their combined performance and never disintegrated into attack…and low and behold, when the night was said and done, the No. 48 team came from nowhere to score a top 10 finish.

The same could not be said for Busch and Truex. Busch, who has been vocal both over the radio and in the media talking about his dissatisfaction with the handling of his race cars, was absolutely crushing in his appraisal of the team’s performance, even after it was the driver himself that damaged the No. 22 going three-wide down the frontstretch mere laps before teammate Brad Keselowski destroyed his car in his second spin of the night. And as for Truex, well, check out Monday’s column for the absolute verbal beatdown he put on the No. 56 team, one that had everyone on the team radio silent sans a few acknowledgements from Pat Tryson as his team fumed while packing up their pit stall.

But whereas Johnson and crew managed to keep it in check while still venting their problems, both Busch and Truex’s utter anger and crudeness in putting their problems out for their teams to handle obviously accomplished nothing. Truex’s No. 56 team has been snakebit enough with stuff out of their control to have the driver vocally blasting the crew, even though the team’s problems came down to a broken stud and a speeding penalty, neither of which can be attributed to the crew. And as for Busch, justified as his concerns might be given that the Penske Racing island is starting to sink less than halfway to the Chase, continually harping that something isn’t good isn’t good enough. It’s one thing to list what’s wrong, it’s another to just say it sucks.

There’s lines between frustration and anger. Those lines translate to more than how much profanity is broadcast over the radio…it also ties to performance, and the ability to improve. Busch and Truex better take note quick.

*TWO: The NEMCO Model … to the Extreme*

Despite being perpetual underdogs in the Nationwide Series garage, Rick Ware Racing has operated as a three-car operation for much of 2011. Might as well make it four. Though it’s a joint venture with fellow Nationwide owner Craig Partee, the No. 68 car is being hauled to the track on a Rick Ware hauler, carrying the decals of Rick Ware’s sponsor, and being worked on at the track by Rick Ware personnel. “We’re not fielding all the costs and we’re not keeping all the purse” said team driver Carl Long of the arrangement.

Long elaborated further on just why RWR is running so many race cars. The team’s second No. 41 machine, in addition to seeking sponsor dollars, is running a chassis identical to that being used by the team’s flagship No. 15 team of Timmy Hill. And from the moment they get to the track, the two teams are going in completely opposite directions, trying to maximize the data they have available to get their 18-year-old Rookie of the Year contender up to speed. As for who’s driving what car, “it’s whoever’s butt fits best in the seat” joked Long as to the driver arrangement.

While the idea of fielding a start-and-park car to make race weekends glorified testing sessions is nothing new (Stanton Barrett’s team employed the model with Kenny Hendrick a few seasons back), it’s something else to see a four-car operation dedicated to doing so. Three spots in the field being used as test cars.

So many issues are spoken to here. The [lack of] health of the NNS field. The detrimental effect NASCAR’s no testing policy is having on teams’ at-track activities on race weekends. Just as with NEMCO, there’s nothing to be held against RWR for maximizing their resources for the benefit of their race team, but really? A four-car team operating three start-and-parks? That’s an issue.

*THREE: Compare and Contrast: McDowell, HP Racing Endure Rough Attempt*

For only the third time this year and the ninth time in the team’s history of 117 Cup attempts dating back to 2009, HP Racing (formerly PRISM Motorsports) actually were attempting to run a full race distance Saturday night at RIR, courtesy of sponsorship from KLove, a previous backer of Michael McDowell in the Nationwide Series.

McDowell deserves some credit here. Prior to his arrival as a driver, the No. 66 team had never attempted to actually race at a short track; yet in 2011, they’ve now done so in the last two short track races. But what shone through as the poster children of start-and-park took to the track on Saturday was just how unprepared they really were to be Cup racing. McDowell was continually communicating with his spotter not to find out where his competitors were, but to simply get uniform definitions of what terms like “looking” meant. So unaccustomed to going the full distance they were, driver and spotter were on a different page as to what a situation on-track was defined as.

The pit crew had issues as well, getting only 10 gallons of gas into the car’s tank during the first pit stop of the evening, forcing McDowell to pit well ahead of the rest of the field simply to avoid running out of gas. This struggle continued to unfold until a little over a quarter of the way into the race, when McDowell reported low voltage from his car’s battery. Without any plan as to changing it on pit road, the No. 66 was ordered to go back to the garage… and never returned to the track.

It’s not hard to understand what happened here; once you start-and-park for over two years with scarcely any attempt to race, any changeover towards actually competing is going to be a foreign concept. Which begs the question… how is the No. 66’s standard practice at the track supposed to entice a sponsor?

*FOUR: Whereas Tommy Baldwin Racing Got It Done*

Considering the display HP Racing put on, there was a polar opposite example that unfolded on the same track with Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 team. A team that while also start-and-parking numerous times since its inception in 2009 has made efforts to race whenever possible and even running races out of their own pocket, TBR scored a major victory for themselves by signing Golden Corral to a 19-race sponsorship deal after a strong run at Talladega. Their new sponsor came on board for the first time as the primary backer at Richmond.

And TBR was ready. Intangibly, there was a sense of urgency in the team’s garage stall that this was real, that the time to run well and secure 2012 backing was upon them. Team owner Tommy Baldwin was practically running away during his brief three-minute interview with Frontstretch on Friday, the entire time eyeing his car and stall to see what needed to be done next. And driver Dave Blaney came through in the clutch, delivering a top-15 finish that was both the best in team history and a shot in the arm of competitiveness for a team that certainly needed one.

What was clear here, though, is that TBR was ready to race when their chance came. The crew was solid in their stops, Blaney had no communication issues through 400 laps, and the No. 36 team took to fully sponsored racing like a fish to water. Baldwin’s model for racing as much as possible and staying at the track to maintain a presence paid off, and now the Cup Series is a full-time entry richer for it. Start-and-park, as much as this writer hates to admit it, can pay off in the long run for teams willing to swallow their pride. But even those teams have to race more than occasionally. Phil Parsons’ squad should be looking at the No. 36 success story long and hard before packing it up 15 laps into the next race.

FIVE: What if…bin Laden’s Death Had Been Saturday Night?

One of the most uplifting episodes surrounding the spontaneous displays of patriotism that emerged from Osama bin Laden’s slaying was to see the notoriously nasty fans of Philadelphia chanting USA in unison during the ninth inning of a Phillies game as news spread. It was a tribute to just how significant an accomplishment it was for our nation and just how much support our armed forces have back home from legions of sports fans.

But as cool as that image was…imagine that news breaking at Richmond International Raceway with 90,000 NASCAR fans in the stands.

That’s a party I would have given anything not to miss.

To close, a hearty thank you to all of our armed forces personnel around the world. On behalf of all of us at Frontstretch, congratulations and a safe return home.

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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