NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Almost Just Doesn’t Cut It: The Missed Opportunity 600

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – _Michael Jordan_

Second place may be the first loser, but after a wild weekend at both Indianapolis and Charlotte both historic races will be remembered for the men who came up short. Certainly, all the credit in the world goes to winners Dan Wheldon and Kevin Harvick, drivers who put themselves in position to capitalize on Vegas-style racing luck. But both men will tell you, point blank the dirty truth behind their crown jewel thefts; all they did was put the money in the slot machine, then hit the jackpot while watching everyone around them go bankrupt.

NASCAR and IndyCar, on this day however differed in just how many drivers should be feeling the sting of ugly defeats. While rookie J.R. Hildebrand was a self-inflicted victim in Indianapolis – he had the race won until crashing on the final lap – the list of NASCAR drivers kicking themselves after Charlotte is about as long as the snarling Memorial Day traffic you’ll encounter later today. And amongst them all, each driver shared a common thread: a victory would have ended an almost Sahara Desert-style drought on the Cup circuit, the boost needed to save a season or perhaps a career’s worth of lost momentum.

Let’s start with the obvious choice: one Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a man who found himself one turn from ending a 104-race winless streak with seemingly every conceivable break thrown his way. There was the caution for teammate Jimmie Johnson’s engine with five laps left; then-leader Greg Biffle pitting for fuel under yellow, pushing a third-place Earnhardt into the front row for the green-white-checker; and then _new_ leader Kasey Kahne running out of gas on the restart, pushing Junior into the lead while creating a bumper car accordion effect that typically earns a yellow before you could blink. But of course, with NASCAR’s Most Popular Hero up front, the powers that be kept the green flag out – no hot dog wrapper or 3,400 lb obstacle could stop this surprising script – giving Earnhardt a seemingly insurmountable lead heading towards the checkers. All the darned guy had to do was coast through Turn 4, keep it off the wall and the Coca-Cola 600 would belong to an Earnhardt, again for the first time since 1993.

Unfortunately for the driver’s rabid fan base, NASCAR officials and the military, rooting wildly for the National Guard on this special holiday, lucky breaks don’t scientifically create an extra gallon of gas. Mere feet from the finish line, the engine died in the No. 88 allowing his father’s old car, a renumbered 29 with Budweiser on the side to zip on by and leave a crowd of well over 100,000 in stunned silence. It was the closest this 35-year-old had come to a breakthrough, turning back from tourist-like curiosity into respected title contender only to see a Charlie Brown-like ending seize the moment once again.

To Earnhardt’s credit, of all the drivers hurting after the Missed Opportunity 600 he appeared to take defeat well in stride.

“I’m pretty happy,” he said, putting up a smile after the race. “I was sitting there… I’m disappointed about running out of gas, but we knew we were… we knew we were short. You saw the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) give up the lead. Everybody knew they were short. I thought those guys wrecked on that restart and that would have brought the caution out before the white and we’d have had to pit. This was probably, in all honesty, the best turnout of events for us besides winning the race. We just ran out of gas. That is just the way it goes.”

“The wins are going to come; we just have to keep working.”

It’s hard to know yet if Earnhardt really believes that; the furrowed brow on his forehead while speaking seemed to indicate some internal conflict. But to continue his crusade to get over the hump, dealt a bad hand on this two-year anniversary of Tony Eury, Jr.’s final race as head wrench, Earnhardt must move forward by moving on. These types of make-or-break moments cripple a team if you dwell on them; but handled right, they’re the stepping-stones to bigger and better things. Didn’t that Jordan guy lose two NBA conference finals before winning all those championships?

“We’re building a good team,” Earnhardt said, playing the politically correct game to start that process. “Building good chemistry. That’s what is important. If we let this bother us too much, we won’t improve as much as we should.”

But Earnhardt wasn’t alone in a Sunday night filled with “almosts.” For Kahne, he led 29 laps, played the fuel game perfectly and seemed destined to end a 58-race winless streak until the gas tank fizzled right on the final green-white-checkered. Now 19th in points, pitching a Victory Lane shutout despite 181 laps led in the month of May, his new challenge comes in keeping this one-year team he’s leased from Lame Duck mode. The line between success and failure is razor thin; a June victory would spark a run to the Chase, while a DNF or two would leave Silly Season a three-ring circus from which Kahne could simply throw the season away.

Across the way, David Ragan sits with a runner-up finish that still feels somewhat hollow. On a night where another potential replacement for the No. 6 driver, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. ran 11th, the UPS Ford was a top-5 car all day, then had a chance to win only to finish in the category this sponsor won’t remember: second on a night of chaos as a man and team who need additional sponsorship (one Richard Childress Racing, rumored to have courted the packaging company) wound up running ahead of him.

“I feel great about the rest of the season,” Ragan claimed afterwards, still upbeat but realistic about where this run leaves him. “Certainly, this race is a great race. It’s a great momentum builder, but if we go to Kansas and blow up and finish last and then we go to the next race and wreck and finish 30th, we’re going to be back where we’re at.“

That place happens to be 18th in the standings, six positions behind fellow pack ‘n’ ship rival Denny Hamlin. But this duo stands together in their misery; Hamlin seemed to have a shocking victory in hand, the “carburetor comeback” after changing the part under caution but just as the No. 88 ran out of gas, he pressed the accelerator on the No. 11 Toyota and … no dice.

“I thought I’d be happy with a top 8, but you can’t run second on the back straightaway and be happy with 10th,” he said afterward. “My eyes got huge, but we’ll keep fighting. It’s a step back in the right direction and we’ll win some races here real soon.”

Or will he? The number of times Hamlin and Co. have shot themselves in the foot this season are more than all of 2010 combined. How many hits will it take for them to detour for good, especially with a potential crew chief change still possible? And how long of a leash will Ragan have before merely contending for wins just isn’t enough?

Rounding out this fivesome is Greg Biffle, the leader until that final caution put the No. 16 Ford on pit road and out of contention. After a night in which a cooling system failed, leaving the driver suffering from heat exhaustion part of him was simply happy the race was over. But after 50 laps led, more than double what he’d led in all of 2011 combined up to this Sunday the ending proved a sour taste, especially when the next track on the schedule (Kansas) is where Biffle last tasted Victory Lane champagne in the Cup Series.

The Roush Fenway veteran didn’t have anything to say in post-race; he let adversity do the talking on a night when there was plenty of ugly endings to dish around. They say luck is when skill and opportunity come together… and for each of these men, the next few days will lead to endless thinking as to how they couldn’t make them pair up.

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