NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It was a particularly tough choice this week as drivers battled back from spins and mechanical issues to pull down top finishes, but one driver avoided the drama altogether to simply be there at the end. As he has done so often in his career, Bobby Labonte used patience, skill, and experience to finish seventh, his second top 10 of the year and first since finishing fourth in the Daytona 500. Today’s run was vintage Labonte, as the driver flew under the radar to steal a top spot when it counted.

What… was THAT?

This might come as a surprise (or maybe not), but this week’s WTF comes straight from NASCAR. While there is a fine line between racing hard and racing dirty, the sanctioning body seems to have forgotten that distinction. By warning Kevin Harvick that if the touches the No. 18, he will be parked, NASCAR is not policing the sport. Harvick said this week that he feels “handcuffed” every time he races Kyle Busch, who received no such warning despite being involved in prior incidents with the No. 29. I’ll be the first to say that a dirty driver isn’t someone who belongs on the racetrack because he’s a danger, but there is a difference between driving dirty and incidental contact. If a driver fears penalty for the latter, he can’t do his job effectively, especially at a track like New Hampshire, where contact is part of the game and often occurs unintentionally.

If you saw the contact between Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers on lap 168, there was a perfect example of incidental contact. This kind of warning also eliminates the use of the bumper to make a pass, which is not a particularly dirty move if the other car suffers no damage. The correct thing for NASCAR to do is mete out an appropriate punishment if he does intentionally wreck Busch, especially if other cars are involved, but to “handcuff” the driver to the point where he fears a penalty for simply racing? Not cool. In short, the sanctioning body has no business making a driver feel that he can’t even attempt a pass without penalty if there’s contact. In the “boys have at it” era, nobody should ever feel like he can’t race.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It was a banner weekend for Ryan Newman. With the spotlight on Busch or possibly Brad Keselowski to bring home a weekend double, Newman was busy winning from the pole twice at New Hampshire. Newman started out on Thursday, taking the pole for the F.W. Webb 100 Whelen Modified Tour race. On Friday, Newman broke the track record on his way to his second pole of the weekend. Saturday was more of the same; Newman won the Modified race and then trounced the field, leading 119 laps and heading the charge to Stewart-Haas Racing’s first-ever 1-2 finish as teammate and car owner Tony Stewart came home second. The win is Newman’s third at New Hampshire, good for a tie with Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon for second on the wins list at the track

When… will I be loved?

It’s a given that 42 drivers will leave unhappy any given week. This week, several drivers will leave unhappy with the No. 42. Juan Pablo Montoya set several drivers’ teeth on edge on Sunday, culminating in an incident with AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin and Andy Lally which Hamlin and Lally took the brunt of, and a later incident with Johnson which ended with the No. 48 going around. Montoya’s driving style spawned comments on the radio and online with several wondering whether he’d be on the receiving end before the checkers flew. Instead, it’s possible that karma stepped in, as Montoya ran out of fuel with just a couple of laps remaining.

Why… won’t the No. 48 claim a sixth title this year?

It’s a little ironic that in a year where Johnson has driven harder than ever that a championship is unlikely. The reason for that is simple, yet difficult to understand. The simple reason is that Johnson’s pit crew is substandard. Or, as Johnson’s brother Jarit put it on his Twitter account,

What makes that hard to fathom is that it’s been allowed to go on this long. Johnson’s crew has very likely cost their driver at least two wins earlier this year, and possibly a third at Loudon, where Johnson was tearing through the field late only to have to make a second pit stop during a caution cycle when a lugnut was left off the left-front wheel. After the stop, Johnson got spun, a result of being back in the pack. Then, Johnson did what he has had to do all year; drive the wheels off his racecar, not for the win, but simply to gain back what his pit crew cost him. Johnson finished fifth, wondering what might have been if he’d had the closing laps to race for the win instead of to recover. After the race Johnson expressed his disappointment on the radio and crew chief Chad Knaus had nothing to do but agree, saying, “the pit crew ****ing sucked.” The bottom line is that Johnson can’t win the Chase on his own, and he doesn’t have the team behind him to help him.

How… much money can a fan walk away with at Atlanta this fall?

For the first time since taking over the title sponsorship of NASCAR’s premier series, Sprint announced a bonus program that could see a driver, the driver’s charity, and a fan walk away with a cool $1 million. Beginning at Indianapolis, drivers will have five races to qualify for the bonus. The winners of Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol will square off at Atlanta, where if one of them wins, they will capture the bonus. Fans can enter at Sprint’s website by predicting the five qualifying winners. A random fan with the correct answer will be chosen to meet that driver in Atlanta and cheer him on for the bonus. If a driver wins more than one of the five qualifiers, a fan will still be selected from each race and split the $1 million prize if their driver also wins at Atlanta.

Is this a good thing for the series? Absolutely. While it’s nowhere near the challenge that the Winston Million presented (think more along the lines of the old No Bull Five promotion), it will give the drivers a little extra incentive to win, especially if they feel secure in a Chase berth or are racing for a wild-card spot. Edwards summed up how hard some might race for the cash. When asked if he would be willing to spin someone out for $1 million, Edwards grinned and said, “I wouldn’t be spinning them out for me. I’d be spinning them out for the kids.” Unlike the Chase, this is exactly the kind of manufactured excitement the series could use.

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