After starting the Chase in critical condition, Tony Stewart’s rocky season has been righted. Just a playoff add-on two weeks ago, sneaking in by the width of its front splitter, the No. 14 car plus its owner/driver’s mouth were both more temperamental than Kurt Busch’s radio channel. But a two-for-two start in Victory Lane, plus vindication at a track (New Hampshire) where Stewart ran out of fuel while leading just one year ago has left once-unfathomable championship chances very much alive.
What an ironic twist of fate. Smoke’s come to life just as NASCAR Nation opens up a gossip-induced, public investigation on why he’s dead.
To be fair, the driver brought such scrutiny upon himself after answering a question about how he put this year of frustration aside these last few races. “Well, we got rid of some dead weight earlier this week,” Stewart responded, the venom in his voice speaking volumes. “So, it made it a lot easier. It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders. Just sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it has definitely helped this weekend, for sure.”
Hmm. Looking at the camera, it’s easy to see Stewart, a Burger King junkie hasn’t turned to liposuction or some miracle Jenny Craig diet. So if he’s not being literal, what in the world was meant by a cryptic comment he refused to expand upon during post-race? Crew chief Darian Grubb confirmed there were no personnel shifts in the shop this week; in fact, the team hasn’t had itself a true Competition Director for months after releasing Bobby Hutchens. Rumors ran rampant, instead those comments revolved around a change with Jessica Zemken, an on-again, off-again personal relationship that some say turned “off” for Stewart permanently in recent days. Whatever the reason, considering this driver’s often cantankerous relationship with the media – one I respect but doesn’t allow for “open book” coverage – chances are the real answer will never truly come.
Either way, the fact we spent this much time talking about Stewart’s ex-girlfriend, little more than high school chatter it masks some pretty important flaws defining Sunday’s New Hampshire storylines. Smoke, in essence is providing a distraction, a way for fans to look towards a side-view mirror while disregarding the real problems up ahead. For once again, fans were treated to a fuel-mileage fiasco; teams were so desperate to move up racing a track they couldn’t pass on crew chiefs were calculating how to save Sunoco by halfway. At its best, the event resembled an A-quality chess match, and, last I checked those week-long world matches aren’t broadcast on TV for a reason. Once again, driver post-race speeches proved telling, expressing frustration on going entire green-flag stretches without being able to move. It’s all about track position, track position, track position these days; if you don’t have it on a restart, or get it the first five laps after the green flag, you’re pretty much stuck in place until a crew chief can bail you out.
“Track position became so, so important,” Jimmie Johnson confirmed. “I could maybe pass one, two, three cars on new tires, and then stall out like everybody else. You knew if you could hold someone off for two or three laps, you could make that guy’s tires mad and then they’d be stuck behind you. And that was everybody’s strategy was just to be very stubborn about the position you were in, race the guy really hard, and eventually you’d fall in line and couldn’t go anywhere.”
No wonder Sunday’s race left people semi-conscious, in between taking cars like Mark Martin’s once 20th-place machine and making it a dominating leader simply by staying out on a cycle of yellow-flag stops. What gives? Discredit should go to Goodyear, a primary culprit for forming a tire so durable it doesn’t break _or_ wear. For when that happens, paired with a car that’s generic, almost crate, everyone is destined to run the same speed. Two races, now with long green-flag runs and seven of nine cautions caused by a NASCAR mandate, “debris,” or minor wall scrapes should have been the expected result.
Now, especially in a playoff format, that means the gas mileage strategy shifts from “anomaly” to “trend.” With desperation on the pit box, strategy calls to get cars up front become few and far between as cautions spread out. Fuel mileage becomes the necessary evil, the only way to finish a race missing the one thing fans come to see: side-by-side competition.
“I just had to save gas and when you have to save gas, you can’t go,” confirmed Greg Biffle. “I would have liked to see how hard we could have run and see if we could have caught them… [but] you can’t use gas. I’m glad I had the Ford40mpg.com on the car because I think it helped me.”
Ugh… pimping energy conservation is a nice gesture, pleasing the EPA but not many more in a world where “racing” and “conservative” becomes synonymous with “boring.” And it’s not just the fuel causing concern; Stewart’s two-win start, combined with one juicy comment also clouds the troubles with NASCAR’s Chase format. Even with this system, if the points were not reset we’d have a barn-burner of a stretch run right now: four drivers from four different teams would be sitting within 13 points of the lead. Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick would be in the running, sitting pretty while Jeff Gordon had himself an outside chance. Now? Stewart, in just two races has a seven-point edge, with the fourth-place driver in Edwards sitting 14 markers back in the standings.
That, of course, fails to mention two of those top four Chase drivers – Stewart and Brad Keselowski – wouldn’t have come within a whisker of the title during an unchanged, 36-race regular season. Of course, this format is the one we play under and if there’s one saving grace it’s that these Cinderella stories often flame out. Remember Greg Biffle, two-for-two to start the 2008 postseason after flying under the radar for months? He hung tough, then faded down the stretch of a playoff that became a battle of the sport’s two best drivers that season: Edwards and Johnson.
There’s no reason to think any different this year with Stewart, a reason he’s kept calm despite this solid start. This weekend, at Dover he’s heading to a track where the No. 14 was 29th in the spring, running with the equivalent of an Office Depot desk dragging behind its bumper. At Martinsville later next month, it’s a similar problem: he has an average finish of 28th since 2010 (three starts). Two bad races, two runs outside the 20s will be all it takes, combined with a Jimmie Johnson victory at both, to turn the tide.
In fact, the driver in strongest position to challenge Johnson is the one who’s led exactly one lap to date. Harvick, after rocketing to the top at Richmond has raced to a conservative second, then 12th to open up a 22-point lead on the No. 48. With Childress publicly switching the No. 33 crew, then privately screaming “all hands on deck” in the shop to push the money and the resources one team’s way, it’s going to be an all-out assault to keep this early momentum intact. Stewart, in response has just one team to draw from, plus engines and chassis coming from a Hendrick rival more concerned in the long run with Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning the hardware instead.
For now, Sunday was a day filled with Smoke and Mirrors, where those who saw a ten-minute snippet might have thought the race, plus our point leader ended up in far better shape than it might seem. And with “dead weight” entering the casual sports coverage stratosphere, NASCAR winds up protected from the problems fans spending the day watching the NFL would have clearly missed.
So it’s a rare occasion that you hope the TV ratings were worse than expected. NASCAR’s best public relations move after this one is to hope millions were not paying attention – and can be tricked.