CONCORD, N.C. – The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway started at around 7:50 p.m. A scant three hours later, we knew that Matt Kenseth had won, Jimmie Johnson had crashed and that the Chase would go to Talladega with a flipped script.
What did you miss in between? Not much, in the way of racing, but plenty of opportunities to hit the fridge and observe ESPN’s split-screen commercials/live action.
It wasn’t that bad, when push comes to shove, but the first 220 laps of the race served notice—if any was needed—that NASCAR’s stock cars are still slaves to the dreaded aero push and that when the temperature drops, too much grip can be a bad thing.
Halfway through the first 100 laps, drivers were screaming that the cars were too hooked up and that they couldn’t pass. When’s the last time you heard the former, and when was the last time you DIDN’T hear the latter?
In short, the only cautions in the first 232 laps were for debris. That’s never good for the racing, especially when the cars are having a hard time breaking the aero chain and aren’t free enough to rotate the center of the corners.
Charlotte’s a momentum track, which means you have to get in the groove and drive it as hard as you can within that groove. When you get to another car, the bubble of air that the lead car is throwing up acts like one of those bumper buffers you see on a go-kart track: drivers hit it and bounce off.
All of the above makes for a show that is less exciting than watching a nil-nil soccer game or a 6-3 football game. Well, at least until the aero trouble managed to catch Jimmie Johnson and throw the momentum in the Chase to other drivers.
Seventeen laps from the end, Johnson was racing with Ryan Newman and got sucked around when Newman was on the high side entering Turn 1.
“The No. 39 just got tight on my right rear quarter panel getting in to Turn 1 and just took the air off the side of my car and around I went,” was how Johnson put it, and he was right. There was no contact between the two.
“From there I was trying to save the slide, got pointed back to the fence and hammered the wall.”
So, we saw that the cars can’t defeat dirty air from behind, and that same dirty air pulls the back end of the car around in close-quarters racing on a banked speedway. It’s like bubble racing, really. What exactly is the point of racing hard for 334 laps if you can’t go forward and you can’t keep the car straight in traffic?
Wasn’t the Car of Tomorrow designed to stop all the aero push? It’s gotten to where the old cars, without the splitters, are better than the new stuff, at least regarding aero matters, and while parity logically means that all the cars are the same and it boils down to the better driver on a given evening, logic is still a good way to be wrong with confidence.
About the only good racing took place on restarts, and then only for about four laps before the cars got strung out and into line. Tony Stewart, the polesitter, was a prime example of clean air working for you and dirty air working against you.
“We were good off the front there. Just when we got back in traffic we got really tight,” Stewart grumped after the race. “You know that was kind of the theme of the night. We just seemed to, our car changed balance-wise a lot more in traffic it seemed like, than some of the other cars did.”
Stewart led the first 43 laps of the night and seemed destined to be in the thick of things at the end, only to see track position take away any advantage. Case in point: he took two tires on a pit stop, gained four spots to the lead and just flat ran away in clean air. That was after drivers took four and went nowhere.
It was the clean air on the nose of his Chevrolet that did it, and once he got shuffled back, it was “Katie, bar the door.”
Kyle Busch vented early on that he was making moves in traffic, but couldn’t pass. For a minute, I thought we were at Talladega already.
“It’s unbelievable,” he ranted on the radio during a caution. “You try to make something happen in traffic and you lose 10 car lengths. I can’t pass anybody!”
Yep, that’s the way it looked from here, too.
Everybody knows that when the sun goes down, the track temp goes down. When it’s cold like that, you have a lot of mechanical grip, the engine makes better horsepower because cold air is denser than warm air. What you end up with, instead of an ideal situation, is a car that puts out tons of horsepower to the rear wheels that gets lost when the tires hook up, resulting in a big-time plowing push in the corners.
The rear is hooked to the track, the front is hooked to the track, and then centrifugal force and physics takes over. Loosen the car up and it’s better, but the dirty air you’re in negates the advantage. It’s a lose-lose proposition for the drivers and crews, and also for the fans, because you wind up with cars that drivers can’t do a thing with, and that means follow-the-leader and hope-he-makes-a-booboo racing.
Johnson’s crash dropped him to eighth in the points with five to go, and that is both good and bad. It’s good because the rest of the Chase field can breathe a bit easier because he’s not running away with this one. It’s bad, for that very same reason. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have made a living overcoming expectations.
““We just have to go racing,” Johnson said. “That is all there is to it. There are five races left, and right now all we have are those five races. Definitely not the night we wanted. This is not going to help us win a sixth championship. Promise you, this team and myself, we won’t quit. We will go for every point we can from here on out and hopefully we are still champions at the end of the year.”
Whether he is or not depends on what happens next weekend in Talladega. If he can get through that and still have a shot (he’s 35 points off Edwards’ total), then it’s a toss-up.
If he can’t, it’s going to be a dogfight to the finish. Many times the past five years people have been quick to throw dirt on Johnson’s title hopes. For the past five years, it’s been premature. We’ll see if he has another gut-check in him next weekend.
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