In some certain circles, I am considered a conspiracy theorist, a nattering nabob of negativity who always suspects the worst possible motives behind NASCAR and the people inside the sport. I admit I am cynical both by nature and through experience but compared to some folks out there, I am Shirley Frickin’ Temple.
After Sunday’s race, as I sat down to write my recap I was on edge because I was already hearing rumors some fans had been struck by lightning and some of those individuals were badly hurt. (Tragically, we know now that Brian Zimmerman, a 41-year-old married father of three lost his life.) I immediately focused on that story and began calling friends I knew had been in the grandstands to ensure they were safe. But elsewhere on the Internet and in Twitterville (which I am rapidly learning is a lot less friendly place than Who-ville or Margaritaville), a cauldron was boiling over as more fuel was added to the fire by people hiding behind funny screen names. (I’ve been asked, so my Twitter handle mcmatt76 was chosen because “Matt McLaughlin” and “Mcmatt” were already in use. The “McMatt” part should be obvious. The 76 was added because a picture of my 1976 Trans-Am hangs over my desk.)
The contention held that on the final restart, Jimmie Johnson rode up the track and possibly even triggered the wreck with Matt Kenseth to help his teammate and team owner of record Jeff Gordon make the Chase. How could it not be so? After all, Gordon’s win at Pocono Sunday now has him laying claim to the second “wild card” spot for the playoffs. That dirty, rotten so and so and the convicted felon that pays him! How dare they ruin the integrity of our sport!
Well, truth be told NASCAR lost its cherry decades ago with the advent of the front wheel drive clone funny cars. But that’s besides the point… let’s see if this theory has merit.
So let me see if I can climb inside Jimmie Johnson’s mind as he’s cruising around under yellow preparing for that final restart. Chad Knaus had doubtlessly made him aware that heavy weather had reached the outskirts of the track property. If, in fact the race resumed it would only run a handful more laps. Johnson also knew he clearly had the fastest car and was in the lead. All he had to do was hold off one concerted rush by the No. 17 car into turn one and his fourth victory of the season was in hand. That would mean that once the Chase began, he’d be seeded in the top spot ahead of Stewart and Keselowski, who have each won three times. For a driver who admits he wants to win eight titles to lay claim to the “Greatest Driver Ever!” honors that’s a pretty powerful incentive to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
But the black helicopter clan supposed that Johnson was furiously working on his iPad, cell phone, and calculator under that caution doing more math than a high school class full of trig students. “Let’s see. If I pull over and let the No. 24 by, where would that leave him in the points? Let me check where all the other drivers from tenth to sixteenth are currently running in the points. Oh, grand, if I let him win that would move Gordon to fifteenth. That’s pretty good. Wow, trouble ahead! He’d be tied with Newman for fifteenth. How many second-place finishes do Ryan and Jeff have? How many thirds? D’Oh, they’re tied! How many fourth-place finishes do they have? Oh, no! Grand, Jeff had more fifth place finishes than Ryan so he’d have that wild card spot.”
Under this scenario, it was time to start operation “Fear and Loathing” on the restart. “Sorry, Kenseth, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t go head on into the wall, but let’s face it: points don’t matter to either of us any more. We’re both ranked so high up there our playoff berths are all but cemented. And frankly, that color of the paint on your car is hideous anyway. Zestfully, clean my butt. I’m an Irish Spring man. Manly, yes, but I like it too, especially since I’ve grown this macho approximation of a beard to make me look less like of a girly-man.”
Here’s how I saw the restart, and I was watching it pretty carefully since I wasn’t thinking the first few raindrops pattering on the window pane were the sound of the New World Order army storm troopers’ boots hitting the earth as they rappelled out of their trademark black helicopters. Johnson was once again playing games on the restart. Kenseth snookered him but good. Caught off guard by the No. 17’s hard charge to the outside, Johnson charged into Turn One with the reckless abandon of the Light Brigade. Unaware Kenseth was already to his outside, Johnson slid his Chevy up the track to block and the two collided.
I am not Pollyanna. I don’t buy Johnson’s explanation of a flat right-rear tire having gone flat. Maybe after he body-slammed Kenseth’s Ford, but not before.
Now if this was a pre-planned action on Johnson’s part, he must have had a crystal ball installed in his race car. As Johnson struggled (masterfully, as it turned out) to correct his sideways car, the No. 17 got sideways and Biffle shot into the outside wall. At that point, there was no knowing if it was going to be a two-car wreck, a four-car wreck, or a field-decimating pig pile – and Gordon could easily have been caught up in the carnage. Also narrowly missing the wreck was another of Johnson’s teammates, Kasey Kahne, who is fighting for every position to try to keep inside the cutoff for the Chase. In a worst-case scenario, the No. 17 could have hooked hard left and sent Johnson headlong into the wall, windshield deep, and broken his leg eliminating him from competition for the rest of the season.
See? There’s a funny thing about wrecking a tightly bunched pack of race cars running at 180 mph: sometimes the results are not very funny at all.
Just how widespread was the controversy? Once I’d nailed down the facts surrounding the tragedy that occurred in the parking lot, I did that #Jimmie Johnson thing on Twitter and spent the next hour reading some pretty outrageous stuff people were writing in less than 140 characters; and I wasn’t alone in reading this innuendo. The normally affable and unceasingly polite Jimmie Johnson wrote on his Twitter account, “Good night everyone, even all of you with your head stuck in your ass.”
Hey, he said it; not me, it was on his official account and he hasn’t disavowed the statement either.
So do I have faith in the integrity of the No. 48 team? No, I do not. I think they got caught cheating red-handed at Daytona and got away with it because of the team owner’s personal relationship with the final referee. When Knaus told Johnson last year at Talladega that if he won the race, he’d have to back the car into the wall, I don’t think it was because he felt that the post-race wreck would be on Speed Center all week giving their sponsors valuable exposure. To his credit, however, Johnson seemed genuinely shocked by the request. Funny how that’s the same car that got nabbed at Daytona this year. And I’m uneasy about the skewed attitude of the car that dominated at Pocono and Indy, how low it rides in the back under race conditions. I think we’re either going to see some new rules added soon to corral that beast of a No. 48 car or it will once again run afoul of the inspection process. Perhaps NASCAR is waiting for the first race of the Chase to extract a little payback for their decision being overruled at the start of the season.
I also believe that team orders have been issued in NASCAR racing previously. I know that to be a fact. I’ve heard one driver told to pull over and slow down so that his teammate could lead a lap and get a bonus point. Keep in mind if he’d earned one such bogus bonus point during the final 10 races last year, Carl Edwards would be the reigning champion. Could team orders help set the field for this year’s Chase? If at Richmond, the Roush statisticians discovered that if Kenseth, running eighth, yielded his spot to Edwards, running ninth on the last lap and the No. 99 would make the Chase after all it might happen. But if Kenseth was leading the race and Edwards was second, I don’t think Kenseth would yield a win.
Yes, Gordon is currently in the Chase on a wild card, but there are still five races left to run and anything could happen. This weekend, Gordon could crash out on the pace lap and Newman could win, or Kyle Busch could grab his second win of the season. I don’t think team orders or ill-intent on anyone’s part gave Gordon a win last weekend at Pocono. Sometimes odd or surprising things happen at the end of stock car races. If that weren’t the case, I doubt the sport would have survived its initial few seasons.
So if you’re still cowering down the basement, armed with a tin foil lined soup colander on your head waiting for the New World Order takeover, lay aside your headgear, come upstairs and go outside. It’s a pretty nice world we live in and you might as well enjoy the sunshine before the New World Order kicks off the nuclear winter that leaves the cockroaches.