NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte

Key MomentBrad Keselowski ran out of gas, down the backstretch with 58 laps left, allowing Clint Bowyer to breeze by. That left the No. 15 team virtually unencumbered as they turned on the fuel mileage jets, put a Rip Van Winkle spell over the stands, and advanced to a shocking intermediate oval victory at Charlotte.

In a Nutshell – Welcome to “cookie-cutter” NASCAR 2012! Your template for the race is as follows: X car leads a majority of laps while cars behind run in a single-file parade behind him. X driver starts saving fuel early, leaving the rest of the field copy-catting and a bunch of drivers slowing down like there’s a hidden cop about to ticket them for speeding. X debris caution helps encourage said finish, where engineers spend more energy using their calculators than drivers pushing their cars to the ragged edge. Eventually, X driver tries to actually race and runs out of gas, or doesn’t, leading to two minutes of semi-drama that determines the winner.

Did you stay awake through all that? I hope so; you should be well rested after that Saturday three-hour nap, disguised as what’s supposed to be a “postseason level” Sprint Cup performance.

Dramatic Moment – The first four laps of the race, Greg Biffle and Mark Martin drove side-by-side up front, bunching up the field while acting like two drivers who actually cared about winning over points. That, combined with a lot of through-the-pack action and three cautions in the first 41 laps had you thinking the night ahead was unpredictable… instead, it was all downhill from there.

When Keselowski ran out of fuel, his engine sitting silent on pit road there were a few anxious moments as to whether he’d lose too much time – and the point lead, as a result – to Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48.

Maybe, just maybe, you could include Denny Hamlin’s late-race surge here, where he closed to within a half-second of Bowyer. But you never got the feeling that either driver was going to run hard enough to compete side-by-side, risking emptying their gas tank in the process.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week

Conspiracy theory that no one is talking about: a mystery debris caution that sets up a fuel mileage finish. It’s bad enough the championship system leaves drivers running in place, afraid to get too aggressive out of fear that one mistake will knock them into the wall and out of contention. But how convenient was it in a race where long green-flag runs – and a spread-out field – was shaping up that NASCAR threw a lap 224 yellow for debris we never even saw? Immediately, that put gas into play and opened the door for someone other than Keselowski, Johnson or Hamlin to win the race – adding drama to what otherwise was the top three drivers in the points trying to protect their position up front. Side note: when we’re at a point in which teams are thinking, with one-third of the race remaining, that the outcome is going to be decided on fuel mileage, that’s a problem– a serious problem. It’s one thing if drivers are riding around for a half an hour, through one pit stop cycle, hoping not to run out of gas. But 80% throttle? For 100+ laps and an hour’s worth of racing? Who wants to sit through people driving really slowly, in circles, not trying to touch each other and hoping their miles per gallon matches new EPA-level standards? Imagine you have a friend who’s never watched racing. You ask them what you’ve been doing for the past hour and you go, “Trying to see if any cars are going to run out of gas.” What would you need to get them to stop laughing? Mace?

Conspiracy theory that bothers me the most: Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out for other reasons than a potentially serious concussion. As we’ve seen in the NFL, head injuries left undiagnosed or untreated have potentially devastating consequences later in life. Keep in mind Earnhardt’s dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr., died in the 2001 Daytona 500 of a basalar skull fracture. Don’t you think those reasons alone would make his son, who also went through post-concussion syndrome in 2002, just a tad more sensitive when choosing whether to sit out? Considering he still raced after the Kansas tire test in August, one which included a 40-G crash that created the majority of problems Earnhardt is experiencing now, I think he already took it to the limit far enough. Sure, 90% of the driver’s diagnosis comes from self-reported symptoms, but isn’t that the case for the vast majority of health problems? Not everything is cut and dry, showing up easily on a CT scan or an MRI. Even in a worst-case scenario, where Earnhardt is trying to “send the sport a message” by sitting after the horror story disguised as Talladega competition, I’d rather have the “official” reason for his benching be this one. There’s still plenty of people who follow Earnhardt religiously, regardless of performance in recent years, and this decision sends a clear, role-model message that if you’re having serious headaches or take a blow that affects the skull you need to get it checked out – fast – and follow doctor’s orders.

You’ve got to hand it to Bowyer. As I’ve explained “more thoroughly in a second column,”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/41802/ this performance is turning into the most underrated, underreported success story in NASCAR this season. People forget that Bowyer’s team didn’t even exist 12 months ago; now, with five races left he’s got an outside shot to be a Cinderella Cup champion. Bowyer’s three victories in 2012 equal the amount scored by Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, and Earnhardt Jr. combined.

So was AJ Allmendinger in this race? Let’s see: driver suspended for drugs, desperate to keep a stock car career going and jumping in a car who’s survival for 2013 is also in doubt. A source told me the only reason ‘Dinger got the ride for owner James Finch was through generosity; he offered to take it for free while other drivers wanted to get paid. Then, there’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. trying to jumpstart his Cup career in a fourth Roush car, a rookie who entered this event with three top-20 finishes in three Cup starts. Those sound like major stories worth telling, in-race, especially when side-by-side competition is few and far between. But the choice for ESPN was to keep showing us the same four championship contenders all the time, giving points updates and talking about how the Chase will be affected. Geez, for a network looking to extend its contract with a sport on a downhill slide they’re still struggling to find the meaning of the work “marketing.” I hear all the time from fans how radio makes even the most boring race exciting; TV needs to relearn how to accomplish the exact same thing.

The worst fears about the point race were realized when the top four title contenders ran 1-2-3-4 for a significant portion of the race Saturday night. Like jogging in place, each one of them smartly knew the best way to stay in the title hunt was to protect their position without getting too aggressive. A side-by-side move gone bad between any one of them could erase a point lead or a second-place standing in a heartbeat. So why try it? Between fuel mileage and a Chase that destroys dreams based on a DNF, people have developed a strategy of racing not to lose. Too bad fans come to the track to see their favorite drivers – and teams – try to win.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Keselowski had a chance to extend his championship lead, putting serious pressure on Johnson but ran into a fatal snag when running his car out of gas. Coasting to the pits before his final stop, Keselowski (mostly) kept his cool both during and after the race. Still, like Hamlin in 2010, you couldn’t help but think “opportunity squandered” in the face of a five-time champ who makes you pay for those types of mistakes.

Regan Smith was giftwrapped the dream ride of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88. Early on, it looked like he’d make the most of it, pushing the car inside the top 10 with ease after starting a mediocre 26th. But a surprising engine failure, one that could have been caused by a self-induced mistake (overrevving the car on pit road) left him 38th. Not the way to impress when your job for 2013 still reads “TBD…”

Bobby Labonte had a borderline top-10 run going, one of his best of the season before a flat tire, suffered under green sent him spiraling downward. When all was said and done, Labonte was sitting ten laps down in 32nd.

Stenhouse Jr. had three Sprint Cup starts for his career and three top-20 finishes entering Charlotte. Keeping the No. 6 Ford out of trouble, he seemed destined to add a fourth until the engine soured and finally expired just over halfway through the event. The reigning Nationwide Series champ and about-to-be 2013 Sprint Cup rookie wound up 35th.

”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

With the way these new EFI systems are, Keselowski got lucky the engine restarted as quickly as it did. Remember Tony Stewart at Phoenix? Even 10 more seconds on pit road could have meant the difference between 11th and 25th.

Hamlin and Johnson have both had well-documented issues with fuel in recent years. It’s rare to see a race where the end strategy works to perfection for both.

Stewart was involved in an early, chain-reaction style wreck that left his No. 14 Chevy looking like a reconstruction project. In the end, after multiple fixes there was more black tape holding together the front of the car than actual sheet metal. An ugly, 17-second pit stop late also cost him precious track position, but somehow he pulled the Mobil 1 Chevy from 32nd starting spot all the way to 13th.

Matt Kenseth caused the race’s first caution when a flat rear tire left him spinning. Falling a lap off the pace, the No. 17 Ford appeared down for the count but Talladega’s winner, plus his crew kept fighting forward. The help of a Lucky Dog, combined with decent fuel mileage left him an admirable 14th by the finish.

Worth Noting

  • Bowyer (first) has four top-10 results in the first five Chase races. The lone exception? A 23rd-place disaster after that Talladega last-lap wreck.
  • Johnson (third) has four top-10 performances in this year’s first five Chase races. His “mulligan” was also Talladega (17th).
  • Biffle (fourth) earned his first top-five finish since winning Michigan in August.
  • Kyle Busch (fifth) has back-to-back top-five efforts for the first time since Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte.
  • Martin (sixth) has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts.
  • No lame duck here… Joey Logano (ninth) has four top-10 performances since the start of the Chase.
  • Aric Almirola (12th) had his best result since a sixth at Dover in June.
  • Jeff Burton (28th) is without a top-10 finish on an intermediate track this season. Four of his six top 10s came on restrictor plate tracks while the others were registered at Richmond and Bristol, respectively.
  • Your top-10 finishers drove six Toyotas, two Chevys, and two Fords. Keselowski was the highest-running Dodge in 11th place.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski’s edge over Johnson is seven points with five races left. But that’s still close enough that if Johnson wins Kansas next week, leading the most laps Keselowski could lose the top spot with a finish of fourth or worse.

Hamlin, after a runner-up effort Saturday sits 15 points out of the lead in third place. Bowyer, with his victory moves up to fourth, 28 behind and close enough to sniff an outside shot should something happen to the top three contenders. Kasey Kahne, now fifth is 35 behind and the only other driver who could realistically dream of holding the trophy after Homestead.

Biffle, after an ugly start to the Chase worked his way to sixth; however, the regular season points champ is 43 markers out and would need a minor miracle to get back in the hunt. Martin Truex Jr. sits seventh, with Gordon and Stewart (with seven combined titles between them) tied for eighth. Harvick sits 10th followed by Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. – that back half of Chasers is over a full race’s worth of points outside the lead.

In the “best of the rest” category, Kyle Busch now has a virtually insurmountable 62-point advantage on Ryan Newman for 13th place. Call off the dogs, this meaningless party’s already over.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): When I was in college, to save cash we used to pregame with (gulp) 40s of Old English, hoping we could simply stomach them enough to keep going. I’m not even sure this race is worth a 99 cent bottle of that; we’ll say a beer-and-a-half, just because there was a slight degree of uncertainty over the ending, but I think that’s overdoing it.

Next Up: From one “cookie-cutter” track to another: NASCAR heads to the Midwest and Kansas for their third 1.5-mile oval in six races. A reminder that 50% of the Chase will be contested at these fuel-mileage centric, parade-lap facilities, so be sure to plan your naps accordingly.

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