(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

MPM2Nite: Bits and Pieces From the NASCAR Notebook

Fans watching both at home and in the grandstands at Bristol this weekend might be forgiven for feeling like Alice had hand-fed them some mushrooms then invited them for a quick trip down a nearby rabbit hole. While Bristol is well noted for out-of-the-ordinary circumstances that border on chaos, I’ll have to admit that I can’t recall the last time a race leader (in this case Kyle Larson) ran into the driver who was running dead last, dozens of laps down at the time. Nor can I recall a recent race that ran in such fits and starts, delays and controversies worthy of a blind date with Lindsay Lohan.

When it was all over and done with, Matt Kenseth was declared the winner and everyone else wrung out their socks and went home as the clock hands swept near midnight and lightning in the area painted the skies electric blue. It was probably well after midnight before those fans on hand who had stuck it out hit any towns of consequence given the remote rural location of the Last Great Coliseum. But dad-gum it, campers, not only did NASCAR get the race in despite what turned out to be prophetic predictions of 100% possibility of precipitation at race time, they even tacked some bonus laps on there at the end for the truly hardcore fans. Below are some reflections from my notebook on Sunday scribbled in between doodles of hot rods and V-twin motorcycles.

What a Pain In the Neck – While Denny Hamlin was credited with finishing 26th at Bristol, he had given up his seat in the No. 11 car during the first of the event’s red flags. Hamlin stated that he had a sore stiff neck and that, as such, piloting his Camry was uncomfortable for him. The pontificators on FOX were quick to note (since they had long since run out of anything useful to say even by that point in the race) the terrible strain that the high speeds and high banks at Bristol subject a driver’s neck to during the course of a 500-lap race. One would guess that the strain has been somewhat reduced by the new headrest systems that all but hold a driver’s head in place in today’s cars as opposed to the old days when drivers typically sat in low back bucket seats pirated out of a Mustang or Econoline at a local wrecking yard.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
Ow, my neck: Denny Hamlin might be considered damaged goods after a string of injuries. (Photo: Amy Henderson)

I’m beginning to think that perhaps today’s crop of drivers might be just a smidge less tough than our heroes of yesteryear. Richard Petty drove much of the 1980 season with a real pain in his neck, as in his neck was broken at the time after a savage wreck at Pocono. The King did in fact call in a relief driver, Joe Millikan, the following week at Talladega, but then drove the entire race himself at the next event in Michigan. (Noting drolly that “I’ll probably pay for this tomorrow” after the race). Millikan relieved Petty a few more times (including at Bristol), but by and large the King toughed it out.

No I’m not advising a driver who breaks his neck in the future suck it up and keep driving but there’s got to be some happy medium in there. Hamlin has also missed a race at Fontana last year because he had something in his eye and missed four races in 2013 while recovering from injuries suffered at in a final lap wreck with Joey Logano, also at Fontana. Somewhere in there Hamlin’s efforts were also hampered by injuries suffered during a pickup game of basketball in his backyard. Deservedly or undeservedly, Hamlin is developing a reputation as injury-prone and considering he hasn’t signed a contract with JGR for next year and Erik Jones is waiting in the wings, he might want to consider toughing it out next time.

Normally I might give Hamlin the benefit of the doubt but he was a bit too frank for my tastes in talking about the decision-making process he used in his choice to sit out the majority of the race. Hamlin noted that since he’s all but assured a spot in the Chase given his win at Martinsville, there was no sense in enduring any discomfort with nothing of consequence to be gained from it. A note to the Chase’s chief architect, Brian France, this incident is a stunning example of the Law of Unintended Consequences stemming from your bastard-love child of a points system. We’ll just have to wait and see later this season if other drivers decide to sit out events prior to the start of this season’s playoffs for real or imagined aches and pains to give themselves a chance to rest up especially with NASCAR handing out waivers like a suburban soccer Mom handing out candied-apples at Halloween as of late. But the Law of Unintended Consequences might come back to bite Hamlin as well. He was happy to turn over the seat of the No. 11 car to Erik Jones Sunday night. He might be less happy to surrender that seat to Jones full time in 2016. Meanwhile, Hamlin’s fans will have to hope he doesn’t stub his toe prior to next week’s “home-track” event at Richmond.

And the Seat is a Bit Uncomfy Too! I was also a bit amazed to hear Jones, given what one would consider a huge opportunity to make an unexpected Cup start and add it to his resume, hadn’t been in the No. 11 car ten minutes before he started whining that the steering wheel was too big and was making his arms hurt. Somewhere the late Dale Earnhardt, who got his unexpected first Cup start at Charlotte in a Dodge Willie T. Ribbs vacated in the days leading up to the event, had to be rolling his eyes and making some unkind comments about kerosene soaked rags, ants and candy-asses.

Another Unprecedented Precedent Because of Jone’s discomfort in that Gibbs Toyota, the team was allowed to change out the steering wheel of the No. 11 car under a red flag period. Working on a car, even removing some tape from the grille, is typically forbidden under a red flag but in this instance the steering wheel change was a matter of “safety.” Of course, one might argue that when Sterling Marlin jumped out of his car during a red flag at Daytona to pull the fender off his front tire that was a matter of safety, too, though it didn’t work out too well for him as I recall.

Elsewhere in the garage areas Roger Penske’s #22 team also decided to ignore the red flag rules, hacking away their battered race car to get a better look at the extent of the damage. Their actions drew a four-minute penalty from NASCAR once the race resumed (under the yellow flag that is) but we can only speculate how much time the team saved discovering what was wrong with the cars suspension and having the correct pieces to fix it nearby when the red flag was lifted. What we have here is another can of worms that didn’t need opening. Who decides if four minutes is the correct penalty, or if, in the next instance, NASCAR might get draconian and penalize a team five minutes for the same actions? And dag-nab it, if you do it again we’re going to get really mad and make it ten minutes! Yeah, Alice, pass me the hookah pipe – this stuff is legal in Colorado now.

The Toughest NASCAR Race Ever There’s no way to quantify what was the most grueling NASCAR race ever run, but my nominee is the 1973 Volunteer 500, a race run July 8th, 1973 at Bristol, of course. (Or I should say “of course,” for long time fans who recall when races went by the same names annually [The Southern 500, the World 600, the Volunteer 500, the Firecracker 400, the Rebel 400 etc.]  and not the “Some Damn Soft Drink Company 500 Presented By Some Other Corporate Entity.)

On that particular day in July, temperatures in Bristol were well in excess of 100 degrees and the humidity was likewise record-breaking. This was in an era before “feels like” temperatures, power-steering, or air conditioned motor coaches in which a driver might seek respite from the weather. In those days, the drivers were lucky if the motels they stayed in had a pool nobody had driven a rental car into yet. The ’73 Volunteer 500 was won by the late Benny Parsons with relief help from Jon Utsman. My sources say all of the top 5 drivers sought relief help that day. A total of 13 drivers called for a relief driver during the event and even relief drivers were calling for relief drivers at points. (Parsons drove the first 250 laps, turned the car over to Utsman for the next 170 laps, then Parsons returned to the car for the final 80 circuits.) Despite the Chinese fire drill in the No. 72 pits that day, Parsons finished seven laps ahead of second place L.D. Ottinger. Worth noting is that that race was the only one Parsons won during his 1973 championship season. Richard Petty, who won six races that year, finished fifth in the points while David Pearson, who won 11 times and finished second twice(running a limited schedule of eighteen races!), finished 13th in the final rundown.

Worth Noting about the ’73 Volunteer 500:

  • Considering Pearson’s achievements that year, do we really need to ramble on much about Kevin Harvick’s recently ended steak of top-2 finishes?
  • Yes, NASCAR has had some damned silly points systems before, it just took them 41 years to come up with something more preposterous than 1973. Brian France was 11 in 1973, so my bet is those ‘73 rules were his first contribution to the sport, scribbled down with half-eaten crayons.
  • The Volunteer 500 was run in 2 hours 53 minutes and 4 seconds, 40 minutes and 50 seconds shorter than Sunday’s marathon. (Only counting times when the green or yellow flag was displayed, of course.) The average speed of the ’73 event was 91.3 MPH as opposed to 75 MPH in Sunday’s race.
  • Darrell Waltrip didn’t run the ’73 Bristol race that July though he started 19 races that year. DW was 26 years of age in 1973 and that was 42 years ago. You do the math. Back then, he could only annoy other drivers on the track and not millions of people at a time.
  • Despite the brutal conditions, no drivers sat out the ’73 Volunteer 500 due to a sore neck. If Utsman was frustrated by the size of Parson’s steering wheel, he made no note of it in Victory Lane.

All FOXed Up – As Bob Dylan once wrote, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. As the announced starting time for the race approached Sunday, it was clearly evident the race wasn’t going to start anywhere near to on time. The forecast for the rest of the afternoon was equally grim. Yet after an hour’s delay the race was allowed to start on a clearly damp track with a light rain still falling. (Don’t take my word for it, look at the in-car camera shots). That didn’t work out too well for Brad Keselowski, who had his Ford get out from under him. The subsequent wreck also claimed Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano. So why was the race allowed to start under such conditions? It probably had to do with heavy pressure from FOX, the broadcasting network. If a race is shown on the scheduled network on the scheduled day, they don’t have to refund the money advertisers paid out for the event. If the race is moved to another network or postponed until the following day, they do, according to my media sources. Sorry, Brad. Sorry, Joey. It didn’t make much sense to start the race in the rain but it sure made a whole lot of cents.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
“Excited?  I’ll give you ‘excited’…” (Photo: Amy Henderson)

Keselowski was a bit circumspect in his post-race comments on whether the wet track had caused his wreck. Of course by that point Martin Truex, Jr. had already been summoned to the NASCAR trailer for his comments on the radio concerning the suitability of track conditions to racing. I am a bear of very little brains at all, but this always confuses me. When it suits them, NASCAR will remind everyone the drivers and teams are independent contractors, thus there’s no need for a retirement plan or catastrophic medical coverage for the drivers. But when those private contractors, using their own radios, communicate back and forth between themselves during the conduct of their independent contract, NASCAR can haul them on the carpet for what they say. The “Don’t disparage the product” edict is apparently live and well in this era of “Boys have at it.”

FOX Sports 1, Where Events Go to Die: You’d have thought the FOX execs would have learned their lesson after what they heralded as a big deal, FS1’s first points-paying Cup race broadcast from Martinsville. The ratings were so dismal for that race they were about the equivalent of what one might expect to be generated by home-alone felines rolling around on the couch and accidentally hitting the remote’s buttons. As it turns out, a whole lot of fans either aren’t offered FS1 as part of their cable programming or they choose not to pay for the exorbitant rates cable companies charge for upper tier sports programming lineups that include the channel. A lot of race fans are still enraged what was once the automotive-only SPEED Channel was reinvented as FS1 and seems mainly devoted to soccer and other such silliness.

Meanwhile, the IndyCar race from Long Beach and Velocity’s broadcast of the Barrett-Jackson auction in Palm Beach probably got nice little ratings bumps as fans at home searched for something to watch during the rain delay rather than listening to the Waltrip Brothers ramble on like men taken leave of their senses. Unfortunately neither Darrell or Michael strained their necks during the long break and they were both back when the race resumed with MW in his role of chief cheerleader for NASCAR and Toyota and DW clearly up past his bedtime and contradicting himself so many times they should have called Sybil. But I’ll give Larry McReynolds the award for head-scratcher of the race for noting that a team used pit strategy by staying out when they came in to pit. That’s a pretty neat trick.

Parting Shots

Am I the only one who thought maybe Jimmie Johnson forgot to take his Prozac on Sunday?

Sometimes a scalpel works better than a broadax. Kasey Kahne, an innocent victim of a wreck Tony Stewart initiated, wrote the wreck off to Stewart running better than he normally does and getting “excited.” For the record, Stewart’s sixth-place finish was his best since Martinsville last autumn, where he finished fourth. Stewart is currently listed as 28th in the standings, tied with Justin Allgaier as far as points scored but ahead of him on a tiebreaker. Sam Hornish, Jr., Michael Annett and Cole Whitt are the only drivers behind Stewart in the points who have started all eight of this year’s Cup races. Excitable boy they all said.

One has to think Stewart is loving life at this point though. He was constantly complaining about media demands, the post-race press conferences required of the top three finishing drivers, fans recognizing him away from the race track and other such indignities. He’s now found the perfect solution. Run like a three-legged rhino and everyone will pretty much ignore you.

Since I don’t do the race recaps anymore, just let me add my winner for the Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune. From amongst a crowded field of contenders I’ll have to go with Austin Dillon, who ran out of gas under caution while running third in a race that should have been red-flagged and not run under the caution at that point. Runner-up nods go to Harvick and David Ragan, who were the unfortunate collateral damage when something large with a number 48 painted on the side ran amuck.

The driver of that bulldo…er, Chevy, Jimmie Johnson takes the award for 7 Fore 11 Fine Fortune for finishing second despite a car that came off the trailer in a sorry state, a poor qualifying effort and multiple spins and trips into the wall, some of them not of his own doing. For a six-time champion Johnson sure has filled a kennel with Lucky Dog awards this year. I think maybe that Golden Horseshoe is back, though Johnson fared poorly in the post-race Mr. Congeniality balloting.

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Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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13 comments

  1. Avatar

    Well said on all points, I am have been suspect (no tin foil hat yet) about Hamlin’s (seemingly yearly now) removal of himself from the car race day. Last year it was a “eye” issue at Fontana, this year a neck and back issue. From what others have reported his posture sitting on the wall told a few “bologna”. That “eye issue” last year was a lame excuse, sounds like this year is one too. For the sake of disclosure I am no fan of Hamlin.

    It was a weird race and point well taken on the Truex team getting called to the hauler and a whole bunch of other goodies. In a nutshell, it was a abject embarrassment all around, imo.

  2. Avatar

    Must be something about that 42 car. At least Larson hitting the last place car during the race wasn’t as bad as Montoya hitting the track dryer during a caution period.

    I felt the same way about Hamlin. He has his win, now he can coast. Just stay in the top 30. There is something wrong about that but that’s the attitude this wacky new points system propagates.

    Interesting that FOX has to refund money if the race doesn’t start on the scheduled time. The tail really is wagging the dog. No surprise though. It has become obvious that tv has been driving the sport for the last decade.

    I wasn’t a fan until the 90’s but the toughest race I remember was the 1998 Martinsville fall race. Ricky Rudd won it and just about every driver collapsed when they got out of the car at the end of the race.

  3. Avatar

    Matt, You are on FIRE!!

  4. Avatar

    Really funny column and so true! I know I thought the same thing about Hamlin — wow, really? Guess that whole win and your in philosphy works great these days! And Erik complaining about the steering wheel — awwww, gee you’d think he would be happy he’d get a chance

    It was a nice day on Sunday so once they went into rain delay, I went outside to do some yard work. Way better to spend my time doing that than listening to the Fox booth buffoons. It’s a good thing I have twitter or I wouldn’t have know that the race was moved to FS1 (which I have but wouldn’t pay extra for if it wasn’t already part of my current reduced cable package). The only times I tune into FS1 is to watch racehub (and I record that since Steve Byrnes is still out on medical leave) and if they move the races there. I no longer bother to tune in even for qualifying or practice. I always used to watch everything NASCAR but since I don’t really like the new qualifying format, I dont’ bother to watch. I’ll just find out on the internet later.

    As you mentioned, Matt, the law of uintended consequences seems to be in full swing here.

    I was amazed to see Larson hit that car — craziness.

    Still not sure why NASCAR took soooo loooong to throw the red flag on that last caution. The rain was already falling and they weren’t going to hold the track & restart right away. I get that they wanted to finish under green BUT running cars out of fuel by riding around for no reason seemed just stupid to me.

  5. Avatar

    when i saw this with the rcr appeal of the 31’s penalties…..this statement says it all about the “rule book and deciders of penalties”…..

    “2. The Panel amends the original Penalty levied by NASCAR because there is no written explanation of what constitutes a post-race inspection. ”

    the young racers now have everything “customized” so they don’t know what it’s like to muscle a car around track. can’t remember which track it was, but i remember mark martin not having power steering at one point and in a race and his in car camera showed him driving the car with his entire forearm.

    hamlin, maybe mr. negative sees the writing on the gibbs white board.

  6. Avatar

    “One has to think Stewart is loving life at this point though. He was constantly complaining about media demands, the post-race press conferences required of the top three finishing drivers, fans recognizing him away from the race track and other such indignities. He’s now found the perfect solution. Run like a three-legged rhino and everyone will pretty much ignore you.”

    I was fortunate not to have a mouthful of coffee when I read this.

    • Avatar

      Funny how you took Stewart to task, but then praise Johnson for his “Golden Horseshoe” when they both did almost the exact same thing. Guess its ok for ole 6 time to hit everything but the pace car, but Stewart does it and he’s a “3 legged rhino”. But I understand. Your proven dislike for Stewart has shone for quite some time so it is to be expected really, but I have no problem calling you out for being a hypocrite.

      This article was anything but humorous. It sounded more like some rant about a race that happened 30 years ago and taking Hamlin to task for not being tough enough, even when its all speculation on your part why he was removed from the race car.

  7. Avatar

    Thank you for putting a big grin on my face reading this column! Since you pretty much mirrored my thoughts on the entire bunch of silliness, I now have a strained neck from nodding my head in agreement.

  8. Avatar

    Hey, I have an idea to keep drivers from skipping races for minor reasons. NASCAR could set up a point system that goes for the entire year without any resets and rewards the driver who does the best over the entire season. Radical idea, I know…but it just might work! [end sarcasm]

  9. Avatar

    “Since I don’t do the race recaps anymore…”

    Well, this article was very reminiscent of those; love the Warren Zevon reference!

    Thanks for writing it.

  10. Avatar

    Hamlin started the race, so it didnt matter if Erik Jones or Mother Theresa finished the race, Hamlin still gets the points. So some of your argument is invalid.

  11. Avatar

    I’m not sure that it was Hamlin’s choice not to be in the 11.

    As for all the weird on track incidents, maybe Nascar should increase the minimum speed at bristol to be slightly faster than whatever speed Burton was running. Alternatively, they could add ten “chicane” cars on the 1.5 tracks that drive around on varying lines at 3/4 speed to create some excitement in those races.

  12. Avatar

    Hell, I still miss Speed Vision and was not happy when it changed to Speed Channel. Now FS1 is just a cluster and I didn’t even mind that I lost it when I dropped down a tier in my Dish subscription.

    RIP Steve Byrnes, sorry to see you go.