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 Colosseum. 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.
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 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 10 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 Jones’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 No. 22 team also decided to ignore the red-flag rules, hacking away their battered racecar 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 car’s 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 10 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 8, 1973 at Bristol, of course. (Or I should say “of course,” for longtime 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-five 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 LD Ottinger. Worth noting is that that race was the only one Parsons won during his 1973 championship season. 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 18 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-two 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 2:53:04, 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 Parsons’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 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 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.
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.
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 racetrack 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, 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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