It’s summertime and the living is easy. As per normal, news from the racing circuit has hit a low ebb as folks busy themselves with their summer vacations and NFL players report to the summer camps in preparation for the beginning of the preseason, which effectively takes over the sports universe despite NASCAR’s once high hopes for the Chase to give the stick-and-ball sports a run for their money. It’s a far finer day to sit out on the front porch and check out the girls in their summer clothes than to be perched here in front of the computer trying to manufacture excitement (I’ll leave that to the professionals in the TV industry), so I’ll just offer some random thoughts on the weekend’s racing and a bit of advice. At this time of year, an evening spent on the front porch as cool breezes tame the afternoon heat with a few friends watching the fireflies and smelling the honeysuckle blossoms beats anything on TV.
Putting the “O No!” Back in Pocono: When Jeb Burton wrecked in Saturday’s practice session and drilled the wall dividing the pits from the garage area, some eyebrows were raised. But Burton is, after all, a rookie driver taking his second stab at Cup at Pocono. (AKA, the track everyone seems to call the Tricky Triangle except me, because frankly I think it’s the stupidest nickname this side of “Smoke.”) No, harm, no foul. You’ll have this with rookies.
To everyone’s considerable consternation, on lap 5 of the main event, Kasey Kahne did the exact same thing. It was almost eerie how perfectly Kahne’s Chevy tracked right along the skid-marks Burton had left the previous day, though Kahne did almost manage to get the car straightened out before it took another hard left into the pit wall several stalls down from where Burton augured in. It’s hard to write Kahne’s incident off as inexperience, given that he’s won at Pocono twice. (2008 and ’13). Fortunately nobody was injured in either wreck, but right now the track and NASCAR have announced plans to extend the pit wall out further prior to the first Pocono race next summer. It remains to be seen if they’ll have the fix in place before the IndyCar Series visits the track August 23rd. I don’t even want to imagine what would happen in a similar accident involving an open-wheel car.
Two adages come to mind. The first is for those in charge of placing energy-absorbing barriers. No matter how impossible you think it is for a driver to hit an unprotected section of wall head on at high speed, someone will find a way to hit everything but the concession stand. (Don’t laugh. Junior Johnson’s car once exited Islip and landed on top of a concession stand!) Secondly, for anyone lucky enough to score hot garage passes, never (let me reemphasize NEVER) turn your back on the direction the cars are coming from. And try to be aware of your surroundings. Jimmie Johnson managed to hit a spectator in the garage area over the weekend, a spectator who most likely was standing where he shouldn’t have been, not paying attention.
Even prior to Kahne’s wreck, there was some discussion of relocating those first few pit stalls on pit road further down the track out of harm’s way. I mean golly gee, Aunt Em, the front straight at Pocono is damn near 3/4 of a mile long, longer than some racetracks are all the way around. One reason given for not relocating some pits was the positioning of the Victory Lane complex. Having teams set up pits there with those big war wagons and all their equipment would block off a designated fire lane. Somehow I think the overly gaudy structure could be relocated or trimmed back a bit. The best use of safety crews is when there are no incidents that require their leaving their posts in the first place.
Pit road has always been a dangerous place but it seems like we’re having a run of bad luck lately. Sunday, Brad Keselowski mowed down his jackman and tire carrier, who did a pretty nifty job of jumping on the hood to lessen the impact. Both guys were not only able to get up but went about completing their duties on the pit stop. They’re a strange breed, these pit crews. Keselowski was penalized because the impact sent the Goodyear the tire carrier was hauling bounding down pit road but seemed as surprised as anyone to finish second anyway. There were also a couple fires in the RCR pits earlier this summer that did result in injuries but thankfully not life-threatening ones.
Most of you will recall Steve Park’s horrific crash in practice at Atlanta in 1998 in which he eventually hit the pit road wall and broke a leg, collarbone and shoulder blade.
Longtime fans of the sport will recall a horrific pit-road accident in the 1990 Atlanta season finale when Ricky Rudd hit some oil, lost control and killed one of Bill Elliott’s crew, Mike Ritch, crushing him against the side of the No. 9 car (a tragedy that led eventually to the advent of pit-road speed limits). Real gray-hairs might recall another pit-road tragedy in 1975 when a member of Richard Petty’s pit crew, Randy Owens, was inexplicably killed when a pressurized water tank he was rushing to use to extinguish a flaming wheel bearing on the No. 43 car exploded, sending him flying. And for fans even older than me, you might recall during the 1960 running of the Southern 500, when Bobby John’s Pontiac hit an unprotected area of pit road. Two mechanics and a NASCAR official were killed by flying chunks of concrete that resulted from the wreck.
The moral of the story is pit road is and always has been a dangerous place and there’s no way to make it totally safe. If you’ve ever wondered why I get my Irish up berating a driver who decides to vent his anger on a competitor on pit road after or during a race rather than celebrating a show of human emotion, that’s why. It doesn’t take much of a hero to run into someone strapped safely inside a 3,500-pound racecar with a helmet on, but others in the area might not be so fortunate. If a driver wants to get out of his car and punch the hell out of a rival, I’ll look the other way, but purposeful pit-road collisions ought to earn a driver a weekend off.
A lot of folks commented on the bizarre and sketchy start to Sunday’s race. Drivers did everything but wreck on the pace lap. Oddly enough there eight total cautions for 32 laps Sunday. In June’s first Pocono race, there were also eight cautions for a total of 31 laps, though in June it was lap 70 before a wreck bought out a yellow. (The last five Pocono events have been slowed by between 7-9 cautions for anywhere from 25 to 35 laps). Both races featured a couple long green-flag runs Both races were dominated by a different driver: Martin Truex Jr. in June and Joey Logano on Sunday. Truex won while Logano did not. And so it goes.
Two cautions on Sunday warrant comment. The first was yet another “competition caution” NASCAR decided to throw on lap 15. Usually they throw a competition caution if it rains the night before the event and washes the track clean of rubber so that teams can gauge their tire wear. It didn’t rain Saturday night at Pocono. (As it turns out Michael Waltrip is about as good a weatherman as he is a color analyst.) The reason given for the competition caution was that the track had to be cleaned after Saturday’s ARCA race. Jezum-Crow, you’d have thought tracks routinely clean the racing surface before the big event, wouldn’t you? It would seem that NASCAR has decided that they’ll have a better show if they let everyone run a bit at speed and then allow everyone to come into the pits to make adjustments, which benefits teams that got their setups wrong but penalizes those that got it right. Maybe Sunday’s competition caution was a sideways tribute to the event’s sponsor MS Windows 10. I mean when Windows freezes up, the first thing you try is shutting off the computer and rebooting, right? I’m sensing an opportunity here. Maybe all Cup races will have a competition caution sponsored by Microsoft soon.
The second caution that led to some teeth-grinding was for the No. 2 car’s errant tire that got away during the previously noted incident. I have no problem with throwing a flag for a loose tire on pit road. It makes more sense to me than a caution thrown for two balloons caught in the fence at Indy. But it was the timing of the caution that bothers me. NASCAR withheld the flag until a sequence of pit stops played out. As I see it, the tire either poses a hazard or it doesn’t. You can’t (or shouldn’t) time a caution to help out teams that have already pitted. That’s one of the dangers of short-pitting and crew chiefs should take it into account. If there was a wreck in that same time period then a caution would have to fly and that might play havoc with the running order or even finishing order (see Sunday’s IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio for example) but the decision when to throw a caution should be made due to safety, not logistics.
Speaking of IndyCar, remember our old buddy Juan Pablo Montoya, who at least in the stock car ranks is best remembered as a journeyman driver best recalled for winning two road-course races and running into the jet-dryer under caution at Daytona? Well, old JPM is having a bit more success back in the IndyCar series. He’s won twice (including the Indy 500, of course, a points bonanza) and entered Sunday’s race with a formidable points lead in the series. Due to circumstances too complex to detail here, he had a bad finish in a fast car Sunday through no fault of his own. Now, with just two races left to run in the series, he holds a slim nine-point lead over Graham Rahal, Bobby’s boy. Under IndyCar’s points system (which quite frankly makes more sense than NASCAR’s) if Rahal were to win at Pocono later this month (and he won the series’ last big track oval race) and Montoya (who won Pocono last year) finishes second, Rahal would go into the series’ finale with a one-point lead.
Meanwhile over in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings, things have tightened up a bit atop the board. After a rough July, Chris Buescher now leads Chase Elliott by 20 points, with Ty Dillon one point further in arrears in third. In the Camping World Truck Series, Matt Crafton had a rare bad race at Pocono and fell to second in the standings, 11 points behind Tyler Reddick. Erik Jones is a further five points back. Isn’t it odd that these three races series all have tight and exciting points battles going on without having any sort of Chase system to re-set the points with 10 to go? Yes, everyone from fifth on back in the two NASCAR series is hopelessly out of title contention, but hey, this late in the season they’re supposed to be. They haven’t run well enough to contend for a title. But in Cup, some schlub sitting 16th in the points who hasn’t even won a race yet after Richmond could still be crowned champion. Some people tell me that that’s exciting. I dunno. Is “Exciting” French for “Stupid”?
It’s unfathomable to me why Iowa hasn’t been awarded a Cup date in place of some venues on the schedule that typically offer tepid racing at best. (People in New England are tired of me teeing off on their track so I’ll choose Chicagoland this time. Hell, they could re-name Iowa Chicagoland because neither of them is that close to the Windy City though they’re in the right proximity.) Saturday night’s race was a barnburner featuring the sort of action that made NASCAR famous in the first place. Yeah, things got a little hairy there at the end which will lead some folks to say I just favor wreck-fests to demonstrations of prowess when a driver leads flag to flag. Let me set things straight. I am not a big fan of the sort of beating and banging that puts cars on their roof, engines into the cheap seats and drivers in imminent peril. But when it comes to guys bending up fenders, knocking others aside or even spinning, and the winner is trailing smoke from a fender knocked into his tire (with everyone pissed at everyone else afterwards), sign me up. Clive Cussler couldn’t come up with as many plot twists as featured in Saturday night’s race. The race also highlighted one of my pet peeves, those tiresome “if points were awarded right now” graphics and discussion. It’s ironic to have an announcer tell you that a driver is about to take over the points lead after the race even while you’re watching him wreck live on TV. They’ll screw up a lot of things but at least NASCAR has stayed true to its formula of awarding points after a race not during.
Here’s an interesting tidbit about auto racing TV ratings though it involves IndyCar rather than NASCAR this week. It might have been suicidal for NBC to decide to stick the Mid-Ohio race live on CNBC head-to-head against NASCAR at Pocono. The live broadcast garnered a meager .15 rating. Interestingly enough a re-air of the race on MSNBC after the Cup race was over drew a .42 rating, still pitiful but almost three times as many folks watched compared to the live broadcast. And so it goes. For the record, the two remaining IndyCar races won’t go head to head with NASCAR. Pocono runs on the Sunday after Saturday night’s Bristol race while the Sonoma season finale runs August 30th, the Cup series final weekend off of 2015.
I can’t say I’m a fan of these info-tainment systems in new cars. Drivers are already distracted enough without having more electronics to play with. But since they race on closed courses, maybe they should stick a TV in the dash of Kyle Busch’s car. After the race, Busch professed to be surprised that he’d run out of gas. He said he hadn’t been warned that might be the case. Meanwhile at home, TV viewers were practically beaten over the head with radio transmissions from the No. 18 pits telling their driver to ease up and not try to run down Logano and to save fuel. Over and over. Maybe Busch was listening to a Motley Crue CD rather than his radio? He is, after all, just an excitable boy.
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