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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Summertime Blues

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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kb

I always enjoy watching the Xfinity race under the lights at Iowa, track has got more character than most on the Sprint Cup circuit. Drivers have said they would love a Cup race there, I am guessing fans would too!

Al Torney

Excellent read. Don’t competition cautions make the first so many laps of a race worthless to fans? I thought the same thing over the loose tire caution. Just proves that they try to create excitement in these otherwise boring races that they managed to create in the first place. They continue to take this sport to hell in a hand basket.

However, Nate Ryan of NBC Sports was happy that NASCAR has taken a step in the right direction on souvenir sales with the tent instead of trailers. Talk about searching for a storyline.

GinaV24

I’ll miss the trailers – it was fun to stand around and talk to fans at the track while you were “shopping”. The tents (and yes I’ve been to tracks where they were used) just don’t have the same panache.

I saw no reason for the competition caution to be thrown. NASCAR either needs to do it so that everyone HAS to pit and put on 4 tires & fuel and let them all restart in the positions the came off the track in or just not bother with it at all (my personal choice).

Bill B

Agree with you Gina. If they MUST have competition cautions, then make everyone come in, get four tires and fuel and retain the positions in which they entered the pits. Why should NASCAR’s lame ass attempt to keep everyone on the lead lap for the first 45 minutes of the race should not benefit or hurt anyone’s position.

In reality a competition caution should be a rare thing which only occur when something really out of the ordinary happens (like hell freezing over).

salb

NASCAR certainly can’t use the excuse that Iowa has a lack of seating. With the vast expanses of empty seats at the big tracks lately, they just might be able to sell out Iowa.

DoninAjax

“trying to manufacturer excitement (I’ll leave that to the professionals in the TV industry)”
Don’t you mean Brian?

People have been saying the “competition caution” is a joke for years, but NA$CAR keeps them coming with lamer excuses.

It’s too bad “put on four Goodyear tires and fill it up with Sunoco race fuel” is still used. There must be a kick-back involved.

Seeing Kyle sitting on the track at the end of the “race” one of the talking heads said that he couldn’t be pushed over the finish line. Wasn’t there a race where the winner was pushed to the line but not over?

kb

I was surprised someone was nice enough to help the freaking $%^&, I am sure he would not have done the same. The announcers did say that was a big no-no, but it was dropped quickly. He was credited as a lap down, but we will never know if he should have had a DNF or the lap down was “legal” and correct. It was all done quietly and I would have loved to have a honest (hahahaha) explanation from NASCAR regarding the rulebook on that one. There certainly was enough talk about it yesterday, but hey…it’s their cute, cuddly puppy who did it, so crickets.

DoninAjax

When he got the white flag he finished lap 159. He didn’t finish no.160 but he was finished 159 before anyone else one or more laps down so he’s the first car one lap down. I guess he’s considered “not running.”

I saw the car pull up behind Kyle but couldn’t get the number.

Kyle’s baby’s mother will have a real dilemma on her hands trying to decide who’s the bigger baby.

kb

Yeah, for sure. I knew he was credited one lap down, but the controversy was such as to many factors. There are many armchair “NASCAR experts” so I would have liked some official clarification from NASCAR. Heck they don’t even know most of the rules book (the size of the US TAXCODE BOOK). I just don’t like taking the word of some because of their obvious bias and love of a particular driver in question. Thanks. And then again NASCAR rules always seem to favor the usual pets and the flavor of the week.

kb

Well, thanks..the waters are always muddied with NASCAR doing whatever the hell they want. And seeing he is their “cute, cuddly baby seal” these days, it is not out of this world to think at that point, NASCAR was doin’ what NASCAR does best!

janice

so when the cuppers invaid the jr varsity series and win the races and the purses, what happens to those points? are the regulars of the series awareded points for the positions they finish? that could be why the points battle in xfinity and truck series is so close. cuppers keep winning in those races when they’re ran close enough to the cup race location.

Mike

1990 Atlanta Journal 500 –I was on 2nd tour overseas & daddy used to record tv & send tapes via APO. I remember Ned hollering “look out!” during the telecast. Also remember Dr. Jerry Punch trying to help Mike Ritch. Dr. Punch was obviously shaken. You could hear it in his voice.

GinaV24

wasn’t “excitable boy” a Warren Zevon song? Yes pit road is a dangerous place, as is the garage area when the cars are practicing etc. so spectators need to be careful, just as the pit crews do. I give the pit crews high marks for being brave enough to step out there in front of cars who are still moving pretty fast when they come in to the pits. I was very glad to see that no one was hurt in Burton, Kahne’s or Kez’s wreck.

If Pocono is going to extend the inside wall, I hope they are going to install SAFER barriers on it. There have been a lot of ugly wrecks and although it isn’t foolproof – hitting that SAFER barrier rather than straight into concrete or Armco barrier still seems to be better.

just saying

Well – thanks for reminding me of Bruce doing Summertime Blues – saw that live back then – so much just flat out fun – love to see Miami Steve back then too – by the way saw The Who back around 1968 in Philly – they had lots of fun with that one too – thanks.

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