This week I’ll just offer some thoughts and observations for the week leading up to NASCAR’s last weekend off for the Cup series this year.
I don’t usually do much open-wheel racing coverage but with the Cup race at Bristol Saturday night I decided to take a busman’s holiday and watch the IndyCar race from Pocono. Heck, I was tempted to ride up and attend the race since it’s only an hour or so away. (Maybe someday when Pocono recognizes you can park motorcycles on dirt surfaces.) Initially there were a lot of positives the event had going for it. There seemed to be a relatively good crowd on hand by IndyCar standards as compared to the few hundred people that showed up at Fontana earlier this summer. Heading into the race there was a tight points battle between Juan Pablo Montoya (remember him?) and Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son.
The racing itself was quite good. Some IndyCar races this year have been pretty tepid follow-the-leader affairs. The racing at Fontana was spirited to say the least, but after the event, the drivers decried the dangers of pack racing and all but a few said it was insane. Pocono seemed to strike the Goldilocks mix, not to hot, not too cool, just right, though anytime the drivers go seven wide on a restart it can be argued there were moments of insanity.
And then of course it all went horribly wrong. Race leader Sage Karam had his car get out from underneath him and hit the wall. While his race was over, thankfully Karam suffered only a minor foot injury. Meanwhile the pack was approaching the accident scene. A piece of debris from Karam’s car (widely reported as the nose cone, but in the end does that really matter?) struck open-wheel vet Justin Wilson in the helmet. Wilson was clearly knocked out as his car took a hard left and hit the wall. Anyone who has been watching racing long enough knew it was bad. When it takes that many people that long to get a driver out of his car it’s a sure sign there’s been serious injury. And the worst possible sight at a racetrack is a Medevac helicopter being warmed up for takeoff. As of this writing (Monday afternoon) Wilson is comatose and in critical condition. Naturally I join the rest of the Frontstretch staff and the racing community in offering prayers for Wilson’s recovery, but head injuries are tough. Given the state of the medical art doctors can do can do amazing things with orthopedic and even internal injuries, but treatment for brain injuries is still an evolving science.
In the wake of Wilson’s accident, there’s been some talk about enclosing the cockpits on the Indy cars. As with any simple idea, it looks like an easy solution on paper but there are concerns about if such a canopy would prevent a driver from escaping his car in the event of a fire and, of course, what to do if the car ends up upside down. Oddly enough, the engineers at Mercedes had to deal with the rollover possibility when they reintroduced a modern interpretation of the gull-wing a few years back. In the unlikely event some hapless driver managed to land his SLS AMG on the lid, once it came to rest and sat for a programmed amount of time, tiny detonators ignited charges, blowing the doors off to allow the driver and passenger to escape or first responders to get into the car. (No I’m not kidding. I envision a generation from now when some restorations shop is restoring an SLS, a luckless mechanic working on the wiring system is going to accidentally trigger the escape hatch feature to the considerable consternation of his bosses.) Could such a feature be engineered into a closed-cockpit open-wheel car? My guess is someone could make it work. But I don’t want to be the driver leading the Indy 500 when his escape hatch inadvertently triggers due to a blue screen lockup in the computer system.
It’s been a tough summer in auto racing even prior to Wilson’s devastating accident. Kevin Swindell suffered back and spinal cord injuries in a sprint car race at Knoxville. Locally, driver Jim Campbell Jr. was killed in a sprint car wreck at William’s Grove. Earlier this year, Kyle Busch had his devastating wreck at Daytona, and James Hinchcliffe suffered season-ending (and almost fatal) injuries at Indy. I’m sure I’m leaving out some other incidents but that’s due to a failing memory not disrespect. The sad truth of it is, while once death hovered over every automobile race, we’ve now managed to banish it to the cheap seats. But it will always be there lurking and waiting. That shouldn’t serve as an excuse for sanctioning bodies to become reactive rather than proactive when it comes to safety but in the end you can’t make the sport completely safe. I think former Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler said it best. “People buy seats to a race to see someone stick their head in the lion’s mouth. They don’t want to see it get bitten off.”
I’m actually surprised to see the amount of debate about the quality of Saturday night’s Bristol Cup event. Some people thought it was a pretty good race and others say it was simply awful – and dare I say boring? My track record as a curmudgeon is pretty well known to most of you but to be frank, I enjoyed this year’s Bristol night race. Were there some questionable caution flags that benefited big-name drivers, particularly Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Hell yes, but if that surprises you then you really haven’t been paying attention much over the last couple years. Was there a defining “Rattle His Cage” moment to add to the highlight reels for the ages? Nope, there wasn’t. But the reason Dale Earnhardt’s now infamous move to dump Terry Labonte is still discussed is because it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that wasn’t the norm even back in the “Good Old Days.”
And having seen that race, I don’t remember a lot of folks saying that race was awful because Dave Marcis might have parked his car on track to draw a caution to allow Earnhardt to get back on the lead lap. (Marcis still says he was just waiting for a hole in traffic to get to pit road. But Marcis was indeed pretty chummy with Earnhardt and Richard Childress. And so it goes.) What I saw Saturday night was somewhat bizarre. Several drivers (Jeff Gordon comes right to mind) had very good runs going until either the driver or the crew made a crucial mistake on pit road. It was like they were all playing some bizarre new rendition of Russian Roulette where the object was to shoot one’s self in the foot. Some drivers rallied back from those challenges and others did not. If nobody was sent spinning on the last lap, I saw a fair amount of drivers give a driver they wanted to get by by a hard nudge to convince them and move them up half a lane. And over those last 50 laps, I watched Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano taking two decidedly different lines and dealing with lapped traffic with various levels of efficiency and success. (It amuses me some people are complaining the lapped drivers should have gotten out of the way. Hellfire, son, it’s a half-mile high-banked track. Where did you expect them to go, the concession stands?)
There were times it seemed certain that Harvick was going to run Logano down and other times when it seemed like Logano was gapping the No. 4 and had it in the bag. There was that one moment when Logano chop blocked Harvick, and I was certain the reigning champ was going to go Maytag on his rear bumper and put the No. 22 in the spin cycle. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but I know the duel between the two drivers held my rapt attention there at the end of the race and I can’t say that about too many of the races this season. No the No. 4 and the No. 22 didn’t come off turn 4 beating and banging with tire smoke filling the cockpits before one driver prevailed and the two of them brawled on pit road afterwards. That would have been epic, but it wasn’t meant to be.
I suppose, given my reputation, I could take the easy way out and agree with the fans who said the race was awful and not worth watching. It might save me some nasty comments and allegations I’ve sold out. But over the years it’s a matter of calling balls and strikes from behind home plate. I won’t claim that Saturday night’s race was a grand slam homer, but at least it was a hard-hit double down the line with a runner on third. And frankly, I’m now I’m counting the days until Darlington with the tires and the low-downforce aero package. It might be a great race, the best of the season, and it might be a runaway rout, a parade disguised as a race, but either way, it’s Darlington. And back when new racetracks were popping up like dandelions on a springtime lawn, had the owners decided to replicate Darlington rather than go with the Charlotte/Atlanta cookie cutter mold, the sport would have been a lot better off for it.
Part of what folks didn’t like about Bristol can be laid at the Chase’s doorstep, postage due. Harvick and Logano had nothing to lose. Because they’d won multiple races already this season, either could afford to have their teams shovel what was left of their racers into the back of the transporter after the race. Other notable and popular drivers with fast cars had to be a bit more circumspect, especially those drivers currently high enough in the points to make the Chase cutoff but without a victory to anoint them a guaranteed spot. Had Gordon already won a race, he might have been able to gamble to stay out with a potentially loose wheel (or two), but the downside to having a wheel fall off and a wreck was a lot greater than the potential benefit of potentially finishing second trying to win. I’m sure Gordon would have loved to win (or Ryan Newman, or Clint Bowyer, or Paul Menard, etc.) but if it came down to two of them battling for the win over those 50 laps, could they really have afforded to go hells bells knowing that only one of them could win and having to weigh gambling on that victory rather than accepting “a good points night” with just two races left before the Chase? If the Chase is supposed to crank up the excitement for the last 10 events of the year (a rather dubious proposition itself), the law of unintended consequences has certainly diminished the interest in the 26 races that come before the playoffs. If there must be a Chase (and I maintain there should not be), I think that at the end of the 26-race regular season, drivers should be able to throw out their worst three or four finishes to date that year. That would spice things up while leaving math-challenged scribes like me sobbing at the keyboard and tearing our hair out trying to figure out who’s in.
Poor NBC was hoping for a bunch of excitement once they took the reins for the rest of the season. Absent any real excitement, they’ve been forced to try to manufacture their own. I found it notable (and frankly hilarious) that early in the race at Pocono NBCSN’s IndyCar announcing team admitted the racing was pretty tepid, with Paul Tracy predicting that hopefully the action would heat up later in the race as the laps remaining dwindled. Why can’t the NASCAR announcers be that honest? Of course some hilarity was added to the IndyCar proceedings when a fox decided to dash across the track. (Am I the only who suspected Darrell Waltrip or someone else from FOX let it go? And a wayward rabbit stopped Truck Series practice at Bristol for a bit. But NASCAR still holds the trump card with a drunken fan who once tried to dash across the track during a race at Pocono in front of Kyle Petty and Davey Allison. Back in those days the real “wildlife” at racetracks was the fans in the infield.)
So let’s set some matters straight. No, Busch isn’t sweating bullets trying to keep inside the top 30 so he can be playoff eligible. If he finishes 41st or better at Darlington, he’s in. A lot of longtime fans are still adapting to this new points system. Back in the day, under the Latford points system, the amount of points difference between the winner and the 10th-place finisher was around 51. Nowadays that difference is 15 points, and that’s if the winner leads the most laps too. The minimum amount of points a driver earns for qualifying and starting a race is one point, so the potential swing is 47 points. Absent a driver not in the top 16 winning a race (a rather unlikely proposition), even if Aric Almirola were to finish second at Darlington and lead the most laps, Clint Bowyer would have to finish 36th or worse to yield his position of 16th in the standings. Even if Almirola were to win at Darlington and Richmond and lead the most laps in both, Jamie McMurray would have to finish 33rd or worse in both races to miss the Chase. Absent a meltdown of historic proportions or a new winner (who also has to be in the top 30 in points as well as not currently in the top 16), what you see is what you get as far as this year’s Chase contenders.
I’m no fan of the Chase, but like tax day in April. It’s coming and there’s nothing much you can do about it. With battle about to be joined it was interesting that every lap of Saturday night’s race was led by a driver from either Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske. Including Bristol, a driver from one of those organizations has won the last seven Cup races. In a statistical anomaly in the six races prior to Bristol, drivers from Penske and Gibbs finished 1-2 in every event. So as we head into the Chase, it’s now a Ford versus Toyota battle, Gibbs against Penske, right? The Chevy teams of Rick Hendrick and his satellite organizations are done, stick a fork in them, and it’s about time, huh? Recall Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s prophetic quote the day after Pearl Harbor; “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The alarm clocks at Hendrick Motorsports are set to go off at the week the Chase starts at Chicagoland. Just as July will bring fireflies and August brings honeysuckle blooms every summer folks spend a great deal of time discussing what’s gone wrong with the Hendrick teams and discounting their chances at a title. They may not win it, but five or those teams will be in it. Of course if I’m being a killjoy to you “Anyone But Hendrick” sorts, I’ll add, “Hell, I could be wrong. Maybe this is the year they implode under their own weight.” Believe it if you need it, or leave it if you dare.
It’s tough (and in my case unpleasant) to realize that this weekend is in fact, the last weekend off on the Cup schedule. Here at the Acres right now it’s a very pleasant 80-something with reasonable humidity (sorry, I still deal in humidity. I don’t get this “dew point” nonsense) after a scorching eight days in the 90s with humidity so bad you broke a sweat thinking about waking up. The skies are the perfect blue color of a lady I once loved, the breezes caresses are refreshing and the trees are still verdant and green. But by the time the season is over, the trees will be bare and their leaves brown and on the ground awaiting a raking. Mornings and evenings will be punctuated with the horrific mechanical cacophony of the oil sucking monster of a heater down the basement that does its best to bankrupt me every winter. More than likely it will have snowed once or twice, not a blizzard of course (I hope), but enough snow to warn the wary that a cold, white, freezing winter lays ahead waiting to suck the soul and spirit out of you. And yet before the snow melts, the mercury teases and we start searching for the coyote-gnawed frozen corpses of the neighbors, NASCAR will be back at it racing again. IndyCar has a lot of challenges ahead, but it does one thing right. Their schedule ends around Labor Day before the regular NFL season starts and gives their fans some time to enjoy the remaining nice weekends before autumn comes rolling in. Yep, summertime’s done, come and gone, my, oh, my.