In the Dark Ages, there were “scientists” determined to find a way to turn dross metals into gold, back in an era when the periodic table, the bane of high school chemistry classes, was still centuries away. What fans saw at Dover on Sunday was NASCAR’s alchemists doing their best to contrive excitement when there was little to none to be had. Taken as a standalone event, Dover was a simply dreadful race unless you hit Jimmy John’s and have Budweiser for breakfast daily. Kevin Harvick led a mere 355 laps of 400 total despite having to start the event 15th when qualifying was rained out on Friday. (And if we’re to be thankful for small blessings, the fact both Saturday and Sunday’s Dover events started on time and ran the full distance is a bit of a miracle in itself. Dover is in my neck of the woods and the weather forecasts Wednesday were so dire that it seemed not a question of whether they’d race, but if Dover would be left above water come Monday.) It took Harvick 24 laps to assume the lead, and once he was on point, he surrendered the lead only when other teams and drivers tried contrarian pit strategies in a desperate attempt to derail the Harvick Express. They might as well have all parked their cars and played rock, scissors, paper for the second- through 43rd-place positions. While the margin of victory Sunday is officially listed at 2.64 seconds, it might as well have been an eternity.
Had this been a midsummer race, fans would have blasted it as one of the dullest mockeries masquerading as a race in the current century. But NASCAR’s alchemists and their “Chase” machinations added an element of suspense where in all actuality there was none. After a wreck at Joliet and running out of gas in the Granite State, Harvick was on the ropes and “had” to win at Dover to advance. (Well, no actually he didn’t, but it makes for a good storyline.) The No. 4 team stepped up and put an old fashioned butt-whipping on the field to assert their right and intent to defend their title. “Drama” was injected into the proceedings when Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team suffered a rare mechanical failure (apparently a leaking rear axle seal) that dropped him to dead last in the field. Undaunted, Johnson returned to the track 36 laps down, but about the only way he was going to sneak into the Chase was a pig-pile of an accident that sent a substantial amount of cars to the garage in irreparable condition, including a few of the Chase contenders.
Such a scenario was not only possible, but likely at the Dover of old. But Sunday’s race once again saw a majority of drivers running at carefully spaced intervals due to aerodynamic issues, with the fifth-place runner often 14 or more seconds off the pace. Chase contending drivers were “doing what they had to do” to maintain their positions to advance to the next round, not putting the spurs to their mounts in an attempt to at least keep Harvick honest, and therein lays graphic evidence as to why the Chase races are exciting mathematically but not to watch as a series of standalone events. Johnson was eliminated and won’t have a chance to score his seventh title this season. A lot of fans seemed to take almost savage satisfaction in his elimination, thus declaring themselves well pleased with the race. Johnson is just one of those polarizing drivers. While he has a contingent of fiercely loyal fans who dub him “the best ever,” he also has legions of stock car racing fans who outright despise him. (For the record, since a lot of you weren’t around back then, when Dale Earnhardt the original was poised to tie Richard Petty’s mark of seven Cup titles, there were a whole lot of folks who outright despised him and wished him foul fortune in every race. I’m a bit amused Earnhardt Sr. fans have by and large adopted the same attitude towards a driver threatening to match Petty and Earnhardt’s seven titles.)
And speaking of the Earnhardt army, their new standard bearer, Dale Earnhardt 2.0, spent much of the race hovering just above or below the cutoff point to advance to the next round of the Chase. Well aware of his points situation, Earnhardt did in fact make a “no guts no, glory” pass on Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray to clinch a spot in the next round. NBCSN focused a great deal of attention on this “battle” late in the race not only because of Earnhardt’s last name but because the race itself had become a runaway. Doubtless there was a vast sigh of relief from the NASCAR hierarchy when their most visible and popular driver made the cut and outright elation among those with the unenviable task of trying to sell tickets to the next three races, particularly at Talladega, where Earnhardt is considered almost a deity. No. 88 fans shouldn’t overlook Earnhardt’s pit crew, who seemed to once again do their damnedest to keep their driver from advancing with yet another series of pit-road miscues. Had not a caution fallen at a fortuitous time, Earnhardt would have been eliminated.
That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. Perhaps fate dealt kindly with Earnhardt. While McMurray is a likeable and popular driver the fact remains he hasn’t won a race since 2013 (Sonoma) and he hasn’t won an oval race since 2010 (Charlotte in the fall coincidentally enough.) With just three top-five finishes this year (one of them Sunday at Dover) I’m scratching my head on how the hell McMurray was even a title contender. Earnhardt has won twice in 2015 (both plate races, one each at Talladega and Daytona) and has 13 top-five finishes helping boost his average finish this year to about 10th (11th if you round up). So why were McMurray and Earnhardt were in a “life or death” struggle to keep their championship hopes alive? Because, Beatrice, that’s what NASCAR wants and needs. It keeps people from realizing how bad a race like Dover was and gives us something to talk about. (For which I must admit I feel some awkward gratitude. Otherwise the story of Sunday’s race could be summed up; “Run Harvick, run. Oh see Kevin run! Run some more, Harvick! Sleep, fans, sleep. Move along. Nothing to see here.) Face it: when a runaway duck is the most interesting part of the race there’s a problem. (Meanwhile, just down I-95 the Eagles lay dying at JFK stadium. This was the cause of considerable consternation in my home town because it appears likely the “Iggles” Super Bowl hopes are gone. Which is how it should be. They’re not losing by much but they’re losing. I wonder how McMurray would feel about donning the Swoop costume for the rest of the year?)
Come on admit it! When race winner Harvick and team owner Tony Stewart pulled alongside one another after the race, was anyone else thinking Harvick is getting that traction control chip out of his car and passing it to Stewart? OK, that’s a bit extreme. But I had to chuckle watching the side skirt on the No. 4 car flare itself out to an advantageous angle out on the track with Harvick not having hit anyone. Aw, shucks. That’s just a coincidence. It’s not like they positioned the braces and selected the springs to make that happen is it? I seem to recall the ‘82 Daytona 500, when the eventual winner’s rear bumper fell off his car after light contact. The thing was in that era those big honking rear bumpers were stock and served as a parachute slowing the cars on the straights. “Just a coincidence” everyone involved said after the race.
Under the “old” or “classic” points system (you know that stupid points system that crowned a champion for season-long performance not lucking out in a game of musical chairs?) my numbers indicate that Joey Logano (who has won three races: the Daytona Frickin’ 500, a road course and a short track) would be eight points ahead of Harvick (who has also won three times, all on intermediate courses, and has finished second almost everywhere else). Earnhardt Jr. would be a daunting but doable 76 points out of the lead. Brad Keselowski and Kenseth would have to throw caution to the wind (no pun intended) and gun for a victory every week then hope for problems for those ahead of them in the points to have even an outside chance at the title. Yes, this is monkey math. Drivers and teams would have taken a different approach if tasked with accumulating the most points all year (which would have made for better racing). But what do all five of those drivers have in common? They’ve won races.
I am going to try one more time after which I give up on you Pollyanna types and declare this horse deceased with no need of further beating. Some fans and even NASCAR writers have tried using sports analogies to justify the Chase. They say an NFL or college football team (I’m talking about football again? You know the race had to be boring) could have a perfect season and still lose to a wild card in the playoffs. (Really? That’s stupid. But I digress.) See. here is the 411. In football (or basketball or hockey or baseball, any of those sports that bore me to death, a list NASCAR is perilously close to being added to), a team plays one other team and the person who gets the most points wins. Thus, a football team that has a perfect record will likely go up against a wild card team they have played only once or twice, or in some instances have never played at all that year. In stock car racing all 43 teams compete against each other in each race. If one driver has finished ahead of another driver 26 times, why should they be on equal footing when the “playoffs” begin? Oh, and for the record in those other sports, once a team is eliminated from the playoffs, they don’t compete anymore. Which means one of these sad sack drivers and teams already running seven laps down can’t brush the wall, bring out a caution and alter the outcome of the race or the championship. One is left to hope Earnhardt Jr. at least had the courtesy to send Landon Cassill a case of cold brew and a plate of five-alarm wings after Sunday’s race.
While the Cup and NXS teams were dodging the deluge in Dover, the truck racers were off in sunny Las Vegas this weekend. Some folks would like to see one of Dover’s two dates moved to Las Vegas. (Naturally I’d prefer they take a date from NHMS or Joliet, but no need to go there.) Heck no! If nothing else thanks to the time zones, races at LVMS start and end too late. (Perhaps not for that coveted 18-34 year old demographic NASCAR covets but in most cases for the more “mature” fans like me and the demographic that actually watches NASCAR racing, though they don’t like us much anymore.) For those of you who missed the truck race, there’s a few storylines your loyal Red Bull-fueled correspondent wants to share.
If you missed it, too bad. This week’s truck race was the best NASCAR event of the weekend, an unpredictable and raucous affair well worth catching if you could stay up late. But there was one moment of the race that wasn’t at all entertaining. It was frightening and infuriating instead. On lap 15, title contender Tyler Reddick lost control. As he attempted to get things straightened out his Brad Keselowski Racing teammate, Austin Theriault, roared onto the scene and clipped him. Theriault’s truck hooked hard right and slammed into the outside wall hard enough that all four tires came off the ground. For the record, Theriault hit a bare concrete wall not protected by SAFER barriers. Really? Did LMVS track management and SMI not take away any lessons from Kyle Busch’s NXS crash at Daytona in February? It would seem at bare minimum that wreck should have taught them sometimes drivers are going to hit the wall in places you wouldn’t expect them to do so. The fact the wall was protected by SAFER barriers only 25 feet from the point of impact isn’t good enough. Theriault suffered a compression fracture in his lower back and is out for the season. Simply put, that’s unacceptable.
I haven’t ridden with a rescue crew for decades, but reaction to Theriault’s crash seemed odd to me. Doubtless he was dazed and eager to get out of the truck, but I ran it by an EMS buddy or mine. He confirmed if a driver complains of back pain or even if there’s a reasonable suspicion he might have suffered such an injury, paramedics shouldn’t have helped him out of the truck and into a seated position on the ground. Typically the roof should have been cut off the truck (a relatively quick procedure with the Jaws of Life) and the patient strapped to a backboard before he was moved. I wasn’t there and neither was my buddy, so we can’t make the call ,but I’d certainly hope that expediency in getting the race restarted didn’t outweigh proper medical procedure. But in the end the fault lies with the track, not the paramedics. The one thing I hate more than a rout of a race is watching a med-evac helicopter leaving a racetrack.
The truck race came down to a fuel mileage event late in the going. That seems to happen a lot in the truck races. Defending champion Matt Crafton was running up front, but the message came from his team that no matter how hard he tried to save fuel, Crafton was going to come up short. He’d have to pit with only a handful of laps left to go. Other drivers found themselves in similar straights and the question became whether any of them could finish the race without stopping. FOX Sports 1 cut to a camera inside Crafton’s truck, presumably to see if he was killing the engine and coasting and they got an eyeful. Crafton was caught mid-act pulling off a section of roll-bar tubing and preparing to throw it out onto the track most likely in an attempt to draw a caution flag that might have let him finish the race without stopping. (Or at least would allow them to pit under caution). Whoops!
I don’t know if the padding was ever actually tossed. If it was, it didn’t bring out a caution, but that’s just dirty pool. There was a similar incident at Michigan many years ago when some driver (and it was widely held it was Jimmy Spencer) tossed a piece of rollbar tubing wrapped in duct tape to make it look metallic out the window to draw a caution. Obviously Spencer (or whoever threw it) wouldn’t have had time or two spare hands to wrap duct tape around the tubing, which meant the decoy had been thrown in the car prior to the race to be used as needed. While no official penalties were ever announced, some severely pissed off NASCAR officials warned if such a thing ever happened again it would draw “Hammer of God”-type penalties. We’ll have to see if any penalties are announced against Crafton or the No. 88 team later this week. Interestingly enough, FS1 reported that Crafton’s crew chief was summoned to the NASCAR trailer after the race, but the driver was not. Perhaps Crafton was told to try the trick but pulled up short when he realized he was on camera?
In part due to the fuel strategy there at the end, John Wes Townley was the surprise winner at Vegas. He had just enough fuel and for the last couple laps was all but coasting to stretch his gas out to the end. (At points my granny could have pushed a shopping cart faster than Townley was driving if there was a Blue Light Special at K-Mart.) But let the record book show that Townley won the race, and good for him. Over his career Townley has often, fairly or not, been described as a bit of a “weapon,” only able to race in the bigs because of backing by his father’s chicken restaurants. I actually thought it was an upset victory until John Wes spoke up and thanked Hendrick Motorsports for his engines. Sigh. When it comes to satellite operations, Rick Hendrick has more than NASA.
While he was forced to pit late, Crafton managed a decent eighth-place finish. Reddick, whose truck was badly damaged in that lap 15 wreck, soldiered on to a seventh-place result. Erik Jones, who had to start tail end of the field after an engine change prior to the race, finished mimth. Those three drivers are gunning for the title, with Crafton now just four points behind Jones and Reddick a further 12 points back. Yep, three drivers in a tight and exciting points battle to see which of them accumulates the most points for the season to take the crown. What a novel idea! NASCAR ought to try that in the Cup Series!