A couple funny things happened this weekend. Cities and communities along the Mid-Atlantic coastline (AKA, the shore, though only in New Jersey) were not pulverized and swept out to sea by a bad-tempered tropical storm. In fact, the weather ’round here was borderline spectacular. Not a single drop of rain fell. It was a pattern that mirrored what we saw in the racing world, too. A wide variety of events were staged around the globe, stops ranging from Imola to Darlington and there wasn’t a clinker in the bunch.
To be kind, perhaps Hurricane Hermine didn’t live up to its billing. Anyone watching local news in these parts must have been expecting the worst. (You know a storm is going to be bad when the local news stations have a special musical theme written with a bunch of ominous major notes to play every time they discuss the topic. Then, they do so incessantly to the point a reasonable man is given leave to envy the deaf.) New Jersey’s globetrotting Governor declared states of emergency for three counties, having been reminded by an aide that the Atlantic Ocean runs along the eastern part of the state. The National Weather Service issued a Tropical Storm Warning. Shelters were set up. Mandatory evacuations were considered and recommended. At one point, Governor Christie was ready to close a couple lanes leading up to the 34th Street bridge for construction virtually cutting off access to Ocean City.
But come the predicted height of the storm, paranoid masses huddled in their shelters clinging to their fully stocked emergency kits might have peered outside and seen something remarkable. Instead of rain, instead of wind there was brilliant sunshine with nary a cumulus cloud in sight. Oh, there was an occasional breeze and the temperatures took a rare dip south of the 90s. Anyone who hadn’t thought to throw on a sweatshirt might have caught their death of a cold or something.
But that was it. Local news reporters were left scrambling for material, pointing out that a trash can had, in fact been blown over and a deck chair had been blown into the street where it might cause a nasty accident if nobody moved it. Oh, and the surf was quite choppy and that sort of water is a fertile breeding ground of the dreaded “under-toads.”
Saturday afternoon kicked off the racing extravaganza with the NXS in Darlington. Even at a mere 200 miles in length the event featured plenty of action. With two laps to go Elliott Sadler was pedaling for all he was worth, had the car get out from underneath him and added a classic Darlington stripe to the passenger side rear quarter of his Chevy. (Point to ponder: Do single seat race cars have a passenger side?) Denny Hamlin made a run at Sadler and the two of them waged a heck of a battle for the final two circuits with Sadler prevailing. The victory was a popular one for a driver some described as “an elder statesman of the sport.” I still have difficulty envisioning Sadler as “an elder.” He was born the year I got my driver’s license and made his first Cup start a couple years after I started writing about racing. It was nice to see the kid do well, however.
For those who got out of bed early on Sunday at an hour fit only for those with chickens to milk, the Italian Grand Prix was run at 7 AM ET Sunday, even as hardy Northeasterners braced themselves for an occasional breeze. Nico Rosberg won the race while his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton finished second. That isn’t a bit surprising if you pay any attention at all to F1 as it’s very typical one of the Mercedes drivers wins just about every race while the other finishes second unless they go on ahead and wreck each other first. Rosberg is a bit of a thug and Hamilton a bit of a crybaby prima-donna but as the championship battle reaches the home-stretch the two Mercedes teammates are two points apart with Hamilton currently to the good side of the equation. And here’s the amazing part. That tight points battle is going on without any re-setting of points, elimination rounds, or any other sort of chicanery or trickery. Is there a lesson there? Pundits ranging from Stephen King to Tom Petty have espoused things left to their own tend to work out just fine more often than not.
In breaking overseas news, it seems likely as you read this the sale of F1, lock, stock and barrel, to an American firm, Liberty Media, will be announced Tuesday. Yep, best of luck with that. Hopefully their plans include continued growth overseas because like soccer, F1 just doesn’t translate well into American culture, even if it’s wildly popular in Europe. (And England.)
Sunday afternoon things got a bit confusing: IndyCar was staging their penultimate race of the season at Watkins Glen, a hastily arranged event added to the schedule after efforts to hold a street circuit race in Boston were scuttled. Meanwhile NASCAR’s truck series was set to compete at the track formerly known as Mosport. And get this. Both events were scheduled to begin within ten minutes of each other! IndyCar is still struggling to regain some semblance of fan base even after all these years after the open wheel racing schism. They could have run their race on Saturday if they wanted to, or started it around noon on Sunday to avoid going head to head with a NASCAR event. But they doggedly persisted in what will likely turn out to be a ratings debacle.
To add to the merriment sidelined NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to hold a press conference to discuss his recovery…..at the same time both those two races were set to start. The press conference was shown and streamed on ESPN – the one sports broadcasting entity that didn’t have a dog in the auto-racing fight this weekend. And here’s the oddest part. Earnhardt is listed as the owner of the truck driven by Cole Custer that was slated to start on the pole for the truck race. Didn’t he even plan to watch it? Speaking of Junior, voting for the NMPA Most Popular Driver award commenced this weekend. (And no, you don’t have to show photo ID to cast a ballot.) Like many of you I’ll be chewing my fingernails to the quick waiting to find out who claims that prestigious award this year. Once again my own plans to sponsor a new award, “The 2016 Most Despicable Prick in the Sport” have come up short.
Meanwhile back at Watkins Glen (a far better choice than Boston for the race in my humble opinion anyway. Open wheel car races on street circuits tend to resemble rats learning to run a maze) Scott Dixon, who has had been star-crossed in the luck department this season, dominated. Poorly time cautions flummoxed the pit strategy of championship contender Will Power who wound up racing amidst the least common denominators in the field with predictable results. He wound up well and truly wrecked and was listed 20th in the final running order. Perhaps more importantly he’ll need medical clearance (concussion protocol) before Power will be cleared to compete in two weeks at the Indy-Car final. (Recall Power missed the first race of this year based on what was misdiagnosed concussion symptoms.) As it stands Simon Pagenaud carries a fairly commanding 43 points lead into that final race but a couple factors bear watching. Indy-car’s final race pays double the points of most races on the schedule. (a concept so ludicrous I’m stunned Brian France hasn’t claimed authorship of it and implemented it in NASCAR). And last year Montoya (remember him? The guy who hit the jet-dryer at Daytona?) went into the season finale with a 47 point lead and Dixon beat him for the championship so it could happen. And if it doesn’t? Repeat after me, “She wore faded jeans and soft black leather, she had eyes so blue they looked like weather……”
It was a bit surprising to hear the payout for the Ganassi team for Dixon’s win at the Glen was a mere $40,000. Keep in mind, not all of that would have gone to Dixon. Dixon did generously announce he intended to donate his portion of the winnings to a fund set up to support the children of Justin Wilson who was killed in a Pocono event last year. But 40g? No wonder the open wheel racers all want to run NASCAR but not the other way around. For the record, in 2015, the last year the numbers were made public, Bobby Labonte earned $69,740 for finishing dead last in the Daytona 500. AJ Allmendinger won $71, 475 for finishing last at Martinsville that same spring.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, the trucks were having a fine little race of their own. For some reason the rumor mill was churning this weekend that the event would NASCAR’s last visit to the Great White North but perhaps there are fears someone might build a giant wall along the Canadian border too. Cole Custer dominated much of the race even as his team owner documented his travails in grocery shopping but not unexpectedly in a feeder series there was a flurry of late race cautions. Custer needed to win that race to make the truck series version of the Chase (which I believe involves a game of hopscotch to add a wild-card contender but maybe not.) John Hunter Nemechek, a driver I happen to root for due to his hard scrabble fight to get into the “bigs,” just wanted to win the race because that’s what race car drivers like to do even when they have a bed behind them rather than a trunk-lid. Nemechek is already qualified for the Chase based on his win earlier this year at Atlanta. There was considerable and prolonged contact between the pair heading up to and past the checkered flag which will doubtless fuel fevered debate for a while to come. If you didn’t see it, you’ve got to check this out.
My take? I’ve got no issue with bumping the leader out of the way on the final lap as Nemechek attempted to do not once but twice in the final few corners. This is after all car racing not lawn croquet. I’m a bit more perturbed that Nemechek then would continue to run Custer off the side of the race track and into the guardrail coming to the line latching onto the JR Motorsports Silverado like a terrier with a rat in its mouth. Not very sporting, but not unheard of in NASCAR racing either. I have no issue with Custer taking askance at Nemechek’s conduct and tackling him to the ground after the race. Unfortunately, it might not have been the brightest thing to do. After the race NASCAR didn’t immediately declare a winner. The wait dragged on for over five minutes during which time Custer decked Nemechek. The videotape was pretty clear that the 8 truck had crossed the finish line first so the reason for the delay in announcing a winner might have been NASCAR officials discussing whether Nemechek’s on-track mugging of Custer deserved some sort of penalty that might have given the win to Custer. (NASCAR did just that, taking a win from the late Davey Allison for wrecking Ricky Rudd at Sonoma.) But if such a penalty was being considered, Custer’s call to tackle Nemechek probably threw the possibility out the window.
Like I’ve said, I’m not going to cast any stones. I’ve been watching racing a long time and I’ve seen a lot worse over the years. Ironically, a lot of folks who have themselves all worked into a lather after that last lap are the same sort that have been howling for years that they wish NASCAR was “more like it used to be.” Well Sunday in Canada it was and no it wasn’t pretty. Going forward Nemechek needs to consider forewarned is forearmed. Those who take up the sword die by the sword. He might want to have a chat with Joey Logano outside of Matt Kenseth’s hearing about that. If I have no issue with Nemechek’s conduct Sunday, I’m not going be surprised or upset down the road when Custer sends the 8 truck windshield deep into the wall ruining Nemechek’s title chances. Obviously such a move would need to be made at the right time and place to diminish the chances the rival driver would be injured while maximizing the chances said drivers’ vehicle could be repaired and returned to the track. As it stands right now, if things go Nemechek’s way he could very well end up battling for a CWTS title at Homestead, the very same track where the uncle he was named for perished in a truck series wreck.
The big Kahuna of the race weekend (here in the US anyway. Believe it or not, globally F1 attracts far more viewers than NASCAR even if F1’s numbers are cratering) was of course the Southern 500. Yep, they finally have the storied race back at the right track on the right weekend. Hallelujah. Now if we could just get the start time moved back to the afternoon but half a Tastykake beats no Tastykake at all. Kevin Harvick once again dominated a race. Once again his pit crew found a way to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory during a stop. No big surprise there I suppose. Been there, done that, watched the Looney-Tune. Harvick was peeved after the race. Again, color me shocked. Martin Truex Jr. went on to win the race. The victory gave Truex the first multiple win season of his career. Like Harvick, Truex has seen his fair share of races he should have won lost on pit road. But in his case he splits the responsibility about equally with his crew. Truex is a habitual offender when it comes to pit road speeding penalties. As such it’s little wonder he tends to be more diplomatic than Harvick when discussing his team. It’s been a remarkable year for this journeyman driver with a second at the Daytona 500 and wins in the World 600 and Southern 500. Once upon a time winning those three races would have earned a driver the Winston Million. Once upon a time a million bucks was a large sum of money to a Cup driver. If nothing else it’s nice to see Truex’s career back on track. Truex had been the primary victim of Spin-gate at Richmond in 2013 though he had nothing to do with the Michael Waltrip Racing team’s devious chicanery to try to cheat their way into the Chase. It was Truex who was left without a ride when NAPA pulled the plug no longer wishing to be involved with MWR, the first step that led to the team’s eventually going belly-up. And ironically the circuit now heads back to Richmond next weekend though this year Truex is locked into the Chase and if Clint Bowyer spins out, well he’s been doing a lot of that this year.
- Yeah, yeah, the Throwback thing was cute last year. Like many good things (think about listening to your three year old niece sing Beatles songs) it can be overdone to the point it becomes irritating or even nauseating. I was actually following racing back in that era and it constantly puzzles me to see the paint schemes of what were once a Ford on a Toyota. And perhaps some of those paint schemes bring back sad memories of drivers who used to compete and the sponsors that were once involved in the sport but have left. There’s a bunch of both. And for the record, while I lived through that period I never dressed like that and I didn’t care much for the few people who did. Nor did I listen to that crappy sort of music I seldom heard it at the race track. Genuine rock acts like Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty were on the charts back then too. Oh, and Fleetwood Mac. I think at one point the RIAA decided that everyone in the world already had at least one copy of Rumours so there was no need to print anymore.
- Hopefully sanity is restored and no points penalty is accessed to Ryan Blaney for failing to put on gloves during one practice session at Darlington. Maybe his gloves got wet during the storm on Friday? The “wardrobe malfunction” needs to be nothing more than an anomaly. There was no attempt on Blaney’s part to gain a competitive advantage by forgoing safety requirements. It does however remind me of a driver, Herman Beam, who was black-flagged early in a race way back when. I never saw Beam race. His career started two years before a doctor smacked by butt and told my mom, “Sorry, but you’ve got one ugly ass baby on your hands now.” But from what I’ve been told, Beam was the spiritual forefather or the “start and park” clan that came after him. Beam started 194 races in NASCAR’s top division and finished in the top 10 in 57 of them which sounds like a reasonable batting average until you consider in a lot of those races less than 20 cars started the race and about half would routinely not finish due to wrecks and mechanical carnage. Beam was in fact running at the finish of 181 of those races. Beam’s last top 5 finish was at Spartanburg SC where he finished fourth, 12 laps behind winner Jimmie Paschal and one of just eight entries listed as running at the end of the race. But the $275 he pocketed for that fourth place finish more than covered his expenses to compete in the race so it worked out fine for Beam, who realized he had little chance at winning even going into a race and just wanted to come out ahead financially. As long as he stayed out of wrecks (and Beam only has one DNF attributed to a wreck in his career) that was usually the case. Still, NASCAR decided to black flag Beam that day at Daytona. It wasn’t that Beam was running too slow out on the track…..he’d forgotten to put on his crash helmet that day. Now I doubt you’ll see a Herman Beam throwback paint scheme at Darlington next year.
- One interesting bit of “Throwback” at Darlington was Mountain Dew’s decision to run a decades old ad featuring Kyle Petty, who they sponsored back in the day, exactly as it ran way back when. Of course that’s back before Petty came to resemble Granny Clampett so much.
- While Sunday night’s race wasn’t a sellout at least to my eye the stands were a lot fuller than at most races to date this season despite rain cancelling all on-track activities on Friday. (And the still predicted demise of the entire Northeast over the weekend that would have left shorefront property in Toledo.) It’s sadly ironic that NASCAR once justified ending the Southern 500 tradition because the track wasn’t selling enough tickets. They went ahead and moved the date to their shiny new track in Southern California that featured all the latest fan-friendly amenities. But in the end it appears fans prefer tradition and tight racing to amenities and a more upscale zip code. Who knew?
- The cars of Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson both failed post-race inspection Sunday night. It would appear likely that both drivers will be docked ten points for the failure which points out another major flaw in the already terminally flawed Chase concept. For Larson a ten point fine is basically meaningless. Hell, make it a hundred point penalty. He’s still locked into the Chase based on his win at Michigan. For Newman the situation is radically different. As of now he is listed as being in seventeenth place in the points only seven points behind Jamie McMurray in the Chase-clinching sixteenth spot. Deduct ten points from Newman’s total and he faces a far tougher battle to make the cut. Keep in mind that Newman was also fined 10 points after Atlanta this spring for an unapproved body-brace. So in this instance two drivers or teams commit the same infraction. For one of them it’s a non-issue. For the other it’s basically season if not career ending. How is that fair? Ford fans might recall another instance where an arbitrary early season penalty cost Mark Martin a championship. After the 1990 Richmond spring race NASCAR docked Martin and team owner Jack Roush 46 points for an illegal spacer between the intake manifold and carburetor. The thing was, had that spacer been welded to the manifold rather than held in with studs it would have been legal and as such offered no competitive advantage. The rules that year allowed competitors to lower the engines in their cars and the team was just trying to get the air cleaner assembly back up to the height where it needed to be. At the end of that season the late Dale Earnhardt won the 1990 Cup title by 26 points over Martin. Martin would finish second in the points five times during his Cup career but never won a title.
- If you’re reading this column, obviously NASCAR racing is of at least some interest to you. It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend just how far outside the mainstream our sport has become. Every once in a great while racing still grabs some attention…unfortunately, usually in the wake of a visually dramatic or fatal wreck. On Monday though, NASCAR managed to muscle its way into an ABC World News broadcast for the first time in recent memory. The ever effervescent Cecelia Vega did a 30-second piece on how Dale Earnhardt Jr. had decided to sit out the rest of the season but planned to return to the drivers’ seat in 2017. And of course they showed Junior’s Michigan wreck. Shortly thereafter, an equal time segment aired to report that giant pandas are no longer an endangered species though they remain “vulnerable.” Now, if we could just find a way to get a giant panda to drive the No. 88 car in a couple races this year I bet NASCAR could grab the day’s big story.