If you listened to the hype, there was a whole lot on the line Saturday night during the Cup race at Richmond. The race would determine the 16 drivers eligible for (genuflecting here) the 2016 Chase. (The preliminary swimsuit competition had been rained out by Storm or the Century Hermine last week at Darlington.) Perhaps not unexpectedly, the same 16 drivers who were Chase eligible prior to the race were still Chase eligible after the race. How could that have happened? We were told all week and all last night that the gold tickets to get in the Chase were in play and the action was going to be fast and furious to claim them. Well perhaps it’s not fair to say there wasn’t any shakeup in the rankings. On the basis of his victory, Denny Hamlin rocketed to the head of a six-way pack of drivers who had won two races this year. With a third notch carved in his gun-belt now, Hamlin enjoys a massive three-point advantage in the standings over those other five drivers. (Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson). And those three points could be CRUCIAL!!!!(I’m channeling my inner Rick Allen here) to deciding who makes the cut to the Round of 12 in three weeks’ time. An entire season could hinge on those three points. Or maybe not, to be realistic. After the round of 16 narrows down to 12, bonus points for regular season wins are worth about as much as a copy of last week’s National Enquirer, which is to say they are worth bumpkus. Even last week.
A bit further back in the pack fans were clearly gripped by the battle for fourteenth in the standings. Get this. Prior to the Richmond race, the three non-winners eligible for the Chase were Chase Elliott (14th), Austin Dillon (15th) and Jamie McMurray (16h). But AFTER the race, that same rundown was Jamie McMurray (14th), Chase Elliott (15th) and Austin Dillon, hanging on by his fingernails (OK, so it actually wasn’t that close or close at all though if Dillon had been kidnapped by lesbian, skinhead, aliens from Mars during the final pit stop it could have changed everything!) to the final 16th spot in the Chase. That had to be a real thrill for those fans in the stands who realized Austin Dillon did not play the Six Million Dollar Man and as such likely never had sex with Farrah Fawcett either. I was however treated to a press release that mentioned it was the first time the No. 3 car has made the NASCAR Chase. Yeah, OK, it has six titles under the old points system, but we’ll go with that.
Viewed on its own merits, the Richmond race was not completely devoid of its charms. As is typical of the ¾ mile moderately banked track, there were three and four racing grooves. Also as typical, the racing got rather physical at time (oh, we’re getting there, my little pretties, I’m just waiting for my coal-fired keyboard to build up proper pressure.) A plethora of cautions had teams, even the ones with reasonable expectations of winning, forced into tire-management strategies they don’t normally face, gluing lug nuts back on the rims containing scuff tires they’d been ready to throw away with only three to nine laps on them. (I’ve often pondered how Goodyear markets its NASCAR racing success as a selling point for consumers. A) They are the exclusive tire to the sport B) Most consumers fitting tires to their street cars expect them to last more than 50 miles and be operable in the rain. I wonder if our dear friends in Akron with all the blimps…um, dirigibles?…could drop the pretense there’s any correlation between their competition and street tires and reintroduce bias ply tires to the great benefit or the sport.)
Given some fast cars on varying quality of tires and multiple grooves, there was a chance for some passing. Some of the passing was clean. Some of it decidedly was not. Looked at in retrospect, the weekend once again belonged to the JGR Toyotas and their satellite team with Hamlin and Truex Jr. combining to lead 382 of 400 laps. Yep, heading into the Chase there’s every possibility those five JGR teams are going to make a mockery of the proceedings. If you think otherwise could you please recommend a good bed and breakfast in the part of Narnia you call home?
The Coach’s faction chances seem to be greatly aided right now by a systematic meltdown at Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson finished 11th Saturday, Jeff Gordon managed a sixteenth place result (one spot behind Danica Patrick!) and Chase Elliott came home 19th. (After having his teammate Gordon run into him cutting down a tire.) The top finishing HMS driver was Kasey Kahne in sixth. I’m not sure when the last time Kahne was the top finishing HMS driver but I’d hazard a guess it was back before Gordon retired the first time, before Jimmie Johnson had a black cat take up wind sprints at the end of his driveway, and before Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wore glasses. According to my comely part-time research assistant (actually she looks like a refrigerator with a head) it might have been at Phoenix in the spring of 2015.
No it wasn’t Ryan Newman’s night, but a valid argument can be made that he had a lot of help ensuring it wasn’t his night. The chances of Newman making the Chase were pretty slim, so I’m not going to argue he was “knocked out of the Chase” by Tony Stewart’s thuggery. Some folks took exception to the fact in last week’s column I didn’t comment on Stewart’s taking Brian Scott out. I think I decided to leave that issue to the writers here at FS who do the race review type columns the day after the race, not the commentary later in the week. Besides, Stewart is a habitual offender in that regard and more than a few drivers have commented on Scott having no business racing on the Cup level and his lack of professional courtesy to drivers running many laps ahead of him. And Stewart sort of danced around what happened at Darlington anyway though it’s not too often you see a multi-time Cup champion lose control on a straightaway.
But give Stewart some credit for admitting he wrecked Newman on Saturday night and why he chose to do so. Not a whole lot of credit though. I am sure any parent of multiple children was grinding his or her teeth to the point enamel was cracking hearing the tried and true “WAH! He hit me first!” excuse. As the eldest of five siblings I soon learned despite my perceived logic of that defense it was a non-starter in the court of mom and dad. Better to just fess up “He needed hitting” and deal with the consequences.
So OK, Mr. Smoke, Ryan Newman did you dirty and had it coming. What sort of imbecile (and I’m talking to you as a driver and an owner here) goes ahead and wrecks his own car which countless team members have slaved countless hours over to prepare to settle one old score, one small point of pride? Did you not get the memo that you were in fact (though you were running like a three-legged lamb at the time) still chasing after those 3 CRUCIAL!!!! bonus points for a win that could determine if you make the Round of 12?
And what do you have to say to the other drivers who wound up in a wreck not of their own making. You know, the ones that hadn’t run into you triggering the “hit me first!” rule. Any words of contrition you’d like to offer David Ragan, who was running a new sponsor’s logos for the first time and had that company’s CEO and several other executives on hand to watch the race? (It’s ironic in today’s NASCAR that getting in the wreck made sure that Ragan’s battered car got lots of on-screen time with the sponsorship logos in clear focus as desired.) What was your beef with Carl Edwards Saturday night? Still lingering bad feelings over the 2011 run to the title? Yeah, well you won that one anyway, but I suppose elephants never forget. (Nor do madmen or asshats someone told me in college.) Yeah, a whole bunch of expensive race cars were all torn-up and a couple were even on fire as a result of your deviltry. You’ve been racing a long time, Mr. Smoke. I’m sure along the way you’ve had to bail out of a few cars that were on fire too, huh? A lot of fun isn’t it? So maybe next week at (or in the general vicinity of) Chicago someone will soak you in lighter fluid and set you ablaze. Cause after all, you hit them first. Those dirty, rotten, why I oughta….bastards. One has to wonder if after the incident Stewart got on his radio and chortled “I’m not retired yet, you knuckleheads.” A brief aside: The Coca-Cola family of drivers seems awfully dysfunctional lately, doesn’t it?
Yes, racing has always been dangerous but while death was once center-stage in the modern era it’s been banished to the fringes. In a sad coincidence Saturday night a late model racer, Shane Unger lost his life in a wreck at Eldora, a track Tony Stewart owns. Given the nature of the sport putting another driver into the wall to avenge a perceived slight doesn’t seem a reasonable or appropriate course of action.
Since he burst onto the scene in NASCAR Stewart has shown practically unequalled talent and versatility. (Recall Stewart actually started racing in the big leagues in open wheel cars.) On occasion he’s shown his charitable side usually trying to do so without attracting public attention to his good works. But on way too many occasions previous to this weekend Stewart has shown his inner-petulant child. He was among the first to champion banning fans from the garage area saying crowds made him uneasy because of his claustrophobia. (A rather odd condition for someone used to crawling into sprint cars one would think.) Stewart went after a reporter and slammed that reporter’s tape recorder to the ground because he didn’t care for a question. Stewart was accused of assaulting a female fan. After that fan’s phone number and address were posted on a Tony Stewart fan-site she decided not to pursue legal action to escape the harassing and threatening phone calls. Yep, Stewart has been a real peach at times.
Ryan Newman, Stewart’s victim in chief Saturday night and one-time SHR driver, has had his moments as well. Few will recall that Newman won his first ARCA race at Pocono. He flat out planted the leader late in the going to grab the win. The move was so blatant and unsportsmanlike that Newman’s car owner that day, Roger Penske, bought Bob Strait a new race car.
Doubtless Newman was beyond annoyed and borderline enraged when he spoke Saturday night after the incident. He attributed Tony’s misconduct to Stewart being “old.” For the record, Stewart is 45 and Newman is 38, no spring chicken himself in a sport where an increasing number of participants aren’t old enough to legally buy a six pack. I’ve been both 45 and 38 though it’s been awhile since I was either and there’s not a damn bit of difference between the two ages. Newman went on to say Stewart should have already retired and that he’s got anger issues. Hard to debate either of those points.
Then Newman said something surprising. He blamed Stewart’s conduct on his being bipolar. I’m not sure quite how to process that. If in fact Stewart has been diagnosed as bipolar that’s one thing, and perhaps concern for his former boss’s medical privacy would have precluded Newman saying as much. On the other hand, if Newman was using a mental illness as an attempt to slam Stewart’s conduct, that’s ill-considered and hurtful to the six million Americans diagnosed with the condition and the families of people who love them and support them through that challenge and it’s all too frequent companion substance abuse. Several members of my extended family have been diagnosed as bipolar and it’s painful to watch intelligent, creative, and loving young people struggle with the illness.
And so Tony Stewart has made the Chase for this his final season. Given his average 17th place finish in the 18 races he’s run this year to date, it’s hard to pick him as a favorite, but then back in 2011 even Stewart felt going into the hunt he was just a placeholder and that turned out OK for him. But Stewart has apparently decided that he’s going to leave Cup racing on his own terms with a distinct acrid scent of burnt bridges behind him. And so it goes. But sometime next year Stewart is also going to be sitting in a court of law facing a civil suit to determine if another instance of his bad temper cost a sprint car driver his life at Canandaigua Speedway. (Oddly enough Newman did say something about sprint cars and checking out Tony’s history on You Tube. A super-slow motion video that appears at the top of You Tube results is listed as posted by “Bipolarnobody”. You can’t make this stuff up.) Doubtless during the course of that trial the prosecution is going to present video footage of Stewart’s post-race interview Saturday at Richmond. I wish Stewart good luck with that.
Until then it’s time to roll on for some real excitement as this highly anticipated Chase kicks off with a race at one of the sport’s most revered and beloved tracks even if it is a damn sight closer to Iowa than Chicago for the Winchester 400. Huh? OK, not Winchester 400. It’s actually the incredibly awkwardly named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400, I’m told, and it’s going to be CRUCIAL to the Chase. Danica Patrick, Regan Smith, Landon Cassill and Michael McDowell will be driving entries featuring said warrior turtles (and isn’t “genetically different” a far kinder term than “mutant”?) so we can be relatively certain none of them will win. Seriously? Someone cue up the giant runaway inflatable orange again so something of interest happens at the race this weekend. After all, this is the track that once banned the Muppets.
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