The name was called – AJ Allmendinger – and in an instant, one life was gifted a dream. No, that winning lotto ticket didn’t come with millions but the man who presented it, Roger Penske, had the perfect consolation prize for a career that seemed to have stalled out forever between “satisfactory” and “should have been.” Every open-wheeler’s childhood idol, an aging owner in desperation mode had turned towards an outgoing Californian to save face, the perfect compromise in the face of a public relations nightmare that gave a pink slip to former Cup Series champion Kurt Busch.
“No,” one of my friends replied. “You think that. But this ‘special day’ is really for everybody else.”
Welcome to the world of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The second the checkered flag flew at Michigan, more than four years to the day he last visited Victory Lane, the driver breathed a sigh of relief that the king of all gorillas (we haven’t seen one this big since his Daddy’s Daytona 500 failures) got thrown off his back. It’s been well-documented by even the most casual garage observer how much the drought ate at Earnhardt, an introvert by nature, deep inside the competitive fire always raged. Certainly, after enduring years of criticism that a name, rather than talent, keeps him part of the most powerful team in motorsports Sunday’s dominant victory produces its own form of self-redemption.
It’s a common occurrence to have a few pit road speeding penalties over the course of a NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Last weekend, at the Monster Mile there were two over the course of 400 laps.
But this Sunday, Pocono added the wrong kind of “double trouble” to that number. The pit road police were out in full force, growing to a whopping 22 penalties over the course of just 160 circuits as everyone from five-time champ Jimmie Johnson to one-race fill-in David Reutimann got busted. The record number of infractions, 18 of which occurred in the race’s first half had the radios buzzing with confusion and concern.
For Joey Logano, Pocono has now produced three chapters in his list of Sprint Cup memorable moments. But up until Sunday, the problem was the first two could best be described as “reality show-esque.” There was the Spring, 2010 spin-turned-scuffle with the Harvicks, getting Logano’s father banned from the garage with his best “Hatfield-McCoy” impression while the words “who wears the firesuit in the family?” became the trendy catchphrase of the summer. Then, you had last July, “Sliced Bread” speeding to the pole position on the same weekend Carl Edwards officially spurned millions from Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot to re-sign with Ford.
There are a lot of people who have been recipients of Kurt Busch’s potty mouth tirades over the past 12 months: Roger Penske, Steve Addington, Bob Pockrass, Dr. Jerry Punch and Jenna Fryer. Missing from that list, though, are three people in particular who could have really been the focal point of Busch’s anger from the start. They may not know this driver from a hole in the wall, but rest assured, if I were in their shoes I’d be booking a trip to Switzerland and getting busy producing a fake ID.
It’s now been a decade since Jimmie Johnson entered the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports. At the time, Jeff Gordon was a year removed from his fourth championship, had more wins than any other active driver (58), and seemed on course to perhaps double both numbers. With Johnson wheeling a team co-owned by Gordon himself, and overseen by Rick Hendrick, the school of thought was the apprentice would never overshadow the teacher.
Chase? You’d be chasing someone out of the room if they played that type of fortuneteller card two months ago. For a driver who had to wait nearly two years for his slot in the No. 5 car, paired with Hendrick’s Yankee-like expectations, Kahne’s start to 2012 was the nightmare that kept on giving. Whether it was wrecks, mechanical failures, poor pit stops, or awful-handling race cars, the perfect storm of bad was threatening to turn him into one of the bigger free-agent busts in NASCAR history. Check out the first six finishes on paper: 29th, 34th, 19th, 37th, 14th, and 38th. That left Kahne 31st in the standings, but with the top-tier equipment being provided, that might as well have been 71st.
When it comes to putting athletes on a pedestal, Americans have that psychological obsession down pat. Extraordinary talent like Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, and Tony Stewart get rich by having their careers supported by people willing to watch them at any price, building normal lives around acknowledging their on-the-field accomplishments. But what we’re learning about the current generation of sports fans is that loyalty comes with expectations. Time is precious, in this age of 1,000 different entertainment options, and it’s easy to spot a superstar giving less than 100 percent. It’s like a reminder of that Monday morning conference call, with your boss speaking in a monotone voice you’re probably trying to ignore by reading this column. Why bother paying attention when even the athletes themselves are just going through the motions?
Saturday night at Darlington was defined by history, a milestone 200th victory for NASCAR’s most successful modern-era car owner, Rick Hendrick. It was a long time coming, a sixteen-race drought in contrast with the New York Yankees-like efficiency of the organization: five straight championships, from 2006-10 and employer of the sport’s two winningest active drivers. But as the lights dimmed, The Lady In Black fading into the night last Saturday, “the chase” over for a business pursuing a historic number one couldn’t help but remember the date that truly defined it: 27 years, ten months, and eight days since 200 was actually made to mean something within the walls of NASCAR competition.
Three years. For most people, that seems like nothing – just ask couples in long-term, successful marriages – but in NASCAR terms, history has shown us it’s all you need to prove yourself. Three years into his Cup Series career, Jeff Gordon captured his first title. Dale Earnhardt? Three years was too much: he won one in his _second_ full-time season. They head a list of top-level nominees that include Jeff Burton, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Labonte, drivers who could point to that timespan as when their careers started skyrocketing from zero to hero.
Will Brad Keselowski be next on that list?
Four Spring races at Richmond, four straight Kyle Busch victories. To have that type of record on your resume, Lady Luck needs to be hired as at least a part-time consultant.
Or how about full-time employee? We saw her working overtime Saturday night, taking control for Busch at a Richmond racetrack that had another weird ending added to its resume. Remember last Fall, when Paul Menard’s late-race spin set up a suspicious finish where teammate Kevin Harvick blew by Jeff Gordon? Or how about the Spring of 2008, when Denny Hamlin led a record-setting 381 laps only to blow a tire, setting up the infamous Kyle Busch spin of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. which opened the door for Clint Bowyer to triumph?
_”Compromise is but the sacrifice of one right or good in the hope of retaining another – too often ending in the loss of both.”_ – Tryon Edwards
Through his years of involvement in motorsports, the decisions of O. Bruton Smith can often be described in one word: “brash.” After all, billionaires don’t make their fortunes by sitting still and playing tiddlywinks while the rest of the world passes them by. Bold moves can often create unprecedented cash flow, aggression with a purpose resulting in the type of Racetrack Empire that’s allowed this Southerner to control a third of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule each year. To get what he wants, this man has stood up to an entire city (Charlotte), shut down a legendary short track (North Wilkesboro) and even had the guts to go toe-to-toe with NASCAR royalty: the Frances.