I hear you, guys… I hear you loud and clear. No matter what problems we face in the sport these days, the ½-mile track in Thunder Valley is still looked at as one where lightning strikes twice on the Sprint Cup circuit each year. While a repave has changed the type of racing we’ve seen over the past few seasons, Bristol still provides at least a threat of the type of action that’s attracted millions to sit down and get addicted to cars driving “round in circles.” It’s classic, old-school NASCAR at its best, where side-by-side racing comes with donuts plastered on the side of the car, and slowpokes learn their lesson in the form of a slam on their rear bumper – one that may or may not turn them into the inside wall. The close competition is usually reflected in the attendance at this racetrack, with each date earning a sellout every year since 1983.
Matt’s stuck at home with a nasty case of the flu this week, so I’ve been pressed into service as a last-minute replacement for his column. Usually, I try my best to match his sarcasm when I sub in (although in reality, no one can even come close). But this week, in terms of Mouthing Off… I’ve pretty much already done it on a variety of subjects in my weekly version of Did You Notice? on Wednesday. So, I thought that instead of spewing more venom at the NASCAR powers that be this week, I’m going to play around with the term “Mouthing Off” in a different way.
Occasionally throughout history, there’s an exception to the rule of thumb; back in 2005, Jack Roush pulled the miraculous feat of getting all five of his cars to make the Chase, and Richard Childress Racing went three for three in 2007 and ‘08. But far more often, multi-car teams find themselves split in two amidst a package of bad luck, poor performance and an inability for team chemistry to spread throughout an entire organization. One, two, maybe three cars hold up the mantle for a car owner who mixes happiness with angst at another team turning into mush before his eyes. That vision pretty much describes Rick Hendrick’s life as a car owner year in, year out. Never able to get all four cars into the 12-team Chase since it began in 2004, one of NASCAR’s greatest success stories has always been towing along at least one car in his stable that ultimately fails to make the grade.
Three races in, the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings read like a who’s who of stock car racing. Four-time champ Jeff Gordon leads the pack, followed by reigning Nationwide King Clint Bowyer, Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, fellow Roush Fenway superstar Greg Biffle and… David Reutimann?
In racing, there’s that old analogy of “second place is the first loser.” And in certain ways Sunday, Jeff Gordon did come up short. As Matt Kenseth celebrated in victory lane late into the night at Fontana, Gordon saw his winless streak extended to 42 points-paying events — tying the worst stretch of his 16-year career. But for Gordon, losing out on the California Oscar couldn’t completely erase the momentum of finishing runner-up. Two races in, a second-place finish – combined with a strong Daytona performance derailed only by the weather – has momentum back in the corner of team No. 24. And when you’re dealing with a man who’s won more Cup races in the past 20 years than anyone else, that’s not something to be taken lightly by the rest of the competition.
Heading into Speedweeks, Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 1 on the side of his Chevy was synonymous with the one piece left alone from a desperation merger. Now, that “1” stands for something far more exciting – Daytona 500 polesitter – closing out a weekend that’s given hope to people looking for some different faces up front next Sunday. “The guys felt good about this all winter,” Truex said after pulling what had to be labeled a minor upset. “They’ve felt like they’ve had a shot at coming down here and sitting on the front row for the 500. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to sit in that seat and drive that thing.”
Dear NASCAR Faithful, the offseason is over, and I can’t wait! What a refreshing change from the past few years; it’s amazing what a couple of weeks off not having to cover test after test in December and January will do for your tired soul. After a disappointing year, the worst thing to happen when the racing doesn’t match the hype is to have it hammered into your head day in, day out. And while some fans still complain about your precipitous decline the past few years… I know there’s a lot more who actually started to miss you for the first time in recent memory.
Once upon a time, the laps are winding down at Homestead; and while you might not like a fuel mileage finish, for once, you’re sitting there on the edge of your seat. Carl Edwards has made the daring gamble to go the final 66 laps on a tank of gas, canceling out the brilliant strategy of Jimmie Johnson and a two-tire stop that finally got him the track position needed to run up front. Now, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are staring at a terrifying dilemma. They know their car isn’t capable of going the distance on fuel; and knowing a win by the No. 99 will likely cost them the title, Knaus doesn’t know which direction to turn. Should he hope against hope his numbers are wrong, leave Johnson out, and hope he can save a little extra Sunoco? Or, should he send him out on a banzai effort to gain as many positions as possible, putting distance between the No. 48 and Edwards before short-pitting for fresh tires with 20 laps to go – a desperation maneuver in hopes new Goodyears can gain enough positions in time to save the championship?
For so many millions of us, favorite athletes become so much more. Role models for our kids, our communities, ourselves; they’re put on a pedestal of success we can only wish to achieve. Through them, we choose to live our wildest dreams, placed in a fantasy world in which a larger-than-life persona can show us the joys of perfection. Every once in a while, we get lucky in love, and the dream never dies. Our idols leave the sport we love at the top of their game, and we’re allowed to remember the end just the way we want it – like a fairy tale. But more often, the bubble bursts and we find out the truth – that these drivers we worship are human, too, unable to fend off the inevitability of age and time. And that makes it so much harder when you see their careers come crashing down.
For all intents and purposes, Carl Edwards took his 2008 Sprint Cup championship, threw it on the table, grabbed the dice, and rolled Sunday night. That’s not to say Edwards’s trip to victory lane came based on blind faith alone; far from it. Instead, after watching a sure win evaporate into a top-five finish at best, he and crew chief Bob Osborne worked together on balancing a calculated risk. With their championship rival en route to a 15th-place finish, there was an opportunity to do some serious damage; however, anything short of a win and the No. 99 team knew they would have failed to rattle a team going for their third straight title.
As one of the younger NASCAR writers on the beat, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding a changing of the guard in this sport. So early on, it came as no surprise I was ready to jump on board with a season in which Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards spent the spring and summer trading punches back and forth in their battle for Sprint Cup supremacy. A seemingly unstoppable force on the track and off it, one of the two appeared ready to rise as the first 20-something champion since Busch’s brother Kurt Busch in 2004. And if that wasn’t enough, these men had personalities about as volatile as Mt. St. Helens itself. They didn’t like each other to the point they loved trading verbal barbs, and a title Chase between the two seemed destined for its own set of National Enquirer headlines.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered the postseason as the winningest organization in Sprint Cup this year, armed and ready to rumble. There was the No. 1 seed and odds-on favorite Kyle Busch, everyone’s favorite darkhorse in Tony Stewart, and the man with momentum in Denny Hamlin. On the cusp of singlehandedly powering Toyota to a manufacturer’s title in just their second season, the next 10 weeks were supposed to be nothing less than a championship coronation for this crowd. Too bad NASCAR never approved the script.