The last time the Cup Series visited a road course, the enduring image was of Kevin Harvick getting in Juan Pablo Montoya’s face. It was a comical confrontation, a fit of frustration after Harvick thought Montoya wrecked him out of the race. While the conduct was hardly professional, Harvick did have the perfect excuse for being a hothead; he’d just been made an innocent victim of a wreck not of his making. Oh, the irony; for this time, Harvick made an innocent victim out of someone else, and because of it, his Chase chances are suddenly on life support.
Max Papis. Brian Simo. Ron Fellows. This weekend, some of the most accomplished road racing veterans will once again descend upon Infineon Raceway in a stock car, looking to translate success from other series into an upset victory on their biannual tour around the Sprint Cup circuit. There’s just one problem; barring a miracle, every single one of them will come up short. But that doesn’t stop the same continuous cycle of hope turned hopeless, as each one embarks on a quest for a rather unlikely trip to the top rung of stock car’s highest ladder – complete with an assist from NASCAR teams willing to hire them. Or are they?
This weekend at Pocono began with the Sprint Cup point leader front and center, as Kyle Busch attempted the vaunted “tripleheader” – three races, three cities, three days – with Sunday’s 500-miler the biggest crown jewel of them all. But by the end, it was Busch who was pushed to the back pages, his late-spring momentum all but stopped in its tracks after an in-race wreck left him stumbling down to 43rd by the finish. Busch left the track with his point lead all but evaporated; instead, it was the Chase’s bubble driver – Kasey Kahne – who stole the show. Welcome to the season’s second half.
There’ve been several drivers who’ve been bounced around by the critics for disappointing seasons; but as their Sunday performances reminded us, two former champions in particular make two great examples that perception is often different from reality. When 12 drivers make the playoffs, most everybody in that group will experience a “down” portion to their season – but the key is to show enough strength to be up at the right time. Right now, two drivers are doing that… despite what you may think.
Their carnage continued well into the final 100 laps; and by that point, Tony Stewart was ready to assert himself. Taking the lead for the first time following Junior’s mishap, the No. 20 car was out front for 23 of the final 103 laps of the race. And while friend and fellow contender Kasey Kahne also had his car dialed in, it was Stewart who was better over the course of a long run. Following a flawless pit stop for fuel, the Home Depot Toyota had itself a five and a half second lead with three laps left, poised to pounce on the early season momentum Joe Gibbs Racing has established – through his two other teammates. Too bad Stewart’s Goodyear Eagles had other plans.
As Kasey Kahne celebrated his surprising victory into the wee hours of Sunday morning, he was also busy figuring out how the heck he went from Sprint Showdown failure to a $1 million success in the All-Star Race. A disappointing fifth in the Showdown preliminary event – far below the cutline to transfer into the “A” main – Kahne was preparing, in his words, “to grab a couple of Budweisers, run to the motorhome, and watch the All-Star Race myself.” And while he’s one of stock car racing’s more recognizable names, on paper that’s how it should have been.
Moments after taking his first career Darlington win, Kyle Busch got out of his car, hopped on the roof, and took a bow as if he were the hero. It was the culmination of a burnout performance worthy of his Indiana Jones paint scheme. Too bad the fans thought it was the equivalent of a standup comedian telling five straight minutes of awful jokes. The sold-out crowd showed their appreciation – or lack thereof – in all sorts of different ways: beer cans, boos, and giving him the middle finger. And so it goes for NASCAR’s resident villain these days.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood despondent by his car Saturday night, watching in vain as another car, another driver pushed its way to Victory Lane. After weeks of coming oh-so-close, the newest member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable found himself four laps from returning to the very same spot in which he’d celebrated career win No. 17: Richmond International Raceway’s Victory Lane. The rubber stamp performance was within reach; the checkered flag that would quiet the critics, stop the clock, and throw the monkey off his back, all in one full swoop. Instead, what many distraught Junior might call “a well-trained monkey” named Kyle Busch – who also doubles as the hottest driver in NASCAR these days – collided with Junior’s No. 88 rear quarterpanel going into turn 3. The physical force was all too real, the results merciless for the driver to control; three seconds later, Junior’s car was in the wall, Busch’s car was leaving the crime scene, and Clint Bowyer was busy taking the trophy from them both.
Sunday’s race at Talladega resembled the atmosphere of a short-track slugfest, with cars exchanging punches at a cool 190 mph across NASCAR’s fastest facility. While the restrictor plates were still in place, the excitement they produced was unrestricted, as drivers didn’t hesitate to bump and bang their way to the front in the third race with this current package. While a single line freight train was a legitimate fear – the fall race resembled a parade for the first 300 miles until drivers started taking chances – it turned out there was no reason to worry as the car came into its own. 52 lead changes among 20 drivers illustrated that competition, not conservatism, had returned to restrictor-plate racing.
It was a tale of two cities, two countries, and two completely different races. But those two checkered flags converged into one defining story, leaving fans both delighted and disappointed by the future of diversity in a sport that’s lacked it for far too long. The events were held outside the country, on opposite ends of the world; but considering the morals of the topic at hand, it’s ironic they were held so far apart.
Crew chief Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson pulled their patented magic once again; sitting in second as the race wound down, they used communication and cunning to find that extra ounce of fuel to finish first. It was the patented strategy of a duo that’s proven their success; when the going gets tough, they stop at nothing to find a way to win. Across the way, teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. could simply look on with admiration and awe. For as the winning Hendrick trophy slipped out of their grasp and into someone else’s, no one could stop them from finding another way to lose.
Kryptonite sidetracks even the most gifted every now and then; and as they turn to face their staunchest challenges, it becomes a healthy, natural reminder to everyone that even the most talented can’t avoid the grip of being human. Athletes, after all, have their Achilles’ heel; it’s as unavoidable as the looming tax deadline creeping ever closer for all of us. But the way Jeff Gordon was performing Sunday, he’d have preferred to fill out a little extra paperwork for the IRS rather than drive his DuPont Chevrolet. With a 43rd-place finish that had you thinking the No. 24 was running with an anchor attached, the four-time champ was faced with a public battle with his biggest weakness; and while the fight was valiant, it showed that career perfection could prove forever elusive.