Last April at Martinsville Raceway, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were busy engaging in a spirited battle to the checkered flag. Johnson came out on top, but the ending didn’t matter as much as the message; the second win for Hendrick Motorsports in as many Car of Tomorrow events proved to be the opening statement to their yearlong quest for domination. The operation left the track a clear favorite; in fact, the only challenger that stood between a 1-2-3 finish on the podium for the organization was none other than Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. At one point during that event, Hamlin looked ready to beat ’em all; but a faulty pit stop cost him track position and, ultimately, the race win for the second week in a row. What resulted was an all-too-familiar scenario; Hendrick was ecstatic, while Gibbs just sulked. As the season progressed, Hendrick looked to be in front of the curve when it came to both engineering and late-race adjustments; Gibbs came to lead the pack simply in “times a team can shoot itself in the foot.”
More than just the Easter Bunny occupied the NASCAR fan’s attention this weekend. Coinciding with the break in the Cup schedule was the beginning of the fastest-growing tournament-style sporting event to hit America each year; and as a result, race fans’ minds were busy being filled with basketballs, not Goodyears, this holiday season. With the 65-team NCAA Tournament getting underway, America’s productivity screeched to a halt as the first two rounds played out upon a national stage. Office pools, not office memos, become the order of business on a Thursday; and even for the most dedicated racing fan, Friday night became as much about what 12-seed was going to break through as to who’s in the best position to win the Nationwide Series race the following day.
As the sun set over Bristol Sunday, Dale Jarrett took off his driver’s helmet for the final time. The dimming sunlight was a fitting backdrop for a career coming to a halt; for at 51, one of the most respected drivers the NASCAR garage has ever had was ready to pass the torch of elder statesman. Halfway across the racetrack, the sun was rising on Jeff Burton in Victory Lane. At 40 years old, Burton nabbed his first Bristol win in 29 tries, tiptoeing to triumph at a track that tends to make mincemeat out of men who drive the right way. But the Virginian not only survived, he thrived; beating younger teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to the line, Burton became the first 40-something victor here since Rusty Wallace back in 2000. What’s more, he didn’t have to lay a bumper to a single guy in the process, a strategy that spoke volumes about the way he drives. Looks like Jarrett has a place for that torch after all.
Kyle Busch needed a home. Toyota needed a future. Together, they’ve morphed into an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Just moments after Busch scored the first victory for the manufacturer in Sprint Cup history – putting them over the hump in just their 40th start – even those closest to him were still digesting what they’d seen. With not just a win, but a dominating performance, Busch led 173 laps to boost his total to 329 for the year. Easily tops in the series, it’s a staggering number that has him out front for nearly 40% of the season to date, jumping out to a 73-point lead in the standings just four races in.
AJ Allmendinger’s exit from the No. 84 was definitely a bit of a shock. Considering the sophomore was the first car left out at all three races this season, it’s not like he was completely off the mark; in fact, the 93 owner points AJ accumulated leaves Team Red Bull just 119 out of a Top-35 spot, not an unattainable goal by any means. In fact, under the old qualifying rules from a few years back, Allmendinger would have made two of three races; he finished 13th in his Gatorade Duel and qualified 34th at Las Vegas (his team would still have been bitten by the California rainout last week).
Just a week and a half ago on SI.com, I profiled the struggles of the Fusions after Daytona. With a best finish of 10th, some questions on horsepower, and two teammates taking each other out, it hadn’t been the best of Speedweeks for the Ford faithful; and with Roush Fenway’s poor showing with the CoT compared to other mega-teams in 2007, it seemed this would be the year the Blue Ovals fell off the charts. Well, they fell off the charts, alright; the accolades have come so fast and furious these past two weeks, it’s hard to keep up. An Edwards win Sunday led a fleet of three Roush Fenway cars in the top 10 (Greg Biffle, third; David Ragan, sixth) to go along with an eighth-place finish for Yates Racing’s Travis Kvapil. In fact, the Blue Ovals could have pulled a 1-2-3 sweep if not for a late-race accident that knocked Matt Kenseth out of contention. Coming off a win by Edwards the week before at California, that’s now two wins in three races to start off the season for Ford – the first time that’s happened since 2004.
Sunday night marked just the second official weekend of the NASCAR season. In a perfect world, I would have spent it smiling in Ontario, Calif., celebrating the sport’s continued momentum off the heels of a Daytona 500 that exceeded expectations. Instead, my night became so incredibly frustrating, so mentally frying I was virtually jumping through hoops in order to keep a redeye plane ride out of town.
As Tony Stewart comes to terms with another disappointment, you have to wonder if he’s on his way to matching that hapless 0-for achievement. The man best compared to the Intimidator by the way he conducts himself on and off the track has done his best to work his way up onto the sport’s biggest stage; but in the end, Stewart’s continued absence from the winner’s list is now clearly defined with the late legend whose pain he shares – and whose list of failures are becoming agonizingly similar.
Let’s put it this way; Junior was characterized as having broken from the “evil stepmother” while moved to NASCAR’s equivalent of the New York Yankees. The way that story’s supposed to end in fairy tales isn’t with him finishing 15th every week… and so much of a sniff of that type of performance from Hendrick would lead to a mountain of critics the second the checkered flag flew. As a result, by the time the No. 88 car pulled into Daytona to begin its first “official” 2008 business in February, it wasn’t just expected to win. Anything less wouldn’t be enough.
With that, on the eve of the 50th Daytona 500 the NASCAR brass finds itself in the midst of pondering a change in direction, working on a future that’s based on history they only recently chose to rewrite. The path to reconnect the two won’t be easy – now without the guiding hand of Bill France Jr. to lean on for advice and support, the powers that be will have a far more difficult time figuring out just what those “basics” really are. After all, Brian France has made so many adjustments to the format of how the series works, it’s hard to even tell the NASCAR of 2002 from the one we have just six years later. Sometimes, even the most hardcore of longtime fans forget what that was like, how the sport worked then compared to how it functions now. That’s why it’s important to take a breath, think back, and remember what exactly “getting back to basics” means on the eve of a season critical to halting NASCAR’s decline.
I’ve never been a fan of January testing. I’m beginning my third year as a traveling media member in this series, and I’ve never been down to cover it – this year is no exception, as my travel plans don’t involve Daytona until February. And while Frontstretch’s own Mike Lovecchio will be down there filing reports, most years I’m not yearning to be the guy standing in his place. It has nothing to do with my love for the sport; it’s that as I’ve pointed out many times before, testing speeds give us little insight into who’s actually going to be good for the Daytona 500.
Did You Notice? That no matter what Race of Champions event you set up, it’s impossible to leave it biased towards a particular breed of drivers? The knock on IROC was always that the cars there were too NASCAR-focused, therefore providing an advantage to those drivers with a stock car racing background.