One of the biggest struggles we have in life is to try and figure out whether our glass is half-empty or half-full. While contemplating Talladega, I think it’s appropriate to look at both. I’m an optimist at heart, so it’s impossible for me to not appreciate the positive of what transpired Sunday afternoon. Before we even get into the race itself, let’s throw out a list of stats that describe the significance of Brad Keselowski’s win on Sunday.
This is a story about two men’s historic rise and fall from grace. As Mark Martin took the checkered flag Saturday night, the desert night lit up with thousands of smiling faces. Sentimentality was in the air again at Phoenix International Raceway, a mere two minutes after a 50-year-old won his first race since ‘05 and two years after Jeff Gordon tied the late, great Earnhardt name with his 76th career win. History has been no stranger to the desert as of late; but this time around, the fans stood respectful of Martin’s seniority rather than rueful for Gordon’s claim to historic fame.
As Joey Logano entered victory lane Saturday in Nashville, he flashed a smile the likes of which hasn’t been seen in months. Seven weeks after struggling through a nightmare of a rookie season in Cup, 300 miles in the Nationwide Series reminded us there’s still potential there for young Joey to pair with that hype. It’s the type of experience that you’d hope would make the teen sensation feel right at home in stock cars. Too bad he doesn’t get the chance to feel it often enough.
Fast forward to 2009. 16 starts and several ugly DNFs later, Jeff Gordon finally took a Texas-sized monkey and threw it off his back, charging from third to first on his final pit stop and holding off now three-time championship teammate Jimmie Johnson for his first career victory at the track. In the process, Gordon ended a 47-race winless streak – but cemented his hold atop the Sprint Cup standings in what’s become a 162-point runaway after just six events. The crowd cheered.
As too many of you know firsthand, this recession has no filter in taking the innocent and making them innocent victims before they even know what hit them. Men and women who were the stars of their respective companies have gone from Employee of the Month to Employee Out The Door with nothing more than a bright little pink slip, earning 15 minutes to collect their belongings after 15 years or more worth of effort. Fairness has been replaced with frugal, success with survival in a world where nothing is guaranteed. This Monday morning, Travis Kvapil knows that pain all too well.
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.