From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:
Is it me, or are we kidding ourselves about where the current era of contact without penalty is headed for NASCAR’s signature series?
In Turn 3 at Loudon on Sunday, it was not exactly Dale Earnhardt Sr. versus Darrell Waltrip in Turn 3 at Richmond in 1986, the ultimate hallmark of “Have at it, boys” on tight tracks where contact is traditional.
Instead, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson did a little Alphonse and Gaston when it came time to decide who would win the early summertime Sprint Cup race at the track that hosts the opener to the Chase for the Championship in September.
Busch, who took his first career Sprint Cup victory by bumping and running Jimmy Spencer at Bristol eight years ago, put a mere “nudge and run” on Johnson, who retaliated with an one of those “I’m faster and pissed” nudges that put the Lowe’s Chevy into victory lane – yet again.
A cynic would suggest something is still amiss. After almost a decade of Miss Manners policy from NASCAR officials, the sanctioning body may have the sport exactly where it might have wanted it all along. Respectable, polite, relatively skillful responses by highly ambitious and hacked off racers on board 875 horsepower machines.
It’s a little like putting in too much chassis wedge on one pit stop, then backing it off a bit on the next round. NASCAR got it wrong for almost a decade and now has backed off a bit. So be it.
But at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, even firebrand Juan Pablo Montoya shrugged off getting nudged into retirement by the lapped car of Reed Sorenson in Turn 3, which may or may not have put the Colombian out of the Chase. (I suspect JPM was more upset by his team’s pit stops.)
Elsewhere, the A.J. Foyt of the Midwest politely explained and apologized how he took second from Busch’s Miller Lite Dodge in Turn 3 just before the finish with a slight tap from his Old Spice Chevy. Tony Stewart, please phone home and confess that you believe a rival who can’t hold the line down low in Turn 3 doesn’t deserve the position against a faster car.
For his part, the Busch brother who bragged about his bump-and-run to beat Spencer at Bristol as a rookie parsed his words carefully after the race at Loudon, introducing the “nudge and run.”
We may well have been witnessing the Post Sonoma Shock Syndrome.
After literally putting on a demolition derby on the California road course under the new policy of “Have at it, boys,” the drivers worked very hard at demonstrating skill – of all – at Loudon in place of the Sumo wrestling that took place the previous week at the Infineon Raceway, where the cool-down lap was anything but.
How polite were they in Loudon? It took the blown Ford FR9 engine of Kasey Kahne to end a record 201-lap green flag stint. This on a semi-flat mile oval where traffic is usually more unpredictable than the writing quill of Larry Woody.
It was the driver so many traditional fans hate because he’s perceived as the do-right kid next door who added some perspective to the proceedings. After Busch fudged his way into the lead, Johnson said he had only one thing on his mind: “Wreck his ass.”
Back in the day, Earnhardt Sr. took his Wrangler Chevy way too deep into Turn 3 at Richmond firmly committed to leaving behind nothing but the wreckage of the Budweiser Chevy of Darrell Waltrip. It was a matter of psychological advantage for Earnhardt in the long run versus the driver he (correctly) anticipated to be his primary rival for the championship that year. And, it’s worth pointing out that Earnhardt went on to win four more races at Richmond to none for Waltrip and Earnhardt went on to win six championships to none for Waltrip.
Flash forward to the current era and the mind games are gone, maybe even the paybacks. After a decade of NASCAR charging drivers points penalties for everything from punching fellow drivers to using four-letter words – and a week after the less-than-skillful display at Infineon – the drivers appear to have learned their lessons. Make it look good on the track, then make it sound OK off the track once it’s all over.
At least Johnson had the sense to actually say what he was thinking – and use a three-letter word. In some respects, it shows yet again that Johnson is learning how to win post-race style points as well as trophies.
It was also Johnson who pointed out the drivers can’t seem to win. “For a while there, our sport was boring,” said Johnson, who drew laughter with the remark. “Then we wrecked the crap out of them last week and now all of a sudden we have a problem because everybody is wrecking and now this week it wasn’t as exciting.”
Johnson raises a valid point. But the answer remains the same: what’s lacking are more lead changes at the front of the field throughout the race without the use of a crutch – the double-file re-starts and fresh tires that last 10 laps or less. (This, of course, is not all in the drivers’ department, because lead changes have much to do with the current era of cars. It’s also clear the drivers are flat-out but have a hard time breaking free of traffic once the tires give up. But at least Kyle Busch seems to always try to do something about this problem, including on Sunday.)
Other than the usual racing skills, I’d like to see something unpredictable that indicates drivers are looking for an edge such as Montoya simply deciding to drive the wheels off the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing entry – whether he gained positions or not.
What remains in the drivers’ department: telling it like it is – such as when they got out of the cars at Sonoma. At Loudon, for the most part it was pretty damned skillful and occasionally aggressive racing, followed by some exceedingly polite palaver afterwards, the kind that won’t draw “payback” phone calls from sponsors.—Quotes of the week: “I think at the end of the day, the cars are so equal that it is very frustrating inside the car, and I saw things today out of guys that I’ve raced with for years that I did not expect to see.
“So the frustration is there; when you have a chance to send someone, you’re going to take it. It’s just that energy exists right now in the garage area, and maybe guys didn’t have their opportunities today. But it’s a long season and you get the right opportunity; I still think you will see it.
“I just don’t know how to really think, like I was saying, in the big picture. I think we are doing really exciting things on the racetrack and I would assume a lot of people, that’s what they have been hoping for and wanting for a long time. I guess you’ve got to be careful what you wish for.”
– Jimmie Johnson on the new era of “Have at it, boys” and paybacks.—“It was neat having Aric (Almirola) there on standby and putting him in the (the No. 48) car. It was kind of funny. I was talking with my engineer, and I said, ‘What happens if we put him in the car and Aric says, ‘This is terrible,’ and we realize how good Jimmie is?’
“And the engineer said, ‘Well, what if Aric gets in there and we realize how bad Jimmie is and how good our car is?’”
– Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s Crew Chief at Hendrick Motorsports. (After a test was rained out at Milwaukee, Almirola took laps at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in case they need a substitute to allow Johnson to be with wife Chandra at the pending birth of their daughter, the couple’s first child.)—See ya…at the races!
Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites.
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org