Worst To First Getting Easier?

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RICHMOND, Va. – Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: one of the reasons for all the cautions in Sunday’s completion of the Pontiac Excitement 400 was because the competition is so close that drivers almost can’t help but run into each other.

And in spite of that close competition, a driver who started at the rear of the field can still win.

Perhaps NASCAR stands for Not Any Sense Came At Richmond.

The usual two lanes of racing weren’t there, and the rain of Thursday and Saturday was replaced by bright sunshine for Sunday’s 400-lap race at Richmond International Raceway’s .75-mile track.

Everbody Loves Richmond. Well, they like the old track. The “new” one? Jury’s still out, but the verdict doesn’t look favorable.

But back to the dilemma of competition vs. coming from the back to win, as was the case with Tony Stewart in the Pontiac Excitement 400 Sunday. These days, the 43-car field is pretty close together. Cars aren’t as easy to pass any more, and hanging back and saving tires and equipment doesn’t happen in the 21st century.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Jeff Burton, who has done his share of moving from the back of the pack in his day. “As competitive as things are today, you’ve got to go – you’ve just got to go. In the past, a long time ago, people used to kind of just pace themselves a little bit, but I’m gonna tell you, when they drop that green flag everybody starts racing, and it stops when they drop the checkered. There is very little down time anymore. It used to be that six or seven years ago you could get to fourth and just ride around and wait. Man, you can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to go and run hard.

“It’s so competitive, and that’s why we’re having wrecks. We’re having so many wrecks because you can’t back off the guy in front of you and give him a little room. You’ve got to be right on his bumper so you can try to get under him, and everybody is doing that. It used to be just seven or eight cars or 10 cars would do it, and now everybody is doing it because everybody is competitive. It’s made for great racing, but it’s also made for big wrecks, and it’s made for people being mad at each other. But that’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve just got to go run hard every lap.”

Stewart, the guy who came from last to first Sunday, blamed it on the current rules package. The harder tires have made the cars harder to hook up to the track, and the cars are so aerodynamically sensitive that the chassis setup almost doesn’t matter.

“It used to be that a typical run here, we used to look at an 80-lap segment as an average segment if it went green all the way through,” Stewart said. “You basically planned your run through that, and you didn’t run 100 percent at the beginning because you didn’t want your tires to go off.

“But everything is so dependent on air and tires these days that you have to run 100 percent. Now, it doesn’t mean that you have to be reckless. I was still running 100 percent every lap, but I was only running as fast as the car was capable of going at the time.”

And so was everyone else, which created some of the record-tying 14 cautions and record 103 caution laps.

“Guys were having to run over that to try to gain spots because it was the only way you could get spots,” Stewart said. “That’s where guys were making mistakes and crashing and having the problems. For the circumstances we had, I ran a patient race, but I ran every lap like it was the last lap. You have to run as hard as you can every lap because of the way that the rules are these days, I guess.”

Still, Stewart managed to find the right balance – between patience and charging. How did he do it? And how did Sterling Marlin do it at Darlington or how did Matt Kenseth do it at Texas? Like Stewart, they both changed engines and went to the rear of the field at the start.

But all three won their races.

“No, I don’t think it’s advantageous (changing engines),” second-place finisher Ryan Newman said. “Nobody wants to start in the rear. If something happens to the motor, you have to start in the rear, and that’s just the way the rules work now. I’m sure Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t change that motor because they thought they had one that was a little better and was gonna make them win the race. They probably changed it because something was wrong. When we come to the racetrack, we bring our best piece and our best piece has got to last all day. If it breaks, then it breaks and we put another one in, but it’s just a matter of timing.”

Stewart took it to another level when he chastised reporters who suggested there’s some advantage to changing engines and starting last.

“Don’t try to brainwash race fans into thinking that there’s some big conspiracy that if you change engines, you’re going to win a race,” Stewart said. “It’s ridiculous. Trust me, I would much rather have started third than starting in the back.”

In truth, he’d much rather finish first than … just about anything.

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