Hollywoods Calling

I’m not sure anyone in Hollywood, even Britney’s people, would dare buy the script of Sunday’s race. Our film starts with a wily and well liked veteran who seems poised to take his team to the championship for the first time after all these years. But wait a minute! The old veteran is hurt in a hard crash and sidelined for the rest of the season. Enter the fresh-faced kid who has never competed at anything approaching this level in the sport and never even won in the AAA leagues. Things start out all right last week at Talladega, but most of the team is still despondent and talking about next year. Things look pretty grim after Jamie McMurray finishes 41st in Saturday’s Busch race, which after all is his “day job.” But on Sunday the Kid takes the wheel and despite proclaiming the track his least favorite goes out and wins the race in only his second Winston Cup start holding back the seasoned but fair former champion recovering from a bit of a slump of his own. I kept waiting for Mickey Rooney to appear in knickers to slap McMurray on the back and holler, “That’s the way you do it, Kid! The orphanage is saved!” (Well in this case “the brewery is saved” which would have suited Mickey just fine.)

Some cynics will probably guess that the 40 car (which Marlin drove to two wins earlier this season and to a victory in this event last year) was so good all McMurray had to do was turn left four times a lap and keep the throttle mashed. I don’t think that’s the case. Jimmie Johnson, whose proved himself a stellar talent by any measure this year, lost this spring’s Charlotte race by making a rookie mistake and sliding through his pit stall. Towards the end of the race McMurray had to work heavy lapped traffic, not usually a strong point for rookies especially ones beginning to get a bit excited by a potential good finish, and he did so flawlessly, though a lot of the other drivers are to be commended for giving the Kid room to race. Bobby Labonte has been at this game awhile and he almost passed no less a driver than the late Dale Earnhardt on the last lap at Atlanta in 2001 in similar circumstances. Still the team does get a lot of credit. The decision to short pit McMurray just after Bobby Labonte was forced to the pit with an equalized tire was a high risk gamble, because if a caution had flown before the other lead lap cars pitted both Labonte and McMurray would have been “Also Rans.” The stop they ripped off on pit road was fast enough to return Jamie to the track ahead of Labonte which might have decided the race. And I won’t deny that’s a particularly good car that the team is no doubt going to freshen up and haul to Atlanta in a couple weeks. But I give McMurray a lot of the credit and that’s from a guy who is eating some crow tonight after writing last week that McMurray wasn’t anywhere near ready for Cup. Crow don’t taste that bad on wheat bread with a lot of horseradish, a Coors Light and a Jack chaser.

Bobby Labonte has been enduring a season which could kindly be called “miserable. (Sunday’s second place finish was only his fourth top 5 of 2002.) He raced McMurray hard but drove him clean which is a trademark of Labonte’s. If you’re going to be leading a race as a rookie there’s no driver you’d rather have running second than Bobby. (Normally I’d include Mark Martin too, but Sunday Martin drove an uncharacteristically rough race.)

For Tony Stewart, he lost the battle but won the war. Neither Labonte nor McMurray are contending for the points championship. By finishing ahead of his championship rivals Stewart maintained and increased his lead atop the standings. It looks like he’s going to be hard to catch down the stretch with his runs as of late.

Jeff Gordon thought he had an engine laying down late in the race, but it turned out to be a cracked header pipe. With Nemechek and Schrader (whose team uses Hendrick engines) already behind the wall he had reason to be concerned. But the engine itself was fine and Gordon drove home fourth. Had it not been for last week’s engine failure at Talladega he’d still be in the thick of the fight, but barring problems for the 20 team it’s probably time for Jeff to start cheering on Jimmy Johnson this year.

Rusty Wallace finished fifth once again driving a black car, once a trademark of Rusty’s. As superstitious as racers are it’s hard for me to imagine when Wallace’s fortunes declined driving those ugly blue and white cars he didn’t insist on a darker hue of paint for his rides. But I guess with the amount of green Miller lays out they get to pick the palette and Wallace would drive a pink car if they told him too.

Like his teammate, Jimmie Johnson thought he was losing an engine at one point, but the real problem with his car was even more basic. A wheel had been left loose on a pit stop. That’s the sort of things rookie teams sometimes do in the heat of a title battle that can cost them a chance at the big trophy. At least the wheel didn’t fall off and put Johnson into the wall in this instance. (Long time fans may recall the 1990 running of this event when Dale Earnhardt was battling Mark Martin for a championship. Even the battle hardened 3 outfit managed to leave two wheels loose on that black Chevy which led to the stunning sight of Earnhardt losing two tires and spinning into the infield grass, at which point his crew pushed a NASCAR official out of the way to run out on the grass and reinstall the tires.)

Jeff Burton and the 99 team have definitely been the weak sister outfit of Roush Racing this season, the only one of the four teams without a win and the only one currently outside the top 10 in points. Burton’s winless drought is rapidly approaching a year in length. But the good news is since the highly controversial decision to change crew chiefs, Burton has managed an eleventh and seventh place finish in two races.

Ryan Newman had a rough weekend. After positing the fastest time in Saturday’s first practice, Newman promptly went out and crashed the car hard enough the team had to go to a backup. The team didn’t have time to prepare that backup car properly and Newman was only 35th fastest in Happy Hour practice. At the beginning of the race Newman was actually put a lap down. In fact he was lapped twice, but in both cases managed to get his lap back racing to the caution flag. To come home eighth after facing that sort of problems is most respectable. (And that was Newman’s seventh top 10 finish in a row.)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to use a little momentum carried over from Talladega to score a top 10 finish at Charlotte. For whatever reason Earnhardt seems to be having problems pitting properly lately. Sunday he slid through his pit stall. A couple weeks ago he forgot to keep the brake pedal depressed during a stop. While he didn’t win two in a row it certainly appeared Junior and teammate Michael Waltrip were having a good old time out there racing one another towards the end of the event.

Dave Blaney got knocked so sideways by Mark Martin at one point Sunday it’s a miracle he managed to finish the race, much less finish tenth, almost unnoticed despite the retina burning hue his car is painted. For those keeping score at home that’s Blaney’s third finish of 11th or better in the last six Winston Cup races.

It’s difficult to go out on a limb as topsy-turvy as this season has been. Jamie McMurray’s win has got to considered the upset of the season. (Though Hollywood would prefer to refer to it as “The feel good hit of the fall”.) The title chase is coming into focus now. Advantage Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin are going to have to get with the program next weekend to keep their hopes alive. And back there in fourth place Ryan Newman remains the hottest driver on the circuit. Hmmm. Another rookie coming from fourth place to win a championship in the final five races of the season? Let me scribble down some thoughts. Have your people call my people. We’ll do lunch. I’m smelling a blockbuster.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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