Night Moves

NASCAR’s Mike Helton once described the organization as a 600 pound gorilla that occasionally steps on its own willy. Well Sunday night at Charlotte the clumsy ape trod on that organ hard deciding to call a rain delayed race shortly after 9:30 PM EDT.

Mr. Helton opined that it would take “three to four” hours to dry the track. This week an article appeared in the Independent Tribune that stated with five jet dryers and the “Suck Truck” (well they prefer the term Trak Vac so it’s not confused with the Big Red Truck) the worst case scenario was a two hour delay after rain. In fact Texas, using the same equipment, managed to dry a thoroughly soaked track in just over an hour. (For those who haven’t seen one, the Trak Vac is a rig that vacuums water off the track as opposed to a jet dryer which evaporates water from the track surface with the heat of a jet engine’s exhaust.)

As usual Helton didn’t say the race was called because he and other top NASCAR officials had a five minute slog through the mud back to their palatial motor coaches where they could turn in for the evening. It was for the policemen who had to get all the race fans safely on their way directing traffic. Rain being a common occurrence at an outdoor sporting event I bet the Concorde police are smart enough to schedule a second shift if it becomes necessary. In fact I’ve talked to several officer in the area who much like the cops where I live enjoy the big events and all the overtime money they can earn in a troubled economy. Helton also mentioned how exhausted the track staff would be. They run three damned races a year. If they’re anything like Humpy Wheeler they’d have stayed on the job for three days without sleep to see to it the fans had a good time. But of course Helton mentioned that his decision was also for the benefit of the fans. The very same fans who screamed bloody murder when the Daytona 500 was called prematurely at a track with lights? When a NASCAR official mentions “concern for the fans” during a rain delay, that a code word for, “Our fans are all a bunch of drunken Bubbas and if we give em another couple hours to suck down brew they’ll crash on their way home.” Isn’t that the negative perception we’re trying to rid the sport of and yet it’s parroted by the series officials. Those fans proved at Atlanta in 1998 they’ll gladly sit through hour upon hour of rain delays to see the race they paid their hard earned cash to watch. And in fact one RacingOne staffer who sat in the grandstands was home in under an hour. As for those all important fans on the West Coast that NBC wants to move the races later in the day for, when the race was called it was barely 6:30 in California. They probably still had their dinner burgers and steaks on the grill.

Compounding things is the appearance (note I am not saying this is the case) of impropriety when a driver sponsored by the same home supply center that bought naming rights to the track is leading when the race is called prematurely. Any other sports sanctioning body would have moved Heaven and earth to avoid was an unfortunate coincidence like that. In making the call they did NASCAR officials once again make themselves look like venal morons. Maybe the race couldn’t be run to full distance. Maybe after a two hour drying period an announcement would have gone out to the teams “we’re going to run 100 miles or until 12:30 whichever comes first so adjust your strategy to that.” I think the outraged fans who are voicing their displeasure to me this evening would have accepted that.

Jimmy Johnson had a great month of May at Lowes Motor Speedway and it’s unfortunate that his victory will remain under this dark cloud. (No pun intended.) Last year Johnson could have won both the Winston and 600 but this year he sealed the deal taking both events. And it was clear that Johnson had a very fast car that most likely would have won the race anyway, as opposed to a driver who was off pit sequence who stumbled into the win when the rain came. But then again earlier in the race it didn’t look like anyone could keep up with Tony Stewart and then the 20 car’s engine laid down. In a 600 mile race anything can happen.

Matt Kenseth finished second and was less than pleased with the decision to call the race so early. But he can take some solace in that he had a great day in the points. Prior to the 600 (The 414 in this case) Kenseth had only a twenty point lead over his closest rival, Dale Earnhardt Jr., but that margin grew to 160 points when Junior suffered a myriad of problems in Sunday's race.

Bobby Labonte is on an incredible streak of his own. Prior to Sunday he’d finished second in the last three points races (and third in the Winston) and he finished third at Charlotte in the 600. Labonte is probably counting his blessings the race ended early before engine problems similar to his teammate sidelined him.

Jimmy Spencer scored his first top 5 finish of the season coming home fourth at Charlotte. Spencer and his crew chief Tommy Baldwin were released by their respective teams last year, so to run so well at what is considered the sports “Home Field” has got to offer some measure of vindication for both men.

After the last few weeks pole-sitter Ryan Newman will probably settle for fifth in a car that still had all four fenders on it and an operative engine under the hood. Newman continues to impress on Fridays but Sundays haven’t been too kind to him as of late. His fifth place result at Charlotte was Newman’s first top 10 finish since he won at Texas earlier this year.

After a season marred by inconsistency (except at the plate tracks where he’s expected to run well) Michael Waltrip now has finished twelfth or better in the last three races but his sixth place result at Charlotte was the best of those three finishes.

Last year’s points contender Sterling Marlin is also getting his season turned around. Marlin now has top 10 finishes in four of the last five races dating back to Talladega.

Jeff Gordon has looked decidedly ordinary since winning at Martinsville failing to finish in the top 10 in the last two races. He rebounded with an eighth place finish Sunday but the 24 looked to be fading late and struggling.

If Newman and Gordon have reason to feel relieved that they managed to come away with a top 10 finish, Dale Jarrett has got to be even more pleased. He hadn’t scored a top 10 finish since winning at Rockingham prior to Sunday night’s alleged race.

Ward Burton finished tenth to score his first top 10 at a non-restricted track at Charlotte and only his second top 10 of the 2003 season. If he had a vote doubtless Burton would have voted for calling the race early after seeing his teammate Kenny Wallace reduce his engine to bite sized bits earlier in the race. When a car is spouting what looks like a black and white milk shake five feet over the roof out the cooling system vent hose you know an engine is used up proper.

It’s one thing for NASCAR to use its dictatorial powers to make an unpopular decision and of course there is no court of appeal. It’s another for the head of that organization to insult the intelligence of the sport’s fans with a bunch of red herring excuses as to why he made the call he did. Judging by the message boards and the mail I’m getting tonight fans are outraged and there’s a whole lot of unhappy drivers criticizing NASCAR pretty bluntly as well. By some will defend Helton’s decision. Darrell Waltrip in the TV booth was all but handling snakes as he pontificated about what a wise call NASCAR had made. Of course fans who were around in 1997 might recall another Darrell Waltrip holding court during a lengthy rain delay with an even more grim forecast saying he was willing to stick around all night and the fans should get the race they’d paid to see. It’s pretty obvious when Waltrip the broadcaster is just tired and wants to go home. It’s ironic a good number of fans are tired of Waltrip and want him to go home too, preferably bringing Mike Helton with him.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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