The Island Of Unwanted Toys
May 5, 2003 | 12:14 A.M. EST
Is there anything more exciting than a Winston Cup short track race? Perhaps. A Winston Cup short track race run with the threat of rain imminent forcing every driver out there to run each lap past halfway like it might be the last one. As expected there was plenty of slammin’ and frammin’, some short tempers, tires smoking and caution flags waving. Rather unexpectedly Joe Nemechek won the race.
You could call the 25 team the island of unwanted toys. Last year Joe Nemechek’s season got off to a rocky start when the team’s sponsor declared bankruptcy days prior to the Daytona 500. While Nemechek had won two races prior to Saturday night’s Richmond race in both cases he’d already received notice he was being released from the team prior to the victory. Nemechek has bounced from team to team looking for a home and didn’t even know at the end of last season whether he’d be in the 25 car this year.
Joe Sospenzo had some good runs with Jeremy Mayfield and the 12 team before being offered up as a scapegoat when Mayfield’s off track problems caused the team’s fortunes to falter. He too drifted a bit before finding a home at the 25 team late last season with no guarantee he’d be back.
Indeed the Rick Hendrick 25 team has seemed to be cursed. The team’s first driver, Tim Richmond, was spectacularly successful, but had to step aside due to health reasons that eventually took his life. Kenny Schrader was forced out of the car after several dismal seasons and his career has been in a virtual free fall ever since. Ricky Craven had to step out of the 25 car due to health reasons after one too many concussions. And sadly Jerry Nadeau was also released from the team despite his one win with the organization in Atlanta back in 2000.
Nemechek was not considered a threat to win at Richmond prior to Saturday night’s race. (I’ll admit in this week’s handicaps I stated, “you’re more likely to see a natural blonde on VH1 country than to see Nemechek in victory lane at Richmond.” Oops. I forgot about Alan Jackson.) He’d finished sixth here twice but for the most part had lackluster results here. But short track racing is the great equalizer. On any given race weekend, any one of a couple dozen drivers can win. Nemechek did a masterful job recovering from a pit miscue that forced him to pit off sequence under caution and fall to 25th place. Some will debate whether Bobby Labonte or Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have caught Nemechek had the race not been stopped seven laps prior to its scheduled distance. To me it looked like the best car and the driver who wanted it the most won the race and would have even if those final seven laps had been run under the green flag.
Bobby Labonte finished second for the third consecutive race. Labonte, who left Talladega just three races ago fifteenth in the points, has now climbed to fifth in the standings. He’s also the only driver with a top 5 finish in each of this season’s first three short track races.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished sixth or better in each of the last five races and has now closed in within twenty points of Matt Kenseth for the points lead. At Richmond you expect Junior, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to finish well. (And considering Ryan Newman finished second in both races here last year, add him into the mix.) Stewart wrecked, Newman blew up and wrecked to cover all the bases and Jeff Gordon ran lousy most of the evening for unknown reasons, but Junior managed a strong third place finish.
At a short track one should always expect the unexpected. Robby Gordon fell almost four laps off the pace early but wound up leading the race. While worn tires eventually dropped him to fourth place it was still this team’s strongest run this season. And here’s something else surprising. Gordon has been running at the end of every race this season.
Mark Martin had an eventful evening and survived several skirmishes to come home fifth. That finish advanced him two spots to twelfth in the standings only seventeen markers (no pun intended) out of the top 10.
Kevin Harvick made a lot of bold moves but didn’t make a lot of friends on his way a sixth place finish. Harvick’s victims, too numerous to mention, included his erstwhile teammate Jeff Green who went to discuss the matter with Harvick’s crew chief. One can imagine the response. “Hey, you knew he’s an obnoxious SOB. Why does this surprise you?”
Matt Kenseth’s evening almost went to offal when he tangled with Casey Mears and bent up the nose of his Taurus. Kenseth was able to bounce back to a seventh place finish to preserve his points lead which seemed very much in peril most of the evening.
Kurt Busch finished eighth, meaning four of five Roush drivers finished inside the top 10 the only Ford pilots to do so. But someone really needs to tell the folks at FOX Greg Biffle drives for Roush as well.
Jeff Burton finished ninth, only his third top 10 result of the 2003 season. Frankie Stoddard has already been offered up as a sacrificial lamb in an attempt to return the 99 team to its glory days, but this outfit is rapidly on its way to joining the 25 team as a place where careers go to die.
Rusty Wallace finished tenth despite severely damaging his car in an incident with the 01 car (not a popular move this weekend) that also saw Wallace run into his own teammate. The good news for Wallace is he’s averaging a better finish than his talented teammate Ryan Newman in the last four races. The bad news is Newman has averaged a 37th place result in those same four races.
This weekend’s Richmond race was run not only under dark clouds of an approaching weather front, but the emotional storm that followed Jerry Nadeau’s severe practice wreck on Friday. The warning signs were in place. Last fall all three races run at Richmond featured a lot of nasty accidents. Bobby Hamilton was sidelined after a hard wreck in the truck race, Derrike Cope after an even worse wreck in the Busch race, and Sterling Marlin saw his title hopes derailed after a hard wreck in the Cup race. Richmond track management had hoped to have SAFER barriers (often incorrectly referred to as “soft walls”) in place prior to this race weekend. Supposedly the short track version of the SAFER barrier was delayed due to foul weather during the off season. (It snows in Nebraska during the winter? Who knew?) While Saturday night’s race was entertaining to old school fans of stock car racing, it is certainly my hope before the circuit returns here this fall those barriers will be in place. If any driver can appreciate the pain the Nadeau family is experiencing right now it’s Joe Nemechek. He lost his brother John to a similar wreck in a truck series wreck at Homestead. Winston Cup racing under the lights on a short track is a marvelous and magical thing, but no sport is so special that it outweighs the ability of a young husband to return home to bounce his three-month-old daughter joyfully on his knee after the checkered flag drops.