Somewhere In Middle America

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Joliet,
Somewhere in Middle America
To get right to the heart of matters
It’s the heart that matters more
I think you’d better turn your ticket in
And get your money back at the door.

-With apologies to Counting Crows-

If green flag passes for the lead are the heart and soul of Winston Cup racing, Sunday’s Chicago race flat-lined. The first green flag pass for the lead occurred on lap 105 when Tony Stewart repassed Kevin Harvick who’d taken the top spot in the pits after Stewart was caught sleeping when his first stop was completed.

NASCAR takes great pride in the fact they are now bringing races to areas of the country outside their traditional Southeastern home-base. And eventually maybe they’ll bring some good racing to those far-flung areas as well, though it might be a while because Chicagoland (an area that apparently stretches from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border to the eastern suburbs of Las Vegas) Speedway surely isn’t Darlington.

Not that natives of the area probably realize what they’re missing. Year after year they endure perpetually horrid baseball teams, an under-achieving football team, and the post-Jordan disaster that is the contemporary Bulls. Watching lousy sports events is a Chicago tradition as of late. Throw in the brutal winters that send sane men south, and the cultural wasteland that is the Midwest where not only do cows outnumbers people, the cattle get better SAT scores than high school graduating classes, and I can understand why 75,000 folks fork over their hard earned money to watch races less exciting than the Friday afternoon grain future report on FM radio.

Once again fuel mileage played a large part in determining a “race” winner. Kevin Harvick played that strategy to win the first too Joliet races, but if you live by the sword you die by the sword. Harvick ran out of gas with three laps to go and Ryan Newman went on to win the race by what the locals would term “a country mile.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Newman won Sunday. He’s a great driver and doubtless a fine young man but he exudes the intriguing charisma of Janet Reno. Is there any driver who seems less excited after winning a race in any form of motorsport? Maybe if someone threatens to crack his slide-rule over their knee if he doesn’t act happy Newman might celebrate, but considering the inflection in his voice doesn’t change when describing climbing out of a car fully engulfed in flames, it’s a long shot.

Tony Stewart is another product of the Midwest, but is the polar emotional opposite of Newman. Stewart emerged from the car after the race still annoyed with Robby Gordon and looking less than pleased with second. But then again this sort of processional racing with so few chances to pass tends to get even the most gentlemanly drivers irritated as evidenced by Mark Martin’s threatening to do ghastly things to his teammate Matt Kenseth after the race following their battle for eleventh.

That Jimmie Johnson finished third is unremarkable except to note that he grew so frustrated trying to make passes he decided to pass Michael Waltrip racing back to the yellow. That leaves his teammate and partial car owner, Jeff Gordon, looking a little foolish for throwing a hissy fit over Robby Gordon’s passing Kevin Harvick racing to the yellow back at Sonoma. Johnson says he’s been passed racing to the yellow “fifteen” times in the eighteen races run to date this year, so perhaps he could tell us which three races such passes didn’t occur during and why no one else has seen it happen. It’s time for NASCAR to admit the Gentleman’s Agreement is a thing of the past and make a rule for safety’s sake in this regard. Help was slow getting to Bobby Labonte while he was trying to crawl out of a ball of flame and one of the reasons is NASCAR can’t roll emergency equipment until the entire field takes the yellow.

Jeff Gordon finished fourth to score his fourth top 5 finish in the last six points races. He was lucky to steer through the wreck that claimed Labonte’s car to finish at all.

Michael Waltrip finished fifth and while he was clearly displeased with Johnson’s passing him coming to the yellow while on the track, after the race Commercial Mike was unable to resist working in a plug for his sponsor (and Johnson’s) discussing the incident. It’s like he’s been programmed by the same group that worked on the Stepford Wives.

Jeff Burton finished sixth. Combined with his second place finish at Daytona last week, Burton has back to back top 10 finishes for the first time this season. (The last time Burton managed back to back top 10 finishes was last year at Watkins Glen and Michigan.)

Robby Gordon finished seventh. Among those drivers not applauding his achievement were Tony Stewart and Elliott Sadler. Like the song goes (sort of) “Ain’t it funny how the new win didn’t change you, you’re still the same old guy you used to be.”

Jamie McMurray finished eighth to score a top 10 finish for the first time since he finished fifth at California earlier this year. For fans of Davey Allison there was a touch of melancholy seeing the Texaco car out there Sunday on the tenth anniversary of Davey Allison’s passing. McMurray seems like a fine young man but he’s no Davey Allison.

Elliott Sadler finished ninth but that’s just his second top ten finish in the last nine races. Former car chief Shawn Parker was taken from the 38 team to head the 88 team in an attempt to reverse Dale Jarrett’s flagging fortunes. While the move hasn’t helped Jarrett much it certainly seemed to derail Sadler’s season which had been going well to that point. It would seem time to try something new or perhaps better let things revert to the way they were.

Jeremy Mayfield’s tenth place finish gives him three consecutive top 10 results. To put that in perspective as to how big this is for the 19 team, they managed only four top 10 finishes in all of 2002.

Bill Elliott had a chance to score a third straight top 10 result at Joliet, and he didn’t miss by much. Elliott finished 11th, which is remarkable considering the poor fuel mileage the 9 car was getting. Starting a race where a driver must pit a full seventeen laps before some of the competition is like sending someone out to play hockey with cinderblocks strapped to his feet rather than ice skates.

Matt Kenseth finished twelfth, missing the top 10 for only the fourth time this season. His late race pass had Roush teammate and Kenseth’s mentor, Mark Martin, unusually peeved and breathing fire as he warned of upcoming retaliation. So who knew crankiness was a side effect of Viagra?

Kevin Harvick had a chance to become the first driver in NASCAR’s top series to win three straight races at a new track. His fuel tank came up empty and Harvick coasted to a seventeenth place finish two laps off the pace.

If Harvick’s day was rough, some drivers who were in the top 10 in points after Daytona had worse days. Bobby Labonte was lucky to bail out of a car engulfed in flames without injury but claimed only 55 points for his 36th place result. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a self-induced spin that put him hard into the wall and resulted in a 38th place finish. Kurt Busch and Rusty Wallace suffered mechanical failures, though Wallace’s team was able to return him to the track only eighteen laps down after replacing a transmission.

For long term and somewhat cynical fans like myself, trying to stay awake through Sunday’s race was a chore that had us wondering why NASCAR won’t do something to fix this sport. But it occurred to me, there’s no reason for them to do so. 75,000 fans are willing to lay out the big bucks, leave their coolers at home, and slog through muddy parking lots to watch races at Chicago. Next week a similar number of New Englanders were head to Loudon though the chances the race will be any good are slim at best. And in a few weeks Midwesterners will once again trade their 4H winning livestock and a handful of magic beans for ultra-pricey tickets to the Brickyard where they will sit mute as sheep being shorn staring across the track at another crowded grandstand full of fans who can’t see much of the track either. As long as that’s the case NASCAR isn’t going to address the one groove race tracks and aerodynamic rules that make passing all but an impossibility on those tracks. We have met the enemy and they is us. As the fans of the White Sox are fond of saying, “Maybe next year.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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