As Seen On TV

Sunday’s Watkins Glen victory was sweet vindication for Robby Gordon. He’d been running roughshod over the field at Watkins Glen back in 2001 when the TV telemetry box he was carrying for NASCAR’s new network partner burst into flames and exploded repeatedly on pit road depriving him of the win. On Sunday he might not have had the fastest car but Gordon was able to capitalize on strategy to take the win. In doing so Gordon joins three other drivers in season sweeps on the road courses. (Jeff Gordon has done so twice. Rusty Wallace and Tim Richmond each did so once.)

Maybe eventually Gordon will win a race that isn’t under a cloud of controversy. At New Hampshire in 2001 Gordon punted Jeff Gordon to steal the win. At Sonoma earlier this year he opened a Pandora’s box by passing his teammate Kevin Harvick racing back to the yellow in defiance of the gentleman’s agreement. On Sunday Gordon didn’t do anything wrong. He was just in the right place at the right time when Rusty Wallace decided to do a little off-roading. The drivers who were ahead of Wallace had no idea the caution was about to fly and went by pit road. Gordon was two cars behind Wallace, saw the incident and was able to dive onto pit road before the caution flew. (At which point the pits would have been closed until the pace car, er truck, picked up the field.) Apparently NASCAR was asleep at the wheel in the control tower, because the yellow should have flown before Gordon reached pit road and pit road should have been closed. It seems disingenuous that the timing of a caution flag should penalize the leaders and benefit those further back in the pack. This is after all stock car racing, not a mechanized game of musical chairs.

As confusing as pit strategy is during a road course race, particularly for newer fans, and as unpredictable as cautions are with NASCAR sometimes electing to throw one for seemingly no reason then withholding the flag for a major spin in traffic, maybe NASCAR needs to borrow a concept from CART. Have mandatory competition yellow flags fly at Watkins Glen at lap 30 and 60 so that the race goes to the swift, not the fortunate. And meanwhile fans will be able to tell whose really got the strongest cars. Or maybe they can just add an essay test that counts for fifty percent of the final finishing order to further confuse things.

Gordon’s second win of the season is part of a remarkable turnabout for Richard Childress racing. RCR cars have now won two consecutive races. Earlier in the season they were struggling to finish inside the top 10.

Scott Pruett had far and away the best finish of any of the so called “ringers” some Winston Cup teams hire just for the road course races. The next best finish by a road course specialist was a 25th place result for PJ Jones driving for the Morgan McClure team. Pruett is having an outstanding season having won seven of nine Trans Am races this season. (Aided and abetted by the fact defending series champion Boris Said got suspended for some comments he made about the Trans Am officials.)

At the start of the 2003 season Dale Earnhardt Jr. said his team was focusing on areas where they needed to improve in order to be able to chase championships. Road courses were one weakness for this team and it seems they’ve addressed that problem pretty well with Junior finishing third Sunday. (Now if they could just stop messing up in the pits.) It appears likely there’s going to be a spirited points battle between Earnhardt and Gordon, two of the sport’s most popular drivers, down the stretch but it will be for second place and somewhat obscured by the dust Matt Kenseth is leaving them in.

Jimmie Johnson managed to steer clear of the last lap melee involving his boss/teammate Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick to finish fourth. It was Johnson’s first top 10 finish on a road course in his young Winston Cup career.

Kevin Harvick finished fifth, but perhaps more notably he finished off Jeff Gordon’s chances at a top 5 finish and maybe Gordon’s title aspirations this year. Gordon appeared to run out of gas and tried moving out of the way after the initial contact in the final corner, but Harvick held onto the rear bumper of the 24 like a terrier would a rat and sent Gordon spinning. Gordon dropped from third to thirty-third in the final yards of the race. And mayhem has erupted on Internet message boards as a result.

Ward Burton and Dale Jarrett finished sixth and seventh respectively, largely as a result of being in the right place at the right time and ducking onto pit road after Rusty Wallace left the course. Neither seemed to have competitive cars earlier in the event, but such is the nature of road course racing.

Matt Kenseth’s day could have been a disaster. He made contact with Casey Mears that crushed his left front fender into the 17 car’s tire and was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop. (Had the final caution not flown it is doubtful Kenseth would have finished the race on the fuel he had aboard.) Later in the race Kenseth went wide off the course and nearly ended up trapped in the gravel. But somehow Kenseth rallied back to a top 10 finish his seventeenth of the season. If Kenseth can escape bad wrecks at Bristol in two weeks time and at Talladega this fall he seems the presumptive favorite for this year’s title.

Ryan Newman finished ninth and has now finished in the top 10 in all four of his Cup road course starts. The weekend started on a sour note for Newman who wrecked in practice and put his car up on its side. He was less than delighted by the response time and the competency of the rescue crew that rode to his aid. I’ll go out on the limb and say eventually NASCAR will do the right thing and hire a full time safety crew to travel the circuit but it will probably be after one or two needless deaths caused by slow response times.

Mark Martin finished inside the top 10 which is like saying the sun rose this morning. Martin has top 10 finishes in fourteen of sixteen starts at the Glen. But the 6 team seems to have lost its edge again. Martin was never a contender for the win Sunday.

It may be presumptive to say Matt Kenseth will be this year’s champion but I think it’s safe to say that Tony Stewart will not repeat as champion. Stewart’s efforts were hampered by yet another pit road penalty for pitting outside the box and fuel strategy that didn’t work out for either of Joe Gibb’s car. He’d already started the event behind the eight ball having to start at the rear of the field after yet another blown engine. Stewart is now 744 points out of first currently sitting eleventh in the standings. If Stewart were to win the next five races and lead the most laps in each while Matt Kenseth finished dead last in each race, Kenseth would still be leading Stewart.

At least the weather cooperated. While watching the eventful first lap of Sunday’s race I found myself wondering how much more of a mess it would have been had rain fallen and the teams had to run on those wet weather tires Goodyear has had stashed away for a number of years now. But NASCAR wouldn’t have a lot of choice. Had they not been able to get the race in this weekend with the twenty week stretch of races to the end of the season, likely the teams would have needed to mount snow tires to race at the Glen on Thanksgiving weekend. Maybe NASCAR can add opening up a weekend late in the season once they address the traveling safety crew issue and work on getting someone into the tower who can call for a yellow flag before being alerted by the track PA announcer there’s an incident on course.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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