Debris Or Not Debris
September 15, 2003 | 12:01 A.M. EST
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outraged race fans
Or to take throw a caution flag
against a sea of boredom……
-Billy Shakesbeer, William’s redneck descendant-
What’s a sanctioning body to do when the first 125 laps of a race are so boring that fans are channel surfing en masse to check out the football games? By that point television network executives are up on the spotters towers with nooses around their necks threatening to jump. So the simple solution to spice things up is to throw one of those infamous “debris” cautions (and let’s call em what they really are, network cautions) to bunch up the field and allow drivers who are struggling to dive into the pits to have their cars adjusted back into competitive trim.
It might violate the purity of the sport but what’s the downside? Well as amply demonstrated Sunday there’s a huge downside. Had the race remained green the cars would have entered pit road at staggered intervals. Instead the pack came screaming into the pits in a swarm, a driver made a mental error and suddenly members of the 48 crew were upended and flying across pit road. It’s a miracle that not only were none of those team members badly injured but that the 48, 24 or 15 car were able to continue racing without extensive damage.
And if this isn’t your first rodeo you’ve heard (probably to the point you find the truism tiresome) cautions breed cautions. You stack up all those fast cars on a restart, especially with passing so difficult once the pack spreads out these days, and there’s likely to be fireworks. There were no caution flags from lap one to 127. Within 75 laps six cautions flew leading to more restarts and more wrecks. Among Sunday’s unfortunate victims were Ward Burton and Dale Jarrett. You want excitement? We’ve got excitement. Jarrett was inside his stricken and burning car sideways across the front stretch undoing his belts as the pack came roaring back to take the caution flag. If there was a silver lining to all those wrecks it’s that track owner Bob Bahre’s newly installed SAFER barriers got a thorough test and passed with flying colors.
And in the end yet another race was decided by fuel economy anyway as NASCAR’s increasingly impatient fans rolled their eyes and yawned.
You’ve got to hand it Jimmie Johnson. He kept his cool after watching several members of his team sent flying, fought his way back from 22nd place and positioned himself to win as others fell by the wayside out of gas. That’s just how the game is played these days and as long as a driver and team play by the rules you can’t fault them. Johnson became the first driver to sweep both New Hampshire races in a season and scored his third triumph of the season.
It’s hard to fault Ricky Rudd for having been annoyed for the previous week. He scored his season best finish last weekend at Richmond and all anyone wanted to talk about after the race was the fight. In an apparent effort to give the pundits something else to discuss Rudd finished second at New Hampshire.
Joe Nemechek, who is currently searching for a ride in 2004, had a solid third place run giving Rick Hendrick two cars in the top 3. For whatever reason throughout Nemechek’s career it seems he starts finishing a lot better right after his team owner announces he’s letting Joe go.
Bill Elliott’s fourth place finish matched his best of the season. Elliott was one of four “veteran” drivers who finished in the top six to show the young guns there’s still some fight in these old dogs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated early stages of the race but was slowed by what he described as a broken inner valve spring after the race. For those wondering how his engine could have continued to run fairly strong with a broken valve spring unlike your street car there’s two valve springs controlling each valve in a Winston Cup engine. If the inner spring breaks (and the debris doesn’t end up in the bottom end of the engine) that valve will float and cost the engine some power but it will continue to run.
Rusty Wallace was the fourth driver who will be forty or older by the end of the season (Nemechek turns 40 the 26th of this month) to finish in the top six. For a while Wallace was struggling just to finish races at all so a second consecutive top ten finish had to be a relief.
Points leader Matt Kenseth opted to keep his strategy conservative Sunday late in the race. The team was discussing gambling and leaving Kenseth out there to see if he could take the win by stretching his fuel mileage. Kenseth apparently made the call to pit for a splash of gas and surrender the battle with the season long war in mind. He already had to be nervous with two of his Roush teammate felled by engine woes. While he gave up a few points to Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth is still comfortably in command of the title chase.
With the unspeakable tragedy that once again visited Robert Yates Racing this week Elliott Sadler’s eighth place finish was a moral victory. Shawn Parker, who lost his wife and two sisters-in-law to a terrible highway accident this week, started the season as Sadler’s car chief and the two have remained close.
Ryan Newman survived a close call when Jeff Gordon sent Ward Burton spinning into Newman’s path after a restart. Newman, who to no one’s surprise started from the pole, led the opening portion of the race but pit strategy just didn’t play out his way. He finished ninth.
Jamie McMurray is on a bit of a roll as of late. His tenth place finish Sunday was one of three top 10s he’s managed in the last four Cup races.
Jeremy Mayfield has finished eleventh or better in the last four Cup races. And John Andretti soldiered home twelfth in the 1 car, his best run since he finished eighth at California.
When New Hampshire first started holding Cup races Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon were the dominant drivers at the Magic Mile. Neither Jeff had a particularly good race Sunday. Burton was running fifth when he suffered terminal engine problems that resulted in a 42nd place finish. Gordon got involved in that pit road wreck, but fought his way back to second. Unfortunately for him his team miscalculated how much gas they needed to finish the race during his final pit stop and Gordon’s tank came up dry two laps short of the finish.
After Sunday’s race NASCAR needs to seriously think about allowing racing back to the yellow and letting drivers advancing positions coming onto pit road. Two tragedies were narrowly averted during the race. And they might want to rethink this network caution flag stuff as well. If the racing has gotten so dull that the only way to spice things up is to throw an unneeded yellow flag there’s a more fundamental problem that needs to be fixed. Simply stated NASCAR needs to make the cars less aerodynamically sensitive to allow for more passing and have Goodyear come up with a softer tire to lessen the impact of fuel mileage on the outcome of races. But that doesn’t seem likely with the former head of the “entertainment” (not competition) division just promoted to the top spot in the organization. NASCAR suffered two unmitigated disasters this weekend. One was the race at New Hampshire on Sunday. The other one was the triumph of nepotism that saw Brian Z. France promoted to CEO of the organization Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see if the sport can survive many more lackluster races like Sunday now that the NFL is going head to head with race broadcasts or the tenure of Brian France in his new position.
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
All lose in the name of action.
Hamlet-Act 3- Scene 1