Even When Its Over

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They say in baseball, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” In NASCAR short track racing and particularly this weekend at Richmond, it wasn’t even over when it was over.

After the checkered flag flew on Thursday night Bobby Hamilton wrecked Brendan Gaughan for no apparent reason other the fact Hamilton was mad at another driver for spinning him out of the lead, was charging back to the front and didn’t like getting passed for seventh on the last lap.

Friday night Matt Kenseth and Johnny Sauter got into a little bit of a tussle during the race. Sauter came up the track and hit Kenseth. Both cars got sideways and both drivers made miraculous saves but under a subsequent caution flag the normally milquetoast Kenseth made a point to run up and deliver a solid shot to Sauter’s rear bumper to protest that move. Sauter then went ahead and knocked Kenseth out of the lead on the final lap to take the win. And once again the checkered flag didn’t signal the end of the action. Kenseth went up and swapped a little paint with Sauter during the cool down lap. When Kenseth went to head for the pits, Sauter’s teammate Kevin Harvick brake-checked Matt and then leapt from the car to discuss manners and racing protocol. The two had a heated discussion, but no punches were thrown and they both cooled down quickly. Meanwhile Jason Keller was waiting outside the Big Blue truck to have a discussion with Shane Hmeil who wrecked him late in the race while Keller was in position to have a great points night. After that discussion Keller was also invited into the trailer for a chat. And in the garage area several crews were exchanging words and shoves in discussing the race.

Sunday it appeared that both Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick (fresh off a sit down with the NASCAR officials Saturday night) were in position for top 5 finishes with Harvick having a good chance at winning the race. First Jeff Burton got into Robby Gordon and put him into the wall (Burton at least sounded sincere in apologizing after the race) and then Ricky Rudd put Harvick hard into the wall with a handful of laps to run. And Rudd and Harvick already have a little history at this track dating back to 2001 when Harvick knocked Rudd out of the lead and then Rudd returned the favor a few laps later.

After the race poor Richard Childress was on his radio trying frantically to calm his two drivers down. Robby Gordon drove up alongside Burton but didn’t hit him. (I doubt he was yelling over at Burton, “Want to come by my place for a BBQ tomorrow afternoon?” either.) But even while Childress screamed at Harvick not to “do something stupid Harvick was hellbent for leather off in search of Ricky Rudd. After a race the top five finishing cars most park on pit road to prepare for a post-race inspection so that’s where Harvick caught up with Rudd. The two drivers never actually faced off because there were team members and NASCAR officials to keep them apart. But Harvick did throw his steering wheel at the 21 car then proceeded to leap onto the hood of Rudd’s car in a purposeful move to damage it.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Harvick. He is at very least facing a fine for a post-race profanity he muttered on the air (and TNT was playing up the fight angle all weekend so there was a microphone there to capture the moment). Getting called to the trailer two nights in a row isn’t good form. Throwing of steering wheels is discouraged. But where Harvick might really have messed up was hitting the 21 car on pit road with people already swarming around the car to prevent a fight. Jeff Purvis did the same thing a few years back and got a lengthy suspension though in fairness Purvis hit the other car a lot harder during the race while the other team was trying to service the car. Harvick barely brushed the 21 car. Maybe he was just trying to flatten Rudd’s fender?

In the midst of all the theatrics there was a stock car Saturday night. Ryan Newman now has six wins to go along with his six poles this season. And he scored his 6th win on September 6th and moved into 6th place in the standings. Poor Newman ended up having to wait for the TV crew to put him on the air for his post-race victory celebration while TNT covered the fight that never quite happened. But it’s not like a Ryan Newman victory “celebration” is gripping TV anyway. I am sure Newman said something after the race and that I heard it. I just don’t remember a word of it.

Jeremy Mayfield is fighting to keep his job at Evernham Motorsports. Published reports claim Mayfield has signed off on the new deal and is waiting for Evernham to do the same. A strong second place finish, Mayfield’s best in his tenure with the team, ought to help move along the process.

Ricky Rudd also matched his best finish of the 2003 season, his first with the legendary Wood Brothers. As noted above Rudd and Harvick have crossed swords before and this sort of drama is typical on a short track, particularly when you pair off a young driver whose career is just hitting its stride with a successful veteran who sees retirement looming just over the horizon. Who was right and who was wrong? Nobody was either. It’s short track racing. If you’re worried about it being a bad influence on your kids take em out back and play lawn croquet. I will say this about Harvick however. When Sauter planted Kenseth on the last lap it could have wreck the 17 every bit as badly as the 29 was torn up Saturday night, yet Harvick seemed to think it was OK Friday night.

Jeff Burton scored only his third top 5 finish of the 2003 season coming home fourth. But he led the race Saturday night and appeared to have a strong car. Better yet, the series travels to New Hampshire, Burton’s best track, next weekend.

Rusty Wallace scored his first top 5 finish since California in April. Want to know why Wallace is languishing fifteenth in points? The once undisputed short track king of NASCAR failed to post a top 5 at the first four short track races of the season.

Bobby Labonte came home sixth and might be getting his season turned back around. From Martinsville in April until Daytona in July, a nine race stretch, Labonte only missed the top 10 once. He then went seven straight races without a top 10 finish. Now Labonte has put a pair of top 10 finishes back to back again. The problem is points leader Matt Kenseth is already long gone.

Matt Kenseth is NASCAR’s Teflon-coated champion in waiting. (And you’ll note even the TV folks are accidentally referring to Kenseth as “Championship Winner” rather than “Championship Leader” these days.) By all rights Saturday night should have been a disaster for Kenseth and the 17 team. The car was handling poorly early in the race and Kenseth finally managed to hit the wall. Todd Bodine had nowhere to go and sent the 17 car spinning. The entire right side of the car was smashed flat. Jack Roush must use tie-rod ends made of kryptonite because it still handled well enough for Kenseth to narrowly avoid several wrecks and come home with yet another top 10 finish.

Kenseth’s top 10 finish is even more significant in that all his closest pursuers in the title chase experienced problems and finished behind them. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in particular seemed poised to gain some ground when Kenseth experienced trouble but he ran over a piece of debris and the team chose not to pit under the subsequent caution. And of course a tire went down a few laps later and relegated Junior to a seventeenth place finish. Races ain’t over even when they’re over but this years title chase is over. Now you don’t have to look it up because we already did.

Terry Labonte is suddenly resurgent after a lengthy period measured in years not months when he didn’t seem to be able to get out of his own way. In addition to winning the Southern 500 last week, Labonte now has three straight finishes of eleventh or better. Labonte is now back inside the top 10 in points for the first time in recent memory and 64 points ahead of defending champion Tony Stewart. Don’t be surprised if you see a rabbit with a pocket watch running around New Hampshire complaining he’s late for a very important date.

Johnny Benson quietly managed a top 10 finish coming home ninth despite some dicey moments during the race. Benson may be a small fish in a big pond but when it comes to the Pontiac pond lately he’s a Great White shark.

Jeff Gordon suffered through yet another uncharacteristically bad evening. Up and through the midpoint of the race Gordon had a strong car and in clean air it seemed untouchable until Dale Earnhardt Junior caught up to the 24. The two drivers, arguably the most popular in the sport, gave the fans what they paid their hard earned money to see racing one another hard and swapping the lead back and forth. But Gordon’s car seemed to lose it’s edge after a pit stop and he fell back as far as seventeenth late in the race before advancing back to tenth mainly through attrition and the misfortunes of drivers running ahead of him.

Richmond may be the perfect track for contemporary stock cars, not quite as wreck strewn as Bristol, fast enough to be interesting and short enough that aerodynamics aren’t the only deciding factor in who wins. And at three quarters of a mile (or thereabouts) Richmond still qualifies as a short track with all the tight action and frayed tempers typical of the smaller ovals. With the Cup circuit now halfway through the grueling twenty straight race schedule that started in Daytona in July it’s not unexpected tempers are getting a bit short. By the time the series reaches Martinsville in October drivers would be well advised to wear bulletproof vests to the post-race theatrics. The title might be a foregone conclusion now but as for the racing itself, stay tuned. It ain’t over even after it’s over.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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