October 27, 2003 | 5:31 P.M. EST
Having the race postponed to Monday was a major imposition for those fans in the grandstands. While a good number of them came back, every empty seat you saw during the race represented a fan who had laid out a major amount of money to attend a race live only to be forced by life circumstances to miss the event. And that’s not even taking into account the numerous hard core fans whom sensing the impending end of the season burned a sick day and played hooky on Monday just to watch the race on TV. There’s no doubt a lot of NASCAR fans passionately love their sport. The question is whether NASCAR loves those fans back or just wants their hard-earned money.
For those lucky enough to see it, the Atlanta race was yet another contest at a three groove track where even the average races are above average. And in the later stages of the race there was a real barn-burner going on out there too as some of the sports brightest stars battled fender to fender for the lead. As the laps wound down two of the sports most polarizing drivers, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart had the crowd on its feet. Gordon had taken the lead with a lightning fast pit stop, but Stewart, who led the most laps Monday, was reeling him in. It appeared likely there was going to be another great finish but Ryan Newman’s car went spinning and bought out the caution flag with three laps left to run. The race was allowed to end under caution and Gordon won with all the drama of a Betty-Crocker bakeoff.
Let me say up front that I understand the rules that were in place today. NASCAR had arbitrarily chosen a certain lap and announced prior to the race that if a caution flew on or after that lap the red flag would not be displayed. They adhered to the rule and Jeff Gordon won the race fair and square. There’s no contesting that and there’s no conspiracy. But that was little solace to the fans in the stands whose shoes were still drying from Sunday, who had paid an extra night at a local hotel, gotten their motor home stuck in the mud of driven back and forth to the track twice after taking a day off (most likely without pay) to attend the race. The finish of Monday’s race was a perfect example of why NASCAR should adopt a green/white/checker finish rule for next year’s Nextel Cup just like the rule used in the truck series which has promoted so many great finishes in that series. Watching a race end under caution is like finally getting a date with a dream girl and letting her decide what she wants to do that evening. And she takes you bowling and brings along her ex-boyfriend.
Whether Jeff Gordon could have held off Tony Stewart is one of those questions we’ll never have an answer to. Stewart had to battle back from sixteenth after a slow pit stop but had run Gordon down pretty quickly with twenty laps to go but Gordon was holding his own towards the end of the race. We’ll never know if Gordon or Stewart had all their cards down on the table or if either of them was holding back until the final couple laps. The two have had numerous confrontations and its doubtful either of them would have been shy about trading a little paint contesting the victory especially since both drivers no longer have a shot at the title this year.
It was one of those rare afternoon’s where the planets and stars all lined up properly (obscured by leaden gray clouds in this case) and the two hottest drivers in the sport battled it out for a race win. Both Stewart and Gordon have six straight top 5 finishes. Gordon has won the last two races and finished fifth in the previous four events. Stewart won at Charlotte and actually has a slightly better finishing average in the last six races. Whichever driver prevailed it would have been a sight to see.
Or maybe Gordon and Stewart would have wrecked one another out and Jimmie Johnson would have prevailed. Johnson is pretty hot himself these days. He battled back from a lap down to finish third. He’s finished second or third in the last three races but hasn’t won since New Hampshire last month.
Or maybe all three of the Chevy pilots would have gotten into each other in a three wide dash to the checkers and Bill Elliott who finished fourth would have stolen one in his Dodge. Certainly his partisan home-state fans would have torn down the grandstands had he won particularly with all the rumors circulating about Elliott’s impending retirement. Having notched his fourth straight top 10 finish Elliott proved if he walks away from the game it’s because that’s his choice, not that he can’t race competitively any longer.
Bobby Labonte scored yet another fine run at Atlanta, a track where he’s won five times. Labonte led substantial portions of the race but his car seemed to slow down on longer runs and there was just enough time between the ninth caution period and the caution that ended the race to allow him to slide back to fifth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth and moved back into second place in the points standings. He was involved in a controversial incident with Ryan Newman that led to that race ending caution. They’ll be debating whether Junior hit Newman before or after Newman lost control for some time. From the overhead shot showed by NBC it appeared Newman was already loose when contact was made between the two cars, but not so loose that Earnhardt couldn’t have given him room to save it earlier in the race.
Jeremy Mayfield had another strong run finishing seventh, giving Ray Evernham two drivers in the top ten.
Kurt Busch had eventful weekend. He made contact on pit road that damaged the front fender of his car during the brief portion of the race that ran on Sunday as scheduled. He had to drop to the rear of the field Monday after his team made makeshift repairs to the fender in the pits prior to the race going green. Busch was later penalized in a controversial call when NASCAR said that he’d failed to slow down after the caution flag was displayed for Ricky Rudd’s spin into the tri-oval swamp. (Certainly NASCAR took their sweet old time throwing that caution and switching on the yellow lights greatly adding to the confusion.) He once again battled back to the top 10 for an eighth place finish. How did he pass so many cars? What do I look like, a detective?
Jimmy Spencer was another victim of the confusion that resulted when NASCAR held that fourth caution flag. Spencer slowed down immediately when he saw Rudd spinning ahead of him. Had Busch also slowed at that time (and how likely is it Busch would give Spencer a break?) he’d have remained on the lead lap. But not only did Spencer lose a lap, since Busch also passed Bill Elliott coming to the flag, Elliott was the driver awarded the lap back under the new rule. (Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick were given their laps back because Busch passed them as well after they had slowed, but not Spencer.) Eventually Spencer got his lap back under the new rule and he finished a credible ninth, a boost for a team with an uncertain future.
Joe Nemechek had a top 10 finish in his first run in the Army 01 car. Rumors circulated all weekend that if the MB2 team isn’t under the Rick Hendrick umbrella, at least Hendrick is paying for their ponchos.
Matt Kenseth struggled for most of the race and had to survive a scare when he was hit from behind during the wreck that triggered Monday’s first caution. Clearly unhappy with his car, which broke a header pipe and lost power late in the race, he soldiered on to an eleventh place finish. That combined with Kevin Harvick’s getting tangled up in a mess not of his own making made this year’s title chase a non-event even among the most optimistic of Harvick and Earnhardt Jr.’s fans. Kenseth merely has to finish 21st or better in the final three races to win this year’s title. Even Harvick gave tactic approval to allow Jack Roush to print up those 2003 Championship T-shirts after the race admitting, “It’s over.”
Once the confusion caused by NASCAR’s late call on that fourth caution sorted itself out and the fastest cars got back to the front there was one whale of a race on Monday. But in time fans will only recall it was yet another race NASCAR allowed to end under caution depriving loyal fans an exciting finish. Maybe NASCAR is an ancient Native American term that means, “We got your dang money now, we don’t care if you come back”? As long as races are held outdoors rain is going to occasionally be a problem and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. It’s up to NASCAR to see that those hard core fans who make the big sacrifices to come back Monday after sitting in the rain all day Sunday are treated to the best quality race possible in exchange for their loyalty.