Jimmies Gimmie

Well, let’s get this out of the way right up front. Sunday’s World 600 wasn’t the most exciting race for fan’s to watch unless they sleep in 48 pajamas and have the number 48 tattooed somewhere on their person. It’s not too often one driver will lead 334 laps of a 400 lap Cup race (the second most laps led by any 600 winner ever) and will spend most of the laps he’s not in the lead in second. But every once in awhile the stars and planets align in some improbable manner and a Cup driver just goes out and stinks up the show. Off the top of my head I recall Dale Jarrett at Michigan in 1999 and Jeff Burton at New Hampshire in 2000. When the Budweiser frog commercials are more fun to watch than a 600 mile race something has gone terribly amuck.

And the conspiracy theorists are already howling. This weekend at Lowes Motorspeedway, drivers with Lowe's sponsorship won the pole for the Cup race (and outside poll for the Busch race) the Busch race, and the Cup race. Adding fuel to the fire is a curious comment by Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus reminding his driver to “pull the chip out of it, Jimmy” after the race. Anytime one driver is so dominant in a race there’s going to be suspicion raised.

But in Johnson’s defense, he’s always run well at Charlotte. He’s led 701 of a possible 1744 laps run in his last five Cup starts at the track and won last year’s Winston to boot. And it’s not like he hasn’t been running well lately as it is with four straight top 5 finishes in the four points races leading up to Sunday’s race including runner up finishes at Richmond and Fontana. He was due. And finally, if a team and driver decided to cheat they’d lay back until later part of the race and make it look like they were working for it rather than going out and spanking the field.

For Johnson it was his eighth career victory in just his 87th Cup points race start. For comparison’s sake his mentor Jeff Gordon won his ninth race in his 87th start (Dover, September, 1995) More importantly the dominating performance moved Johnson within 5 points of the top of the standings. You might recall Gordon won his first championship in his third full year on the circuit, and this is Johnson’s third full season running Cup.

You might term Michael Waltrip’s second place finish “Best in Class”. It was also Waltrip’s best finish on a non-plate track in eons. The last time Waltrip finished as well anywhere other than Daytona or Talladega was at Homestead in 2001. The strong run puts a little spark in Waltrip’s long moribund chances at making the top 10 in points before Richmond this fall moving him ahead six spots to 24th in the standings. But he still needs to make up 213 points in the next fourteen races to be within 400 points of the man at the top of the standings.

Sunday night Matt Kenseth did what’s he been doing most of the season, making chicken salad out of chicken poop. (No, I can’t use the correct term.) After another bad qualifying effort, going a lap down, having to stop a second time when lug nuts were left loose and looking hopelessly un-competitive for most of the night, Kenseth emerged late in the race as a player to finish third.

When faced with overwhelming odds, sometimes teams use desperate measures. With no other chance to win the race (and the only thing faster than Johnson all night was the jets that did the fly-over after the Anthem) McMurray and his team elected not to pit under the fifth caution and stayed out on old tires. It didn’t work for Ryan Newman last week and it didn’t work for McMurray this week. On the final restart Johnson bought the field to the green extremely slowly to keep McMurray from laying back to get a run, and when the green dropped Jamie spun the rear tires inadvertently giving Johnson a huge lead.

Elliott Sadler seemed to have the only car that was even within a class or two of the 48 early in the race, but in the end he wasn’t able to make a run back at the top spot. One set of tires didn’t suit him and Sadler lost enough ground during that portion of the race he was never competitive again. But Sadler did score his first top 10 finish since he won at Texas and while he’s barely been hanging onto a top 10 position in the points, a good run moved him up to seventh.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. went two laps down at one point in the race, but he also managed to salvage a bit on honor towards the end of the race rallying to finish sixth. Even last year if he'd been frustrated with a car that couldn’t keep up with lead pack, Earnhardt would have probably overdriven the car trying to stay on the lead lap and wrecked, but he’s showing a new found maturity this season as he fights to remain atop the points.

Casey Mears finished seventh for the third time this season. (He’s also finished eighth twice.) But inconsistency still continues to plague this team. At least that’s an improvement over last year when Mears ran consistently terribly.

Jeremy Mayfield’s efforts to win the 600 (OK, to finish second) suffered a setback when he got caught speeding leaving pit road during the fifth caution period. Mayfield who’d been running third prior to that caution fell back to eleventh and could only work his way forward to eighth by the time the checkers fluttered to end a race that was as lopsided as the Battle of Little Big Horn. Still the run had to be a morale booster after a stretch of six straight races when Mayfield finished no better than fourteenth and had to settle for finishes outside the top 20 on four occasions.

Tony Stewart finished ninth but never led a lap after looking pretty strong in the All Star race last week. In one of those “what was somebody thinking?” moves, one of Stewart’s fans apparently threw a bright orange Home Depot sweatshirt out onto the track to draw a caution flag that got Stewart back onto the lead lap. Now, I can understand throwing Stewart onto the track to save a sweatshirt, but not the other way around. Sweatshirts cost good money.

While he was non-factor all evening, Rusty Wallace did claim the tenth finishing position though there will be more headlines about the great Budweiser/Louie- Miller/President of Beers, ad campaign this week than there will be about Wallace’s Charlotte race. Except perhaps in South Africa.

Other drivers didn’t enjoy their Sunday night in the Queen City. Bobby Labonte ran solidly in the top 10 for most of the race only to get wrecked on the last lap, which dropped him to thirteenth. (It could have been worse. Had he been wrecked with two to go he’d likely have wound up 20th.) Jeff Gordon didn’t report any mechanical problems with his car other than it was “evil” to drive and nothing the team could do seemed to fix it or even improve it. At a track where he’s had considerable success in the past Gordon looked like a field-filler passing cars only through attrition to end up 30th. This sport will make even the mightiest humble. But similar problems at Charlotte this fall could doom a potential title drive for the 24 team.

After all the anticipation of the biggest weekend of auto racing of the entire year, Sunday was unsatisfying for most fans. Michael Schumacher reigned in the European Grand Prix. It rained at Indy. Johnson reigned at Charlotte. The best race of the weekend might have been the ASA race at Erie that featured a frantic closing segment and some spirited driving by Kevin Cywinski and Mike Garvey. As the battle between traditional fans and the newer fans heats up over the schedule changes, the west coast contingent is pointing out that the World 600 was every bit as boring if not worse than the Fontana 500. Maybe so, but when you go to Charlotte you expect a great race and when someone runs away with it your disappointed. When you to California you expect a boring race and if it turns out to be mildly exciting, you’re elated. My guess is this is just a fluke and the fall race at Charlotte will probably be memorable though I don’t doubt this Johnson fellow will be a factor again.

As the Summer of Love 2004 NASCAR tour clanks into gear the circuit rolls onto Dover next weekend, a track where Johnson won twice in his rookie 2002 season. Congratulation to Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team on dominating performance at Charlotte, but I’d advise them to savor this victory this week. Because even among the best of the best, and they’re certainly earning their right to be included on that short list, only a few times during a driver’s career in the modern era of Cup will they have such a dominant win. For race fans that are feeling a little let down after this sport’s “Super Sunday” hang in there. Anything can happen at Dover, and it usually does.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2004

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