Inexplicably Explicable Br

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Something odd happened Sunday. Nothing odd happened. A race ended without beer cans pelting the track. No one from NASCAR had to offer apologies for much of anything other than the fact it’s been so long that they haven’t had to apologize after a race weekend. Some bare semblance of sanity prevailed on the track throughout much of the race. It would have been normal, but normal is abnormal in NASCAR this year.

OK, so a third straight race ended under caution. No, that’s not acceptable. But truth be told even if the green/white/checkered rule that the truck series uses had been in place the race would have ended the same way. Once the leader takes the white flag, the race concludes at the end of that lap no matter what happens behind him. Some question why NASCAR didn’t throw a caution when Greg Biffle spun on the final restart, or why they did throw a caution when a driver wrecked in turn two on the final lap while the meat and potatoes of the race was taking place in turns three and four. Why didn’t they throw the flag for Biffle? Because at that point if NASCAR had thrown a caution the race would have ended under yellow and the fans would have thrown trash on the track. Why did they throw a caution for PJ Jones’ wreck? The young man took a hard hit. There were still cars racing around him, including folks like Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon. If you don’t tell those cats they have to slow down, they don’t. And they run into stuff. Or each other. And anyone who saw Saturday night’s Busch race remembers occasionally these cars burst into big balls of fire after hitting the fence. NASCAR erred correctly on the side of caution to roll emergency workers to PJ Jones aid as quickly as possibly. Like three and a half minutes faster than F1 managed to do for Ralf Schumacher at Indy today, and F1 is supposed to have the best traveling rescue crew in the business since CART sold theirs on E-Bay or whatever they did with them.

Lest anyone say NASCAR has regained the reigns of the sport, the Saturday truck and Busch races both featured bad calls from the tower. If you don’t think so you didn’t watch those races and the fine folks at FX and SPEED would like to know why. And let the debate about shortening races end today. Had there been twenty more laps to run at Michigan likely we’d have seen a remarkable finish but the politically correct 400 mile- 3-hour time of the race didn’t allow for that.

The fact Ryan Newman won on Sunday is not remarkable. The remarkable thing is Newman had not won a race prior to this this season. After all last year he won a league leading eight times in the Cup series (which we fondly recall as “Winston” back then). But last year at this time he had two victories to date (Texas and Dover) so there’s no telling how many races he’ll go on to win this season. Certainly Newman had a better Father’s Day weekend at Michigan this year than he did last when a spectacular engine failure and oil fire almost served up a heaping helping of Flambé Newman.

Kasey Kahne was closing on Newman during those final laps at the wheel of a car painted a shade of green that can only be described as “unfortunate.” It was Kahne’s fourth second place finish of the year, which has to be somewhat frustrating but it’s not unprecedented. Harry Gant finished second ten times in NASCAR’s top division before winning a Cup race. Bill Elliott finished second eight times before winning a race. And both drivers went on to score a goodly number of wins as I’m sure Kahne will as well down the road. (You know what is inexplicable? How come Harry Gant isn’t in those Nextel historic ads? Explic that to me.)

Dale Jarrett credited a new in house chassis for his strong run at Michigan, perhaps to draw a little attention away from the new D-3 Ford mill under his hood before the GM and Dodge boys start crying NASCAR gave Ford the keys to the candy store. It would appear when they’re not failing spectacularly those new Ford engines are pretty strong. What some might find inexplicable is that Jarrett hadn’t scored a top 5 finish since he won at Rockingham in February of 2003, over a year ago.

Inexplicably, perhaps, Jimmy Johnson did not dominate Sunday’s race, nor did he have the strongest car. We haven’t seen that be the case much lately. But Johnson hurt his transmission early on the going, lost third gear and wounded second. The fact the transmission stayed together at all, especially leaving the pits and on restarts is a miracle. And his fourth place finish allowed Johnson to move into the points lead, bypassing Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the top spot. Earnhardt was off song most of the race, fudged his way up to fifth place on fresh tires and pit strategy, then ran into trouble late. (Well actually “trouble” in the person of Kevin Harvick, ran into Junior late and cut down the right front tire on the 8 car.)

Elliott Sadler led some laps at a track where’s he struggled like a tree sloth trying to learn to play the zither, eventually finishing fifth. It was the first time since Sadler joined Robert Yates Racing that the 88 and 38 both finished in the top 5 in the same race.

Sterling Marlin had his best run in ages but he might have been done in by pit strategy. When the majority of the leaders stayed on the track during the seventh caution period, Marlin surrendered the lead to pit for four tires. At first the strategy seemed to be going well. He made rapid progress towards the front, but then his mount seemed to lay down under him in the waning laps. Marlin said after the race the car just got too tight during the final handful of laps. Or so someone from Tennessee translated his comments.

As they have a habit of doing, while neither was a factor for much of the race, late in the event Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte showed up in the top 10, seemingly out of thin air. They finished seventh and eighth respectively.

Brian Vickers has been able to qualify well occasionally during his brief Cup career (especially over the last five weeks), but hasn’t often been able to translate those good starting spots to a good finish. Sunday he scored his second top 10 finish of his career. (The other was an eighth place result at Richmond in May.)

Michael Waltrip finished inside the top 10 for the fourth time in five Cup points races. That’s a commendable improvement over the way His Ubiquitousness and the 15 team started their season but the fact remains he’s 687 points out of the lead and 287 points from qualifying for the Chase For the Championship he labeled “brilliant.” Waltrip has as much chance of participating in that Chase as I do for winning a Pulitzer Prize for writing this year.

Some drivers didn’t have very good days at Michigan. Is it a coincidence none of them are fathers? Jeff Gordon threatened to dominate the race early leading 81 of the first 89 laps and often running three seconds ahead of the field. Boring races are the twin ugly sister to confusing races that are ruining this sport. But Gordon blew an engine and fell to a 38th place finish. (His third finish of 30th or worse in the last four races.) Greg Biffle had a decent top 10 run going even while still fuming that NASCAR had robbed him of a win in Saturday night’s Busch race. Tony Stewart had been sent to the back of the field for walking out of the driver’s meeting when he got bored and annoyed but had worked his way back to the top 10. At which point he ran into the side of Greg Biffle and they both spun and wrecked with eight laps to go. After which Biffle saw fit to spin himself out.

Other drivers who had good runs spoiled by mechanical carnage included Jamie McMurray, Rusty Wallace and Joe Nemecheck.

NASCAR is still in control of this sport. We know this because today Mike Helton said that NASCAR is still in control of this sport. In fact he spoke at great length on the topic eventually causing Tony Stewart to get up and walk out on the Drivers’ Meeting. So NASCAR showed him they were still in control of the sport like they said. Of course they also said last week that the pits would be opened when the leader reached the entrance to pit road the second time after a caution flag flew. And they said that Dave Blaney wasn’t leading the race after Ryan Newman spun onto pit road at Dover. And they said the caution lights never came on near the end of the Craftsman truck race at Charlotte. And they said this Chase For a Championship thing wasn’t going to hurt TV ratings in the first half of the year. And they said realignment is good for the sport…….Well, let’s just say a reasonable man and even an inveterate wastrel gambler wouldn’t place a wager that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow if NASCAR said it would. Credibility and respect are hard earned but easily lost. It will take a few more weeks of explicable Cup races to restore faith in the organization. And they’ve got some real challenges ahead with the road course at Sonoma (road courses are always confusing) the plate race at Daytona (let’s see how those scoring loops do sorting out a four wide, six deep pack of cars) and the wreckfest at Chicago. (Where ten caution flags consumed 57 of 267 total laps in 2001 and there remains some confusion as to where the track actually is because it sure ain’t in Chicago.) One could argue with the infrequent cautions and length of the track at Michigan Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla and Buckwheat could have officiated today’s race without committing too many errors. But in fairness today’s race was explicable. And I can’t explain that.




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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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