Time To Regroup

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For years, drivers have been of two minds when it comes to the mid-May stretch of races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

The good? The fans are rabid, the facility is first rate and, perhaps most important, the action takes place close to what is home for many of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup competitors.

The not-so-good? Sharing the same garage and track space over a two-week period gives rise to thoughts that two weeks down home may be too much of a good thing.

In other words, as spring officially turns into summer it’s time to get out of Dodge and continue with a clean slate.

Other than preparing for the Daytona 500, where the points are set back to zero and the season’s possibilities seem endless, there’s no other NASCAR experience on par with spending two weeks in Charlotte. And that isn’t a crack at track. Yes, some parts of the Lowe’s Motor Speedway surface “levitated” a bit and caused some havoc, but NASCAR officials were quick to point out all tracks have seepage issues related to age that need to be addressed.

There’s no denying, however, that a majority of the series-leading 22 caution periods related to a movable surface.

Again, this could have happened anywhere. With Humpy Wheeler overseeing everything that takes place during the season’s longest race from the placement of hot-dog venders to pre-race festivities, anything that wasn’t up to par not only has been addressed, but has a plan in place to be fixed.

Settling down in one place for too long heightens the senses to what went wrong rather than all that was great. Even a lengthy Caribbean honeymoon with too many papaya drinks can make one swoon from extra sugar. The sticking point of this year’s Coca-Cola 600 was that a couple of high-profile teammates got in one another’s way more often than is healthy.

As the NASCAR troops head into military territory and Dover International Speedway for Sunday’s MBNA 400, it might be best for all concerned to take a deep breath and wipe clean the slate. Though the MBNA 400 doesn’t signify the season’s mid-point – that happens July 2 back at Dayonta International Speedway – it sure seems that way from the amount of machinery that has been mangled to the tempers that have flared.

Not that Dover has ever been labeled a kinder, gentler venue. The completion of track-wide safer barriers is welcome, but the concrete surface has proven in the past to be mighty unforgivable.

Entering Dover, no doubt Dale Earnhardt Jr. and stablemate Michael Waltrip will have sat down and thrashed out any lingering hard feelings. Tony Eury Sr., who is Earnhardt’s uncle, his former crew chief and now DEI’s director of competition, said the boys would meet prior to Dover to hash out issues. Coupled with Earnhardt’s declaration that he hasn’t and won’t target Waltrip and the fact that he’s on his third crew chief in the past six months, that there have been some communication snafu’s is understandable.

During a recent conference call, Earnhardt said his late father’s actions taught him that carrying an ill feeling from one race to the next was counter-productive.

“I remember those feuds; the one most memorable to me was with (Earnhardt Sr.) and Geoff Bodine and they’d both have great race cars and halfway through the races they are beating on each other and spinning each other out. I could never get it out of my mind that it kind of botched any opportunity at a win or a good finish,” said Junior. “When I’m on the racetrack and I’ve got a problem with somebody, I try to keep my cool.

“If I get an opportunity to talk to them after the race it’s better to do it that way than to be on each other at the racetrack.”

Greg Biffle, who sits second in the standings, says regardless of what happens during a race, carrying a grudge at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup level is strictly for losers.

“Why would I jeopardize this week for something that happened last week?” says Biffle, who enters Dover 71 points down to leader Jimmie Johnson. “No matter what I do, I’m not going to get my points back.”

Three-time Dover champion Ryan Newman, whose mini-feud with teammate Rusty Wallace has been well chronicled, says while the level of sheet-metal bending and intra-team feuding is ahead of the curve, he still doesn’t consider either occurrence extraordinary.

“If you look at the grand scheme, there are crazy cycles for everything – high tide or low tide – you can always try to create some rational for all of it,” says Newman, who has jumped from 15th to fourth in the ranking during the last three races. “It’s drivers losing control. Maybe 10 percent from aero changes; it could be the setup or the racetrack. It’s 10 percent of drivers just flat out not being talented. Another 10 percent is crew chiefs changing and mechanical failures.

But, as he notes: “It’s the team that gets through all of it that has the best chance of winning the championship.”

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