Blown Opportunity

No question, those in charge of NASCAR’s top series had a tough decision to make this past weekend. Clearly the surface at Lowe’s Motor Speedway had been improved, if that’s the right word, too much. The mile and a half of asphalt, sans its trademark “Humpy Bumps”, was even grippier than last spring, creating a festival of blown tires and spectacular wrecks both Friday and Saturday nights. What to do, when the Cup event couldn’t go 20 laps seemingly without a grinding crash stopping the action and teams up and down pit road reporting they were only running at 80% instead of the 100%+ you’d expect halfway through the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

NASCAR ordered a competition caution at 30 laps to check tire wear. And another, just after lap 200. I’d guess the news was bad from the start, especially considering Robby Gordon’s tire failure in the first handful of laps. But the track and the sanctioning body were between the classic rock and hard place. The tires weren’t up to the task, the track was too fast and abrasive, and the cars themselves have perhaps gotten too quick for that particular combination. Some observers thought Goodyear, Speedway Motorsports, and NASCAR should have postponed the event until suitable tires could be located. But that line of thinking has no basis in reality. In these days of huge crowds, a most lucrative championship, and big TV money, there’s no way short of monsoon conditions a Cup event is going to be postponed.

Add in the desire of crew chiefs to run aggressive front-end setups and tire pressures, putting even more stress on equipment, and you have all the conditions needed for a trouble-filled evening. NASCAR responded by checking for minimum tire inflation during the event which may have helped, but that’s no long-term cure for this situation. Hopefully the “car of the future” will remake the speed equation enough to bring things a bit more under control soon. Thankfully no one was hurt, though many drivers may have had their championship hopes take a needless beating. You can bet that all three of the key stakeholders in racing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway will work hard and quickly to prevent a recurrence next May.

Now it’s on to Martinsville, the polar opposite of Lowe’s and any other Cup track where speed is the watchword. Up in Southern Virginia the premium is on brakes and to a lesser extent handling. This could well be the place where Jeff Gordon returns to form, and where Tony Stewart regains the upper hand in the Championship battle.

I’ll be watching Saturday’s Truck series run closely too, to see how Darrell Waltrip fares in his final NASCAR ride. It’ll be great to see the fan reaction as DW’s straps in one final time. I’m hoping this Hall of Famer goes out in style at one of his favorite places in racing. I’m also hoping Steve Park finds a good ride, quickly. Steven is perhaps a casualty of Dodge’s apparent plan to reapply part of its NASCAR budget to help its struggling Cup teams. One of the year’s best moments came early when Park wheeled the Orleans Dodge to victory at Fontana in February. I know he’s got more wins ahead…and would make a great match with Dave Fuge’s Chevy team, now that Jack Sprague has moved on.

We’re on to Toronto this weekend to call the Champ Car World Series round at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia, for air Sunday on SPEED. The Hooters Cup Championship Series continues this weekend as well at Myrtle Beach, and we’ll have the call of Round 3 of that premier short track tour next Saturday night. We’ve had two upset winners in two HPC Championship events, with Joe Gaita and Michael Ritch taking home the big checks…and the Beach run is always fast and frantic.

See you Saturday with Champ Car Qualifying, and the Lexmark Indy 300 coverage this Sunday.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2005

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