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The Way It Is/ NASCAR's big show rolls on from strength to strength

by Gordon Kirby
NASCAR's last restrictor plate race of the year, run on the beautifully smooth, repaved Talladega superspeedway, was a classic of its kind, wasn't it? Everyone charged around in a giant pack, two and three-wide, waiting for the legendary--and now much over-hyped--‘Big One'. Thankfully, the race was clean most of the way until an eleven-car mess with fifty laps to go eliminated Jeff Gordon as a championship contender and also put a dent in rookie Denny Hamlin's title hopes.

Then of course, on the last lap Brian Vickers drew the ire of Talladega's massive and vociferous torrent of Little E fans by knocking teammate Jimmie Johnson into race leader Earnhardt. As we all know, Earnhardt and Johnson crashed into the infield while Vickers scythed through to score his first Cup victory, which surely will go down as one of the most unpopular debut wins in NASCAR history. Earnhardt's equanimity immediately after the race was admirable, striking a sharp contrast with many of his fans, and you have to give Junior credit. “He didn't wreck anyone on purpose,” Earnhardt said about Vickers. “He just got excited trying to push the 48.”

Johnson was less charitable toward his departing young Hendrick teammate. “We had a great chance to make up some points and got crashed by a teammate,” Johnson said. “I would hope someone would be more patient.” Predictably perhaps, Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus was more critical, questioning Vickers' talent.

© LAT/Nigel Kinrade
But I'm not sure that either of them should be so sanctimonious. It was of course, a classic restrictor plate accident, but to my eye, the collision was more a result of a mistake or two by Johnson than it was Vickers' fault. It looked to me as if Johnson got a little too high on the racetrack as he began his move to pass Earnhardt. He knew he was being pushed by his teammate and that the closing rate was at its maximum and he also knew that Earnhardt was going to block him to at least some degree.

Yet Johnson appeared to misjudge the moment. He turned too abruptly to the left and then jinked equally sharply to the right, inside Earnhardt, and in so doing he scrubbed-off a good deal of speed. Glued to Johnson's tail as intended and required, there was little that Vickers could do. His car's momentum carried it into Johnson's tail, and so the accident began. That's the way I saw it.

For Johnson, it pretty much put paid to his championship hopes. A win or second place would have put him within eighty or so points of championship leader Jeff Burton, but instead he's 156 behind, an almost insurmountable gap. Burton cut a tire with ten laps to go and finished a lap down in twenty-seventh place but still leads the Chase, just six points ahead of Matt Kenseth (fourth at Talladega) and ten ahead of Mark Martin (eighth at Talladega). Kevin Harvick finished sixth in Alabama and is fourth in points only 33 behind Burton. Denny Hamlin is fifth, 51 behind the leader while Earnhardt is sixth, 106 points behind after he was classified twenty-third at Talladega.

Truth is, this year's Chase is turning into a foggy muddle. Jeff Burton and Mark Martin may be fine fellows and solid old pros, but it's hard to argue why either deseves to be called this year's champion. Nor can you argue strongly for Harvick or Hamlin as champions. To me, Kenseth is the only driver among the current top five who deserves this year's Nextel Cup title, but when you look down the list nobody has enjoyed a real stand-out season. Maybe that will be rectified during the year's last six races and some of the fog surrounding the Chase for the Cup will blown away. Maybe it won't.

Last lap crash aside, the big point at Talladega was how strong Earnhardt's car was. By all accounts, everyone in the garage area was talking about it before the race and Jeff Gordon commented about it when he was interviewed on TV while his crashed car was being repaired in the garage late in the race. “The #8's got a lot of power,” Gordon remarked with a small grin. “He can go to the front anytime he likes.” Gordon also said he thought Earnhardt was being allowed to bump draft in the turns, a practice which is very specifically disallowed these days at Daytona and Talladega. After Gordon's comments on live TV, NASCAR subsequently warned Earnhardt about his excesses.

So too, did Jeff Burton's crew chief Scott Miller sheepishly admit there was little chance of his Childress Chevy matching the crowd's favorite. At many restrictor plate races in recent years, everyone just accepts that's the way it is. Although it's not true all the time, Talladega last weekend was another restrictor plate race were nobody could go to the front like Earnhardt could do at will. Most remarkable among these races, I recall the Daytona 500 three or four years ago where Little E blew a front tire which tore a hole in the top of his car's fender. After a pitstop he rejoined, still with a slice missing off the top of the fender, and he was able to motor his way through the field to the front of the pack, aerodynamic imperfection bedamned!

I'm sure the DEI team works incredibly hard and does a fantastic job with both their Daytona and Talladega cars and their restrictor plate engine program, but you have to wonder what it's all about. Everyone says restrictor plate racing is about horsepower and the aerodynamic perfection of the car, that driver skill rates way down the scale at the plate tracks. Yet Little E is lauded as the plate master, a guy with some kind of symbiotic feel for the airflow at Daytona and Talladega, just like his father before him, and Dale Jr obviously believes this himself. “When it comes to drafting, ain't nobody does it any better,” Earnhardt commented this week.

Remarkable hubris to be sure, and words you would never have heard from the mouths of true greats like Juan Fangio and Jim Clark. And of course, when you see Earnhardt and his team struggle on some tracks, barely more than also-rans, you have to wonder what NASCAR is all about.

Meanwhile, the doubting Thomases of the stock car world are beginning to realize that Juan Montoya can drive and race stock cars. Juan made a clean, impressive debut in the ARCA race at Talladega and I'm sure he's already learned a lot from watching as well as driving. Montoya is a switched-on, motivated guy and if he continues to enjoy himself as much as he is right now, he's not only going to rapidly establish his credentials in NASCAR but also help provide a motivating force for Chip Ganassi's team.

In this day and age, many NASCAR devotees like to downplay the ability of those they call ‘road racing specialists'. Recently, I've heard and read some drivel about how difficult if not impossible it is to go from a lightweight, formula car to a big, heavy stock car, and that it's easier to go the other way. Excuse me, but the history of racing proves otherwise. The classic case of course, was when Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 in 1967, blowing many minds with his ability to drive a loose car, using all the racetrack, a skill denied by today's rules. Also in the sixties, Dan Gurney showed everyone how to get around a road course, smoking off NASCAR's regulars no fewer than five times at Riverside. Gurney also ran the Daytona 500 a couple of times, finishing fifth in 1963.

In the early days of the IROC series in the seventies and eighties, guys like Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, and A.J. Foyt, showed they could race stock cars with NASCAR's best. More recently, Al Unser Jr regularly beat Earnhardt Sr and other NASCAR stars in IROC cars. Al Jr also had a shot to win the 1993 Daytona 500 in the only year he ran the race. He came through the field and was running fifth in the closing stages with a real shot at winning only to be crashed-out of the race by Earnhardt Sr.

At Talladega, A.J. Allmendinger made his second start in NASCAR's truck series and also showed he can drive a stock car. Allmendinger drove a smart, steady race to finish sixth amid a long line of NASCAR veterans. A.J. used his head, driving a little conservatively, nursing the bottom groove rather than risk getting hung out to dry in the high groove, knowing that he had few, if any, drafting partners.

On the TV coverage of the Talladega truck race Michael Waltrip, playing the buffoon as he sometimes likes to do, prattled on about Allmendinger. “He has no idea what he's doing!” quoth Waltrip more than once, even as Allmendinger was proving him wrong. Some people clearly have no idea what words they're speaking!

As I've discussed previously in this space, it looks like Allmendinger is about to sign a lucrative Red Bull/Toyota contract and move his career to NASCAR. Ryan Hunter-Reay has also apparently been lost to NASCAR. Hunter-Reay will drive next year in the Busch series for Robby Gordon's team. All this is great fuel for NASCAR and with Montoya as the poster boy of its diversity program and guys like Allmendinger and Hunter-Reay joining other former open-wheel drivers like Robby Gordon in NASCAR, the France family enterprise seems to be gaining even more momentum. If Jacques Villeneuve also ends-up in NASCAR next year driving for Jack Roush or anybody else--although I have to say I can't see Villeneuve's manager Craig Pollock brokering a deal in NASCAR--the stock car organization's momentum might be unstoppable.

All is not perfect in NASCAR by any means with many tracks no longer selling-out and TV ratings down this year by around seven percent across the board for almost all races. There's also a certain hypocrisy to some of those who slavishly support NASCAR's diversity program. Many of those who praise it are the same people who complained over the years that there were too many foreigners in CART.

But with Montoya attracting international media coverage like NASCAR has never seen before as well as the nation's substantial Hispanic audience, plus the arrival of NASCAR Canada in company with series sponsor Canadian Tire and a Busch race in Montreal in August, we seem to be witnessing the beginning of NASCAR's much joked about push for worldwide domination. Looks to me like it may not be a joke anymore.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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