Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Marty Party

With apologies to John Prine, Denny Hamlin got his "Sweet Revenge" on Jimmie Johnson at today's Martinsville race. He reversed the finish of the spring race by passing Johnson about two-thirds through the race, staying out in front of him, and ensuring he didn't get moved out of the way by the 48 as he did in April.

Hamlin did something many others haven't been able to do lately. (1) He got stronger during long runs enabling him to pass the 48 and then stay there. (2) As the race wound down and the inevitable caution fever epidemic set in, he out-muscled the Hendrick cars with horsepower on restarts.

The two cars were pretty much the class of the field the second half of the race. Juan Pablo Montoya gave Jimmie a run for his money in the middle portion, but he used up his brakes a bit and couldn't cash the check when called to do so. However, with a 3rd place finish, JPM showed yet again he and the #42 team belong in this championship hunt. Were it not for his awful showing at Charlotte last week, he might still be nipping at the heels of the Hendrick juggernaut vs. wondering "what if?" these last four races.

The race had a few other entertaining moments:
  • Joey Logano draped himself all over A.J. Allmendinger like a bear skin rug resulting in the 44 getting wadded up in the wall. No truth to the rumor, however, that Allmendinger's dad accosted J-Lo when the race ended.
  • The slot machine hit cherries across the board when David Stremme, Paul Menard, Sam Hornish, and Michael Waltrip had a hand in wrecks - either of their own or by doinking someone else. The machine paid a bonus payoff because of John Wes Townley's wreck during Saturday's Nationwide race in Memphis.
  • Red Bull's Scott Speed Stupeed charged into the corner like a bull seeing red. Apparently he was so jacked up on sugar, caffeine, and whatever else they put in those thin cans, that he forgot he was at Martinsville in a 3,400 lb stock car vs. in a sweet F1 ride at Imola.
  • Near the end of the race right before a commercial, no one in the ESPN booth said a word for a few moments. Not Jerry Punch. Not Andy Petree. Not Dale Jarrett. Nor did anyone from the infield booth say anything. It was as if Bob Griese had just walked in the room taking orders for a Taco Bell road trip.
The primary story for me, however, was the race finish, NASCAR's hypocrisy, and ESPN's blindness to it.

The COT was supposedly developed first and foremost for driver safety. Its development was fast-tracked following the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 2001. The required adoption of full face helmets and HANS devices - same thing.

The number of debris cautions the last few years has also seemed to be on the rise - although I don't have any empirical data to support that claim. NASCAR says the cautions are valid for safety reasons. Stray parts falling from cars and sharp carbon fiber shards from splitters may litter the track, and attempts are made to unfurl caution flags before tires are cut.

I find it interesting the "debris" is most often and conveniently found by the NASCAR tower in three circumstances:
  1. when the leader builds a significant lead and/or the field gets strung out during long green-flag runs (this usually happens when the TV network is at commercial)
  2. Dale Jr. does his mid-race fade and goes a lap down (the debris caution gives him the "lucky dog" and an extended attempt at some lame hope at winning), and
  3. near the end of the race having the effect of bringing the field back together for a double-file restart and hopefully a close finish to watch by drop-in TV viewers.
All for safety (or Dale Jr's sake), right? WRONG!

Today, John Andretti became another in a long list of Paul Menard victims. Predictable enough in its own right. Typical short-track stuff. John was spun to the inside front stretch wall. He tried to get going again to regain positions and allow the leaders to finish. He ran out of time, however, and ended up a car length off the call perpendicular to the racing surface. Rather than throw the caution on the back stretch or even turn 3, NASCAR let Hamlin, Johnson, and the rest of the herd race back to the finish line.

The full field - well, less the start & parkers - was headed straight for the 34 car! A couple of cars dipped to the inside trying to one last-gasp effort to gain an extra position. Had some of those attempted passes been challenged with a block, Andretti was a sitting duck to get double t-boned. A double t-bone might be an awesome entree at Three Forks in Dallas (especially with a nice bottle of Napa cab), but it sucks if you are hit that way in a stock car.

This is not the first time this has happened - nor even the first time this season. Just a few short weeks ago, Allmendinger was turned by David Stremme on the last lap. He could not re-fire his car, and sat on the front stretch certainly muttering "please let them see me, please let them see me". NASCAR allowed the field to race back to the line and then worrry about rubber necking as they drove around the stranded 44.

In my opinion, NASCAR took undue grief for not throwing a caution in the 2007 Daytona 500 as Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin came to the line for the win as all hell broke loose behind them. I agreed with the decision to let the leaders settle in under green. The wreck was behind them, and the track was wide enough for good driver decisions to be made and evasive actions taken.

At tracks such as Loudon and Martinsville, however, the track lengths are much shorter and narrower. I will concede neither stranded driver was plowed, no one was hurt, and the immobile automobiles didn't affect the eventual race winner. But that's beside the point. The drivers could have been drilled, and NASCAR made a bad no-call in both those situations.

Equally as bad to me as NASCAR's no-call was ESPN's no-review. Unlike most race weekends, when the network can't wait to wrap-up the burnout and victory lane interview so they can move on to Sports Center, The Simpsons, or an infomercial, ABC had time to burn today. They had almost 30 minutes for post-race coverage.
  • The finish was not replayed, and not a questioning word was uttered by the 3 booth guys, Alan Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty, or any of the pit reporters.
  • The top finishers were interviewed as were some of the driver notables but with bad finishes (e.g. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart Darian Grubb-Tony's crew chief).
  • Tim Brewer gave a tech update on what Hamlin's Toyota post-race "look that way and cough" physical might involve.
  • Even Denny Hamlin's parents were located so they could be offered the "how do you feel?" question the ESPN pit folks have mastered.
Yet, ESPN couldn't find John Andretti to ask his opinion? Was John Darby, Robin Pemberton, Ramsey Poston, or anyone else from NASCAR available to explain the rationale for the call (or no-call) that was made?

Good hard racing - I love it. Short-track racing - all the better. Wrinkled fenders, rutting competitors out of the groove, tempers flaring, paybacks, photo finishes - can't be beat. But superseding all of that is driver safety. NASCAR simply cannot allow itself to be put in the position again of taking undue risk with an immobile driver just to see a fantastic run to the finish.

I'm not alone in questioning NASCAR's decision-making. Jim Utter from the Charlotte Observer had similar thoughts.


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