Race Weekend Central

Jeff Gordon, Phoenix Offer Valuable Reality Check After Daytona Drama

It was one week ago that Trevor Bayne turned stock car racing upside down with a dramatic upset win in the Daytona 500. But for all the jubilation that followed, the history made, the feel-good stories told, the show had to go on.

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Just as Bayne’s unlikely triumph was just what NASCAR needed to start its season, with new blood rising to the top as one of the all-time greats was mourned, Sunday’s race at Phoenix (Feb. 27) was exactly what the second week of the season needed to be; a reality check.

Though the Big One came all the way from Daytona to make an unexpected encore appearance at Phoenix without its partner in crime (restrictor plates) on lap 67, when contact between Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers took out well over a dozen cars and turned the infield into a triage center, when the checkered flag flew, the cream rose to the top and the first true glimpse of the 2011 season to come was gained.

It was perhaps symbolic that Bayne’s afternoon in the desert came to an early and abrupt halt. A mere 49 laps into the event, Bayne cut across Travis Kvapil‘s nose coming down the frontstretch, backing what was a backup car (he also wrecked in practice, citing brake failure) hard into the turn 1 wall. The message was clear; last week may have been the week of Bayne in the Cup ranks, but the same will not be said for the 2011 season at large.

With last week’s biggest story in the garage, the usual suspects returned to the forefront… and in the end, Jeff Gordon silenced any critics foolish enough to think the now father of two has lost anything behind the wheel, ending a 66-race losing streak by forcefully, yet cleanly, denying Kyle Busch a weekend sweep of the three national touring races.

It was vintage Gordon; despite suffering crash damage early on lap 59 after contact between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch forced the No. 24 into the backstretch wall, the No. 24 just kept coming. It was so stout a performance for the new No. 24, with new leadership atop the box and a new paint scheme and sponsor on the quarterpanels, that even as Busch gunned away from the field on the final restart on lap 290, there was little doubt that 66 races since Texas 2009 was not going to become 67.

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Jeff Gordon Wins at Phoenix, Denies Kyle Busch the Weekend Sweep

Mark Aumann noted that this performance, one that saw Gordon take a powerful challenge from the vaunted No. 18 team and still emerge victorious, was like turning the clock back 15 years. Though I wasn’t even following racing 15 years ago, it’s hard to argue with that analysis. This performance was one of raw power that wasn’t going to be denied, even by possibly the greatest talent going in the sport.

And while Gordon rightfully took his spot back alongside Busch, Jimmie Johnson and those who have been the face of the Cup Series even as he has struggled with a long dry spell, there were plenty of other storylines that played out over the second afternoon of the season that were effective reminders that all the unpredictability and newness of Daytona are now as far in the rearview mirror as a hauler driver trekking from Florida to Arizona.

Kyle Busch massacred both of NASCAR’s minor-league touring series leading up to the Cup show, yet couldn’t seal the deal when the big bucks… and this year, the points, were on the line. Johnson was “off” in practice and qualifying, yet never took a step backward as head wrench Chad Knaus had the No. 48 go from the 28th starting position to the lead barely halfway into the event.

The top five was rounded out by Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman; Harvick is a two-time winner on the diamond (soon to be oval) in the desert, while Newman enjoyed a 1.5 average finish at the facility one year ago. Side note, crew chief Tony Gibson has got to be raging that Phoenix is being repaved and reconfigured. He’s got that joint figured out.

Fantasy predictions were actually worth the paper they were printed on. The results seen on track had relevance to what can be expected from these race teams as the race to the Chase unfolds. The 2011 season began to take shape.

Hell, even NASCAR itself was in a state of normalcy this weekend, with Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton denouncing a press release by Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 team that they would be start-and-parking at Phoenix and taking their car to Vegas to run the distance. The move was hardly a surprise; after Dave Blaney wrecked the team’s primary car in practice earlier in the weekend and the organization had no plans to return back to North Carolina before the Vegas race, it was a safe business decision, made with the sponsor’s blessing, to park their machine early at Phoenix.

What was surprising, and most importantly inconsistent, was for a NASCAR official to make such a pointed condemnation of the practice.

Granted, most start-and-park teams don’t have public relations vehicles of any kind, making releases that confirm start-and-park before the drop of the green flag rare, but it’s not like this is a deep dark secret. The qualifying broadcast on Friday had plenty of comments on Joe Nemechek‘s No. 87 team and how a lack of sponsorship on their quarterpanels meant they would be parking early on this Sunday (and was reiterated by the broadcast crew in Sunday’s race after Front Row Joe parked only 22 laps in).

NASCAR has known this practice has been going on for years, with teams sprouting up both in the Nationwide Series and the Cup ranks that existed solely to start-and-park, and even undid one of the rules meant to try and curtail it in the offseason, ending the practice that the first car to exit a Cup race without an engine failure or crash damage would be subject to a post-race teardown.

NASCAR.com has gone as far as to publish an extensive feature back in 2009 that documented the negligible impact the practice had on the sport and competition on the racetrack. And yet, the second someone was upfront and honest about it, suddenly the practice is frowned upon.

That’s the NASCAR we know and love, say one thing and do something else. Actively allow this practice to proliferate and even encourage it, yet when it comes out in a press release, condemn it.

Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory one week ago was precisely what the sport needed, both to start a new season with a bang and to navigate what was an emotional weekend for race fans and competitors alike, as tribute was paid to the late great Dale Earnhardt on the 10th anniversary of his death.

That said, Gordon’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 victory this Sunday was precisely what the sport needed as well. A forceful return to form for one of the sport’s all-time greats, a trophy for one of the biggest-dollar new sponsors to enter the sport this offseason and a return to business as usual, from the finishing order to the sanctioning body.

A great week of pageantry, ecstasy and history did not fix stock car racing overnight at Daytona. Phoenix brought with it both the good and bad of today’s NASCAR, in the form of a solid race and in a package that offered the first real look at what 2011 has in store.

And since this second race of the Cup schedule wasn’t in Fontana, chances are there were a far greater number of fans awake to see it all play out.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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