Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Going the Distance, Danica’s Done Deal & NASCAR Got It Right?

ONE: Poor Motives Aside, NASCAR Got the Last-Lap Call Correct

Yes, it was about as subtle as Larry the Cable Guy flashing his man boobs in the Sprint Cup drivers’ meeting earlier in the evening. NASCAR’s decision to hold off on throwing the yellow flag with two to go as Jeff Burton and others spun as a result of a ragged restart after Kasey Kahne ran out of gas was both inconsistent with the sanctioning body’s practice of throwing the yellow for anything from empty beer cans to long green-flag runs… and Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s best chance of 2011 to snap his nearly three-year losing streak.

The decision not to throw the yellow, in consistent practice with the 600-plus miles that had been run prior to the late-race incident, was immediately determined by the fanbase en masse to be NASCAR doing everything they could short of dropping roadblocks in front of the rest of the field to help Earnhardt score the win. NASCAR certainly ignored the obvious… JR Hildebrand‘s tragic last-lap wreck in the Indianapolis 500 earlier on Sunday made it clear winning was not in the cards for the National Guard this Memorial Day.

See also
Frontstretch Breakdown: 2011 Indianapolis 500

But despite the obvious intent of the sanctioning body to do everything in their power to manufacture a win NASCAR’s biggest fanbase has been craving for years, the fact remains that the call not to throw the yellow flag was the right one to make. All of the cars involved in the incident got refired and moving again well before the leaders had circled back around the track. There were no debris visible on the racing surface in turns 1 and 2 where the incident occurred. In short, with the finish on the line, there was absolutely no reason to cease the race.

Their motives may have been impure, their ruling inconsistent. But for once, NASCAR got the call right. They got out of the way and let the race run to completion… and for good measure, their best efforts to make sure one driver won fell short. Best thing that could have happened really. It’s hard to imagine how poorly received a manufactured win by Earnhardt to end his streak would actually be.

TWO: Danica’s Coming in 2012… No Need to Wait for the Press Release

ESPN reports that Danica Patrick‘s coming to NASCAR. Danica says there’s no truth to the story. Now bigwigs at GoDaddy.com have said they fully expect Danica to be a full-time NASCAR competitor in 2012. Were this a smaller team, the likely conclusion would be inexperienced PR staff and multiple parties all wanting to handle an announcement their own way.

But this is the driver with perhaps the greatest PR machine in all of motorsports behind her. And while they might have made a major gaffe last season when an image of Patrick in a Nationwide Series uniform patch was mistakenly released instead of her IRL logo, all of this seeming confusion and intrigue regarding her future is all being carefully calculated to keep her name in the conversation, even as her NASCAR season is on a long hiatus to accommodate the demands of the IRL schedule.

Because as Patrick continues to struggle along with her Andretti teammates on-track in open wheel, her popularity and relevance in that world has started to diminish. She’s still the big fish in a small pond, but those shark teeth are starting to dull. NASCAR is a far more strenuous schedule, but the sanctioning body is ready to roll out a serious red carpet. The sponsor dollars are there. There’s far more money to be made.

For now though, the currency of choice is speculation. Danica’s massive PR machine proved their worth in keeping their driver on the front page one season ago, orchestrating first suspense as to whether she’d try NASCAR out, and then whether or not she’d actually make her debut at Daytona. Now that Danica being a part-timer in stock cars is old news and hell, even running top 10 at Indy is old news, the next big thing to accomplish is NASCAR full time. It’s an obvious conclusion and it’s going to happen.

But count on this story to be dragged out as much as a Disney franchise.

THREE: Chances This No. 48 Crew is Around Come Chase Time?

It’s half a wonder that Chad Knaus didn’t gather up Mark Martin‘s No. 5 pit crew and put them to work on the Lowe’s Chevrolet after the night the No. 48 crew had servicing their machine at “Jimmie’s house.” Consistently losing their driver positions on pit road as well as leaving a wedge wrench in the rear of their racecar, this was easily the worst showing on pit road for Knaus and Co. since their much-maligned Texas race last fall.

But while Knaus’s decision to pull the No. 24 crew over to his car for the final two races of 2010 ended up securing the No. 48 team’s fifth consecutive driver title, 2011 has been far less conclusive as to how to handle underperformance from a hugely important segment of a race team.

Kurt Busch‘s profane tirades directed as Penske Racing personnel seem to have yielded positive results; team engineers are showing up at the track more often. Brad Keselowski noted that since there was turnover amongst the team’s engineering staff, his No. 2 team is bringing different packages to the track that before were never considered.

And the results have been encouraging; Keselowski was the polesitter for the 600 while Busch posted his first top-five finish since the season-opening Daytona 500. On the other hand, there’s Martin Truex Jr., who also levied a fierce barrage of criticism on his pit crew that ultimately led to a good portion of the No. 56’s over-the-wall gang being replaced. Truex scored a few top 10s, but not even a month since the swap the bad luck that snakebit the New Jersey native for the start of this year has been back since the Cup circuit made its camp in Charlotte.

What’s the right way to go? Should Knaus yell, scream and curse, find replacements and make a statement that such lackluster work won’t be tolerated on his team? Or is it simply a matter of using his notoriously cool head in the shop this week, telling the crew to shake it off and move on? After all, this Memorial Day showed how even the mighty have their off days (Penske Racing finishing no better than 14th in the Indianapolis 500?!)

For five consecutive seasons now, NASCAR has seen Knaus and Co. weather every storm they’ve encountered on the road to the Cup. These pit crew struggles that started showing in the Chase last season are, again, something new for the No. 48. Whatever direction the head wrench goes, the results will be important to analyze.

FOUR: Full-time No More: Brad Keselowski Skipping Nationwide Races at Road America, Montreal

First of all, I’ll eat my hat if suddenly the raucous crowd at Road America from last year disappears this season because the number of Cup interlopers decreases.

Keselowski was one of only two drivers earlier this season to defiantly face NASCAR’s announcement that Cup drivers could not compete for the Nationwide title by saying he was going to run every race anyway, points or no points. Yet, with the No. 22 team already a longshot in the owner points Chase and Keselowski himself having no big picture to race for in that series, suddenly cross-country excursions and racing internationally on an off-weekend seem to have lost their allure.

See also
Going Green: The Curious Case of Brad Keselowski

Take notes everyone, there’s lessons to be learned here in trying to curb Cup drivers using the Nationwide Series as their playground. Take the points out of the equation, especially on racetracks such as road courses that often tend to level the playing field, and suddenly wins don’t look so sure-fire, traveling looks more burdensome. Suddenly the justification of hasty Cup practices and hectic, expensive travel schedules is harder to make. Suddenly, Keselowski is going to miss a Nationwide race for the first time since 2007.

Schedule standalone Nationwide races when the Cup circuit is on the West Coast and eye some more tracks that level the playing field, be it a short-track or a treacherous circuit that will open doors through attrition (boy, a second Darlington race would be nice). Maybe even Carl Edwards will start thinking twice, and maybe for the first time since 2003 Nationwide Series race fans will get to enjoy a true Nationwide Series race.

FIVE: 1,100 Miles on Memorial Day There for a Reason

And not just because what better way to honor our armed forces than through truly American spectacles of man and machine (a big thank you to our servicemen as coverage of motorsports’ biggest weekend winds down). Both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 are the two longest races of the year for their respective series… and both were decided in the final corner of the final lap. As fellow Frontstretch writer Mike Neff noted to me after the shock of Hildebrand’s last-second wreck was starting to wear off, “there’s a reason it’s a 500-mile race.”

Neff was spot on. There’s a reason IRL goes 500 miles on Memorial Day. There’s a reason NASCAR goes 600 miles. There’s a reason races at this level are so darned long, and on a day that also marks the world famous Grand Prix of Monaco that they go even longer.

Because no matter how durable the equipment gets, marathon races remain true tests of man as well as their machines. Running 500 or 600 miles always has and always will lead to long stretches of the field getting strung out, of little passing, of drivers simply riding for a while, conserving their stuff to be there at the end. But 500 or 600 miles leaves more room for error than any sprint race ever will.

This weekend’s Indy and NASCAR races may well not go down as exciting from flag-to-flag as a 40-lap shootout on the local bullring, but when all is said and done, both Dan Wheldon and Kevin Harvick had accomplished something dramatic on motorsports’ biggest weekend. Hildebrand reminded the racing world just how hard it is to be perfect for hours at high speeds and just how rare moments such as Trevor Bayne‘s at Daytona really are.

The Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 proved a strong reminder to race fans everywhere why these races are the length they are. Even if the machines are more capable of handling it.

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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