Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Let’s Talk NASCAR Current Events

When some intrepid folklorist strikes out to record a most-definitive collection of NASCAR mythology, he (or she) will need to set aside a separate volume for the stories that comprised the 2011 Sprint Cup season. Sure enough; we all know the tales surrounding the exploits, trials and tribulations of drivers like Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, Regan Smith and Paul Menard, but the recent adventures of Brad Keselowski seem poised to elevate our sense of what captured our attention during the summer months of 2011.

When the legend of Keselowski is written down for the ages, we’ll likely see the shaping of a hero’s journey – a tale where great achievement comes following greater struggles and dangers. To rise from a frightening wreck at Road Atlanta on Wednesday (Aug. 3) and find your hoisting the winner’s trophy in victory lane at Pocono on Sunday, Keselowski’s accomplishment will go down in NASCAR folklore as a stellar example of how much the sport of stock car racing has improved. Say what you want about the current state of NASCAR racing, but the development of safety-intensive equipment like the HANS (Head And Neck Safety system) device and the Car of Tomorrow gave Keselowski the opportunity to win his second race of the year.

One important lesson learned following Keselowski’s recent wreck during a test session at Road Atlanta is that all racetracks – regardless of their size, shape or sanctioning body affiliation – should be equipped with SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barriers. Keselowski hit a retaining wall head-on at a speed of approximately 100 mph (down from about 155 mph), an accident that destroyed his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge and earned Brad a helicopter flight to a nearby hospital for evaluation and observation.

A photograph tweeted by Jimmie Johnson shortly after the wreck depicted the aftermath of the event; it’s been a long time (thank goodness!) since we’ve seen a Sprint Cup car in such a mangled condition.

This photograph should be a tweet of warning to track owners everywhere. No facility should host racing events without SAFER barriers – and I’m talking about the real deal here; not just piles of old Styrofoam culled from shipping boxes and packing crates. I know track owners are struggling through a stagnant economy and all the baggage that gets dragged along with a near-recession (aren’t we all!), but these folks should try to go the extra mile in order to help improve competitor safety. Regardless of whether they have to beg, borrow or steal, all racetracks should construct SAFER barriers (and while you’re at it, remember that chicken wire is a poor excuse for a catchfence).

A huge part of Keselowski’s Pocono win came from the structural integrity of his Penske Racing Dodge and the design elements incorporated (via the NASCAR rule book) into the Car of Tomorrow. Say what you want in disagreement and say what you will about NASCAR’s mandated use of the HANS device, but you’ve got to admit that the CoT is one rugged piece of racing equipment. Its origin was based on the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident at Daytona over a decade ago; during the years following its implementation, the CoT seems to have paid great dividends. The combination of all these safety-intensive developments – SAFER barriers, the HANS device and the CoT – proved to be the winning formula for Keselowski at Pocono.

The sheer idea that Keselowski came away from his wild ride into the wall at Road Atlanta with little more than a broken ankle, bruises and other residual aches and pains is nothing short of miraculous (once again – look at Johnson’s photo and consider the nature of the impact). We’ve seen all manner of violent wrecks along the NASCAR Sprint Cup trail, but such a single-car event on such a non-traditional track is a jarring reminder of just how powerful (and just how durable) today’s Sprint Cup car truly is. Keselowski’s fellow competitors seemed just as impressed with his accomplishment as the rest of NASCAR Nation did.

And speaking of Keselowski’s fellow competitors, Jeff Gordon, upon turning 40 this past week on Aug. 4, seems to have assumed the role of a NASCAR elder statesman. His comments regarding Carl Edwards’s free-agency negotiations had him sounding more like “The Intimidator” of old than “The Wonder Boy” of a similar era. Gordon’s highly-publicized warning that a switch by Edwards from Roush Fenway Racing over to Joe Gibbs Racing would effectively destroy Carl’s chance at the 2011 Sprint Cup title, made Jeff sound like that old guy who corners you at the post office and proceeds to tell you what’s wrong with your neighbor’s yard.

Maybe it’s only Gordon’s professional opinion that steered his pontificating, but then again, reaching the threshold of forty qualifies you for an AARP card in the Sprint Cup Series these days. To hear Gordon making critical comments (instead of responding to them), it felt as though NASCAR had turned some kind of generational corner. It was one of those feelings like you have when you say something to your kids, and suddenly you realize that you sound exactly like your dad.

Since we’re on the topic of fatherhood, now that recently-new-dad Edwards has settled on a multi-year future with Roush Fenway Racing, we can all get back to our regularly-scheduled lives. The earth still spins on its axis and the sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west just as it always has. As has been suggested by many pundits via many forms of media, it’s now time for Edwards and Company to buckle down, focus their collective energies and make a concerted run at the 2011 Sprint Cup title.

Their challengers are there, including the five-time champion who’s been moonlighting lately as a news photographer, and there’s a good chance that the wildcard spots will grow even more unclear as the final races leading up to the Chase take us ever closer to mid-September and the beginning of the end. Keselowski’s dramatic win at Pocono puts him squarely in the hunt, meaning that the dynamic duo from Penske Racing (those guys who’ve enjoyed some very successful summer months) will likely share the spotlight and challenge the usual names from the usual teams.

And speaking of the usual teams, what will the dynamics at Joe Gibbs Racing look like now that there’s a new kid on the block? With Ryan Truex making the move from Michael Waltrip Racing over to JGR and a multi-race Nationwide deal, will there be hard feelings and even harder decisions to make regarding the allocation of financial resources and/or team support? Will this new addition lead to more movement within the Gibbs operation? Are the “silly season” floodgates creaking open once again? Stay tuned to Frontstretch for more.

And speaking of movement within organizations, here’s a hearty “Thank you!” to Dr. Joe and Dr. Rose Mattioli for all of their hard work and dedication to the fortunes of Pocono Raceway. I had the opportunity, back in 2002, to spend some quality time with Dr. Rose while both of us were grabbing our much-needed, early morning cups of coffee in the team lounge on a Friday morning in June. Pocono had fresh doughnuts and hot coffee available to team personnel and I happened to take a seat near Rose Mattioli – completely unaware that she was at the table next to me. She introduced herself, I felt two inches tall, and we proceeded to chat over coffee for the next 40 minutes or so about racing, Pennsylvania, family and the events of that coming weekend.

By the time we finished our coffees, Rose Mattioli had thanked me for my time and had invited my wife and I to her family’s annual picnic that was scheduled for that July’s race weekend. I can’t think of many other track owners who would spend so much personal time with a mere guest at their facility, but Dr. Rose did and I’ll always remember her kindness. Now that the racetrack has been signed over to yet another generation of the Mattioli family, we can only hope that such generosity will continue. My guess is that it will, and NASCAR will be all the better for it. The accomplishments of Dr. Joe and Dr. Rose will be another part of NASCAR’s folklore that’s well worth recording.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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