Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Going to Extremes, NASCAR Ups & Downs That Have Defined 2011 to Date

The world of racing is a metaphor for life, full of its own ups and downs. For instance, after working for 12 hours today, I returned to my vehicle only to the find the keys were in the ignition – and, naturally, the doors locked. Thankfully, I left the window cracked and was able to jimmy a broken branch off a pine tree, trip the power lock switch and wind up driving home minutes later. I’d like to credit time spent working in law enforcement and gaining an insight to the criminal mind.

OK, perhaps I’ve said too much. But now that I’m back at home, Firebase Beckwith, I can provide for you my latest creation: the Ups and Downs of NASCAR 2011.

Up: First-Time Winners

For those who pine for “The Good Ol’ Days,” 2011 has seen its fair share of them. For the first time in ages, we’ve seen the ability for teams not named Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway, Richard Childress, or Joe Gibbs to end up in victory lane. The Daytona 500 saw the Wood Brothers’ triumphant return to the winner’s circle after a nine-year absence, while Regan Smith won the Southern 500 for Furniture Row Racing in May, his flat black, single-car Chevrolet No. 78 taming the track deemed The Lady in Black.

Marcos Ambrose finally closed the deal at Watkins Glen three weeks ago, just two weeks removed from Paul Menard’s breakthrough win – only five years in the making – at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a track Menard’s family, sponsorship stalwarts in open wheel, had spent untold millions trying to compete and win the biggest race in the world.

Also not to be overlooked was David Ragan’s Daytona redemption, after a massive brain fart in February denied him the Great American Race. His win at the July 400-mile night race finally earned him a first career Cup win – and likely saved his job and sponsorship in the process.

Each of the wins prove that sometimes nice guys really do finish first and that even in this era, the right setup at the right time, combined with a little track position can lead to victory for even some of the sport’s smallest programs. Added bonus: just because your dad has some cash to help you follow your dream, you don’t have to feel the least bit bad or apologize for it.

Down: Can’t Buy a Break

In today’s world of NASCAR, even driving for Hendrick Motorsports – or being affiliated with them – doesn’t guarantee success. Latest example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. who just a couple of months ago was starting to look, act, and perform like the driver that was contending for races and championships (gulp) seven years ago.

Well, seven weeks later that six-win season of 2004 and third place in points for 2011 have proved all but a distant memory; instead, the footsteps of 11th in the Chase standings started looming large not far behind. Sure, Junior will probably make it, but things didn’t have to wind up this close.

Teammate Mark Martin has had a similar season of discontent, languishing 19th in points, his lowest full-time season showing since the miserable 2003 effort that saw him about ready to go Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption. In the final year of a three-year stint with HMS, one that saw his second best career performance just two seasons ago, Martin was part of a preseason shakeup that saw Jeff Gordon take over what had been his No. 5 team.

Instead, Martin moved over to Earnhardt’s operation to “hold things together” until Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis come on board in 2012. Too bad the equipment isn’t holding up for him.

Tony Stewart, on the other hand, is treading water and on the cusp of collapse in the points standings. With 11th-place Brad Keselowski posting wins and top-three finishes like somebody owes him money and Denny Hamlin in 13th with a win, the Summer of Smoke could very well be extinguished this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. At least for Stewart-Haas Racing and the US Army, Ryan Newman is solidly in the top 10.

Up: Newer Tracks, Newer Fans

The only things more polarizing in NASCAR – other than Kyle Busch or the new form of restrictor-plate racing – are probably road courses. Personally, I love them, hitting my knees every Sunday morning and praying that one day we have two more on the schedule. With the current state of competition being what it is, with only a few teams fielding engines for everybody plus bodies that are about as close to spec’d out as one can get (not factoring in the addition of using LASERS to measure the cars in 2012) road courses actually add some driver involvement and equipment preservation back into the equation.

Road courses have essentially become the new short tracks of NASCAR and have provided the best action and storylines from 2012. To Jacques Villeneuve doing his best impression of all three Bodines in their prime, big pileups, hair pullin’, baby punchin’, last-lap rooting and gouging (Watkins Glen), guys ending up beached on a stack of tires (Infineon), coupled with some of the best backdrop and scenery in motorsports (Road America) and International participation (Montreal, Quebec, Canada – AKA, NASCAR’s other France Jr.) what more do you want?

Let me guess…

Down: Stood Up By Old Stand Bys

Why must every track limited to four corners devolve into a fuel-mileage affair? I realize CAFE standards are going up and gas tickling $4 a gallon has MPG misers at DEFCON 2, but oval-track racing has reached a sad state of affairs. Indianapolis was a dramatic finish, for sure, but the last five laps the leaders were all running at half throttle trying to save enough gas to go for it at the very end.

Kansas saw Keselowski’s clutch performance literally be an exercise in clutch (i.e., that pedal on the left) performance, as he coasted through each corner enough to eke out his second career victory. Sure, the new form of racing at Daytona and Talladega seems close, but it’s still not the same as it was in the early ’80s, early ’90s or early 2000s.

The new form of trailer racing forces one car to volunteer to be second fiddle, accepting to defeat five laps from the finish in order to push another car to victory. Of course, that’s assuming it doesn’t push all the water out and blow up in front of the field… or, the field that is now eight seconds behind. Plate racing has always presented some challenges; but now, we’ve gone from playing Russian Roulette with five laps remaining to drivers simply giving up well before the white flag has been displayed.

Up: Boys, Have At It

If the networks would air every race from Kurt Busch’s car and in-car radio, unfiltered and uncensored, it would have the same effect as the 1979 Daytona 500 did in attracting and keeping new fans for a lifetime. That, or completely undo any semblance of civility on playgrounds in schools across America. Good luck finding another driver who can offer the kind of sarcasm and wit, wielding F-bombs and accusations while in a four-wheel drift at 170 mph, then minutes later after confronting another driver on pit road, seamlessly detail the day’s events while dropping sponsor mentions… but I digress.

It’s all part of a headline season for rough-and-tumble drivers and owners. After all, in what other sport can you have a 60-year-old man horse-collar the fastest thing on four wheels, then issue an attitude adjustment with his fist – in part because said punchee pushed aforementioned senior citizen’s unattended car into wall on pit road?

The only downside to Danica Patrick coming on board next year is that there is not another female in the field for her to get into it with, like she did when Milka Duno
wigged out on her a few years ago in the IndyCar Series.

She better make sure she doesn’t cross ways with crew chief Gary Baxter, though. I heard he likes to scratch, too.

Down: Boys, We’ve Had It

What’s the point of encouraging drivers and crew members to “show their emotion” if they aren’t allowed to show their emotion? Case in point: Baxter grabbing a wad of follicle. He gets a $5,000 fine and probation. For what? Being awesome on camera? RC gets docked a tenth of a million for hashing it out with another Truck Series owner?

Have you seen the Truck garage at some tracks on a race weekend? There’s no garage; it’s usually just empty parking spots with tools laying everywhere. Mike Massaro from ESPN about bit it after tripping over a toe-in template at MIS back in June right in front of me. Organized, it is not.

So what if Robby Gordon shakes down Kevin Conway for money he owes him like Joe Pesci in Casino? If Newman cracked Juan Pablo Montoya in a trailer, why doesn’t Montoya punch him in the throat instead of getting his lawyer involved? Instead, Bulldozer gets a secret $50k fine and some sort of double-secret probation.

If anything, NASCAR should award bonus points for the best insult or retaliatory action that does not threaten the life of another driver. Yes, Kyle and Kevin Harvick at Darlington this year got a little carried away, while Carl Edwards and Keselowski last year was downright lethal. There’s a line that gets crossed from time to time; but so long it doesn’t happen on the track, why can’t they just handle business?

Probably the same reason why I see fit to remove my keys a quarter-inch out of the ignition to disable the anti-lock-your-keys-in-the-#$%&ing-rig sensor.

Because it doesn’t make any sense.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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