Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito? Tropical Storm Lee Goes General Sherman on Atlanta

Anybody else find it ironic that Tropical Storm Lee did just as much damage storming through Atlanta as both Sherman and Grant?

While some may have been puzzled as to why the race was postponed until Tuesday (Sept. 6) rather than Monday, the tornadoes – not those zesty gas station cheese snacks that Ryan Newman plows down – that reared their ugly heads on Labor Day were justification enough. The sights of college football and baseball games being evac-ed because of weather and lightning this weekend were bad enough, but to have 100,000 people among swirling debris and flying sheets of aluminum would be worse.

As for why NASCAR stuck around trying to dry the track Saturday night for five hours, did you see how many people showed up today? God bless those fans (both of you), because that was the type of attendance usually reserved for an ARCA race at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich. NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway had to do something to help keep the vendors from going broke this weekend, particularly since Atlanta got been jobbed out of its second date for another cookie-cutter suck track.

The last few laps at AMS Tuesday were reason again to question: A. Why is any racetrack ever repaved; B. What is so great about Kentucky besides their chicken; and C. Can we just have Ford Championship Weekend back in the ATL like we did during our heyday instead of Homestead? Two good races every 12 years isn’t cutting it, Miami. We’ll take Bo and Luke over Crockett and Tubbs any day.

How perfect was it that for Jeff Gordon’s 85th win breaking the tie with Darrell Waltrip – and arguably tying him with Bobby Allison – the guy who represented the official changing of the guard and moving NASCAR mainstream, emerged out of the car TALKING ON A CELLPHONE. What the heck was that?! What’s next, toss the keys to Alan Gustafson and tell him, “take it easy on the brakes, chief?”

The video montage that followed showing that beautiful mullet and macho mustache from 1993 almost made me want to start construction on a time machine to go back in time and tell him that in 18 years, that very look would serve as a catalyst for world peace, and act as a beacon of hope and bridge of healing with other cultures, and that he must never, EVER, change it.

I would also tell him to make sure that he kept a gas can to keep from running out of fuel and marrying Brooke. All joking aside, congrats on the 85th win, champ – glad you’re still part of the sport and relevant once again.

If he ever gets tired of the crew chief gig, Alan Gustafson should probably just go back to school for a couple of years and become an ER doctor, as he is responsible for giving birth and reviving more top drivers in NASCAR than just about anybody. Lazarus thinks this guy is something special.

He had the unenviable task of keeping Kyle Busch from ripping out radio wires for three years and four wins, helped shepherd Mark Martin back to victory lane and another down-to-the-bitter-end championship chase two years ago and has thrust Gordon back into the racing conscious with his third win in 2011.

Gordon had been one for 109 before teaming with Gustafson’s former No. 5 team and is now three for 25 this season, just one win shy of matching Busch before the Chase begins – and could conceivably pass him if Busch stumbles Saturday in Richmond. While crew chiefs are often the ones who shoulder the blame when a driver doesn’t deliver, Alan has been making it rain with the No. 24 team this year more than any weather system to roll through the Southeast.

Speaking of which, 2011 should have been a fun year for Gustafson’s former driver Martin. His last (presumably) full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports prior to his next chapter in racing should have seen him go out with a bang.

Unfortunately, that “bang” has been the No. 5 getting caught up in more wrecks this season than recent memory can muster. The Daytona 500, Phoenix, Texas, Charlotte, Richmond and Charlotte the first half of this year all saw the No. 5 backwards, sideways or stuck into something not of its own doing. Daytona in July, Bristol and now in Atlanta have seen three similar incidents – the No. 5 car trying to slide in behind the car in front, only to not quite clear it, resulting in an accident.

What has been the cause of this anomaly? Poor spotting? These massive new cocoon seats obscuring vision? Let’s be honest, Clint Bowyer and Busch have also had similar incidents the last two weeks as well. After 25 years of holding it in and being the bigger person has he finally snapped, went Falling Down and gone postal?

Nobody’s perfect, but Martin isn’t exactly prone to mistakes. Yeah, yeah, I know, he parked it a lap early while leading at that Busch race at Bristol and he did drive into the end of pit wall at Martinsville once under caution in 1998. Big deal, Dale Earnhardt fell asleep and got lost during the first lap once at Darlington too; things happen.

He’s also managed to steer it straight backwards through a wreck at Richmond earlier this season and did the same to miss another one to make the Chase at the final race before the cut off in 2004.

If you think Kevin Harvick had bees in the car during that mid-race restart Tuesday, see how to properly avoid a nine-car pile up at 2:45.

I think what you’re seeing is the culmination of why Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like a suicidal Joaquin Phoenix the previous two seasons and Martin wanting desperately to do something special with what was the former No. 88 team – namely helping them to get a win for their first time since 2008 at Michigan.

He had similar struggles during the miserable seasons of 2001 and 2003 when he was forced to carry cars that simply weren’t that good on his surgically fused back – the same has held true thus far in 2011.

Save your emails that say he should retire or that age has finally caught up with him; I’ll just going to start cussing, make Notre Dame leprechaun fists and scowl at my computer monitor if you do. Hogwash and little more than wishful thinking from crusty Rusty Wallace fans that are mad Martin didn’t use that rocking chair FOX gave them both at Sonoma in 2005.

Simply put, had the team swap between the Nos. 24, 88 and 5 at Hendrick Motorsports never taken place this season, that very well would have been Martin celebrating a win at the start-finish line today – minus the silly burnout and cellphone shenanigans. Give him his gear back and it would be ‘09 all over again.

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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