Race Weekend Central

‘Dinger and Jimmie and Right Turns-Oh My! Mulling NASCAR’s Past and Possibilities

It’s certainly been a busy week on the NASCAR front. Between AJ Allmendinger, Dodge, Mother Nature and a did-he-or-didn’t he between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Pocono, there has been plenty of fuel for the fire for NASCAR aficionados to mull over. So, being a muller by nature, I’ve had plenty to keep me busy!

First off, check out Mirror Driving…did we call it or did we call it on the Parker Kligerman situation? It wasn’t hard to put two and two together and figure that once Roger Penske replaced Kligerman with Ryan Blaney as Brad Keselowski’s fill-in in the No. 22 Nationwide car that it would only be a matter of time until Blaney would land a more permanent role. It’s been looking like Penske has been holding auditions for at least one Nationwide ride and possibly two for 2013. Blaney is scheduled to run a few NNS races in addition to the ride in Keselowski’s truck, which is basically a Penske satellite. Keselowski has said he will cut back on his Nationwide activity further next year, and Roger Penske would like to move Sam Hornish, Jr. up to the Cup level as well, either in the No. 22 car or in a third Cup entry. Such a move would essentially leave one full-time ride open and possibly two, depending on Keselowski’s plans.

Is Ryan Blaney’s new ride with Brad Keselowski in the truck series an indication that he will be in a more permanent role for Roger Penske in Nationwide next year?

It’s likely Penske is looking for Blaney to fill the seat of the No. 12 if he does indeed plan to move Hornish up, so what about the seat time in the No. 22? That’s not quite so clear, but Penske is running Kenny Wallace in the No. 22 for at least one race later this year…perhaps another quiet audition. Wallace would make a good fit as a teammate for Blaney. Wallace is a proven winner in the series and a three-time most popular driver, with experience coaching younger drivers in the past. Time will tell what the plans are, but that pairing, along with Keselowski, would be an excellent one for Blaney’s development.

Speaking of Penske Racing (well sort of), former Penske driver AJ Allmendinger finally spoke about his positive drug test this week, blaming the result on prescription ADD medication Adderall, claiming that a friend gave him the pill after Allmendinger complained of being tired. Several people have wondered about the validity of Allmendinger’s story, and short of strapping him to a polygraph machine, we may never know for sure if he’s telling the truth. However, even though I’m quite cynical after the Jeremy Mayfield fiasco, I think the story is plausible.

Think about it…how many people have mentioned not feeling well, only to be offered one remedy or another by a friend we were with at the time? I know I have. And because we like to believe that our friends are trustworthy, we don’t necessarily grill them on what they’re giving us and its possible side effects. In my case, I learned the hard way, though not as hard a way as Allmendinger has. I complained of a headache, and one of the friends I happened to be with offered me something like Excedrin or the like.

I didn’t think to ask what it was. The thought that it could have been illegal (it wasn’t) never even entered my mind. But in my case, because I didn’t ask, I found out in a less-than-pleasant manner that the main ingredients in Excedrin are caffeine and aspirin. Aspirin makes me rather ill. After I could eat solid food again, I realized that I should have asked…but that was hindsight. I know of people with legitimate prescriptions who will offer a pill to a friend if they are trying to help-it’s not uncommon in the real world, even if it’s not a smart thing to do.

Amphetamine (which is a single drug, by the way, not a class of drugs as some people seem to believe) is testable in the system for 2-4 days, according to several sources, so, yes, it is possible that Allmendinger took the pill and promptly put it out of his mind, not knowing what it was and just happened to get tested that week. It’s possible that the positive test was the result of a one-time lapse in judgment-the same thing happened to Randy Lajoie a few years ago-he smoked marijuana at a party one time, and got nailed on a NASCAR test. He wasn’t a raging pothead, and it’s wrong to assume that Allmendinger is a speed freak because of one test.

Are there parts of his story that cast doubt? Sure, most notably the statements from his publicist, Tara Ragan. But Ragan’s job is to make her employer look as good as possible in light of a serious incident, though she showed a lack of judgment in the way they were obviously understated or misleading. Jimmie Johnson received some criticism for a similar PR issue when he broke his wrist while surfing on top of a golf cart. His publicist consequently tried to downplay the incident, issuing a press release that ended up being a misstatement when the real story came to light.

Am I saying that I believe Allmendinger’s story lock, stock, and barrel? No, but I’m not going to dismiss it as a lie either. The bottom line is, I wasn’t there, and therefore it’s not my place to decide whether Allmendinger is telling the truth or not-that’s between him, his conscience, and his NASCAR-mandated therapist.

Johnson had a controversy of his own this week, in which the five-time Sprint Cup champion was accused by some of spinning out his own car intentionally at Pocono so that Jeff Gordon could win the race and move into position for a Chase wild card. I’m not even going to go into how ridiculous that theory is (do people realize the huge number of variables that would have had to have happened in exactly the right way for that to even occur?), because Matt McLaughlin did that already. But I did find a few of the fan comments from the week on Johnson kind of funny.

First of all, it’s time to let the overturned Daytona penalty go. Really. Without even going into how wrong the visual inspection failure was, two things that people need to remember about the situation. One, chief appellate officer John Middlebrook is good friends with Rick Hendrick…that part is true. But what people like to conveniently forget is that Middlebrook is also close friends with, among others, NASCAR president Mike Helton. Two, _Middlebrook has reduced or overturned every penalty that has been brought before him on appeal_ during his tenure. Not just Johnson’s, but one for Richard Childress Racing, a Hendrick rival. So before saying that Middlebrook was in Hendrick’s pocket, check the facts, because they simply don’t support that theory.

I also rather enjoyed the fan who said that Johnson, the winningest driver in the last decade, doesn’t go for the win in his races. Good golly, if Johnson is laying over, imagine the kind of numbers he’d be putting up if he wasn’t…

Of course, no turning over of the week’s events would be complete without a little time spent on Dodge’s imminent departure from NASCAR. I was sorry to see it, mainly because I would have liked to see what the manufacturer might have done if, like we discussed in Mirror Driving briefly, they worked with an alliance of smaller teams to make it to victory lane.

Think of this: Dodge, unable to land a big team, offers full factory support, including a competitive engine program (in the same way that Toyota does for its teams) to Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, and BK Racing. That would have given the manufacturer a total of seven Cup teams from day one. Provided that those teams kept the drivers they have now, it would have given Dodge a stable that included a Sprint Cup champion in Kurt Busch and a Truck Series champ in Travis Kvapil, plus three other Cup race winners (Regan Smith, David Ragan, and Casey Mears).

Busch, Ragan and Mears each have wins in at least two national touring series. David Gilliland is a former Nationwide Series winner and Landon Cassill is a Nationwide Rookie of the Year, though still a relatively untapped talent. This group is capable of making some noise in top-flight equipment and it would have been fun to watch them take shots at the bigger teams. Yes, it would have been an unconventional approach for Dodge, and one that would have taken more time to make work…but it just might have produced a bunch of wins down the road.

Finally, I sometimes think I’m the only one, but I’ve had this race circled on the calendar all year long. I know I’m in the minority, because I love road courses. They provide a different set of challenges for teams, and I enjoy seeing which teams can rise to them gracefully. Drivers who excel on ovals, turning off fans with their winning ways can struggle mightily when the right turns are part of the mix. Others who are often mid-pack on the ovals shine on a road course. I love that.

But there are two things I want to see happen with the twisty courses. First, I’d like to see the Cup stars tackle the section of Watkins Glen International known as “the boot.” Not only does the notoriously difficult section of track separate the best from the rest, but by having the entrance open, it would eliminate what has been the scene of some nasty, scary crashes over the years. A total win-win right there. And for Pete’s sake, if NASCAR wants the Chase to truly be a test of the best drivers in the sport, they need to include a road course. Would Johnson, who has struggled on road courses still have five Chase titles if he had had to contend with Watkins Glen in the fall? Would Jeff Gordon, the winningest active road racer in the sport, have laid claim to a title via his prowess on these courses? We simply don’t know. And that’s a shame.

Yes, indeed, it has been quite a week in NASCAR. But a new race weekend is upon us and like every one before it, it holds infinite possibility. And that’s the thought I’ll leave you with this week: one of the beautiful things about NASCAR is the infinite possibilities of every part of the sport. Take a few minutes to stop and think about them. Getting stuck on just a few makes the whole experience less enjoyable, because there are people and things out there who will surprise you. But to think about what could happen, what might have really happened in a situation that we were not privy to, what could never happen—unless…. These are the things that make the sport wonderful.

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