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Darlington Southern 500 Postscript

by Dave Grayson
Monday, May 11, 2009

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Mark Martin
It was definitely an up and down roller coaster ride for the NASCAR news this week. We watched a wily veteran take the young guns to racing school and then experienced the shock of learning that a Sprint Cup driver had been suspended for violating the sport's substance abuse policy. Let's start on a positive note this week with:

THUMBS-UP to Mark Martin for a job well done en route to winning the Southern 500 at Darlington. The 50 year old driver also redefined that old saying "age before beauty." Martin has now won two of the last four Sprint Cup races as well as his 37th career win.

Another THUMBS-UP goes out to everyone somehow connected to Hendrick Motorsports. HMS had three of their drivers, Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, finish in the top five in this race. Additionally the Stewart-Haas Racing teams, for drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, finished third and fourth in Hendrick cars and engines that they lease. All in all six teams among the top seven finishers came from HMS.

The special THUMBS-UP award for making chicken salad out chicken do do goes to Jimmie Johnson and his Lowes/Hendrick Motorsports team. This team's weekend in South Carolina started out on a sour note when it appeared that the "track too tough to tame" was going to be slapping them around. It began on Friday afternoon when Johnson, completely out of character, crashed his car during qualifying. The team had to go to a back up car and that meant they were going to have to start the race at the rear of the starting grid. Making the situation worse was the fact that this was an impound race meaning the back up car was going to take the green flag with zero laps on it.

The race itself also appeared to be the makings of a disaster for Johnson and company. They intentionally stayed out on the track, during the race's first yellow flag, to gain some badly needed track position. In the midst of making that first pit stop they were caught on pit road when another yellow flag came out and that put them a lap down. During the course of their next pit stop Johnson's car was hit from behind and spun on pit road. They had to push the car backwards and get it into the pit stall before they could begin the work. Even crew chief Chad Knaus, who seems to take everything in his stride, appeared to be completely flustered.

However the process that created three consecutive NASCAR championships for this team soon kicked in. By the end of the race Johnson was in second place and closing in on race winner Martin in the final laps. It's that we don't give up philosophy that creates championships.

However WHAT'S UP with the fourth Hendrick Motorsports team? Dale Earnhardt Jr found himself having to endure another long afternoon that left even the most hardcore members of the Junior Nation puzzled. Once again Earnhardt overshot his pit stall early in the race and any potential for gaining track position was lost. All throughout the race he appeared to have at best a 15th place car. That unraveled during the final moments of the event when he made contact with another car and went spinning down the backstretch. He wound up finishing seven laps down in 27th.

Brace yourselves Junior Nation. The rants, from the national motorsports media all the way to the Internet bloggers, has already started regarding replacing Tony Eury Jr the team's crew chief. This story line has been in the news since late February and it appears it's not going away anytime soon. Earnhardt is now 18th in the point standings and is 89 markers away from the top 12 which will determine the line up for NASCAR's Chase For The Championship. However the pages of the calendar are turning very quickly and in no time the September 12th Chase cut off will be upon us. If this team is going to make that 12 team line up the process of getting there has to start right now. Whatever is going on needs to be fixed right now. Even if it means a crew chief change.

WHAT'S UP with Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle? During the race Biffle ran into Edwards' Ford and caused him to slam into the wall. Edwards was heard to say over his radio "I just go ran over by my own team mate." Biffle recovered and went on to finish eighth. Edwards wound up behind the wall with a 32nd place finish and took a major hit in the points standings. He's now 12th in the Chase rankings. I can only imagine what the tone of Monday morning's team meeting must have been like.

But there were some bright spots for Roush Fenway racing during the Darlington weekend. THUMBS-UP for Matt Kenseth for setting a new track record during the Sprint Cup qualifying. A second THUMBS-UP goes out to Kenseth for winning the Friday night Nationwide Series race. Kenseth collected that win after race leader Kyle Busch suffered a flat tire just prior to a green-white-checker finish. By the way, did you hear all of those fan cheering when Busch came down pit road?

Unfortunately we now have to issue a WHAT'S UP to Jeremy Mayfield regarding the shocking announcement that said he was in violation of NASCAR's substance abuse policy and was indefinitely suspended both as a driver and a team owner. Mayfield submitted to a mandatory urine test during the weekend of the Richmond race. The test result was positive and he redid the test for what was termed as a B sample.

Also placed under indefinite suspension were Tony Martin, a crew member for John Andretti's #34 Sprint Cup team and Ben Martin, a crew member for Roush Fenway Racing's #16 Nationwide Series team.

In making the announcement NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter declined to identify the substance that was found in Mayfield's test but did say it was "non alcohol related." However Dr David Black referred to it as " a drug of concern." Black heads the Tennessee based Aegis Labs who provides testing and other services for NASCAR's substance abuse program.

Mayfield said he believed the test failure was a result of some medication he was taking for an allergy condition. In a prepared statement the driver said "in my case, I believe that the combination of prescribed medicine along with an over the counter medicine reacted together and resulted in a positive drug test. My doctor and I are working with both Dr Black and NASCAR to resolve the matter." Mayfield said he planned to fully cooperate with NASCAR and would soon be making an announcement regarding the naming of an interim owner and temporary replacement driver until the matter was resolved.

However, in comments made during an interview with "USA Today" Dr Black described Mayfield's explanation as being "not plausible." He went on to say "what we have is a clear violation of policy. In my many years of experience, I have never seen a violation like this due to the combination of over the counter or prescription products. There's no way a driver would be in violation for using common cold and allergy medications as directed."

While his suspension is listed as being indefinite, the possibility of Mayfield's return to NASCAR racing is available. However it's going to be a long road back filled with frequent testing and required counseling.

NASCAR initiated a more aggressive substance policy, including mandatory testing, at the beginning of this year. In a sheer note of irony the first person suspended, under the terms of the strengthened policy, was Paul Chodora a member of Mayfield's team. The crew member was released by the team following his suspension.

In all fairness that leads to a THUMBS-UP for NASCAR for taking the steps to upgrade their substance abuse policy. You simply cannot have an impaired driver out on the race track. NASCAR's actions has made the sport a lot safer for all of its competitors. Their new policy also makes them stand considerably taller above the other major professional sports in this country who needs to follow NASCAR's example.

In our final THUMBS-UPS this week let's send one out to Fox Sports for bringing back the "foot cam." This is a tiny camera placed above the front floorboard of a race car that allows us to see the dance like maneuvers a driver employs while working the pedals. It's a concept that we haven't been treated to in quite awhile.

Along those lines a THUMBS-UP goes out to Michael Waltrip who had the foot cam installed in his car. In honor of Mother's Day, Waltrip had the words "I love you Mom" printed across the top of his driver's shoes. Unfortunately his fiery engine failure early in the race eliminated the foot cam shots but it's the thought that counts. It's also another reason why everyone loves Mikey.

The absolute final THUMBS-UP of the week goes to the silver fox David Pearson. The NASCAR icon was front and center during the Darlington weekend. During a live television interview with the Speed Channel Pearson was asked about the 1976 Daytona 500. This of course was the famous race where he and Richard Petty crashed into each other while driving towards the checkered flag. Both cars slid onto the infield grass. However Pearson was able to keep his car running and limped his badly battered Wood Brothers car across the start finish line for the win. Recalling the incident Pearson noted that right after the race Maurice Petty, Richard's brother and engine builder, asked him what happened out there. Pearson replied "the bitch ran into me."

This is exactly why NASCAR racing broadcasts needs more segments featuring their racing legends. Their stories are just priceless.

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