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NASCAR Phoenix postscript

by Dave Grayson
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

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Ryan Newman takes the checkered flag ahead of Jeff Gordon
CIA Stock Photo
For many years now I've been saying that the difference between auto racing and the other major American sports is the fact that the element of foregone conclusion does not exist in racing. For example if a team, in the other major sports, has a big lead in the waning moments of the event then it becomes a foregone conclusion that they are going to win the game. That simply doesn't apply in racing. We saw evidence of that during the NASCAR weekend at the Phoenix International Raceway. With that thought in mind let's begin this week with:

THUMBS-UP to Ryan Newman for literally stealing the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix during the final two laps. It marked his 14th career Cup win, his first win since the 2008 Daytona 500, his first win of 2010 and the first win of the season for his team: Stewart Haas Racing. Another THUMBS-UP goes out to crew chief Tony Gibson who scored his first Cup win.

THUMBS-UP for the exciting finish the fans got treated to during the conclusion of the Subway Fresh Fit 600 km. With a little over three laps left in the race the yellow caution flag came out, after Scott Riggs scraped the wall, and set up the green-white-checker finish complete with the now famous, and much appreciated, double file shoot out style restart.

That in turn led to the human angst among crew chiefs who had to make the dreaded two tire versus four tire pit stop decision. Prior to this final caution flag driver Kyle Busch was completely dominating the race, with a two second lead over Jimmie Johnson, and appeared to be well on the way to his first Sprint Cup win of the season. He was also on his way to a Phoenix sweep after winning the Nationwide Series race the night before.

Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers, called for a four tire stop. That leads to a WHAT'S-UP but only because the plan didn't work. It's too easy to play Monday morning arm chair crew chief, but the fact of the matter is there were some extenuating circumstances that favored the two tire approach that the other teams took. When pit road opened for those final stops there were 26 cars on the lead lap not to mention only three laps left in the race. Busch restarted and finished eighth in the final rundown. It could have, of course, went the other way as it did for Jimmie Johnson. His four tire stop resulted in a seventh place restart, a third place finish and some extra padding in his points lead. That gamble could have also been helped by the presence of an additional yellow flag which never materialized. Considering the three wide racing behind the leaders, it's a miracle there wasn't at least a second green-white-checker attempt.

With the field lined up for the restart Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman were on the front row. That leads to a WHAT'S-UP to Gordon for that restart. In a very rare miscue, Gordon spun his tires and that's what gave Newman the winning edge. But Gordon also deserves a THUMBS-UP for his post race interview where he credited crew chief Steve Letarte for making the right call as well as his crew for the great pit stop. He then fully took the blame for giving the race away following the restart.

Speaking of post race interviews, Kyle Busch gets another WHAT'S-UP for storming out of the garage interview while refusing to speak to anyone-again. I get that he had every reason to be angry after losing a race on pit road that was clearly his for the taking. I also get that these race drivers are hot, tired and consumed with every human emotion you could name after one of these races are over.

But the fact of the matter is: Busch could have once again been the better man here by taking a few moments to cool off, collect his thoughts and do the national television interview. It would have been a great opportunity to thank the large group of hard working, dedicated and talented individuals on his team who prepared the car that ran so well that night. It also would've been an opportunity to thank the many sponsors that makes the tires roll on that car.
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Then there's the matter of Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin who's already getting THUMBS-UPS for being "an iron man" for driving in the Phoenix race on top of recent surgery on his right knee to repair a torn ACL. Prior to the race Hamlin had excess fluid drained from his right knee. There was an in car camera placed inside of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and you could clearly see the discomfort in the man's eyes as he gingerly climbed inside of his race car. Driver Casey Mears was on Hamlin's pit box ready to take over the wheel of the car if needed. He was never called to duty although many observers, including yours truly, felt there should have been a driver change.


That leads to a somewhat reluctant WHAT'S-UP for Hamlin for refusing to relinquish his car during a race that was clearly a lost cause. An electrical problem completely drained the car's battery and that necessitated a lengthy pit stop. A driver change could have been easily made during the course of installing a new battery. The team finished 30th, two laps down, and you could tell during the post race interview that Hamlin was in a lot of discomfort.

After the race Hamlin said "I couldn't watch somebody get in there." I get that it's extremely difficult for a driver to turn his car over to someone else in the middle of race. I'm sure that Casey Mears understands as well. But Hamlin needed to lie down with an ice pack on that sore knee instead of driving around in 30th place for another two hours. If Hamlin wouldn't make the call to get out of the car, then team owner Joe Gibbs or team President J D Gibbs should have stepped in and made the call for him.

However, again, it's easy to play Monday morning crew chief when you're not directly involved with all of the circumstances.

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After giving him a hard time earlier, it's time for a THUMBS-UP to Kyle Busch for winning Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix. The Bashas Supermarkets 200 was Busch's second win of the season, his third at Phoenix and it placed him third on the all time series' win list.

Having said that, WHAT'S-UP with some of the circumstances that led to his latest win? During the course of a double file restart Busch was lined up on the front row alongside Brad Keselowski. For reasons still being debated, Busch's Toyota just didn't seem to hit speed after the green flag waved. The result was an accordion effect that stacked up 13 cars on the front stretch and created the need for a red flag condition that lasted ten minutes for track clean up.

Adding to the drama was the fact that Busch came over his radio and said there might be a problem with the car's transmission. But there was no evidence of it when the race resumed. On the ensuing lap 146 restart Busch went to the completely opposite extreme and NASCAR deemed that he jumped the start and assessed a pass through penalty on him.

The final caution of the race came with 13 laps left in the race due to debris on the track. On the restart, with eight laps now left, Busch sailed through the competition like the proverbial bat out of Hell. With five laps left he passed Keselowski's loose race car to take the lead and the race.

After the race Busch said he really didn't understand the pass through penalty he received for jumping a restart but, smiling and in typical fashion, did say "I paid NASCAR back by winning the race."

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The final comments of the week are dedicated to the Wallace racing family. THUMBS-UP to Mike Wallace for not being able to find his JD Motorsports team hauler when he first arrived at the Phoenix International Raceway. This former start and park team was located at the upper end of the car hauler line because Wallace has the team in the top ten of the Nationwide Series points standings.

WHAT'S-UP with another weekend of harsh luck for young Steve Wallace. He was already driving with a broken foot due to a crash, not of his making, that occurred at Nashville during the previous weekend. During Friday night's Phoenix race Wallace, and his modified racing shoe, was driving a very consistent race, and hovering around the top ten, when a blown right front tire caused him to run into, of all people, Uncle Mike Wallace.

The final THUMBS-UP of the week goes to Kenny Wallace. During the "NASCAR Race Day Show" on the SPEED Channel Wallace reminded everyone that the Phoenix Sprint Cup race was going to be 63 laps longer than last year's event and said "that mean extra beer so be careful race fans."

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