NASCAR Off Week: Potholes, Scoring, Phantom Cautions, and Flying Cars—Oh My!

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NASCAR Off Week: Potholes, Scoring, Phantom Cautions, and Flying Cars—Oh My!

In its 60-year history, NASCAR has seen some wacky things.

The first three races of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season might have what it takes to join the list. As the series heads into an off weekend following the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta, some fans and writers will take the time to look back at what the start of the season has already given us.

Jimmie Johnson’s early season dominance is making plenty of headlines, as is point leader Kevin Harvick who seems to be leading the Richard Childress Racing comeback tour of 2010. There are also a few hopeful articles that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team might be improving after their horrendous 2009 campaign.

But the off weekend comes at a welcome time for NASCAR since they may want to regroup after what can only be described as a crazy four weeks of racing.

It all started with high hopes as the green flag fell on the Daytona 500 in mid-February. Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were on the front row with Harvick being one of the strongest cars during all of Speedweeks. As the race wound down things were right on schedule and the big dogs were near the front.

Until a hole bunch of problems arose.

Part of the track in-between turns one and two came apart, leaving a hole in the surface just past the halfway mark in the race. NASCAR red flagged the race and did their best to patch the hole but 39 laps later it was torn back up. So once again NASCAR red flagged the race to fix it.

They did and the biggest race of the year finished under the green flag. That was also in part to NASCAR new three attempts at a green flag finish, which was much needed as two cautions broke out, before we finally saw Jamie McMurray win his first Daytona 500.

While seeing a hole in the racetrack, especially Daytona, was certainly crazy it has happened before. Martinsville 2004 saw a chunk of the track come up and go through the front grill of Jeff Gordon’s car. NASCAR did back then what they did during the 500, red flagged the race and fixed the problem to ensure the race was finished.

“This is not supposed to happen,” said track president Robin Braig who visited the media center after the race. “But we can come back from this. We know how to fix it…we know how to do it right. I apologize for this. This is hallowed ground. We understand that. We accept the responsibility.”

Braig continued with, “hopefully what the fans will really remember about this race tomorrow and years to come is that dramatic finish.”

Involved in the dramatic finish that Braig referred to was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who went form 10th to second place on the last lap. Earnhardt Jr. didn’t feel that the two red flags and the hole were as big an issue as many were trying to make it out to be.

“Track surfaces are going to have problems from time to time,” he said. “This wasn’t a fault of NASCAR. It wasn’t a fault of Daytona’s or nobody’s. It was probably more of less everybody’s cars beating on the racetrack with trailing arm mounts and tailpipes. That’s going to knock a hole in some asphalt, I don’t care where you’re at.”

For once, people were looking forward to California and leaving behind the hole problem in Daytona.

But it wouldn’t be a California race if there weren’t crazy things making an appearance and that doesn't have to do with the celebrities that make a cameo when the series is out west. Crazy as in the attendance that always seems to be the front and center story for the Auto Club Speedway.

During the Auto Club 500 it was once again front and center as the stands were visibly empty amid talks of whether the Speedway deserves its two dates. But empty stands aren’t that out of the ordinary and wouldn’t really qualify for crazy.

How about when it rains and the lead changes three times within that period?

Much of the teams spent the day tracking the radar and trying to calculate when the rain would arrive and how they needed to get to the front. When the rain finally did arrive on lap 192 it was Denny Hamlin in the lead after staying out while pit stops had begun but as the cars continued to circle under the yellow flag Hamlin had no other choice but to pit for fuel.

That put California native Scott Speed in the lead until he too was forced to come down pit road. Jeff Burton became the new leader as the race finally restarted on lap 199 of the 250 in the race. However, it might be fair to say that the crazy doesn’t end there when Jimmie Johnson beat Burton to a timing line later in the race while coming off pit road.

The caution had come out with Johnson on pit road and Burton leading. Drivers are ordered to slow down when the caution came out, which is what Burton did but by not beating Johnson to the scoring line he wasn’t able to put him a lap down and Johnson then took the lead and the win.

Two races, two head shaking weeks. Surely nothing could top a pothole, rain and scoring lines, right?

Except, this is NASCAR where expect the unexpected should be the motto.

On lap 53 of the Shelby American GT 350 at Las Vegas the caution flag came out. The only problem was that no one knew why since there were no blown engines, no crashes and no debris. Nope, the caution flag came out because of faulty caution lights?

Following the previous caution when the race was restarted, the caution lights never shut off, therefore the team thought the caution was still out and drivers slowed back down. All right, so minor technical difficulties shouldn’t be a big deal.

It wasn’t a big deal until lap 107 when the caution flag came out again. Just like the previous time there were no blown engines, no debris, and no wrecks. The caution lights just turned on seemingly all by themselves.

Talk about getting a new meaning to the term phantom caution.

“We had two cautions today that were accidental. So that’s not in the cards,” said race winner Jimmie Johnson with a slight chuckle.

Crew chief Chad Knaus didn’t hide his amusement and laughter when saying, “someone leaned up against the wall and hit the caution button. You don’t know what going to happen in our sport.”

Tell that to Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards who made sure that the fourth race of the year would also be remembered in the crazy category with their late race incident.

So far we’ve seen almost the unbelievable and the year is just getting started. It might be a good thing that there’s now an off weekend for everyone to go home and regroup before getting back at it.

There’s still plenty of racing left and who knows what else we might see this year. Maybe it’ll snow in Bristol…oh wait, I think we’ve seen that story before. 

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