DRAMA ON AND OFF THE TRACK DURING NASCAR'S FIRST QUARTER
In racing, the month of May has lots of significance. For many, it’s the signal that the granddaddy of American Motorsports, the Indianapolis 500, is just around the corner. For NASCAR, it’s a month where the schedule and the venues look like they did before the track building boom- before Chicago and Vegas, California and Homestead. It’s a slice of the way I remember NASCAR when I was a kid. The schedule for the month starts at one of the traditional favorites, Richmond, and ends with the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. The familiarity with this five week stretch offers a lot of comfort for the long-time old school fans: Richmond, Darlington, Dover, the All Star Race, and the 600. The places the schedule sees this time of year are about the only thing that looks like business as usual in the sport.
This year has been more tumultuous than usual. First, the early confrontation between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, then the chain reaction speculation following Kasey Kahne’s jump from Richard Petty Motorsports to Hendrick Motorsports, and speaking of HMS, we now have conflict within the friendly confines involving Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
We begin with Keselowski and Edwards, who have had an ongoing spat that dates back to last season, with multiple run-ins on the Nationwide circuit, and then the memorable and frightening crash at Talladega. The new “Have at it Boys” edict from NASCAR was tested in Atlanta, when Edwards intentionally spun Keselowski, and unintentionally launched him into the air. While the result was unusual, the behavior was not. Many fans are new to our sport. I like to think the dividing line- the entry date for many of our fans- was sometime after the first full season for Jeff Gordon in 1993. People forget the 1980’s: Wallace vs. Waltrip; Waltrip vs. Earnhardt; Earnhardt vs. Elliott; and Earnhardt vs. just about everyone. There was a difference though: guys back then grew up and developed on short tracks. They honed their skills at Metrolina, Bowman-Grey, Greenville-Pickens, and other short tracks where the brawling style of racing was not only accepted, it was necessary. The younger guys, making their Cup debuts and earlier and earlier points in their careers, never got the benefit of learning the lost art of picking your spots. Maybe that moment of levity- and levitation- got everyone’s attention at Atlanta.
Kasey Kahne’s jump to Hendrick for 2012 has set off a chain reaction that seems to have found its ground zero in the seat of RCR’s #29 car. First off, the deal doesn’t kick for another year and a half, but it’s savvy for Kahne. He’ll be just 31 years old when he slides into the seat for the 2012 Daytona 500. He has enormous talent, and will have lots of time to win titles in top flight equipment. It’s useful to remember Dale Earnhardt was 29 when he won rookie of the year in 1979, and was still winning championships in his forties. Kahne has plenty of time. The questions lie in next year’s driver lineup. Where does he go? Stewart-Haas may give him a home, but it’s just one year. Then in 2012, which car does he drive? Mark Martin says he’ll still be driving: he seems to be aging like Jonathan Winters in “Mork and Mindy”, which is to say he’s in reverse. He’s doing some of the best driving of his career.
The real drama for the short attention span set who can’t wait that long resides at Richard Childress Racing. Kevin Harvick is one of the most talented drivers in the garage area. He’s a free agent after this year, but the movement at Hendrick and the one year gap for the Kahne deal to kick means his options may be limited. He says he wants to stay in a Chevrolet (since that’s the manufacturer for his stellar Nationwide and Camping World Truck programs), but with Stewart-Haas possibly creating a career pit stop for Kahne or Martin, the top flight bowtie brigade rides are filling up fast. Of course, Harvick just won last week, snapping a long dry spell, but Shell announced it’s leaving at the end of this year. Musical sponsor shuffles always seem to leave someone in bad shape. Ask Bill Davis how it worked out when Childress lost AT&T and took the Caterpillar deal from him. BDR no longer is in business. Similarly, Verizon and its nameless car are off for 2011, so Shell is headed there. Ironically, both the Caterpillar and Shell movements were triggered when a Communications company was forced to bail on the sport because of Sprint’s exclusivity agreement with NASCAR.
Finally, there's Gordon and Johnson. Gordon brought Johnson in the sport. He saw something in the guy- thought he could win championships- and he’s won a bunch of them. Now Gordon wants more of his own. Gordon hasn’t won a title since 2001, and he knows he’s not gonna hang around ‘til he’s 50 chasing another. He needs it. His career is viewed with the reverence of Petty or Earnhardt, and I’m sure he wonders if he’d have more titles if it wasn’t for Johnson and the Chase format. Without the Chase, he’d have won two more in ’04 and ’07. Six would have been a pretty good number.
Now, Johnson has become one of his biggest obstacles to another title. He has to drive as hard as ever, because unlike his championships in the 1990’s, more people have equipment that can compete with him. Hopefully, he won’t give an inch. Gordon never has gotten through to being a crowd favorite, but beating Johnson down the stretch just might get him there.
Next time the series gets to Richmond, we’ll have a much better feel for how all these stories have played out. There will be 12 drivers running 10 races for a championship. Of course, it only took nine races to cook up this much drama, and the Chase is 17 races away. In racing, that’s a lifetime.
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