The pass for the lead
After watching a weird finish to the Indy 500 earlier Sunday, many racing fans probably believed the Coca-Cola 600 finish could not end up holding a candle to the drama that unfolded on the last lap in Indiana on Sunday. But Nascar gave open-wheel racers a run for their money.
Many Nascar fans and those in the media felt that one of the usual suspects, like someone with the name Johnson, Edwards or Bush, would be taking the checkers on the last lap of the 600. The legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans held out hope, as they do every Sunday, that the 88 car would wind up in winner's circle. But Sunday proved to be an odd and very entertaining day of motorsports for many viewers, and even Earnhardt fans had something to celebrate, if only for minute, on Sunday night.
One of the biggest questions in Nascar this season has not been tossed around every week in the sports media world, but it gained some serious traction after Sunday's race in Charlotte. The question is now not if, but when will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win his next race. The funny thing is many drivers will not go on the record, but they feel it might be coming sooner than later.
Nascar knows they need Dale Jr. to win races. Face it, his winning races helps pack grandstands, it sells beer, moves more T-shirts and sells souvenirs of off the shelves like a fire sale is happening. Nascar also knows that if a few Earnhardt wins were to occur and even, God forbid, talk of a possible Earnhardt championship win were to get started, it would be the single biggest financial boon the sport has seen since the days when "big tobacco" money was allowed to sponsor the sport.
Nascar, or better yet, the France family are not dummies. They know when over half of a track's fans in attendance go wild and are able to even deafen television coverage when Dale Jr. happens to stay out and lead a lap, just in order to gain bonus points, at Talladega or Daytona, before going to pit road, that they would love that kind of emotion for an entire race.
What would the sport do if Dale Jr. were to go wire-to-wire and win a race or two? There would be no beer or number 88 T-shirts available within 500 miles of the track. They know that the following week's race may well be the first true sellout they have had in a long time.
Love him or hate him, Dale Junior is to Nascar what Tom Cruz is to a box office-winning movie, he is what U2 is for selling out the largest venues in the world, what the "pre-wreck" Tiger Woods is to golf, etc. Nascar gets it. They know that their very own "rock-star" has not won in over 100 races and it is time all that changes. But would Nascar ever do anything to influence their "Golden Child" crossing the finish line first?
However, history has shown us that many in the sport were upset and some of those in the media asked directly if Nascar had changed the old "Chase" format to not only accommodate more drivers but to help make sure that Earnhardt Jr. would not be left out as he had been in the prior year's Championship Series "Chase" event.
But there has really been nothing, in any overt way, to make it appear that Nascar has wanted Earnhardt Jr. to win races. Some have tried to argue he has sped off of pit road and gotten away with exceeding the pit road speed limit, but many drivers get caught up in the speeding "gray area" and some get away with it, others get caught.
There have only been a few chances over the past few years where Nascar could possibly have helped Earnhardt get closer to a victory, but Nascar has only appeared above board in their quest to try and help put their sport back into the stratosphere where it hovered just 10 years ago.
If there was ever a time for Nascar to play "King-maker," it was this past Sunday night. After the final re-start of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, there was an accordion accident but there was no caution flag thrown. A caution would have taken any chance of Earnhardt Jr. winning away due to the green-white checker rule, as it would have caused Earnhardt to have to stop for fuel.
Even though Jeff Burton's car was left sitting sideways on the apron as the rest of the field sped away, the flagman did not flinch and the caution lights stayed off. But once all of the drivers got away from the accident scene it was obvious that there was a small dusting of debris left on the track after Brad Keselowski's car looked as if it just had a can opener taken to its' driver's side.
Before the white flag had dropped, Nascar would have seen the pieces left on the track. Yes, they were small pieces, and yes, cautions have been thrown for much less. It was a judgment call, but there were pieces left on the track. Earnhardt was the first car to cross the white flag, and had a caution flag been thrown, then it would have ended Junior's dry run and he would have nursed his car around the track and taken the checkered flag.
But understand this, that is not the way Junior would have wanted it. Probably no other driver, even Kevin Harvick, would have protested a win like that as loudly as Earnhardt Jr. himself. That is not how he wants to win a race. Earnhardt Jr. may actually be the one driver who would even shun a "questionable" race win that had been awarded to him like that.
Now, according to the rules, the race could have been duly his. Even though the parts left after the re-start "bang-up" were small, there was no way to tell if the pieces had the ability to cut a tire as the entire field of cars barreled through the area at full speed. Everything worked out in the end and all of the cars made it through the Turn 1 and Turn 2 area for an outstanding finish.
Even though the finish ended just as Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Latarte had predicted, he was less than one lap short on fuel but knew the gamble he took was the team's only chance they had to garner a win. The 88 team seemed pleased with their results. The good thing about Earnhardt Jr. is he finally seems as if he finally has a "home" at Hendrick, and things are turning around quickly for his team. Even though Earnhardt Jr. did not win the race, he was well aware of the gamble they took and the possible outcomes they may have faced.
From all outward signs, it looks as if the best thing that has seemingly happened to Earnhardt in a long time was the switch that car owner Rick Hendrick made when he pulled Steve Latarte from Jeff Gordon's team and placed him with Dale Jr.'s 88 team. It now seems only a matter of time before Earnhardt and Latarte wind up in the winner's circle.
Lartarte and Earnhardt Jr. have a mutual respect for one another and one notices it after less than an hour of watching the two in action.
Latarte is never one to panic, and if he does not have the answer to an Earnhardt question, he will find it. Latarte is calculating, yet he seems to understand sports psychology more than most sports psychologists do. Latarte has the "been there, done that" and "don't worry about it" mentality down to a science and it seems, from listening to the two interact, that Earnhardt feeds off of it. Latarte has come a long way since going to work for Hendrick Motorsports when he was only 15 years old and working part-time to now being the Crew Chief on the series most popular driver's car.