Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Bristol
March Madness is supposed to apply to this week’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, not NASCAR, which endured an eight-hour, marathon of a race for the second time in less than a month Sunday. Mother Nature wreaked havoc at Bristol Motor Speedway, causing two rain delays and finally ending the event prematurely when caution lights malfunctioned for inexplicable reasons.
According to NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton, a person in the flag stand leaned on the manual override switch, turning on the caution lights on lap 499. Six seconds after the lights were turned on, the flagman — seeing the lights on — waved the yellow flag. Pemberton said that the flagman can wave the caution flag without a call from series officials in the tower if they see a proper reason. A raging downpour then ensued, and NASCAR called the race for Carl Edwards instead of forcing an ugly, final restart.
No rain tires leaves NASCAR with no option in these situations, so the officials err on the side of safety at first sight of a sprinkle. But you wonder, with its two best races ruined by rain, whether it’s time to pour some research into alternatives. Baseball is the only modern sport where rain delays still apply; even there, if a team has to endure a rough day there’s 80 other home dates to make back the profit. Not so in NASCAR, with its individual tracks having two dates max to justify their existence. That meant one of its best facilities, the rugged, half-mile Bristol, lost millions based on a wet weather forecast. Thousands of fans stayed home, knowing with the 100 percent chance of precipitation that they would be waiting around for hours, if not forced to come back on Monday.
The sport isn’t what it used to be, meaning there was a small window Sunday for Bristol to take center stage before the true meaning of March Madness took over. For hardcore fans that hung in there into the late evening, their reward was that some couldn’t even see it on television (FOX moved the finish to its sports channel, FOX Sports 1 after hanging on most of the day). That’s not the way to keep viewers sticking around, right? Good racing — like after the Daytona rain delay — was the hallmark of this Bristol stop, but fans had to jump through hoops to be a part of it.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of major growth, millions obsessed with this sport would put up with it. But 2014 is a different era, not just in NASCAR, but life in general. People are busy, faced with more distractions in this information age and waiting around for 10 hours just isn’t in the cards. While the Air Titan, which dries tracks faster, is a major step in the right direction, a better option is to eliminate the delay altogether, preemptively calling a race based on a 100 percent chance of rain or simply finding a way to keep cars on-track.
Normal people drive in the rain all the time, as do other racing series. In a sport driven by strategy, now more than ever, the sport would be wise to work towards a long-term solution because long-term fans will only put up with so much — even when Mother Nature is the culprit.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Surprising Edwards leads Ford’s fight to fix problems
How ironic that one of NASCAR’s healthiest, fittest drivers was the one standing atop Bristol’s marathon. Edwards, like in Las Vegas the week before, benefited from the pit calls of crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Choosing to keep old tires during a late caution with 75 laps to go, track position was enough to keep the No. 99 car in position to win.
“Our car was just fast or faster than it had been all night after that,” Edwards said. “So there was no detriment to our performance. It didn't hurt us in any way.”
Edwards also benefited from NASCAR’s insistence to end the race off that final caution. A restart would have seen Edwards’ teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., alongside and Aric Almirola right behind, both longshots for wins this season and in position to use their bumpers for a Chase bid. Mayhem would have likely ensued, ruining a banner night for the Blue Oval crowd.
Instead, Ford came home with a second straight win, the first time the manufacturer has done that on the Cup level since Watkins Glen and Michigan in August 2012. A 1-2-3 finish, with Edwards-Stenhouse-Almirola, is their first since Talladega last May. Brad Keselowski, driving a Fusion for Penske Racing, is leading the point standings. What’s spurred the changes?
“Ford has given us more resources,” claimed owner Jack Roush. “They've expanded their engineering involvement one more notch and given us some more. Of course, the thing that it comes down to, as it always has with people in stock car racing is you can have talented people, but if you don't work on the right things, you won't get the results you're looking for.”
My take is the minds on top of the pit box are making a difference. Paul Wolfe and Keselowski came out of the gate clicking on all cylinders. Fennig won the race Sunday for Edwards, earning him a top-5 finish at Las Vegas the week before with a bad car. Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing have more brainstorming sessions than ever.
While RFR as a whole still has a ways to go (Greg Biffle, in particular, is struggling mightily) Sunday’s race can make a big difference in momentum. They may all still be chasing Hendrick’s Chevy crowd in the long run, but consecutive wins in Las Vegas, an intermediate track, and Bristol, a short track, are notable in this early season.
SECOND GEAR: Richard Petty Motorsports on Cloud Nine
Third for Almirola was a career best, joining teammate Marcos Ambrose in the top 5 for Richard Petty Motorsports. It’s the first time since scaling back to a two-car operation with new investors in late 2010, that RPM has accomplished the feat.
“This is how we expect to run,” said Almirola, who claims new crew chief Trent Owens has made a difference with the Petty Blue No. 43. “We thought when we brought Trent over he would come with some new ideas … everybody has been working really hard, and that hard work pays off.”
Still, the runs were surprising, as neither team has sniffed the top 10 this season until Sunday. Why the sudden step up in performance? RPM could be funneling its funding (limited compared to the big teams) on improving at short tracks and road courses. All it takes is one victory to make the field, and Ambrose has shown an affinity at both those types of facilities. Almirola himself is strong at the short tracks (along with Kansas) which makes one wonder whether that’s where RPM will test and take some sort of large-scale gamble to cash in.
Fellow middle-class owner Harry Scott, whose No. 51 was a season-best 18th with Justin Allgaier at Bristol, confirmed that type of strategy on Friday.
“It gives the smaller teams some incentive and changes our allocation of resources a little bit,” he said of the new Chase format. “For us to spend more time on those races where we think we have the best shot at pulling an upset.”
No wonder Almirola, whose team is a step below at Ford, was more upset than he should be with third after the race.
THIRD GEAR: Big teams suffer big problems
Joe Gibbs Racing was a favorite coming into Bristol before suffering through bad luck. Matt Kenseth arguably had the best car before getting drilled by an ignorant Timmy Hill midway through the race. When a caution flew for Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt, Hill didn’t see the yellow come out and damaged the back of Kenseth’s No. 20 at well over 70 miles an hour.
Kenseth actually recovered from that, driving back to the lead, but inevitably made the wrong pit call for tires late to keep him stuck in traffic. He was a disappointing 13th, while teammate Kyle Busch crashed and wound up seven laps down in 29th. Denny Hamlin, while winning the pole, slumped to sixth, meaning JGR remains 0-for-Victory Lane this season.
Hendrick Motorsports had its troubles, too with Jimmie Johnson having a flat tire under green and Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffering mechanical problems. Junior’s top-2 streak is over, dropping him to second in points, while Johnson’s Bristol nightmares continue. He’s won just once at the non-Chase track in 25 career starts and now has three consecutive finishes outside the top 10 at Thunder Valley.
FOURTH GEAR: Rookies look towards the front
There’s been a lot of talk over rookies struggling these first few weeks of the season. But this weekend at Bristol was Kyle Larson’s introduction to millions. Fighting for the lead at times early in the race, Larson never led a lap officially, but kept the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy at or near the front all night. A 10th at Bristol was his best of the season and followed a runner-up performance in the Nationwide Series the day before.
“It's crazy to think it's kind of a disappointing finish for the way we ran for most of the race, but all in all it was a good race,” Larson said. “It was a lot of fun racing with Austin Dillon there at the end. We must have ran side by side or so for the last 20 laps.”
Dillon, the other main contender for Rookie of the Year honors, came home 11th, signifying a battle they’ll likely wage most of the year. It’s a nice recovery for two youngsters who have started off on a bit of a rollercoaster.
Tony Stewart, after a season-best fourth, had a message for fans weary over Bristol’s many changes through recent years. “The closing rates weren’t quite as big, but if people don’t like the racing here tonight I don’t know what they want,” he said. “Unless they just want a wreckfest I thought the racing was pretty good. Like I said, you run mid 15 second laps on a half mile track and run three wide, that is pretty impressive.” Smoke is right, as while the crashes at Bristol were down the actual competition was among the best we’ve ever seen at the half-mile facility. … NASCAR called not one but two “competition” cautions to check tire wear during the race. Why can’t they trust Goodyear that things will be fine when it rains? And why call these “competition” yellows but then call “debris” yellows later in the race for pieces of metal we never see? Call a spade a spade. … What appeared to be toilet paper littered the track during one of the early cautions, catching onto the back of Landon Cassill’s No. 40 Chevy while making a mangled mess of the speedway. NASCAR truly has seen everything these past few years.