Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Charlotte Motor Speedway
1. Travis Kvapil’s domestic violence arrest another NASCAR mess
The controversies for NASCAR in 2013 have often taken a turn far from on-track action. Instead, the cavalcade of driver romance, drivers making asinine statements, fans getting injured and the whole Chase field fiasco has buffeted the sport’s news cycle between often so-so racing.
Enter Travis Kvapil.
The 2003 Truck Series champion, Kvapil was arrested this week on domestic violence charges that, according to a police report obtained by The Sporting News, resulted from Kvapil grabbing his wife by her hair and striking her in the head. He was released on bond.
Thursday, both his BK Racing team and NASCAR declined to pursue any punitive action related to his role as a NASCAR driver and instead insisted on gathering more facts and letting the case play out. He practiced and qualified the car Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For NASCAR specifically, that leaves a lot of questions. Notably: what’s the line for NASCAR to suspend a driver who is arrested of a serious crime and is awaiting the next phase of the legal process? NASCAR has recently handled initial charges of DUI and even theft with either a slap-on-the-wrist probation or no recourse at all. Kvapil’s case is different, though, in that he stands accused of physical violence against another person. He is also yet to issue an explicit denial of the charges.
Of course it’s never right to assume guilt in criminal cases based on a lack of public statements. Sometimes charges do get dropped. That said, NASCAR has now crossed the line of allowing competitors accused of violence remain in the sport without recourse. Where does that stop? If a driver is accused of assault, manslaughter or even a grievous murder charge, does NASCAR let them take the track if legally free while waiting for trial?
It’s undoubtedly a slippery slope in both directions for NASCAR. However, it might not be for the key cogs of this sport: sponsors and fans. The Kvapil situation is a black eye for all involved and the lack of action on the matter in any fashion rings hollow.
What’s the best answer for Kvapil and NASCAR going forward? It’s hard to say. But it’s easy to note that Thursday the entire sport didn’t escape the inexorable feeling that it tried to coolly shove a very serious issue just out of view.
2. Jeff Gordon’s pole run a sign of improved performance Jeff Gordon shocked the ESPN booth Thursday night when, as the last qualifier for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, he knocked Kevin Harvick off the pole with a late charge exiting Turn 4. The television network’s live scoring of Gordon’s lap showed he gained nearly a 1/10th of a second on Harvick’s posted time in the last segment.
The lap could almost be an allegory of Gordon’s season to this point: decent to good early, struggling in the middle and a surge near the end. He notched just five top-10 finishes in the season’s first 16 races and 10 of them in the 14 races since. Just once since August 18, thanks to a blown pit stop at Loudon, has he finished worse than eighth.
The four-time champion still sits fourth in the point standings heading in to Charlotte thanks to a steady dose of both consistency and improved results in the first four rounds of the Chase. He’s 32 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, which is far enough to be in need of help from those ahead of him over the final six races yet close enough to pounce.
With the prime starting spot at Charlotte, Gordon is in position to increase the heat on Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson just like Kevin Harvick did a week ago. It’s an opportunity he’ll need to take advantage of if the championship dreams he talks about are to become reality.
3. Charlotte an opportune point for Harvick to continue ascent Kevin Harvick, that so-called lame duck of the 2013 season, has been soaring in three of the four Chase races to this point. A commanding performance last week at Kansas that produced a win and 138 laps led shoved him to third and 25 points out of the Chase lead.
Things should only get better at Charlotte.
Harvick schooled Kasey Kahne on a late restart with 10 laps left in May to take the win in the Coca-Cola 600, his second in the prestigious event. It wasn’t an unusual finish for Harvick at Charlotte — he’s finished worse than 11th just once in his last seven CMS starts — but it was unusual that Harvick was up front. The 28 laps he led in the May race pushed Harvick’s career total to 34 of the 8,918 laps he’s raced at the track.
He lines up second for Saturday night’s 500-miler driving the same car he won with at Kansas. If the car is up for an encore performance Harvick could go a long way to improving his career numbers at CMS and, more importantly, positively improving his title chances.
4. Jimmie Johnson seeks a return to his ‘house’The domination that Jimmie Johnson laid on his Cup Series competitors during the most of the last decade at Charlotte was staggering. The No. 48 led more than 100 laps in three of five races from 2002-04, notched four consecutive wins from 2004-05 and finished third or better in seven straight races from 2003-06.
But in 2010, the pendulum of luck at the track started swinging away from NASCAR’s five-time champion when he crashed and finished 37th in the May race. It briefly returned when he led 15 laps and finished third in the fall race, but it reversed completely with two DNFs courtesy of a crash and an engine failure in 2011.
Johnson was average, by his standards, last year when an 11th-place finish and a third-place finish and followed those runs with a crash-filled journey this past May with a 22nd-place run.
Those results make it all but impossible to know where Johnson will wind up Saturday night. He’ll roll off fourth.
5. Crazy Coca-Cola 600 results left many Chase contenders outJust looking at the results of the May race at Charlotte would lead you to believe Gordon, Kenseth, Johnson Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be in for a challenge to stay in contention on Saturday night.
But don’t forget how crazy NASCAR’s last trip to Charlotte actually was, and how those Chase competitors didn’t finish where they could have.
First, there was the television camera cable that broke loose and fell on the track during green flag conditions and caused significant damage to Busch’s car while he was leading. Busch, of course, ultimately got the damage fixed and would lead 65 laps before he lost an engine during the heat of Toyota’s early season engine woes. He finished 38th.
Earnhardt Jr. also lost an engine during the event.
Kenseth (112 laps led) and Gordon ran in the top 5 before both were hurt by a caution flag late in the going as they pitted under green flag conditions. Gordon crashed out in the ensuing scramble to get back to the front and Kenseth destroyed the handling of his Toyota when he later bounced off the wall when Johnson spun by himself. Johnson would hit the wall again and require five laps of repairs.
Each of the drivers had a realistic shot at a top-10 finish in the May race but instead wound up 15th or much worse. Seeing a repeat of those results would be a pretty large surprise.