Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Coca-Cola 600
NASCAR has IndyCar’s number when it comes to television, revenue, pretty car colors … you name it, it’s simply a step above. We’ve been over this one time and again where even Indy qualifying lost out to stock car racing’s All-Star event in the latest Nielsen ratings. More than likely, this week it’s NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, not the Indy 500, that will draw the larger audience overall.
But Charlotte, which played to a less-than-packed house this weekend, paled in comparison to the fanfare of Indy, where well over 200,000 adoring “houseguests” surrounded the 2.5-mile facility. For the second straight year, they saw a competitive race, with 28 of 33 cars on the lead lap halfway through, a near-photo finish and even a little verbal sparring (however well-handled) by Ed Carpenter towards James Hinchcliffe following a nasty wreck. Former NASCAR pretender Juan Pablo Montoya shined, scoring a fifth-place result while teenage rookie Sage Karam ran inside the top 10 and current stock car full-timer Kurt Busch finished an impressive sixth. An American, Ryan Hunter-Reay, was the cherry on top of it all, scoring just the third victory for the U.S.A. this century in what’s supposed to be the largest and most historic version of this country’s 500-mile automobile race.
Compare that to Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600, which for all the military pomp and circumstance trotted out a bunch of bullets that fired blanks. The race had fewer lead-lap cars by Lap 50 – keep in mind NASCAR’s starting field is 43, not 33 – and ran with just a single lead change until the first green-flag pit stop. In the end, both races had 34 swaps up front but NASCAR also had twice the number of laps (400 to 200) to get there. And while IndyCar’s lead pack creates a “suckup” effect, making it hard not to pass the leader, NASCAR’s aero package is still so dreadful at Charlotte it acts as a magnetic repellent to cars coming within 50 feet. Even the wrecks (that taboo word) were more spectacular at Indy, as debris from the last one caused a red-flag condition that appeared a whole lot more realistic than the invisible trash NASCAR likes to pick up.
What happened at Indy was natural, captivating, something to build on. What happened in NASCAR was a reminder, during a rebuilding year of everything, of what got stock car racing into a rut. It’s a weird juxtaposition, where the underdog beat up on the favorite on a big stage that makes you wonder if the tide ever has a chance to turn. Indy’s crack marketing department (as in, cracked into pieces) would appear to tell you otherwise but NASCAR, on days like these, keeps leaving the door open, the same way that open-wheel split in the 1990s gave stock car racing a free pass to leap through parted waters.
One of these days some sort of auto racing “competition” has a shot of bursting through stock car’s monopoly … right? A healthy rival within the marketplace could serve to make both sides better, drumming up interest in what’s been a struggling sport. Or are fans so stuck in their ways, combined with an 18-to-34 generation currently showing limited interest towards cars in general both, that sides are doomed to mediocrity?
It’s a daunting first question for IndyCar, which is struggled to simply survive in recent years (a lesson for NASCAR in how not to market or build a schedule). The second? Too delicate a flower to mess with on a Memorial Day where we’re supposed to be honoring those who serve our country, not creating memorials for our country’s former fast-growing pastime.
Phew! Getting the soldier salute in, as we should, while hoping auto racing keeps soldiering through their tough times. “Through the Gears,” post-Charlotte, we go …
FIRST GEAR: The house that Jimmie built … again
Jimmie Johnson heard the naysayers. He heard that 0-for-11 start and the critics saying, “What if the No. 48 could be in position to miss the Chase?” After last Saturday, when both driver and crew chief got a little snippy on the radio — a theme over the past month of competition — people were starting to wonder if the six-time champ had finally lost his mojo.
Silly us. Johnson put a muzzle on everyone Sunday night, battling with Kevin Harvick early and then making the right adjustments late to burst through traffic and past Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 late. Leading a race-high 164 laps, Johnson returned to the form that once had NASCAR aficionados labeling Charlotte Motor Speedway “Johnson’s House.” His seven points victories at the track are now more than any driver in series history and yet another record to stack on his resume while back in pursuit of the ultimate number: seven championships.
“What the hell are you all going to write about now?” he joked to the media. “We won.”
Indeed. Now Johnson is all but locked into the Chase, can spend the summer testing like his other major rivals and work on squeezing out a little extra speed. Considering Charlotte is in the postseason, along with Dover this weekend (Johnson’s best oval) the No. 48 once again becomes your title favorite. How could he not be? Kevin Harvick has shown to have the fastest car this year, but he has yet to get over the hump — and has Stewart-Haas racing engines going blitzkrieg left and right.
SECOND GEAR: Charlotte really is the pits
A 600-mile race is the ultimate test of NASCAR teamwork for man and machine where focus is needed from everyone for the better part of four hours. Sometimes, that means nothing, as engines expire due to the stress of an extra 100 miles they never get on the track. We saw that for a few drivers on Sunday, most notably Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch (we’ll get to that) whose normally reliable Hendrick Motorsports powerplants went up in smoke.
But the biggest culprit Sunday night wasn’t inside the race car so much as Goodyear tires — or the thought of a Goodyear tire going down. A loose wheel ruined a potential winning combination for Brad Keselowski, his fuel strategy putting the No. 2 car in position to win until a poor stop made it all fall apart. For Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. it was the idea they had a tire go flat that brought them scurrying to unscheduled stops. It wasn’t the case for either, as they watched potential top-5 finishes go up in the smoke of mental spooks.
However, Kasey Kahne made the biggest mistake of all, missing his pit box on an early green-flag stop and having to circle around the track a second time. That cost the No. 5 car a lap — one it would never get back — at a track Kahne has won more than any other throughout his career. You know that winning setup Johnson used? The No. 48 got it straight from Kahne’s crew chief, Kenny Francis. No doubt this team could have been a factor up front, a lost opportunity to “steal one” during a year where it’s questionable whether they’ll be able to make the Chase on points alone.
THIRD GEAR: Kurt Busch’s “Double” goes boom
Kurt Busch’s Indy drive? Nothing short of splendid. A sixth-place finish, making him the top rookie, found him within striking distance of the leaders over the final laps. After spending much of the race running mid-pack, Busch seized opportunities late and sliced through the field during a time when most rookies get fall prey to more experienced drivers.
Compare that to Cup, where his No. 41 Chevy met another ugly end in the form of catastrophic engine failure. Busch now has half as many top 10s in IndyCar (one) as his NASCAR season that would be a bona fide “F” without a Martinsville victory in hand.
“The motor just expired,” said Busch. “It's a tough break. It takes a team if you're going to do 1,100 miles. It's not just one individual. We came up just short.”
Busch chose his words carefully but he has to be getting frustrating with SHR’s development. Sunday was a real opportunity to seize momentum, as Busch charged from the back into the top 15 and could have easily scored a lead-lap, top-10 finish to wrap up the double. Even Kevin Harvick’s radio channel (whom I was listening to at the time) had some choice words for the No. 41 that got cut off once they recognized the public was listening.
Bottom line, the feat was still impressive, but the confidence in Busch’s NASCAR program, if you read between the lines post-race, seems less secure than with his one-month tenure with Andretti Autosport. That’s where it really counts, creating a troubling disconnect, albeit justifiable considering the mechanical mayhem he’s been through in 2014.
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FOURTH GEAR: Kenseth keeping Gibbs in the game
Matt Kenseth fell short Sunday night, a running theme this season as 2013’s seven-time winner remains shut out of Victory Lane. So far in 2014, Joe Gibbs Racing has won twice in 12 races compared to three times each for rivals Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Penske.
But a funny thing is happening with Kenseth’s series of “almosts:” league-leading consistency. No one questions the fact JGR has fallen a step behind on intermediates, yet this season Kenseth has no finish lower than 13th outside of Talladega. He’s second in points, just 11 behind Jeff Gordon and should make the Chase regardless of whether that trip to Victory Lane comes. It’s a tough time for JGR, but Kenseth has kept them close and breathing easy (nine top-10 finishes) so the next few months can be all about finding speed instead of scrambling.
“I feel like we’re gaining on it,” he said after. “I thought today, all things being equal and nobody having trouble that we had at least a fifth-place car. We’re not where we were last year yet, but I feel like certainly we’re gaining on it. We are just a little bit off and just need to get it a little better somehow.”
They will, but until then this former champ knows how to keep them in the ballgame without getting flustered. So don’t forget about JGR: all three teams will be there come September with just as much of a shot at this title as anyone.
Trevor Bayne was invisible Sunday, driving to a ho-hum 20th for the Wood Brothers, but more will be expected next season. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner will finally move up to the Cup Series full-time driving the No. 6 for Nationwide Series employer Roush Fenway Racing, bringing back the car made famous by Mark Martin. The Wood Brothers are now searching for a 2015 replacement and are still expected to run a part-time schedule in their No. 21. … Martin Truex Jr. had the run he needed for the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 all wrapped up in a neat little bow at Charlotte. The combination seemed headed toward its first top-5 finish together, attempting to erase the smell of a stinky season until an axle broke with less than 10 laps left, erasing their most consistent performance of 2014. Truex wound up two laps back in 25th, hopefully harnessing some confidence from it all before heading to his hometown track in Dover, Del., this weekend. … Three of NASCAR’s four cautions during the first 227 laps of the race were for debris. Can we just call them timeouts already? The amount of unforced stoppages within the race are getting silly for things fans never see in the name of safety. That’s especially so when it changes the outcome on a night where Harvick and Johnson could have lapped up to the fifth- or sixth-place car the way those two were hooked up early on.