Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Indianapolis
Sunday wasn’t the only time Ryan Newman has stolen a win from under Jimmie Johnson’s nose. The Brickyard 400 pole sitter, who capitalized on “Five-Time’s” late-race slow pit stop to take Indianapolis, edged out his rival over a decade ago for the 2002 Rookie of the Year title. As a freshman, Johnson was flashy but Newman was more consistent, collecting 14 top-5 finishes and 22 top 10s to eke out the award in a close race.
Surprised? Don’t be. That under-the-radar, workmanlike performance harkens back to “old school” drivers like Terry Labonte. “The Iceman” was never an emotional sort but always delivered to some degree each season en route to two championships. Newman, as excitable as a librarian running the checkout line (he was stoic Sunday even after living the dream of Victory Lane in his home state) is delivering a similar type of resume (sans the championships). The stats for him now include 50 poles, wins in four straight seasons and trophies that include two of the sport’s biggest races, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Some of the sport’s biggest names — from Tony Stewart to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch to Matt Kenseth — can’t claim that.
Newman’s Sprint Cup future is in doubt after Stewart-Haas Racing made it official earlier this month that it will replace him with Kevin Harvick rather than expand to four teams next season; that’s why every driver, to a man, was running up and congratulating him Sunday. At first glance, it’s hard not to ask “Why such a pity party?” You have to think a guy who’s quietly put himself in position for consistent success, year-in and year-out, would be able to land a ride somewhere easily, even inside a shrinking garage. Then again, we said the same thing about a sponsor for Earnhardt, the sport’s most popular driver, whose No. 88 may now need to be partially funded by owner Rick Hendrick come September. Ever so quietly, Earnhardt let slip this weekend that they’re sponsorship focus is more on 2014 — meaning a year’s worth of speculation may end with HendrickCars.com on the hood rather than a “new backer” they’ve been talking about for months.
Add in perhaps a race-low number of fans in the stands at Indianapolis and we may look back on this weekend as being more an indictment of the sport’s current economic state getting ever more serious as opposed to a version of a signature race that we’d all like to forget. This point gets us going “Through the Gears” coming out of Gasoline Alley …
FIRST GEAR: Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was the most boring in the history of the event.During a time when NASCAR should be celebrating, having landed a record television deal with NBC beginning in 2015, the network instead saw the gargantuan task in front of it. The Indy grandstands, looking empty to begin with (the facility can hold north of 250,000) started emptying by halfway as fans tired of the single-file procession. Up front, lead changes were the result of pit road, not on-track, action as Johnson turned the early part of the race into a runaway. A two-hour and 36-minute event — the fastest Brickyard 400 in history — could also be compared to watching cars lazily drive down a highway (465, anyone?) in midsummer. Fans could watch that on top of a hill near their hometown; they’re not going to pay top dollar to sit in metal seats and see the same predictable thing, albeit at 190 miles per hour.
No one will rip Indy for being safe; there were no wrecks and just three cautions, each for cars being stopped on track for mechanical issues. But aerodynamics, combined with a one-groove track, made it look like every car had taken out a lifetime restraining order on the field. Aside from three restarts, where one crazy lap apiece left cars up to four-wide jockeying for position, the rest of the race revealed passing was a virtual impossibility.
Some drivers, like Stewart, got angry when questioned about the race being boring, as Smoke claimed “passing” does not always make a good product. Others, like Kasey Kahne, were more realistic, recognizing the difficulties and suggesting a different tire compound or new banking (the latter won’t happen) to fix the problem. Whatever the solution, there has to be one; a lack of on-track passes for the lead may be “racing” in Stewart’s mind but won’t fund his paycheck. Sports, in the end, are a business and fans aren’t going to sit in the stands and watch one that is not delivering to their expectations. NASCAR is not now nor ever will never be Formula One.
Contrary to popular belief, not every Indy race has been a snoozefest (1994 and ’97 come to mind) and the sport can spice things up with a little work from Goodyear. The key is getting everyone to push it, from the drivers — who often seem like they’re playing it conservative on-track — to engineers after Tiregate 2008 left half the field wrecked, rubber blowing every 10 to 12 laps and a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. The key to fixing it isn’t playing it safe, as that just leaves the wound fresh and fans leaving in droves. Hopefully, Sunday ignited a sense of urgency in someone’s mind, otherwise NASCAR may be running to the captive audience of a small group of security guards at Indy.
SECOND GEAR: Newman’s win spices up the Chase race.Newman’s victory, capping off an A-plus weekend for the No. 39 team, also throws a wrench into the Chase race. Now, Newman, the “lame duck,” sits just 20 points from a “wild card” position with six races left with a real chance of sneaking in. His presence means drivers with a victory, like Stewart, Greg Biffle or Martin Truex Jr., have to keep from having a problem down the stretch. It also means that for road course aces like Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, two victories is a necessity to make the Chase and it all but knocks them out of contention even if they win Watkins Glen.
Perhaps another intriguing subplot involves the winless seasons of Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski. Gordon as of now holds the last spot inside the top 10 in points; Keselowski sits six points outside it and would miss the Chase if the postseason started now. Both drivers have no margin of error if they miss Victory Lane, as there’s no chance running 11th or 12th in points would earn them a “wild card.” It’s find a way to win, stay consistent enough to edge ahead of their rivals or spend the fall wondering what might have been. At this point, one of those big names looks like they’ll miss this season’s playoffs. It’s just a matter of which one.
THIRD GEAR: Johnson’s costly pit road error. Let’s not take anything away from Newman and crew chief Matt Borland, who ran a flawless race and put their team in position to capitalize with a gutsy two-tire stop to get out in front. But there’s no way the No. 39 sits in Victory Lane if Johnson’s crew doesn’t cost him six seconds on pit road. All day, the No. 48 had made mincemeat of the field, leading 73 laps and sitting on cruise control in the final stages. It was an 18-second mistake, a four-tire massacre, that left them sitting second and one-position short of a record-setting five wins at Indianapolis.
“We win as a team, lose as a team,” Johnson said. “I hate to let this opportunity slip by, but it's gone, not a lot we can do about it.”
Now 75 points in front of second-place Clint Bowyer in the championship standings, it’s not like the No. 48 took a major hit. This group is the type where one boo-boo, even in a major race, won’t change their momentum greatly; they’ve been the fastest by a country mile for months, to the point Keselowski even complained to his spotter, mid-race, “You think (Johnson) feels bad having a car that much better every f***ing week?!” Still, it’s notable that they’ve given away nine bonus points for the postseason in the past two months alone: Sunday at Indy, the restart penalty at Dover and a similar fiasco-turned-spin at Kentucky. Lose the title by nine points or less at Homestead and they’ll be looking back at days like this one as to why.
FOURTH GEAR: Hendrick vs. Gibbs.
Sunday’s race was won by Stewart-Haas Racing, a team that gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick-powered cars now have won seven of 20 races this season, edging out the six from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Look deeper and you’ll find those cars own seven of the 12 spots in the Chase (Hendrick/SHR: 5; JGR: 2). While Michael Waltrip Racing and Roush Fenway Racing own two spots apiece, neither has shown the ability to run up front consistently enough to contend. Ditto for Richard Childress Racing, earning a spot through Kevin Harvick, but whose strategy is to top 10 ‘em to death (despite a pair of wins) and hope a victory falls in their direction late. That probably won’t get it done.
All season, we’ve been waiting patiently for other teams to step up to the plate and challenge the two heavyweights. The Dog Days of August are beginning … and we’re still waiting. When will the rest of the field step up?
OVERDRIVEYou gotta feel for Jeff Burton, who has been top 12 every week since Memorial Day and quietly snuck back into Chase contention this summer. Mechanical problems during a safe day at the Brickyard left him behind the wall for a time and dead last, dropping 60 points outside the top 10 and all but certainly out of the postseason. … Speaking of “safe,” Sunday was the first time in almost five years the entire 43-car field finished the race. You have to give credit to NASCAR for changing its purse rules, keeping fewer cars start-and-parking as they race for more money; although Indy’s healthy payday certainly didn’t hurt. … Mark Martin struggled to a 23rd-place finish on Sunday, with a team Brian Vickers had taken to victory at New Hampshire two weeks earlier. Without a top-5 finish since the Daytona 500 in the No. 55 car, along with no part-time opportunities out there for 2014, speculation is increasing that this season may be the 54-year-old Martin’s final one.