Slowing Down on the Backstretch – March 22, 2010

Published On March 22, 2010 » 1017 Views» By admin » Blogs, Cup Series

Quiet weekend of racing on the schedule last weekend, with only NASCAR at Bristol and the American Le Mans Series roaring to life with the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Quiet? Bristol? As the immortal Gary Coleman said in “Different Strokes,” “What you talkin’ bout, Willis?”

Yep. Bristol was quiet. I’m not sure if it was the eye of the hurricane after the infamous Crazy Carl-Bad Brad incident two weeks ago at Atlanta, yet another win for Jimmie Johnson or the alarming number of empty seats, but the Food City 500 on Sunday at Bristol seemed like a pretty quiet race.

Once again, Johnson stuck around near the front for most of the race, and he and crew chief Chad Knaus made the right call – do they ever get it wrong? – to take four tires on the last stop. But Johnson still needed to scythe through a thicket of traffic over the last 10 laps to get to the front, and he did it in quick time. It was as brilliant of a display of power driving in a stock car that you might see all year. Mate that with a wizard atop the pit box in Knaus, and this combination is almost impossible to beat right now with three victories in the first five races of the season.

These guys are the best in the NASCAR world and have been since 2006. But they seem to be strengthening, not weakening, the longer their reign lasts. Johnson never had won at Bristol before this race, yet yesterday he almost made it look easy. Quiet, even.

You could just see the desperation in Kurt Busch’s face during the post-race interview with FOX: Kurt couldn’t admit it, but he KNEW he was snookered by Johnson’s better driving over the last 10 laps despite having the fastest car for most of the day. It just seems like the other 42 guys just have nothing for Johnson right now.

Well, one guy might have: Tony Stewart. Smoke produced 10 electric, sliding laps to the checkered to hold second place despite taking only two fresh tires on his last stop. Every other two-tire car fell like tall timber on “Ax Men” over the last 10 laps, but Stewart drove his rather large posterior off to repulse Busch for second. That was some serious driving – think Winchester in a USAC Midget – by the best all-around race driver in America.

About the only thing that wasn’t quiet Sunday at Bristol was the sound of shredded tires flapping against sheet metal. I’m not sure if the reason was a dodgy tire or crazy-cambered chassis setups, but man, there were a lot of guys taking abrupt right turns into the SAFER Barrier Sunday at Bristol.

And for most fans, that’s the wrong kind of bumping and banging at Bristol. Many fans want to see drivers lean on the chrome horn at Bristol and turn the race into part-NASCAR event and part-demolition derby.

But ever since the track was resurfaced in 2007 to open a high groove, there has been less contact and more side-by-side racing. And fans have moaned more than PETA members whose party was crashed by an NRA delegation.

Sorry, “carmageddon” fans, but isn’t racing about running side by side for lap after lap, trying to gain those valuable inches to make a clean pass? Is dump-and-run really a proper racing tactic? I don’t think so. I thought there was some really good racing all over the track Sunday at Bristol even though we saw only one big melee, the multi-car pileup caused by an uncharacteristic brain cramp from Mark Martin.

Nationwide Series: Congrats to Justin Allgaier for his first Nationwide victory. With Brad Keselowski in Cup and Allgaier in Nationwide, Penske Racing has a strong crop of young talent for its NASCAR program, similar to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

But unlike Kentucky coach John Calipari, Roger Penske isn’t going to lose Keselowski and Allgaier to the pros next year. They’re already there – with Penske.

It also was nice to see a true Nationwide regular beat all the “Buschwackers” – the term used to describe Cup regulars who ran in NASCAR’s Triple-A series back when it was called the Busch series.

Saturday Night Special: Special thoughts to Larry Pearson and Charlie Glotzbach, who were hurt when Glotzbach T-boned Pearson in the driver’s side door during the “Saturday Night Special” race at Bristol. A video of this vicious wreck:

Speedy recovery to Larry and Charlie.

American Le Mans Series: It was nice to see proper prototypes back on track as the American Le Mans Series season started on the industrial-strength jackhammer of a circuit known as Sebring at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Peugeot dominated the race with its factory turbo-diesels, as expected. The problem with the ALMS isn’t the cars – they’re fantastic, proper prototypes that look and sound so sexy compared to the Daytona Prototypes used in Grand-Am, cars that seem to be direct descendants of the hideous AMC Pacer of the 1970s.

But there aren’t enough prototypes. And Peugeot has the might of an entire automaker that throws treasure chests of money at one goal each year – defending French national pride by winning the Le Mans 24 Hours. So unless a formidable Audi effort is in the race, Peugeot’s will dominate.

Meanwhile, the Daytona Prototypes are ugly as a wild boar and have a flatulent V8 engine belch that makes me shudder, but they put on very competitive shows with robust car counts.

So I’m stuck watching ALMS for the sheer sinuous sex appeal of the cars and Grand-Am for the compelling racing. And the GT racing in both series is strong. I guess having multiple choices to satisfy all aspects of my racing jones is a good thing.

There were two frightening incidents last week at Sebring, Jon Field’s crash in a Lola prototype and Indianapolis 500 veteran Scott Sharp’s fire in a Ferrari GT car.

Field’s car was obliterated in his wreck, but he’s OK. A miracle, considering the debris field was almost big enough to require FAA inspectors. A sequence of photos:

Sharp’s Ferrari caught fire with less than two hours remaining. This wasn’t a fire, friends and neighbors: This was a barbecue. Hell, from behind, this flaming Ferrari looked like the Space Shuttle arching after launch to prepare to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, with all three engines and the solid rocket booster tank raging with the infernal tongues of Lucifer:

Top marks for the marshal who jumped in to start extinguishing the flame and probably saved a beautiful – and expensive – piece of Italian racing machinery. Those marshals don’t get paid enough. Hell, most of them don’t get paid at all! Some of the most unsung heroes in racing.

This weekend: It’s back to a heavy-octane schedule, with the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights at St. Petersburg, NASCAR at Martinsville and World Superbike at Portimao. Between that and March Madness, my DVR may spontaneously combust like one of Spinal Tap’s drummers.

Song of the Week: I think Bad Company’s classic “Burning Sky” works this week when considering the vivid contrast of Scott Sharp’s Ferrari torching in flame against the ink-black Florida night sky at Sebring. Here’s a 2002 live version of that very cool tune:

Until next time, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel … and don’t forget to visit IMS on Twitter at and continue to stop by here at our place on Facebook.


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