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Columns, Non-Daily
First Place
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene

The Daytona 500 was truly ‘a great American race’

After much waiting, plenty of posturing, and not a lot of passing, the Daytona 500 provided a great American finish for what’s billed as “The Great American Race.”

     A sport cast under the harsh glare of national attention when five crew chiefs were suspended for various infractions in the week leading up to NASCAR’s season-opening Nextel Cup race wound up basking in the glow of success.

     As is sometimes the case, this one wasn’t tied up neatly with a bow and set on the shelf for all to admire. But in NASCAR’s defense, perfection is a moving target. Sometimes you get close and that’s all you can hope for. This one was about as close as they could get.

A day that began with the grandstands full and the sun providing a bit of warmth on a cool February day ended with the stands still chock-full and the glare of artificial lights straining to hold off the darkness.

     The race, slow to come to a boil, featured a last-lap, last-gasp pass for the win. Cars spinning wildly coming off the fourth turn, pushing and shoving for position as they raced three- and four-wide and the checkered flag waving in the wind. One driver, thankfully unhurt, sliding across the finish line on his roof, flames shooting out from under the hood of his bent, spent Chevrolet. Other cars slipped and slid across the infield, their drivers still of a mind to maintain control, and position, in a world of chaos.

     And that was just the final circuit around the legendary 2.5-mile track situated by the Atlantic Ocean. Prior to that, the fans’ appetite had been whetted when race leader Tony Stewart and second-place Kurt Busch tangled, subjecting both cars to enough damage to leave both drivers out of the hunt; they had roared any time fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged, and just as often when four-time champion Jeff Gordon faded.

     In the end it was indeed a Shell game. Kevin Harvick, seventh when NASCAR decreed a green-white-checkered finish following a final caution flag on lap 197, launched his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet past Mike Wallace. And Elliott Sadler. David Gilliland, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were soon dust in the wind as well.

     Less than a mile from the finish line, an army stood between Harvick and history. An army of one. Mark Martin, perhaps the best driver to never win a championship and, now, still one of the best who has yet to win a Daytona 500.

     With the race disintegrating in their respective rearview mirrors – a mushroom cloud draped across the horizon was the only thing missing – Harvick and Martin sped toward the finish line, locked in a familiar dance of speed and nerves. The high-sided Harvick got there first, the hood of his Shell-sponsored car crossing the line 0.02 second before Martin’s Army-backed machine could break free. A lead that held for 26 consecutive laps had evaporated in an instant. It was baseball’s version of the two-out, game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.

     It was a fitting finish, regardless of whether one’s loyalties lie with Harvick or Martin. It was, simply, racing as it was meant to be.

     It was also just what NASCAR, its teams and sponsors and, perhaps more importantly, its fans needed. No, the suspensions and fines and point deductions doled out before the engines fired on race day weren’t truly a scandal. A scandal would have been for NASCAR to look the other way. But it was still enough to give the sport a black eye. Debate will no doubt continue over the way the sanctioning body doles out its version of justice, but come Sunday, with the stands full and the field chomping at the bit, it’s obvious the organization is doing something right.

     There’s a reason the Daytona 500 is known as NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl. A reason drivers covet a win in this race more than any other. Those reasons were right there in plain sight for everyone to see.

     It’s “The Great American Race.” And this time it truly was.

If NASCAR is confused, how can anyone else know when ‘too low’ is really ‘too low’?

     The car was too low. Or maybe it wasn’t. They said it was. Still, you never know. How does one determine what’s “too low” in an area where “low” has no finite measurement? Inquiring minds want to know.

     In the end, it was what actor Strother Martin would call “a failure to communicate” in the classic movie “Cool Hand Luke.”

     When NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series officials completed their postrace inspections of eight different cars after the March 25 Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was announced that two cars – those of race winner Kyle Busch and the fifth-place car driven by Greg Biffle – would be taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center for further inspection.

     Officials have said they plan to take cars back to the center after the first few races featuring the car of tomorrow to get a better understanding of how the new cars have reacted under the stress of an actual race. So it made sense to take the winning car.

     Biffle’s car, on the other hand, was taken because, according to officials, it was “out of tolerance.”

     Actually, the initial report from the Magic Kingdom was that “the No. 16 car did not pass the height sticks.”

     If either of those remarks sound like an infraction to you, congratulations. You are practically qualified to be a NASCAR reporter.

     Maybe it was silly of us to expect Biffle or crew chief Pat Tryson or team owner Jack Roush to be penalized for what appeared to be a violation of the rulebook. That’s because we didn’t have ALL THE FACTS. We made a mistake.

     We didn’t read between the lines. We jumped to conclusions. We failed to fully grasp the difficulty of ruling over this complex, ever-evolving sport. We, in all likelihood, didn’t dot our “I’s” and cross our “T’s.” Who knows? We probably didn’t eat all our vegetables when we were kids, either.

     Admittedly, officials didn’t come right out and say they had discovered an infraction on the No. 16 car. It was described as a “potential infraction.” Which begs the following questions: Is there a penalty for breaking a rule that doesn’t exist? Can you be docked “potential” points? Fined “potential” amounts of money?

     It’s funny (although I’m betting Tryson didn’t think so when he opened up the paper the next day and read “Biffle facing possible penalty”), but NASCAR officials could have avoided all the confusion with a simple statement: “The No. 16 car measured lower than we anticipated, and we’re taking it back to the R&D Center to determine why. Unless we find something like a 427 Hemi under the hood, there won’t be a penalty.”

     Instead, this is what officials said:

     “The rear of the car was low.”

     There you go. That practically screams “potential infraction.”

     “The car was out of tolerance.”

     I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a violation. Either that or maybe the car just didn’t want to cooperate with officials.

     “Yes there is [the possibility of a penalty].”

     Obviously, yes can sometimes mean no.

     To NASCAR’s credit, further investigation determined that a rule wasn’t broken. NASCAR has a maximum height tolerance for the rear quarter panel area that cars must meet in postrace inspection. But currently there is only a minimum height requirement during postrace inspection for cars competing at Daytona and Talladega. That’s because it is NASCAR’s opinion that there is nothing to be gained by being “too low” at any other track. Officials have said, however, that a minimum height requirement will be established in the future for the COT. Maybe it will be known as the height requirement of tomorrow.

     So, if there is currently no minimum requirement at a track such as Bristol, how could a car possibly fail to “pass the height sticks?” How could it possibly be “out of tolerance” if there is no tolerance listed in the rulebook? How could the potential for a penalty exist?

     Clearly, NASCAR officials don’t know everything there is to know about the COT. Neither do the teams. Issues with the deterioration of foam padding inside the driver compartment and problems with exhaust systems at Bristol are evidence of that. Now it seems we can add car height measurements to the list. Unfortunately, it’s a list that appears to be growing rather than shrinking.

     At this rate, by the end of the season we may know less about this car than we do now.

Can Montoya match his Sonoma success on NASCAR’s oval tracks?

The question, of course, is inevitable. Does car owner Chip Ganassi have a bona fide Nextel Cup contender in his No. 42 Dodge? Or a talented open-wheel veteran who will shine in the rare road-course race and struggle on the more frequently visited ovals of NASCAR?

     Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory in the June 24 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway was his first in the Cup series. It came in his 17th career start, and easily overshadowed an early-season win at Mexico City in the Busch Series.

     Already considered a road-racing threat long before the Cup teams made their annual pilgrimage to the West Coast for the first attempt at left and right turns this season, talk of Montoya’s odds at victory only intensified once the series arrived here in the heart of wine country. Even a disappointing 32nd-place qualifying effort two days earlier on the 1.99-mile road course did little to diminish such high expectations.

     Naysayers will no doubt point to the Colombian’s results leading into the race – a not-so-sterling record of double-digit finishes and disappointment. There has been the occasional top-10 finish – he was fifth at Atlanta and eighth shortly afterwards when the series traveled to Texas. But were those rare runs aberrations or signs of a driver struggling to adapt to a strange, new environment?

     It will also, no doubt, be said that Montoya won only because his Dodge got better fuel mileage than others. It did. But it should be noted that Montoya didn’t coast past a handful of cars as each sputtered and spat and slowed to a crawl in the waning laps, looking vainly for the nearest gas station. By the time the fuel cells ran dry, the former Indianapolis 500 winner had already dispatched those in front of him in a more expected fashion – slipping and slithering his way past while each was still under full power.

     Everyone was still gas happy when Montoya was third and closing on race leader Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick.

     He passed Harvick for second on lap 93.

     He passed McMurray on lap 103 of the 110-lap race while heading into Turn 11, a switchback so sharp it cut more than one competitor. It cut Montoya, too – driving in too deeply, his car’s momentum carried him wide and opened the door for McMurray to return the favor.

     Drag racing across the start/finish line, Montoya finally got under McMurray in Turn 2 for the day’s 11th and final lead change.

     Montoya proved what others had expected – that the 31-year-old is as talented behind the wheel of a stock car as he had been with a more technically-advanced F1 missile at his disposal. More so when the race is on one of the series’ serpentine circuits. He also proved that if Chip Ganassi Racing can put a competitive car on the track, Montoya has the ability to get it to the front.

     Ironically, Montoya’s chief competition toward the end of the race came from McMurray, the last driver to win a Cup race for the organization. McMurray turned the feat in just his second career start, in 2002, but eventually moved on to Roush Fenway Racing.

     For crew chief Donnie Wingo, victory lane never looked so good. His last trip, oddly enough, came at the very same track. Fourteen years ago, he helped guide Geoffrey Bodine to the win for car owner Bud Moore at Infineon.

     Now, both team and driver move back to the less-friendly confines known as the land of left turns, back to a world where Montoya isn’t yet completely comfortable and where Ganassi’s teams still seem to be struggling. Heading into the race, Montoya was sandwiched between teammates David Stremme and Reed Sorenson – the trio were 22nd, 23rd and 24th respectively in the point standings. The victory put Montoya 21st while Stremme finished 32nd and lost one spot and Sorenson (40th) fell three positions.

     Montoya will be the first to admit that he still has much to learn. But no one needs to question how far he has come. All anyone had to do at Infineon Raceway was look over in the winners circle to see that. 

Yellow fever not necessarily a bad thing at Martinsville

Lest you think there were way too many cautions in the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, remember there were “only” a record 21 during the race.

     Unofficially, those of us who cover the sport noticed a few “unofficial” cautions.

     For instance, there was a caution for the crew chief who was spun out while trying to get to the drivers meeting on time. He made it, but just barely.

     There was a caution in the concession stand line when someone started the rumor that there were no more hot dogs for sale. Several somewhat portly folks nearly fainted, and two fellas practically got into a fistfight over what each believed was the last hot dog. Fortunately, order was restored before anyone was hurt.

     There was the caution for Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, who was tackled by security guards when he was caught trying to steal the “secret hot dog recipe.” Note to Jared: It’s the pink wieners.

     Twenty-one cautions, huh? For 127 laps. There were yellow flags appearing for crashes, for spins, for motors that said “Enough is enough” and at least one car that seemed to spontaneously combust right there on the backstretch.

     It was that kind of race. Odd. Strange. But the fact that the caution flag appeared with what could be described as something close to regularity wasn’t surprising. Martinsville’s tight, tiny quarters are the perfect breeding ground for contact. Which usually doesn’t end well. And brings out the caution flag.

     There were only 13 in this year’s spring race. But a more expected 18 in the ’06 fall race, and a not-so-surprising 16 in the ’06 spring race. Nineteen cautions in the fall of ’05; 16 yellow flags in the spring race of ’05.

     As bad as it may have seemed, the numerous caution periods this time around weren’t the worst thing that could have happened. It’s likely that drivers hoping for long green-flag runs were disappointed, and losing positions on the track, by the constant appearance of the caution flag. But consider what could have been.

     Were it not for the frequent interruptions, it’s quite possible that one driver – perhaps Jimmie Johnson, maybe it would have been Jeff Gordon – would have gotten out front, popped in his favorite CD, adjusted his seat just so, and checked out on the rest of the field. Gone. Bye-bye.

     For all we know, it could have been Dale Earnhardt Jr. that checked out on the competition. The guy led 24 laps. That’s an entire case to you Junior fans out there. He had a chance. A legitimate shot.

     Well, until that engine thing came up again and dropped him from a sure top-10 to a dismal 23rd.

     Remember the spring race at Martinsville this year? When Gordon beat and banged on Johnson’s Chevrolet, but couldn’t get around his teammate? Folks were talking about that race a lot this weekend. How many times do you think any of the other Martinsville races were brought up in casual conversations? Not many, I’ll bet.

     It might not have been a smooth race, but it was far from horrid. And right now, NASCAR needs any help it can get. Gordon’s got the points lead in a death grip, and even if Johnson claims his teammate is catchable, the defending series champ needs to have help. Johnson won this Martinsville race, and managed to barely dent the points deficit. With four races remaining, time is running out.

     Clint Bowyer has proven he won’t go quietly, but trailing by 115 points, his opportunities are evaporating quicker than Johnson’s.

     Unfortunately, with not much of a points picture to look at, competition on the track each week has to be the drawing card.

     OK, the battle for the title isn’t over. I realize that. Anything can happen. Gordon isn’t a lock. And neither is Johnson. Bowyer could win this thing. Or Tony Stewart. Does Carl Edwards still have a shot?

     Nothing is impossible. My lottery numbers will hit. World peace will be achieved.

     And Martinsville could have a caution-free race.

     Yeah, right.