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First Place
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com

NASCAR Perfection in Half a Mile

Nothing is perfect.  That’s true of life as well as racing.  2016 has been a very solid NASCAR season so far; the racing is as good as it’s been in 15 or 20 years, particularly on the intermediate tracks.  There’s stability for teams to grow into the future.  Optimism flourishes. All of that means that this week’s race couldn’t come at a better time-fans are looking for the good racing to continue, and it will this weekend.

Because Martinsville is perfect.

The quirky little track that’s graced NASCAR’s schedule since 1949 has some of the best pure racing you’ll see on the Sprint Cup circuit.  No track has hosted NASCAR’s top series longer and no track has come through the sport’s modern era better, not even the venerable Lady in Black.

If you’re new to the sport, if you’re a former diehard who’s slipped to casual fan, if you watch races at just one racetrack this season, Martinsville should be it.

Bristol, the only other true short track on the schedule, has gotten a bit more hype over the years, but Martinsville is the better racer’s track, where a driver can use his bumper to root a competitor out of the way and not cause a multi-car crash, as was likely at the old Bristol, and clean air doesn’t matter like it does at the new Bristol. (Of the two short tracks, it’s most likely Bristol where fans will see a difference from the new rules package.)

Martinsville Speedway is flat, with long straightaways and very tight turns.  Drivers rarely crack the 100 MPH mark for an official lap time, unheard of in modern NASCAR where cars push double that at several tracks, yet the racing is furious and there is action on every lap somewhere in the field.

The track is one that notoriously brings out the competitive side of drivers, and it’s long been a preferred venue for letting someone know you’re not particularly pleased with his driving.  That’s at least in part because speeds are lower, and as Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano illustrated last fall, there is generally not as much collateral damage as other tracks because speeds are slow enough that drivers can avoid trouble.

Because of the track’s history, drivers have it circled on their racing bucket lists, yet winning one of the most famous trophies in NASCAR isn’t easy.  The winners’ list at the track reads like a who’s who of the sport’s long history, with most of the records held belonging to Hall of Fame drivers, and the active driver stats are led by drivers who will without a doubt grace the Hall one day as well.  Good drivers have gone home empty-handed; a few great ones have a grandfather clock in every room.

Martinsville’s looks are deceptive; cars look slow, but the track is far from easy and has claimed lives, most notable that of Hall of Famer Richie Evans.  Driving into town (the track is technically located in Ridgeway, Virginia, just outside of Martinsville), you see a small mountain town with a few hotels and gas stations and restaurants, certainly nothing like Charlotte or Daytona Beach or Miami.  The track is nestled into the heart of a valley surrounded by misty blue mountains, and as if time stands still, train tracks run along the backstretch and freight trains frequently pass through during race weekends.

Yes, the parking lots get muddy when it rains, and showers are a fairly common occurrence, particularly in the spring.  Facilities are slightly antiquated and the infield is cramped, the garage slightly too small for the 40-car field.  The famous hot dogs have undergone a few changes, but they’re still revered by fans, drivers and crews.

Despite the feeling of being slightly trapped in time (or maybe because of it), the racing experience at Martinsville is second to none.  Fans thinking about travelling to a race might think of other venues because of other attractions, but for pure racing, this one needs to be on the short list.

Through decades of NASCAR, through the rise and fall of hundreds of careers, some of them exceptional, Martinsville has been there in the Virginia hills.  Through controversy and change, the racing and the experience remain as unchanged as anything can be over nearly 70 years.  May it be so for 70 more.

The Frontstretch Five: Things NASCAR Can’t Have

Admit it, you’ve heard the talk in NASCAR in recent years.  The racing is boring, the drivers are boring, some people have no business racing in the Cup Series. But wait, what do you mean there won’t be a parade of new teams fielding backmarkers? Drivers are robots if they don’t speak their minds, jerks if they do. Rubbing is racing unless it isn’t.

The racing this season is much improved.  In some ways, the sport is heading in a much better direction than it has recently. But there are some things that just can’t happen. Things that can’t go both ways, that aren’t feasible. In order for the sport to right the ship and move forward on a positive note, it’s important to understand that some of these things are next to impossible… and it’s OK.

1. Reward without risk
There was a lot of talk about tires this weekend at Fontana after several teams had failures, but much of it was misdirected. Did Goodyear bring a perfect product? No. But it did bring a product that race teams and race fans said they wanted – a softer tire that wore out before the end of a fuel run. And nobody should have been surprised when that’s exactly what happened. Aggressive setups that worked with a harder tire won’t last with this one, and perhaps stretching a tire run wasn’t the best strategy. And you know what? That’s part of racing.

Years ago, teams had a lot of choices. They could run a gear that was fast but hard on the engine and drive train, or a gear that might cost a little speed but was much more likely to get to the end of the race. They could tune the engine for speed or durability, but seldom both. There were risky choices with springs, shocks, etc. Teams could play it fast or play it safe. As NASCAR has tightened the rules, it’s taken a lot of the risk out of the racing… the same risk that once brought out enough authentic cautions to keep things interesting.

A tire failure here and there isn’t necessarily a bad thing (barring injury, of course). They’re certainly better than contrived cautions, and the risk of something occasionally going wrong makes watching worthwhile because fans want to see if their guy can go the distance. The risk vs. reward choices are few and far between these days, and it’s time to bring them back.

2. Personality without honesty
Talk about confusing. Listen to the talk on one day and it’s all about how boring and restrained people in the sport anymore and how it’s just too bad they’re so darn vanilla. The next day, one says something slightly off-color and everyone goes on about how unprofessional and uncalled-for it was and what a jerk that guy is. The thing is, you can’t have it both ways, and it can’t be okay for some but not others. Those moments of complete human-ness need to be embraced, or there should be no complaints when someone says the same thing .

A perfect example was Cole Pearn’s now-infamous (and sadly, removed) Twitter callout of Joey Logano.  I found it surprising how many people took Pearn to task for the insult thrown at Logano after Logano tangled with Pearn’s driver, Martin Truex, Jr. If Matt Kneseth had said the same thing last year after Kansas, I find it doubtful that it would have gotten the same reaction. And here’s the rub: it’s not about who says it or who’s on the receiving end. Either displays of emotion, including anger in the heat of the moment, are acceptable, or they’re not, and everyone should be boringly vanilla at all times. You don’t get to pick and choose; you can have human or not, but you can’t complain if you choose human and someone suddenly (and hilariously) is.

3. Winning without dominance
Sometimes races end in spectacular fashion, like we were treated to at Daytona and Phoenix this year. Sometimes they end more like we saw Sunday in Cailifornia, with an exciting late-race move that nobody can parry before the checkers fly. And sometimes, somebody dominates, as Kevin Harvick might have Sunday if not for a late caution or as Jimmie Johnson might have in Atlanta before a late yellow flew there. There’s no question that the door-to-door need-to-see-the-replay finishes are the most exciting, but there’s nothing wrong with a race where a driver dominates, either. It doesn’t even mean there isn’t good racing to be had; racing for the lead isn’t the only battle that counts.

There’s not even anything wrong with a race ending with 10 or 12 cars on the lead lap. There have been plenty in the sport’s long and glorious history with a lot fewer than that, and those didn’t ruin the sport either. If racing is to play out naturally, then sometimes there will be a blowout. Coupled with the low risk of mechanical failure these days, it comes down to this: Do you want a driver to run away and hide up front, or a questionable debris caution? Because sometimes, those are the options it will come down to.

4. Good for the goose without good for the gander
Hand in hand with whether drivers should speak their minds and whether teams should work in the grey areas of the workbook is the fact that if something is acceptable for one driver, team or person that it is then acceptable for anyone else. That means a couple of things. It means that if one driver slams another and it’s labeled dirty, then when another driver makes the same move, he deserves the same label. If one driver is penalized for a Twitter post, then any driver must be penalized for the same type of post. It can become a slippery slope really fast, but if fans want fair, then they must also be fair, whether the driver in question is their guy or not.

It also means that NASCAR must follow the same path. If one team is given a “fix it and come back through” during inspection, other teams with the same issue need to be given the same directive. Allowing one team to fix it one week and dropping the hammer with a six-week-suspension the next reeks of favoritism to race fans, whether it is or not. If the issue isn’t the same, NASCAR needs to explain that, in detail. That means the sanctioning body needs to be a little more careful. Once it starts down a road – policing Twitter, for example – it can’t turn around gracefully.

And the problem there is that plowing ahead willy-nilly won’t work either. If someone is penalized for every tweet that insults a competitor, before long, fans will be railing that drivers are too boring again.

Consistency and fairness from both fans and NASCAR are key…as is perspective.

5. Entry level without growing pains
In recent years, there has been a decent number of new, small teams that have tried to make it in NASCAR’s top series. Often met with ridicule from fans, they struggled mightily just to make races or to finish in the top 35, which, if not taken into perspective, hardly seems like much of an accomplishment anyway. If they parked early some weeks to pay the bills, they were sneered at. A few persevered and slowly turned the struggles into success, but there are no overnight successes in NASCAR these days. Furniture Row Racing made it to elite status, but it took a decade of missed races and missed opportunities along the way.

With the amount of disdain displayed for them, you’d think creating a way to help the smaller teams in the sport improve and thrive in the race within the race they run every week would be well-received. Though the charter system does just that, it’s been maligned. While it’s true that it will be difficult for new owners to enter the sport, it is by no means impossible as they can run as an open team, or if there’s enough money and the timing is right, they can purchase a charter or a chunk of a chartered team. There are also the XFINITY and Truck series where it would be a big deal to have a competitive new team or 10.

But it’s also true that the system will help the existing teams that are disparaged as backmarkers and no-talents improve, and that’s good for the sport as a whole. The more teams that are competitive with each other, the better the on-track product will be. It’s about quality, not quantity. That’s just common sense.

Whatever Happened to NASCAR’s American Dream?

Picture this: Young driver breaks into a top-level racing series with a smaller team after working his way through the ranks, winning along the way, taking a title or two in other divisions.  He runs well enough with those teams to grab a couple of wins, beating all comers, including the big powerhouse teams.  That grabs enough attention that one of those big powerhouse teams, a team that wins races and contends for titles every single year, dials the driver up for a fateful phone call…

…and the rest is history.

That in a nutshell is a racer’s American Dream, and that’s how IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden referred to his signing with Team Penske, one of that series’ most storied teams, earlier this week.

“It’s a huge honor to get this type of opportunity and be a small piece of it,” Newgarden said during an IndyCar conference call. “I think this place is the American dream and it’s one of the best teams in the world.”

And when it comes right down to it, that’s exactly how it should work.

But while Newgarden found his piece of the dream this week, there’s not much room for any dream in NASCAR.

It happens; Erik Jones is a prime example of how things should work out.  Discovered by Kyle Busch while racing late models, Jones landed a ride with Busch’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team, which led to an XFINITY Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing and a Cup ride with JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing next year.

The problem is, stories like Newgarden’s and Jones’ aren’t very plentiful. For every Erik Jones, there’s a Landon Cassill. So often, it’s not about talent or success, but about money.  Young drivers can land rides… that is, if they bring enough sponsor money to the team.

The problem is, of course, that a young, unproven driver isn’t what most sponsors want in this day and age of instant gratification.  They want star power, they want drivers who are already successful or popular, and so they insist on a Sprint Cup driver in the seat of a lower series ride, and the team is forced to bend to the sponsor’s wishes and split the ride or to take a driver who can bring the money, perhaps from a family business, perhaps from a long-running deal.

That kind of deal is often a detriment to a team in the long run. There are a few very good drivers who race on family dollars, but there are also those who are taking up seats and running mid-pack when another driver might get better results in the car.

There was a time that a team owner would select a young, talented driver and pitch that driver to sponsors until they got the desired result.  In some instances it’s still a practice, but is becoming less and less common. Teams are unwilling to settle on smaller sponsors, and a driver with money will eventually come along.

There have always been talented drivers who have never gotten a shot at the big time.  After all, there are only so many seats, and the drivers in them are talented.  But it’s hard to deny that a lot of seats rotate among the same group of drivers while others, who could probably be competitive with them in equal equipment, toil in inferior cars and lower divisions and never get the chance to prove it.

The danger in that model, which has become all too prevalent, is that it’s not compelling for fans.  The perception that the sport has changed radically from a blue-collar group that fans could relate to to an elitist organization filled with stars with whom they have little in common. There’s a fine balance between having enough money to be competitive and becoming just another corporate entity with little left onto which to hang for those who follow the sport.

There should be a place for the American Dream in racing.  There should be hope for drivers who have done everything right moving up the ranks only to hit a wall at the top because they don’t have unlimited budgets on which to race. Racing became the success it did today because of the blue-collar aspect—the biggest stars came from humble roots and were genuinely grateful, and available, to the fans.  Fans could see a piece of themselves in Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt.  It’s harder to find that reflection in many of today’s stars, and that gives the illusion that many of them didn’t work hard to get where they did (and some worked harder than others as well), and that the drivers would rather give their time to corporations than to fans.  It’s not necessarily a case of “rather” than “have to,” but that’s still a little hard to swallow for a fan who saved every spare dime to come to the track.

Is there a solution, a way to assure that the most talented drivers find a place and that the big stars worked their way through the ranks rather than being handed the reins of the best horse in the stable (or, rather, to assure fans that they did)? Probably not.  It all comes back to money, and the cost of speed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. The only real solution is to contain costs in a meaningful way, something NASCAR isn’t likely to instigate any time soon.

Yet it’s hard to deny that the sport was something really special when it was fueled by dreams as well as dollars and the dreams of drivers and fans were sometimes one and the same.  The sport needs the American dream, and fans need a sport where it still exists.

Three Drivers, Seven Championships

For many years, there were two. There was The King, who had come along when the sport itself was still in its infancy and who drove it from the tiny, dusty bullrings of the Southeast to the big tracks of a budding national phenomenon. Just when it seemed that The King’s sport was a getting a little too big, a little too corporate, along came the Intimidator, a throwback who was the polar opposite of corporate America even as he learned to embrace it himself.
For more than two decades, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt towered above the sport of NASCAR, larger than life because they had won so much, so often, at so many storied venues.  With changes in the points system, it’s safe to say that Petty’s 200-win mark at the sports highest level will stand for all time.  Earnhardt’s total of 76 is more modest, eighth all-time, but his death came before he’d have retired otherwise, meaning there might have been more.

But the championships; that’s where the two stood apart. Seven apiece. A number that nobody else came close to, though some tried. When Cale Yarborough won three in a row, there were those who thought he’d be the one to rival Petty’s number. Then Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip took their shots at seven, falling short shy of halfway there, though their names invoke the word legend. After Earnhardt joined Petty on the sport’s shortest list in 1994, a kid came along who won everything in sight, though he was cut from a distinctly different mold. Jeff Gordon seemingly did nothing but win in the late 1990s, and it seemed only a matter of time until he reached that magic number, maybe even eclipsed it. He came closer than anyone else, winning four titles, but changes in the sport hurt his chances at more.
Tony Stewart won three after Gordon, but he wasn’t the threat year in and year out that Gordon had been, and never really settled into a championship groove.

But even as Gordon was winning races and titles himself, he was setting in motion another run at immortality.  Wanting to cement his four-time champion driver into the No. 24 for the foreseeable future, team owner Rick Hendrick made Gordon an offer he couldn’t refuse: a lifetime contract and an ownership stake in a brand-new Hendrick Motorsports team, the No. 48 (24 times two). Gordon could even choose the driver as long as sponsor Lowe’s approved.
Nobody anticipated Gordon’s choice, a soft-spoken Californian who’d had modest success in the XFINITY Series, but nothing Earth-shattering. No list of race wins or title bids, though he did make all the highlight reels as a rookie for a spectacular crash at Watkins Glen.
Hendrick knew Jimmie Johnson because the young driver was a friend of his son, Ricky’s. He liked the driver well enough, but even he was surprised at Gordon’s endorsement. Still, he kept to his word and allowed Gordon to pitch Johnson to Lowe’s. It wasn’t an easy sell, but the company liked his quiet confidence, so in the end it agreed. Lowe’s would try it out, and if it didn’t work, there were other drivers.

And so a kid who grew up in a trailer park and learned as a youngster how to find sponsors because that was the only way he could afford to race found himself in a top-level ride. In his rookie season, Lowe’s made a television commercial in which Gordon asks Johnson if he’s ready to win. Johnson proved he was. And he’s proved time and again that he was more than up to the challenge.

Lowe’s is still on the hood of Johnson’s car every week, one of the last full-season sponsorships in the sport.

He racked up the titles at a ridiculous pace: five in five seasons from 2006-2010. Another in 2013. But then NASCAR threw a curveball by making sweeping changes to the championship format. Some said it was a response to Johnson’s titles, and if it was, it looked effective for two seasons as Johnson never made it to the finals, let alone the title.

And he wasn’t getting any younger. As his performance dipped and his team slipped a step behind rival Joe Gibbs Racing, a seventh title began to kook out of reach for Johnson. Would the two, Petty and Earnhardt, stand alone after all?

Even in a strong 2016 season, there were doubts.  Johnson looked as strong as ever, but was that enough? As the final race got underway, it was vintage Johnson driving from the very back of the field with a calculated vengeance, faster than anyone, but then he stalled out behind the other three championship contenders. His car wasn’t quite as fast and his team couldn’t quite find the magic.

So Johnson made his own. With 10 laps to go, a crash changed the complexion of the race, of the entire season. He suddenly found himself in position to take the title from Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, but whether he could hold off their faster cars was very much a question. Yet another restart with fuel running low brought another challenge, equalizing the field.
The green flag flew. Two to go. Johnson held NASCAR history in his hands, his to lose.

And then there were three.

For a generation, there was Petty, alone.

For another, there were Petty and Earnhardt.

For the next one, there will be Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson. A step above.  Immortal.

What’s Johnson’s place in the whole thing? He didn’t bring the sport into the public eye. He doesn’t use intimidation so much as domination.  And he won seven times with the Chase.
Johnson didn’t make the rules, but he won under them. He didn’t have enough time in the pre-Chase era to make a real splash. That Johnson’s titles are not full-season titles might be a flaw in the system, but it’s not a flaw in the driver.

Could there be an eighth? Johnson is 41, so it’s possible, but will grow more unlikely with each passing season now, especially with the current championship rules. We’ve been down this road before; there was a day when we all thought it was only a matter of time until Gordon won seven and then eight titles. Johnson’s no sure thing.

And that’s OK.

He’s one of three, and the company he now keeps speaks volumes. He’s as genuine as Petty, as hungry as Earnhardt, but at the end of the day Johnson isn’t The King or The Intimidator. He just the kid who once feared for his job if he didn’t win and win often.  The one who still harbored that fear after winning a title. The kid who once wore socks on his hands for gloves and lens-less goggles in imitation of his racing heroes. The driver who a new generation of race fans will pretend to be as they race their big wheels in the backyard. Legend. Immortal.

And today, there are three.

The Underdog House: What Small Teams Want You to Know

Think Small
I had a conversation this past weekend with Germain Racing driver Casey Mears, and I asked him the one thing he wished that NASCAR fans understood about his job.
Mears offered the following assessment.

“The thing I wish more fans knew is just how difficult it is to get one of these cars right—the work, the amount of time and effort, the detail that goes into getting one of these cars to work and to go around these tracks is really hard to describe.  I think some of the fans who have been around quite a while and really listen on the scanners and are really, really dedicated fans kind of get that, but some of the more casual fans, I guess, don’t sometimes quite understand just how difficult it is to get one of these cars working around these tracks.”

Mears’ words are true for teams at every level of the sport.  Elite teams struggle with setups on a weekly basis, but the difficulty is magnified for the smaller teams in the sport.  Consider that any given week, there is a top team who’s having a hard time hitting on the right setup.  At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano, a driver who has won at Loudon in the past and is in the title hunt, struggled to find the right combination. Logano drives for a team with dozens of personnel and almost-unlimited resources in terms of parts and pieces as well as data.

Put that next to Mears’ team, which is one of the better-off teams in this group but still doesn’t have close to the same resources in terms of personnel or equipment as a team like Logano’s, and it’s easier to see why it’s unfair to lump in these teams together.  It isn’t that the drivers aren’t talented. After all, among this group are six NASCAR Sprint Cup race winners, as well as an XFINITY Series champion and Rookie of the Year, plus multiple race winners in that series. It’s more likethey have a bit less of everything they need, and no factory support from the manufacturers.  For these teams, perhaps the best measure of their talent isn’t where they finish, but which better-equipped drivers they are outperforming.

Also, last week, a few readers wondered how I define the small teams in NASCAR. A detailed explanation can be found here.

While I’m pretty comfortable with the way I define the teams on the small team list, it’s definitely a fluid process.  For continuity’s sake, once the year starts, I’m generally committed to a list.  Otherwise, it would change several times a year.  It’s totally possible for a team to move onto or off of the list. Look at Furniture Row Racing, which was easily defined as a small team as recently as the beginning of 2015; now it’s bypassed mid-tier and is among the sport’s elite.  A couple of teams, like Wood Brothers Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, could move into that middle tier depending on late-season performance, and Richard Petty Motorsports, which I’ve had on the mid-tier list for a couple of years, has kind of slipped to small team as its support has diminished.

Top of the Class: New Hampshire
New Hampshire didn’t get its reputation of being difficult for nothing.  Only Ryan Blaney finished in the top 20 from the small teams group, coming home 12th and taking Rookie of the Race honors as well.  AJ Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer were the only others in this group to finish on the lead lap, with Allmendinger in 21st and Bowyer 22nd.  Bowyer’s finishes in the No. 15 continue to make 2016 HScott Motorsports’ most successful season; the team hasn’t announced plans for 2017 yet, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to fill Bowyer’s shoes.

Passing Grades
Michael McDowell actually had a much better run going than his 26th-place finish, but a blown tire late in the race sent him looping around on the track and cost him a couple of laps. McDowell and the No. 95 team are still in the midst of their first full season of races, and they have been quite impressive overall. New Hampshire certainly wasn’t kind to Casey Mears, but the No. 13 team had a better day than the 27th-place finish reflects in terms of making gains throughout the race after a disappointing qualifying session. Matt DiBenedetto(28th) and Landon Cassill (29th) also had OK runs — nothing to write home about, but nothing disastrous. Chris Buescher’s 30th-place run all but sealed his fate in terms of the Chase—he’d have to pull off a miracle win at Dover to continue—but he said it best on Sunday: the worst his Front Row Motorsports team can finish in points this season is 16th, something a lot of much bigger teams cannot lay claim to, and it’s gotten some attention, which is exactly what a small team needs to attract the sponsor dollars to take the next step.

Needs Improvement
BK Racing has made some gains this year, but at this point should be putting two cars in the top 30 every week, and this week, that didn’t happen, as David Ragan finished 32nd.  The team is capable of better.  Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 and Regan Smith have also shown enough progress this year that Smith’s 34th-pace run is a definite disappointment. Four of the final five drivers in the group—Premium Motorsports’ Cole Whitt (35th) and Reed Sorenson (36th), GO FAS Racing’s Jeffrey Earnhardt (37th), and The Motorsports Group’s Josh Wise (39th), finished about where expected in their badly underfunded equipment—props to them for sticking it out every week, but they need backing to improve measurably. Michael Annett’s 40th-place finish after a crash was a disappointment, though overall Annett has been about a 30th-to-35th-place driver this season and really needs to be showing a little improvement as 2017 looms.

Newsworthy
Ty Dillon will take over the seat of the No. 95 at Dover with backing from Death Wish Coffee on the hood.  Dillon is expected to move up to the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2017, most likely with Richard Childress Racing, and an alliance with RCR for the No. 95 puts Dillon in the seat for a handful of races this year.

E.J. Wade Construction returns to sponsor Matt DiBenedetto this weekend at Dover.

Say anything

@woodbrothers21
another awesome recovery! P12 after spending most of the day mired up in the junk. Crew hung tough, blaney did a great job, etc. etc.

@Blaney
I’ve forgotten my hairbrush. This is disastrous. Not sure what to do.

@ClintBowyer
Gonna try another approach today. I’ve tried to drive the wheels off it, they just gave us new 1’s. I’m going to drive the … plum outta it.

@mattdracing
Well … got in a solid 4 holes of golf before getting caught in severe downpour I look I jumped in a pool fully clothed.