During the NASCAR weekend at the Phoenix International Raceway we were prepared for a single driver to sweep all three races in the valley of the sun. Then we watched a wily veteran break the man’s broom during the third and final race of the weekend. We wondered about the merits of a “big one” getting launched on a one mile track and last week’s hero discovered that sometimes NASCAR racing can become a cruel mistress. With those thoughts in mind, let’s begin this week with:
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”282″][/media-credit]HOORAH to four time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon for returning to victory lane in Phoenix last Sunday and ending a 66 race winless streak. It was also his first win with new crew chief Alan Gustafason and the first win with Gordon’s new primary sponsor: AARP drive to end hunger.
Talk about ending hunger. Gordon has been hungry for a Sprint Cup win and was understandably charged with emotion after ridding himself of that 66 race streak that he was constantly reminded of. The return to victory lane marked his 83d career win which now ties him for fifth, with Cale Yarborough on the all time series’ win list.
Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was strong. He ran down race leader Kyle Busch with eight laps left in the race and then ran off to the checkers. He also picked up bonus points for leading a race high 138 laps. By the way, after the victory lane ceremony Gordon hopped a quick flight to Los Angeles where he celebrated his win at a post Academy Awards party.
Kyle Busch also deserves a major HOORAH for his outstanding performance during the Phoenix weekend. He was entered in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series events and appeared well on his way to sweeping the entire weekend. He began the process Friday night by winning the Lucas Oil 150 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Driving his Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra, he led 107 of the 150 laps. The event marked his 25th win in the truck series as well as his second win, along with six top ten finishes, in seven starts at Phoenix.
But that was a warm up exercise compared to his performance the following night during the Bashas Supermarkets 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race. After winning the Coors Light Pole during qualifying, Busch climbed in his familiar Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and led the field under the initial green flag. That was pretty much the story of the race. When the checkers fell he set a track record after leading all 200 laps of the race to claim his 44th series win. The last time anyone managed to lead every lap in a Nationwide Series race was Dale Earnhardt Sr at Daytona back in 2003. But this is not to imply that the process was easy. Busch and Carl Edwards put on a terrific duel in the final laps of this race.
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took the green flag to start the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday it was apparent from the beginning that Busch was not going to have an easy time to completing the weekend sweep. He started fourth on the grid but the car just wasn’t handling to his satisfaction and there was an early race brush with the wall. At one point the frustrated driver came over his radio and said : “I’m tired of being a ping pong ball out here, this is pathetic.”
But the ping pong ball aspect came on lap 59 when Busch made contact with early race leader, and pre race favorite, Carl Edwards. The Roush Fenway Ford of Edwards, which led the early portion of the race two times for 21 laps, was badly damaged and spent a lengthy amount of time in the garage before returning to the race. A pre race favorite to win turned into a 28th place finish.
However, despite the massive amount of frustration, Edwards deserves a HOORAH for his calm and diplomatic demeanor displayed during a post wreck television interview. Busch deserves another HOORAH for his post race interview when he accepted full responsibility for this accident and apologized to Edwards for the incident.
While Busch spent more than half of the race dealing with the ping pong effect, crew chief Dave Rogers was slowly but surely master minding the adjustments the car needed to get his driver in position for a Phoenix sweep. The extra effort paid off of lap 291 when Busch became the new race leader. It appeared that he was going to literally sweep the dust right off of the Phoenix Raceway. But a hard charging Jeff Gordon was on his way to Busch’s rear bumper. Gordon officially broke Busch’s broom when he made his winning move on lap 304.
Enroute to his attempted Phonix sweep, Busch ran three races and a total of 672 laps. He won two of the races and led 330 laps in that process. I’ve said it many times before and I will raise the point again now: whether you’re a proud member of this driver’s fan club or one who literally cringes at the mention of his name there is no denying this man’s driving talent and the amazing statistics it has created in such a short amount of time.
WAZZUP with the level of aggressive driving the early stages of the Phoenix Cup race? At times it resembled racing for the win during a final lap green-white-checker finish. It was too much too early and the collateral damage sent a lot of high profile drivers and teams to the garage area for repairs.
This was especially true of of a lap 67 incident that turned into a 13 car wreck and a red flag period that lasted 14 minutes for track clean up. This is the type of “big one” normally associated with restrictor plate racing at Daytona or Talladega. It’s not what we expect to see on a one mile oval like Phoenix.
Contact between the cars of Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth launched this melee. The Vickers Toyota spun in front of traffic on the backstretch and the carnage began from there. In the aftermath came driver frustration and harsh words. This was especially true in the case of Vickers who claimed that Kenseth door slammed him into the wall. Vickers also made it clear that he was very upset with Kenseth and said “I felt like that move was unnecessary and it will sure come back to him.” That will be something to keep an eye on during a future race.
One of the many victims in this melee, Clint Bowyer, probably put it best when he stated that “we’re supposed to be professionals-this is embarrassing.”
WAZZUP with the NASCAR reality check delivered to Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne? A little over a week ago this young driver was standing in victory lane at Daytona basking in the glow of a stunning victory. He spent the majority of last week on a nationwide public relations blitz where he was courted by every form of the media that you could name.
But when the Phoenix racing weekend began Bayne found out that sometimes NASCAR racing can become a very cruel and fickle mistress. In all fairness what happened to him was just plain bad racing luck but it came during a three day tidal wave that had to seem overwhelming.
The problem started on Friday when Bayne crashed his primary Wood Brother Cup car during practice. The damage was substantial and forced the team to roll out a back up car which meant they would have to go to the back of the field for Sunday’s race.
On Saturday Bayne climbed inside of his full time NASCAR Nationwide Series ride, fielded by Roush Fenway Racing, for the running of the series’ Bashas Supermarkets 200. A little past the halfway point of the race, Bayne crashed that Ford as well and wound up with a 31st place finish.
By the way, WAZZUP with Bayne’s Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide car running completely unsponsored? I was hoping that his stunning performance at Daytona would help alleviate that situation.
During Sunday’s Cup race Bayne found himself destroying his third Ford of the Phoenix weekend on lap 49. The damage from that crash forced him behind the wall for good and netted the snake bit driver a very disappointing 40th place finish.
The HOORAH award for making chicken salad out of chicken do do belongs to Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR’s most popular driver found himself starting the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from a disappointing 35th position. He frequently spent much of the early stages of the race languishing somewhere between 20th and 30th, he lost track position due to a pit road speeding penalty and sliding out of his pit box, he came perilously close to getting creamed in the big 13 car wreck and then fell a lap down late in the race due to a loose wheel.
Despite all of this Earnhardt, aided by the calm demeanor of new crew chief Steve Letarte, kept his nose to the grindstone, worked his way back to the lead lap and then scored a tenth place finish. All of this has been perceived by many observers as a true sign of bigger and better things to come.
A double HOORAH goes to the administrative team at the Phoenix International Raceway. They wanted their Sprint Cup race to be a sell out but realized that their fans, still struggling with the state of the economy, were going to need some help. The speedway came through big time with a ticket value package that featured $25 tickets for the Cup race, $15 for the Nationwide Series race and $7 for the Camping World Truck Series. That’s a total of $47 for three nights of NASCAR racing. Granted these seats were in the lower levels of the grandstand but, with the way the speedway is configured, there really isn’t a bad seat there. By the way, the promotion worked very well and Sunday’s grandstands were packed.
An additional 12,000 brought their lawn chairs and sat in a general admission area known as Rattlesnake Hill which overlooks turns three and four of the speedway. That leads to another HOORAH to volunteers who spent the week prior to the race rounding up and removing a reported 800 plus rattlesnakes from the area.
I was really impressed with this effort. That’s because I’m extremely sensitive to all snake issues, including rubber ones purchased at a toy store.
The snake round up also leads to a HOORAH to SPEED Channel analyst Kenny Wallace for a great line when he said “I heard a rumor that one of those snakes was Jimmy Spencer.”
I suppose whether or not this final item is a HOORAH or a WAZZUP depends on how you feel about watching reality television. NASCAR fans are well aware that driver Kyle Busch married the lovely Samantha Sarcinella in Chicago this past New Year’s Eve. Now it seems that the entire wedding process was filmed and edited for a reality show to be presented by the Style Network.
“Fast And Fabulous: A NASCAR Wedding” will air on Style beginning March 5th at 8 pm eastern time. The series includes an inside look at all of the planning procedures involved in a lavish wedding including footage of the bachelor and bachelorette parties.