Monday, September 12, 2011

NASCAR Looks Ahead to the Chase for the Sprint Cup After a Volatile Night in Richmond Sets the Field

NASCAR’s regular season is officially over and now as we look forward to the first race of the Chase and the 12 drivers who will be giving chase to the coveted Sprint Cup, you can’t help but wonder just what the next 10 weeks will bring. A lot of drama spawned from the Wonderful Pistachios 400. Tempers flared, frustration grew, cars damaged (on accident and purposefully), egos bruised, and on track enemies made. Many of the drivers who were still mathematically eligible to make the Chase vocalized the need for a conservative approach on the track and to simply stay out of trouble, but Saturday night under the lights at Richmond International Raceway proved anything but.
CIA Stock Photo
The proof is in the stats. The caution flag waved a record 15 times that night. The poor flagman barely had enough time to take back the green flag from honorary starter Frank Siller, founder of the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Tower Foundation and brother of a NYC firefighter who died on 9/11, after whom his foundation is named before having to grab for the yellow as the first caution of the night came out on lap two. Driver s barely made it a handful of laps before another incident occurred. Green flag. Yellow flag. Repeat.
On lap eight the short track version of “big one” happened after contact made between Chase hopeful, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann collecting Chase favored Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin in the carnage. It was way too earlier in the evening to be feeling that kind of tension in the air, but it was palpable. The battle had begun and it wouldn’t be long before drivers picked their individual sparring partners.
Kasey Kahne chose wrong, he fought the wall for the first time on lap 27 and then again on lap 51 after going three –wide with Marcos Ambrose and teammate Brian Vickers. The wall remained victorious as Kahne’s No. 4 Red Bull Toyota was towed off the track and the driver taken to the infield care unit. Physically Kahne was all right, but there was that bruised ego that I spoke of earlier to contend with.
Vickers chose Ambrose to a duel, he let the driver of the No. 9 Stanley Ford know just how displeased he was by intentionally wrecking Ambrose under caution on lap 53 and purposely blocking his entrance to pit road. NASCAR won that one by effectively putting Vickers into “time out,” sending his No. 83 machine to the garage for bad behavior. He was allowed to return to the track 68 laps later after thinking long and hard about his actions.
Earnhardt Jr. brawled with Travis Kvapil on lap 152 by giving him a taste of his own medicine. Kvapil made contact with Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Amp Chevrolet earlier in the race and it was now time for some payback by sending Kvapil’s No. 38 Ford into the turn two wall.  Earnhardt Jr., who was a lap down, may have thought he’d win that battle by getting the free pass to get back on the lead lap, but NASCAR saw differently. Since Earnhardt Jr. was involved in the incident that brought out the caution he was awarded the “unlucky dog” pass and stayed a lap down.
Like Kahne before him, Paul Menard took his chance with the wall on lap 172. Once again the wall reigned victorious, sending he and his No. 27 Menards Chevrolet to the garage and ending any hopes of making the Chase.
Kurt Busch started a feud with Jimmie Johnson on lap 185 that would prove to be an all night thing. Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet spun in turn two after making contact with Busch. On lap 246 the pair brought out the 11th caution of the night, Johnson in what looked to be a payback attempt, bumped Busch’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge sending Busch into a spin on turn two. Busch avoided contact with the wall and won the war, as Johnson’s so-called revenge was not so sweet after all, as his car spun out of control and hit the wall, sending him to the garage for repair. 33 laps later Johnson returned to the track on lap 278 and to Busch’s rear bumper by lap 283. However, no further contact was made between he two.
Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. fought the odds of making the Chase in their busted up racecars in the 392 laps that followed their crash on lap eight, but in the end proved triumphant. They earned they way into the Chase the hard way and victory never tasted sweeter as the two were all smiles in the Media Center. Hamlin maintained his streak of making it into every Chase since his full time Sprint Cup career began in 2006 and Earnhardt Jr. affirmed that he’s still got it and proved his naysayers wrong by making it back into the Chase after a two year hiatus.
Tony Stewart, the third hopeful to make the Chase, did so quietly and consistently, clinching his spot on lap 103.  Surprisingly, Stewart fought with no one, on of off the track in Richmond.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Paying Tribute to 9/11: NASCAR, Richmond International Raceway and Fans Get it Right

On Saturday, Sept. 10th, I spent my entire day at Richmond International Raceway. I literally went from tailgate to trackside, something that I’d never done before, something that I’d never even thought to attempt. It’s always been one or the other, fan or journalist, but never both. I generally make the trek from Washington DC to Richmond on my own and do my job from the confines of the media center and infield. I have not seen a race from the stands or mingled in the crowd in over three years.
CIA Stock Photo
This weekend was different though, as we all know, this race fell on the same weekend of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. For many this was more than just your average race day, this was a time to also reflect and pay tribute to those we lost in those terrible attacks a decade ago. So, when several of my coworkers expressed interest in going to the race, I changed my normal routine to give them the best race day experience they could hope for.  For many of them this would be their first experience with NASCAR. I wanted them to be hooked, to feel what I felt at my first race, I wanted them to want to come back for more. 
We arrived at the track at 10am and staked our ground by parking six vehicles to form a virtual square. In the center we set up tents, tarps, tables, chairs and grills. We strategically placed the coolers, cranked up the CD player and even hooked up a flat-screen TV complete with aDirecTv dish in the back of an SUV to catch some College football before heading into the track. The perfect setup for the ultimate tailgating party. There were 16 of us in total. We varied in age, gender and race to form a perfect little melting pot. You see, we are more than just mere coworkers, we are also great friends. Anyone who has had the opportunity to attend a race knows that you may come with the friends you know, but you leave a race with even more. A NASCAR race is the perfect setting to hang out with thousands of the closest friends you never knew you had. 
We ate until we felt that it was impossible to take another bite and then we ate some more. We played cornhole and ladder-ball. Some relived their college days by playing competitive Flip Cup and Beer Pong. Some watched Virginia Tech beat East Carolina from the bumper of a Chevy Trailblazer, while others laid in the sun, just soaking it all in. We mingled and met new people. We shared our stories with them and they with us. After several hours of hanging out next to our crazy brood, a gentleman with his own large group of friends finally mustered up the courage to ask just how in the world a group like us came to be at a NASCAR race together. “I don’t mean this to sound rude or disrespectful by any means, but I’ve been trying to figure out what your connection is with each other other,” he said. “I’m looking at you and you’re from all walks of life, it is an interesting combination of people you’ve got here.” I hadn’t given it any thought until he said something, but by looking at us we did look a bit like a United Colors of Benneton ad. 
I told him that we all worked together. He questioned what it was that we could possibly do that would accommodate all of the varying personality types. I explained that we were all healthcare providers that worked in the Emergency Department in the suburbs of the Washington DC metropolitan area. It’s funny when you say that to someone because you can actually see when the light comes on, that moment that it suddenly makes sense. The moment that they think “Oh man, they work in the ER, that explains the craziness!” It’s true, one has to be a little crazy to do the jobs that we do. We’re made up of Nurses, Paramedics EMTs, Registration Clerks and medical school students. In any other world, in any other profession who knows if we would have made a friendship connection, but in our world it just makes sense.
We know what it’s like to see the worst of the worst. We all had our own 9/11 stories to tell, what we went through and experienced not only from a personal point of view but from a medical one as well. Many of us waited on that day in 2001 to help victims that would never arrive. We share a unique perspective of that day. We were at the track this weekend not only to watch what would turn out to be one of the best races of the year but to commemorate an anniversary of a day that everything changed and will never be forgotten. A day that for many of us was the worst day of our lives.
I listened to countless stories on Saturday of where people were, what they were doing and how they reacted. Sometimes you can’t remember what you ate for breakfast but everybody vividly remembers exactly where they were ten years ago today. On Friday I listened to drivers being asked the same question, each of them had a story to tell, each of them a little different than the next. It is easy to forget at times that NASCAR drivers are “people too.” Their larger than life personas that play out on our television screens weekly affect our way of thinking, but under their flashy firesuits and fast cars there is someone that we can genuinely relate to. Our so-called racecar driving heroes have heroes too. 
On the last race of the regular season, on a night that sets the Chase and makes for huge headlines in the sporting world, drivers respectively took a backseat to the memory of the 343 New York firefighters who lost their lives, not in the name of heroics, but simply because they were “doing their jobs,” to the 184 souls killed at the Pentagon, to the 33 passengers and seven crew members on Flight 93 who bravely gave their own lives in an attempt to stop the hijackers from crashing into another building, to all 2977 innocent lives lost and to to the families left behind and to the servicemen who fight everyday for our freedom and protection.
NASCAR not only said “I will,” they united and delivered. Then asked the question, “Will you?”
As I made my way from the parking lot to the infield before the start of the race and was handed a tiny American Flag, I knew the answer to that question. I along with over 100,000 others that night at the track said a resounding “Yes!” The pre-race ceremony was like none I’d ever witnessed before. It was emotional and gracious. Crowds cheered when former Mayor Mayor Giuliani appeared on the video scoring tower screens to offer his appreciation, tears were shed as New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez sang “God Bless America” and respect was given to wounded warriors, USMC Corporal Todd Nicely and US Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. Flags waved in unison in the stands as fans and broadcasters paused for a moment of silence between laps nine and eleven. It was patriotism at it’s finest. 
I left the track at 1am, some 15 hours after I arrived. Exhaustion was beginning to set in as I made my way to my car. Something on the ground caught my eye, a cutout of a yellow star mixed in with celebratory confetti that littered the infield. I instinctively picked it up and was holding it in my hand when it occurred to me that it was now officially Sept. 11th. I reflected for a moment on the events of the day, the race had been one heck of a wild ride, arguably one of the best of the season, but it was more than that. Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR and the fans got it right on a day, 10 years ago that was filled with such wrong.
NASCAR will never forget and neither shall we.

As Expected, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Hamlin All Make the Chase, But Went Through Hell to Get There

The day started off well, beautiful blue sunny skies complimented an emotional tribute to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which included a planned moment of silence from laps nine through 11 to honor the victims, survivors and those who served in response to the attacks. Danny Rodriguez, the “singing New York City policeman sang “God Bless America, the 29th Infantry Division Band played the National Anthem and R. Lee Ermey, retired US Marine, Actor and Wonderful Pistachios spokesman gave the command, “Drivers let’s get crackin! Drivers, start your engines!”
CIA Stock Photo
The cars rolled off the track at 7:46 pm and Wonderful Pistachios 400 began with three warm-up laps behind the pace car before Pole Sitter, David Reutimann brought the field to green. That’s where things started to get a little weird. Jaime McMurray quickly took over the lead, followed by Jimmie Johnson who then stole Reuity’s second place position.
Then came lap two where all hell just broke loose and never stopped.
The first caution of the night flew on lap two after Andy Lally got into the wall. No one hit pit road except Mike Bliss because well, the race just started ¾ miles earlier. McMurray led the field to green on lap six, with Johnson, Reutimann, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer rounding up the top-five.
And then bam, another caution just two laps later after Bowyer and Reutimann got together in turn four, spinning Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy and collecting Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Scott Speed , Robby Gordon,  Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. Casey Mears, Marcos Ambrose, , David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil.
Seriously? Seriously! Two of the three hopefuls to make the Chase involved in a wreck! Gasps could be heard track wide as hearts immediately sank and speculation began. Could NASCAR’s most popular driver Earnhardt Jr. and his crew bandage his broken racecar enough to get him a 20th place finish? How about Richmond’s hometown boy Hamlin? Did he even stand a chance or we’re all hopes dashed at that very moment?
Both drivers took to pit road on lap 12. Hamlin for front and left sided damage, Earnhardt Jr. for serious front-end damage. Junior was back on pit road on lap 13, as were Kenseth, Truex and Mears. On lap 14 Hamlin went a lap down for an extended pit stop.
Lap 15 saw crash victims, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth, Truex and Bowyer back on pit road for repair. Lap 16 brought Kenseth back again and Hamlin with his hood up; possibly dashing his chances of making the Chase.  Lap 17 brought back Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth and Hamlin once more on lap 18.
The green flag flew on lap 19 with McMurray in the lead, only to be taken over by Johnson on lap 20, but Kasey Kahne shook things up after a hard hit in turn two bringing out caution number three. The green flag waved four laps later with Johnson leading the pack.
Yellow flag number four flew on lap 37 after Earnhardt Jr. got into the back of Marco Ambrose, crashing him in the backstretch. Hamlin was the “lucky dog” putting the No. 11 Toyota back on the lead lap. At lap 40 both Ambrose and Hamlin were on pit road. Johnson once again led the field to green on lap 43.
Lap 51 brought out the fifth caution of the night and ended Kahne’s night after wrecking into the outside and inside wall. Kahne was three-wide with teammate Brian Vickers and Ambrose when Kahne and Vickers got together.  Vickers expressed his displeasure with Ambrose on lap 53 by intentionally wrecking him under caution by slamming Ambrose’s No .9 Ford and blocking his entrance to pit road with his No. 83 Toyota. Vickers is told by NASCAR to park his Red Bull machine in the garage until further notice.
Kenseth stayed out on the track and took the lead on lap 61 before the restart. Lap 69 brought an unexpected pit stop for Kyle Busch, who thought he had a loose wheel, putting him a lap down and in the 33rd position. Harvick took over the lead position on lap 73 and by lap 93 was closing in on a 28th place Earnhardt Jr, about to put the No. 88 Chevy a lap down. Three laps later Harvick made that happen.

On lap 103 Tony Stewart quietly clinched his place in the Chase by riding in the 13th position. Earnhardt Jr. sits in 10th place but just 12 points ahead of Keselowski. Mike Bliss brings of the yellow flag for the sixth time on lap 116, nailing the wall in turn two after a tire goes down.
Vickers returned to the track on lap 120 after sitting in the garage for 68 laps. Harvick led the green flag restart on lap 122. Earnhardt Jr. delivered some earlier payback to Travis Kvapil on lap 152 sending him into the wall in turn two and bringing out the seventh caution of the evening. NASCAR deems Earnhardt Jr. responsible for the accident and did not grant him the free pass to get back onto the lead lap.
New leader Greg Biffle led the field to green on lap 160 but of course that was short lived because in just two short laps later as Harvick was passing the Biff on the frontstretch, you guessed it another caution! Landon Cassill spun on the frontstretch and the yellow flag flew for the eighth time. Earnhardt Jr. is the “lucky dog” for the second time. Harvick led the pack out again on lap 168.
History repeated itself again and again. Caution came out again on lap 172 as Paul Menard made hard contact with the wall and sent to the garage, ending his hopes to make the Chase. In a separate incident on the same lap, Regan Smith spun out but was able to keep it off the wall. Lap 185 we saw yellow again for the 10th time as Johnson spun in turn two after making contact with Kurt Busch. Montoya’s No. 42 Chevy was also involved.
Harvick once again led the field to green on lap 190 with Edwards in second, looking for a dog fight and overtook the lead on lap 201. By lap 224 it was looking a little bleak for Earnhardt Jr. has he rode in the 24th position and Keselowski took over the second spot, threatening to move from his Wild Card place in the Chase to a legit top 10, which in effect would have ended Earnhardt’s chances of making the Chase.
Edwards in the meantime is pecking off drivers one by one, putting Ambrose a lap down at 237 and Earnhardt Jr. down again at 242. But hey, guess what? Another caution came out on lap 246, number 11, after Johnson and Kurt Busch got together again in turn two. Busch spun out, Johnson hit the wall and sent the No. 48 Chevy to the garage. Earnhardt Jr. got lucky for the third time and got the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Green flag flew on lap 253 with Edwards in the lead.
And then something magical happened, the race made it 30 laps without incident, but on lap 284 Jeff Burton spun in turn three, slamming into the wall. It happened again on lap 296 for the 13th time as it’s Ambrose’s turn to take a spin. On lap 297 Joey Logano’s engine blew, forcing him to the garage. Edwards lead the field again on lap 301 as the race went green.
Eight laps later, yep, another caution, we’re up to 14 folks! Reutimann sustained heavy damage after contact with Bowyer and sending him into the wall. Lap 313 Edwards led the field again. Feels a little like “Groundhog Day” doesn’t it?  Harvick stole the lead from Edwards on lap 314 and it went down hill from there for him as he started to slip back in the pack and then on lap 355 was told that he would be ten laps short on fuel.
Harvick fights to keep the lead as Jeff Gordon makes a hard charge for first place on lap 366. Gordon makes the pass on lap 378 and took over the lead. Earnhardt Jr. went a lap down at 381…again. Just when we thought we’d make it to the end without another caution…surprise! Caution 15 came out on lap 384 as Menard, who returned to the track on lap 254, 79 laps down, spun on the frontstretch and with that, Earnhardt Jr. got lucky once again with the free pass.
Harvick won the race off of pit road, with Edwards, Gordon and Kyle Busch holding up the rear. Harvick held Edwards off to the finish line and won this emotional, roller coaster of a race in what felt like a fairy tale ending, everything fell into place exactly as predicted. Despite the many hardships that each of the drivers endured during the Wonderful Pistachios 400, some more than other; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin made the Sprint Cup Chase and we all lived happily ever after.
Earnhardt Jr. moved up to 17th position at lap 327, enough to lock him into the Chase.
Unofficial Race Results
Wonderful Pistachios 400, Richmond International Raceway
1729Kevin HarvickChevrolet48
2899Carl EdwardsFord43
31724Jeff GordonChevrolet42
4206David RaganFord40
51122Kurt BuschDodge40
61318Kyle BuschToyota39
72214Tony StewartChevrolet37
81839Ryan NewmanChevrolet36
92811Denny HamlinToyota35
1045Mark MartinChevrolet34
11943A.J. AllmendingerFord33
12192Brad KeselowskiDodge32
131416Greg BiffleFord32
1421Jamie McMurrayChevrolet31
151042Juan MontoyaChevrolet29
162788Dale Earnhardt Jr.Chevrolet28
173013Casey MearsToyota27
182378Regan SmithChevrolet26
1934135Dave BlaneyChevrolet25
203247Bobby LabonteToyota24
21339Marcos AmbroseFord23
22533Clint BowyerChevrolet22
232517Matt KensethFord22
244036Stephen LeichtChevrolet20
252151Landon CassillChevrolet0
2610David ReutimannToyota18
273634David GillilandFord17
283538Travis KvapilFord0
29631Jeff BurtonChevrolet15
302956Martin Truex Jr.Toyota14
31348Jimmie JohnsonChevrolet14
323871Andy Lally *Ford12
332483Brian VickersToyota11
341527Paul MenardChevrolet10
351620Joey LoganoToyota9
364232Mike BlissFord0
37377Robby GordonDodge7
38124Kasey KahneToyota6
393166Michael McDowellToyota5
402630David StremmeChevrolet4
413987Joe NemechekToyota0
424355J.J. YeleyFord2
434146Scott SpeedFord0