Monday, April 24, 2006

Got Fuel?

I like Phoenix International Raceway. I like the shorter tracks in general, because, in NASCAR Cup racing, at least, that is where the real oval racing happens. Forget Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Chicago--those tracks are redundant. Dover, Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Louden, and Phoenix are all shorter than 1.5 miles and are all unique.
Okay, so my top ten picks were messed up, but it did look pretty good at the start--most of my picks had qualified to start in the top ten. There will be those who want to call the #20 team “cheaters,” but the team paid the penalty, with Smoke’s blessing, and it is still unclear how Goodyear got the team’s qualifying tires and destroyed them. “It was fair,” said Stewart in a post-race interview, “we didn’t have the right tires on the car, and NASCAR sent us to the back, as they should have.”
There were some who doubted that Stewart could make his way to the front, after starting at the very tail end of the field. In fact, in a Cingular “Virtual Crew Chief” poll (telephone poll?), 75% of the respondents voted “no,” that he would not make it to the front. Sheesh! Somebody hasn’t been watching. I had no doubts that Tony would make it to the front. He has been pretty consistent during his entire career in showing his ability to come up through the field. That is one of the reasons I am a Stewart fan; he is the best. Even those who hate Stewart should be able to see that.
I was every bit as thrilled by Bobby Labonte’s performance as I was about Stewart’s march to the front. Petty Enterprises and Labonte indeed made a mutually effective move this year. Bobby Labonte is a winner, and his performance at Phoenix is a harbinger that he will show what a winner he is. I am happy that Bobby seems to be back.
On the other hand, another driver I hope to see do well seems to have his worst luck come at the most inopportune times. Robby Gordon experienced engine failure and was out of the race before it was a third of the way done. He had hoped to remedy the same problem that had plagued him seven times last year by switching from Menard engines to DEI engines, but bad luck is bad luck.
There will be plenty of other writers picking on the Shrub for behavior that should be expected of him. I won’t do that; he did receive a five lap penalty for running into another car during the red flag, but I will express my admiration and respect for the way his crew chief, Alan Gustafason, stepped in and made a statement on behalf of the team. I will also state my agreement with Speed TV’s Robin Miller, whom I rarely agree with, that the Busch brothers should play out their chosen roles to the fullest--they should start wearing black, use dark visors, maybe wear an eye patch, and flip off the fans while they are getting booed. Bad guys always help NASCAR.
Once again, NASCAR’s infamous inconsistency confused the crew chiefs near the end of the race. I’m being somewhat facetious here, but I really think the teams were expecting the usual “debris” caution with ten or fewer laps left. As a result, nearly every team gambled on fuel mileage, and the race ended with everybody low on fuel. Mark Martin had the car to beat at the end, buy ran dry with one lap to go.
Actually, the question of fuel mileage helped make the finish quite exciting--it wasn’t a matter of one or two cars being out of sequence on pit stops and refueling, but fuel conservation effected the driving style of every driver in the front of the field.
Congratulations to Kevin Harvick and RCR. It is good to see him back in his winning ways, and, perhaps, RCR on its way to return to its old glory.
On a final note, there is something about watching the race at Phoenix that saddens me. I can’t help but to remember another 1 mile d-shaped oval, Pike’s Peak International Raceway. Since 1998, that excellent circuit had been a large part of my life. The Busch Series race there was something for me to look forward to every year. I believe ISC was very short sighted and ignorant when they decided to buy the track and tear it down.The money for seat expansion, parking expansion, and better access and egress was already in place, and approved by both the county and city governments. Apparently, ISC had planned to build a track near Denver, at the site of the old Stapleton International Airport in Aurora. Of course that plan was turned down, and Colorado is without a major NASCAR track. I really miss PPIR.

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