Saturday, July 15, 2006

Getting Loud(on)

New Hampshire International Speedway, Loudon, NH, is what we call a "paper clip." It is basically two quarter-mile drag strips connected at each end by a tight 180 degree turn. Its characteristics make it, inherently, a dangerous track. Kenny Irwin, Jr, a promising young driver, whose career paralleled Tony Stewart's in USAC and Busch Series, was killed in an accident there while testing in 1999. In 2000, at the same spot on the track, the very promising career of Adam Petty was tragically ended.
NASCAR tried to make the track safer, first by requiring restrictor plates on the cars at NHIS in 2001. This resulted in an event that could barely be called a race, which is unmemorable, except I remember it as being very boring.
But, over the next three years, the owners of the track, tweaked the design some, widening the track at the turns, adding some banking, and repaving the track twice, until finally, in 2005, we finally began to see some good racing at Loudon.
Not to say it isn't tricky. Car and throttle control is obviously the key at Loudon, so it is definitely a "driver's race." There will be a lot of beating and banging going on, as there usually is at the tracks of 1 mile or less. At Loudon, unlike the other 1 mile tracks, the cars seem closer together when you have 43 cars racing at the same time, again, because of the shape of the track. Also, as is usual on the shorter tracks, the pit stops must be flawless, and penalties must be avoided at all costs. Stupid mistakes in pit lane result in putting the driver two laps down.

Last week I suggested that Jeff Gordon would do something rash. He did. Now, he has served notice that there will be "no more Mr. Nice Guy." That brings to mind images of Michael Palin driving the steamroller in A Fish Called Wanda, gleefully shouting "Revenge! Revenge!"
If it were anyone else, we could assume that Mr. Gordon is, in the tradition of Curtis Turner, Darryl Waltrip and Tony Stewart, talking up the race, getting the fans fired up. Jeff, who has known no other life but racing since the age of five, is not that deep, though, and what he says should be taken at face value. What does that mean? Brilliant a driver as Gordon is, expect him to run into trouble at Loudon. The other drivers have heard him, and have replied, "Bring it!" It should be pretty interesting.

With that in mind, I will proceed to my drivers' picks. I think it will be a good race, with plenty of action. Competition is at its best this year, and every driver will be out there trying to win. For what its worth, I will venture that Jeff Gordon has a very good chance of winning the race, but there are at least five other drivers who have just as much a chance. One is probably still angry with the aforementioned Mr. Gordon, and another one climbed the flag stand at Loudon last year, in celebration of his second victory at that track. I will stick to honoring my superstitions, and not mention the name of one of these drivers, but those who follow racing know that I'm talking about the driver of the DeWalt car. The fence climber, of course, is my favorite driver, Tony Stewart. Roush Racing, the team for which the DeWalt driver races, doesn't really have a strong short track program, but this driver has proven himself, time and time again, to be a strong all-around driver. He can handle almost any situation on any track. Odds are, that if there hadn't been lapped traffic to the outside last week, when Gordon pushed him, he would have been able to save his car from spinning, and all that controversy over the bump and dump would be moot. So great is his skill--don't forget that he is the 2003 Winston Cup Champion--that he should be considered an equal, at least, to Gordon and Stewart. In fact, with his penchant for holding back patiently, and taking each opportunity as it comes, his style is very reminiscent of a driver rightly considered to be one of the all time greats, David Pearson.
Look for another interesting encounter between this guy and Mr. Gordon this week.

To watch Tony Stewart at Loudon is to watch a master at work. That is, if he doesn't have technical difficulties. He has never lost a race, or finished out of the top ten at this track due to lack of skill. He takes the turns as if he were driving a USAC Midget or Sprint car on dirt, entering fast, using the curb to bump his car out, and swinging the tail of his car around just enough to get a straight-line exit for acceleration out of the corner. When there is no traffic in the way, this is the exact technique, which has helped Smoke to two victories at NHIS, and many more top ten finishes. As I have posted before, it's Tony Time, the period of the season in which the races are run on tracks at which Stewart has had much success. If he can sidestep the threatened acts of revenge from Mr. Gordon, if he can avoid bad luck, and if his pit stops go well, he will win this race.

The technically flat turns at Loudon tend to favor the drivers with dirt experience. The man who qualified with the fastest time, Ryan Newman, definitely has that experience. It is difficult to pass on this track, not because it doesn't have the grooves--it does--but because it is so crowded, with two-by-two racing all around the track. Newman is a very steady driver, very hard to spin, and, just to mention, is very hungry for a win. If he takes the lead, it will be difficult to take it away from him on the track. There will be some interesting pit strategies to try to beat the #12 car in other ways.

Hendrick Motorsports, like Roush Racing, does not have a real short track program, but there are individuals on the Hendrick team who have short track skill. I already mentioned Mr. Gordon, perhaps too many times for my own liking, but his team mate, Kyle "The Shrub" Busch, is a pretty good example of both short track and dirt track skill. Theoretically, he should be a favorite to win. Like him or not, The Shrub is a natural, and he loves to show off that ability, and to show up other drivers, team mate or not. Kyle Busch has a big future ahead of him--though he will probably remain a "villain," in the eyes of the fans--he can live up to his talent. Ever improving, never losing his ability to learn from his mistakes, he is certainly a contender for a championship. His downfall at NHIS, however, may be lack of Cup experience coupled with his hard-to-swallow attitude. That attitude often gets him in trouble, if not with other drivers, with his own car.

We have to consider Jeff Burton to be a potential winner of Sunday's race. If you want to see pure determination and talent in persona, look at Burton. His move to Richard Childress Racing, from Hendrick Motorsports, last year, is one of the most beneficial personnel changes of all time, and the old competitive Burton is back. Safely holding the third spot in the current drivers' points standings, Burton has shown that he is still a force to be reckoned with. It is not a question for him of being able to avoid accidents; he is usually very good at that, as long as it doesn't come from behind. We wouldn't be unhappy to see him come out of Sunday's race holding the checkered flag.

Of course, there are several other drivers who may finish up front. Past winners, like Joe Nemechek have a good chance. Bound and determined, talented drivers like Robby Gordon could also see the checkers. Denny Hamlin always should be considered a potential winner. In addition, we should never discount Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Kurt Busch, or Kasey Kahne on the short tracks. I won't go into more detail here, but these guys will hold our interest in this race.

In summation, I will use a metaphor from a South Park episode. If the Jeff Gordon smug combines with the smug from Ryan Newman, and/or one or both of the Busch brothers, we could be in for a terrible storm. (For those who don't watch South Park, "smug" is a play on "smog," and appears as an angry dark cloud.) But, if the drivers can keep their heads, which is hard to do in a short track race, it should be one of the best races of this great season.

So, with hopes that nothing terrible happens, and wishing each of every race fan's personal favorite driver "good luck," we shall look forward to a challenging, interesting, and, hopefully, exciting race.

1 comment:

Babs said...

Oooo... wouldn't it be cool to see Robby win? Not too likely, but it could happen.