Friday, February 13, 2009

Duel of Dreams

Thirty-seven days ago, legendary NASCAR crew chief Tommy Baldwin saw an opportunity and siezed it. Team owner Bill Davis had liquidated his interest in the team that bore his name, and left behind a Toyota racing chassis or two and a seasoned race team. Baldwin decided the time was right to have another go at fielding his own team. He had a sponsor, and his driver would be Scott Riggs, who was displaced by the Stewart-Haas deal.

Jeremy Mayfield had gone all of 2008 without a ride. He was left out of the unprecedented silly season action that took place throughout all of 2008 and the first month of 2009. With 23 days to go until the Daytona 500, Mayfield decided to take the bull by the horns and start his own team. He gathered what he could of the recently unemployed victims of cutbacks from other teams, squared his shoulders, and entered the fray.

AJ Allmendinger had a ride, then he didn't, then he did, and then things became unsure. Nobody in the garage area can argue that the former Champ car star isn't Cup material. Even the King, Richard Petty, has declared that Allmendinger "gets it."

Allmendinger's agreement to drive for Richard Petty Motorsports didn't even become official until February 2, when it was announced that he would drive the #44 car for RPM for at least eight races, with hopes that a full sponsorship would come with whatever successes the team can produce. Making the starting lineup for the Daytona 500 would be an important success, but AJ would have to race his way in.

The Daytona 500 is the only race on the Cup schedule that has preliminary qualifying races. The Gatorade Duels are two 150 mile races that place the drivers in their starting grid positions (outside the front row, which is determined by time trials) and give those who didn't qualify on time a chance to race their way into the race. After the top 35 cars in owners points,. and the four drivers who qualified on time filled the grid to 39 drivers, there were still fourteen drivers who had to race for the final four spots in the field. It would take not only skill to overcome the odds of missing the race, but also some luck and a lot of guts and determination.

In the first race of the Duels, Tony Stewart and Bill Elliott were the "Go or Go Homers" who had guaranteed themselves a spot in the Big Show on qualifying time. If one or both of them were to finish the race ahead of the other go or go homers, then one or two other drivers would be moved in on their times. Scott Riggs was not one of the drivers who would have made the race in that manner--he had no way to the Big Show other than racing his way in.

The #36 Tommy Baldwin team for which Riggs was driving had no regular team members. All of the pit crew and support team were working without pay. Joe Nemecheck was in a similar situation, racing in the #87 Toyota with his own team, and just as determined as Riggs to make the show.

Nemecheck did have a better chance of making the race if both Elliott and Stewart finished in the transfer positions, but Elliott fell back and out of the race for transmission failure, and the rest of the race was pretty much between Nemecheck and Riggs for that final transfer position. Nemecheck had a decent car, and though Riggs would progress as far toward the front as fifth place, at times, he almost always fell back, putting Nemecheck in the transfer position.

At one point during the race, Tony Stewart, who had no actual team mates with whom to partner in the first Duel, dropped back to team with Riggs, perhaps as a gesture of thanks for putting the car that is now Ryan Newman's #39 in the top 35 in owner points. Perhaps it was to make up for replacing him as a driver on the new Stewart-Haas team, or a combination of the two. At any rate, Stewart helped Riggs get back toward the front of the field, where he needed to be. With four laps to go, Riggs restarted in fifth, but fell back toward Nemecheck's car, which was showing improvement after adjustments. Nemecheck found himself poised to pass Riggs in the final laps, but Jamie McMurray, driving to the left of Nemecheck, got loose going into turn one and caused Nemecheck to falter and fall off the pace. Riggs finished in eighth place, giving him, and Tommy Baldwin, his team owner, a spot on Sunday's starting grid.

Tony Stewart's second place finish gave Ragan Smith, who would drive the Furniture Row car in the second Duel, a starting position on qualifying time for Sunday's race. Nemecheck was left hoping and praying that Smith or Travis Kvapil would finish in a transfer position in the second race.

The second Duel was even more dramatic for the go or go homers. Jeremy Mayfield had put his team together using the former BDR "sister" Toyota to the one that Riggs drove in the first Duel. Like Baldwin's team, the crew that had prepared his car and worked his pit were unpaid volunteers from among those who had been laid off from other teams. Mayfield's jack man, working in Kirk Shelmerdine's pit during the first duel, was involved in a pit road accident and had to be taken to the hospital.

Mike Wallace, by all accounts, is one of the hardest drivers to pass in a restrictor plate race, and Boris Said looked like he had one of the transfer spots sewn up, running towards the front for much of the second race. But Said had tire issues later in the race, and the transfer positions were opened to anyone. During pit stops under what would be the final caution of the race, Mayfield's Crew Chief, Tony Furr made the gutsy call of changing two tires rather than four. Mayfield restarted with eight laps to go in the top five, and fell back no further than ninth, giving him a spot on the Daytona 500 grid.

AJ Allmendinger didn't have a deal until February 2, when he signed with Richard Petty Motorsports to drive the #44 car, which, at the time of this writing, is sponsored for only eight races this season. It was very important for Allmendinger to make the Big Show, in hopes of being able to attract more sponsorship in these difficult economic times. But his team could not seem to get the car to handle well, and Allmendinger had troubles for most of the race. Toward the end of the race, his RPM team mates, Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler, dropped back in a magnanimous show of teamwork to pick up the #44 car in the draft and help him towards the front, past a hard driving Mike Wallace. A relieved Allmendinger finished tenth, just behind Mayfield, thus making the starting grid for Sunday's Daytona 500.

For Nemecheck, Said, and Wallace, it was unfortunate heartbreak to not make the show in which they have been mainstays in the past. But for Riggs, Mayfield, and Allmendinger, it was the kind of stuff of which dreams are made.

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