Monday, June 22, 2009

On Type Delay: Infinion (Sears Point)

My good friend Debbie once told me that, back in 1996, while PPIR was under construction, she snuck her Kia into the facility and ran a few laps around the track. I believed her, because if there was an ultimate NASCAR fan, that was Debbie. When we went to races at Pike's Peak, she would sneak through the gate into the garage area and, once, into the pit area while the race was in progress. She always wanted to be as close to the action as possible. So yeah, if she said she drove her Kia around the track, she probably did.

If I could take a car of my own around any NASCAR track, my choice would be the 1972 Dodge Charger Special Edition R/T I used to have, and the track would be Sears Point (aka Infineon). I imagine the thrill of going up that hill to turn 2, whipping around turn 3a, and leaving my stomach behind as I race down the drop to turn 4 (there are turns 3, 5, and 6, but those bypass turns 4 and 7 and aren't used for NASCAR) . A touch on the brake, downshift, brake downshift and around the 90 degree right turn, then floor it to turn 7. Downshift again, around the sharp turn with the right wheels on the curb to get a straight exit to the esses of turns 8 and 9. Take some G's going around the short turn ten, but don't go in too hot, or you find yourself off the track, like Scott Speed did during qualifying. Another straightaway, then slow wa-a-y down for the 180 degree hairpin of turn 11. A short left turn and then across the start/finish line. What a thrill.

I get a thrill just watching the race. At the drop of the green flag, 43 colorful cars, sometimes going three wide into the first turn, and then trying to get in line before entering the narrow turn two--four stories higher than turn 1--is a sight of great beauty. One has to marvel at the skills of these drivers in avoiding wrecks before the first lap is finished.

The TNT broadcast crew sounded confused most of the time in trying to describe the racing action--probably more the fault of the producers who are constantly talking in their ear than the actual commentators--so I won't make the same mistake by trying to describe the racing action here. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of action on every lap, with cars spinning at one point or another, being pushed off the track by other cars, or just leaving the track on their own.There are cars going three wide where there should only be two, and somehow everybody gets around the track with little more than a few minor dents and dings. Formula 1 and Indy cars can't race like this, so this race is a grand tribute to bumpers and fenders.

The double file restarts, in place of what used to be all single file restarts on road courses, add greatly to the excitement, and we get to see re-creations of the initial green flag after every caution. The lack of the abilities of Webber, Petty, and Dallenbach to call a decent play by play is made up for by the excellent camera work and video technology for which TNT deserves glowing reviews. While watching the race leaders trying to gain advantage around turn four, we can see the trouble cars back in the pack are having back in turn two. It's about as close as one can get to being there while watching on television.

As we get to the meat of the matter, after the final pit stops have been completed and all the fuel strategy is over with, the cream rises to the top, and we get the thrill of seeing the best road course racers NASCAR has to offer compete against each other with no holds barred. Kasey Kahne, who has yet to finish in the top ten on a road course, takes the lead out of the final pit stop. Tony Stewart, who has proven himself a road course ace time after time restarts beside him, on the outside lane. Juan Pablo Montoya, who has proven himself to be of championship caliber on all sorts of tracks this year, is there, as is Jimmie Johnson, who has beaten and banged his way back to the front after a pit road speeding penalty. Denny Hamlin has proven himself a contender on this day by staying in or near the top five during the entire race. And Marcos Ambrose, who started the race in the very last position, has joined the fray.

Kahne gets a great restart, and Stewart has to fight hard to keep his position going around turn two, but he maintains. Montoya is wonderfully aggressive as he pokes the nose of his car under Johnson's and takes third. But Ambrose is just as aggressive, and looks very much like he is out to win. While we are watching this excellent road course racing, we get comic relief from the booth bunnies with a dialogue that could have come from a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic book.

"Jimmie Johnson is the cleanest driver in NASCAR"
"Yeah, he's clean."
"Real clean."
"He almost wrecked Ambrose, but that was clean"
"Yeah, it was clean."
"Yeah, the cleanest driver in NASCAR."

I don't think they even believed what they were saying, but apparently the TNT producers don't want the defending champ to be portrayed as someone who would do anything he can to win a race.

Another caution and another restart. Kahne prevails against Stewart again. Further back in the pack, Boris Said is acting like a spoiled brat throwing a temper tantrum, and wrecking any car that comes near him. It's Captain Saidhead, the Avenger of the Smashed Guitar, as he takes out Kyle Busch.

Caution again and yet another opportunity for one of those great double file restarts. Kahne once again beats Stewart through turn two, and Stewart once again has to hold off the determined Juan Pablo Montoya, and Montoya has the hard driving Aussie to contend with as Ambrose eventually takes third place from him. Kahne, who isn't known as a road course racer is having no trouble keeping the lead. The Freak Brothers note that both Kahne and Stewart were USAC dirt track aces, and therefore have no problem sliding around on old tires. They are, indeed, having the time of their lives, and Ambrose can match their speed, but can't catch them. Near the back of the field, Said takes out some more cars and we will have a green/white/checker finish, with yet another double file restart. Kahne gets the jump, Stewart maintains second. With less than two laps to go, three cars spin near the back of the pack, but if they can get moving again a caution can be avoided. They get moving, and Kahne takes the white flag. Stewart has nothing for Kahne, and Ambrose can do nothing but hold third place, so Kasey Kahne wins, and gains the first victory for a team bearing Richard Petty's name in ten years.

It is a great day for Kasey Kahne, a great day for Dodge--who can't and doesn't have to pay the support fees that allow the use of their name--and a great day for Richard Petty Motorsports, who recently had to lay off over a hundred employees due to lack of support fees from Dodge. I guess it was a good day for the comedy writers who run the production booth, as well, because we have never before heard such inane commentary.

NASCAR Cup only has two road course races on its schedule, but we have to say that the Cup Series provides us with the finest road course racing in motorsports. We got to see some of that at Infineon, Sunday, and we hope to see more in a few weeks at Watkins Glen. The double file restarts added even more to the excitement, and we have to say that we believe that is absolutely the best rule change NASCAR has made in recent years.

On to New Hampshire.

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