Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Type Delay: The Brickyard 400

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is so big, that even if the stands are only half full, there are still 125,000 fans attending. To put things in perspective, for Sunday's Brickyard 400,. the stands were only half full, but there were still enough fans in attendence to nearly double the amount of fans at a Chicago Cubs game.

Of course last year's NASCAR version of Formula 1's 2005 US Gran Prix "Tiregate" made many fans cold to stock car racing at IMS, or else there would have been a few more in the stands. Or maybe not. Due to the state of the economy at this time, many people who would have been there probably had other priorities, and just didn't have the money to attend.

At any rate, there is always a lot of pre-race hype whenever there is a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which turned 100 this year. There is a lot of work for NASCAR and Goodyear to do to regain the confidence of race fans in that the disaster of last year can be left behind. And the tires were what all the pre-race hype was all about this year. Driver after driver, and many crew chiefs were interviewed on the subject, and all had high praise for what Goodyear has done to improve the tires. They even ventured that Goodyear's research on tire development because of last year's fiasco could improve racing overall.

It's cool that they are broadcasting the driver introductions. Dale Earnhardt, Jr gets the loudest cheers, followed by Bill Elliot and Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson gets cheered more loudly than does Jeff Gordon, who claims Indiana as his home state. Interesting. Near silence for Sam Hornish, Jr, who is an Indianapolis 500 winner and three time IRL champion. There don't seem to be many open wheel fans at IMS today.

So we put last year behind us as the race begins and before the first lap is finished, Robby Gordon spins out and the race is under caution. Elliott Sadler's car is smoking, and black flagged. Martin is officially scored as the race leader and restarts the field on lap five.

Martin's car gets a little loose on the restart, and Montoya passes him for the lead. Dale Earnhardt, Jr moves into second, but Martin regains that position a few laps later.

This is a good indication that the changes made on behalf of Junior a few weeks ago may be paying off. While Montoya checks out on the rest of the field, Junior is able to stay in or near the top five. This is the best we've seen the #88 car perform all season.

Green flag pit stops begin on lap 30. Everybody takes four tires and fuel. Kurt Busch has to return to the pits for a loose wheel, and falls back to 35th position, one lap down. After all the pits stops are completed, Montoya maintains the lead by a little over two seconds.

On lap 45, it looks like Denny Hamlin is out of the race, for all practical purposes, with a broken drive shaft.

On lap 59 the caution flies after Kyle Busch loses a right front tire and hits the wall. He takes his car to the garage. We are witnessing a tranformation in the works as Kyle is interviewed while they are working on his car. The kid is trying to improve his image, and if he keeps it up, he just may do that. It is always interesting to watch a driver mature before our eyes, and is just another good reason to be a NASCAR fan.

Restart on lap 63, with Montoya still in the lead. Mark Martin is second, followed by Brian Vickers, Greg Biffle, and Jimmie Johnson. Tony Stewart is sixth, and after the green flag waves, gets into a great race for fifth with Johnson that lasts for several laps. It's too bad we can't see that battle as it continues. It makes us wish TNT was still carrying the broadcast race coverage.

The battle for fifth between Stewart and Johnson continues until green flag pit stops begin on lap 90. After the pit stops cycle through, Montoya leads Martin by five and a half seconds. Brian Vickers is third, Jimmie Johnson is fourth, and Tony Stewart is fifth. Now a battle for third ensues between Vickers and Johnson. Stewart is playing it safe, holding his position and enjoying the view of the racing in front of him, as he saves fuel and his car.

Why do we want to watch a race that is basically a single file parade? My reason is that there is still a lot that can happen. Since the middle of the 1950's, NASCAR at the Grand National (Cup) level has been as much about endurance and stamina as it has been about racing, with all the 400 and 500 mile races on its schedule. Anything can happen. There could, for instance be another caution, and with the lead lap double file restart, the top positions could be shaken up. Or something else can happen, like the race leader getting a pass through penalty for speeding on pit road.

And that is what happens. Montoya enjoys a routine pit stop, which should be the last of the race, on lap 126, and gets cited for speeding on pit road. This means he will have to serve a pass through penalty. Although I'm not much for conspiracy theories, those fans who subscribe to the Hendrick Conspiracy will have a heyday with this. Does anyone actually use the word "heyday" anymore? And what does it actually mean?

Oh, my, on lap 128, Dale Earnhardt, Jr's engine literally explodes as he is making his entrance to the pits. This is very sad as Junior has been running mostly in the top seven all day, having a great race day. Now it appears that Teresa Earnhardt has had access to the Hendrick garage is has been sabotaging engines again, or maybe it's Tony Eury, Jr--who is still a Hendrick employee, but secretly still works for Teresa--has been doing her dirty work for her.

Okay, I'm just making things up, but the demise of Junior's engine will provide even more fodder for the conspiracy theorists. Junior says he might have let the clutch slip as he was down shifting and over-revved the engine.

It takes a while to clean up the oil spilled from the engine of the 88 car, and pit road is closed. The restart finally comes on lap 137. Mark Martin is in the lead, Johnson second, Greg Biffle is third, Tony Stewart fourth, and Brian Vickers is fifth. Montoya restarts in twelfth. Johnson quickly gets by Martin and takes the lead.

With four laps to go, Johnson is negotiating lapped traffic, and Martin is catching him. This could be a great finish. Martin will not let up, so Johnson can't let up. This final laps race was worth waiting for. With one lap to go Martin has caught Johnson several times, especially coming out of turn two, but Johnson has held him off every time. Martin has one more chance coming out of turn two of the final lap. Johnson holds on to the lead, and becomes the first driver to kiss the bricks two years in a row.

There was a great battle for third between Biffle and Stewart during that final lap, but we didn't get to see it because ESPN isn't TNT. Stewart prevailed and finished third, Biffle fourth--a great effort for his team. Brian Vickers was fifth, followed by Harvick, Kahne, Reutimann, Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth. Montoya, who lost the race because of a tiny little mistake, finished eleventh. Denny Hamlin finished thirty-fifth, Kyle Busch thirty-eighth, and Kurt Busch finished twenty-seventh, all of whom were in the top twelve. The race for the cut for the Chase has been shaken up and is tighter than ever.

It wasn't the most exciting race in the world, but it held our attention. This was actually the first real race at IMS with the Sprint Cup car, or COT, as most people call it. I don't count last year, because we never got to see what the car would do on a long green flag run. This race was clean and green, for the most part, and we saw that the COT has the same problems with closing and passing as did the aero car. But we must remember that the Sprint Cup car is still a work in progress, and the racing may be better next year. Personally, I think the racing would be better if, aside from the road courses and the RP tracks, the longest track on which the Cup cars raced was Darlington, but we know that won't happen. Meanwhile, we must be patient.

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