By Mike Mulhern
What a wild and crazy finish, another overtime shootout. But then it’s been a crazy championship chase. This time it was water in the gasoline and wheels falling off cars and blown right-front tires.
Jimmie Johnson, with his eighth win of the season Sunday, and his second straight, chopped teammate Jeff Gordon’s lead down to just nine points with three races to go this season: Texas, Phoenix and Miami-Homestead.
Both Johnson and Gordon dodged bullets in the late-race frenzy of the Pep Boys 500 – “a junkyard derby,” according to Kurt Busch – and continued their charmed championship run, albeit in front of a noticeably less-than-sellout crowd of some 90,000 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“We took a good bite out of Jeff’s lead today, and now I feel good about the points, so we can race for the lead and the wins these last three races,” Johnson said.
“We are donating our earnings to the American Red Cross for the wildfire victims in Southern California, which will be matched by a number of people. So I think that fund should be well over $1 million.”
“It wasn’t a real great performance for us,” Gordon said after rallying to finish seventh in the four-hour race. “This track can change a lot, and it did. We just got it turned around too late. We needed about a five-lap run at the end and we’d have given them a run for this one.
“But I’m just happy to have a points lead after this day. I don’t know what that was at the end, just crazy madness.
“Now we’ve got a nine-point lead and the pressure is on even more.”
However Texas is not one of Gordon’s better tracks.
Clint Bowyer, hanging in third in the playoffs, is the only man with any shot at catching Rick Hendrick’s two stars. He ran sixth and now trails Gordon by 111 points.
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. appeared the men to beat down the stretch. But Busch was stymied by a slow pit stop, and Truex, who led 135 of the 329 laps, got caught up in a weird crash when Denny Hamlin – the leader at that point, lap 323, because he’d skipped the last round of pit stops – stunned the field by apparently running out of gas at the starting line just as NASCAR threw the green.
Afterwards Hamlin insisted he hadn’t run out of fuel, that his gas had some water in it. “All day we’d been getting water in our fuel,” Hamlin complained. “I don’t know how it got there, but we just pulled what we had out of the carburetor and there was a very good amount of water in there.
“When it cut off, I pulled down to the middle….and I was just waiting on a hit from behind. I hate it for everyone else more than myself.
“The last eight weeks have been like this for us.”
Many drivers were running short of fuel near the end, so they were glad to see the yellow come out on lap 318 of the scheduled 325-lapper, for Johnny Sauter’s crash. With fresh tires worth about two seconds a lap, everyone pitted, except Hamlin.
However trouble with his right-front tire change cost Busch the lead, and he fell back to 15th with that 19-second stop, which left him livid.
Teammate Johnson won that race off pit road, moving him to second, with a two-tire stop – a daring change-up call by crew chief Chad Knaus made in the middle of the stop. “The only way to gain on Jeff is to go for the win,” Knaus said. “I said let’s try it and see what happens.”
As the pack then took the green, Hamlin stalled at the line and jammed up the field, in an incident that left Johnson with the lead. Truex slammed into Hamlin and was knocked out of the race. Johnson, seeing that Hamlin wasn’t taking off, eased to the outside of him as they reached the line, thus avoiding the mess.
So for the green-white-checked shootout Johnson had Carl Edwards on his bumper, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind them on lap 327.
Johnson got a good jump on the restart, but moments later the entire left-rear tire-and-wheel inexplicably fell off Earnhardt’s car, triggering a race-ending crash, which also took out Jamie McMurray. “Man, that was a hit,” Earnhardt said. “I knew when I was sliding it was going to be big, and it was.
“We must have had an issue with hubs, because we’d had loose lugs and a loose rear wheel several times. All I know is I’ve got a headache…”
“I got a good restart and had a little cushion going into one, and I knew they’d be coming behind me,” Johnson said.
But Earnhardt’s crashed ended the race before Edwards could make a move.
“Man, I’d have given anything for those last two laps to go green,” Edwards said.
“On the other restart I thought ‘Man, Denny is waiting an awful long time to get going here.’ Then everybody started checking up. It’s so hard to not turn under him but finally I was like ‘I’m going to run into Reed or somebody,’ so I just turned left. Then I realized they hadn’t thrown the yellow yet, so I just stood on the gas. I didn’t know what was going on.
“We weren’t a second-place car, so it was a good day. We were real lucky. And I am grateful for that. We didn’t deserve to run second.”
Johnson said he didn’t have a winning machine either: “We were a fifth to eighth-place car all day.”
But his luck held. “When Denny ran out of gas coming to the flag, that caught me by surprise,” Johnson said. “I was watching and thinking ‘Man, he’s taking a long time to restart.’ So I eased to the outside – you can do that – and when we got to the line and the flagman threw the green I took off.
“I’d seen him weaving his car back and forth off turn four, so I think he knew then he was running out of gas.”
That situation led to some scoring confusion, Gordon said. And so did the Earnhardt crash.
There were also some major questions about tires, with several drivers blowing right fronts. “This track always wears tires really bad,” surprising third-place finisher Reed Sorenson said. “We had a set after 20 laps that had cords showing. There were a couple times on long runs I started getting those vibrations (of pending tire failure), and I just slowed down after seeing a few people blow tires.
“It was going to be hard for guys to make a full green-flag run without getting down to the cords in the right front.”
Carl Edwards could only shake his head after Sunday’s 500. The remarkable championship battle between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson is just that amazing.
“I asked Jeff’s crew where he finished, and they said ‘Seventh,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” Edwards said after his runner-up finish to Johnson. “He was running around in 18th the last time I saw him. So it’s just amazing….
“All of those guys, Jeff and Jimmie and all of those guys over there, they’re just doing a great job. They’re on top of their game.”
So the NASCAR tour’s top two-some will take Monday off, while most of their competitors will be running the new car-of-tomorrow here in the first round of a crucial two-day test.
Drivers are continuing to complain about the car-of-tomorrow, but they’re all under pressure from NASCAR not to get carried away in their criticism: “We just can’t say anything,” one top crew chief complained about the zipped-lips policy.
“NASCAR still needs to look at things that need to be done with that car before we come back here to race it,” Gordon said.
“And this track is a huge problem for Goodyear. And with the higher center-of-gravity in the car-of-tomorrow, they’re thinking the wear will be even worse.
“This track wears tires. And that is definitely a concern about the car-of-tomorrow.
“I look at this test as more for Goodyear than anything. There’s not much we’re going to learn.”
But it should be a very interesting learning experience for Patrick Carpentier, from Montreal, who is just one of a number of open-wheel outsiders following Juan Pablo Montoya into stock car racing.
Carpentier is car owner Ray Evernham’s newest challenge, and he will now get a real good look at what he’s up against on the NASCAR tour, in NASCAR’s long-anticipated test of the car-of-tomorrow at a fast intermediate-size track.
New teammate Elliott Sadler says Carpentier “is going to bring a lot of energy. He is going to bring a different way of looking at things.
“Hopefully he can help us with some of the road course stuff. That’s something I have always wanted to get better at.
“I’m looking forward to working with him at the race track under racing conditions. We’ve done some testing at Kentucky, but that’s so much different when you have computers on the cars and they pretty much can tell you everything you are doing. When you get down to really racing with each other, where communication is involved, we’ll start realizing how much we can help each other.”
Evernham says it’s easier these days for outsiders to break into NASCAR: “Our cars have become more identical and more based on engineering. Rather than having to have a notebook of what we did 20 years ago, the car now—the design, the tires, the way it’s engineered—you don’t have to be an experienced Cup driver. You have to be a guy that has a good feel for a race car and can communicate.”
Of course Carpentier is only part of Evernham’s future. So it new business partner George Gillett, now 50-50 with Evernham and the guy charged with running the business side of the operation.
“It was something that had been coming,” Evernham said of bringing in a partner. “A little bit over a year ago we talked about what was happening in the future. About a week after that I got a phone call, and they said ‘Are you serious? Are you really interested?’
“I was looking at the handwriting on the wall—I was physically and mentally tired thinking about how I was going to handle all this stuff. So I met with a broker and gave him criteria of a partner I was looking for, and he put George Gillett and me together.
“George, on paper, was everything I was looking for. As we became friends, it was just incredible that you could get that.
“The further we go into this thing, the happier I am with the Gillett family.
“He is a business guy first, and a sports guy, which is what I needed. More importantly, the guy is a visionary. He has surrounded himself with really good tactical people, and he has the vision and quality people to get those visions done.
“You will be hearing some really exciting things in the next two to three weeks: business and sponsorship opportunities to grow the business and management side so I could work back on the competition side.”
The trend toward such mergers in NASCAR will continue, Evernham says, “because most of the traditional people in this business are not big, giant marketing and advertising people. We are just not trained that way. But the business has grown to that level.
“The only way we can continue to survive is if we partner with somebody. This sport has grown, and it is going to continue to grow. And bringing in partnerships like Gillett will help this sport continue to grow.
“As it grows, unfortunately it is not going to be totally run by people like me anymore. There will always be a place for us. But when I look at some of the things George is doing, I never would have thought of doing it that way…and I would have been scared to death to do it.
“So it is pretty cool watching those guys work.
“It has taken a lot of pressure off in a lot of ways. When you’re as intense as I am, and you’re having a bad year, it is not good.
“On top of that, when you’re gambling with everything you’ve worked for your whole life, you feel if you don’t do something you could lose it at any day.
“So this has allowed me to take a few chips off the table and allowed me to concentrate on the things I like.
“Plus, rest a little bit. I’m actually starting to take half a day, one day off a week, and I like it. For the past 15 years it has been seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Eventually that catches up with you.
“They have shown me how to delegate. When you can delegate to someone that you have confidence in, it really puts your mind at ease.
“I feel our cars are starting to get better. We are qualifying better, we are running better. It’s not that I have any magic, it is just a matter of getting everybody working together and communicating again. I have a lot of fun doing that.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
The NASCAR championship playoff picture is now pretty starkly a two-man race between teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, virtually tied after 33 races of the 36-race season.
Clint Bowyer’s sixth in Sunday’s Pep Boys 500 leaves him 111 points down, just hanging in there.
Behind those three, it’s already 2008: Carl Edwards (second yesterday) is 261 points behind Gordon; Kyle Busch (17th) is 322 down; Tony Stewart (30th) is 328 down; Kevin Harvick (15th) is 392 down; Jeff Burton (fifth) is 400 points down; Kurt Busch (eighth) is 419 down; Denny Hamlin (24th) is 424 down; Matt Kenseth (fourth) is 448 down; and Martin Truex Jr. (31st) is 513 down.
Ryan Newman started from the pole but didn’t finish. He lost an engine. “It was a top-10 car, I don’t know if it was a winning car,” Newman said. “We’re struggling with these engines. The engine company has been letting us down a few times.”
Mark Martin had bad luck too, running into David Gilliland after Gilliland spun in front of him. “I should have missed it,” Martin said. “You’re going too fast and I couldn’t see him in the smoke, and I really didn’t feel comfortable driving into the smoke not knowing where he was. So I tried to get under him….and he came out of the smoke to the inside. Usually if you go high here a lot of times it works out, but I only had a split-second.
“It was a pretty hard hit. But thank God I’m not racing for points.”
“I had a great run going, but I just ran out of room out,” Gilliland said. “I was passing a lapped car and ran out of room and got loose.”
Matt Kenseth for a few moments late thought he had a shot at the victory, perhaps even in a dual – ironically, after their Martinsville run-in – with teammate Carl Edwards.
“But you can’t come out of the pits that far back with two laps to go,” Kenseth said of his late four-tire stop. “We had a good car all day, probably a top-seven or eight car, and then at the end we actually had a car that could win. It just didn’t work out with the cautions.
“When we came off pit road I realized we only had five laps left, and with that many cars in front of you, four tires wasn’t the right thing.”
Pit road was a problem all day for Kurt Busch, who led 98 of the 329 laps: “We would come in first, second or third and go out 12th. We did that twice. I’m scared to come down pit road because our crew isn’t quite hitting on all eight cylinders, or we just didn’t make the right pit calls.”
Robby Gordon and General Motors’ executives have finally come to terms on a long-term three-year deal for Gordon to run for Hummer in the Dakar Rally, Gordon says. And now Gordon wants a Hummer deal for his Baja division too.
What Gordon may do on the Cup side is unclear. He is currently running Fords on that tour.
The Bill Davis-Jacque Villeneuve story continues to be rather baffling. Villeneuve and business partner Craig Pollack are apparently buying into the High Point operation, but Davis insists he still hasn’t sold anything, though he says he’s researching his options.
And just what Villeneuve might be doing in NASCAR at all is still a subject of debate. According to some familiar with the situation, Villeneuve may be coming into the sport for a short-time run as a driver but as a long-term run as an investor/owner.
Pollack and Villeneuve go back years together, to their Formula One days, when Pollack was a team ‘principal’ for BAR(British-American-Tobacco)-Honda. Villeneuve earned a reported $20 million a year for that five-year deal, and some of that $100 million is apparently being invested in the Davis-Toyota team. Pollack likewise probably got a nice settlement when he left Formula One, money that may be invested in NASCAR.
Just what role NASCAR executives might have in this is unclear, though obviously NASCAR is the big winner in the deal, which enhances their new Canadian venture.
Last year, after Villeneuve split from Formula One, he and Pollack began talking about setting up their own NASCAR operation and talked at length with Ford’s Jack Roush and Geoff Smith about a deal for cars, engines and start-up stuff. But the Roush-Villeneuve thing never got very far. Roush says Villeneuve wanted to take the quickest road to the Cup tour, while Roush suggested he spend more time in Busch to learn the sport.
Sam Hornish Jr. may have to reassess his NASCAR plans after again failing to qualify for a Cup race. The Indy 500 winner is 0-for-6 in Nextel Cup qualifying attempts.
David Reutimann’s Busch win at Memphis Saturday salvaged the weekend, after he missed the field for Sunday’s Atlanta 500.
And his win came in an usually wild race – the longest stretch of green was only 19 laps.
“It was pretty crazy, just restart after restart after restart, and you can never get a rhythm going,” Reutimann, who drives Toyotas for Michael Waltrip, said. “The team would ask me ‘How is your car?’ I told them ‘I guess it’s okay…if we could run more than five laps at a time I could tell you.’
“It was just one of those races you have every so often where you’re amazed at the amount of yellows. After a while you just can’t believe it. And then at the end it gets frustrating.
“When we went green-white-checkered, it was emotional already, and I was in the car yelling and bouncing around. You don’t want that stuff when you have a half-straightaway lead and all you have to do is make it to the white flag.
“Then all you have to do is make it around one more lap—and a tidal wave or an earthquake could come at any moment and the race would be over right there.
“It’s no secret we’ve had a tough year. But our Cup program has been getting stronger, and our Busch program has been good all year and in contention to win. We still have more ground to cover, but I’m very proud that the people have hung in there with us.”