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Ingram: Flips A Result of NASCAR Slips?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 2 2009
Stewart-Haas Racing crew members go to work on Tony Stewart's car after it was Talladega-ed on Sunday. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Stewart-Haas Racing crew members go to work on Tony Stewart's car after it was Talladega-ized on Sunday. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Talladega, Ala. – What now for NASCAR officials? There was yet another Air Talladega moment, but no big finish to take the edge off as Jamie McMurray’s Ford led the field home under yellow in the Amp Energy 500.

The COT’s chassis and rollcage saved Ryan Newman from serious injury, but only after the aerodynamics produced a back flip by his U.S. Army Chevy despite its roof flaps. “It’s kind of ironic that I was the one complaining that something needed to be done about the roof flaps before the race,” said Newman, who added, “I guess NASCAR doesn’t care about us anymore.”

At the very least, NASCAR is not in an enviable position despite doing most things right at Talladega, where the crowd continues to dwindle noticeably although it retains a six-figure status. Maybe it’s the lack of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s success or the relatively tamer racing.

The track unveiled higher fences this weekend, installed after debris from Carl Edwards’ crash into the fence sent one fan home with a broken jaw in April.

With an eye on the same problem because of the correlation between speed and just how high cars lift off, NASCAR President Mike Helton made it clear in practice and in the pre-race drivers’ meeting that bump drafting in the corners would not be tolerated. That plus smaller carburetor restrictor plates helped “slow” the pace to a 195 mph lap average.

Inevitably, there was some bump drafting in the corners, where it is most likely to cause an accident. In the words of Jeff Gordon, “These cars suck up to one another.” But nobody appeared to lock up bumpers for an entire lap, the sort of two-car express that produced the fast, flying finish in April.

As it was, the Big One occurred on the back straight with five laps to go, resulting in Newman’s back flip. The taller greenhouse, which contributes mightily to the complaints about the COT’s handling, helped preserve the safety cocoon in the cockpit for Newman, who had the roll bars crushed down to the level of his helmet.

If it’s opinions you’re looking for, just hang around in the garage until the end of a race at Talladega.

The aerodynamics need closer scrutiny, said Bobby Hutchens, now in charge of engineering at Newman’s Stewart-Haas Racing team. “We’ve missed something,” said Hutchens of the COT. “The old car seemed to do better to the point where we kept them down on the ground pretty well.”

Mark Martin’s car flipped, also on a straightaway, in the “grand finale” incident that ended the race under caution. Ken Howes, who directs car development at Hendrick Motorsports, said it could just be circumstances that two cars went over. ” But NASCAR’s going to have to take a hard look at it. It’s not good.”

Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition at NASCAR, had a different view. The cars, he told reporters in so many words, worked as expected.

It must be said neither car sailed higher than the fences, an event that could seriously threaten fans and the entire sport of motor racing. And both drivers walked away.

But was it a boring race? The bump-drafting of the last few events at  Talladega that produced what McMurray called “hairy” racing was missed by more than a few observers, bloggers and those who were all a-Twitter. But, said McMurray, the bump-drafting of April “really wasn’t necessary on lap 20 or lap 100.”

Could NASCAR really control it? The answer was no in Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. The Tundras of teammates Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch joined up like Siamese twins and bump-drafted to victory versus leader Todd Bodine.

On Sunday the answer was yes and no. The threat to bring drivers down the pit road for a drive-through penalty prevented the speed-raising possibility of one entire lap by two cars joined at the bumper.

And now, back to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. This, of course, means go to the back of the pack. That’s where Chase leader Jimmie Johnson spent much of the race in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy in an effort to avoid the Big One and retain his large points lead.

Was that worthy of a driver who looks odds-on to become the first to win four straght championships? Well, no matter what points system is in place, drivers with comfortable leads tend to race where it’s more comfortable.

But it’s never easy on the nerves. Talladega, said Johnson on Friday, “was the big gorilla.” On Sunday, Johnson walked into the garage after a calamitous finish that saw him move up to sixth place and a whopping 184-point lead in the Chase with three races remaining. When he saw Crew Chief Chad Knaus, he summed up the day’s events. “Dude!” he said with relief. “Seriously?”

Quote of the Week: This is the response of Irwin Marathon Ford driver Jamie McMurray when asked about how his third career victory may affect his future since Jack Roush has chosen to shut down the No. 26 team to meet the NASCAR rules limiting car owners to no more than four entries in 2010.

“Being able to win is not gonna hurt my chances at getting another ride,” said McMurray. “I said this kind of jokingly on TV, but my first year or so Jack was a little bit mean to me would be the easy way to put that. His motivating skills, he just wasn’t pushing the right button. He’s told me numerous times that everyone is motivated differently and Jack has become a really good friend of mine in the last year and he’s learned to push the right button, I guess, when he comes up to my car before the race and what to say to me.

“I’ll miss not getting to drive one of these cars. Jack’s team can just put incredible equipment on the track and this year hasn’t been as good as what it’s been in the past. Whether it’s been the engine shop, or the engineering department or the chassis shop, he has an incredible race team. My years here have been good. The performance certainly hasn’t been what I think either one of us expected coming in (after) almost making the Chase my first few years in Cup. Coming over here I thought that it would be kind of a sure bet and it just hasn’t been as good as what it needed to be. Certainly, I’ll miss being a part of this organization, but you never know. You might end up driving for Jack one day again, so I’m not gonna make him mad.”

Around the Garage: The Amp Energy 500 became the first race at Daytona or Talladega this year not to be decided by a pass on the final lap. …In this one, there were 58 lead changes among 25 drivers, most of them legit and not on the pit road.

Longtime NASCAR communications representative Herb Branham has written a biography of Bill France Jr.  Titled Bill France, The Man Who Made NASCAR, the book is due out in March of 2010. …In one key respect, NASCAR continues to be ahead of the safety curve. The National Football League and NCAA football are in the early stages of how to handle the problem of longterm brain damage to some of its participants. The problem has recently received national attention in Congressional hearings, The New Yorker and in a PBA segment. NASCAR, by contrast, has greatly reduced the threat of crippling or fatal head injuries with the COT, the HANS Device and SAFER barriers. …France Jr. launched the safety push, one that some have opined has reduced NASCAR’s appeal.

On the lighter side, former IMSA and Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall arrived at Talladega in El Gallo Grande, his sunshine yellow 1973 Olds 98 that features the large plastic head of a rooster on the roof and a large tail on the trunk lid. By large, we mean really large. As if the “chicken car” was not enough, Kendall sported a mullet wig after losing a bet and bowling match to Red Bull driver Brian Vickers.

Kendall is working on a pilot for his next TV show. “It’s going to be a talk show, a road test and a road trip show,” said Kendall, whose mobile studio will be the remarkable El Gallo Grande, where he will interview chefs and other celebrities as well as race car drivers. His Facebook entries and cell phone shoots en route to Talladega will form the basis of the pilot, unofficially known as Cock Tales.

One thing’s for sure. If El Gallo Grande visits your neighborhood, it will be impossible to miss it. Photos abound on Google.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 2 2009