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Ingram: A Jaundiced Eye Follows Bowyer West

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 11 2010

Tony Stewart and a debris caution kept Clint Bowyer from achieving ultimate redemption on Sunday. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Given that the Auto Club Speedway is not too far down Interstate 10 from Hollywood, it’s fair to say that Sunday’s Sprint Cup event was a Chevy Chase.

While Chevy entries dominated the top three positions at the finish and clinched the manufacturer’s championship, the fastest Ford (Greg Biffle’s No. 16) blew up and one of the best bets for Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing (an unlucky Kyle Busch bows out again) did likewise. Dodge’s best bet, Kurt Busch, got crashed by errant Ford driver David Ragan just short of the finish.

But there was no Hollywood ending, as the accused from Round 1 of the Chase, Chevy driver Clint Bowyer, failed to redeem himself. What he termed a “mystery caution” flew while he was leading with 16 laps to go and holding a half-second lead over Tony Stewart. Ultimately, that slowed his bid to prove his Richard Childress Racing entry did not need extra downforce in the rear via an illegal car to win.

This time, it was NASCAR staging the “Tow Truck Defense,” sending out a crew to pick up debris during the caution that eliminated Bowyer’s healthy lead with the checkers almost in sight.

Stewart’s victory versus hard luck runner-up Bowyer kept it a wide open Chase among four Chevy drivers and Toyota’s Denny Hamlin after a race where by our unofficial estimate NASCAR threw suspicious caution flag number 1,203 since records first began being kept in the modern era – or one per race. There was a time when drivers used to drive around potholes (see Bobby Allison’s Daytona 500 victory in 1978) and NASCAR ignored debris that wasn’t blocking the track unless it was equal to the size of something falling off Clark Griswald’s family wagon on the way to Wally World.

Back in the good ol’ days of “Big Bill” France, there wasn’t any pretense about throwing a caution to bunch up the field – or to pay back the guy who was leading. These days, debris goes down and there’s a watch-and-wait to see if it can be picked up during a subsequent yellow flag for a crash or gets knocked further from harm’s way. If none of the above occur, and perhaps the same problem occurs elsewhere with a second piece of debris, it’s pace car time at the discretion of the officials in the tower.

The question here: if it’s dangerous debris, why the wait? If it’s not, why the caution? Is the current methodology for debris used by the four gentlemen in the tower to call the race a lousy procedure? Was Aunt Edna a dead stiff in the back seat long before the Griswalds arrived at Wally World?

In so many words, Bowyer summed it up when asked if the yellow flag was a payback for getting caught at New Hampshire in Round 1: “That’s a good question,” he said.

It was reminiscent of the National League’s division series between San Francisco and Atlanta. An umpire missed a call in Game 1 at second base that costs the Braves dearly and the goof was verified by the replay. In game two, there was a very close play at first where it was highly likely the Braves runner was safe. But the same umpire called him out – perhaps fearful that he might be accused of a make-up call.

Debris or no debris, that was the question that otherwise interrupted an outstanding race at a fine facility in front of a good crowd. Some splendid camera angles highlighted the rather dazzling speed and diversity of lane choice on a day that saw a little bit of everything for Chase drivers as well as those drivers trying to prove they belong. And it all got done within 400 miles in place of the previous sometimes tedious 500.

The reason I like the Chase can be summed up by Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb, who burned the midnight oil to make radical changes after Happy Hour and before the green flag. While winning driver Stewart and some of the crew took advantage of Southern California’s sprint car action on Saturday night, Gubb and Co. worked overtime.

“The engineering staff, Jonathan Toney and Scott Radel, they brought me a few ideas last night and we looked at it, and it actually made sense from the feedback we had from Tony at Happy Hour,” said Grubb. “And that was the key to the whole thing was we were not really good in Happy Hour. We made a lot of large changes and it didn’t really seem to affect the car, and we finally hit on a few things right at the very end. No matter how frustrated we were, we kept working on it. The last run was very good, and we had definite things we needed to work on, and the engineers went and found the solutions to that.”

The Chase is about drivers, engineers and the crews, who have to make the adjustments on pit stops, all getting up on the wheel to make the right moves in the clutch. It’s no different than the current playoffs in Major League Baseball. The outcome depends on a lot of right moves over the course of a weekend and over the course of a series of races, where presumably the officials’ judgement calls even out. The less-than-highly motivated or talented need not apply.

Speaking of the right moves, should Reagan Smith or Paul Menard have taken just two tires on the final trips down the pit road for the race leaders, thereby beating the Chase drivers, who took four tires, back out? On the subsequent re-start, Smith blocked Bowyer big time and was one of the reasons the Kansas driver couldn’t bounce back from the yellow period.

I’d say one of the charms of the Chase is the drivers have to beat everybody on the track on a given day.

It’s sometimes overlooked in the grander scheme of things, but one reason why Jimmie Johnson, who finished third when Bowyer edged past on the final lap, has been winning so many championships is the car brand of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s looking more and more like a Chevy Chase, whether there’s a Hollywood ending and somebody upsets Big Bad and now Bearded Jimmie or not.

Quote of the Week: “The pit crew did an incredible job making the adjustments. Every stop we keep making pretty big swings at it, and then Tony told us we were just kind of keeping up with the changing racetrack, we weren’t really getting ahead of it, so we started swinging a little bit bigger, and that feedback (from the driver) is what makes it easier for us to decide how far we want to go.” – Darian Grubb, crew chief for race Pepsi Max 400 race winner Tony Stewart

See ya! …At the races.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 11 2010
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