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TGIM: Nice Long Beach Story Nearly Didn’t Happen

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 18 2011

Mike Conway's car slams the catch fence during the final lap at Indy last year. Its nose and tragedy were pointed right at Ryan Hunter-Reay's head during the incident. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar photo)

Thank God It’s Monday:

Had things gone just minutely differently on the last lap of last year’s Indianapolis 500, the look of Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series race in Long Beach would have been radically different.

Sunday’s winner might not have won because he might be dead, and a most crucial moment of the race might not have occurred because the driver involved in that might be dead.

The 2011 500 was all but decided as Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay headed into the north short chute for the final time. Dario Franchitti was getting ready to take his second checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Dan Wheldon was going to finish second.

Conway went low on Hunter-Reay coming out of Turn 3 and their wheels touched. Conway’s car went airborne, spinning counter clockwise. As it spun, it descended over Hunter-Reay’s car, the front wheel nearly slamming into Hunter-Reay’s head.

The bottom of Conway’s tub burrowed into the catch fence. The car then swung violently around like a lawnmower blade just inches above Hunter-Reay’s head.

Had Conway’s car went cockpit-first into the fence, had his car come down a couple inches lower, Indy might have had a double fatality. Cockpit and driver safety measures are not adequate protection for those types of hits.

As it was, Hunter-Reay was able to escape virtually uninjured – he would finish seventh in the race at

Mike Conway takes the checkered flags at Long Beach. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Texas a week later.

Conway, however, was badly injured and would not race again until the 2011 season-opener in St. Pete.

On Sunday, Conway’s comeback was completed. He moved to second with less than 20 laps to go when Hunter-Reay, battling Ryan Briscoe for the lead, slowed to a stop with a mechanical problem.

Two laps later, he made a highlight-film pass of Briscoe to get get the victory.

Asked afterward if he thought he would ever race again let alone win, Conway gave an auto-racer’s answer. He said he was making plans to drive again before the blue and yellow carbon fiber shreds of his Dad’s Root Beer had stopped skittering across the IMS asphalt last May.

“I mean, as soon as it happened I wanted to know what the time frame was and when I could get back in a car,” Conway said post race Sunday.

Of course he knew shortly thereafter that the answer to “when” would be “not for some time if at all”.

“I mean, initially I saw the injuries I had,” Conway said, “and I just wasn’t sure when I’d get back. Yeah, things like that can definitely stop your career. But I was just determined to not let it, determined to get back, back to fitness and back in a car.”

His rehab was, he said, bit by bit, day by day.

When Conway was able to get back in a car, his old job with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing had gone away. Several drivers were inserted into the No. 24 car as the season progressed and this year the car has Charlie Kimball in it.

Conway was given a test by Michael Andretti of Andretti Autosport. Andretti liked what he saw. Like it so much that he sniffed at a question late Sunday in which he was asked why he took a chance on Conway.

“First of all, I don’t think it was a chance,” Andretti said. “I think Mike showed a lot of signs of brilliance last year at the beginning of the season and then unfortunately had his accident. Coming back, I had no question in my mind. I personally felt like he was going to be hungrier than ever coming back, and that’s exactly the way it came about. The first time he got in a race car for us, he was literally up in speed in about four or five laps after being out of a car that long. I never felt like it was taking a chance.”

Driver after driver in post-race interviews tipped their helmets to Conway. Among racing drivers, even those who don’t like each other very much, a comeback victory the type logged by Conway at Long Beach produces a shared joy.

They all know that at times during their careers, if things had gone just minutely differently, it would be them who would no longer be racing.

NASCAR has come under a lot of criticism in recent years for it increased emphasis on points racing and decreased emphasis on winning races.

But it appears a move the series made during the off season is helping to strike a balance between the

Clint Bowyer, in the No. 33 car, creeps up on race-winner Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

two concepts.

It’s the move which says that the final two berths in the Chase will go to drivers who did not qualify for the Chase on points but who did win the most races. The effect has been going harder for race victories in order to lock in a Chase berth just in case.

After narrowly being beaten to the finish line at Talladega Sunday, Clint Bowyer gave credence to that statement.

“You know that win – if I would have won right there, it could have put me in the Chase,” Bowyer, who finished just .002 seconds behind winner Jimmie Johnson said. “I was thinking about that. That’s going to be important throughout the year, and you know, that was a good shot at it. It just slipped through our fingers.”

Moments after the Talladega Cup race, winner Johnson attempted to give the checkered flag to Hendrick Motorsports teammate and day-long dancing partner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The passing of the flag did not go smoothly.

Johnson said, “Just came to mind.  I handed it to him and he said, “Man, I don’t want that.’ I said, ‘Well, I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’ He said, ‘No, that’s what teammates do.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag.  I’ll give you the trophy, too.’ He says, ‘No, I don’t want the trophy. I’ll take the flag, though.’ “

No mention of giving the winner’s paycheck away, though.

How fast can a smile turn upside down? In the time it takes for Kurt Busch to put his front bumper to your rear bumper.

Dave Blaney and his Tommy Baldwin Racing team appeared to be steaming for a big finish Sunday at Talladega. Blaney had spent much of the day leading the race or at least running with the leaders. He was with them on the final laps.

Then he was sliding through the grass, the third driver to be pushed sideways by dancing partner Busch. He finished 27th.

Adding to the disappointing finish, the No. 36 Golden Corral Chevrolet fell back to 37th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series owner standings, 12 points outside of the top-35.

“It could have been a great day for us,” explained Blaney. “Contending for the lead felt great. We had a really fast car, especially when we had a fast guy behind us. It’s disappointing that we missed out on a great points day and finish for Golden Corral. But, I am really happy for this TBR team. I think we really showed that we can contend for the win. It was really disappointing to not have the finish to show for it, but leading the second most laps and being there near the end was very exciting.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 18 2011
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