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Wanted: Knock-Down, Drag-Out Gutter Brawls

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 9 2009

Remember this classic battle between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson at Kansas last fall? Edwards says the sport needs more of these. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Remember this classic battle between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson at Kansas last fall? Edwards says the sport needs more of these. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

In any form of motorsports, the ultimate outcome is a door-to-door duel to the finish line, with a single winner collecting the lion’s share of the spoils.

In drag racing, it’s not the shot-like-a rocket runs that are the most entertaining. It’s the pedal-fests, where two drivers find themselves under less than ideal conditions, wrestling their machines to the best of their abilities, struggling to keep the car in the lane, working the throttle to keep traction, all the while trying to beat the driver in the other lane to the finish line.

In NASCAR, what most fans buy tickets to see is two or more drivers and their machines, battling each other and the race track, like fighter pilots in the sky. In the end there will be only one winner, and often one angry loser.

NASCAR’s heritage is rich with tales of classic contests. There are stories of Richard Petty, riding the high rim of the old Atlanta track, dueling David Pearson down at the bottom. The great Rockingham battles come to mind – Harry Gant and Bill Elliott in the early 1980s, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne in the final Cup race ever at the Rock.

Many of those epic battles occurred at Darlington, the most recent in 2003, when Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch both pushed their cars well past their limits, not once but many times, before Craven prevailed in a finish so close that it took electronic equipment to determine a winner.

But it seems that in today’s environment, while there are lots of lead changes, good ‘ol  knock-down, drag-out dogfights for the trophy are rare. The best battles tend to be in mid-pack, where they often are fierce but mostly overlooked by TV cameras and fans too.

Most in the sport blame aerodynamics and how they affect the Car of Tomorrow, especially on the intermediate, mile-and-a-half tracks. Generally, when the leader gets to the clean air out front, he’s gone, almost impossible to pass, leaving the challenger with few options other than celebrating a good points day.

The deciding factor in many a race is who emerges with the lead after the last pit stop.

Recently, on a cool morning at Nashville Superspeedway, Carl Edwards weighed in on the subject, although with some hesitation.

“There is a lot to the clean air thing, there really is, and that’s a little frustrating” he said, almost grimacing as he spoke. “You end up racing the air almost as much as the tires and the tracks. The air dictates how fast your car is going to go and how it’s going to handle, and man, that can be frustrating.

“They’ve got to figure a way around it.”

But Edwards flashed his familiar smile when asked to talk about some of the great duels he’d been a part of.

He cited the recent Texas race where he was leading late, came into the pits, had a slow stop and was unable to resume his battle with eventual winner Jeff Gordon despite having what had been the fastest car a few laps earlier.

“I really enjoyed racing Jeff for the lead,” he said. “It didn’t turn out to be for the win, but right then it felt like it was for the win.

“It may not have looked like it on TV, but both of us were driving our guts out, racing as hard as possible, thinking that it was for the win because there probably was not going to be another caution.

“I’m sure Jeff was digging deep. I know that was all I had.”

Edwards said those intense battles are when he’s at his best as a driver.

“There are times when I’m trying to run by myself in practice or in the middle of race when I’m not racing someone hard, that I don’t feel as tuned in to my race car and what I’m doing,” he said. “But there are times when I’m racing someone and I get this sixth sense and I’m part of the race car. I know right where the front of the car is, the sides and the tail.

“Time slows down and you can really race. That’s a good feeling.”

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 9 2009
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