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Coasting to 2nd makes for good night at Daytona PDF Print E-mail
Monday, July 08, 2013 11:19 PM

Associated Press

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart coasted for at least 250 miles at Daytona International Speedway, where he hardly worked up a sweat until the final hour of the race.

It’s a game he hates to play, dropping to the back of the pack at restrictor-plate races to casually circle the track lap after lap. The strategy of waiting until the end of the race to make a frantic, final push goes against his fundamentals of racing.

But he couldn’t deny the results Saturday night when he found himself in position to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the win. Although he ultimately settled for second, the finish pushed him a whopping six places to 10th in points in the Sprint Cup standings.

“This is a 195-mph chess match and the lap that pays is lap 160,” Stewart said. “A lot is said about guys that lag back like that but we’re in the most competitive series in the country, and when you’re running in the most competitive series in the country you have to do what you think is in the best interest of you, your car, your team and your situation to get to the end.

“Part of winning races is knowing to be where at what times. I know some people don’t like that and some people don’t agree with it but that’s what I think is the best thing to do in the interest of our race team and to ensure at the end of the day when it’s time to go we have a car that’s capable of doing so.”

Stewart has used that strategy for years at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks that NASCAR requires the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates. The plates control speeds and keep the cars bunched, raising the likelihood of a multicar crash when a driver makes a mistake.

Now more and more drivers are simply riding around for the three quarters, choosing to wait until the end to turn it up a notch.

It was frustrating to fourth-place finisher Clint Bowyer, who had voiced his boredom with Daytona several times over the weekend.

“I made a rule with myself at these restrictor-plate tracks to be easy. You know, ride around,” Bowyer said. “It’s boring. You want to be up there racing for every lap led. If you get wiped out it doesn’t matter who caused it or whose fault it was. If you get wiped out before halfway in one of these restrictor-plate races it’s your own fault. You knew better than to put yourself in that situation.”

The final results Saturday showed that riding in the back is the best strategy for making it to the finish line.

Johnson, who had the dominant car, led a race-high 94 laps and felt confident his speed was enough to keep him out front and ahead of trouble. But Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Bowyer and Michael Waltrip all made it inside the top-5 but laying back for at least half the race. David Ragan did the same thing to win at Talladega in May.

But Stewart is correct in sensing that many fans don’t like watching drivers take it easy. They gripe and grumble that there’s no point in watching a plate race until the very end because that’s when it gets exciting.

So what does NASCAR do about this predicament? Series officials can’t force drivers to race hard and there doesn’t seem to be any real consequence to laying back. Several years ago when Denny Hamlin was in the thick of the championship race, he lost a tandem partner while racing at the back and fell out of the draft. In danger of going a lap down and ruining his title chances, fellow Toyota driver Waltrip got out of the gas and slid back to rescue Hamlin.

And NASCAR can’t take the plates off unless it figures a way to slow the cars, which nobody has been able to do at the two biggest and fastest tracks in the series.

But as Bowyer grumbled about how much idle time he spent at Daytona, where drivers run just a few laps of practice to tune their cars, then turn one lap on qualifying day, then sit and wait for the race to take it easy until the end, it became apparent the whole system is broken.

NASCAR will never cut races from 500 or 400 miles to a 25-lap shootout but that’s basically what they’ve become. Everybody sat around and waited three days to watch the final 25 laps of Saturday night’s race.

At minimum, NASCAR should cut the plate events, excluding the Daytona 500, down to 2-day shows for the Sprint Cup Series. No team is using all its practice time, making it pointless for everyone to be at the track all those hours.

As for the race itself? Who knows? There’s no incentive to race early and there’s not much NASCAR can do to change that. For now, we know what we’re going to watch four times a year. We’ll sit and watch for some wrecks, then wait for it to get crazy at the end.

As he left the track with a second-place points on the same night teammates Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman both wrecked, Stewart accepted plate racing for what he’s stuck with right now.

“With these things being as crazy as they are, if you can end up with a top-2, you’re pretty happy when you leave here,” he added. “One out of three isn’t bad in the organization. The other two got wadded up pretty good.”

Hendrick wants NASCAR consistency on restarts: Rick Hendrick blames NASCAR’s inconsistent policing of restarts for Johnson’s recent issues.

Johnson has lost two races in the last month in part because of problems on late restarts. The 5-time NASCAR champion was penalized for jumping the start with Juan Pablo Montoya at Dover and complained last week that Matt Kenseth was laying back on a late restart at Kentucky.

“I don’t care how good you are, you can get snookered,” Hendrick said before Saturday night’s race. “That’s the one part of this thing that NASCAR doesn’t control and I don’t think it’s in (Johnson’s) head. I think he’s been bitten a couple of times, so he’s had to be more conservative because he can’t count on NASCAR to do it the same way every time.”

Johnson acknowledged he needs to loosen up and stop taking the restart rule so literal.

“I feel like I’m maybe a little focused on the way the rule reads exactly and paying maybe too close of attention to that,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of restarts, especially during the Kentucky race, that I brought down that I feel like a good citizen, a good student in doing exactly what I’m supposed to. There are other times when I don’t feel that exactly happens and that it’s not called or viewed from the tower as kind of the (way the) rule reads. At the end of the day, I’m just going to lighten up on how I think about it and use that zone and that area regardless of the way the rule reads to get an advantage and worry about myself.”

But Hendrick noted he’s spoken to NASCAR officials about being more precise in policing restarts — to no avail. Hendrick would like to see NASCAR rely on technology to monitor the starts because it’s more reliable than series officials determining what’s legal or illegal from watching in a suite above the track.

NASCAR can access computer data from the race cars after an event to see if drivers started and stopped on a restart, or if a driver slowed prior to the restart.

Hendrick wants to see something in real time — and before the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship begins in September.

Andretti teams go from 1st to worst at Pocono

LONG POND, Pa. — So much for the happy Andretti homecoming.

Andretti Autosport’s Pocono Raceway debut was a bust from the first lap.

James Hinchcliffe hit the wall not long after the green flag waved. Ryan Hunter-Reay got collected in a freak pit-road accident. Marco Andretti — the hometown favorite and polesitter — ran out of contention as his fuel ran low.

Andretti Autosport had an all-front row start Sunday as the IndyCar Series returned to Pocono for the first time since 1989.

From romp to stomped, some of the traditional Indy heartache followed owner Michael Andretti to his home state.

“Andretti Autosport 1-2-3 didn’t last long,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel so bad for the team. The guys worked so hard.”

Pocono piled on as E.J. Viso battled a wonky car and finished 21st.

The race that started with three teammates on the front row ended with three teammates on the podium: Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti made it 1-2-3 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

With the command to start the engines still fresh, Hinchcliffe was the first driver to exit the race. His No. 27 Chevrolet smacked the wall heading into the first turn of the first lap. He banged his knees and limped away from the damaged car.

His race was over. His day at Pocono continued in ABC’s broadcast booth.

Hunter-Reay was next to go. Takuma Sato caused the damage when he tagged Hunter-Reay’s car near the entrance of pit lane. Hunter-Reay was forced to the garage with damage to his right front wheel and front wing. He returned about 20 laps later and finished 20th.

Sato’s car approached Hunter-Reay with tires locked up and smoking.

Hunter-Reay was the one fuming.

“We were just coming into pit lane, minding our own business, and we get creamed from behind,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s unfortunate. We’ve come from further back to win the championship. We’re determined to do it again.”

Sato never returned and was 22nd.

That left Andretti, who had turned Pocono into a 1-man show. He topped the speed charts of both practice sessions and then smashed the track record with a 2-lap average speed of 221.273 mph to win the pole.

Pocono is considered a hometown track for the Andrettis, who hail from nearby Nazareth. Marco’s father, Michael, owns the team. His grandfather, Mario, was one of racing’s greatest drivers and is still a regular at the track.

The local kid led the field to green — then led the race for 88 laps. He was ahead of the field, even as the team realized fuel would be an issue.

“We knew early,” about fuel concerns, Andretti said. “I think we should have responded quicker.”

They didn’t do it fast enough. Andretti simply didn’t have enough fuel to go to the distance in the 400-mile race and finally ran out just after his No. 25 Chevrolet crossed the finish line. He finished 10th and made the long walk back to the garage.

 

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