Talking trash 

A Brickyard 2004 preview

A Brickyard 2004 preview
Only NASCAR can blend on-track bumping and grinding with off-track feuds and rules changes without losing the interest — nay, the passion — of the fans. The 2004 season has seen drivers talking trash about each other, fans throwing trash in protest of traditional rules, and a couple of rule changes and enforcements that belong in the trash. And, as the stock car circus rolls into town in August, Hoosiers can anticipate some of the bumpiest, most grinding, trashiest racing this year.

Rules is rules

The green-white-checkered finish procedure went into effect two races before the Brickyard. The rule guarantees a green-flag finish, even if the final two laps have to be delayed indefinitely until the track is usable or the race distance extended, setting up a wicked sprint to determine the winner. Unless, of course, that mad dash results in another mishap causing another yellow. In that case, officials throw their hands up in the air, check their watches and rush for the rental cars so they won’t miss their flight.

Jeff Gordon thinks the rule is “a good thing,” surmising that a yellow finish robs fans. Maybe he’s just trying to appease fans over the Talladega incident earlier this season, when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. under yellow ... on a beer-can-littered track, thanks to angry fans.

NASCAR chairman Brian France thinks most drivers like the rule, but Dale Jarrett disagrees. “If they think most of us are for it, I’d like to see the list of who they talked to,” he said. “They don’t do things because that’s what we want.”

Similarly, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, disdains the plan, which he claims gives an advantage to the wrong car. “If someone is losing a baseball game, we don’t give them an extra inning. It doesn’t work that way.”

Tony Stewart just blames it on the press. “The media seems to be the ones that are starting the rules changes these days,” Stewart said. “The media is driving this sport more than anybody. Not saying you guys are bad, but you guys have caused more grief in the last three years with rule changes than anybody has.”

Under yellow conditions, the field is now “frozen,” eliminating the potentially dangerous race back to the line. The well-intentioned decision in the name of safety has created a scoring nightmare for officials: Twenty-four laps at Dover to sort out the correct order left fans yawning. Add to that the confusion of losing a lap under yellow due to poor pit location, and even the most seasoned official can be heard to groan when the amber light flashes.

NASCAR President Mike Helton is confident the new fully electronic system will preclude repeat performances. “We’re trying to minimize the complexity of things for fans to understand and for ourselves to police the sport accurately,” he said. He suggests that officials are human, prone to mistakes. In other words, expect them.

Calling ‘em as he sees ‘em

Despite Helton’s efforts to simplify and equalize competition, NASCAR came under the gun for another controversial ruling when Tony Stewart received only a $50,000 fine and 25-point penalty for physically accosting fellow driver Brian Vickers in his car after the June 27 race at Sonoma, CA. Citing the suspension Jimmy Spencer received for a similar attack last year, fans and fellow competitors alike proclaimed favoritism was at play — Stewart’s sponsor, Home Depot, is also an official NASCAR sponsor. Team owner Ray Evernham suggested that Stewart “just needs to have his ass beat,” and considered performing the long-overdue task himself if His Royal Bad-boyness didn’t earn a suspension for his trademark loss of temper.

France defends the punishment, which most see as insignificant, both monetarily and otherwise. Stewart, after all, remains in the all-important top 10.

Best of 10

The so-called “Chase for the Championship,” in which only drivers in the top 10 points standings get to compete for the title, has confused some and angered others, adding to NASCAR’s list of things to apologize for. Points leader Jimmie Johnson’s sizable lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon will be erased on Sept. 19, when the points readjust for the golden boys of the Top 10. They will be re-seeded in five-point increments, creating a gap of 45 points from first place to tenth. Any inaccuracies in scoring, any imbalances in penalties, any officiating blunder from that point on will determine the championship.

But has the chase to get to the Top 10 affected the racing up to this point? Driver feuds have run rampant — but that can be chalked up to pumping adrenaline, preening egos and pressure from sponsors. At the Brickyard, some drivers will have checkered vision, while others will be calculating points scenarios in the middle of traffic.

The golden boys of summer at the half-way mark:

Jimmie Johnson The points leader is running with a championship consistency and is backed by the very solid Hendricks Motorsports team that has managed to find the right combination for every kind of track this year.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Although DEI is mysteriously fading through the mid-season, Jr.’s hanging tough and adding points by starting every race, even with painful burns from his Sonoma ALMS adventure. Look for the “extra crispy” Dale Jr. bucket at KFC.

Jeff Gordon Looking for Number Four, Johnson’s teammate is running at the top of his game. Don’t let the glamour-boy looks and hard body fool you; he has the focus, discipline, experience and tenacity it takes to kiss the bricks.

Tony Stewart The theory goes that Tony’s rarely pent-up anger and frustration are in direct correlation to his failure at what he considers the most important track in the world. The racin’-is-rubbin dirt track kid’s list of wins this year pales in comparison to his list of punishments, but he’s securely in the Top 10 and coming on strong. If brute force can bully its way to the winner’s circle, the media should run for cover.

Matt Kenseth Two wins have carried him through the mid-season drought, but slow test times at the Brickyard may indicate lackluster results.

Bobby Labonte The polite teammate in the Joe Gibbs stable has been quietly consistent. But the recent firing of crew chief Michael McSwain indicates trouble in paradise and raises the question of team unity.

Elliot Sadler Team turmoil is dying down at Robert Yates, allowing Sadler to bring home a win and several top-10 finishes in his best-ever season. Talent and strength of character could raise him up, but he needs more grit to be a champion.

Kevin Harvick Mechanical problems and crashes have nearly wrecked his season. It’s hard to be a repeat champion.

Kurt Busch One win has broken the long stretch of mediocrity as the team searches for speed. Taking a page from the Stewart handbook of cockiness, Busch keeps it entertaining.

Ryan Newman When Roger Penske stumbles, he falls hard, and this just doesn’t seem to be a good year for the old Captain or any of his teams. Newman has one win to his credit, but lacks consistency.

Tickets for the 11th annual Brickyard 400 on Aug. 8 can be purchased online at www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com or by calling the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700 or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area.

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Lori Lovely

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Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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