|06/02/11 10:46AM||May Wrap Up, NASCAR|
Mayhem and memories
Month of May was full of wreckers, checkers, revenge and remembrance
By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM
June 01, 2011 3:00 PM, EDT
The Chase for the Sprint Cup is great and the Daytona 500 is superb. But in NASCAR, there is no other month like May.
This May was no exception. It began with fireworks and controversy and an upset winner in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and ended with an exciting, unexpected finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest race. In between, there were Hall of Fame inductions, the emergence of a first-time winner and possible future star in the Nationwide Series, All-Star moments and much, much more.
Here is a look back at the busy month that was ...
Duking it out at Darlington
A popular but unlikely victor in the Showtime Southern 500 was somewhat overshadowed by some post-race fireworks that weren't planned, but first-time Sprint Cup winner Regan Smith could not have cared less. Smith, 27, was making his 105th Cup start and despite some strong runs earlier in the season -- he finished seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500 even though he was "wrecked probably four times" -- had never even posted a top-five finish previously.
"I'm not supposed to win this race," a beaming Smith admitted afterward. "I guess it just shows that in this series, anyone can win."
Regan Smith celebrated his first career win as Kevin Harvick took umbrage with Kyle Busch at Darlington.Smith wins first
That's always been the theory. And after rookie Trevor Bayne captured the Daytona 500, it gained legs. But in many ways, Smith was an even more remarkable winner. Bayne essentially is a Roush Fenway Racing driver who was on loan to Wood Brothers Racing when he scored his huge win. Smith drives for Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team in an era dominated by the big multi-car operations from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway and the like. Not only that, but Furniture Row is the only team operating out of Denver, Colo., whereas the majority of teams across the three national touring series are within a one-hour driving radius of Charlotte, N.C. -- and nearly all of the rest that aren't are located elsewhere in the Southeast.
Furniture Row Racing's "satellite shop" in North Carolina is the personal garage of a team member. Parts and engines are shipped back and forth from Denver in the back of a converted furniture moving van, where the precious cargo still often shares space with couches, loveseats and overstuffed chairs.
Smith took the lead during a caution with nine laps to go when his crew chief, Pete Rondeau, implored the driver to stay on the track in his No. 78 Chevrolet on old tires. He stayed out front the rest of the way, holding off points leader Carl Edwards even after bouncing off the wall on the final lap.
As great of a story as it was, it was threatened to be overshadowed by a chaotic post-race incident involving Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Furious with Busch for what the driver of the No. 18 Toyota charged was "unacceptable racing" after the two tangled and then Harvick's RCR teammate Clint Bowyer was wrecked, Busch appeared to deliberately turn Harvick from behind shortly thereafter. Then it was Harvick's turn to be furious. As soon as the race ended, he blocked Busch's entry to pit road, climbed out of his No. 29 Chevrolet and attempted to throw a punch through Busch's driver-side window. Busch responded by hitting the gas and punting Harvick's car out of the way.
The two eventually were fined $25,000 each and placed on four weeks probation. Smith remained the race winner, and the circuit left Darlington with two compelling stories in tow.
"We've had some ups and we've had some downs. This is an up," Smith said. "I don't even care if what most people are talking about or remember about this race is what happened between Kyle and Kevin. We won it."
Gambling at Dover
It's no coincidence that there is a hotel casino overlooking the track at Dover International Speedway. It is a place where gambles pay off -- at least sometimes.
No one hit a bigger jackpot in May than Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. As he sat in his car on pit road during a caution with 37 laps remaining, he called an audible and told crew chief Jimmy Fennig to put only two tires on instead of four. The track position he subsequently gained over the likes of RFR teammate Carl Edwards and others who elected to spend the time to get four racing Goodyears bolted on was enough to propel him to Victory Lane for the second time this season.
When it came down to tire strategy in May, both Regan Smith and Matt Kenseth bucked the trend to take the checkers.Smith at Darlington
Kenseth at Dover
Kenseth made the gutsy call with the car on the jack, no less. It was the kind of wily veteran move one has come to expect of Kenseth, even if he may not fit the profile of a gambling man. Kenseth always has been considered more of a conservative driver out of the Ned Jarrett, David Pearson mode -- saving his car and staying out of trouble for the end of races and suddenly appearing up front when it matters most.
Then again, what transpired at Dover was reminder that nothing ever stays quite the same in NASCAR -- as if Darlington a week earlier had not been reminder enough.
"Dover, four tires, it's kind of a no-brainer. You always take four. Well, this time it didn't work out," five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said later after settling for a ninth-place finish, despite dominating most of the race along with Edwards and Clint Bowyer.
Edwards had looked like the car to beat and had been going for a Dover double, having won the Nationwide race earlier. He left the race track feeling it was the second Cup race in a row he should have won, and wondering what he had to do to get back to doing back flips in the infield before roaring into Victory Lane again. He would soon find out.
Getty ImagesCarl Edwards still had plenty of reason to celebrate after a bumpy ride through the grass at Charlotte.
Checkers, then wreckers
Edwards destroyed the rest of the field in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race the following Saturday, and then he destroyed his car.
That set the conspiracy theorists in motion. They reasoned that Edwards deliberately wrecked his No. 99 Ford after taking the checkered flag so NASCAR officials wouldn't find out crew chief Bob Osborne had done something illegal to the front of it to make it fly through the night.
Edwards could not believe he was hearing this from folks within 30 minutes of performing his back flip off the car that was left smoking in the infield grass and had to be towed to Victory Lane. Why, he wanted to know, would he wreck a car that he obviously could have used to his advantage on the same track in the Coca-Cola 600 that was coming up in eight days?
Carl Edwards won three of the four segments and cruised to his first All-Star victory, giving him a $1 million payday.Edwards takes checkers
'All to pieces'
"That was a great car," he said. "Bob [Osborne] was a little pissed off about me tearing it up."
It was true that Osborne seemed to have no sense of humor about the conspiracy theorists speculating it had been wrecked after the race on purpose.
"The 99 program does not have disposable cars," he said. He was not smiling when he said it.
In bigger news ... literally much bigger news ... the All-Star Race also marked the official public debut of the largest High Definition video screen in the world at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It also was the most hyped big-screen TV in world history -- but guess what? It lived up to the hype. The thing was amazing, especially at night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted beforehand that he expected the drivers to be tempted to take sneak peeks at the huge screen -- which is larger than the front of the White House, if that gives you an idea of its massive size -- during caution periods.
One day later, a driver running for the Nationwide Series championship finally broke through and won a Nationwide race when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. visited Victory Lane at Iowa Speedway. Stenhouse didn't know it for certain at the time, but he also was just about to make his Sprint Cup debut on the big screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The perfect class
Two nights after Edwards' All-Star victory, the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame was inducted during an elaborate, classy ceremony in the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center, which is connected to the Hall.
Every facet of the sport was represented.
Get to know ...Allison: Self-made champion
Jarrett: Legend for two reasons
Moore: Larger than life
Pearson: Could run with anyone
Petty: Humble start to dynasty
There was driver David Pearson, winner of 105 races -- second all-time only to Richard Petty. Many thought he should have been included in the inaugural Hall class, including David Pearson if you asked him at the right time and he was really honest about it.
There was driver Bobby Allison, winner of 84 races (he still insists the correct total is 85) and one championship. He talked openly, with difficulty, of the pain he still endures daily when he thinks of the two sons he lost during his long journey through the sport.
There was late Lee Petty, founder of Petty Enterprises, winner of 54 races and three championships himself as a driver and another 268 races and seven more championships as a car owner. His family, including Richard, positively beamed with delight as they celebrated his induction.
There was Ned Jarrett, winner of 50 races and two championships as a driver and millions of hearts of race fans who grew up with him in their eyes and ears as a ground-breaking television commentator. He was included in the second class as much on his merits as a great ambassador of the sport as he was what he accomplished on the track.
And there was Bud Moore, now 86 and a former hero of World War II who returned to the United States after the war and helped shape NASCAR. As a top mechanic, he had no equal in his day. As a car owner, he won 63 races and two championships and helped mentor the late, great Dale Earnhardt, who once said no one ever taught him more about racing.
It was the last time an induction ceremony will take place during the month of May. Next year the inductions will be moved to June.
The longest day
During the run-up to the Coca-Cola 600 that finished out the month, Kyle Busch was charged with speeding and reckless driving after being clocked going 128 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone in Iredell County in North Carolina, 30 miles north of Charlotte. He apologized profusely for it, but it dominated much of the talk prior to the race.
So, too, did the news that Stenhouse would replace Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing for the Coke 600 -- that is, if Stenhouse could run fast enough in qualifying to get into the race, as the car was not locked in. Stenhouse did just that, qualifying ninth and then running respectably in the race itself to make some wonder if he might not have a brighter future in racing than Bayne, who was sidelined the entire month of May by a mysterious illness and "inflammatory condition" that remained unidentified despite multiple tests by doctors.
But the biggest story of the longest night in NASCAR belonged arguably not to the driver who won the race, but the one who lost it. Or rather, to the one who ran out of gas the latest. Several teams gambled on fuel at the end in an effort to steal the victory -- but none more painfully so than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was bidding to end a 104-race winless streak and inherited the lead when Kasey Kahne's fuel-starved machine stalled on the final green-white-checkered restart.
Kevin Harvick took advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last-lap heartbreak to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.Dale Jr. runs dry
Progress for Earnhardt
As Kahne's No. 4 Toyota stumbled, cars stacked up behind him and began wrecking. Earnhardt drove to a lead that stretched to six car lengths ... seven ... eight. Still, there was no caution. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, would later say there was none because "they were going to come back for the checkered. They got rolling and were coming back to the checkered. As long as they're rolling, we're in good shape. I mean, yeah, there were spins and stuff. But they all got rolling, so it was OK."
Regardless, there were more conspiracy theorists who wondered why the caution wasn't thrown as soon as cars started running into each other behind Earnhardt -- which happened before he took the white flag signifying one lap to go. None of it really mattered when what looked like a stirring if possibly controversial Earnhardt win evaporated along with his last drop of gas on the backstretch of that final lap.
Earnhardt ran dry and actually was fortunate to be able to coast across the start-finish line in seventh as Kevin Harvick surged unexpectedly to his series-high third win of the season. Even Harvick didn't feel as good about it as he might have -- although he still appeared to feel pretty darn good despite saying, "I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth."
Basically, the two real truths to come out of the month were that Harvick truly does want the No. 88 Chevrolet driven by Earnhardt to get back to Victory Lane -- just not at his expense, and that Harvick didn't feel too bad about Busch getting that speeding ticket.
It wasn't the only time the younger of the two racing Busch brothers had gone fast during the month. Although he failed to win a Cup race, Kyle Busch registered the most overall wins in May of any driver with a total of three -- having won the Nationwide race at Darlington and back-to-back Camping World Truck Series races in Iowa and at Charlotte. Kenseth added a Nationwide victory at Charlotte, so he and Edwards, with his earlier Dover Nationwide win and the All-Star triumph, registered two wins apiece in the month.
And Earnhardt? Well, he was left winless for another month. He's closing in on 36 months -- three full years -- since his last points win in a Cup race at Michigan in June of 2008. But he still managed to leave Charlotte Motor Speedway after the disappointment of that devastating final lap with a determined grin on his face.
"To be honest, I know there will be disappointment about coming so close," Earnhardt said. "But our fans should be real happy about how we're performing and how we're showing up at the race track -- how competitive we are. We've definitely improved things and we want to keep getting better and better.
"I'll be the first to admit we need more -- but this is going in the right direction. I felt like a true front-runner [in last Sunday's race]. ... We're building a good team and good chemistry and if our guys keep their heads up, we'll keep improving. That's what is important. If we let this bother us too much, we won't improve as much as we should. We want to win races and we're getting close enough that a couple of them are about to fall in our lap."
And with that, the month of May became a wrap.