Somehow at the end of the race in Phoenix, I understood how the little girl in Poltergeist felt when she looked at the TV and said, “They’re back!” Because that is exactly how this race felt. The power horses of NASCAR are finally back. After a painfully long and drawn out Speed weeks, we are finally back to racing and just let me say it felt good.
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”294″][/media-credit]This week in Phoenix had to be difficult at best for the teams. The two day turn around to get the cars to Phoenix is a well orchestrated ballet to say the least. Everyone from the tandems of truck drivers to the paint and body guys are up against the clock. Two days to get the fastest and most well groomed fleet of race cars to the track is a fete that would exhaust the most dedicated of workers. Add to that, most teams were not taking one pair of cars, they were taking two pairs of cars because the trip back to Vegas is just too far to go home and come back.
The ballet was only the beginning of two of the hardest weeks in the NASCAR season. Once the cars arrived many teams found that were just a little off. The search for speed and handling began in earnest.
The power horses of HMS were seemingly the slowest of the field with practice times showing promise and qualifying times showing disappointment.
They were not alone; many of the dominant teams who got awesome starts in Daytona struggled with either handling or speed. Red Bull and Jack Roush struggled heavily with Vickers and Ambrose and Kenseth and Biffle qualifying mid pack or worse.
The new qualifying system was a dud. It lacked the crisp pace of the old system. And made for a long day with two qualifying sessions taking up most of Saturday although the new procedure and the moving qualifying to Saturday was great for ticket sales it proved a long and boring TV broadcast.
That would be rectified when the cars took the track. Although the NNS race was barely watch able Kyle Busch proved himself to be the dominant horse in what turned out to be a one horse race until the last 20 laps. Try as he might Carl Edwards simply didn’t have the power to get around the Interstate Batteries Camry. But he did make it a great end of race battle that even with its drama could not rescue the rest of the race.
But the big dogs of the Sprint Cup made up for it in spades. The race was all racing and action from the drop of the green flag. The best of the best used up what was left of the old pavement in Phoenix in a big way. With 8 laps to go Jeff Gordon slipped to the inside of Kyle Busch and took the lead for the final time. He stretched it out and never looked back. Breaking his 66 race losing streak, the 4 time Champion proved why and how he got those 4 championships.
The stories of perseverance were numerous in the field from Kevin Harvick coming to finish 4thafter a lap 59 incident that involved Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin as well as the 29 Jimmy Johns car of Harvick.
Mark Martin showed his grace under pressure in his Go Daddy Chevrolet that featured messages from his fan base to come back with a right front corner that was more bearer bond than sheet metal to finish 13th.
The Lowes Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson struggled on pit road and on the race track relying on the skills of the 5 time champion to garner them a 3rd place finishing position.
The National Guard Chevrolet showed great improvement for another week, coming back from a speeding penalty, a broken wheel on the jack and a loose wheel that put them a lap down, perseverance and steady progression put Earnhardt Jr in a position to regain his lap and ultimately scoring a 10th place finish.
But the real heroes of this race were the crews of the 99 Subway Ford Fusion of Carl Edwards and the 33 Cheerios Chevrolet Impala of Clint Bowyer. With the front ends of those cars totally destroyed, they put them back together with new nose pieces and put their drivers back on the track to get those ever valuable points.
This race had its feel good story of the race as well, with Jeff Gordon snapping a long losing streak that had his confidence suffering at a low point. Gordon showed that the new match up with crew chief Alan Gustafson was indeed a match made in heaven. Both crew chief and driver showed the poise that made the 24 and its driver 4 time series champions.
The raw emotion in victory lane from the driver to the fans, his team and his car owner were palpable even from the couch thousands of miles away. You had to share his excitement and his relief. You had to respect the ability he had shown. And you had to cheer the humility of a man who could have easily said finally I knew it wasn’t me. Instead he was gracious and professional and showed the class that is essential for a champion of the sport.
This race is the closest we have had in a long time to the exciting sport of NASCAR that we grew up with. It was hard driving and refusing to lose attitudes against a track surface that in the words of Phoenix International Raceway president, Bryan R. Sperber was “used up”. Sperber stated that “Our goal for this project was to not radically change a track that’s celebrated by fans and drivers alike, but to utilize new technology to ensure great moments in the next chapter of racing history at PIR.” To orchestrate his point and commitment to racing the project began with the removal of asphalt before the Victory Lane celebration even ended.
The static has cleared on the television set and the cheers have died down. But the realization of the fact that they are indeed back will stay with us for a long long time.
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Congratulations to Kyle Busch and his Kyle Busch Motorsports team on their win of the truck series race, and to he and his Joe Gibbs Racing Team for a dominating win in the Nationwide Series Race. Congratulations to Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson and everyone at HMS for the victory in the Sprint Cup Series.
That said, to all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.