Note: This was originally posted on September 3, 2007.
I just watched probably the most exciting California Speedway race ever. The finish wasn't all that close, but there was a lot of exciting racing in Sunday's Sharp Aquos 500. We saw close racing, we saw wrecks, we saw smoke, and we even saw fire, unfortunately.
The drivers on the bubble for the Chase drove hard, and in the end, not a lot changed. The hyped-to-the max struggle for Dale Earnhardt Jr. was played out as if choreographed by a Hollywood screenwriter. The stands at the often criticized California Speedway appeared to be full. There was drama, and even a little comedy in last night's performance.
We watched as the 55 Toyota of Michael Waltrip blew a tire, burst into flames, and slid into the infield, trailing burning oil and a lot of smoke. We watched breathlessly as the safety crew drove up beside Michael's car, and one safety worker sidled over to the car, as if asking for directions, and basically just stood there as Michael struggled to free himself from the restraining belts and HANS device to exit the car. Remember Michael Waltrip is about 6' 5" or so, a very large man physically, much taller than the average Nascar driver. Michael finally was extracted from the car, but one has to wonder about the apparent lack of concern exhibited by the first responder. The second man to arrive at the car carried a fire extinguisher, and he promptly ran to the passenger side of the car, spraying retardant under the car, rather than inside the cockpit, where the flames were becoming more than a little of a concern to the driver trapped inside. Michael is apparently fine, which is indeed good news. As for the safety workers? I guess this one is just a matter of "Whatever, dude."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 5th, beating all the other drivers he had to beat, but not by enough to really make much of an impact in his quest to get into the Chase. When Dale climbed from the car, his face was as red as his uniform, and he had trouble putting sentences together. He was exhausted, and had just driven in horrible 145 degree plus temperatures for four hours. Dale Jr. didn't just drive the car, he drove the wheels off of it. I know that other drivers drove hard too, but Dale Jr. was driving with everything on the line, and no crew chief or team owner could ask more from a driver than the performance Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave Sunday night. Many people may wonder why Dale Jr. drove so hard for a team that he is leaving at the end of the year. The short answer is that Dale Jr. is his father's son, and just like his father, he didn't quit until the checkered flag flew.
My usual race day tradition is somewhat complex. Not only do I watch the race, but I have Nascar.com's Pitcommand running, and I'm watching lap times. I'm also listening through the headphones to different drivers. At one point during a short green flag run, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch swapped the lead several times, both drivers racing very hard. After the next yellow flag flew, Dale Jr. told his spotter, Steve Hmeil, to tell the spotter for Kyle Busch, "Tell the 5 (Kyle Busch) that was fun!" Steve Hmeil complied.
Also, during another caution, Dale Jr. did an in-race interview. Dale sounded tired, hot, and cranky, giving short, terse answers. The interviewer quickly wrapped it up, wishing Dale Jr. good luck. Dale Jr. replied "I hope you're enjoying your air conditioning." The interviewer informed Dale Jr. that it was 65 degrees up in the booth. Dale Jr. replied "I figured."
In addition to the other things I'm doing during the race; watching, reading, listening, etc. I also check out several message boards. I hardly ever post on any of them during the race, but I do read several. One board dedicated to a fairly popular driver, who drives for one of the legendary owners of Nascar is always particularly interesting. The driver that is supposedly the favorite of these fans was not running very well through much of the race last night. In virtually every race over the last two years that I've read this board, there are fans calling for the firing of the crew chief, even in races in which this driver eventually won. During many of the races, the fans initiate personal attacks on each other, which, I suppose, may be understandable during the heat of competition. Often during these races, the board moderator, who is an employee of the driver, has to get out the "Hoover" and delete entire message threads because of the personal attacks. This happened at least once last night that I know of. I was reading this message board after by far the biggest victory of this driver's career, and there were still fans criticizing everything from the tire pressures to the crew chief. I repeat, this was after the driver WON the race! I understand being a fan, because I am a fan, but sometimes we as fans carry things a little too far.
Like all sports, racing is a business. People involved in it earn their livings from it. We, as fans, invest our dollars into the sport, because we are passionate about it. That's the way pretty much all sports work. As in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, track and field, tennis, golf, or any other sport you can imagine, some of us Nascar fans are passionate about it, and some are more casual. Any level at which you participate is welcome, as long as you are a fan. When a sport becomes your life, and you're not getting paid for it, I think it might be time to back off a little though!
Nascar racing provides many, many people with a living. Sadly, I'm not one of those, no matter how much I would love to be. If I can ever write about it and get paid for it, I'll be happy, but I don't get paid 1 cent for this. I do it because I love it, and I will for as long as I have the time or ability to do it.
I have to say congratulations to Bobby Labonte on his 11th place finish last nigh. Bobby and his new crew chief Doug Randolph are really clicking well together. Bobby and Doug are both tried and true veterans of this sport, and it's really good to see that 43 Petty Dodge running so well again!
Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, he had the best car when it counted. Congratulations to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for driving probably your toughest race ever. You never gave up, and I think any true Nascar fan will have to respect you a lot for what you did last night.