Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series’ final trip out West turned into an old-fashioned bar fight, a down-and-out team won for the first time in more than a year situation the championship situation changed dramatically amid all the noise. The wild day at Phoenix International Raceway gets a 5 Star Rating.
Like it or not, Sunday’s race had everything, and all of it was unexpected.
First, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson hit the wall coming out of Turn 4 on lap 235 after his right-front tire went flat. That incident relegated him to a 32-place finish and put him 20 points behind Brad Keselowski, who finished sixth.
But that was only the beginning of the mayhem that took place Sunday in the desert.
Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr. had their weekly spat as Hornish Jr. tapped the side of Danica’s car on lap 299 coming out of Turn 4. The contact cut down Hornish Jr.’s left-front tire and eventually sent him into the wall.
Then the big one happened. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon made contact in turns 3 and 4 on the restart, and Gordon ended up slapping the wall. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and turned him sideways, wrecking Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the process.
Once Gordon got to the garage area, Bowyer’s team was waiting and ready to pounce. They did, and a huge brawl broke out behind the #24 team’s hauler as members of both teams started throwing punches. Bowyer sprinted to the garage area to get in on the action, but he and Gordon never met until after the race inside the NASCAR hauler with officials.
After that excitement settles down, NASCAR restarts the race with a green-white-checkered finish. Patrick wrecks in Turn 4 as the field comes to the white flag, but NASCAR doesn’t throw a caution. The entire field then slides through the oil from Patrick’s car as they come to the finish line and a major wreck ensues.
Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard all sustain major hits as they plowed through the oil and into Patrick’s car. Keselowski got hit coming to the line, but he didn’t get turned.
To put the finishing touches on a crazy day, Kevin Harvick won the race. It was the first time he and the #29 team had gone to Victory Lane since September of last year at Richmond.
The win was surprising because Harvick and the entire Richard Childress Racing organization had shown no signs of contending for a win for nearly the entire season. Harvick finished second at Phoenix in the spring race, but he hadn’t even had a top-10 finish in the Chase up until Sunday.
Maybe the win will boost the Childress teams, but they still have a lot of work to do to be competitive on a weekly basis, especially at larger tracks.
People will likely debate for days about what NASCAR should do about the Gordon-Bowyer incident and what penalties it should or should not hand out. The one issue from Sunday’s race that shouldn’t be disputed is NASCAR’s incorrect call to throw the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck.
Week after week NASCAR officials call for a caution flag for water bottles and sandwiches or whatever incidental piece of debris is on the race track, yet they didn’t call a caution when Patrick’s #10 car slid sideways through Turn 4 after hitting the wall.
That’s what caused the big wreck on the final lap. Officials always talk about the importance of safety in the sport, but they put drivers in harm’s way on the final lap when they allowed the race to finish under green.
Robin Pemberton’s excuse that officials couldn’t see fluid on the track shouldn’t justify NASCAR’s actions, or lack of action. The caution comes out for small incidents all the time when the leader has put together a big enough lead to keep the race from being exciting.
NASCAR should’ve thrown the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck. Period.
Anyway, Johnson will take a 20-point lead into Homestead to try to win … Wait, not Johnson. Keselowski will take that lead to Homestead to try to win his first championship. He needs to finish 15th or better to win the trophy. If he does, he will become the first driver to go head-to-head with Johnson in the Chase and beat him since Tony Stewart did it in 2005. That’s a pretty impressive feat, and Keselowski and the #2 team have had a very impressive season.
Have a great final week of the 2012 season, everybody.

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