Reckless abandon? Meet road races
As a fan of motorsports, I like the excitement of wrecks. I was really entertained while watching the Nationwide race at Road America with the aggressive driving by Jacques Villeneuve; the fuel mileage strategy playing out; and some of the younger guys running up front. I felt the same way about Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Sonoma. It was fun to watch Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers (just to name a few) drive so aggressively. But being a fan, analyst and car owner gives me the unique opportunity to look at races with a different lens.
When I put my analyst hat on, was the racing great? It wasn't bad, that's for sure. But I've seen better road racing.
I was looking forward to seeing more passing, especially passes under braking, than I did at both racetracks. I saw drivers really using the chrome horn, or front bumper, more than I thought they needed to. I wanted more strategy to play out and more flat-out racing each other. I broadcasted the Nationwide race and could tell tensions were running high late in the race. But watching Villeneuve get into Brian Scott and ruin his day before destroying Max Papis' ride reminded me that sometimes wrecking is just uncalled for.
I was also really surprised to see how much trouble the Nationwide crews were having making pit stops. Drivers had to pit cars on the opposite side than they are accustomed to pitting. Usually pit stops are on the right side first, then on the left side. At Road America this week it was left side first then right side, and people were getting confused.
Switching gears to looking at these races as a car owner, I was disappointed to see how aggressive drivers were. Why? Well, I know firsthand how expensive it is when you tear up cars like that. When you badly wreck these newly designed cars, your team has to have the frame repaired and take the car back to NASCAR to have it recertified. It's an enormous amount of time and money. Depending on your team's resources, we're also talking about complete body rehanging, labor, parts, etc. If you're working on a cars such as Stewart's or Vickers' after their wrecks, we're talking somewhere in the range of $50,000 in repairs. The Cup guys with more budget can afford this, but it's a really tough deal when Nationwide guys start tearing up stuff.
As an owner, I also don't agree with a driver sticking up for his team and using his car as a weapon. I'd much rather have my driver voice his concerns across the radio to the spotters to try to relay the message than use his vehicle as a battering ram. It's a bad deal for all involved when a driver loses his cool. I know how much it can set a team back. There are times my son has done this, and I've been very upset. And I've done it as a driver, too. But boy, the next day, after I had time to sleep on it, I looked back and felt foolish. One driver got frustrated and wanted to take it out on someone, and now the whole team has to pay for his actions.
Payback driving is different from driving with reckless abandon because of your position in the standings. If your team is sitting 17th and looking to make a run, taking risks makes more sense. But the two drivers not in the top 10 that I'd like to see in the Chase -- Denny Hamlin and Stewart -- need to take a safer approach.
Hamlin, who currently sits at No. 11 in the standings, always has the speed to compete. He came as close to knocking off Jimmie Johnson as anyone has and deserves to give it another shot this year. If I were his crew chief, I would say, "I want you to run hard and win, but I don't want you to get too far out of the box. Don't risk tearing up this car, have a bad pit stop or make a personal mistake and get caught speeding on pit road. Above all, limit your mistakes and drive smart." If he uses this thought process, he'll get himself back in there.
Stewart, currently 12th in the standings, is one of the best drivers in the field. Any vehicle he gets in -- IndyCar, dirt car, etc. -- he runs well. He's had some struggles getting his team where he wants it and he's had some management changes, but if he just believes in himself he can get it done. Above all, I think he needs to stay calm. His team doesn't need to think "banzai;" it just needs to run flat out every race. Stewart needs to rally his people and pull them in the right direction. If he can fire them up, they'll do anything for him -- including a Championship run.
Rusty Wallace joined ESPN after retiring from driving following the 2005 season. He won 55 races and was the 1989 NASCAR champion. In addition to serving as the lead studio analyst for ESPN's NASCAR coverage, Wallace contributes to "SportsCenter," "First Take" and ESPNEWS.
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