Denny Hamlin won the AAA Texas 500 last night.
That’s the result.
But the story is of on-track fisticuffs, obscene gestures and an unprecedented wholesale change of pit crew mid-race. Oh – and a change of lead in the title race. Last night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship race really did have a bit of everything.
The truth is that for the first half of the race it was just another Sprint Cup race, poor qualifiers Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick made their way up through the field, five of the eventual nine caution periods had taken place and 22 different drivers had been credited as leading but already Greg Biffle had staked his claim for most laps led.
But on lap 160 Busch was tagged and spun his car, producing a huge amount of smoke but miraculously keeping it off the wall and avoiding being hit by anyone else. He dived into pit road to have his flat-spotted tyres changed and made a big effort to get off pit road just before the pace car came by, thus avoiding going a lap down. And that was where his troubles started.
He made it to the “end of pit lane” line just inches ahead of the pace car but in the process had exceeded the pit lane speed limit. He was called in to be held for one lap thus finding himself the lap in arrears he’d tried so hard to avoid. Kyle Busch being the man he is came back to his pit stall in a volley of foul language and didn’t heed the wise words of his crew chief, Dave Rogers, that they could get the Lucky Dog to get them back on the lead lap later and, more significantly, “NASCAR’s always got the last word“. Whilst waiting for the one lap penalty to be served Busch made an offensive gesture to the NASCAR official stood facing his car and holding him in the pit, raising one finger on his left hand and then, after a few seconds, doing the same with his right hand. All televised live. Smart.
As he rejoined the race his team were told to bring him back in for a two lap penalty for, according to NASCAR, an obscene gesture. Typically Busch exploded into another foul-mouthed tirade until Rogers screamed at him, “We all work too hard for this – you’re costing us!”
After the race Kerry Tharp, NASCAR’s director of Communications for Competition said, “Any time you make an obscene or inappropriate gesture to one of our officials, which he did, you’re subject to penalty. We penalized him during the course of the race. We held him two laps. But I tell you what, we’re going to go back this week when we get to Concord, N.C., and we’re going to review this situation and there could be further penalties regarding the No. 18 car.” He continued, “It’s in the rulebook. It’s on the pit-road rulebook card as well. Any time you make an obscene or inappropriate gesture toward one of our officials, you’re subject to a time or a lap penalty. And we got him with the two laps. But again, the people who officiate our sport are hard-working men and women and they deserve to be treated with respect.”
Team boss Joe Gibbs said, of the incident, “. . . for him around that race car when things don’t go well, I think there is a real frustration there. I think that’s just something that he’s going to have to continue to work on — and I think he acknowledges that, he admits that. But right when it happens, it’s hard for him to control that. I think that’s just an area that in general and in life he’s going to have to address — and I think he knows that and that’s nothing new. We’ve just got to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.”
For his efforts Busch finished in 32nd place two laps down and dropped two places in the points table.
Barely thirty laps later the caution was shown as Martin Truex Jr. hit the wall in the #56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, the third time he had brought the yellow flag out. As the camera panned back the cars of Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton were stood wrecked on the track, Gordon’s #24 up against the wall and the #31 down on the apron. After he had climbed from his destroyed Chevrolet Gordon ignored the ambulance on the track beside him and marched across to the pit apron and towards Burton.
As these two most respected and gentlemanly of men approached each other Gordon shoved Burton hard in the chest with both hands and then they started tussling with each other until nearby officials got between them. They continued shouting at each other across the shoulders of the officials – effing and Jeffing? – but, to be honest, it was impossible to hear what was being said above the cheers from the crowd. And then, most improbably of all, they both got in the same ambulance for the obligatory trip to the medical centre. That must have been a joyous ride.
To understand what had happened meant waiting until they emerged from the centre when Burton freely accepted the full blame and responsibility for the crash. Half a lap before the crash Gordon had tried to pass the 31 and Burton had cut him off which he acknowledged he shouldn’t have done, the yellow was then shown for the Truex crash and Gordon came alongside to let Burton know of his displeasure. Burton then tried to get back alongside the 24 car to acknowledge his mistake and the two cars somehow got hooked up and Burton genuinely inadvertently spun Gordon and both cars got wrecked.
About the fight between them, Burton said, “I knew he was going to be mad, and I don’t blame him for being mad. He didn’t do anything that he shouldn’t have done. He was upset. He should have been upset. I wrecked him under caution, and he wanted to tell me he was upset. That’s OK. I don’t have a bit of problem with what he did. He was mad, and he deserved to be mad.”
And Gordon’s response? “He deserved a lot more than that, I can tell you that. That kind of stuff is ridiculous and uncalled for. You know, Jeff and I … I just like the guy too much and we’ll be able to go on racing with one another after this — but I just lost so much respect for Jeff for doing something like that. That was really stupid. Sometimes I can’t hold my emotions back — and believe it or not, I was holding them back right there.”
In all of motor racing I doubt you will ever find two such unlikely guys fighting each other.
The knock-on effect of that incident was as unexpected as it was controversial. The whole of the #24 pit crew were sent to title leader Jimmie Johnson‘s #48 pit box and all of the 48 crew bar the tear-off guy sent away to pack up the 24’s tools. Although the crews of Harvick and Clint Bowyer were changed mid-week recently in an effort to help Harvick’s fight for the title, and undoubtedly individual members of crews have been changed mid race when they weren’t performing at 100%, never before has a crew been changed wholesale midway through a race.
The truth is that the first three pit stops for the Lowe’s Chevrolet had been troublesome, a loose wheel being knocked onto the infield in the first, although that wasn’t actually the team’s fault, and the next two stops had slow changes on the front right tyre. Of seven stops before the change they had lost places during four of them. For a team to win a race, let alone a title, everything has to be right and it was a brave decision by JJ’s crew chief, Chad Knaus to make the change when he did.
“It’s a professional sport, and you see it all the time,” said Knaus, who added the call to make the change was his. “If somebody’s out or somebody’s not getting it done, say in football, you get a different receiver in the game or a different quarterback, or whatever it is. Unfortunately, our guys weren’t hitting on all eight cylinders, and we had an opportunity with the 24 crashing to bring those guys in. They did a good job. They came in and played relief, and I thought they did a good job. It’s unfortunate. I don’t like doing that stuff, nobody does. But it’s kind of your job.”
Jimmie Johnson was equally unemotional about the swap. “At this point in the game, you can’t have feelings, you have to go out and try to win the championship. If somebody’s feelings got hurt, too bad. We’re here to win a championship, and we have to do everything we can.”
Knaus will have a tough week trying to lift the spirits and confidence of the 48 crew in time for Phoenix this weekend and get them back to performing at their best.
Of course, whilst all this was going on there was a race being run.
Hamlin took the lead for the second time on lap 306 the car improving noticeably as the sun started setting and the heat of the day faded. His crew, led by crew chief Mike Ford, had been steadily making the car run better after each stop and it all came good for Hamlin in those last few laps. With a caution being shown on lap 329, just five before the finish Ford opted to leave Hamlin out and the decision proved right. At the restart on lap 331 Matt Kenseth got the jump on Hamlin but then slid wide and gently tagged the wall allowing Hamlin back past and in to a lead, crossing the line 0.488 seconds ahead.
Third was Mark Martin in the #5 Carquest/GoDaddy car who was just not quite in the right place to take advantage of Kenseth’s ride to the wall but had run a very competitive race, showed again there is life in the old dog yet, and coming tantalisingly close to achieveing his aim of getting back in the winner’s circle at least once this year.
Special mention should be made, too, of Trevor Bayne. Having his first Sprint Cup drive at just nineteen years of age, driving the #21 Woods Brother’s Motorcraft Ford he brought the car home in a very impressive 17th place on the lead lap. His target had been top 25 and lead lap – he handsomely achieved that and more.
Of the title contenders, Harvick finished in sixth after a good drive by him let down, once again, by some poor pit stops. Johnson crossed the line in ninth place despite the crew change giving him significantly faster turnarounds and so, for the second race running, gave points away to his two title contenders.
And so Hamlin now leads the championship race by 33 points over JJ, the first time he has not led at this stage of the season, and Harvick is a further 26 points in arrears.
Next week’s race in Arizona favours Johnson who has not only the highest average at the Phoenix track but the highest average of any current driver at any current track. Hamlin feels he has not mastered Phoenix yet although the spring race this year marked Hamlin’s early return from knee surgery.
There is no doubt, though, that the driver and crew of the #11 FedEx Toyota feel they have the better of the #48 team at the moment, feel their choice to pick the pit stall directly ahead of Johnson’s at Texas helped rattle the pit crew and lead to the change.
They talk determinedly of the 11 going toe-to-toe with the 48 for the two remaining races.
It’s now a fight to the finish.