Gettin’ Up On The Wheel
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
Many people were surprised when young Jamie McMurray won Sunday’s UAW/GM 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, topping the Winston Cup troops in only his second career series start.
They shouldn’t have been.
In fact, in a season when NASCAR’s “young lions” have dominated like never before, McMurray’s win might even have been expected. A year ago, Kevin Harvick carried the checkered flag in just his third Cup start, and this season, rookies Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman have already visited Victory Lane. Both have put their teams in the thick of the Winston Cup championship chase, as well.
What’s up with these kids? Why are they having so much success against their more-experienced competition? In a word, hunger.
In NASCAR-land, there’s a phenomenon known as “gettin’ up on the wheel;” where a driver grits his teeth, takes a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel, and simply wills himself to Victory Lane. Two decades ago, Cale Yarborough was the avowed master of this technique. More recently, Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond earned reputations as drivers with the ability to win races on ability and desire alone.
These days, it’s getting easier and easier to do. A large portion of each week’s Winston Cup starting field is made up of multimillionaires, and with healthy, seven-digit annual incomes, many of those multimillionaires no longer feel the need for speed the way they did when they were younger. Their jobs are secure, their mansions and Lear jets are paid for, and the difference between first place and fifteenth suddenly doesn’t seem as big as it used to. End result? A field of “follow the leader” racers, content to ride in circles and cash the check.
A few weeks ago at New Hampshire International Speedway, NASCAR staged what was arguably the best Winston Cup race ever run at “The Magic Mile.” Despite longstanding complaints about an allegedly undriveable racetrack, the Cup troops ran two and three-wide all day, until Mother Nature brought a premature halt to the festivities. Why? It’s simple. With threatening weather all around, every driver in the field knew believed he had very little time to get to the front of the pack before it rained.
After the race, one prominent Winston Cup veteran was asked about the sudden surge in competitive racing at New Hampshire. He replied - quite matter-of-factly - that racing like that has always been possible at NHIS. Unfortunately, he said, drivers are “uncomfortable” running two-abreast at the Loudon oval under ordinary circumstances. Thus, it rarely (if ever) happens.
That, more than anything, sums up what’s wrong with NASCAR Winston Cup racing these days. Too many “comfortable” drivers. That, more than anything, explains why drivers like McMurray, Johnson and Newman stand out so far above the crowd. They’re hungry, they’re working hard, and they’re driving their cars to the absolute limit, every single lap.
In short, they’re “gettin up on the wheel.”
Used to be, young drivers didn’t get much attention in the Winston Cup racing. After all, the early years of their careers were spent in second-tier equipment, fighting to attract the attention of one of a handful of front-running car owners. Today, however, new talent comes to the series with top-shelf rides already in hand. The equipment, technology and resources are there to win immediately. All that’s needed is the desire.
So enjoy Jamie McMurray while you can. Revel in the white-hot talent of Jimmie Johnson, bask in the glow of Ryan Newman’s banzai charges. Because soon, once those personal services contracts are signed, it’ll all be over.
Despite his win last weekend, McMurray will not drive the Coors Light Dodge this Sunday at Martinsville. Instead, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series point leader Mike Bliss will fill the seat, as McMurray fulfills his obligation to the #27 Williams Travel Center-sponsored Busch Series team at Memphis Motorsports Park. McMurray, who is currently ninth in Busch Series points, will be back in Chip Ganassi’s Winston Cup Dodge next weekend in Atlanta.
Another driver affected by the Martinsville/Memphis doubleheader is Kenny Wallace, who will relinquish the seat in Bill Davis Racing’s #23 Hills Brothers Coffee Dodge to steer the #48 Stacker2 Busch Series Chevrolet at Memphis. Wallace replaced Hut Stricklin in the Hills Brothers car at Darlington earlier this year, but his primary obligation remains to the Busch team. Veteran Geoffrey Bodine will sub for Wallace at Martinsville Sunday.
NASCAR has changed its policy on spotters, in the aftermath of an ARCA RE/MAX Series crash last weekend that took the life of driver Eric Martin. Martin, 33, was fatally injured Wednesday afternoon during ARCA practice, when his car spun and struck the outside retaining wall at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The Tennessee native was not injured in the initial crash, but died of massive internal injuries after being struck broadside by driver Deborah Renshaw, some 5-6 seconds later. Subsequent investigation showed that Renshaw’s spotter was positioned on top of the team’s hauler, and did not have a clear view of the accident scene.
Renshaw, who was hospitalized with facial lacerations and a badly broken left foot, said the crash was caused by oil on the race track, but other observers have disputed her claim. Either way, NASCAR has now mandated that each team must have a spotter in the official spotter’s stand before their car is allowed on the track, even during practice.
Courage can be measured in many ways. Perhaps it’s the ability to keep your right foot planted on the floorboard as you hurtle into a corner at 180-miles per hour. In the case of Ricky Hendrick, however, courage is the ability to say you can’t.
Hendrick, the 22-year-old son of Winston Cup car-owner Rick Hendrick, announced his retirement from the sport last week, cited lingering effects of a shoulder injury suffered in a crash on March 2 at Las Vegas. The problem is not with his shoulder, however. It’s in his head.
Hendrick tested his Busch Series Chevrolet Monday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and his 177-mph fast lap was 11th fastest of the 12 drivers who tested, nearly two miles per hour slower than his teammate, Jack Sprague. Afterward, Hendrick said he has been unable to get the March crash out of his mind, and admitted it has affected his performance.
"This was an incredibly hard decision to make, but after a lot of soul searching, I've decided to step away from the driver's seat and pursue other opportunities within Hendrick Motorsports,” he said. “"I love this team, and I love this sport, but I'm not able to perform at a level that I'm comfortable with."
"He called me Tuesday from Atlanta," said Rick Hendrick of his son. "I said, 'Maybe you want to think about this.' He said, 'I'll think about it, but I've made up my mind. It just doesn't feel right.’”
Short (Track) Subjects…
…American-Canadian Tour officials have announced a meeting for competitors interested in discussing the future of Plattsburgh’s Airborne International Raceway, Tuesday night at 6:30 at the Holiday Inn, Route 3 in Plattsburgh.
ACT President Tom Curley said last week that preliminary talks have taken place with Adirondack International Raceway owner Paul Lyndaker concerning a potential sale of the embattled Empire State oval, but added that if a deal is not reached in the very near future, ACT would likely reopen the track itself next season.
…Kevin Harvick will join the growing list of Winston Cup drivers running a limited schedule of events on the NASCAR Busch Series next year. Car owner Richard Childress will field a Chevrolet Monte Carlo with sponsorship from Hershey Foods’ PayDay candy bars. Harvick, the 2001 Busch Series Champion, will drive the car in 15 of the 34 race on the schedule, with current RCR Busch Series driver Johnny Sauter running the remainder.
"I'm excited to be getting back into the Busch Series," said Harvick, who collected five wins, four poles, 20 top-five finishes, and only one DNF en route to the 2001 Busch Series title. "This year, I didn't have enough to do. To get back into the Busch Series with a high-profile sponsor like PayDay is exciting. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it will be good for our Winston Cup effort.”
…Todd Bodine won’t be getting many Christmas cards from his fellow drivers this year. In fact, anything that does come in the mail might be ticking.
The ever-aggressive Bodine made a few more enemies Sunday on lap 231 of Sunday’s UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, driving through the infield grass in an attempt to pass Ward Burton and Jeff Green, then losing control and wiping out 10 cars. Bodine slammed into Burton, who rammed Green, triggering a massive melee that eventually involved John Andretti, Brett Bodine, Ricky Craven, Bobby Hamilton, Kenny Wallace, Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick, as well.
Richard Childress, who lost all three of his cars in the wreck, placed the blame squarely on Bodine, saying, “That’s about the eighth car (he) has totaled for my team this year. Todd does something stupid every week.” Burton expressed similar frustration, saying, “I wish sometimes he’d use a little more patience.”
For his part, Bodine said he made the ill-advised move to avoided running into Burton after he and Green got together while racing for position. “I didn’t have time to put the brakes on and slow down, because I had such a run going,” he said. So, I went under him. When I got to the tri-oval, there was the grass. I know everybody is going to blame me for it, but I’m not going to take the blame. It was a racing deal.”
Happy holidays, Todd.
…After being rained-out a week ago, the 2002 NASCAR Busch North Series finale takes place this Saturday at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park. Practice, Bud Pole qualifying, and the 82-lap “Burnham Boilers 200” will be condensed into a one-day format, with Andy Santerre, Matt Kobyluck, and Brad Leighton all in contention for the title.