Gluck: NASCAR drivers should spin to win at Bristol race
March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
CHARLOTTE — Winning is everything in NASCAR these days. Or at least that’s what NASCAR and the drivers say.
What better time and place to prove it than Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway?
If winning is really all that matters, then the second-place driver should put a bumper to the leader in the final laps of the Food City 500. Spin to win, if necessary.
The current crop of drivers hates that idea, because it’s not “clean” or respectful. When USA TODAY Sports polled several drivers before September’s Richmond race and asked whether they’d wreck a competitor to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, most said no way.
Essentially, their thinking is this: That’s not how I race. I don’t want to win that way. That doesn’t take any talent. That’s not the right way to do things.
There might have been something to that mindset under the old format, where settling for second was a good points day and made a loss easier to swallow.
But the new format is designed to reward winning above all else. That’s why 14th-place Kevin Harvick is in a better position to make the Chase after three races than third-place Jimmie Johnson; Harvick has won and Johnson hasn’t.
There’s no better venue for sparks to fly than Bristol, which bills itself as the “Last Great Colosseum.” That’s not “coliseum” like a basketball arena but the Colosseum in Rome, where gladiators battled.
While no one wants to see drivers involved in a demolition derby which would result in injury, there’s a long way between that kind of carnage and a clean race with no contact.
This is NASCAR. This is Bristol. Drivers, use your bumpers.
Last August, Kasey Kahne was tracking down leader Matt Kenseth in the final laps of the night race. Though he had an ax to grind with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — who had taken him out several times earlier in the season — Kahne tried to make a clean pass for the win.
He had an opportunity to rough Kenseth up — they were side-by-side with three laps to go — but he declined. Kenseth won.
Afterward, Kahne said he “needed a win bad — but I also needed a finish, and I just didn’t do anything crazy.”
On Sunday, no one just needs a finish. Everyone will be going for the win.
So yes, it’s time to be crazy.
The counter-argument at Bristol is that with the current layout, it’s hard to move a driver out of the way. In the old days, the fastest line around the track was the bottom; bump a guy out of the groove, and there was a clear path to drive through.
And that bumping used to be far more common. Bristol’s signature moment was when the late Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte to win the 1999 night race. Of course, Earnhardt famously said afterward that he wasn’t trying to wreck Labonte — he just “meant to rattle his cage.”
But since Bristol reconfigured the track in 2007, the racing has changed. Even after the track ground down the top lane in 2012 to appease angry fans who longed for the fender-banging action they remembered, the highest line has been the preferred one.
Kenseth was already running up against the wall last year, so it would have been difficult for Kahne to move him without wrecking them both.
Still, what does it really matter now if Kahne crashes while trying to take out Kenseth? Second place at this point in the year is as good as 30th, while winning would change the entire regular season for a driver and a team.
With that in mind, drivers should put aside their gentlemen’s code and risk angering competitors by driving dirty — even if, as Kahne said last summer, “I just don’t wreck people.”
Though Brad Keselowski won last week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel, the driver acknowledged afterward he had considered roughing up his friend and former boss for the win if necessary. After all, Keselowski said, Earnhardt was already in the Chase thanks to a win in the Daytona 500.
“I’d have damn near wrecked him if I had to with that in mind,” Keselowski said. “It’s part of the deal.”
Now it’s time for drivers to back up the talk. If winning is all that matters, then prove it.