NASCAR

In a league of their own

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Sunday marked the 19th year that stock cars have been going around the Brickyard 400. I think it would be fair to say there are some fans who have become disenchanted with the kind of racing they see at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s a race track that has never really lent itself to side-by-side racing. It doesn’t lend itself to dramatic finishes. I can see their point, but if you go into the garage area you will find that going to Indianapolis every year is a big deal. It’s actually a very big deal.

Race car drivers don’t care where they win. They just want to win. That being said, when the Brickyard 400 rolls around, there is a special effort put in by the teams. This is a marquee event in our sport. There are certain drivers who rise to the occasion like at Indianapolis.

I think we saw that Sunday from Jimmie Johnson. Here was an opportunity to make and share history with his boyhood idol, Rick Mears. Rick was an Indycar driver who won the Indianapolis 500 four times. Jimmie came into the race Sunday having won three Brickyard 400s.

To a driver, winning at Indianapolis is a gauge and a gauge in a big way. Some of the most famous names in all of motorsports have won there. When you hear the iconic names like Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, etc., as a driver it raises your level of intensity. You want your name right up there and mentioned in the same breath as those guys.

When I was racing, I always put a special effort into racing at Indianapolis. That hallowed ground raises your game. I’ve also seen it in other drivers as well. We’ve seen it with Jamie McMurray and last year with Paul Menard.

What Jimmie Johnson did Sunday was reach that plateau of Indianapolis immortality. He learned the tricks of the trade, so to speak, from one of the greatest drivers ever to get behind the wheel of a stock car and that obviously is Jeff Gordon.

What we saw Sunday, with the type of car crew chief Chad Knaus gave Jimmie, was what my great mentor and friend Bill France Jr. used to call “stinking up the show.” Boy did Jimmie do that Sunday in spades. He led 99 of 160 laps. It truly was a magical day for the No. 48 bunch.

COVER HIS TRACKS

Get to know what makes J.J. special. Check out his top racing accomplishments.

Jimmie’s race team was flawless. His car performed to perfection. Jimmie drove a perfect race and there were no issues in the pits. That’s hard to beat. It is extremely hard to overtake a team performing at the level we saw Sunday from the 48. It truly was in a league of its own.

What also caught my attention was one of Jimmie’s comments made after the race. He said his intentions are to win eight championships. That is a very bold statement by most people. If someone else had made that statement, I probably would say, "Oh yeah, right." The thing is, it was Jimmie Johnson who said it.

I believe if Jimmie and Chad stay together and work together it is a real possibility. Seven championships in our sport has always been like a magic number when you look at Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt. The issue really is one of time and running out of it. Think about where Jimmie is in his career and how old he is.

At 36 years old, Jimmie already has five championships. But to get eight, he will likely be over the age of 40 by the time that would happen. Granted, Tony Stewart won the title last year at the age of 40, but like with most things where Tony is concerned, he is the exception and not the rule.

Would I like to see Jimmie do it? Heck yeah. I’ve always maintained it’s cool to be around when history is made. Obviously, if Jimmie could beat Richard and Dale by winning his eighth championship, you are talking about a brand new standard in the sport of NASCAR.

So we’ll just have to wait and see. If he could come back and win the championship this year, I would give Jimmie a better-than-average chance of breaking the record. I know one thing, the way he ran Sunday at Indianapolis, I sure am not betting against him.

***

One of the other big issues coming out of Sunday’s race was the attendance or at least how it appeared on television. The first few years we went there the place was packed with 250,000 fans. After that it began to dwindle.

The estimated crowd Sunday was 125,000 fans and you know what, if you put them in the main grandstand and in the seats down the front straightaway, I would bet it would look like 125,000 people were there. Unless you’ve been to the track and seen it up close, it’s hard to comprehend how big it is. That joint will hold 260,000 fans. It’s hard enough to sell 260,000 tickets even in the best of times and we all know this isn’t the best of times.

There are seats everywhere at Indy, plus the massive infield. With all those seats available, the fans get spread out and it’s hard to tell there are 125,000 folks there. Now downtown is Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts play. It holds 70,000 fans. Earlier this year they even held the Super Bowl there.

My point is 125,000 fans at a NASCAR race is a very impressive number. Sure, some of the detractors would prefer to focus on the empty seats. For me, I’d rather focus on a sporting event that brings 125,000 people through the gates.

Has the race lost some of its luster? Maybe. The tire issues they had there a few years ago during the Brickyard 400 made a lot of people say they weren't ever going back. Obviously they haven’t. Does the type of racing we get at Indy hurt us from the fan perspective? Maybe. Let’s face it, we’ve never had a last-lap pass in any of the 19 Brickyard 400 races.

I remember seeing a statistic that showed with about 30 laps to go, the driver leading at that point has won 13 of the 19 events. That makes it a pretty predictable joint. What is one of the biggest selling points our sport has? Unpredictability.

I just want everyone to understand that the enthusiasm within our sport when it comes to going to Indianapolis has never wavered. It’s still one of the premier events on our schedule. Is it a Daytona? No, not in the NASCAR world, because there is only one Daytona. But Indianapolis, in only 19 years, has become a close second.

I love going to Indianapolis. I did as a driver and I still do today as a fan. It elevates our sport to another level. It’s that big-game feel that excites the drivers, the teams, the owners and the sponsors. When we first went there 19 years ago, it was a pivotal moment in our sport. It took NASCAR to a whole new level.

I still remember like it was yesterday when my team and only a handful of others were chosen to do the initial tire test there. The feeling driving into the infield and then making the first stock car laps is something that is very hard to describe. A.J. Foyt was one of my heroes and here I was in his house where he won a record four times. I thought it then and I still think it today: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the greatest facility in the world.

***

Saturday was a historic day for the Nationwide series. For the first time ever, Nationwide cars raced at the famous Brickyard. Naturally you can’t hold your first-ever event at a new location without controversy and they had that.

My heart broke for Elliott Sadler. He went into Saturday’s race with an 11-point lead. Elliott was black-flagged on that final restart for beating Brad Keselowski to the Start/Finish Line and not giving the position back. Like I said, I feel bad for him but the rules are the rules. Elliott went on to finish 15th and now has only a one-point lead over Austin Dillon for the championship.

Did the second-place car beat the first-place car to the Start/Finish line? That’s a simple yes. Is there a reason why he did? There’s another simple yes. What the rule doesn’t address is what happens when the No. 22 car doesn’t go or spins its tires or what if Elliott was getting a push from the rear. It doesn’t say anything about all those variables.

I just believe these restarts have become way, way too complicated. There’s one set of rules for the start of the race that is different from the rules that apply to restarts. We saw this issue at Richmond with Carl Edwards. We saw it a couple times at Bristol with Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.

I just think it has gotten too complicated with the marks on the wall, the starting box, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. There are just too many things that can go wrong because they have too many rules regulating the restarts. I say put the line on the wall and across the track. From that point it’s up to the Start in the Flagstand. Why is it that some of the short-track rules at other tracks and in other series are more racer-friendly than in the nation’s premier racing series?

Open-wheel drivers in NASCAR

CHANGE OF PACE

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NASCAR does a great job of trying to protect us from ourselves, but sometimes I think they go too far. I just wish they would clean it up and simplify it. Obviously you can’t have what we used to call Texas restarts or jackrabbit restarts but let me ask you this: What’s wrong with waving off a restart? Have you ever seen them wave off a start of a race or a restart?

They do it all the time on the short tracks. I say if things aren’t lined up right or someone gets a jump, wave it off. Bring out the yellow – get things straightened out and go again. Just give them one more chance. If someone does it wrong that time, then they get sent to the rear.

What happened Saturday cost Elliott $100,000 plus he almost lost the points lead. But let’s be crystal clear here: NASCAR didn’t do it to him. Elliott did it to himself. He violated one of my Golden Rules about "Don’t beat yourself." Sure I feel bad for Elliott, but he has no one to blame but himself in this case.

***

So we are on to Pocono this weekend. The truck series is in action up there on Saturday afternoon, and then Sunday begins the final six races, taking us to Richmond and setting the field for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase.

Pocono, with its new surface, was bad-fast when we were first there just a few weeks ago, and there’s no reason to think anything has changed with the entire track now becoming a grip strip. I don’t think the old girl will have slowed down much so another track record wouldn’t be all that surprising.

If you remember, back in June at Pocono, Joey Logano did the ol’ bump-n-run on Mark Martin to win his second career race. That was pretty impressive from that young man who, by the way, also became the season’s first winner from the pole.

Tagged: Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski

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