Darrell Waltrip weighs in with his take on Saturday's Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion, the fuel-mileage debate and more.
By Darrell WaltripFoxSports
Well, folks, a number of big news items from this past week.
My wife Stevie and I had a great time in Charlotte all week. We went to the Motor Racing Outreach concert on Tuesday night with the group NewSong. What a program that was. Then, on Wednesday night, boy did I have a thrilling evening with Stevie, MRO board members and some folks who bid on charity ride-and-drives around Charlotte Motor Speedway with Matt Kenseth and I. Matt was in his No. 17 Best Buy car and I was in my No. 17 Tide car — and we gave ride-alongs to people who bid for the opportunity to go for a spin under the lights. What an exciting evening.
I even got to take Stevie out for a ride — first time I’ve gotten her in a race car in 30 years — and she was just overwhelmed with how fast we went and what an experience it was. It was so exhilarating for her — she couldn’t believe that she did it, but she did and I’m pretty sure when it was all said and done she was glad she did because it really opened her eyes to what it’s like to be back in a race car for us two. What a great experience!
Then, of course, on Thursday night we had the “Better Half Dash,” which included wives and girlfriends of drivers and crew members racing in Bandolero cars on the quarter-mile track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Unbelievable performance by Travis Pastrana’s wife, Lyn-z, who won the race. I saw Travis afterward and I told him that he may have to take some pointers from his wife the way she drove that little car that night. That was fun.
Then, Friday night, we had the Nationwide Series race and Saturday night was the Sprint Cup race.
But in between all of that, a lot of things happened.
Certainly the big news of the week was Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulling himself out of his car for the next few weeks because of concussions he has suffered.
Boy have people been all over the place on that one: • What was he thinking? • How could he do that? • Why would he do that?
I know firsthand what it’s like to have a concussion and what it’s like to race with a concussion. Back in my time when we did that it was because we had to do it — our season was based on all 36 races and you couldn’t afford to miss one, so you would jeopardize your own health and safety for your team. Back in those days, you drove hurt, you drove with a concussion — you did whatever you had to do to stay up in the points and remain in the championship battle.
In Dale Jr.’s situation right now, it’s a little bit different. He’s already in the Chase, so the worst he can do is finish 12th. Realistically, he was sliding down the order before this weekend anyway and his championship hopes were starting to get dim.
If you look at the circumstances, timing-wise it all worked out well. He can get out of the car and get recuperated. A brain injury is nothing to mess around about. I read a study where by 2040 or 2050 I think it was, doctors will be able to replace everything in your body except your brain — that’s how important and fragile your brain is. It’s not like a hip, shoulder or knee or any other part of your body — it truly is irreplaceable so you have to take care of it.
Racers get beat around all the time — I think about former NHRA driver Eric Medlen, who drove for John Force’s team in the Funny Cars. He was testing his car and launched — he got off the line and his car had a severe wheel shake and it was that shaking that knocked him unconscious which led him to crash and eventually led to the loss of his life. That’s what violent slapping around in a race car can do to you.
Dale Jr. had a serious crash during testing at Kansas Speedway as we all know — and that was the start of his problems. Then he had that crash at Talladega. And let me tell you folks, I keep hearing people say “Oh, that crash didn’t look that bad” — unless you are in that race car, don’t ever say it’s not that bad. Those cars are violent, they are fast and they hit hard. Even when a crash doesn’t look bad on TV, in real life it is really bad.
After those two crashes, Dale Jr. was having headaches and you know the rest of the story where he decided in his best interest to step out of the car for a few weeks.
Now he’s taking a lot of heat for it. I’ve even heard some other drivers say, “Oh, I’d never do that” — that’s the macho man in people. But I’ve also heard some people say how wise Dale Jr. is for stepping out of the car and taking care of himself. Look, he can race for a long time, but he wouldn’t be able to if he suffered a brain injury. It is a very wise and brave decision on his part, and his real fans will stick with him through thick and thin and support him. Those that are skeptics will say he is making a mistake, but I don’t feel that way. I admire and respect him for the decision.
We should learn from Dale Jr.’s situation. There’s a test done in both the NFL and NHL called ImPACT, which stands for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing. I really think NASCAR should get involved in testing drivers for concussions. It’s too important to not perform this type of testing.
Saturday night’s race: Everybody keeps saying, “I’m tired of hearing about fuel mileage. Why do we have so many fuel mileage races?”
Well, for one thing, these crew chiefs and drivers have more options than they ever have before. With electronic fuel injection and the engine control unit, teams can manage these engines much better now than we could just a few years ago when you just had a carburetor and didn’t have information coming out of the race car that you could use like you do now. Right now, they can download so much information from the cars after practice, and there’s so much more they can look at now. When they get into a race, they know what setting they can run and be effective — whether it is full rich that produces max power or as lean as possible in order to maximize fuel mileage. Those are things teams can do before the race even begins. In the race, it’s much easier to monitor how much fuel you have in the car and how much you are burning based on consumption.
Remember, with the system they have now you have electric fuel pumps. Back in the day, we had mechanical fuel pumps and you were at the mercy of getting all the fuel during a stop and a whole lot of outside extenuating factors that dictate how far you could go on a tank of fuel. Now, teams know within ounces. You’ve got two pumps inside the tank picking up every ounce of fuel in the tank, and you have a reservoir in the center of the tank to be sure you have fuel in the car all the time.
There’s so much more information, that’s why teams can say, “You gotta slow down to 80 percent” or “You gotta slow down two-tenths.” Teams know exactly how much to back off and how that will affect the gas mileage. The reason we are seeing so many fuel mileage races is because these guys are managing the fuel so much better — even down to the ounce.
With that said, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe may have a little problem with hubris in regards to their superior gas mileage and knowing more about how to go farther on fuel than anybody else. They’ve won a couple of races because of it. But they’ve kinda been boasting about it — so guess what happened to them both Friday and Saturday nights? Fuel issues in both races. That’s how close those guys have been cutting it. Some of the races they won on fuel mileage they could have easily lost. It’s within ounces in most cases. I think what Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have learned is how to back off the throttle and how to save fuel, and now they’ve been able to milk their mileage too — as we saw Saturday night.
Clint Bowyer won Richmond because he had better fuel mileage; he won Saturday night because he had better fuel mileage. Part of it is driver, part of it is crew chief and part of it is engine combination. Toyota Racing Development has been doing a great job of improving its fuel mileage.
Fuel mileage has become part of the game, but it’s easier to manage and predict because of all the technology added to the cars — particularly this year with fuel injection and the ECU.
Congratulations to Bowyer, my brother and all of Michael Waltrip Racing. That’s Clint’s third win and Michael and Rob Kauffman’s first win in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It also puts Clint right back in the thick of things. It was starting to look like a three-man Chase, but now Clint is an outside fourth.
The Chase: Talking about the race to the championship — we’re halfway through the Chase and it’s still looking to me like it’s “Who can beat Jimmie Johnson when we get to Homestead?” At least that’s the way I see it.
Hamlin is going to be tough — he and crew chief Darian Grubb have the experience. Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have the experience. I’ve questioned all along whether Keselowski and Wolfe, with their limited Chase experience, can stay in contention to the end. It’s a lot easier being the challenger than being the one everybody is going after. The smart guys, the experienced guys, know how to protect the lead — it’s what has made Jimmie Johnson so good and it’s what it takes to win championships. You can try to win every race and win the championship, but you have to know when to cut your losses. That’s why I always say you gotta lose one to win one. The No. 2 team may learn a lot of valuable lessons as it seeks to outdo the five-time champ.
We know Hamlin has learned his lesson the hard way — running out of fuel two years ago in the second-to-last race and losing his shot at the title as a result. It took him a year to recover. Saturday night could prove to be a similar lesson for Keselowski — but we’ll have to wait and see.
Kansas: Now we are heading over to Kansas Speedway this weekend.
Folks, this is truly the “wild card” in the Chase. Forget Talladega: We knew what would happen there. But Kansas with its new surface and high speeds will be very unpredictable. Think back to Michigan — the first time we went back the speeds were so high and the track had so much grip that at the last minute Goodyear had to ship in new tires for the race. Tires are always a concern when you go to a newly paved track — speeds are going to be high and, as Dale Jr. reminded us, it can be a dangerous track.
Kansas is where I think things will get shaken up.
TV Deal: The new FOX Sports/NASCAR deal doesn’t start until the current one ends after the 2013 season, but it’s for eight more years and will take us to 2022.
Folks, if I can hang in there that long, I will have seen four generations of racers come through this sport. And who knows? In this next contract, if I can stay healthy and stick around for a while, like I hope to be able to, I may even see the fifth generation of racers.
Maybe we’ll see Leo Gordon win the Daytona 500 in 2022? You never know.