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In just over a week, we'll have one of the more enjoyable NASCAR events of the year, Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream dirt race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. To bring you up to speed, here's what happened last year:
The Prelude is on June 8 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO Pay-Per-View. No, you can't come watch it at our place.
Sunburned, curiously, only on the right half of my body and still dazed by the bajillions of megapixels hung above the Charlotte backstretch, I'm back from a weekend in fan mode at the Coca-Cola 600. Let's dive in to 600-miles of hits and misses.
HOT: Charlotte Motor Speedway's much-promoted and much-hyped new video board (the 200' by 80' behemoth that they're calling the world's largest high-definition television) very much deserved the promotion and the hype. Frankly, it's the best advance in fan amenity I've seen by a NASCAR track in several years.
Suddenly, the entire track (save for the souls in the turn two grandstand) has a single source for each and every happening during an event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That's important, I think, because it helps establish a more unified and aware crowd. That's an effect that could prove substantial for selling tickets in the future because even the most casual of fans can feel involved and in-the-loop of a sometimes confusing event.
That being said, the screen is just stunning in itself. It's perfectly visible even during the sunniest parts of the day and the replays are crisp from any direction. There's no doubting CMS' use of the video board will (and should!) lead other tracks to follow suit. The small, trailer-stationed video boards have quickly become obselete.
NOT: CMS, never a speedway dull on searching for a buck, even sold t-shirts celebrating the backstretch screen. I feel kind of bad for those who felt parting with $16 for that shirt was a good move.
HOT: It would have been fantastically cool to see how the hometown fans would have celebrated hometown boy Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulling into victory lane after the Coca-Cola 600. A track that has long been a thorn in his side coupled with The Streak finally coming to an end would have made for some raucous post-race fandom.
But despite Junior losing it in the final lap (fuel is expensive these days, am I right? Kidding.) there should be no doubt that his revamped approach and the terrific chemistry new crew chief Steve Letarte brings has put the No. 88 in position to be a contender down the stretch of 2011. Earnhardtwas fast all night around Charlotte's 1.5 miles, and you've got to think that will translate well to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
NEUTRAL: Kyle Busch didn't win a thing this weekend at Charlotte. That alone is enough to be concerned about Mr. Lead Foot, right? Sarcasm aside, Busch's night at CMS ended so very strangely. Early in the going, Busch looked untouchable as he led 55 laps.
By the time the night was over, Busch had spun twice on his own and finished 32nd. Strangely, the last time Busch led exactly 55 laps at Charlotte (2005) he also struggled to the end, finishing two laps down in 25th.
NOT: I realize that NASCAR changed their weekend schedule many years ago to put Sprint Cup final practice before any support series races. Knowing that, it's still remarkably dumb to field the final two practices during the heat of the day for an event that will be run mostly at night.
It seems a tweak would require major changes to the 600 weekend's schedule, but something should be done.
HOT: Count me in among those who thought Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wouldn't come close to finishing his first Sprint Cup race. After all, 600 miles at Charlotte is quite the arduous drive for a driver not anywhere near used to the length of a usual Sprint Cup race.
Instead, Stenhouse wound up 11th as the super sub for Trevor Bayne in the Wood Brothers' No. 21. He also was one of the most aggressive drivers on restarts all night, as he found himself picking up spots typically three-wide and up high.
NOT: Did you know Jeff Burton doesn't have a top 10 in all of 2011? Mired now 22nd in the Cup Series points, Burton finished a lap off the pace in 21st Sunday night. With teammate Kevin Harvick finding wins here, there and everywhere, Burton has to be grindingly frustrated by now.
HOT: Cheers to Marcos Ambrose are indeed in order. The Australian placed sixth Saturday night for his second-straight top-10 finishand fourth of the season. You've got to know that the first win is coming soon for Ambrose. He's running too well for it not to.
NOT: I'm pretty sure Lee Greenwood's rendition of "God Bless the USA" prior to Sunday night's race at CMS was about the 387th time he's performed the song at a NASCAR event. It was a struggle, too, as the 68-year-old strained for high notes and missed on the long ones.
I don't like lip-synching, but if Greenwood's patriotic tones are to remain requisite at NASCAR races, we might need to consider it.
HOT: Last, I'll bring you a slight bit of personal commentary. I don't happen to be a cigarette smoker, and for the first time, the section at CMS where we were seated was deemed non-smoking by the track. Several grandstand areas were either designated smoking or non-smoking for Sunday night's race.
This being a free country (something we, of course, celebrated Sunday night at CMS) I realize there are those who choose to smoke. It's a fact of life, and I'm not crusading against those people. Instead, I'll say this: it's seriously nice for CMS to give those who don't smoke the option of being away from it.
Going a bit empircal, I do know several people who have given up on attending NASCAR events due to the high probability of cigarettes being lit all around them. For a sport that can use every fan it can get, it's smart to cater to each side of the fence. Good work, CMS. I hope other tracks follow suit with the now-continuing trend.
It was one heck of a weekend of racing, and depending on your own condition, you may or may not have been awake and/or coherent for much of it. Good thing we're here for ya! We'll wrap up the weekend with the five best events of the races, and you can guess which one is No. 1:
Time for our latest round of power rankings. Each week throughout the season, we'll size up who's rising and who's falling, based on current standings, behind-the-scenes changes, expected staying power, recent history and general gut feelings. And the Coca-Cola 600 was a race that answered ... well, absolutely no questions at all.
1. Carl Edwards. Yeah, Edwards ran well early and hangs on to the No. 1 spot. But let's talk about why these rankings are so difficult to sort this week. Almost all the top guys had major problems, while half a dozen lower-ranked guys pulled a gem of a race out of their air hoses. (Biffle joke.) What this means is that there are at least 16 drivers who have a legit claim to a top-12 rank. What that means is it's good to be at the head of the pack. Still Edwards' year, even though he didn't exactly tear it up once the sun went down. Last week's ranking: 1.
2. Kevin Harvick. And here we get into the thick of it. I guess Harvick "deserved" the win, since he did actually drive his car first across the finish line. But man, was that cheap. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won that way, he'd have been so barbecued he'd be forced to give the thing back. All a matter of perspective, which is a topic we'll return to later in this column. Still, congrats to Harvick for the win and a locked-down Chase spot. Like Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success is just showing up. The other 20 percent is not running of gas. Last week's ranking: 4.
3. Kyle Busch. I liked the idea that somebody should've done up their car in police black-and-whites just to get in Kyle's head. As it turned out, Kyle was in his own head just fine, to the point that he spun twice and was ready to go to the garage long before his team was. Not a great week for Kyle; he can't afford any of these in the Chase, so might as well get 'em out of the way now. Last week's ranking: 2.
4. Jimmie Johnson. Johnson gets dinged for a few reasons. First, there's expectation. He's supposed to do well in Charlotte; when you don't run well at your most comfortable tracks, you're de facto underperforming. Also, while you can't blame him for the car blowing up or the wrench left on the roof, well, it is a team sport; the driver takes the credit when the crew gets him out of the pits fast, so the driver takes the hit when the team lets him down. Bottom line: 28th-place finish. Say it with me: 28th-place finish. Last week's ranking: 3.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Here we go with the conspiracy theories. And like most conspiracy theories, they depend on the conspirators having infallible intellect, complete black-box security on any leaks, quicksilver reflexes and the ability to know exactly what will happen before it happens. Yep, sounds exactly like NASCAR brain trust. (No offense, guys, I'm actually defending you.) So let's talk about why they didn't throw the flag. Initial NASCAR-favoring reaction: because they wanted the race to finish under green. But that can't be the real reason! Or can it...? Last week's ranking: 7.
6. Matt Kenseth. If you think Kenseth isn't becoming a legit championship contender, you're not paying attention. Which is understandable, given that we're talking about Kenseth. But he's the real deal. Now, back to Junior and the yellow-flag-that-wasn't. People are going to scream no matter what happens, charging conspiracy one way or another. But let's look at some facts ... oh, wait, we're out of space. We'll pick this up with Bowyer. Last week's ranking: 5.
7. Clint Bowyer. Nothing special from Rawhide this week. A 15th-place kind of run, 15th-place finish. Back to the flag: look, it's really simple. There's no way that anyone could have predicted that sequence of events, from Johnson blowing up to bring up the late caution, to Kahne stopping nearly dead and accordioning the entire field. Think with your head, not your spleen: was NASCAR trying to rig a race, or were they trying to give a good finish? See Smoke's entry for the amazing conclusion to this argument! Last week's ranking: 6.
8. Denny Hamlin. We take a break from the Junior-ranting to throw a little love Hamlin's way. This is a guy who was so lost early in the year that he plummeted to the low edges of the top 20. He's still got a long way to go to make the Chase on points, and he needs to finish races stronger, but Hamlin's Hamsters have to be more optimistic about his chances than they were in April.Last week's ranking: 10.
9. Tony Stewart. Weather's heating up, but Stewart's still running midpack. Hmm. Anyway, appropriate space to put a stake in the heart of the no-flag conspiracy argument, since Stewart once called NASCAR a rolling version of the WWE: if NASCAR wanted to rig the race in Junior's favor, wouldn't they have thrown the caution flag on the last lap, giving him the win? If NASCAR wanted to rig the race in Junior's favor, why did they wait so long to restart the race after Johnson's caution when the 88 was low on fuel? What, steam counts as debris now? If NASCAR wanted to rig races in Junior's favor, would they have let him get over 100 winless races? If NASCAR could rig races, don't you think they would have had more than one champion in the last half-decade? Think, people. Last week's ranking: 8.
10. Ryan Newman. Ugly little wreck that took out Newman, along with Mark Martin and David Gilliland. Took awhile to pry apart the 5 and 34, didn't it? Oh, one last point: human influence on a sport is not the same thing as rigging it. There's human influence in every sport, from umpiring to refereeing to polls that determine postseason play. Had NASCAR thrown the yellow on the last lap and given Junior the win, it still would've been less egregious than some of the ugly refereeing/umpiring calls of the last few years. (See: Armando Galarraga's perfect-game-that-wasn't; admitted ref bias against the Dallas Mavericks.) So enough with the whining. Last week's ranking: 9.
11a. Greg Biffle. This is a weird part of the rankings, because both of these guys ran almost the exact same race: ugly early, then impressive mid-race, then astonishing and can-he-win-it late, and finally spent and done as the last of their fuel ran out. We give Biffle the slight nod because he had to deal with equipment issues that led to him getting slapped with the new nickname "Hoser." Last week's ranking: 12.
11b. Kasey Kahne. Kahne needed a good strong run to remain in the top 12, and he got it, coming within two laps of winning the race and once again reminding us that with the right equipment and the right circumstances, he can be a pretty good driver. That said, he caused the pileup that led to the whole yellow flag/Junior conspiracy (relax, we won't bring it up again). Last week's ranking: 11.
Lucky Dog: David Ragan with a stunning second-place finish. Once again, Ragan gets the Lucky Dog, though you could argue that Harvick was the luckiest dog of all. Still, three or four more Lucky Dogs and Ragan will be back on the lead lap! Boy, getting threatened with the loss of your job (implied, anyway) does wonders for a guy's performance, doesn't it?
DNF: Jamie McMurray, who blew out an engine and ended up finishing down in start-and-parker land. Ironically, the guy the McMurray rule was named for will almost certainly fail to even come close to qualifying for it. Those three big wins of 2010 seem a long, long way away right now.
Dropping out of the rankings: Nobody.
Charging upward: Kurt Busch, who actually ran a decent [profane]ing race and didn't cuss much. Think there's a correlation? Also, congrats to Richard Petty Motorsports, which placed both drivers in the top 6. That ain't bad, King!
Two races, two unbelievable last-lap heartbreaks. (Two cars sponsored by the National Guard, driven by guys who go by "JR," too, if you're looking for even more synchronicity.) Was Sunday the most heartbreaking day in racing history?
Understand, when we say "heartbreaking," that's very different from "tragic." Losing a race is nothing compared to the loss of life, which has happened all too often in racing. No, we're talking about races where drivers see victory cruelly snatched (or fumbled) from their grasp within sight of the finish line.
You know the stories by now. JR Hildebrand, the unknown rookie. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the icon winless for nearly three years. Both running one of the finest races of their lives, both wheeling into the last lap with almost certain victory only seconds away.
Hildebrand's loss has to be one of the most devastating in motorsports history:
Earnhardt, on the other hand, lost in a sudden fade:
After their respectivelosses, Junior was upbeat, Hildebrand was devastated. Which is probably as it should be; Earnhardt is on a steady upward trend, while Hildebrand may never again get the chance to be this close to a win in one of motorsports' greatest races. It was heartbreak of the highest order for both drivers, but if you have to pick one who'll bounce back faster, you have to go with Earnhardt.
Sure, both of these drivers contributed to their own demise, Hildebrand obviously, Junior more subtly. Even so, if you don't feel at least a tiny measure of sympathy for these two drivers, you, my friend, have no soul.
Nine laps. That's all Kevin Harvick has needed to win more than any other driver this season. Three races, and an all-but-certain Chase berth, won by leading just nine laps. This is beyond right-place, right-time; this is best-place, best-time.
Like he did in Martinsville, Harvick swiped the race right out of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s grasp, once again denying Junior a streak-busting victory. Actually, that's not quite true; while Harvick stole Martinsville by outrunning Junior, he won at Charlotte because Junior unintentionally gift-wrapped this one by running out of fuel.
As the final two laps rolled, all eyes were on the slowing 88 car, so much so that almost nobody had any idea who was in line to win the race until Harvick scooted across the finish line. He was an unlikely victor in a race where 19 drivers led more laps, a race where he was an utter nonfactor and outside the top 10 for most of the evening.
Still, it's not how you start, or even how you run going into the final turn, but how you finish. And Harvick has proven that he's the most opportunistic driver on the circuit, a guy who knows how to keep himself in the mix right up until the checkers fly. And if he has to bend a few ethical rules, like getting pushed by Paul Menard in the last caution period, or throw a punch or two along the way to prove his point, hey, where's the harm?
But of all the races Harvick has won, this is one he won't gloat over. "I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth," he said afterward. "We want the 88 to win ... I feel so stinking bad for him."
Still, let's let Harvick get some run here. This marked the first win ever for him at Charlotte, his sixth win in his last 40 races. Yes, this was a heartbreaker for Junior, but more than that, this hammers down Harvick as one of the best drivers in NASCAR. And even if he's not leading the Chase heading into Homestead, you get the feeling he'll find a way to get into the story on the final laps. That'd be just about right, wouldn't it?
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. restarting on the front row with Kasey Kahne for a green-white-checker finish in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, Kahne ran out of fuel as the two led the field to the green flag with two laps to go.
Time for a caution and green-white-checker attempt number two, right? Wrong. The race stayed green until the end, when Junior ran out of gas in Turns 3 and 4 and Kevin Harvick passed him for the race win.
There's no sense in beating around the bush, so I'll ask the question that's undoubtedly the first that comes to mind for many who watched the race: was no caution thrownbecause it was Juniorin the lead and potentially poised to break his winless streak?
After all, this was the same race that saw a caution thrown for a "beverage" can earlier.
When the contact occurred, Junior had sprinted out to a sizable advantage over Harvick. Keselowski was spewing debris and smoke as his car motored down the backstretch. This incident was slightly more than a mere beverage can.
Keselowski did keep going, and the damage to Burton's car wasn't severe and he was able to get pointed in the right direction fairly early. Plus, NASCAR said its spotters reported that the track was clear of debris.
Now I'm not claiming that NASCAR was attempting to fix the race for Junior. NASCAR has made a point to attempt to finish as many races under green with as few GWC attempts as possible. It's not unheard of, especially at a restrictor plate track, to have a crash happen behind the leaders and not have the caution flag fly.
If that was truly the case, as USA Today's Nate Ryan astutely observed after the race, NASCAR could have thrown the caution flag after Junior took the white flag and headed into Turn 1, the site of the crash, and Junior would have been the winner. (Once the leader takes the white flag, a caution flag after that point means the race is over. And given the multitude of fuel strategies that drivers were on towards the end of the race, another attempt at a GWC would have probably meant more carnage as — in hindsight — Junior and other drivers would have run out of gas.)
However, the direct contrast in caution criteria throughout the 600 miles is contradicting. (Remember Denny Hamlin's comments on Twitter last year?) Yes, there's a human element to sports and how we deal with potential consequences — it's the basis for the fantastic book Scorecasting — but isn't consistent officiating what every sports fan wants? If a beverage can necessitates a caution when Matt Kenseth is running away from the field, doesn't a crash definitely mean a caution on Lap 401, no matter that there areless than two laps to go?
Did NASCAR make the right call keeping the race green, or should they have thrown another caution immediately and attempted another restart? Drop us a line in the comments.
If you were up early on Sunday to catch the Grand Prix of Monaco before watching the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, you saw something rarely seen in Formula 1 and you saw something that has become very familiar in 2011.
Sebastian Vettel scored his fifth win in six races this season, sprinting away from Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button in a five lap shootout after a red flag.
The red flag came out for a crash between Jamie Alguersuari and Vitaly Petrov right in front of Vettel, Alonso and Button, who were nose-to-tail battling for the lead. Petrov was briefly knocked unconscious, and transported to the hospital.
Before the crash, Vettel, who was in first, was hanging on with old tires, having pitted just once. Button had the freshest tires, having pitted three times, and had caught Vettel and Alonso by running laps consistently a second faster than the top two because of the new tires.
However, unlike NASCAR, when no changes can be made to the cars during a red flag period, F1 race stoppage rules allowed the teams to change tires -- and in Lewis Hamilton's case, fix the rear wing -- while the crash cleanup was ongoing. With Vettel on brand new tires thanks to only pitting once, he darted away from Alonso and Button as soon as the green flag waved.
Petrov's crash was the second scary crash in 24 hours at Monaco. During Saturday's third qualifying session, Salvador Perez lost control coming out of the tunnel and skidded through the chicane into the wall. He, too, lost consciousness on impact, but thankfully suffered no other serious injuries.
Raikkonen ran (relatively) well that race and finished a respectable 13th. In Saturday's Nationwide race? Well, it was almost a case of what could go wrong did go wrong as Raikkonen finished 27th, 4 laps off the pace.
The 2007 Formula 1 champion qualified 22nd and after maintaining his position for the first portion of the race, he started to complain about the handling of his car as he lost touch with the leaders.
Raikkonen hit the wall multiple times, got a penalty for being too fast on pit road (on his first green-flag NASCAR pit stop, nonetheless) and ran over Jeremy Clements' splitter on the backstretch after it fell off Clements' car. And there was also the issue of Raikkonen's feet being too hot and the team supplying him the proper water bottle during pit stops.
The jerky was definitely not perky.
Will this be Raikkonen's last race in NASCAR for a while, or will we see him in the Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma? It was originally estimated that Raikkonen would run between 3-5 races this season, but on Thursday Kyle Busch said that he had only been paid for two races -- Saturday's race and the Truck race. Raikkonen tested Robby Gordon's Sprint Cup car at Virginia International Raceway earlier in the week, but got off course and tore up the front end plowing into the grass, a la Carl Edwards at the All-Star race.
This weekend will see the latest running of the Indianapolis 500, a singular moment in our sporting year. And while the race doesn't have the reach or influence it's had in past decades, it's nonetheless the best-attended sporting event in America, year after year. For that alone, the Indy 500 deserves our undying respect.
But if Indy's first, who's next? And where do our favorite other sports stack up, attendance-wise, against the Indianapolis 500? Let's take a look at the numbers.
Now, counting attendance at mammoth events like the Indianapolis 500 is a study in guesswork. The track itself estimates that there were about 250,000 seats at the track, but nobody has any idea how many people could fit into the infield. The same is true at Daytona International Speedway. Everybody piles in, and the tracks focus on keeping everybody safe rather than counting heads.
Thus, in some cases, we're looking at average attendance, and in others, where certain sports were drawing far above their usual ceiling, we're looking at specific gate counts. So let's begin.
1. Indianapolis 500, @ 300,000. In 2004, the Indianapolis Star finally undertook a monstrous effort to count exactly how many seats are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Their count? 257,325. And while hundreds of thousands of people could fit into the infield, observation by trained analysts has indicated that far fewer than that actually did. So we're looking at about 300,000 people in attendance at every 500.
2. Brickyard 400, @ 300,000. Sort of a cheat, because like the Indy 500, this NASCAR race is held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All of the above stats apply, of course.
3. Daytona 500, @ 250,000. NASCAR attendance figures are notably slippery. The tracks themselves don't release figures, so attendance estimation is often left to a media member who stands in the press box, surveys the stands, and estimates attendance at "about X." Now, that guess could be right on the money, or it could be off by 50,000. Still, combining the grandstands and the infield at Daytona gets you a figure of about a quarter-million. And only five of them aren't Dale Earnhardt fans.
4. Texas Motor Speedway races, @ 171,000. Everything's bigger in Texas, especially attendance figures, and Texas's two NASCAR races usually draw about 171,000 fans apiece. And this won't be the last time Texas shows up on this list.
5. Kentucky Derby, @ 164,858. As with the NASCAR races, it's difficult to estimate exactly how many people pile into the infield at Churchill Downs, though the 2011 Derby apparently set a record this year for attendance. The number who remain sober through the entire Derby afternoon remains pegged at a steady 0.
6. Tie, Bristol races, Talladega races, @ 160,000. 2010 marked the first time a Bristol race hadn't sold out in decades. Prior to that, hundreds of thousands of race fans descended on this tiny hamlet in the Tennessee hills, created the largest city for a hundred miles in any direction, and then vanished as quick as they arrived. And although Talladega's attendance has dipped sharply in recent years, the stadium and the infield can handle in excess of 160,000 fans -- plus a few thousand more in the surrounding campgrounds who couldn't make their way through the gates.
7. Baseball, 115,300. This figure's a bit of a stretch, since the average baseball game is in the 30,000 range. But in 2008, the Dodgers and the Red Sox held an exhibition game in the L.A. Coliseum, and the result was the most widely attended game in baseball history.
8. Michigan football, 112,000. The universities of Michigan and Tennessee leapfrog one another in attendance, adding on bleachers atop bleachers in some bizarre arms race. The Wolverines currently hold the edge, but it won't be long until the Volunteers step up.
Tie 9. Tennessee-Penn Statefootball @ 109,000. Both stadiums (Neyland at Tennessee and Beaver at Penn State) have undergone numerous expansions in their history.Tennesee set an attendance record in 2004 against -- who else? -- Florida. (Side note: in 2005, a promoter tried to schedule a Virginia Tech-Tennessee game in Bristol, which would have broken all team sport records for attendance. Tech was willing, but Tennessee was not.) A crowd of 110,753 watched Penn State destroyNebraska 40-7 back in 2002.
10. NBA, 108,713. In 2010, the NBA All-Star game's attendance demolished the old record of attendance for an NBA game, previously set at the Georgia Dome. And where was this mammoth All-Star exhibition played? Funny you should ask ... a little old place in Texas that shows up again, next on the list.
10. NFL, 105,121. A legit regular-season game by the Dallas Cowboys when opening their new stadium in a game against the Giants a couple years back. Sure, tens of thousands watched from a standing-room plaza, and many others couldn't even see the field, but so what?
Other landmarks: As noted above, the best-attended NBA regular-season game came in, of all cities, Atlanta, where 62,046 fans showed up at the Georgia Dome to watch the Hawks play the Chicago Bulls in what was supposed to be Michael Jordan's farewell appearance. And the NHL's best-attended game was the 2008 Winter Classic, where 71,217 fans watched Buffalo and Pittsburgh at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. The top-ranked NCAA basketball game was 2009's NCAA Championship, where 72,922 fans watched North Carolina demolish Michigan State in Detroit's Ford Field.
This weekend, the Indy 500 will draw another quarter-million people to a single location. And once again, every fan will unite in one common dream, one common prayer: that they won't sit in traffic until Tuesday.
[A version of this article previously appeared on Yahoo! Sports.]
Brad Keselowski is one of the most articulate, thoughtful drivers in NASCAR, and no, that's not damning with faint praise. He's spent a lot of time thinking about his role in this sport and his ideas for the sport's future, and he'll talk for hours about the responsibilities today's drivers have to the fans and their forebears. But every so often, he'll unleash a gem like this one, spoken after he won the pole for this weekend's Coca-Cola 600:
"Fast cars go fast."
Think about that. Elegant in its simplicity, isn't it? "Fast cars go fast." It's a Zen koan, the unknown wrapped in the mundane, like "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" Fast cars do go fast! And what happens when fast cars don't go fast? Well, then you're Kurt Busch.
And speaking of Busch how's that for a segue? Keselowski finally has a bit of ammo of his own in responding to Busch's comments from a couple weeks back about how he hasn't had a top-line teammate in years. "For me, Brad hasn't beaten me all that much at Penske," Busch said in Darlington. "I didn't get beat all that much by (David) Stremme. I didn't get beat much by Sam (Hornish Jr.). The last time that I felt equivalent was when (Ryan) Newman was there and that was in 2007."
Keselowski understands where Busch is coming from: "I think that if you look at all of 2010, he was absolutely right. Until the last two or three races, with the exception of Phoenix, I wasn't even close to running with Kurt, not even close. I think that he definitely has legs to stand on with that comment."
To listen to Busch's comments, Penske is a floundering organization teetering on the edge of total, humiliating collapse. Jet Ski takes a more positive, and definitely more colorful, approach:
"As race car drivers, we go off the feel of our ass," he said. "The feel of my ass that the cars are getting better every week and they're turning just a little bit better, the horsepower is getting a little bit better."
Always trust your ass. Fast cars go fast. Keep running well, Jet Ski; we need more interviews like this.
All right, enough with the Kyle Busch speeding nonsense and the is-she-or-isn't-she Danica Patrick stories. Let's focus on some good news: Trevor Bayne is getting back into a car after a long illness-related layoff.
Bayne's Daytona 500 win was one of the best stories in years, a kid from out of nowhere snagging NASCAR's greatest prize. But just as quickly, things turned sour for Bayne, who had trouble on the track and got extremely, hospital-level sick off it.
Doctors have not completely diagnosed what went wrong with Bayne, but he believes that supreme exhaustion brought on by the Daytona 500 festivities caused his problems, which included double vision and inflammation.
"I went to the hospital and had the best doctors in the world at the Mayo Clinic checking me out and they don't know," he said. "That is all it is. I have had to accept that. They treated me for things that they thought it could be, just like that bite, whether it was Lyme or not, they don't have any evidence of that, but they treated it just to knock it out, and since then all my symptoms have gone away. Everything is pretty much 100 percent back to normal and that is pretty exciting."
Bayne's enthusiasm, as you can see in the video above, is ... well, we would say "infectious," but that's probably not the best word to use in this context. No, he's legitimately excited to be back in the garage, and even talking to the media, which other drivers look forward to about as much as a trip to the dentist. Still, Bayne has reason to be glad; he realized the generosity of his fellow drivers and garage members:
"Carl Edwards flew up and saw me in Minnesota, and Tony Stewart was using his plane to fly my family back and forth," he said. "Jack [Roush] was sending me back and forth on his plane and these guys come out and hang out for the night. Michael McDowell is there for five days with me. Everybody in the garage texted me at least once to see how I was doing and that means a lot to me."
Bayne has been testing for the last few weeks, and will return to action in the Nationwide series in Chicago. Good thing, too; NASCAR could use a little more of his type right about now.
You knew this was coming. At Thursday's Coca-Cola 600 media sessions, Kevin Harvick offered a few perfunctory answers to perfunctory questions, and then the main event began: What, exactly, did he think of the fact that certain race car drivers might cross a line when they're driving on public roads?
"I think some people are their own worst enemy when it comes to being responsible as a person or as a business person or anything that comes with life's responsibilities," he said, obviously speaking of Kyle Busch. BoomRoasted.
Oh, but he wasn't done: "For me, they [his family and team, presumably] won't even let me drive down the highway because I drive five miles per hour over the speed limit, and it tends to take us a lot longer to get to places. Since I've been about 16 or 17 years old, I haven't been into really driving fast down the highway or anything reckless on the road. It's not really the place to do that."
He added that driving triple the speed limit "could put a lot of people in a bad situation."
Busch, who spoke immediately after Harvick, offered up a predictable comment: "I'm certainly sorry for my actions and for my lack of judgment," he said. "This is something that I can take and learn from and hopefully move forward and not let happen again."
Naturally, the speeding incident was quite the topic of discussion among other drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered a little candid admission: "Sometimes you go a little fast, even away from the race track, I guess. I've been guilty of the same thing myself, just been lucky enough not to get caught."
But did he get it up to 128? He's not certain. "I didn't know if we had enough straight road in North Carolina to get going that quick," he laughed, "but, apparently there is a piece somewhere."
On the other hand, Ryan Newman took the point of view of many NASCAR fans, when he noted that everyday folks might not have been so lucky to get away with their freedom. "Being professional race car drivers," Newman said, "we don't make stupid mistakes like that on the road."
As for Busch's apology, Newman said "it sounded like somebody else wrote it, not him." Yep, we'd buy that.
Clearly, this is a story that won't be going away anytime soon. Busch noted that penalties from Joe Gibbs Racing could be in the offing; yet to be determined is whether NASCAR will take independent action.
The hot rumor in both Charlotte and Indianapolis this week is that Danica Patrick is running in her last Indy 500 as a fulltime open-wheel driver, and that she'll make the jump to NASCAR once and for all in 2012. Is it true? Perhaps, perhaps not, but here's a clue: Patrick learned about this particular rumor from television:
Expect more on this story very soon; Patrick's too heavy of a hitter to keep this story flailing around for long. Once the Indy 500 is over, she'll likely make the call soon.
As to which team will back her? Well, that's a whole new story. Dale Earnhardt Jr., part-owner of her current JR Motorsports team, said in Charlotte that "we'll just see what she decides to do. I think she wants to have more success and doing it all the time would be a good move ... She has been racing with us enough to know whether she is ready or not. It is really up to her. It is really not up to anybody else. My opinion on that deal really doesn't matter."
That doesn't sound like the commentary of someone dead-set on signing her to a long-term contract, so ... where will Patrick end up?
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[Editor's note: Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream is coming your way very soon. In advance of that, we're pleased to present some remembrances from many of the participants. First off, Stewart's SHR teammate Ryan Newman offers up a few recollections.]
My most memorable moment from the Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway is probably a memorable moment for a lot of other people, too. In fact, it's one of the most exciting and heart-pounding things that's happened at the Prelude in the last six years — at least, that's what Tony Stewart has told me, and he ought to know since it's his event and his track.
It was the 2007 Prelude to the Dream, and Bill Elliott and I got together on the frontstretch at the end of our heat race. From what I understand, the drivers who weren't in the race were all watching, and they were pretty sure it was shaping up to be something big. Needless to say, we didn't disappoint.
I caught just a little bit of a rut — just a little — and it straightened me out and shot me up to the wall. I stayed on the gas, but Bill Elliott was rolling on the high side. I didn't know he was coming. I never heard him, and I never saw him. Next thing I know, my car is on its side and Bill has flipped over. It was a rather big moment.
I've watched the race and the accident several different times and, honestly, we both got pretty lucky because that could've been a lot worse than it was, especially for how fast we're going at that racetrack. And I'm not going to point any fingers, because it really wasn't a finger-pointing deal. It was just a racing deal.
I wish that my most memorable moment didn't involve a wreck, but I'm pretty sure the fans enjoyed it. It also made for some good conversation afterward in the pits when everybody was asking, "What happened?"
Hopefully, this is our year to make a different memory at the Prelude to the Dream. It's a fun race, and even if you're not up front, it's just as fun to sling a dirt Late Model sideways for 30 laps. You're still trying to get the best finish you can for your team, so a battle for 12th might be just as important as a battle for the lead.
The cool thing about the Prelude is that as racecar drivers, we're competitive at everything we do. And I mean absolutely everything. So as much fun as we have, it gets super-competitive at Eldora.
Then you throw in the team element and it changes things a little bit. You're there to beat everybody, but then you've got to race with your teammates for the greater good. So you have to take those things into consideration when you're racing somebody. You want to get the most points you can for your team, so even if you don't win, your team does, which for me means I'll be working with Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Ken Schrader, David Gilliland and Ron Capps on Team Atlanta as we represent Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
That's probably the coolest thing about the Prelude to the Dream. We get to race and have fun, but at the end of the night, we're making a real difference. We feel so lucky to be able to do the things that we love to do. So to go run a dirt race on a Wednesday night and then make it to benefit four of the nation's top children's hospitals — that's pretty special.
(The three other hospitals benefitting from the June 8 Prelude to the Dream are Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., Children's Medical Center Dallas and St. Louis Children's Hospital. The race will be televised live on HBO Pay-Per-View, and the commercial-free broadcast will begin at 8 p.m. EDT (5 p.m. PDT) on Wednesday, June 8 with an immediate replay. HBO Pay-Per-View's racing telecast has a suggested retail price of $24.95 and is available to more than 92 million pay-per-view homes. HBO Pay-Per-View is the leading supplier of event programming in the pay-per-view industry. Ordering information and up-to-the minute racing information is available at either www.PreludeToTheDream.org or www.HBO.com. Updates can also be found on Twitter at twitter.com/PreludetoDream and follow the hashtag #RideWithUs, or become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PreludeToDream.)