Ingram's Flat Spot On: The Glen

Flat Spot On Commentary by Jonathan Ingram THE GLEN: A PHILOSOPHICAL CHALLENGE There are no white flags from Dale Earnhardt Jr. yet. Besides, at Watkins Glen his driving surely made Ron Fellows proud, the Canadian who was Earnhardt's road...


Flat Spot On
Commentary by Jonathan Ingram


THE GLEN: A PHILOSOPHICAL CHALLENGE

There are no white flags from Dale Earnhardt Jr. yet. Besides, at Watkins Glen his driving surely made Ron Fellows proud, the Canadian who was Earnhardt's road racing tutor at DEI and a current Nationwide Series road course specialist for Little E's team.

Alas, that guy surfing merrily through an otherwise decent picture was Kyle Busch, who scored his eighth victory while leading the most laps at the Glen after starting on the pole due to points, a win which virtually guarantees him the number one starting position in the Chase for the Championship.

For the second race in three weeks, Earnhardt Jr. was not around to challenge Busch or anybody else for the victory, because of the pit strategy of Tony Eury Jr. As at the Brickyard 400, Eury Jr. rolled the dice in the wrong direction, ignoring the rest of the field's playbook in its entirety.

For the conspiracy theorists, NASCAR officials even gave Eury Jr. a one-lap breather to get his driver into the pits for a final stop prior to throwing a flag for gravel debris at the exit to the bus stop.

"I really didn't know what the strategy was and what Tony Jr. and the guys were really trying to make happen up there," said Earnhardt Jr., "but I know it didn't work out for us."

This reminds us of a story about one of the road racing teams in the American Le Mans Series. The Ferrari of Tafel Racing won its class at Mid-Ohio this year by gaining a lap on most of the veteran teams at the first round of pit stops. When Crew Chief Tony Dowe was asked how long he'd been thinking about the option he followed under a yellow flag, he replied, "Fifty-one weeks."

It pays to anticipate. While beating teammate Tony Stewart, Busch's domination hardly caught the field with their collective pants down. The second Sprint Cup win on a road course sustains a count that could well result in a career season of double-digit triumphs and a championship. (No need to ballyhoo a third road course victory in the Nationwide Series in Mexico by Busch. First, the haves annually beat up on the have nots at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez; second, most years there's been no more than one road course event on the schedule, if any, in the understudy series; and third, it's not the Sprint Cup.)

It would be natural to blame Busch's Sprint Cup dominance on the over-investment of Toyota Racing Development in NASCAR via engines that produces all the torque, horsepower and fuel mileage necessary to cover the hills, dales and American-backed teams on a course like the Glen.

And it would be Roush-like to say Toyota simply bought its way in with Joe Gibbs Racing, outspending Ford, Chevy and Dodge. There's roughly $25 million greenbacks annually to that theory, but GM has now retaliated by snaking away Tony Stewart to a Chevy team he'll co-own for the foreseeable future.

It might be good ol' racing luck at work. Already at full song on road courses, Busch skipped qualifying due to rain and went straight to the pole. And, on a day when many teams tried short pitting to find an advantage, the yellows never rained on Busch's parade. Crew Chief Steve Addington stuck to the traditional game plan of taking the first pit stop when the second stop would be guaranteed to provide fuel to the finish and it worked just fine.

With precious little practice, the only guys who could challenge Busch at the finish, excluding a mild-mannered Stewart in second, started so deep in the field they had nothing left in terms of brakes, tires or suspensions to challenge the Gibbs/Toyota quinella. That group included the remarkable Aussie Marcus Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya and Fellows, all relatively fresh from other NASCAR road course victories but overcooked on this day.

Perhaps the greatest stroke of fortune for Busch resulted from the unusual pit strategy of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, which started on the front row due to holding second in the team owner points. After Eury Jr. got caught out by the short pitting by those with better fuel mileage, he then imagined that somehow a race at the Glen could go green to the finish. He gave up at least a Top Five finish while pursuing this unlikely gambit, which rested on making a splash-and-dash stop for fuel only. The yellow indeed flew while Earnhardt Jr. was leading -- but also lying last when it came to making his final pit stop. And he was losing a second a lap on worn tires.

This of course brings up the story of the trade Rick Hendrick inadvertently made by cutting Busch loose in order to hire Earnhardt Jr. for this season. Given Busch's success since his conversation to Gibbs and Toyota, and given the number of bonus points he's wracked up for the Chase for the Championship due to his eight victories, it seems fair to ask if Eury Jr. is now obsessed with beating the No. 18 entries.

At best, it is an aggravating scenario for all those at the No. 88, including the man in the wheelhouse. At least, he has manhandled the Car of Tomorrow better than any other driver in the Hendrick stable as far as the points have been concerned until the Glen race. Indeed, Little E may be the last of the scruff-of-the-neck, seat-of-the-pants heroes who drives the wheels off whatever his crew chief puts underneath him -- with some success.

Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. came with Earnhardt Jr. as a package deal when the star driver moved to Hendrick Motorsports. Their mission: prove the problems at Dale Earnhardt Inc. belonged to the organization run by Teresa Earnhardt. And, in no particular order, return the Earnhardt name to championship status.

This whole scenario actually began on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. in the summer of '04, when Earnhardt Jr.'s Corvette caught fire after he crashed it in the morning warm-up and barely escaped the flames. Budweiser then nixed any races outside of the No. 8 at DEI, which was unsettling enough. (Good-bye Daytona 24-hour, among other things.) For her part, step mom Teresa nixed Earnhardt Jr.'s mother Brenda from riding on the DEI planes while acting as her son's nurse for burns on his neck and legs.

That's when the grief over the loss of Dale Earnhardt Sr. really began to run in decidedly different directions, ultimately culminating in the soap opera split of step son and step mother last year.

In the broader perspective, Earnhardt Jr.'s lousy day on the road course at Watkins Glen was not so bad. Eury Jr. deserves at least one Mulligan for having delivered the fuel mileage victory at Michigan, if nothing else. Although slightly confused by the philosophical challenges of road racing, Eury Jr. was trying to win some bonus points for the Chase.

Given Busch's lead in bonus points, in fact, gambling for victories in the next four races seems like a good idea for anybody with a virtual lock on making the Chase, where the prohibitive favorite remains No. 18. Any time you win and deny Busch victory lane, it's a 20-point spread. All the more reason to study the playbooks in advance -- and ask your manufacturer for more fuel mileage.

Editor's note: Motorsport.com is pleased to announced a new column from one of our contributors, Jonathan Ingram. The renown author covering motor sports for over 30 years will submit a weekly column called "Flat Spot On", starting with his first edition today, August 12, 2008.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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Series GENERAL , NASCAR-CUP