Parks Pit Report: Closing Out the 2012 Season

It’s hard to believe that this is the fourth year I’ve been doing this column and now another season of pit reporting has come to a close.  It just seems like yesterday I was waiting for the green flag at Daytona to start off my extensive coverage of the first race of the season.

Now, another champion has been crowned in NASCAR and another year of writing about racing has come to a conclusion.  But, just like I provided in 2011, once again this will be a look back at some of the craziest, scariest and most intriguing moments of the year.  To quote some of the fun text messaging notes, some of them left fans saying “OMG” while others kept fans saying “WTF” and even some gave fans a moment to say “LOL.”

What better way to start than at the first race of the season?  It’s not often the winner gets overshadowed, but that certainly was the case in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Talk about lighting up the night sky, Juan Pablo Montoya certainly did that.

Juan Pablo Montoya + Jet Drier = The Biggest “WTF” Moment of the Year

Ok, now I’ll be the first to admit I have seen quite a bit of crazy moments on the race track.  I’ve seen everything from seeing tires go flat under a red flag, races start when a rain shower falls, and likely there’s been many more I can list.

However, not one holds a candle to what I saw at the Daytona 500 this season.

The race was already delayed one day because of rain at the track, and was pushed to Monday night due to the drying time needed to get the 2.5-mile speedway ready for the race.  It was a night that saw Jimmie Johnson wreck after one lap, and Jeff Gordon’s car go up in smoke.

But, nothing, I mean NOTHING, can equal what happened on a late caution.  Juan Pablo Montoya was already in a wreck, and came off pit road trying to make his way around to catch the field.  Suddenly, something broke, and his car went sliding into turn 3.  Next thing you see is an explosion that even the lights at Daytona couldn’t match.

What happened?  Montoya’s car slammed into one of the jet driers on the track, spilling gallons upon gallons of fuel onto the asphalt, catching fire and sparking one of the craziest, if not the craziest, moment Daytona had ever seen.

The cleanup lasted hours, drivers were parked on the backstretch because they couldn’t come around to pit road.  Fans got laughs seeing drivers take turns heading to the porta-john for a restroom break, while Brad Keselowski decided to really have some fun…and snap photos using his phone.  It was a photo opportunity that was once in a lifetime.  The problem became how to clean up something so massive and yet try to keep the surface race-worthy.

Of all things, here came a safety truck with huge boxes of powdered Tide detergent.  Strange thing was, after adding the soap and hitting it with a water hose, it worked.  The race actually finished, and Matt Kenseth was the first to cross the line, winning the second Great American Race in his career.

But, all that got overshadowed by one of the strangest moments NASCAR has ever seen.  I’ve seen a lot, but I promise this certainly is a new one on my list.

Emotions got the better of Jeff Gordon at Phoenix. Then it got the better of everyone on Clint Bowyer’s crew.

Brawl in the Desert:  Gordon, Bowyer and Crews Have at It

NASCAR has seen its share of fights between drivers, ranging from verbal altercations to crews destroying the opposing team’s car.  However, the one that everyone will talk about during the off-season is the one from Phoenix.

Jeff Gordon, already having a rough year, got into an altercation with Clint Bowyer.  Gordon felt upset, and a few laps later, laid in wait and turned Bowyer into the outside wall.

Gordon was done, Bowyer was done, but the crew certainly wasn’t.

The No. 15 crew for Bowyer went to Gordon in the garage and the fight was on.  Gordon’s team came to protect him from being harmed, but the crews got in it, actually knocking over a stack of Goodyear racing tires, and those are some heavy pieces.  Bowyer, meanwhile, hears the fight and wants in on the action, so he sprints through the garage to Gordon’s hauler, trying to get at his adversary.  Crews, and even police, held him back.

The end result, Gordon gets a $100,000 fine, probation till the end of the season, and lost points.  But, he also showed that even though he suffered a season of struggles, the desire was still there.

Ironically, in the last race, Gordon and Bowyer finished 1-2, so it worked out well for both parties in the end.  Still, the incident at Phoenix will be the one fans of both teams will remember for a long time.

Next year, NASCAR is getting a facelift. The next generation of stock cars are returning to actually looking “stock” and more like the production counterpart.

Safer Cars Get a Makeover-New 2013 Designs for NASCAR

When NASCAR introduced the new car that was safer for the driver, it wasn’t exactly the most attractive looking machine on the track.  It featured a wider stance, higher roof, a splitter on the nose, and a wing on the trunklid.

Drivers and fans hated the look, and for many years were asking, even begging, for change.  In 2010, the first of those changes came in that a more traditional spoiler was put back on the cars.

The following year, the splitter was covered, giving the nose a cleaner look.

But, the newer car for next year is getting a facelift, and it’s one that is attractive to the eyes of the racers and the fans.

They are called “stock cars” after all, and NASCAR set out to return the sport to looking more like the production cars on the street.  In doing so, both the current Nationwide Series car and the new Sprint Cup cars look nearly identical to what you or I could buy on the showroom.

The Nationwide Series experimented with this in 2010, with full introduction last year.  Now, the Sprint Cup cars have followed.  The all-new Ford Fusion is the most notable of this, with it’s sleek new nose and body lines, it is a mirror image of what the local Dotts dealer would showcase inside their doors.  Even the new Chevy SS will have a street look, as will the Toyota Camry.

NASCAR wants to bring back the fans that have left the sport over the last couple years due to changes.  This is a step in the right direction, as it’s putting the “stock” back in stock cars.  Who knows, maybe this will help bring back the old saying “Win on Sunday.  Sell on Monday.”

 

A.J. Allmendinger had the best opportunity of his racing life when he signed with Penske Racing. But, hours before the Daytona race in July, it was gone.

Allmendinger Gets Hit with Violation of Drug Policy

There are opportunities that come around that no one can pass up, and they are ones that drivers try hard not to mess up.

A.J. Allmendinger had that opportunity.  His signing with Penske Racing before 2012 gave him the best opportunity in a proven car to show he can race hard, and even win.   He showed that he deserved to be the teammate to Brad Keselowski, and things were looking up each week.

But suddenly, it was gone.

Just hours before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Allmendinger was relieved of his duties as he was found to have violated NASCAR’s substance abuse policy.  He was the random drug test from the week before at Kentucky, and his failure meant a temporary suspension from the sport.

It sent the racing world into a tailspin as it wasn’t expected of Allmendinger, not once.  Sam Hornish Jr. was flown back to Daytona after the Nationwide race the night before to jump into a car he never tested, never drove, and never sat in until that night.  Meanwhile, Allmendinger had to wait, and opted to have a second sample done.

It failed, and his suspension was upheld.  Shortly after, Penske released the driver, even with him entering the Road to Recovery program.  His opportunity to make a big name for himself was suddenly gone, but not once did he deny he took a banned substance, as he went on to find out it was a supplement that caused the failure, something he thought would be out of his system by the time he raced.

Allmendinger has since finished the program, and has returned to NASCAR.  But, it will be hard to see him return to a high-profile ride anytime soon.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he suffered two concussions in the weeks between his Kansas testing crash and Talladega, it showed that racing didn’t matter to him if he couldn’t race healthy.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Steps Out of No. 88, Diagnosed with Concussion

I mentioned when the news of this first happened that it was a big deal in the sport, and even now that the season is over it’s still a huge deal because it’s not something talked about much in NASCAR.

The sport’s biggest name, most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the call himself to step out of the car for the races at Charlotte and Kansas.  He did so because doctors said he suffered concussions when he wrecked at Kansas during a testing session, and then again after his last-lap accident at Talladega.

Call him stubborn, as he certainly was, in that he continued to race after the first one he had.  But, the second one woke him up to realize that yes, he’s got a great career, but he also wanted to not have any ill effects in the years after his career ended.  Sure, he was going after a championship in what was possibly the greatest single season he’s had since 2004.  But a title didn’t matter at that point, his life did.

So, for two weeks, NASCAR was without an Earnhardt.  Instead, driving the No. 88 was Regan Smith.

Ironically enough, he ran the car just like Junior did, as both races he was running in the top-10 and even top-five.  Had it not been for a blown motor at Charlotte, Smith would have finished top-10 in both races and fans wouldn’t have known the difference.  In fact, fans were thanking Smith for what he did for Junior as they realized it was the life of a driver that mattered more than a title.

Junior returned at Martinsville, and shortly after announced that he and Smith reached a deal for him to race full-time in the Nationwide Series in 2013, with their first official race happening at Homestead of this year.

Ironically enough, in his first race out, Smith would win.  Needless to say, that combination will be a good one for next season.

The fact that Junior made the call to step out, and waited till he was cleared to return shows he has priorities in check.  If that doesn’t earn respect among the NASCAR community, nothing will.

For the first time since 2004, a new name can be added to the list of Sprint Cup champions.

A Toast to the New Champion:  Brad Keselowski wins Championship

If you were to tell me two years ago that Brad Keselowski would contend for a championship, I’d likely would have laughed hysterically.

But two years later, there is no question who the top driver in NASCAR is.  This kid got an opportunity unlike any other, as just like Allmendinger, got to drive for Penske.  One year ago, he took over the flagship car for the team, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.  Some questioned the move, and even after he won at Kansas a year ago it was still up in the air.

Then, when he broke his ankle testing, media attention was there.  His first race back, he won.  He finished second, third, and won again in the weeks that followed.

This year, once again, he was up at the front of the field, winning races at Bristol, Talladega, and Kentucky.  He then won two of the first three races in the Chase, and consistently is near the front in the final 10 races.

People began recognizing that this kid could win the title.  To do so, he had to out duel the five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson.  At the last race of the year, it appeared it all went away when Johnson’s team had the better strategy to get the lead, and maybe snatch the title away.

But a missing lug nut, and then ultimately a broken rear gear would be what clinched the championship.  It’s hard to fathom, but the driver once nicknamed “Bad Brad” has made it to the top of the mountain.  He brought home the first championship for Roger Penske, and took Dodge to a championship in their final race with the sport.  A fitting end for someone who a few years ago was more recognized for causing chaos than winning championships.

Well fans, that is it for the 2012 season.  It has been another very successful year of racing, but now the short off-season has arrived.  Before you know it, Daytona will be here and the next season of competition will begin.

For now, wishing every NASCAR fan a very Merry Christmas and a safe New Year.  See you all in 2013.

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