As race day dawned at Texas Motor Speedway, track president Eddie Gossage had two monkeys handing out programs as part of a promotional stunt. It was one of several fun, exciting ways to "entertain" fans during a pre-race routine that resembled a three-ring circus, his latest effort at trying to sell tickets at this cookie-cutter oval during a time when race fans are busy sampling other options.
As it turned out, the only monkey business Gossage needed was on the racetrack for once. Between an on-track fight, a full-scale pit crew swap
Heading into last weekend, Hamlin found himself under eerily similar circumstances. Nearly blowing his shot at the Chase after losing the draft at Talladega, he watched Johnson's lead expand to 14 points while his own confidence take a major hit. The plan all along was to outrun the No. 48 over the season's last three races, but unlike the recent election, the momentum in this Chase was clearly a shade of blue heading into Sunday. Adding insult to injury, a 30th starting spot left Hamlin fighting from behind and Johnson taking the green 13 spots ahead and running the fastest lap times of anyone in the first 100 circuits.
It didn't matter. Methodical in approach, Hamlin paced his way through traffic until pulling ahead of Johnson by Lap 120. From there, he stayed comfortably in front the rest of the way, sitting inside the top 5 until a run of late cautions provided an opportunity to steal a victory. With Hamlin powering ahead of Mark Martin on Lap 306, 29 of his last 31 laps were led at the finish, and he survivied multiple double-file restarts and a near-disastrous side-by-side scuffle with Matt Kenseth to pull off the Texas-sized sweep. All the characteristics NASCAR looks for in a champion bubbled to the surface: consistency, improving the car from start to finish and building the confidence to overcome mistakes while maximizing opportunities in the form of his series-leading eighth victory.
"I don't get excited anymore," he said, a telling sign of how a driver who once thought with his heart has learned to manage races with his head. "I just don't let things get to me much anymore and just race relaxed. I'm really not nervous going into races. I was more nervous at the very first Chase race in New Hampshire, getting ready to start that race, than I was from then to this point."
That means Hamlin, for all intents and purposes, has grown up. And a feeling of unwavering confidence now leaves him with a 33-point edge in the standings, the best position yet of anyone who's tried to take down Johnson since his four-year title reign began in 2006.
Was it a knockout punch? Not quite. But it's going to take one hell of a right hook by Johnson or Kevin Harvick -- 59 points back after a sixth-place finish Sunday -- to stop him.
Make no mistake about it, the 24 and 48 cars of Hendrick Motorsports work in tandem, scoring individual points but coming together more than anyone else inside or outside the garage -- driver rivalries aside. But after a wild, unprecedented series of events Sunday, their near obsessive pledge to work together, solving each other's problems under any circumstances, could ultimately tear what's left of the reigning four-time champ's season to shreds.
The plunge into controversy occurred in the middle of Sunday's race, after a couple of ugly pit stops pushed the No. 48 car from comfortably inside the top 5 to well outside of it. Three mistakes made this once shining pit crew unit look like the Three Stooges, all revolving around third-year front tire changer Mike Lingerfelt. Paul Menard knocking a tire out of his grasp started the mess, then two ugly exchanges with the tire changer finished it while costing Johnson a net loss of at least 10 spots. With his driver pushed back in traffic, crew chief Chad Knaus suddenly started struggling in trying to diagnose the proper adjustments, leaving the No. 48 stuck around 10th place and Johnson wavering emotionally in a rare display of frustration on the radio.
For the past four years, those moments are when this team rises to the challenge. Instead, after a midrace crash left the No. 24 behind the wall, Knaus panicked, asking Gordon's
"It's a team sport and we didn't do our job today," said Johnson afterwards, funny seeing as his cohorts couldn't possibly follow through -- they got a pink slip during the race. "We've got to perform. We have to do our jobs. We've been having some issues, and today was a good opportunity [to try a change]."
"Ultimately, it's my decision, obviously," added Knaus. "It's a team, and the 24/48 shop is always a team. It's sad that we have to do that, but we'll get back with the 48 guys [this week], get our confidence up and get things going back in the right direction."
So can they? A 33-point deficit still leaves Johnson in control of his own destiny; winning and leading the most laps at both Phoenix and Homestead wins him the title, regardless of what Hamlin does. With four wins and 12 top-10 finishes at Phoenix, he still enters that race a prohibitive favorite. But racing is a team sport tucked within individual accolades, and it's unclear how his crew will respond mere days after the rug was pulled out from under them. Even after months of minor mistakes, how do you tell the equivalent of an entire offensive line they're not ready for battle a week before the Super Bowl? Even with Gordon's team holding serve on stops, Johnson lost the same amount of points he would have without them calling the shots.
Two short weeks from now, we may be looking back at the moment racing's Roman Empire showed its fatal crack.
Two Jeffs. Zero wins. One championship they desperately wanted being fought for by their teammates, leaving them with little more than the role of dignified assistant. No, it hasn't been the Chase Jeff Burton or Jeff Gordon envisioned back in September, left to fight for scraps while the glory and attention they once garnished heads elsewhere.
On Sunday, they took it out on each other.
A bizarre wreck led to tempers flaring between the veterans, apparently started when Burton didn't see Gordon's car coming off turn 4 and nearly hit him. The two cars wound up colliding two turns later, the No. 24 sliding up in front of the No. 31 before enduring a vicious hit into the outside wall, driver's side first. It was no surprise to see Gordon visibly incensed after both cars were totaled, but the shocking reaction was for him to jump out of his car, walk towards Burton and start a shoving match-turned-physical fight without so much as a few words of anger exchanged between the two.
"That ****er killed it," said Gordon on the radio just before. "He's the one being a dumb***."
The way Burton explained it, well, it actually would be hard to disagree.
"Coming off of turn four, he [Jeff Gordon] drove underneath me," he said, claiming the sun got in his eyes to blind him. "I should have let him go and I didn't. The caution came out and he pulled up next to me to tell me he was upset at me and he went on. Then I went to pull up next to him to acknowledge him, to say he was right and I turned left and he was turning left and we just hung up. When we hung, off we went. I honestly don't know what happened. It was my fault. One hundred percent it was my fault. Hell, I would have been mad if, I had been him too. I really don't blame him [for trying to fight me]."
"I just couldn't believe how much respect I lost for a guy like Jeff [Burton] to do something like that," responded Gordon, still heated half-an-hour after the fact. "I thought it was really stupid. Sometimes I can't hold my emotions back, and believe it or not I was holding them back right there."
But perhaps it was therapeutic for Gordon to blow off some steam, his winless streak now a career-high 63 races as the racing world wonders if, not when, he'll ever be the top dog in the Hendrick camp again. Could you have ever imagined a decade ago, when Gordon was lighting the Cup world on fire to the tune of 13 victories in one season back in 1998, that his team would be summoned to do the dirty work for someone else instead? That's what happened Sunday, an ugly day for a man who once epitomized the word 'dynasty' in Sprint Cup.
All Chase, the younger Busch has been chastised for verbally beating his crew over the radio like a piñata, an ugly temper that's helped hamper yet another title bid.
Sunday's race saw it boil over one too many times. After an on-track spin left him sitting on pit road for repairs under yellow, Busch busted the speed limit to beat out the pace car -- a major no-no. NASCAR's decision was to bring him back down pit road, hitting him with a one-lap penalty that incensed Busch to the point he threw up the middle finger of disapproval in front of a series official. The only problem? ESPN caught it on camera, inciting a never-before-seen "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty that put him an additional two laps in arrears. Regardless of that ruling's fairness, the message was clear: these temper tantrums are wearing thin with the only bosses that really matter, who made it clear to Joe Gibbs Racing officials they needed to "get their driver under control."
"They [NASCAR] always get the last word," Busch said in exasperation, following another radio tirade of expletives that would get most kids expelled from school. But perhaps the most telling response came from crew chief Dave Rogers, who said, "Kyle, stop, please. We work too hard."
In the offseason, they can't work hard enough at trying to get this moody superstar to start growing up. An epiphany is possible -- just look across the way at teammate Hamlin -- but the changes have to come from within. Right now, I'm just not seeing it.
It may not mean much in the final rundown, but remember the name of today's 17th-place finisher: Trevor Bayne. You'll be seeing him again in Cup action real soon. Manning an underfunded, part-time single-car outfit like the Wood Brothers is no small task, making simply qualifying for Sunday's race a minor victory. But Bayne took it one step further, making the No. 21 Ford a lead-lap car and running solidly inside the top 20 in a way even the team's usual driver, 1988 Cup champ Bill Elliott, hasn't done as of late. Could a new NASCAR star be well on his way to future success?
"That was incredible," he said. "That was as good or better than we expected, so I am really pumped about it. These things are so much fun, I wish I could do it every weekend."
Starting in 2012, I fully expect him to. Roush can run his new 19-year-old development driver in up to seven Cup races next year in a fifth car, then who knows what rides will be available come next November. If current UPS driver David Ragan continues to flounder ... it's possible Bayne could be a replacement.