Give a lap and get a mess that will refuse to go away

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

April 13, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

Those who read this column on a regular basis know a pet peeve here is Winston Cup drivers being allowed "to give" other drivers, who are a lap behind, their lap back when the caution flag appears during a race.

Around the garages, drivers have said, "It's nice to have someone owe you a favor when you're a lap down." Or they have brushed it off as "no big deal."

But it has always had the potential of being a big deal - "giving" a lap back runs contrary to competition and could cost someone else a race win or even a championship.

At Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth's attempt to follow team instructions and allow teammate Kurt Busch and fellow Ford driver Ricky Rudd back on the lead lap met with unusual and complicating circumstances. Jeff Gordon raced past Kenseth back to the start-finish line for the lead in an attempt to prevent those cars from getting back on the lead lap and to prevent other cars from passing him.

NASCAR officials then said Gordon wasn't allowed to pass Kenseth for the lead - a call NASCAR president Mike Helton later said was wrong. As if that helps.

Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president, said last week that as soon as the Global Positioning System is perfected, cars will be freeze-framed on the caution flag lap and no one will be allowed to race to the flag or give laps back.

That's all well and good.

But the problem is that the problem is still with us. And it is now a multi-headed monster.

There is the simple act of giving the lap back. In racing, a driver is supposed to earn his position on the racetrack. Kyle Petty put it this way:

"If you are going to give people their laps back, why race?" he said. "That's the whole point of what we do - putting as much distance between you and the car behind you as possible."

There is the multi-car team, which is a breeding ground for trouble. As much as everyone associated with multi-car teams say otherwise, the multi-car team comes with team orders that include giving back laps, blocking the racetrack and other activities that inspire suspicion.

And there is NASCAR, an organization that is more control-conscious than almost any control freak you can think of. It has a liquid rule book. What it says today isn't what it means tomorrow. Just how fluid was demonstrated again last weekend, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race after being allowed to get away with a pass under the yellow line at Talladega Superspeedway (a no-no in the rulebook at restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona, Fla.).

NASCAR said Earnhardt's position was a judgment call, but television replays showed the pass clearly was a violation of the yellow-line rule.

The rule book also says drivers can race back to the start-finish line under caution - but NASCAR ignored that rule in Texas and said Gordon couldn't pass Kenseth while Kenseth was "allowing" other cars to pass him to get back on the lead lap.

Does that make any sense?

NASCAR said a "gentleman's agreement" precluded Gordon from passing for the lead.

Whoever said the men racing are gentlemen when they're in the heat of a race?

Last summer in Dover, Del., Gordon was one of the few drivers who said he didn't like giving laps back. Last week, he repeated his dislike for the free pass, to Lee Spencer of The Sporting News.

"I think the whole giving a lap back thing is crazy," he said. "But because we have teammates, we do kind of stretch that a little bit, but I think that if he [Kenseth] chooses to let those guys have a lap back, then the gentleman's agreement is out the door - out the window - if there's guys back there that we are battling [with] for a win and a championship."

It's mutiny. If Gordon goes below any yellow lines, he shouldn't expect to go unpunished. But he's not the only one speaking up. Kenseth, the current Winston Cup points leader, who isn't usually involved in controversy, said he didn't want to give laps back, either, "I'm racing those guys for points," he said.

The light has finally gone on in the minds of some drivers. You have to hope the all-knowing, all-controlling sanctioning body will see the glow, move away from its quicksilver past, make a hard rule and enforce it.

Indy rebuffed

CART driver Paul Tracy was said to have finished second at the 2002 Indianapolis 500, but on a conference call last week said he still doesn't believe it.

"I still feel and know, based on the evidence that is there at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in their film department, I know that I won the race," he said, when asked for his view now of the passing incident, in which IRL officials ruled he had passed Helio Castroneves for the lead after the yellow light had been flashed.

In Indy Car racing, drivers can't race back to the line.

"It's really politics that dictated the outcome of the race," Tracy said. "There's really nothing I can do about it. That's just the way it is and I move on and concentrate on my new team."

Tracy, who has won the first two races of the CART season and leads the points standings, said he has no plans to race at Indy next month.

"My focus is to do a good job for Player's and Jerry Forsythe, and their focus is on CART," he said. "That's what they pay me to do. That's what I want to do."

Nuts and bolts

Defending Hooters IHRA Drag Racing Series Stock world champion Brenda Grubbs, whose husband and crew chief, Bill, is serving in the Middle East as a C-130 pilot, is to race at Maryland International Raceway today. Once again, the Hagerstown and Winchester speedways have gotten together to present the Winchester/Hagerstown Late Model shootout next Friday and Saturday nights, and June 20 and 21.

The first round begins at Hagerstown Friday with a doubleheader program. Gates open at 6 p.m., with warm-ups at 7:30.

On Saturday at Winchester, there will be a tripleheader program. Gates open at 5 p.m., with racing at 7.

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