Five things we learned from the Coca-Cola 600
David Reutimann has become the clear leader of Michael Waltrip Racing
It's obvious that both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team need a change
Problems on pit road continue to cost Brian Vickers and Team Red Bull
Five things we learned after the running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, won in an upset by David Reutimann after a rain-shortened race ended on Lap 227:
1. Reutimann was the best decision Michael Waltrip Racing ever made. Two and a half years ago, MWR left its Daytona debut under the black cloud of a cheating scandal. After jet fuel was found in Michael Waltrip's engine, most critics wondered if the team would even survive the season, much less win at the Cup level. And after failing to qualify 40 times in 108 attempts, it looked like they were about to be proven right.
But through the depths of despair came one shining light -- the then-rookie performance of David Reutimann. With the organization in shambles around him, Reutimann hung in there to score two top-15 finishes and earn rave reviews from garage observers. It was a small but solid foundation for MWR to build on, one that was turned into four top-10 finishes and a strong ending to Reutimann's sophomore season. Still, at the end of 2008 Waltrip had to make a difficult decision to keep his top driver or let him leave as a free agent. With sponsorship for just 18 races, he had to beg the chairman of Aaron's to back the No. 00 car for all 36 after major sponsor UPS chose to bolt for a younger, hipper talent in David Ragan.
Turns out it's Aaron's who's now getting the most for its money. Reutimann's gritty determination Monday kept him in contention on a day when a mental mistake could have left him 40th or worse at Charlotte. After slamming the outside wall on his own, he fought hard to stay inside the top 15, even inciting an argument with Tony Stewart over his aggressive driving style that involved a crew member labeled "Billy Bad Butt" by TV. But as it turns out, that hard-charging mentality gave the No. 00 the track position it needed when the rains came for seemingly the hundredth time. Crew chief Rodney Childers made the fateful decision to keep the No. 00 off pit road, putting Reutimann in the lead just before the red flag came out. When NASCAR called the race hours later, Reutimann became just the sixth driver to win his first career race at the track ... and perhaps its most unlikely victor.
Now 13th in points, Reutimann is the clear leader on a team that also includes first-year Australian sensation Marcos Ambrose. And with Martin Truex Jr. rumored to join the team in 2010 as a free agent, the future couldn't be brighter for an organization once lucky to have survived.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs a change. This week, I had a reliable source tell me Tony Eury Jr. won't be the crew chief of the No. 88 as of Dover this weekend. Whether that actually happens or not remains to be seen, but the two weeks in Charlotte made it obvious both driver and team need a change. While four Hendrick-supported cars qualified in the top five, Earnhardt started 27th and was a moving roadblock right from the drop of the green. With his car so loose he could barely drive it, Junior slumped to 37th by the first rainstorm on Lap 73 and never rose higher than the top 30 the rest of the day. Finishing two laps down in 40th, the No. 88 and its unlimited resources wound up a lap behind underdogs like Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs -- drivers who have been driving with so little backing they often park early to cut costs.
Finishes like these are clearly unacceptable for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. It's no secret the Car of Tomorrow and its tendency to make a race car loose hasn't really fit Junior's driving style. But it's also the job of the crew chief to come up with a setup that helps out. For almost a year, Eury has had the dubious honor of making the No. 88 car worse than when it started the race. And for all the times Junior has made mental errors -- his crew held up two pit signs Sunday because he's been missing his stall so often -- it's Eury's mistakes of adjusting in the wrong direction that will ultimately cost him the job.
3. Team Red Bull needs to come together on pit road. Back in December, I had a chance to talk with Red Bull GM Jay Frye about what they needed to improve on in 2009. Without hesitation, he said his team needed to cut back on pit road mistakes; without them, he felt Brian Vickers could have won two or three races in the No. 83. Perhaps the biggest blunder that stuck in his craw was the Coca-Cola 600 last year, where loose lugnuts sent Vickers from the lead to a loose wheel, a vicious crash, and a last-place finish.
One year later, it was clear Vickers had the fastest car at Lowe's once again -- and again, he got snakebit on pit road. During the first three caution-flag pit stops, the team lost a total of 20 spots to consistently leave them stuck back in traffic. That meant that even though Vickers was the fastest car on the track, by the time he'd get in clean air the car was so far behind the leaders he wouldn't have a chance to catch up. A quick pit stop under the race's final caution bumped Vickers up to fifth at the finish, but the team knows they could have just as easily wound up in Victory Lane.
4. Richard Childress Racing ... we have a problem. In a year that's seen its Chevy rivals Hendrick Motorsports dominate the circuit, things at RCR are on the verge of falling apart. Twelve races into the '09 season, just one of RCR's four cars are in the Chase (Jeff Burton) while they've combined to lead just 94 laps. To put that in perspective, over a dozen drivers have led that many by themselves. Things hit bottom during an awful day at Charlotte, where the team scored finishes of 25th, 33rd, 36th, and 41st. Intermediate tracks have always been the Achilles' Heel for RCR, but this one was especially bad considering Burton won at Lowe's back in the fall.
It seems that expansion is part of the problem here, with Childress' new fourth team straining resources during a down economy. But that doesn't fully explain a winless streak for Kevin Harvick that stretches all the way back to the 2007 Daytona 500, or a miserable debut by new driver Casey Mears that's led to just one top-10 finish. The team has already swapped crews for the No. 29 and No. 07 cars to try and get them going -- but that's not the only fix needed in order to turn things around.
5. NASCAR can stop a race to honor the military... but not call one due to the weather. NASCAR's decision to stop the race at 3:00 for a moment of silence for our veterans was an unprecedented, classy move to honor the president's wish on Memorial Day. With strong ties to the military -- the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard have all sponsored cars at one time or another -- it's no surprise the sport showed its support while racing for the first time in years on this holiday. But while it's hard to be critical of that move, the same can't be said for NASCAR's indecision regarding the weather. Within 30 minutes of the race's third red flag on Lap 227, everyone knew the radar left restarting the event all but impossible. For the next few hours, fans started leaving in droves while drivers changed into their street clothes -- knowing the answer everyone knew except apparently NASCAR itself. By the time the race was called at nearly 6:30 EDT, there was literally no one left to cheer Reutimann's first Cup victory, either in the stands or on TV -- and NASCAR was left embarrassed by waiting about two hours too long to make that call.