When Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car sputtered on the last lap, out of fuel, at Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, one of the veteran stock car racing reporters shouted in the media center, “That doesn’t happen last year.”
The inference: Had NASCAR not changed the rules to emphasize winning races rather than collecting points to determine its playoff field at season’s end, Earnhardt wouldn’t have gone for the win.
The rest of us bought it.
That’s exactly what we wrote. And NASCAR almost fell over while taking a deep bow, because that sure as heck was an exciting finish.
The storyline was that if Earnhardt wouldn’t have won the season-opening Daytona 500, thereby virtually assuring himself a spot in the Chase for the championship under these new rules, he wouldn’t have gone for the win by staying out on the track when the leaders made late pit stops.
And then he wouldn’t have run out of fuel on the last lap, handing the victory to Brad Keselowski.
Another veteran observer of the NASCAR scene called nonsense (or something similar) on that one.
Nick Bromberg covers stock car racing for Yahoo on the Internet. After NASCAR races, he and colleague Geoffrey Miller do a podcast called “The Chrome Horn” which breaks down the race and pokes holes in the narrative, should poking holes be warranted.
They poked holes on Sunday following Earnhardt’s post-race remarks.
“I think the new format is definitely showing it has tons of positives,” the popular driver had said. “It’s better as far as entertainment for our sport. It gives us freedom to do the things that we did today, even though we knew our odds weren’t good. We really shouldn’t have made it, and we didn’t, but we got to try because of the new system.”
Just as he got to try under the old system.
As the Yahoo guys pointed out, Earnhardt used the exact strategy to almost win but come up short in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600, one of NASCAR’s biggest races.
When the leaders pitted for fuel with a few laps to go, Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne stayed out; Earnhardt was leading when he ran out of fuel on the last lap. It was Kevin Harvick who passed him to win that night.
“We really shouldn’t have made it,” Junior said on Sunday.
“We weren’t supposed to make it,” he said at Charlotte in 2011.
“We ran out of gas and kind of knew it. We played our hand. I tried to save a ton of gas. I’m disappointed we didn’t win. I know all our fans are disappointed to come so close. But if we’d have won that race, it’d have been a gift.”
Even his quotes were nearly identical.
Earnhardt managed to hang onto second place Sunday, coasting across the line. He finished seventh that night at Charlotte.
There are two factors, Bromberg said, that need evaluating before one drinks the NASCAR Powerade about the new playoff format.
“First, how do we take anything from NASCAR drivers about the Chase at face value?” he said, adding that the ruling body has been known to penalize with secret fines those who make disparaging comments.
“And the PR blitz that we’ve become accustomed to over the past week, that winning is everything, when we know that it’s not true, because points are going to matter” to determine playoff positions, unless 16 drivers win races.
The Yahoo team made its case by bringing up the 2011 race in Charlotte, which NASCAR apparently has erased from memory with a powerful gamma ray.
“That was a very similar situation to what it was (Sunday),” Bromberg said.
And it really wasn’t much different than the 2013 race at Las Vegas, which Matt Kenseth won by taking only fuel during the last pit stop while the leaders also took tires.
That was a gamble, too.
Under the old rules.
“I think the feel-good from the Daytona 500 is going to last a while; everybody loves it for NASCAR and Junior and I get it, Bromberg said on his podcast. “But let’s pretend the 500 doesn’t happen, and Junior still has the winless streak. If you’re (crew chief) Steve Letarte, you’re going to go for this, just like you went for it at the 600.”
Bromberg said even if Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t won at Daytona, he could have said he was going for the win and credited the new rules, because a win guarantees you’ll make the chase and race for the championship. Though playing it safe and collecting a ton of points almost assuredly will, too.
This is why NASCAR, and NASCAR fans, love Dale Earnhardt Jr. He always says the right things. (Plus, I’m told he listens to grunge music real loud on satellite radio.)
So while it made for a thrilling finish of what was shaping up as an otherwise uneventful race, one could argue that Junior’s fuel gamble on Sunday really wasn’t a gamble at all — or at least no different than last year’s gambles, or 2011’s, or any year’s before the rules were changed.
Unless, of course, one is a NASCAR driver, in which case one might be secretly fined or zapped with a giant gamma ray.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.