Marbles: One last look

@tvbp1985 (999)
November 25, 2006 8:34pm CST
In From the Marbles, Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR team ponders the latest news, biggest issues and behind-the-scenes action in the NASCAR world. Submit your question or comment below for future use in From the Marbles. Recent entries: What pressure? | For love of the race | Show some respect | Growing pains | Tire games | Falling short and wrapping up | Last ride | Interested visitors | Name game | Kyle's ride Previous entries: From the Marbles archive Your turn: Submit questions or comments for From the Marbles November 19, 2006 Lights out By Jon Baum HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The celebrating nearly was done, the interviews were complete, the champagne had been sprayed and the grandstands had all but emptied. In some ways, the hours after the checkered flag fell on the Ford 400 and the 2006 season here at Homestead-Miami Speedway were just like any other postrace period. Three hours after the race, the garages mostly had been cleared – though there were team haulers that remained – and all drivers not named Jimmie Johnson were long gone. Really, one might be surprised how fast everyone typically tries to get the heck out of Dodge (no, I'm not talking about Jamie McMurray or Casey Mears) after a Cup race. And indeed, on this night, there was a postrace calm, a quiet, as a chill filled the Florida air. But maybe there were a few more people milling about long after the race than usual. And maybe there were a few more lights on in the garage than usual. Crewmen leave the track. (AP) And why shouldn't there be? Yes, it's a long season, and yes, many are somewhat relieved that the all-too-brief offseason finally is upon us. But despite that, it only seemed right that on this night, the final of the Cup season, that maybe not everyone should be in such a hurry to leave it all behind. And so after 38-plus weeks of racing, there were some who didn't quite need to hit the road right away, instead deciding to savor the moments, to enjoy the party a few minutes more. The entire facility still was lit, actually, and some of the people within had to remain. There were the track crews who broke down stages and barriers while other workers cleaned up the grandstands and disposed of champagne-soaked confetti (much of it black and yellow, surely thanks to Nextel) and other remnants of not one but two victory celebrations. (Also littering the track were dozens of coupons for the South Florida Barbecue Festival. It takes place in February, in case you were wondering. Or even if you weren't.) And a handful of remaining fans, some drinking beer, watched all the while. Or maybe those were track workers on a break, taking in the ambiance. For as exhilarating as the rush is that one feels while walking in the garage and pits or by the start-finish line on a Sunday morning in the hours before a race, an almost equally impactful calm emanates from the abandoned pit stalls and near-empty frontstretch long after the race winner has done his celebratory burnout. Call it the calm after the storm. This frontstretch actually still was home to the stage on which Johnson and his team celebrated their Cup championship, and many lingered by that stage. They waited for Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick to return from their final media interviews and pose for more celebratory shots with various groups (representatives from Lowe's, Sprint/Nextel, Chevrolet, etc.), engage in more fist pumps into the air and perform more customary shouts of "wooo" that can be heard in victory lane from week to week. Awards banquet aside, Johnson and Co. posing for those photos perhaps could be considered the final official act of the season. It was NASCAR's own denouement A couple hours later, that stage was empty – except, of course, for those dismantling it. Track workers still were tidying up the speedway, though most of the NASCAR officials and media had left. Knaus, meanwhile, could be seen enjoying a ride on a golf cart to some other part of the garage – or perhaps to transportation to take him, finally, out of the garage altogether. All of the fans, save for those in the camping area outside the track who sat in or around their RVs and enjoyed a late beer or hot dog, were gone. And as I would discover shortly, even the traffic cones surrounding the track had been removed – and the police who had directed traffic all weekend were nowhere to be seen, as there no longer was any traffic to direct. On my way out of the track, I stopped and pulled over just before driving through the tunnel and took one last look back. The grandstands were deserted, belying the gravity of what had happened in front of them just hours before when NASCAR crowned a new champion. The track still was fully lit, as light beamed down upon those still breaking down that stage and still cleaning the pits. Upon those few fans still scrounging for a souvenir, like maybe a media pass or even a handful of confetti. As this 2006 Nextel Cup season came to a close, the light beamed down on those of us who, by choice or circumstance, just had to linger a little longer. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- November 18, 2006 What pressure? By Jon Baum HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Walking into the garage just before the start of Happy Hour practice here at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday afternoon, one might have been a bit surprised at how calm everything was. After all, this was the last practice session before Sunday's championship-deciding Ford 400. Bad setup? Quirky aero package? This was the final chance for teams to fix whatever might be plaguing their machines. Then I realized I was on the other side of the Cup garage. You know, the one where cars nowhere near the Chase are housed. The circus atmosphere one might expect to see indeed was present in front of one stretch of garage stalls, for within those consecutive stalls sat the 20, 48, 17, 8, 11 and 29 cars. But it wasn't so much the teams themselves, but rather everything that surrounded them. Rows of fans, members of the media, photographers – all gathering around, looking for an autograph, a story, a shot worthy of placement above the fold. It was especially crowded in garage stalls 23D and 24C, which sit adjacent to each other inside the track just beyond the point where Turn 4 morphs into the frontstretch. Within those two stalls labored the crews of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car and Matt Kenseth's No. 17, respectively. The points leader and his closest competition. The pressure is on the 48, according to No. 17 crew chief Robbie Reiser. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the Lowe's crew. Throughout that final 45-minute practice session, Johnson's team seemed to be operating business as usual like this was just any other Saturday before any other race day. There was no desperate running around, no shouting, no worried expressions from a crew whose driver holds a 63-point lead heading into Sunday's race. And despite the cameras capturing every moment of a conversation between Johnson and a crew member, Johnson himself seemed completely unfazed. "I think everybody is real good," No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus said. "The car is running well. We're all happy with that. … Everybody is excited about the race. "Jimmie's excited, He's driving the race track great. He's having a great time." In fact, virtually the only sign of an overly serious demeanor among any on the 48 team was an understandably busy Knaus refusing an autograph request while making his way from the garage stall to his team's hauler. Maybe, just maybe, there were more crew members gathered around the scoring monitor checking their driver's lap times than usual, and that was going on in both the 48 and 17 garages. But with the exception of Reiser and another 17 crewman running back and forth between the hauler and garage a couple of times (once to grab a part), there was no scurrying about, nothing frantic. In fact, it seemed everything in the garage was hectic but the teams themselves. "This is the way we operate every weekend," Reiser said. "All the teams take each race as serious as they can and do the best job they can. I don't think just because it's championship weekend you step up your game. To get here, we got to run at a high level. That's the way you operate." But everything is on the line this weekend. Surely this is supposed to be the time teams are battling both each other and the stress of competing for a championship. Surely the 48 guys, whose championship it is to lose, are feeling a little stressed. "Not really. No, we're pretty good," Knaus said. "We're really excited. We just don't have it. You know, stress is something you put on yourself. You can't get that from outside influences. I think we're all pretty clearheaded and ready to race." While everything swirled around them, the drivers pulled out of the garage and onto the track, returning several minutes later so the teams could make the typical chassis changes and air pressure adjustments. A crewman from Johnson's team could be seen playfully punching a Roush Racing crew member (not from the 17) in the middle of it all. The calm of Johnson's team perhaps stems from its position in points and the blazing streak it has been on over the past five or six weeks. Could the calm of Reiser's crew stem not only from professionalism, but also from a sense of defeat? Reiser still laments his team’s struggles over the second half of the Chase, and he and Kenseth have remarked frequently that the cars simply aren't running as well as they did earlier in the season when Kenseth was frequently challenging (and sometimes holding) the points lead. "It really doesn't even feel like a championship year," Reiser said. "More than anything right now I'd like to get our cars running better and
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