Brian Vickers winning: one of the year's best stories (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Brian Vickers' heart-warming return to victory lane, after a four-year drought, is easily one of this sport's best stories of the summer.
Three year's ago, just as he was really starting to hit his stride on the stock car tour, at age 27, he was hit with a strange, cruel, and very frightening disease, which created dangerous blood clots and left him wondering how long he might really have to live.
Racing was suddenly not that important at all.
And his comeback the following year was clouded with questions about how healthy he really might be....as odd as that might seem for a guy who, during his Team Red Bull days, was one of the most daring men in the sport, keeping up the sponsor's image of course.
Now, just turned 30, the Thomasville, N.C., racer appears as solid as anyone on the tour, and just as aggressive as ever.
Really Vickers easily proved himself last season, with several strong runs, though still only part-time with Michael Waltrip. And, considering the major improvements in Waltrip's operation over the past 18 months, it's been only a matter of time till Vickers broke through.
Maybe Waltrip's regulars -- Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Martin Truex -- haven't been quite as devastating as Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. But, and this is really a shocker, if you add up average finishes for the top drivers on the top teams, and factor out the amazing Johnson, Waltrip's men have the best stats in the sport this season.
Vickers' winning pass on leader Tony Stewart with 16 laps to go wasn't quite that thrilling, since Stewart was backing way off in trying to conserve enough fuel to finish (he didn't make it).
But then there weren't many great passes for the leader during the 3-1/2-hour race, under blazing blue skies at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in front of a crowd of maybe 75 percent capacity. That lack of action has been an ugly feature in the sport for some two years now, and the new 2013 model race cars have not improved things. In fact at Daytona teams discovered the 'closing' rate with these new cars, when one driver tries to close up to pass another, is significantly less than last year. That means it's harder to pass.
And drivers here continue to complain about the difficulty in passing.
Clean air -- for the leader, of course -- is a major plus. Kyle Busch, who had one of the strongest cars here, said he could pull up within two car lengths of someone but not be able to complete the pass.
Some in the stock car garage have been waiting most of the season for NASCAR to start tweaking the rules to make for better competition. But so far the only action from the sport's bosses has been to jawbone drivers into not complaining...and fining them heavily if they do.
This track, with its long straights and tight corners, has always been tough for drivers. Kyle Busch, who finished second behind Vickers, said it seemed even tougher this time. With 10 men beating the track record, the extra speed appeared to increase the dreaded aero-push.
"Once we got close to somebody, the aero effects really seemed to take over," Busch said.
"It was kind of a typical (here)... but I feel like worse, Loudon.
"The car's balance is so good by yourself, and you're fast; but once you get within five car-lengths of the wake of the car in front of you, you can't do anything anymore. The closer you get, the tighter you get. And you can't get close enough.
"You don't have enough speed differential to blow through that wake to past the guy. You're just stuck behind him...struggling."
These new cars are as much as five mph quicker than last year's cars, in aerodynamics, and some have suggested cutting back on the speed could make it easier for drivers to pass. However NASCAR has shown no interest in that option.
And then there's Jimmie Johnson. NASCAR kicked him to the back of the field for the start, and that still couldn't keep him out of Sunday's game. He skillfully drove up to sixth place, and then after so many of his top rivals fell by the wayside, Johnson put it on cruise the rest of the way.
"Once you get to the top 10, that’s a different game trying to pass cars," Johnson said.
"Really, the lane that you were in on a restart (inside or outside) had a huge impact on how many cars you could pass. A few times I was on the outside and made my way to third, and then a few times on the inside and I slipped back.
"It was tough; it wasn't easy by any means. You had to make quick work of people on the restarts...and then we all fell in line."
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had hoped to play some pit road strategy to get from the back to the front. "The cautions didn't work out," Johnson said. "We just had to do it the old-fashioned way and drive up through there."
Meanwhile back in North Carolina, NASCAR officials Monday announced a new game plan they said is designed to improve competition, which is to kick in with the 2015 season.
Why they felt the urgency to step all over the Brian Vickers' feel-good story, instead of just letting it run another 24 hours, is unclear...and perhaps yet another example of one of the deeper problems in this sport, insensitivity.
The new plan, designed in part by an outside consulting firm, McKinsey, is to improve rules-making, officiating, and car inspection.
How all that will really affect the competitive product on the track is unclear.
And then these new 2013 model race cars were so heavily touted as a cure-all for the boring racing this sport's fans have endured for some time now.
NASCAR says it is "now actively engaged in dialogue with industry stakeholders on the proposals and ideas this project has yielded, and that communication will continue over the next several months."
Among the changes planned:
-- moving rules-making out of the officiating department and putting it in the R&D department, which will apparently be headed by a new guy, from General Motors, Gene Stefanyshyn;
-- "redefining" the appeals process, including a new look at the people on the appeals committees;
-- simplifying the rules book, and creating more clearly defined rules by using computer-generated designs (this is still perhaps the only major sport in the world that doesn't release its rules to the fans or media);
-- establishing a more formal parts approval process;
-- increasing consistency of rules interpretations;
-- ramping up "deterrence" for rules infractions;
-- using more technology on pit road;
-- establishing a more efficient inspection process;
NASCAR officials said they would be "careful and deliberate" in how they roll out these changes.
Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, says the new man on the competition team, Stefanyshyn -- a man little known in this sport, though a 30-year veteran of Detroit -- was brought in to take over the rules process. "Ultimately why Gene was brought on board," O'Donnell said. "He's got over 30 years of experience in this area, designs cars from soup to nuts, and so that's why he's here is to take us and better position us."
Stefanyshyn, officially the vice president of initiative and racing development, thus arrives as a major power player in this sport, though apparently little versed or all that knowledgeable in the sport yet.
Stefanyshyn says "For me it's very exciting to come and join the NASCAR team as we enter this era of rejuvenation and reinvention of the sport in NASCAR."
Rejuvination, well, that may well be needed.
But reinvention? Well, that's certain to be a question mark for NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs and engineers to ponder.