Danica Patrick is learning the dark side, too
Tony Eury Sr. is as wily and tough as he is blunt. And the JR Motorsports competition director had seen enough of what he perceived as the unacceptably close and aggressive driving of Michael Annett.
So Eury dialed over to Danica Patrick's team radio frequency two weeks ago during the Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway and offered a short-track racer's remedy: use her tailpipe to cut down Annett's left rear tire if he got too close again.
Patrick didn't, partly because she didn't recognize the voice on the radio, partly because she hasn't advanced to the masters level of stock car skullduggery. One day, maybe.
Patrick's career path was in open-wheel racing until 2009. She has needed to absorb many lessons quickly in an expedited course between her first stock car experience, her first full Nationwide season this year and what will be a full-time Sprint Cup inaugural season in 2013. Learning to drive the more brutish NASCAR vehicle has been only part of it, albeit an incredibly difficult part.
Spliced in between learning to assess and adapt to the new cars have been occasional tutorials in the dark arts of stock car racing, dirty little tricks or clever little methods -- perspective determined by perpetrator and recipient -- that her peers began learning years ago.
With the series returning to the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway this weekend, those little games will begin again, and Patrick will judge again, as she observed after being wrecked in the Sprint Cup race at Bristol, "who's playing fair and who's not."
The thing is, said retired series champion Dale Jarrett, no one is playing fair. Such is the inherent expectation of a sport predicated on smartly applied opportunism.
"You're not out there trying to make enemies," he told espnW.com. "If you get moved on a short track, you understand that's part of it. If you get crashed with somebody trying to do something in that respect, then that's a whole other level. You're ready to pay them back, and that's just going to get you in trouble. The real art of it is in being able to do it to where it doesn't crash you, it doesn't crash the other person, but you might be able to take a spot away."
Jarrett called cutting down an antagonist's tire "the extreme of things you would use on a short track" and a "last resort," but added, "That's not to say people don't do that." With most of NASCAR's races occurring on tracks that are 1.5 miles or longer, drivers need to become aerodynamic opportunists, he said.
There is artistry and competitive advantage in learning to nuzzle within six inches of an opponent's side door or rear bumper to manipulate air flow and slow his or her car, rendering the opponent helpless without shredding metal.
"You learn those tricks by people doing those things to you and seeing how it affects your car," he said. "So then you understand that. But it takes times. And it takes precision, especially on the high-speed tracks where the air makes more of a difference. Just being off a few inches there can create a big problem, and I've seen drivers with a lot of experience and were pretty good drivers have a difficult time in judging that."
Short-track rules apply at Richmond even though race cars will reach in excess of 120 mph. And therefore so do the tricks.
"It's still going to be about moving people and a little nudge," Jarrett said. "It's not necessarily wrecking. If it's for the win on the last lap, you hit them as hard as you need to, which is the way most people look at it, but that's not what she's concerned with right now.
"At Richmond, if you can get side by side with someone and run for laps, you may just have to move up and just nudge them a little bit. There's things you can do at the entry to the corner by just not turning your car in quite as early and then keeping them out there. It makes them get out of the gas earlier, and then you can make the pass and drive by. There's some things you learn, and you use that a lot at a place like Richmond."
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said in June that once Patrick became more proficient at stock cars, "she can pull the tricks and the rooting and the gouging and everything that happens." He also encouraged her to make a mental spreadsheet of how she was raced by various drivers.
Caught in traffic this spring on the .533-mile Bristol bullring, Patrick was told by spotter Rick Carelli, "If you can't get him, then bump him," to which she responded, "Tryin'," and, after a caution, with a laugh, "I was [expletive] aimin' for that rear end."
"In this sport, people are not going to move out of the way for you unless you're Mark Martin and you've got that much respect for them," Carelli said. "Sometimes it takes where you've got to put the nose to them and move them up so you can go on. ... That's short-track racing 101 when you grow up."
The trouble for Patrick is she didn't grow up that way. Most of her counterparts, though, have been learning these lessons since before their youthful aspirations became professional reality. Although Patrick has expressed an appreciation for having the option of using her car to communicate displeasure, her skills were honed in a regimen in which contact is almost always detrimental, if not catastrophic, to the car and too often the driver.
"The short-track stuff we're talking about, these drivers learned that stuff growing up through late model or limited sportsman or Hooters, whatever it was on these short tracks," Jarrett said. "These are the types of things that you learn to use someone up without wrecking them, how much of a tap it takes to get them out of the way. They have a big jump on her in that respect, a lot of those drivers. The short-track stuff, I see where she can get more aggressive, but she also needs to run laps, so she can't get herself in trouble."
Jarrett said a driver's best education in subtle tactics is usually having them used against him or her. Such appeared to be the case this spring at Michigan International Speedway, when Austin Dillon raced up behind Patrick, fouling the aerodynamics of her car and causing her to spin out. Tony Eury Jr. accused Dillon of "dirty tricks," which Dillon denied, saying, "I raced her close and her car was loose, and so that didn't help her where she was at." Intentional or not, the Michigan spin was a teachable moment, Jarrett said.
"Michigan is a great place to learn those kinds of things, because you're at a 2-mile track that is a complete oval, so you can really manipulate the air on the other cars probably more there than anything else. You find those things out," he said. "You put those in your memory banks. It's not something you're going to use against that very person, but it's in making passes and trying to slow someone down that might have taken advantage of a little slip you made, or something like that. I'm sure she learned a valuable lesson there."
Another lesson, he said, in a broad stock car education.
"You have to have a good car to be able to do those things, and she's getting her car better and better, and they're making it better for her," Jarrett said. "Once she understands that more, she'll be able to do that and race in an even more competitive way than she has been."