BUMP STOPS: Rondeau, RPM and Rolling Race Cars On Pit Road

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Regan Smith takes the checkered flag in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway last Saturday night. Photo: Getty Images/NASCAR

It's Thursday again... Time to take that ol' Mini Stock out of the garage for a spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

IF YOU'RE FROM New England, you probably already know about Pete Rondeau.

Until this past weekend, Rondeau was best known to New Englanders as a one-time part-time competitor on the old Busch North Series. A native of Saco, Maine, he was among that group of guys who helped Kelly Moore's career become one of the best in what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Rondeau, Slugger Labbe, and even Ryan Moore all moved south eventually and took on prominent behind-the-scenes rolls with NASCAR teams.

To the rest of the world, though, Rondeau is the guy that was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s "other crew chief," when Tony Eury Jr. famously stepped down from the post during that failed experiment at DEI in 2005.

Now, though, Rondeau is a Cup-winning crew chief. He, of course, made the gutsy call to get Regan Smith out ahead of the pack at Darlington last weekend on a late restart that led Smith to Victory Lane in the Southern 500.


Not a bad bit of vindication for Rondeau – except that he doesn't see it that way.

"I don't have any vindication from that few years back," Rondeau said following the win last weekend. "I guess a lot of things go around, some come around. This just came around.

"I'm Regan Smith's crew chief now, so that part there has gone by."

Rondeau's own driving career was unspectacular. He raced only a handful of K&N East races from 1994-1998, posting a career-best finish of eighth at Wiscasset Raceway in 1994 while driving for owner Joe Bessey. He later would finish 10th at both Thunder Road and Beech Ridge in 1998.

Rondeau even made one Whelen Modified Tour start at Oxford Plains Speedway in 1991, where he finished 20th.

But for now, Rondeau is a winner in the Sprint Cup Series. He seems like he's found a home – and a comfort level – with the upstart Furniture Row team in the stock car racing hotbed of, uh, Denver, Colorado.

"It's one of them things you think about a lot, but then it's a split-second decision," Rondeau said of the strategy that won the race at Darlington. "Sometimes you make out well with it, sometimes you don't. I was leaning one way, as it was. I said, 'What the heck, we'll ask Regan where he's headed.' He said we were both on the same page. 'All right, let's go for it.' He's the one driving it.

"He willed it."

AUSTIN THERIAULT IS dealing with a lot for a 17-year-old race car driver.

He put together an impressive rookie season on the ACT Late Model Tour in 2010, finishing in the Top-10 in the overall standings – not all that long after winning the Spud 150 at Spud Speedway in his first-ever Late Model race. This season, he moved to the seven-time championship organization at RPM Motorsports – and many predicted the sky was the limit for the Fort Kent, Maine, driver now teamed with Brian Hoar.

The fact is, it still is the limit. That's not changed, even though Theriault did not qualify for the Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road International Speedbowl two weeks ago.

If there's anything we've learned about the ACT Tour over the years, it's that making races in and of itself is hard work. It may not be sexy for sixth-place finishes to count as a benchmark for success in racing, but that's the way the Tour is constructed.

A team can't simply buy more parts and pieces and dominate.

But with the eyes of New England's Late Model community watching him, it's hard to imagine that Theriault isn't feeling intense pressure. He likely puts most of that upon himself.

One of the great nuggets to come out of that Merchants Bank 150 was the scene in the garage area moments after Theriault climbed from his car following the last-chance qualifying race. One of the first people to get Theriault's ear was Joey Polewarczyk Jr.

Polewarczyk, for all his accolades and torrid stretch of wins in the second half of the 2010 season, knows about disappointment. He didn't qualify for an ACT race at Oxford Plains Speedway last May. He wasn't very good in the TD Bank Oxford 250 last summer, despite being heralded as one of the pre-race favorites. He didn't qualify for a PASS race at North Wilkesboro in April.

Polewarczyk's seen the ultimate highs and devastating lows in racing firsthand. But Polewarczyk has learned to let those disappointments roll off his shoulders as he moves forward. It's the characteristic of great race car drivers – the ability to look only ahead and ignore what's happening in their rearview mirror.

After watching Theriault miss the race at Thunder Road, Polewarczyk was pointed in his advice.

"Don't let it get to you," Polewarczyk said. "It happens. Believe me, I've been there. It gets better."

Theriault would do well to take the words of Polewarczyk to heart.

I'M JUST NOT digging "Deadliest Catch" anymore. Not that I'd want the job, don't get me wrong, but I think you can only show guys fishing for king crab so many ways before it loses its 'wow' appeal.

ON THE SUBJECT of Regan Smith's win at Darlington, the question has been raised – which was the bigger upset, Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500 or Smith in the Southern 500?

I'm casting my vote for Smith.

Restrictor plate racing is a wild card at the Cup level. Any given Daytona 500 field has 25 guys who could potentially score the upset victory. Michael Waltrip's only career Cup wins came on restrictor plate tracks; Bill Elliott was impressive in the Wood Brothers ride at Daytona in the couple of years before Bayne got his crack at the seat.

The same can't be said for other tracks on the Cup circuit – and Darlington is roundly praised (criticized?) as the toughest of them all. We'd likely be hard-pressed to come up with five drivers who could win at the Lady in Black.

Which is why Smith besting the likes of Edwards, Busch, Johnson, Kahne, et al, is remarkable beyond words.

It's more impressive when you consider he held them off not through fuel mileage, but with old tires on a G-W-C restart.

It's one for the books in a NASCAR season that's already had a few of those moments.

I'M NOT SAYING I want drivers to be penalized for showing some personality. In fact, I think the "vanilla" characteristic is somewhat overplayed by fans and media in the sport.

But I am surprised that NASCAR didn't offer stiffer penalties to both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the wake of the post-race incident at Darlington. An unmanned car careening toward the wall on pit road is incredibly dangerous – and the safety of the crews, auxiliary staff and even a few fans in the infield, has to come first.

It's too bad that something like that could severely tarnish what otherwise is shaping up to be one of NASCAR's best feuds in a long, long time.

I HAD NEHRO in the Kentucky Derby. And I'm going to play the role of "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fan" and pretend that Animal Kingdom didn't compete in the 137th Run for the Roses.

So, in my mind, Nehro won. I even cashed the ticket to prove it.

TO PIGGY-BACK off the thoughts of colleague Shawn Courchesne, I, too, am puzzled at the lack of respect shown to Rowan Pennink in the most recent NASCAR Hunter Index.

The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points leader didn't even crack the Top-10 in the poll ranking the nation's top short-track racers.

I think it continues to illustrate the point that Modified racing is a regional phenomenon, not unlike college hockey. Where Modified racing exists – in southern New England, in New Jersey, in North Carolina – it's wildly popular. Same with college hockey in New England, Minnesota, Michigan and the Dakotas.

See: Madhouse.

But where the sport isn't seen on a weekly basis, it's something of a novelty act. That's too bad, because race fans everywhere are missing out on a truly entertaining form of racing.

But you already knew that...

YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the grilled salmon and don't forget to tip your waitress. Justin Bieber is here, so stick around...

– TB