OK, I'll humor you with the infamous Jeff Gordon "Rookie Sensation" poster by Sam Bass.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Two runner-up finishes in the last three races but no wins since Talladega in April. It’s almost Chase time, though, and Johnson finds himself leading the pack (albeit in a controlled four-wheel drift) as September begins. Surprise, surprise.
2. Jeff Gordon Win No. 85 was a hard-fought victory for Gordon, and possibly one of the best finishes this season. The 24 team is going to be hard to handle in the playoffs. (Sorry folks, no ‘stache and mullet jokes. There’s plenty of those hack jobs on every other power ranking post this week.)
3. Kyle Busch The handle on Kyle’s car went away prior to halfway at Atlanta and never came back. After three consecutive top-3 runs at Pocono, the Glen and Bristol, the 18 team has showings of 14th and 23rd. Will rebound at RIR.
4. Brad Keselowski The “Top 3 Streak” came to an end, but Keselowski still stood strong, notching a sixth at Atlanta. His average finish over the last six races is 2.8.
5. Carl Edwards It’s hard not to figure the 99 team has been in R&D mode. That may be over, though, after Carl turned up the heat at AMS, duking it out with the leaders all day and finishing fifth.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth makes for a popular sleeper Chase pick but he’s straight faded in the closing laps the last two weeks and that can’t happen in the Chase.
7. Ryan Newman Newman was more or less out to lunch at Atlanta after seven pretty nice looking performances. We’ll chalk it up to not being able to have a good day every day.
8. Denny Hamlin Denny would have to choke harder at Richmond than he did in last year’s Chase to miss the playoffs. Yeah, that’s harsh but it’s the truth.
Kurt Busch is bringing the bell bottom look to NASCAR firesuits. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
9. Kurt Busch Like the little girl with the curl, Kurt can be very, very good or very, very bad. Problem is, that doesn’t translate into Chase success.
10. Kevin Harvick After back-to-back 22nd-place finishes, Harvick and the boys rebound with a respectable seventh at AMS. Still, something is amiss here.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’ll probably make the Chase, but at this rate that’s about all you can expect.
12. Tony Stewart Finally broke out of a nasty slump with a big third-place showing at Atlanta. More should follow. Should.
13. Martin Truex Jr. He keeps showing flashes of brilliance but just can’t finish like the big boys.
14. AJ Allmendinger Somehow ranks 13th in the standings. Probably because that’s about where he finishes each week.
15. Clint Bowyer If you were at work, YouTube his comments about Juan Pablo Montoya. Classic.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Paul Menard
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.
Keselowski — the hottest young phenom on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit — used crafty pit road work by himself and his No. 2 Penske Racing team to position himself on the outside of the front row beside Truex after the race was flagged for its final caution period. And when the green flag waved with 80 laps remaining, his four tires propelled him past Truex’s two, and the Michigan native walked away with his third win of the season.
“The Bristol Night Race!” An ecstatic Keselowski yelled from Victory Lane. “This is a race like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win — this is a race of champions! There’s races that pay more, there’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all. We won today!”
Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 5.
Keselowski’s win is the latest result in a hot streak out of the second-year Cup driver that has witnessed runs of ninth, first, second, third and first in the last five races. In that time he has vaulted up the Sprint Cup championship rankings, from 23rd to 11th, just 21 points out of the final spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. Whether he catches Tony Stewart in 10th is almost irrelevant, as Keselowski’s three wins all but guarantee him a wild card slot in NASCAR’s Chase playoff system. However, wild card entries into the Chase are not awarded bonus points for wins, so if Keselowski fails to qualify via points, his victories — and the 30 points he would receive for them — would be voided.
“Twenty-one points is still a lot of points,”?Keselowski said. “That means you’ve got to beat the guy (in 10th) by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races — that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.
“I’m just happy with what we’ve done here tonight and I hate to look too far ahead, but having those (bonus) points for three wins would be huge in the Chase.”
Keselowski’s unlikely run began with a ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fifth top-10 run of the season. But a broken ankle sustained in a practice crash at Road Atlanta looked to derail his Chase hopes. However, Keselowski soldiered on, notching a surprising win at Pocono just days later and followed that up with an even more unlikely runner-up showing at the road course in Watkins Glen. A third-place run at his home track in Michigan was his career best finish on the two-mile oval and preceded the unlikely Bristol triumph on Saturday.
“Keselowski (and) those guys are on a roll right now,” the four-time champ Gordon said. “We all have to keep our eye on him. He’s strong. They’re to me as strong of a team out there as there is.
“Since (the Road Atlanta crash) he’s been on fire. He proved to all of us he’s tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver.”
Johnson’s fourth-place finish tied him atop the point standings with Kyle Busch, who had an uncharacteristically off night at Bristol, finishing 14th.
The top 5 in the standings — Busch, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick — are all locked into the Chase. Denny Hamlin currently occupies the final wild card spot courtesy of his win at Michigan in June.
The question that has been on everyone’s mind in NASCAR was finally answered last Thursday. No, not why Kyle Busch is suddenly sporting a demure part in his hair versus his normal spikey doo (you have to at least give the impression of being a mature, 26-year-old solid-citizen when zapped at 128 mph in a 45 while driving a loaner), but the announcement that has been nearly three years in the making: Danica Patrick is finally headed to NASCAR, full-time. Lock, stock and barrel.
Hmm, that’s odd … nobody really seems that surprised.
Clearly, the announcement was a bit anti-climatic. Ever since Patrick first wheeled something with fenders in a Daytona ARCA race in 2010, executing one of the best "Look-Ma-No-Hands!" saves through the infield grass, it was a foregone conclusion that the second-biggest name in North American motorsports would be heading south.
After starting off a bit rocky in her rookie season on the Nationwide trail in 2010 — that saw an early exit in the season opener at Daytona followed by laps-down runs and an average finishing position of 28th in 13 races — many thought that it would merely be a flash-in-the-pan performance and yet another reality check for open wheelers who have found the going tough in stock car country.
Not so fast. What former teammate and fellow IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti gave up on following half a season in 2008, Patrick is committing to for the entire 2012 season and beyond. She will run the full Nationwide Series schedule next season in the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports as well as eight to 10 Sprint Cup Series races for Stewart-Haas Racing.
So with her future no longer in doubt, what should Patrick’s main concern be at the moment? It may just be to temper expectations.
Don’t take that as a knock against her — if anything, it is the polar opposite. For much of her IndyCar career, Patrick has been the main attraction for a struggling series that saw a distinct lack of American talent — and a proportionate amount of American eyes. Ever since the CART/IRL debacle of the mid 1990s, the Coca-Cola 600 has slowly become the premier Memorial Day weekend race on this side of the pond, as open-wheeled racing in America slid into obscurity. It was Patrick’s arrival at the Brickyard in 2005 as a rookie — and a female that finished fourth — that stood the racing world on its ear and made people take notice of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing once again.
Since then, the knock against Patrick has been that she simply hasn’t won anything and was quickly becoming auto racing’s Anna Kournikova. The comparisons and criticism was unfounded and way out of line, often thrown about by stick-and-ball beat writers who have next to no knowledge of the intricacies and nuances of motorsports. It’s one thing to question why Shaquille O’Neal can’t put a ball in a hole that he’s practically eye-level with and 15 feet away from; it’s another to ask somebody why they’re .10 seconds off a 220-plus mph pace against some of the greatest names in auto racing while driving for a late night talk show host.
Patrick’s peers have not had the easiest go of it in NASCAR, either. Paul Tracy made a handful of starts in the Nationwide Series in 2006, averaging nearly a 34th place finish — one of which was a 37th-place effort at the road course in Mexico City. Dario Franchitti averaged a 17.4-place finish in ’08, buoyed in part by a fifth at Watkins Glen. Franchitti ran 10 Sprint Cup races the same season for Felix Sabates (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing), failing to qualify twice while posting a best finish of 22nd at Martinsville, of all places. Most of his entries were miserable runs that resembled start-and-park efforts; consistent finishes in the mid- 30s and 40s, prompting his return to IndyCar.
Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya has found the going tough in NASCAR, too, posting only a pair of wins since entering the Cup Series full-time in 2007 — both coming on road courses. His average finish in his fifth full season is hovering around 20th, and he has only made the Chase once (2009). Another Formula One competitor, Scott Speed, has also struggled in stock cars, battling desperately to stay involved in the sport after showing promise in ARCA his first year out, and winning a Truck Series race in only his sixth start. Even former Ferrari ace Kimi Raikkonen had a hard time taming a Toyota Tundra at Charlotte this year in a Truck Series race.
Patrick, on the other hand, has a hard-fought fourth-place run (Las Vegas) and a pair of 10th-place showings (Daytona, Chicagoland) in seven starts this year. The Daytona run, in particular, was promising as — much like late in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 — she was leading with just four laps to go. So clearly she has the chops for this — more so than some of the other guys she is following from the same ranks.
One could argue that “Danicamania” in ’05 was the “Greatest Spectacle” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen in nearly a decade. Leading with seven laps remaining in her first shot driving in the biggest race on the planet, Patrick ended up fourth, garnering more attention that day, and in the subsequent weeks, than the race winner — much to said-winner Dan Wheldon’s chagrin.
At the next race, Wheldon showed up sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I Actually Won The Indy 500.”
In a sense, Patrick is in a similar position now as a full-time NASCAR competitor — albeit in the stepping-stone Nationwide Series. NASCAR’s former feeder series had over the course of the last seven or eight seasons been less about driver development than it had been about Cup teams and drivers getting an extra tire test on Saturday. With the recent revisions to the point system allotted and the introduction of a unique next-generation car featuring musclecar nameplates of Dodge’s iconic Challenger and the ubiquitous Ford Mustang, the NASCAR’S triple-A division has begun to generate its own identity and garner renewed focus. And with Patrick on board for 2012, there will be many more taking a second look on Saturday.
However, the appetizer on NASCAR’s weekly menu is just setting the stage for her eventual main course: the Sprint Cup Series. Running a third of the races in 2012, it will be yet another steep learning curve for Patrick. While 2013 marks the expected graduation to the top-level in NASCAR, it also marks the debut of the next generation CoT for the Cup Series — one that looks to evolve from its current incarnation, incorporating many of the features and attributes found on the current Nationwide CoT. This will help serve to prevent the confusion of trying to learn two different stock cars at once, which was part of the problem for Montoya in ’07 and Franchitti in ’08.
Also helping to sustain Patrick in this new venture is the fact that it would do the sport well to see her succeed. As if the daily "Drudge Report" headlines aren’t enough to remind you that we are one errant move away from collapsing the entire Jenga! stack that is our economy, finding money to fund race cars isn’t exactly at the top of every company’s to-do list. Since she arrived in 2010, Patrick has been coached and mentored by the best in the business. Veterans like Mark Martin, Johnny Benson Jr., Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all taken time to get her up to speed before and during races to accelerate her learning curve and curtail some of the stumbles that befell her first few races last season.
They say a rising tide floats all ships, and it is in NASCAR’s best interest for Admiral Patrick to set sail successfully, otherwise there are going to be a lot of teams, drivers and sponsors knocking each other over to get to the nearest lifeboat should their be red sky at morning in 2012.
So what should be considered a successful 2012 Nationwide Series season for Patrick?
A top-15 finish in the points is more than doable, considering the sparse amount of legit full-time entries running for a championship. She could even pull off a win at a restrictor plate track with a little help from her bevy of teammates in and around the Hendrick Motorsports/JR Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing umbrella. If she gets the feel and balance of the cars figured out, a win at an intermediate track isn’t totally out of the question either — and of course, there’s no shame in winning races on fuel mileage. Based on that criteria, Patrick would be in pretty solid standing — heck, just ask Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski or Brian Vickers.
Her biggest test will simply be learning all the tracks, how the car changes during a race, what to look for, what to ask for, staking her flag in the ground and not giving way to other drivers just because she’s “a girl.” Patrick has already done that twice in 2011 with James Buescher and Ryan Truex. Those two incidents didn’t turn out so hot, but they did serve to prove that she can take a hit and keep getting back up.
Besides, if all else fails, she’ll still probably fare better than Steven Wallace and not run into too many other cars. But God help them if anyone tries to pull her hair …
There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.
Of course, the first order of business for Busch was disposing of Johnson, whose ascension to the top of the pylon was a fortuitous one. He was the first driver to make his regularly scheduled pit stop under green flag conditions with 32 laps remaining. As he exited his stall, the yellow flag was displayed, and when the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road under caution, Johnson assumed the lead.
He held that position — followed by Busch — after the green waved until a hard-charging Busch passed the five-time champion with 18 laps remaining. Busch drove away from there, but was drawn back to the field when his brother, Kurt, blew a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall with four laps to go.
Under the ensuing caution, the top 8, including Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, stayed on the track while a number of cars — led by eighth-place Ryan Newman — hit pit road for tires.
No amount of new tires, yellow flags or green-white-checker restarts would stop Busch, though. He dusted Johnson at the line when the green waved and walked away for a .568-second victory.
“I saw the 2 (Keselowski) was going to restart on the inside,” Busch said of the final restart. “I didn't know whether he was going to push the 48 (Johnson) or try to make it three-wide. I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
“When we got down in there (Turn 1), we were side-by-side a little bit. Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run as high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side.”
With the win, Busch became the first driver to clinch a Chase berth and now leads the series with four wins this year.
“I feel like it's anybody's game right now still,” Busch said of the championship. “Although the 99 (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. (The) 48 is going to be tough; 29 (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and he'll be good, too.”
Edwards and Hamlin — two drivers that had experienced a plethora of success at Michigan over the last few years — were both snakebit on Sunday. Edwards had engine issues early that dropped him 28 laps off the lead lap and finished 36th. Hamlin hit the wall with 71 laps to go when a tire went down and wound up 35th.
The poor showing dropped Edwards from the points lead to a tie for third, 39 markers behind Busch. Hamlin’s day may prove to be much more costly. Already on the playoff bubble, last year’s Chase runner-up slipped to 14th in the standings; his only saving grace being a win that — as of this week — would qualify him as a wild card Chase participant.
The other current wild card qualifier is Keselowski, who finished third, marking his third consecutive top-3 finish. At 12th in the standings, he owns two wins which lead any driver outside of the top 12 — and with apologies to Busch and his No. 18 crew, may be the hottest driver and team on the circuit.
“One good run breeds another good run,” Keselowski said. “I'm not sure how to quantify that — how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But (the last three weeks have) been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.”
Three races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart sit ninth and 10th in the standings and, despite not having a win, would be the final two to qualify for the Chase via points. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points behind Stewart, but does not have a wild card win to fall back on as of yet. Keselowski, in 12th, is 72 back of Stewart, followed by Greg Biffle (-58), Hamlin (-59, one win) and AJ Allmendinger (-62). Paul Menard and David Ragan are the only other two drivers ranked 11th-20th that have a wild card win, but they sit mired in 18th (Menard) and 20th (Ragan).
There are 16 races left in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already it is being remembered as the “Year of the Upset.” And Paul Menard solidified that designation in the Brickyard 400 at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Menard, winless in 166 career Cup starts and a longshot in his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, conserved enough fuel over the final 35 laps and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to earn the unlikely win at the Brickyard.
In the process, he joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Southern 500 winner Regan Smith and Coke Zero 400 winner David Ragan as first-time winners on the circuit this year. Three of those — Bayne, Smith and now Menard — not only hit paydirt for the first time, but did so in crown jewel events, marking a first in the Cup Series.
“I knew that we saved plenty of fuel, but I was more worried about the guys that pitted for fuel and were coming hard,” Menard said. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) told me where Jeff (Gordon) was and he how fast he was coming. They set me loose with three laps to go, and the car was really good.”
Gordon, who led 36 laps and had one of the best cars on the grid, finished second. Smith, 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth rounded up the top 5.
“As disappointing as it is not win this race, it sure was great to run that good,” Gordon said. “And I gotta congratulate Paul Menard. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Ah yes, the back story on Menard and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Menard’s father, John, owns the Menards chain of home improvement stores throughout the Midwest. As a long-time supporter of automobile racing in the United States, he has sponsored numerous Indianapolis 500 entries going back to 1982 — including three cars manned by Tony Stewart (1996-98), as well as son Paul’s ride since his debut in NASCAR in 2003.
Needless to say, with the family’s history and affinity for Indianapolis, there could not have been a better track for 30-year-old Paul — having run full-time on the Cup circuit since 2007 — to get his first win.
“My first year here was in 1989 — that I can remember, anyway,” Menard said. “Just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from ’89 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 — it’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
No win at Indy comes easy, and this race was no exception. An otherwise staid race was thrown for a loop when Landon Cassill went for a spin with 41 laps to go. The top seven cars, led by Brad Keselowski, remained on track under the caution period, choosing track position over fuel and fresh tires. Menard, along with McMurray and Smith, among others, topped off their fuel cells just before the race went back to green with 34 laps remaining. Menard restarted 16th.
Once back to green, the majority of the field that had not pitted under caution made stops, as it cycled into a fuel window that would carry them to the end, handing the lead to Menard with 15 lap to go, although he was quickly passed by McMurray. Gordon, who pitted with 26 laps to go, found himself charging threw the field as the laps wound down, but was still 12 seconds out of the lead with only 12 laps to make something happen.
As the top-10 cars conserved fuel by running noticeably slower laps, Gordon surged, picking off positions as the race came to its conclusion. Menard was told to go full throttle with three laps remaining, as Labbe’s calculations showed the No. 27 machine had enough fuel. When the word came to the driver to punch it, he flew by McMurray and, although Gordon was able to work his way back to second just after Menard took the lead, the gap was too great for the four-time Brickyard winner, and Menard won the race to the checkered flag by .725 seconds.
“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel it kind of held me up,” Gordon said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel.”
As for the race-winner, Menard not only enjoyed his most memorable day in NASCAR, but moved into a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. NASCAR’s new Chase qualification rule states that positions 11 and 12 be awarded to the drivers with the most wins ranked 11th-20th. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently occupy the spots with six races until the playoffs begin.
“I think we're 14th (in points) now (and) with the wild card,” Menard said of the upcoming Chase. “We got five or six races left. We got a lot of work to do. We have Richmond and New Hampshire — those are two of our worst tracks, honestly. We have a lot of work to do.”
Kyle Busch at Oxford Plains Speedway by Eric LaFletche, www.vlfphotos.com
by Mike Neff
During his off-week, Kasey Kahne pole vaulted out of Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania after crashing a World of Outlaws sprint car. While Kahne was unhurt, the wreck brought attention to the fact that race drivers like to race, whether in their “daily driver” or in most anything with two, three or four wheels.
Most every driver currently in NASCAR started running go-karts, quarter midgets or any number of other divisions at a local short track. They progressed through the ranks, caught some breaks and eventually made it to the big time. Fortunately, for their fans and the tracks that helped spawn their careers, many haven’t forgotten from where they’ve come — and occasionally make a trip back.
NASCAR’s Cup stars enjoy doing all sorts of things during their infrequent off weeks — a couple days in the Bahamas, anyone? — but many simply use the vacation as a chance to race something different. Their Cup car owners, however, don’t make any money from them doing that and face the daunting possibility that something could happen that would take them out of his ride for a while or, God forbid, forever. With that in mind, and depending on the contract in place, owners will put varying limits on the amount of extracurricular racing a driver can enjoy. Some owners are obviously more lenient than others and the status of the driver in the hierarchy of the NASCAR landscape can ultimately play a role in what they’re allowed to do.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. only runs a handful of races outside of the Sprint Cup Series each season. He is limited by his contract (although he doesn’t seem to mind it), and his importance to his organization is far too valuable to risk injury that would keep him out of his Cup ride. Kyle Busch, on the other hand, races just about every weekend, whether it is in a NASCAR touring series race or in a Late Model at the TD Bank 250 in Oxford Plains, Maine. Busch thrives on racing even if it is far from the pristine race tracks where the Cup Series competes — and that keeps him at the top of his game, which in the long run helps him achieve the best results he can for his “major league” team.
When Justin Allgaier drove for Penske Racing he was asked about running the prestigious Chili Bowl each January. Roger Penske asked him if it was a 100 percent certainty that he would not be injured. Obviously, there is no form of racing where you can be 100 percent assured of no injury, so he was told that it would be in his best interest to not compete. There are many other similar stories in the Cup garage. Some drivers are allowed free reign to do as they please, knowing that the consequences could impact their careers, while others are limited by contracts.
So the question ultimately becomes: Should they be limited in what forms of motorsports they participate in away from the Cup Series?
The truth is that people are injured (and even die) doing a multitude of things that are mundane compared to racing motorized vehicles.
We’ve all heard the stories of people drowning in six inches of water and falling off ladders while cleaning gutters — or in a particular case, breaking an arm while riding on top of a golf cart. So the potential for injury is everywhere, but the potential for serious injury is certainly greater when racing cars.
When the rubber meets the road — or in this case, the track — it all boils down to what a driver can convince his owner is an acceptable amount of racing (or other dangerous activity) he can enjoy while still completing the obligations of being a national touring series driver. Whether they’re wheeling a 410 sprinter or sky diving into Daytona International Speedway, there is danger out there that could end up causing them to miss time behind the wheel or, of course, be permanently sidelined.
However, there is an almost equal opportunity for injury or death driving in a passenger car or working at home. Owners can’t be blamed for trying to ensure their investments are protected and in good condition when Sunday money is on the line, but they also can’t be hovering over them 24/7.
There is a unique balance and it is different for every owner and driver combination.
NASCAR’s running of the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway last weekend should have been the culmination of all things grand — one that left an indelible image on the core of race fans everywhere. Suffice to say, the result was not exactly a 2001 event at Talladega or the 1994 Brickyard 400. Instead, it was what one could have reliably expected: just another 1.5-mile race along the lines of Las Vegas, Kansas and —excuse me while I cough a little bit — Chicagoland.
While it was certainly refreshing to see the grandstands full (once people actually got in) at the Kentucky race, coupled with the announcement that the Nationwide Race at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O’Reilly Raceway Park, which begat Indianapolis Raceway Park) is being moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, part of NASCAR’s popularity problems are becoming readily apparent:
The tracks hosting NASCAR races are terrible.
You’d be hard pressed to find a track built in the last 15 years that comes remotely close to fostering racing the likes of which was commonplace at some of the more storied NASCAR locales — particularly ones that have lost a date or are little more than termite estates now. It took Auto Club Speedway (i.e., California) 14 seasons of competition before it hosted a race worth finishing, which has been reinforced by the dwindling attendance and its loss of a race date. Kentucky was little more than another race at Chicago, albeit with twice as many gracious and geared-up fans, some of whom waited over five hours to get in, while many others — estimated to be as many as 20,000, but more likely around 5,000 — gave up and went home. Inexcusable on the track’s part, by the way.
The decision to move the Nationwide Race form LOR/ORP/IRP to the Brickyard is even more befuddling. Part of the motivation is to help sell packaged ticket bundles that include the Nationwide and Rolex Grand Am Series (the latter on the former Formula One road course) to fill the stands at the speedway, which have become glaringly empty in the last few years. Credit the tire fiasco of 2008, the economic impact on the Midwest, the general malaise that has overcome NASCAR as a whole since 2007 and the sport’s message becoming more mixed.
For a circuit like the Nationwide Series that barely fills up the frontstretch at any one track, how is it going to look on TV when just a smattering of people are occupying seats by the flag stand at the big track? That said, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone within the sport who is not toeing the company line about the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis as a “great opportunity.”
It is great for those competitors who have never raced there, and may spur some sponsorship interest. However, for the fans and those Nationwide teams that compete and struggle to show up on a regular basis, it simply compounds an already growing problem. How are Nationwide teams to compete with their Cup counterparts at a track as one-dimensional as Indy, while a short track like the one down the road puts them on an even keel for a change?
Lucas Oil Raceway by ASP, Inc.
I was on hand at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park in ’07 when Toyota scored its first Nationwide Series victory with series stalwart Jason Leffler and fellow Toyotian David Reutimann in hot pursuit. There was racing throughout the pack, a clear view of pit road from virtually any seat and a full grandstand, to boot. The next day, while at the Brickyard 400, no one could have been aware of what was transpiring between Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps, until Smoke let loose with one of his more memorable post-race interviews that was broadcast over the PA system.
What’s more, that race was one of the few that had a relatively full crowd, and considering the typical margin of victory at a Nationwide race, I fail to see how the move helps anyone.
What is doubly frustrating is that the tracks NASCAR should be at — or looking at visiting — are largely ignored. Since 2000, the margin of victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway — which lost a date to Kentucky — stands at 1.14 seconds, with some of the most memorable last-lap, down-to-the-stripe finishes in the sport’s history highlighting its finishes. The margin in Saturday night’s Kentucky race was .179 seconds, courtesy of a late-race, double-file restart. With the exception of the start of the race and a lap 142 restart, there wasn’t much memorable about the evening with the exception of Jamie McMurray’s smoke show in Turn 2 and the aerial view of traffic backed up for miles on I-71 (not that TNT acknowledged the significance of the shot).
The Nationwide race at Road America last month, which looked like musclecar bumper cars, drew over 50,000 on a Saturday — with half of the track not visible or even having a place to stand and watch. The NNS attendance at Daytona, a track synonymous with stock car racing? 50,000. There are clearly tracks NASCAR should be entertaining to entertain, rather than racing at a venue just because the guy who owns most of the tracks owns it.
Considering NASCAR needs to reach as many fans as possible, racing at as many new venues and in new areas of the country is necessary. Five years ago, I was of the mindset that NASCAR should predominately run in the southeastern United States, but make an effort to visit most every area of the country at tracks at least twice. That was fine. It helped build the sport and NASCAR could reap the benefits.
An attempt to build newer tracks in untraditional markets, however, has run into stiff opposition.
The planned Bristol-esque track that was long-rumored to be built on Long Island fizzled, and when a big push for a track to be built in Washington state in 2007 was broached, the speaker of the house in the state’s legislature accused Richard Petty of having a DUI, while another house member stated publicly that, “These are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”
Considering the precarious position the sport remains in as the economy dictates what survives and what dies, Jeff Burton’s sentiment is right on target: Going to different markets and areas of the country are key, but only if it produces a better product.
NASCAR was arguably at its best in the early- to mid-1990s, with exponential growth, interest, excitement, appropriate coverage to pique curiosity and a lack of over-saturation. Each time a new track was built, a little piece of the past died, though. That will come with any evolutionary step, but is it too much to ask for the old favorites like Atlanta and Darlington to not be substituted for calamities like the tracks in Fontana and Kentucky?
This isn’t to say that NASCAR’s oldest tracks haven’t had issues of their own. I once sat in traffic reminiscent of Kentucky’s going to Michigan International Speedway in the ’90s. When Charlotte Motor Speedway brought the term “levigation” into our vocabulary, it did so by destroying the finest 1.5-mile track that motorsports had ever known. And regardless of how brightly Bruton Smith paints the walls yellow, it is not the same track it once was.
We’ve all watched as chunks of the track at Martinsville and Daytona started flying around, while North Wilkesboro never really looked much different when it hosted its final race in 1996 than its first 40 years earlier. The difference is each of these places provides something special, having been witness to some of the greatest moments in the sport’s history. If they are going to be replaced by new locations, is it too much to ask that they produce something tangible — beyond ROI for ISC and SMI — in return?
New tracks are needed in NASCAR, no question. The problem is, the ones that are awarded new dates continually resemble the same ones that no one cares about in the first place. That points to a downward trend — and at the absolute wrong time for a sport that has some distinct challenges that lay ahead.