Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan
Greg Biffle in Michigan's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Greg Biffle’s 19th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory Sunday brought him into a tie on the all-time list with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man most pundits claimed was supposed to win in the Irish Hills. It was like “Opposite Day” come to life, considering the two couldn’t be more different. Earnhardt, revered through his personality and last name, is the sport’s most popular driver. The whole grandstand shakes the second they see him in position to lead a lap.
Biffle? He’s a forgotten man. Despite winning titles in both the Nationwide and Truck series — putting him in an elite category of drivers who have done both — most NASCAR fans wouldn’t recognize him if they passed on the street. Even within his own team, a cloak of invisibility exists. Carl Edwards, who never met a camera he didn’t love, is the more charismatic driver at Roush Fenway Racing; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is dating that GoDaddy girl. That leaves Biffle as the guy in your group who shows up at the bar every Friday night, watches the game at your table but you don’t remember a thing he said — just that he seems to know his stuff and he’s friends by association.
That’s not to say the man doesn’t try. The wry, sarcastic sense of humor is there, it’s just that good friend and longtime teammate Matt Kenseth does it better. The rare time Biffle utters a quote worth using it seems Tony Stewart or someone else goes off at the same time and his words get buried on page 3C.
But at age 43, maybe it’s time we appreciate some of what the Washington native has done in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s now won in nine of the last 11 years on the circuit, has made five of the last six Chases and finished top 5 in points three times in his career. There’s not many drivers who can say that.
Is it a Hall of Fame resume? No. But for a guy who’s a likely lifer with Ford after showcasing a decade of loyalty, there’s no better person to bring home the Blue Oval’s 1,000th NASCAR victory, of which Biffle is responsible for 55.
Good luck getting people to realize it, though. Here’s what else we learned Sunday as we go “Through the Gears” …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick’s horror story
Turns out the oft-referenced horseshoe stuck up Jimmie Johnson’s … well, you know what … fell out sometime before the green flag at Michigan. Maybe it was replaced by kryptonite? The four-car Hendrick Motorsports fleet, hoping to be led by Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.’s Superman-themed No. 88, was the class of the field. But to finish first, you must first finish … and none of them were able to do that effectively.
Jeff Gordon was first to fall, a victim of a lap 7 crash where Bobby Labonte spun in front of him. Then, Kasey Kahne, running a spirited race to win for fallen friend Jason Leffler, blew a tire while running up front. His day ended in a ball of flames on Lap 104. That left Earnhardt seemingly in control, positioned to win his first race since this same event a year ago. But his engine erupted shortly before the 300-mile mark, leaving him sitting 37th in the garage.
Three down, one to go; Johnson was left with a car that might have been the fastest of the four. The problem, surprisingly, was the inability of crew chief Chad Knaus to call proper strategy. Taking four tires when others took two, then putting an extra can of fuel in while others did not found the No. 48 buried in 11th when the race went green for a final 27-lap run to checkers. It took all Johnson could muster to fight up to second, but the aggression took its toll; a flat tire and contact with the wall — not necessarily in that order — with three laps to go left him limping to the pits and a lap down in 28th.
That’s right, four Hendrick cars, zero drivers on the lead lap. It was the first time since Sonoma in 2005 that the entire fleet ran outside the top 25 at race’s end. Will it hamper HMS over the long-term? Yes and no. Johnson, who still has a 31-point advantage in the championship standings should have won each of the last three weeks. He’ll be fine. Kahne, now pushed back into “wild card” territory still has a Bristol victory and is a top-5 car on every intermediate the circuit runs. His Chase position, along with an additional win or two this summer, is a near certainty.
For Gordon and Earnhardt, the picture is less clear. The former is winless this year, sits 19 points outside the top 10 and has seemingly suffered through more bad luck in one season than Johnson has in an entire career. History says he’ll win one before Richmond, as always, to secure a spot — but you never know.
As for NASCAR’s Most Infamous Enigma, Michigan marked just the third time all year that the No. 88 has been out front, which is encouraging. But challenges in the form of Sonoma and Kentucky await. Add in a potential Daytona “Big One,” and suddenly this team, sitting 30 points inside the Chase cutoff, is scrapping with about 14 others for one of the final three playoff spots via points. That’s not a chance they want to take, because Junior hasn’t won a race away from Michigan since Richmond in April 2006.
SECOND GEAR: And it’s Ford for the steal!
With Hendrick down for the count and Toyota down on power — its big guns failed to lead a lap for the second straight week — the Michigan race was there for the taking. And Ford was more than happy to step in. Aside from winner Biffle, Joey Logano led 21 laps and ran a solid ninth, his fourth straight top-10 result. Polesitter Carl Edwards was one position better, and would have been higher if not for an ill-timed yellow while pit stops were under way that trapped him deep in the field.
It was a big moment for the Fusions, still a step behind and needing to take advantage of situations like Sunday’s to stay in the game. Now with Biffle holding a victory, it’s almost certain he and Edwards will be in the postseason field.
Surprisingly enough, while you’d think Penske Racing would be in better position, the momentum within that camp is tilting towards Roush Fenway. There’s no guarantee Logano or even reigning champ Brad Keselowski, who ran out of gas and came home a frustrating 12th, will even make the postseason. Keselowski, who was in the news last week for comments made about why Penske and RFR are struggling to work together, has to cut the chitchat, which got Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing infuriated over claims they’ve stolen employees. Instead, he must use his newfound street cred to continue the push to share information — the teams met extensively last week — because they’re going to need it.
Denny Hamlin's Jason Leffler-inspired paint scheme. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Love for Leffler
Tributes were all over Sunday for the former full-time Cup and Nationwide driver, killed at age 37 during a midweek sprint car wreck at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey. From decals on cars to a moment of silence, Jason Leffler was on the forefront of everyone’s hearts and minds at Michigan. Perhaps the most poignant moment came from Kahne, whose mid-race misfortune was irrelevant within seconds of being interviewed on pit road.
“It’s been a tough week for a lot of people,” Kahne said. “Jason Leffler was a good buddy of mine and it’s neat to see how the racing world, the fans and his friends and everybody has supported him for the last four or five days. That showed the person and the racer that he was. I’m just glad I could say he was one of my good friends.”
Unfortunately, those closest to the open-wheel ace weren’t able to cash in on Victory Lane. Tony Stewart put up a reasonable effort, running fifth, while Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team struggled all day. Despite changing its paint scheme to the 2005 edition — the one Leffler ran before being released from the team — the 11 was off the pace from the drop of the green, eventually finishing 30th, one lap down.
For those interested in donating to help Leffler’s son, Charlie Dean, a trust fund has been set up. Funds can be sent to:
Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust
c/o SunTrust Bank
232 Williamson Road
Mooresville, NC 28117
FOURTH GEAR: Under the radar performances that could have an impact
With attrition taking its toll at Michigan, its tricky repave causing a number of spinouts and tire failures, some surprising names wound up sneaking in with good finishes. Richard Childress Racing’s Jeff Burton scored a 10th, his fourth straight run in the top dozen as the organization continues to get its act together. He’s a man to watch in the next few weeks, as Daytona and Loudon are in his wheelhouse. Just 27 points out of 10th in the standings, a Chase spot isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
Running behind Burton, in 11th, was teammate Austin Dillon, whose Cup starts to this point have been an unmitigated disaster. It was crucial to get this career-best run on the resume in preparation for a full-time Cup effort in 2014. But perhaps the biggest shocker came in 13th, where a — dare I say it? — under-covered Danica Patrick had one of her steadiest performances of the season. Improving with every green-flag run, the No. 10 car had the most speed during its final run at a crucial time for the rookie to gain momentum. Sonoma may present its challenges this weekend, but then the series goes to a track she’s run in IndyCar (Kentucky) before revisiting her February triumphs down in Daytona.
OVERDRIVE Kurt Busch, when did you start forgetting how to close the deal? A front row spot was squandered when the No. 78 car spun on its own early at Michigan. Busch has had three front row starting spots and over 125 laps led in the last seven races, yet has just one top-5 finish to show for it. … Paul Menard has led just four laps all season and has yet to finish better than eighth but would be in the Chase if the season ended right now. Lucky break, or clear sign NASCAR lets too many drivers into its playoff format? … Bobby Labonte may have taken the next step towards losing his ride Sunday. While he spun out on the seventh lap in a one-race deal with Phoenix Racing, AJ Allmendinger stepped into his full-time car, the No. 47 of JTG-Daugherty, and ran 19th. That ties the best run for the bunch at an unrestricted track all season, made even more impressive considering the ‘Dinger hasn’t worked with them. Could a permanent switch be coming soon?
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Michigan
Jason Leffler (ASP, Inc.)
1. Reflecting on Jason Leffler, forever a hard charger
News of Jason Leffler’s death after a New Jersey sprint car crash ran fast, far and wide this week. His passing is, as it too often becomes, a startling reminder that race car drivers don’t compete in an arena like most other athletes.
Racing isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life — an often difficult one — for those who pursue it. For every NASCAR national series driver traveling by jet and racing in front of tens of thousands, there are hundreds of others hopefully scraping enough dollars together for new tires every few races or working through the night to make repairs from the last time out.
They do it for the thrill of a well-executed pass, or to feel the joy of victory lane one more time. They do it for the speed, for the rush and for the adventure that’s forever locked inside the walled confines of a racetrack only available to those who work hard enough to enter. It’s an event of open participation, but an experience only a select few ever try.
I didn’t know Jason Leffler, and I never interviewed him. I won’t pretend to know what motivated him to slide in a race car for the first time so long ago, or know what he was seeking from racing Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in an event that paid $7,000 to win. I just know that Jason Leffler was a race car driver in the purest sense with a style both brash and unbounded.
He pushed limits and occasionally stepped over them. He was unflinchingly aggressive when a gap opened — often to a fault — and was more than willing to seek retribution against a driver who had done him wrong. If Jason Leffler was in a race, you more than likely knew it regardless if he was first or 25th.
It all combined to produce in Leffler the status and goal every racer wishes to achieve: Winner.
Leffler didn’t win as often as he liked — no driver ever does — but he was a four-time champion in the USAC ranks in midget and silver crown cars. He started the Indianapolis 500 and he did score trips to victory lane in both the Nationwide Series and NASCAR’s truck series.
It was after his second and final Nationwide Series race win in 2007 at the former Indianapolis Raceway Park that perhaps told us all we need to know about why Leffler spent the majority of his life scrambling across the country to jump behind a steering wheel. Leffler, who had just beat Greg Biffle and David Reutimann using his standard strong-nosed tactics, went through the usual gratuitous crew and sponsor acknowledgements in the post-race interview before he paused, looked directly to the ESPN interviewer and shouted.
Jason Leffler loved his life of racing. And he especially loved the winning. It’s terribly unfortunate and greatly saddening that he lost his life in that continued pursuit. But it’s also comforting knowing that Leffler — at least occasionally — had found what he was chasing.
2. Anniversary brings talk of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You may have read Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan International Speedway last June. You may have heard that Sunday’s race is the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s last win. You may have also heard that the confluence of that event with Earnhardt’s great run at Pocono Raceway last week have made him a good pick for Sunday’s race.
While picking a race winner is often a trivial pursuit (unless you’re picking Jimmie Johnson every week), there are a lot of signs that Earnhardt should have a good car Sunday in Michigan.
Consider that Earnhardt had a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season. Consider that he’s typically been strong on the tracks similar to Michigan this year. And consider that Earnhardt feels his car is measuring closer to the performance of the No. 48.
“I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn’t unload perfect. We had to work to get it right,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in.”
A win last year is certainly no guarantee of success for Earnhardt. But to come back to a track as a defending race winner riding the wave of confidence from recent good runs is a great start to a solid weekend.
3. Ride swaps on tap for Allmendinger, Labonte
Bobby Labonte has become an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons. After filling the seat vacated by Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daughtery No. 47 in 2011, Labonte has just four top 10s to his name. None of those have come in 2013 for the 2000 series champion, and the team apparently is losing some patience with the direction to this point.
As a result, AJ Allmendinger was hired to drive the No. 47 Sunday at Michigan in an attempt to perhaps find some solutions to speed and handling issues in the Gen-6 car. Sunday’s event is the first of five races Allmendinger will drive for the team over the course of the season.
Meanwhile, Labonte will preserve his 702-race consecutive starts streak by jumping in the ever-rotating seat of James Finch’s No. 51.
While it’s not certain that this driver switch for the No. 47 officially opens the NASCAR silly season of driver and team changes, it’s not often that one driver takes over another driver’s ride for performance reasons — even if temporarily — without some larger adjustment down the road.
Mark Martin, seconds before impacting the pit road wall. (ASP, Inc.)
4. Return to the scene of Martin’s scary accident
Seeing as it’s been played in several commercials, television promos and in other places, you probably haven’t forgotten Mark Martin’s impossibly scary wreck in the August race last year at Michigan.
Martin was battling for the lead when he was swept up in a spin involving the lapped cars of Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya exiting Turn 4. He slid down the track and on to pit road where the car looped in such a manner that Martin slid directly into an opening that allows cars to enter and exit the track from the garage area. Martin’s No. 55 then caught the end of the pit wall — narrowly missing scrambling crew members and others — with the wall impaling Martin’s car in the driver’s side.
The concrete wall (roughly two or three feet tall and six inches wide) broke right through the car’s sheet metal and roll cage and entered the cockpit less than a foot behind Martin’s seat. The consequences of Martin hitting that wall just a few inches more forward on the car are impossibly scary to think about.
In the three races I’ve attended so far in 2013, I’ve looked to see if tracks have made adjustments (or had previously constructed a different design) to prevent cars from hitting the pit wall in a similar fashion ever again. As of February, Daytona had still had an exposed end of a pit wall in at least one garage area opening, while Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway had placed concrete barriers perpendicular to the dangerous wall end.
Let’s hope Michigan has studied the incident and reacted appropriately.
5. Kahne, Kenseth look for positive result
For several races, it seemed like Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth had a magnetic draw pulling them together to compete for race wins. Kenseth’s victories at both Las Vegas and Kansas came after holding off valiant late-race charges from Kahne.
Now, both are reeling are consecutive weeks of poor finishes. Kenseth, of course, blew his engine while racing at the front in Dover two weeks ago, and then suffered handling issues and a spin at Pocono relegating the No. 20 to 25th.
Kahne crashed two weeks ago at Dover and then suffered a mechanical issue on the first lap of the Pocono race to field consecutive finishes of 23rd and 36th.
For as strong as each have been in the season’s first 14 races, it’s hard to imagine Kenseth and Kahne are sixth and eighth, respectively, in points despite combining for four wins and 13 total top 5s.
Joey Logano says he’s worked with the same sports psychologist teammate Denny Hamlin has, but that’s not the only reason why Logano could do something in Sunday’s Las Vegas race that he hasn’t in more than a year.
After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500 and 10th last weekend at Phoenix, Logano will seek to score his third consecutive top-10 finish — something he hasn’t done since his late-season charge in 2010.
A new attitude is important, as Logano admits, but it also helps to have better equipment, which Joe Gibbs Racing is providing.
If Logano’s early success continues, it could take some of the pressure off. He’s in a contract year and knows he needs to deliver on the potential that led Gibbs to put him in a Cup car full time when Logano was 18 years old.
Now 21 and able to legally walk through the Las Vegas casinos, Logano is learning what it takes to be a successful driver. He understands a key part is mental.
On the advice of Gibbs last year, Logano began talking with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hamlin credits Rotella for giving him a better outlook after his struggles last year. Logano also has seen the benefits after his talks with Rotella.
“(It) just kind of gives you some more answers and gives you some tools to be able to deal with certain situations and how to talk to people in a positive way, in a motivating way to keep everyone going,’’ Logano said. “All that stuff there is very, very important. It's people skills really, leadership skills.’’
That’s an area that Logano admits he was not prepared for when he moved to Cup. Then again, how many 18-year-olds are?
Logano’s struggles, compounded by the problems his team had last year, beat him down. He’s learned from talking with Rotella, known for working with several top PGA golfers, how to better handle such situations.
“The thing is you’ve got to show up at the race track with the right mindset and knowing that you can go out there and win the race and not going out there to finish in the top 10,” Logano said. “When you’re goal is to finish in the top 10, the best you’re ever going to finish is 10th. You need to focus in on winning.”
Better equipment also helps.
Engine woes saddled Gibbs’ team last year. Logano had to start at the rear of last year’s Daytona 500 because of an engine change and then blew an engine at Phoenix the following week. It started a season-long slide for the team. He finished on the lead lap twice in the first 11 races and by then was all but out of Chase contention. With Gibbs getting its engines from Toyota Racing Development this season, things seem to be better so far.
Logano helped Gibbs place all three cars in the top 10 at Phoenix with Hamlin winning and Kyle Busch placing sixth — something Gibbs did not do last season.
This year, Logano is one of only five drivers to open the season with consecutive top-10 finishes (the others are Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin).
Two races doesn’t guarantee anything and Logano understands that. Still, it’s a good way to start the season with a new crew chief, as Jason Ratcliff takes over after Greg Zipadelli left in the offseason to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.
One of the things Logano mentioned in the offseason was that the crew chief change would allow him to take on more leadership with the team. With what he’s learned talking to a sports psychologist, Logano says he’s taking a greater role this year.
“My attitude’s different,” Logano said. “I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. Granted, we’re only two races into this deal. But we need to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize like we’ve been doing.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GOOD SIGN While Kevin Harvick might have been disappointed with finishing second at Phoenix last weekend after leading a race-high 88 laps, it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this season.
After the race, car owner Richard Childress congratulated Harvick on the radio for his run. Harvick replied: “It’s going to be a good year.”
Harvick was excited with his run after struggling at Phoenix last year and finishing 19th.
“They’ve done a good job over the winter,” Harvick said of his team. “And hopefully that continues over the next few weeks in the preparation that they’ve done through the winter.”
PIT STOPS Goodyear held a tire test Tuesday at Rockingham Speedway in preparation for the April 15 Camping World Truck Series race there, the first NASCAR race at that track since the Cup Series left after 2004. Said Jason Leffler, among the drivers testing: “I’m just looking forward to coming back and seeing 35 other trucks out here racing hard to see what happens when the tires wear out and everybody gets slipping and sliding.” ... Dodge will reveal its 2013 Charger this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prior to last weekend’s events at Phoenix International Raceway, Penske Racing announced it would switch to Ford at the conclusion of the 2012 season. “We do value our NASCAR program and will be evaluating the opportunities available moving forward,” Ralph Gilles, President and CEO SRT Brand and Motorsports, said. “As those opportunities materialize, we'll reveal our 2013 plans, not only in NASCAR but in other forms of motorsports.”
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.