There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began . Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average . Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers  (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.