Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Sunday October 27, 2013
There’s something about tiny Martinsville Speedway that embodies everything NASCAR should be. It’s difficult, it’s quirky, it’s hard on drivers and race cars alike. There’s constantly racing throughout the field (though as usual, you won’t see all of it because if it’s not in the top 5 or among Chase drivers, the networks don’t think you want to actually watch it). There’s crashing, if you’re into that sort of thing. But mostly, there’s just good, old-fashioned short track racing. Drivers can move each other without wrecking; or, drivers can also lose their tempers and wreck without remorse. There’s drama and it’s not manufactured. If only NASCAR could race here every week.
It’s been an interesting weekend for NASCAR in general. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series announced their 2014 schedule, the CWTS race was filled with drama and the ending made history. On the Cup side of the garage, a friendly (so far) rivalry brewed, a driver found a bright spot in a largely forgettable season, and the Chase continued to build toward its climax. In short, it’s been a thoroughly satisfying weekend of racing so far. Keeping with the “short” theme, here are a few short observations from NASCAR’s shortest track…
How entertaining was that Truck Series race? Darrell Wallace, Jr. made history, becoming the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR National touring series race since 1963. That last winner was Wendell Scott, who grew up in nearby Danville, Virginia. But in the moment, Wallace’s very real emotion took center stage. Perhaps it was fellow CWTS rookie Jeb Burton who summed it up best when asked about Wallace’s accomplishment and what he’ll be remembered for. Burton said simply, “He worked hard.” The fellow rookie went on to say that while Wallace has had some breaks along the way (and who hasn’t), in the end it was his hard work and talent that won the race. It was a feel-good moment for the historical impact, but even more so for what it meant for the driver to get his first NASCAR win. In the end, it’s not a “diversity” story, it’s a human one, and Wallace was a compelling, humble winner.
On the flip side, there was no love lost between Kevin Harvick and Ty Dillon late in the race. It appeared that the field bottlenecked racing for position behind leader Wallace, and Dillon dove under Harvick, who didn’t give him racing room, resulting in Dillon spinning Harvick (and collecting others). Dillon then proceeded to hit Harvick from behind under the caution, obviously blaming Harvick for the incident, and apparently told by his — and Harvick’s in Sprint Cup — car owner to “turn his ass upside down.” Harvick parked his truck in Dillon’s pit, one of Dillon’s crew members threw a huge sledgehammer at Harvick (whose window net was down after the crash) and Harvick told a national television audience that the reason he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season was “spoiled rich kids.”
Was either driver in the right? Not really, though Harvick wasn’t at fault right up until he pulled into Dillon’s pit, and that action doesn’t warrant the throwing of a two-and-a-half foot sledgehammer at a driver unprotected by a net. Had it gone in the window, it could have seriously injured Harvick. Dillon caused the wreck and continued to hit Harvick under caution. Since Harvick wasn’t penalized for parking in Hamlin’s pit at Bristol, it would be difficult to do so now. NASCAR goes either way on hitting a car under caution, so Dillon may or may not be under the gun, especially since he never actually succeeded in turning Harvick. Dillon’s crew chief should be hit with a hefty penalty for the hammer throw (remember, he’s responsible for his crewmen’s actions) and if Childress ordered his driver to intentionally wreck a driver from another team, he deserves a hefty penalty from the sanctioning body.
And then there’s that 2014 Truck Series schedule. NASCAR deserves a big, fat F for that one. It’s again just 22 races long (the series used to run 25 times a year), but because of NASCAR’s insistence on beginning at Daytona and ending at Homestead for all three national touring series, there are just three races in the first three months of the season. Rockingham Speedway was dropped from the schedule, replaced by Gateway International Raceway (not entirely NASCAR’s fault, as Rockingham doesn’t have the money to host the race. In the end, there weren’t enough fans willing to walk the walk and go to the race). Loudon returns as well, replacing one of the races at Iowa. The worst part, though, is the number of races on intermediate and larger tracks. The series was created to run on short tracks, and there are plenty of tracks where the racing would be stellar if only NASCAR was willing to compromise on sanctioning fees and other expenses. SAFER barriers should still be a requirement, but NASCAR has a huge charitable foundation… why not create a branch of that to provide grants to tracks towards building those? All in all, the CWTS schedule is a mess, and in the end, it’s the race fans who suffer the most.
Speaking of the schedule, does anyone else feel a sense of foreboding when it comes to Darlington Raceway on the Sprint Cup calendar? A move to an April (night!) race date smacks to me as one of two things: either it’s a preliminary move to a swap with Atlanta in 2015, moving the Southern 500 back to its rightful place on Labor Day Weekend, or it’s going to be Rockingham all over again. That track lost a date, then had its sole race scheduled at a time of year when the weather was a turnoff to most fans… giving NASCAR the ammunition they needed to remove the track from the schedule altogether. Hopefully, the first option is the direction NASCAR is thinking, though it too could come with a price, because it’s unlikely Bruton Smith would take kindly to such a switch, and would probably put a big bargaining chip on the table in the form of a second race in Las Vegas. That date would likely have to come from an ISC track, as NASCAR has said it won’t expand the schedule further… and that very likely puts Martinsville in the line of fire. It’s looking like this “battle” could end up as a no-win for race fans.
It was good to see Elliott Sadler back in the Sprint Cup garage this weekend, though it’s a shame that it came at the expense of Brian Vickers. Vickers is scheduled to speak to media on Sunday morning, but a second round of blood clots can’t be good for his future as a race car driver. The issue is that he can’t race on blood thinners as the risk of severe, even fatal bleeding is too great should he be injured in a crash. As long as Vickers has been in NASCAR’s top divisions, it’s easy to forget that he just turned 30 earlier this month and should have many years of racing left ahead of him. It’s a shame those years are now somewhat in doubt.
Another thing to think about is the media’s role in the sport. Is it the media’s responsibility to tell fans what’s important in the sport…or should they be bringing the fans what the fans want to know more about? It’s a difficult thing, and most media members do bring a balance, at least for the most part. But sadly, some persist in telling fans what they should care about. Not only aren’t small teams covered on the race broadcasts, they aren’t given the time of day anywhere. An up-and-coming driver told me that his team has approached mainstream media members about a story and were turned down. When they asked why a handful of select drivers got coverage, they were told it was because those were the popular drivers fans needed to hear about. Really? How are fans supposed to know who they want to hear about if they only hear about a handful of them? Isn’t it the media’s job to give fans the information, letting them make an informed decision for themselves about who to cheer for? It seems backwards. A talented young driver working with a veteran crew chief to try and be competitive on next to nothing… that’s a story that should appeal to a large number of fans. Too bad they never get to decide that, because the media already made the decision for them about who they want to see…
But walking through the garage at this track, it’s hard to feel negative about much. I’m always left feeling a bit bittersweet at the Fall race here — the season is almost over and I won’t be back until a new one is well underway. There is nothing in the world that can match the sound and color, or the smell of hot automotive fluids, so sharp you can almost taste it but at the same time sweet and cloying. Nothing compares to watching the organized chaos of practice, hearing the engines growl, sounding angry with the world. You get the sense it’s not much different here than it was 15 or 25 or 50 years ago. The cars, the competitors, and even the game have changed… but Martinsville never does. And somehow, that’s just what we all need.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!