Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday June 7, 2007
The regular NASCAR season is half over…it doesn't seem possible that it's been thirteen weeks and more since I was waiting impatiently for the engines to start at Daytona. It's certainly been an eventful thirteen weeks-we started the season with a new manufacturer and a scandal, and we hit the crossed flags with the loss of one of the sport's greatest innovators, the imminent departure of its biggest icon from his family team, and well, a mini-scandal. I have a lot of thoughts on all that and more, each not, perhaps, an entire column, but each embedded in the tapestry of the season so far:
Could it be that Toyota is finally starting to come into their own? Brain Vickers had the car to beat at Charlotte, and several Toyota teams made the show at Dover. Could the winds finally be shifting in their favor?
While NASCAR often leaves its roots behind, many drivers remember them anyway. The turnout for the Prelude to the Dream at Eldora gets bigger every year, among both fans and drivers. They all have fun, and it seems like that’s something that is sometimes lacking in the high-stakes game that Nextel Cup has become. It’s nice to see the drivers remembering their roots-and laying some new ones if they’ve never run dirt before. Tony Stewart has another legacy in racing, and his preservation of the sport’s roots in his track ownership and organizing of this event would be story enough-even without his two Cup championships. It’s the best of the old days and I hope the young fans are loving every minute.
It worries me that there is now nobody around who can simply tell Brian France when he's being ridiculous.
The highlight of my season so far is still the impromptu, unchoreographed victory celebration between Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears after Mears’ first Cup win. The thirteen-year-old kids they were when they first met were still there after all these years.
While I firmly believe that Kurt Busch should sit out a couple of weeks and think about nearly running down a defenseless crewman on pit road, it was grossly unfair of NASCAR to make his team wait until Friday-when they'll already be at Pocono-for a verdict. Should the sanctioning body do the right thing and bench Busch, the team will be scrambling to find a driver-unless they brought one a long, just in case. They'll have to fly someone in, or find an ARCA driver to practice the car until a Cup regular fails to qualify and then hope he fits the seat. I know the focus has been on the death of Bill France, Jr. this week, but the waiting game is grossly unfair. I wonder how Bill Jr. would feel about that?
I've heard the idea batted around that races would be more competitive if NASCAR were to drop fields back to 36 cars. Exciting for who? The one guy who wasn't already locked into the field? Yeah, qualifying would be real exciting thereâ€¦
The best part of the All-Star race was the Crew Chief Race. Not sure if that says we have a fun new tradition-or that the All-Star race is really boringâ€¦
Even with a recent slowdown, it's looking like an awfully good year for Jeff Gordon. Perhaps being outraced by his employee and becoming a dad have lit a new fire under the four-time champ-and five is looking like a very real possibility.
Kevin Harvick has come a long way as a driver. He'd be a very real championship contender if he had a new crew chief who listened to him.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is positioning himself to be a champion. If he aligns himself with a top-tier team that has consistency, he'll be a serious contender. It's only consistency Junior lacks, not talent. Need proof? Since they came up as rookies, Matt Kenseth has won a championship, but Junior has won more races. If he got the top fives every week, he'd have some hardware by now too. He weighed his options, and made the decision that was the right one in his heart and mind. I think his Daddy would be proud.
On the other hand, how different would the face of DEI-and NASCAR as a whole-be, if that tragic accident at Daytona hadn't happened? Would Kenny Wallace have won races as the driver of the No. 1 after it was clear that Steve Park was no longer the driver he'd been before his own accident? Would we have SAFER barriers at every track and a HANS on every driver? Would we have to endure the Chase? Would Junior have left DEI still? I only wish we knew the answers to those questions, and that Junior still got that bearhug after every one of his victories.
Here's a thought-next time a group of clueless, classless fans throw beer cans on the track when a driver not of their liking wins, track maintenance should collect them, cash them all in and donate the proceeds to the winner's charity of choice. That would be a silver lining to a dark cloud on the sport.
Darlington should be on Labor Day weekend, period.
Finally, I can't say anything about what Bill France, Jr. did for NASCAR that hasn't already been said. I can only say that the beauty that is in the roar of the engines and the setting sun over the backstretch is forever ingrained in me because of his contributions to the sport and in bringing it to legions of people who might otherwise never have known its beauty and allure. The sounds that linger in our ears long after the engines fade was no doubt in his-it was only after the drop of the green flag at Dover that Bill France, Jr. passed away. Godspeed, Bill, and thank you.
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