Thomas Bowles · Monday November 4, 2013
What is that phrase? Everything’s bigger in Texas? Well, if that’s the case you’ll find a whole lot of fans refreshed at the airport this Monday morning. What a wonderful story they’ll tell, of a place down in Fort Worth where they fought through traffic to pay for the best “durn” nap of their lives. Even Jimmie Johnson’s two-gun salute, from Victory Lane moments after the checkered flag fell at Texas couldn’t wake them up. Posing for pictures, at the intermediate track he finished shooting into the stands a race trait scaring race fans straight towards the exits…
All right, so let’s call a spade a spade; the No. 48 threw up a stinker on Sunday. No amount of mystery debris, lapped traffic, weird restarts or pit road penalties could keep the Lowe’s Chevrolet from stomping the field. They even tried to stub their toe, in the form of a 17-second pit stop only to slice through traffic as if there was a booster jet attached. Brad Keselowski called it “embarrassing;” in reality, it’s simply part of it. Johnson, as a five-time champion will do from time to time cobbled together one of those magical performances that will land him in the Hall of Fame someday. “Stealing” another victory from second-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut was on top of their game, leading 255 laps on a day it seemed like all 334 could have been a distinct possibility.
But Johnson’s performance, up front doesn’t change the stale competition from second on down. During one green-flag stretch, in the middle of this race the top-10 runners didn’t change positions for 30+ laps. That’s right; you could have gone to Subway, eaten your lunch, come back and seen everyone in the same running position. Sunday also marked the fourth Texas race in a row where three drivers combined to lead over 310 of the scheduled 334 laps. In each of those events, it’s become a bit of a runaway at times, those up front building leads of up to ten seconds outside the top two or three cars before a debris caution or timely wreck scrunches up the field.
Not what NASCAR intended? Certainly not with the new Gen-6 chassis, designed to fix this type of snooze-inducing performance on intermediates. There have been glimpses of hope, like at Fontana in March but sadly most of the 1.5-to-2 milers have produced dominating days like this one. The speed of the cars keeps the tires on edge, passing difficult and drivers running in place. Whomever’s up front, already with a handling edge gets that much more of a cushion due to simple aerodynamics. Hope for close competition extends to two areas, then: green-flag restarts and pit crew speed. But a lack of cautions kills the first option; fans (and drivers) need to wait nearly 20 minutes between stops for the second. That amount of down time, for 15 seconds of tire changes just isn’t captivating enough for most without that super smarty pants engineering degree.
Circumstances didn’t help this one, either, Sunday never having the type of game-changing wreck, caution flag sequence or even fuel mileage gambles to muck up the field at Texas. Early on, it appeared tires would be a concern, Jeff Gordon’s wall hit combined with a handful of other drivers complaining their wear went down to the cords. But that wreck, on Lap 79 was pretty much the last time we saw any driver come close to crunching sheet metal. The final 255 circuits were run incident free, with just a debris caution, from Juan Pablo Montoya’s tire and an engine problem for Carl Edwards dotting the resume.
It’s a far cry from what Texas once was. The first few years here, Survivor: Alamo was a race car reality show as spectacular wrecks, mechanical miscues and a narrow line caused Demolition Derbies — it was too much in the other direction. To its credit, the speedway’s pavement has aged, gracefully enough to provide multiple grooves on-track for drivers to race. The goal is for them to be like Atlanta, where those differing lines combine with exorbitant tire wear to create a number of comers and goers through the field. On paper, it all appears headed in the right direction.
It’s just not getting there fast enough. Quick; other than last Fall’s late-race slugfest, between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski what’s the most memorable Texas race you’ve seen as of late? Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s maiden victory in the Cup Series? That one was all the way back in 2000. In reality, there have been some barnburners; Carl Edwards’ Fall ’05 victory, combined with Jeff Burton’s in ’07 come to mind. But there just haven’t been enough of them, fuel mileage dial-backs and cars running far too fast minimizing the quality of competition. No wonder why the crowd, unreported on Sunday is nowhere close to a sellout.
That’s a shame, because Texas is one of the most important markets for NASCAR to succeed in. The track has a Humpy Wheeler, Jr. of a promoter in Eddie Gossage, always finding a way to keep the track front and center. The facilities are some of the nicest the national tour has to offer. There’s a large population base, many of them hardcore fans that make this market easy.
It’s the racing that’s been difficult to come by at Texas. And, as we saw on Sunday for fans outside of Jimmie Johnson lovers that makes enjoying the day, for all three-plus hours close to impossible. Not the impression you want to leave, as a two-date racetrack with a prestigious place in the Chase, right? Big market – and big money – aside, someone in the sport should spend the offseason fixing this Fort Worth facility before the crowd flops any further.
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