Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway has left me eating crow. Over the last several years, I have become more and more vocal in regard to my dislike of the Nextel Cup brand of short track racing that has been presented at both Bristol and Martinsville. My aversion to this form of racing stems from my inability to accept that it is OK to gain track position on a competitor by slamming into his rear bumper to move him up the track with little regard as to whether he is actually successful in avoiding the outside wall. As a longtime fan of short track racing, this “bump and run” maneuver just goes against everything I've always known in the world of clean, honorable and skillful driving at the local bullrings.
However, inexplicably this week’s race appears to have been raced in some type of “time warp” wherein drivers raced each other hard, respectfully, and executed clean passes. I enjoyed it, and have found that crow doesn't taste all that bad when I remember what Bristol has recently offered in the name of racing for me to digest.
In April of 2005, I wrote the following commentary for RacingOutLoud.com concerning NASCAR short track racing of late:
To describe the type of racing that NASCAR has subjected us to in the last two events can best be illustrated by a phrase I am borrowing from my five-year old Grandson, ‘it's yucky.’ Wreck after wreck, caution after caution, isn't what big league auto racing should be about. But it apparently is what a lot of NASCAR fans want to see. As a matter a fact, if Bristol could double the present approximate 160,000 seating capacity I would bet a week’s pay (as if that's a big deal) that they would still be confronted with a waiting list for season tickets. Considering the last race stats, which are typical of Bristol, there were fourteen (14) cautions for one hundred and fifteen (115) laps. No big surprise there. Bristol, along with Martinsville, is known for a lot of caution flag laps and dirty driving. Fans obviously like wrecks. They just don't like to admit to it.
Seriously, why else would fans attend these races? Certainly not for the speed, as these two tracks are the slowest on the schedule. Consider that between the recently completed races at these two half-mile venues there were a total of thirty (30) caution flags for two hundred and six (206) laps. Now, if it isn't the wrecking, it would have to be either that they really like parade laps or are holding on to the weak explanation that they like a lot of rubbing, because â€˜rubbin' is racin'â€¦
I had concluded once again, prior to the running of this year’s race, that NASCAR's Cup series was no longer capable of putting on a good short track show at either Bristol or Martinsville. This opinion was arrived at by surmising that the large influx of inexperienced drivers in the series, coupled with the ever-increasing pressures on drivers to perform, had resulted in a culture that would not allow for patience behind the wheel on a one groove, Â½ mile track. In the last 3 years, Bristol has, on three different occasions had a race with 20 caution periods. They should have awarded the five bonus points for leading the most laps to the pace car driver.
Luckily, it is now apparent that I was wrong, as this year’s Bristol night race turned out to buck this trend. This week's race saw just ten (10) caution flags for sixty-four (64) laps. Of those caution periods, none were as a result of the “bump and run” maneuver that has accounted for so many commercial breaks in the past. This week’s race demonstrated that Cup drivers are still capable of racing hard and clean.
Perhaps the clean competition can be, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. speculates, a result of drivers being congnizant of how much a “bone head” move could unfairly skew the Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship.
“With the Chase and everybody being so close, there was a lot more respect out there on the track – a lot more than you have seen in the past,’’ Junior explained after the race. “When I caught guys, they moved over, and I did the same for others. You don’t normally see that hereâ€¦”
Junior may very well be correct. Maybe the racing was influenced by drivers, whether in the “Chase” or not, unwilling to be the instigator of a wreck that either eliminated or severely handicapped a driver and team from becoming a contender in the upcoming 10 race championship format. If that is the case, perhaps the clean racing will not repeat itself next spring when the series returns to Thunder Valley, and pride trumps points for most of the drivers on tour at that point in the season. That would be a shame, though, considering that it is now known that Cup drivers are capable of racing a short track how it should be raced, and that they understand the difference between the door-to-door, fender-to-fender rubbing style of racing, as opposed to the “wreck â€˜em if you can” driving style that has gained undeserved acceptability.
Unfortunately, the majority of fans don't appear to agree with my viewpoint. During the TNT broadcast, 65% of viewers voting in a poll responded that the “bump and run” maneuver was acceptable anytime and anywhere. This did not come as a shock to me. I already knew that a large group of fans enjoy a good wreck, or at least the possibility of one. But I will continue to maintain that the object of racing, and more specifically passing, is to go around the competitor and not through them. I am constantly monitoring this situation and on the lookout for other race venues where such tactics are acceptable and won't result in a black flag and/or a penalty for rough driving or unsportsmanlike conduct. Most participants in lower forms of stock car racing, if asked about such tactics, will tell you that in addition to the sanctioning body’s penalties, a driver practicing such techniques will also run the risk of the victim of such shenanigans “putting a knot upside his head.”
Because this maneuver was left unused this past weekend, Bristol became an enjoyable race to watch. Bristol Motor Speedway is a sight to behold, and truly a unique facility amongst the tracks that NASCAR visits throughout the year. The track’s downfall is simply that it only offers one real racing groove. This fact creates close, rough and tough racing. It also requires crews, during the 500 lap contest, to have superior pit stops and employ creative pit strategies to gain track position. For respectable racing, as was witnessed Saturday night, drivers must continue to respect their competitors and adhere to long understood protocol of conceding a position to a faster car once that car has shown to be unmistakably better. In that situation, a driver only needs to race his competitor as he would want to be raced if the two combatant’s situations were reversed.
Drivers know this routine, and by and large, they adhered to the short track etiquette that most all of them learned early in their careers. The event could only muster one little exchange of words between four time champion Jeff Gordon and upstart Scott Riggs over fairly benign contact between the two when Riggs overtook Gordon for a fourth place finishing position. A far cry from some of the controversies of the pastâ€¦ and that should be a good thing.
So good job, drivers, on a race well run! Ohâ€¦and for those 65% that were less than satisfied that there wasn't more twisted sheet metal left behind at the conclusion of the Sharpie 500, cheer up. Labor Day Weekend is almost upon us. Surely, there will be a Demolition Derby scheduled at a track or fairgrounds near you.
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