What makes a great race? Do they still exist?
Even as Jeff Gordon wrote the story for the Cup Series on Sunday, and I’m thrilled as all heck for him, the racing still was, well, a bit boring. Yes, he broke his Cup losing streak at Texas where he had never won before. And there were a few moments where tempers on the track got a little heated… sort of. The cars were flying down the straightaways at terrifying speeds. And, if you read all the reports, Jimmie Johnson tried to run Jeff down in the closing laps – although, he never got closer than a half second back.
So, I put it to you again. Was this momentous race worth watching? And except for Martinsville, was there a race this season where you walked away all pumped up and thrilled and just ready to go climb a wall because, hey, that was just the best thing ever!
You understand where I’m coming from. It’s those kinds of races that make us race fans. And it’s not simply who wins a race that makes it memorable. There must be a mix of background story, some heroic drivers, a villain or two, a drive from the back, an error in strategy and that one car that can hold off the most determined attempt to take the win away – that is a day at the races.
That is what I’ve been missing in the Cup Series and more so in the Nationwide Series for some time. It’s left me wondering if NASCAR still has an awesome race day left in it.
Well, never fear. I found the race. I rediscovered the thrill. And I didn’t do it in my living room.
On Sunday afternoon, I headed out to Thompson International Speedway for the Whelen Modified Series Icebreaker 2009. There I shook hands with all the drivers before they took to the track. Jamie Tomaino, one of several grinning series champions and veterans, fingered his Disney “Tow-Mater” hat and got ready for his 500th start in the series. Reigning champ and series bad-boy Ted Christopher chatted about staying comfortable in the car with ’03 champ Todd Szegedy. All of them looked at the blue skies and agreed, this was a great day for the first race of the season in the Northeast.
Friendly faces are one thing… but what about the racing?
Tomaino took the lead by lap 40 in his No. 99, fending off the always aggressive Christoper in the red No. 36. Donny Lia showed Christopher his front bumper through the turns. Back in the pack, the No. 79 of Ronny Silk slowly clawed his way through the field to within shouting distance. It looked to be like an early Cinderella story for Tomaino… his black car widened the lead. Could he take home the trophy on his 500th start?
Caution. Now, what happens? This is a one-pit race. Do you pit now and finish the race on old tires or wait…
The pace car entered turn 3. Tomaino stayed on the track with Mike Stefanik. The rest of the leaders took pit road. This would be the end of the day for Tomaino. Those that he had passed for the lead, now sat back in 10th. But they would not need to visit pit road again, as he would.
The race was on!
With fresh tires and no fear, it took only 15 laps for Christopher to muscle the lead away from Tomaino and never looked back. It wasn’t because nobody tried to put the moves on him. There’re reasons why they just weld bumper bars on these modifieds… that’s so you won’t damage the sheetmetal when you beat it up.
Who thought to try for that win? Jimmy Blewett. In August of 2007, Jimmy was involved in an accident at this track with his brother John. John did not make it. Jimmy had every reason for focusing on that checkered flag. In his words, “This track owes me one.”
Blewett rode Christopher’s bumper lap after lap. He went high. He went low. In the stands we stood up, we sat down, stood up again. Then it came…
With three laps to go, Blewett finally sneaks under Christopher in turn 2. He pulls away on the backstretch. But T.C. has been doing this for too many years. Like the veteran he is, he pushed his nose back in there and turned hard left – right under Blewett’s fender.
The crowd went wild.
It reminded me of the days not too long ago when Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be trading places. Lots of boos. Lots of cheers. Pick your poison – somebody has got to lose.
Final finishing order: Christopher, Blewett, Lia, Ryan Preece and Szegedy.
It took us no more than 20 minutes to drive off the track property and a mere $80 for the pair of weekend tickets.
I can still feel the rumble of those overpowered motors in my chest. My face is windburned. I don’t think I’ve stopped shivering from the chill in the air and I definitely haven’t stopped smiling.
My recommendation? The next time you just can’t stand to listen to “Boogity Boogity Boogity” one more time, or watch Kyle Busch take home yet another trophy or just really need to do something a little more exciting with your racing fan self – find your local track and join in on the fun. You won’t be disappointed.