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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Don’t Tread on Thee – 3 Straight Weeks of Nostalgic NASCAR Remind Us What’s Right With Racing

So, what is up with Dale Earnhardt Jr.? After yet another disappointing outcome that saw Junior finish 27th, relegating him to 18th in points, the question remains – what is wrong with this team, and what will it take to get him into victory lane and Chase contention?

I don’t know; I’ll leave that up to one of the other beat writers. I have bigger fish to fry this week. Speaking of which, I had a fantastic grouper sandwich and burger with my lady friend Friday night. And she’s pretty fun to look at, too.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What I am peeved about this week aren’t fish sandos or the plight of Joonyer, but rather how desperately NASCAR needs to preserve what little vestiges of the sport’s traditional foundation that remains. With the Cup and Nationwide Series heading to storied Darlington Raceway, following a Saturday night short-track revival at Richmond in the wake of Talladega’s fallout, we are paying tribute to old-school racing in the best way possible right now. It’s a trio of time-honored tracks, door-to-door battles throughout the field, resurrected retirees and first-time winners.

Finally, real racing has returned to NASCAR… even if it’s for only a few short weeks.

Of course, a return to true competition always comes attached with a healthy dose of controversy these days. And speaking of Talladega, can we all agree on one thing before we put that ugly last-lap wreck to bed? The track is fine as is. Talladega Superspeedway was built in 1968 to support stock cars and 200-plus mph racing, period – so why would it need to be changed? In just its second year of existence (March 1970), Buddy Baker peddled a Dodge Daytona around the 2.66-mile tri-oval with an average – not top speed – lap of 200.447 mph. Keep in mind that was done in a car that actually used real parts from a real car that you could buy at a real Dodge dealership – not one owned by Fiat. There were no roof flaps or big slabs of Styrofoam in the rollbars, either; and let’s not forget that hippie-era tire technology was not exactly up to par with the race cars or the speeds they were capable of traveling at back then.

But now, 39 years later, it appears everyone’s forgotten exactly what the track was built to handle. And as the media peppered Carl Edwards for suggestions as to what could be done to keep his Ford from being intercepted by NORAD, his suggestion was the same that has been echoed by Jack Roush for many years – knock the banking down. Well, that might just be the most ludicrous idea since the other option floated about – take the plates off and let them run unrestricted. Tacking on another 60 mph to vehicles in competition that are already unstable, have little downforce and are well above the liftoff speed used on a carrier launch is an answer you can’t really propose with a straight face – even though people do it all the time.

In my opinion, the same goes for the suggestion of reconfiguring one of the greatest racetracks ever conceived or constructed. Talladega works because it is big, wide, fast, and banked at obscene 33-degree angles. It was designed for 200-mph speeds – unlike tracks such as Texas or Kansas. I don’t know if any of you remember how miserable Homestead-Miami Speedway was when it was first constructed… a flat, 1.5-mile track in the middle of nowhere that offered nothing in the way of racing. Imagine New Hampshire on Ambien, and you get the picture. Well, we already have a 500-miler at Pocono that is a potent combination of RPM and REM, along with a warning against building anything over a mile with no banking. Indianapolis has been an unmitigated disaster and certified tire shredder. It has taken almost a year of tire testing to develop tires that might actually last through a commercial break (though these days, that’s not saying much). Those failures remind us that the triumph of close, competitive racing at Talladega is simply something we can’t afford to mess with.

So, with all due respect to Jack Roush, I will respectfully disagree with his and his driver’s assessment of the series’ biggest track. The main argument from Roush has been that NASCAR continually passes the cost of keeping his cars out of their stands onto him and his fellow car owners. Yes, the teams are admittedly put in a box to work with concerning restrictor-plate racing – and the only tools they are given to fix this delicate problem are essentially a sledgehammer and some duct tape. Can’t rub on the body, can’t tweak the suspension, forget messing with the engines… and who needs that aero package that worked so well from 2000-2001?

When you consider those limitations above, it’s never easy to find a solution that’s acceptable for all. Robert Yates seemed to have one with potential, though. Years ago, he suggested a smaller displacement engine and a larger carburetor to make racing better at plate tracks – which was precisely what was done to the winged Mopars back in the early ’70s. Back then, they were forced to run a smaller displacement engine at Talladega and Daytona after the speeds got too high and their advantage deemed too steep. Seems to me that would be a wee bit easier than destroying a perfectly good racetrack that’s held its own since the late 1960s.

After ‘Dega, it was on to Richmond, where we discovered it’s possible to have a good, competitive race without the controversy of restricted engines coming along for the ride. And what was interesting about Saturday night was that as much as I despise the Car of Tomorrow (today and everyday thereafter), their performance at RIR was as if Mr. Peabody flipped the switch on the Way-Back Machine to 1985, 1975, or some other bygone era. Sure, Kyle Busch trounced the field on his birthday for his third win of the season – a feat only Cale Yarborough had accomplished before – and that is hardly news in and of itself.

But what was so refreshing was to see cars being able to spin out, make contact with each other, and then continue on without a problem. Who would have thought that when Jeff Burton was inadvertently sent spinning by Earnhardt Jr. into turn 3 and collected the wall, he would rebound to battle Tony Stewart for second in the closing laps? And as Mark Martin was turned 90 degrees by pseudo-Hendrick teammate Ryan Newman – only to be sideswiped by Greg Biffle, followed by a T-bone impact by Martin Truex Jr. – did a charge from 19th to battling the very man who turned him for fourth at the checkered flag seem plausible?

It was probably about as likely as Sam Hornish Jr. posting top 10s in two of the last three races – or Brad Keselowski winning at Talladega. But I digress….

Moving on to this weekend’s event at Darlington, Saturday night will also be filled with heaps of nostalgia run amok. The race marks a return to NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway and original 500-mile event, to an odd-egg shaped oval whose design was not dictated by developers or a planning committee – but rather, a minnow pond.

The facility once dubbed “The Track Too Tough To Tame” has provided some of the most memorable moments in the history of our sport: Yarborough being ejected out of the joint in 1965, Richard Petty nearly being ejected off the planet and out of the driver’s side window of his Plymouth Roadrunner in 1970, Bill Elliott’s million dollar payday in 1985 for winning the third leg of NASCAR’s Triple Crown, and the closest finish in history here in 2003 between Kurt Busch and winner Ricky Craven. They were sights to behold… all of them… at a track which never seems to get old in the first place.

This year, the walls at Darlington have also been painted to mimic their original scheme, not seen at the track since way back in 1989. The race is also once again being billed as the Southern 500 after a few various sponsorship transformations. And for the millions of fans out there, things are now exactly as it should be – except, of course, for the sore spot surrounding the whole thing being run on Mother’s Day, not Labor Day, weekend.

These moves combine for a throwback jersey of sorts that has become popular as of late in almost every facet of American life. Longing for the past usually is the result of resenting the present, wishing for the normalcy of the way things used to be – and NASCAR is no different in that regard. From dwindling television ratings, to empty stretches of seats, to an economy that has taken its toll on the backbone of America’s industrial base as foreign interests are buying up iconic American brands, NASCAR fans have a lot to be longing for.

So, how about we leave well enough alone with what remains of our sport?

There are few things that have endured the test of time in our world: the Catholic Church, the United States Constitution, and NASCAR. What races are always the biggest draw and provide the most excitement, the most memorable moments, and the anticipation that the next race can’t get here quick enough every year? The answer is one that never seems to change: Talladega, short tracks, and Darlington. It is what made NASCAR the hottest thing in sports and entertainment (but not sports entertainment – that tag is reserved for professional wrestling and monster trucks) for decades.

So, even as the racing has suffered of late, the last few weeks have provided some of the best action to date with great stories from Phoenix, Talladega, Richmond and now Darlington and Charl… I mean, Lowe’s Motor Speedway… to follow. They’re some of the oldest tracks on the circuit, each one equipped with a horse syringe filled with some of the most endearing images and defining moments in all of motorsports. The have a history and allure all their own, consistently providing some of the best racing we are treated to all year.

And much like Original Coke, if you have the formula right the first time, don’t even think about jerking with it. Diluting that winning and proven concoction of jungle juice doesn’t do anybody any good; not the competitors, not the fans, and certainly not the the health and well-being of the sport itself.

With that, I’ll get off my high horse for the week. I know what I like, and the past few weeks of racing are a snapshot of why this sport was able to weave its way into the fabric of our Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, daring us not to miss a lap of competition for over three generations. I’m sure my opinion may be of little comfort to some of those who were seated in the first few rows at Talladega, where the catchfence caught Carl and slung him back onto the track. After all, I didn’t drop $90 to catch a PA speaker in the mouth or receive a shower of concrete debris and engine coolant.

What I did catch, though, was this BA grouper sandwich and burger at Bostwick Lake Inn on Friday with this one hot little number that I know. Now, that is something worth writing about….