“And the crowd jumped to their feet! Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes the lead!”
For those fans in Junior Nation, those words couldn’t possibly be sweeter. In fact, no matter who you cheer for, there is no experience like joining thousands of people in a unified cry of victory. In a quiet manner, NASCAR has realized that the lack of these moments has been one of the problems facing our sport of late. The real issue is there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to the quandary.
When Jimmie Johnson, a driver of consummate skill and forgettable media charm, remains in the lead for five years, there’s little wonder that fans have found less to cheer about of late. Follow that up with bratty Kyle Busch, a struggling Jeff Gordon, an angry Denny Hamlin and a plethora of teams who spend a lot of time on the radio complaining and you’ve got the stands filled with a disenfranchised crowd.
Over the past couple years, as the laps wind down at any given Cup race I’ve attended, there have been few times where those sitting around me have given up their seats for the chance to cheer for the victor. In fact, with 30 laps to go, the stairs get fairly crowded with those who are just plain bored and head back to their cars for more beer.
Why? Well, we could blame it all on the lack of seeing the No. 88 racing for the win, but honestly, that’s not the whole story.
Our emotions become unengaged after the results of a race become predictable. Four years ago, when Kyle Busch first began to take home his much begrudged trophies, the stands around me shook with the derision of the fans. Cans rained down, epithets were flung far and wide and you know what? Those who were not booing the new bad boy of the sport were laughing at the antics of those around them.
Well, I’ve watched Busch accept a couple more checkered flags this year and the cries of dismay have been significantly silenced. It seems the average fan just doesn’t care any longer. So, on Sunday, when Junior pushed his way to the front and held off the field for a total of 90 laps, I smiled. I knew, from past experience, that yes, the stands would be on their feet. Some would yell with glee each time the No. 88 passed. Others would frown. None would look away.
In fact, we enjoyed the sight of many uncommon cars racing up front on Sunday. Marcos Ambrose led a healthy 40 laps before suffering the scourge of the afternoon in the form of a Martinsville wreck. Jeff Burton held sway over Kevin Harvick for a good portion of the race, as well, reminding all of us that the usually mild-mannered driver was nobody to drive over. But perhaps the most unusual sight came when Ken Schrader sneaked his No. 26 to the fore to take a green flag after a late-race caution.
And lest we forget, there was one last car that appeared on the TV cameras just when we thought Hamlin’s No. 11 would be writing the story of the afternoon. Mark Martin surged forth at the last minute to steal second place after suffering rear-end damage in a lap 225 wreck. Maybe it’s an indication of my increasing years, but watching that No. 5 slip under the radar and end up stealing post-race interview time from the ordained Chasers just made me smile silly.
That race was one worthy of the NASCAR books. It had everything a fan turns ESPN on for: Beating, Banging, Tension, Competition, Surprises, Predictability and our favorite drivers riding in the limelight, if only for a moment. We stood up and cheered and when the checkered flag dropped, I decided I couldn’t wait for next week to arrive.
Who knows? Maybe Junior will lead the pack once again. Maybe this was a sign of better races to come. We can only hope.
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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