NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Revving Into Richmond With Crashes, Sponsorship, and Drivers On The Mend

_Heading into Richmond this weekend, NASCAR remains abuzz with several major storylines. Will another short track bring an end to the long, green-flag runs we’ve seen in recent weeks? Can Michael Waltrip Racing make its long-awaited breakthrough into Victory Lane? And can Denny Hamlin harness his recent momentum and carry it straight into his hometown track? It’s all captured within the Four Burning Questions I have heading into race number nine of the Sprint Cup Series season._

*ONE: Does the mantra that fans only tune in for wrecks hold some truth to it?*

No, it doesn’t, but I’ll delve into this question a little bit further to explain. A recent trend in the races this season has been a lack of on-track incidents. In three of the last four events, totaling over 1,000 miles of competition there’s been exactly one isolated spin that’s brought out a caution flag. (Martinsville was the lone exception; but even there, incidents were down as just two of the seven yellow flags were for multi-car crashes). Of course, “contact” doesn’t have to always mean caution; but even with side-by-side action under green, drivers are staying off each other. There has been a lack of bent up sheet metal and drivers “having at it;” instead, they’d rather “have at” a top-10 finish.

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Parade-like stretches of the last two races at Texas and Kansas have fans displeased…and for the right reasons.

With that said, fans have been complaining about boring races this season and how there is a lack of action. They talk about parade laps and long green-flag runs that end mercifully with a blown engine or debris (whether it’s there or not) and typically not a crash. In fact, both Fontana and Texas were races that ran entirely wreck-free.

For some reason, other media outlets have decided to start taking shots at fans over such “boredom” and accusing them of only caring about the crashes. Though they aren’t denying the races have been nap-worthy at times, these journalists somehow have the audacity to accuse NASCAR’s core fan base of doing the sort of thing only those who tune in every so often — aka, the “casual fans” — are known for.

Who do they think they are? And, more importantly, are they stupid?! Are they missing the bigger picture and blowing a non-story out of proportion?

The fact is, the fans are right. Though in my opinion the races haven’t been awful, there have been some grueling long green-flag runs where literally nothing interesting happens for a good couple hours. It sucks, and is so mind-numbing to sit through, I’ve caught myself as a member of the media completely tuning out from the race at hand a few times. _Sadly, when it happens I never miss anything._

Single-file, keep-your-distance competition is not fun to watch, and it’s not cautions fans are asking for. It’s action. Hard racing. Side-by-side passing. All of that aggression leads to wrecks, yes, but that’s not the ultimate ending that fans are asking for. The ideal race is one with lots of excitement and consistent action without a ton of cautions; however, it’s difficult to have one without the other. Side-by-side racing by definition means that the drivers are in close proximity to one another, meaning one mistake can cause a domino effect of damaged race cars. Do NASCAR’s fans _want_ to see it? No, but they want to see the kind of action that can lead to it.

I’d like to think I’m pretty close to the truth here, but only the fans themselves can say for sure. Let me know in the comments section if you’re as irritated by the accusations as I am, or if they are right.

Now, will this trend come to an end at Richmond this weekend? It’s not as likely as you think. In this race last April, the first 107 laps were run without a yellow while just a few years ago, Denny Hamlin dominated by leading over 380 of 400 laps. So while the track, at times, remains one of the most competitive on the circuit, it’s how aggressive the drivers want to be which will determine the amount of contact we’ll see.

Hopefully, they’ll keep us awake.

*TWO: What does Michael Waltrip Racing know that the rest of the motorsports world doesn’t?*

You know those aggravating “NAPA Know How” commercials that are made fun of at several times a week on this very website? If you’re like me, you just want them to go away sometimes.

Well, that’s not going to happen. NAPA has a rich history in this sport dating back to the late ‘70s and has been with Waltrip since 2001, sticking with him through good times and bad. Likewise, Aaron’s has been a part of MWR since it’s very, very humble beginnings and some have certainly wondered why. In three years as the full-time sponsor with David Reutimann, the company had just two victories to show for their efforts and has never made the Chase.

Will their loyalty finally be rewarded in 2012? Now that it looks like the team is becoming a competitive force, it’s pretty amazing to look back on the past several years and see what the team has gotten through. In a time where their cars were struggling to make races — let alone be competitive — they were able to maintain two multi-million dollar race deals that General Manager Ty Norris even admitted were what kept them afloat. Now, 5-Hour Energy has expanded to a near full season sponsorship and it looks like this team is all set.

How is that possible, when even some of NASCAR’s biggest Cup Series teams admit to struggling to compensate for a full season? Even this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth, remains without a primary sponsor for several races later this summer. MWR didn’t start earning consistent, solid numbers until this season, and there’s no guarantee their spots in the Chase will hold. But in the marketing department, they seem to be doing just fine.

I’m not trying to ignore the fact that MWR has lost a few sponsors and went through some tough times financially, but look at a couple of other long-running sponsors who left perfectly capable drivers. DuPont cut back on sponsorship with four-time champion Jeff Gordon after running full-time seasons for over a decade, and DeWalt left champion driver Kenseth in 2009… followed by Crown Royal two years later.

Sure, you can blame the economy for some of that, but what is MWR doing differently? The crapload of TV commercials and the fact that Waltrip has a tendency to overexpose his sponsors might help; however, you know there’s plenty of people inside NASCAR’s garage, including me who would like to take a look at MWR’s marketing department and find out for themselves.

Meanwhile, will Richmond be the weekend this organization finally makes a breakthrough into Victory Lane? Clint Bowyer has won here in the past, in the Spring race of 2008 and is known as a short-track expert. Martin Truex, Jr. doesn’t have the strongest track record, with just one top-5 finish in 12 starts but comes in red hot after a runner-up finish at Kansas. And then there’s Mark Martin, who’s won only once here but has four top-5 finishes in his last eight races at the track. MWR comes in with the marketing, money, and momentum… so this weekend could be as good a chance as any for it to happen.

*THREE: Has Denny Hamlin “recovered” from his 2010 loss yet?*

I think we’re far enough into the season to be discussing this issue (yes, I AM the ultimate authority on this one, thank you!), and Sunday at Kansas I noticed an aggressiveness in Hamlin’s driving and confidence in the way he carried himself that hadn’t been there since 2010. With two wins in eight races this season, he’s displaying a readiness to compete for this championship again. It’s still early in the season, yes, and there is still plenty of time for him to fall flat on his face. But I’m not judging this off of just his performance, but in his mannerisms.

Through most of last season, Hamlin was pretty down in the dumps and other than a few strong performances here and there, he wasn’t really “all there” mentally. Heck, it was even hard to get him to crack a smile on Twitter — I mean really, Denny, how hard is it to type “:-)”?

Regardless of how his season finishes, though, I truly believe Hamlin is back to old form and will eventually compete and win a Sprint Cup Series championship. He just needs to hope that dastardly Jimmie Johnson person doesn’t chase him down first. And there’s no better place for Hamlin to go for two in a row than Richmond, his hometown track where he’s won twice and led more laps – 1,188 – than at any other speedway in Cup during his career.

*FOUR: Which of the winless “big names” will get to Victory Lane first?*

Drivers like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Jimmie Johnson stick out as a small handful of drivers who have remained surprisingly quiet this season. While I highly doubt it will stay that way (Kyle Busch? Quiet? Never!), it will be interesting to watch them and a couple of others (Earnhardt, Harvick, etc.) to see who emerges as the frontrunner. It will be about halfway through this season before we get a clearer picture of who might make the Chase or not, but I guarantee once we hit “crunch time” these guys will be on it.

Well, at least you’d think so, right? Maybe not. Johnson struggled through most of last season, Edwards might be experiencing some of that infamous runner-up curse, and Busch just might have finally calmed down after last season’s fiasco.

But, no! These guys couldn’t possibly go all season without a win! …Right? This weekend, the odds seem to favor Busch: 12 top-10 finishes in 14 career Richmond starts, he’s the defending champion in this race and badly needs a boost to a Chase bid that could depend on a “wild card.” But don’t count out Johnson, who’s clicked together a number of top-5 runs in recent weeks and has had luck, more than anything keep the car out of Victory Lane.

“Contact Summer Dreyer”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/28526/

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