Back in 2005 an unexpected job opportunity spun me head first into the often insane, always crazy world of NASCAR. At the time, I saw it as a penance; something that had to be suffered to get to work on something more interesting. I remember full well my sheer horror when I watched my first race, incidentally Kyle Busch’s first win at the Cup level. Then, over time, a strange thing started to happen and I found myself loving the sport more and more.
Seven years later, I’m still working in the sport–albeit in a different capacity as an intrepid Frontstretch columnist–and for the most part NASCAR has just brought great joy to my life; despite the ridicule of my friends back home across the pond in the UK and most of my colleagues and buddies here in Manhattan. This year, though, it’s been a struggle. For the first time ever fitting in the races, writing columns and keeping up to speed has felt like a chore. Then last weekend I went with my girlfriend and one of my best mates to the race in Pocono and my mood started to shift back to my usual glass half full mentality. Junior’s long-awaited victory just added to this feeling of bonhomie. So with that in mind, here are eight things that could turn this slow burn of a season into a year to truly remember.
*A Sizzling Summer Stretch:*
So far, so good on this front and with another race to come at each of the two newly paved tracks (Michigan and Pocono), the night race at Daytona, the two road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen–both of which rarely fail to produce fantastic on-track action–there’s every reason to expect the season to continue its positive momentum in the heat of the summer months.
*An Old School Bristol Night Race:*
After the dramatic decline in recent attendances and almost polite racing following the 2007 reconfiguration, Bruton Smith has listened and taken action. The removal of the progressive banking removes the extra racing groove and at a recent test of the new surface Clint Bowyer noted of the changes: “The surface before wasn’t bad and it wasn’t bad racing, but it wasn’t the Bristol that we all grew up watching. I think the fans will be happy with the changes they made.”
Let’s hope we are and let’s also hope we see a return to something close to a full size for NASCAR’s very own coliseum.
*A Dramatic Chase Cut Off Night:*
By the time the series returns to Richmond on September 8th, the summer will be fading, but you can be pretty sure the intensity of the fight for Chase places will be burning bright. At the cutoff point in 2011, eight drivers had secured berths and thanks largely the advent of the Wild Card, a whopping 14 drivers were still mathematically in with a shout. As it turned out, the four who held the provisional spots finished up locking them down, but the race was high drama from the drop of the green. Another phenomenal night at Richmond would do much to bolster momentum headed into this year’s iteration of the NASCAR playoffs.
*An Actual Rivalry or Two (however short lived)…*
With the honorable exception of Kurt Busch, who keeps finding fresh and entertaining ways to distinguish himself, for the most part the mood has been anything but cantankerous in 2012. I think it’s high time that changed. The sport needs a good rivalry. Not one where cars are used as weapons, but certainly some pit road fisticuffs. Given the nature of the sport today (for example the way the drivers share their private jets to get to races) it seems unlikely a full-blooded sustained rivalry would ever truly develop. NASCAR is as much more about nose to the grindstone and sheer grit than it is foolish passion and overinflated egos, but wouldn’t it be nice to see an actual rivalry? It would certainly make the headlines.
*More Heart Warming Victories:*
No real fan of the sport could begrudge Junior his hard earned victory this past weekend and it sure made for compelling viewing. In a lesser way, so did Joey Logano’s victory in Pocono the weekend before. Both drivers have felt the weight of expectations, so to see both end long quests for a Sprint Cup “W” was nothing less than heart-warming. There are others for whom this category fits. Jeff Gordon, for one, given his horrible season. Potential first time winners – AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola in the fabled No. 43 car are two more. And wouldn’t it be great to see Mark Martin win another?
*A 2012 Iteration to Live Up to the 2011 Chase:*
Last year’s finish to the Chase was probably what the creators of the system envisaged in their most optimistic projections. Truth is, a Hollywood script with the same story would have seemed implausible. If we have a 2012 version of the Chase that’s nearly as good, we’ll be in great shape. It’s hard to see how you top 2011, but if the drivers could, it would sure be something to see.
*A New Champion:*
With no disrespect to Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson–the Sprint Cup champion regulars on the circuit–wouldn’t it be good to have a new face hoist the wavy silver champion’s trophy at Miami-Homestead this November? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see one of the current challengers make that final step to earn a maiden championship; someone like Brad Keselowski or even Carl Edwards, proving once and for all there is no second place curse. A first time champ would help breathe new life into the sport and depending on whom it might be, could help secure a new generation of life long fans.
*Earnhardt Jr: A true title challenger:*
In the time I’ve covered NASCAR, I don’t think there’s been a time when I’ve seen so many fans stick around for the post race. As Junior himself noted in Victory Lane it certainly would have been illustrative to see his “Nation” celebrating across America. Jeff Gluck ran a column of some the tweets he’d got from Earnhardt’s legion of fans. It was fun to read. At the end of the day, folks, it’s still just a game. Yes, a much more dangerous game than most but just a game all the same. Junior’s win was a part of that and I hope his fans enjoyed an unofficial holiday yesterday. Let’s hope the wait for the next win is not quite so long.