NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Politics Surrounding Short Tracks, Injuries, And Jeff Burton

ONE: Build More Short Tracks

A lot of what you read on Twitter is not much more than garbage, but there was one tweet late Saturday night from USA Today NASCAR beat writer Jeff Gluck that really hit the mark.

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NASCAR could use more short tracks to provide the kind of racing we love.

“The longer I’m around this sport, the more I’m convinced additional short tracks would be the solution to many of NASCAR’s problems,” tweeted the writer, following one of the best finishes NASCAR has seen in 2013.

Given the excellent racing we saw at Richmond, a few weeks ago at Martinsville and at short tracks in general, I have to say I couldn’t agree more. Now I realize it’s easy for me to type a quick sentence like that when the reality is based on ironclad multi-year contracts with tracks that can’t be altered on a whim. Changing the schedule is possible but fraught with peril – even with just something as simple as tracks switching dates around. The plain truth, however unpalatable it is to the track owners, is that the short tracks produce, for the most part, the best racing. I would love to see the Cup schedule include the 0.875 mile-long Iowa Speedway, a track that’s produced terrific Nationwide competition, let’s not forget, or a return to Rockingham (keep dreaming, Danny).

Both seem unlikely to happen in the near future. The point remains though, more short tracks is an answer to many of NASCAR’s problems. It’s just a shame nothing will be done about it.

TWO: What to Expect at Talladega?

My easy answer here is: who knows? I certainly don’t. Anything can and usually does happen at Talladega, and that isn’t just a throwaway line. My suspicion is that we’ll see a relatively calm first 90% of the race before all hell breaks loose with ten or twenty laps to go: such is the nature of the restrictor plate races in recent years.

I have to say I have a real love-hate relationship with plate tracks. On the one hand, the final laps at any Daytona or Talladega race — especially the Daytona 500 — are some of the best and most intense laps you will see all year long in NASCAR. Add the fact that pretty much any driver can win; something you can’t say of the vast majority of the schedule, and you have all the necessary ingredients for phenomenal racing. But so often a fine finish ends up in absolute chaos and a steaming pile of wrecked stock cars. You only need to look at the finish to the Nationwide Daytona race this year to know that this can also impact the fans and that’s where it crosses the line. You had the Keselowski-Edwards incident at Talladega a few years back as another example. That’s what scares me about plate races.

I know NASCAR and the tracks do everything they can to make things as safe a possible, but stock cars have always gone places and done things no one could reasonably expect. That’s just the nature of our brilliant and unique sport. So as far as Sunday goes, so long as all the fans go home safely that’s what matters most – regardless of the finish.

THREE: Hamlin’s Return?

While I’m on the subject of big, bad Talladega, a driver is reportedly returning to the fray this weekend: Denny Hamlin, who has missed four races since the vicious hit he sustained on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway. Now some 71 points out of 20th place, and very much in need of wins, Hamlin plans to start the race on Sunday before handing over to a substitute driver, but at the time of writing those plans are still not officially confirmed.

The original date for Hamlin’s return from injury was slated for the following weekend at Darlington, but his hope is to try and at least earn some points at Talladega toward his season tally. Remember, a driver who starts but relinquishes the seat still scores the points. Clearly, this injury is a tough situation for Hamlin. Even if he is cleared to race in part this weekend and then in full at the Lady in Black, he faces a vertiginous uphill battle just to even put himself into position to make the Chase, let alone compete to the end.

Hamlin has shown in the past he can overcome difficult medical conditions and I don’t doubt he can do it again if he can get back in the car. If he’s back, he’ll be really fun to watch over the summer months.

FOUR: Montoya’s Misfortune

The end to Saturday night’s race was particularly tough on Juan Pablo Montoya who paced the field for 67 laps before the caution flew with just five remaining. Montoya, who took tires, restarted sixth and finished fourth still notched the first top-5 finish for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing since Jamie McMurray’s fourth place run in the Bristol night race of August 2011. That’s a 56-race disappointing streak (quite the stat.)

Montoya is, let’s not forget, a driver with a glittering and glamorous driving resume that spans both stock car and open-wheel. He has three wins in the 24 hours at Daytona, seven Formula One wins (including victories at Monaco and Monza) and eleven IndyCar wins, including the Indy 500 in 2000. Yet in NASCAR he’s won just twice in 226 attempts (Sonoma 2007, Watkins Glen 2010) and never on an oval.

Truth is, he’s never quite lived up to expectations for reasons that include equipment and luck – two key components, admittedly. The bigger picture here is EGR are starting to show signs of speed and reliability, signs at last after an abject couple of years. Teammate Jamie McMurray is 12th in the standings, having started the season in solid fashion with three top 10s.

I’ll leave the final word on this point to Montoya himself. “Pissed off. Everybody on the Depend Chevy this week did an amazing job. We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car.”

Only time will tell if he can keep the momentum rolling.

FIVE: Vote Senator Burton

Finally this week, since I’ve been relatively loquacious thus far, I’ll end with a quick note of congratulations to Jeff Burton who ended up in fifth place when the green flag finally flew at Richmond. For the 21-year, 21-win, 664-race veteran it was a first top-5 result since the fall Phoenix race of 2011. All told, it was a span of some 46 races between his 132nd and his 133rd career top-5 effort on an unrestricted track.

“The caution came out and what the heck, we might as well try something,” said Burton who stayed out on old tires to lead the race to green for the final two laps. “Luke [Lambert, his crew chief] made a good call there, and obviously new tires a lot better. But, worth a shot.”

Worth a shot it was, indeed. Let’s hope the next time Burton gambles he gets some better luck.

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