What did Martinsville teach us this week? Well, for many people it apparently had something to do with the fact that Denny Hamlin will wreck just about anybody to score a spot in the final four. But for me, surprisingly, I learned that I still do give a damn about the outcome of a race.
As Chase Elliott took back the lead on lap 460, something happened that has been missing on Sundays for the past year or so. I began to hope. Not just hope in a casual if it happens sort of way, but more in a burning, heart thumping, wake the neighbors sort of way. I guess Chase Elliott is officially one of my drivers.
I worried that he wasn’t going to really stick his elbows out there, with Bad Brad nipping at this heels. I worried that the youngster wouldn’t put the pedal down on the restart. I worried that maybe Chase wasn’t really ready for Victory Lane…but he was.
I could taste it. The La-Z-Boy kind of hopped around the living room while I bounced out and back into the chair. I alarmed the cats. The neighbors might have been a bit concerned. The No. 24 was going to bring home a trophy, with a driver behind the wheel other than Jeff Gordon! It was going to be a delirious night!
It was not.
I was a bit surprised that Chase shoved Keselowski out of the way. I was not stunned that Denny Hamlin did the dirty, hoping to steal away a golden ticket to Homestead. I didn’t even blink as the field proceeded to pile into one another as Kyle Busch miraculously snaked his way across the finish line. However, I was hopping mad that Elliott’s moment of glory was gone.
That’s when I realized that I actually cared. That all hope is not gone with the 1,000th iteration of the NASCAR rulebook. That I still have a driver I can cheer for who is willing to take the chances to win big.
That’s what I really saw in those closing laps. This was Martinsville where you either shove your foot in the slamming door or you sneak out the back as everybody else passes you by. Chase Elliott elected to stand tall with those drivers who have built a reputation for aggressive and sometimes dirty driving. He proved he is not just a cute kid with a legendary name who landed sponsors through savvy promotion. He is the real deal.
There might be talk of retaliation and payback–which is fine. We need that fire to get not just the teams excited, but the fans of NASCAR nation to re-engage with our storied sport. Did we hire a new bad guy in Denny Hamlin? No, I don’t think so. He was performing as expected up to and including the lukewarm apology issued on Twitter. What we got was a new hero that the whole grandstand wants to watch overcome the challenge of beating the Nos. 2, 22, 78, and 18 to the line which is totally worth making some noise over.
Now we are in business! We just need a half-dozen more short tracks to maintain momentum and start to rebuild the real passion in our sport.
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