ONE: The Winter’s Tale
NASCAR has the shortest off-season in all professional sport, but each year the break feels to me like an absolute age. So I, for one, was delighted to see a return to some semblance of serious action this past weekend with the running of the traditional season curtain raiser, the Sprint Unlimited. As Matt Kenseth noted prior to the race in the Charlotte Observer, “Being a kid and growing up in Wisconsin, there was always about a foot of snow on the ground, and I always remember the [Sprint] Unlimited race being the kickoff to the racing season.” There is such a cadence to the NASCAR season over the ten months from the Daytona 500 to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway that in the short term when no engines are fired on a weekly basis it feels, well, kind of weird – almost as if something is not quite right with the world. So here we go, gentle readers of this fine website, it’s time for the drivers and teams to get back into that relentless schedule of race after race after race. I couldn’t be happier.
TWO: Much Ado About Nothing
Of course the big news of the off-season was the joint announcement from NASCAR HQ and the team owners of what is very much a revolutionary new business model for the sport. This revised approach gives team owners much more security not to mention a bigger financial stake in the sport itself. The 36 franchises doled out guarantee a starting spot in the field to each owner, leaving just four spots up for grabs each race weekend. (Another related announcement was that the Cup field will now be just 40 drivers and not 43.) Now on the surface, or at least for the average race fan, this new system really won’t make a great deal of difference – hence much ado about nothing – but for the likes of the Wood Brothers, not given a charter spot thanks to their running part time schedules these past few years, it’s going to be an uphill grind to qualify each and every week. There are of course rules about how often these franchises can be reallocated but I don’t pay them much mind. If the teams need to change things as a result of unforeseen circumstances, I’m sure a collective way will be found. Perhaps the bigger question coming out of this change will be where the future owners will come from. Yes, we have the likes of Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Richard Childress, to name a few, deeply entrenched in the sport and they are not going anywhere, but what about the guy with a dream to make it to the top echelon of Cup racing? That dream just got incrementally harder. It will be interesting to watch how this all plays out.
THREE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The other big offseason news was the injury to Tony Stewart who broke his back in a sand buggy incident in the desert in Southern California. The burst fracture of his L1 vertebra will see Stewart miss his final Daytona 500 and an as-yet undefined portion of the season. It may very well be several months before Stewart is back behind the wheel of his #14 Chevrolet – possibly even into the summer months. Kyle Busch, who knows a thing or two about missing time through injury, called Stewart’s problems a much “bigger deal” than the broken leg and foot he suffered in the NXS opener at Daytona last year. “He’s [come back from injury] once, he can do it again — he will do it again,” Busch said to the USA Today. “And I hope when he comes back, he will be a force to be reckoned with.” That’s a sentiment most, if not all of us can get behind but the reality is Stewart’s season, even with a waiver, might be over before it has begun. If that does prove to be the case, it would be something of a damp squib of an end to a career that has been highlighted by fireworks. Get well soon, Smoke. Here’s hoping you’re back on the race track far quicker than any of us expect right now.
FOUR: The Comedy of Errors
Rewind, if you will, with me, back to the absolute fiasco that was the end of the Chase race at Talladega Super Speedway last season. It’s hard to know what there was more of: bruised feelings, broken dreams or destroyed sheet metal. Either way, the end was the sort of joke NASCAR needs to avoid. This season, no doubt in part as a response to the debacle, we have new rules for “overtime” situations. Each track on the schedule will have an “overtime line” which the leader must pass after the green flag has been waved. Once that has happened the restart will be considered “clean” and from there either a yellow or the checkered flag finishes the race. Multiple attempts can also be made to get to a clean restart. Let’s hope this brings some clarity this year as any repeats of the sort of shenanigans we saw at Talladega need to be avoided at all cost.
FIVE: Great Expectations
And finally this week, Sunday afternoon will see the 58th running of the Great American Race–one of the most iconic races there is, whatever format of racing it is you prefer. I was lucky enough to be there in 2008 when Ryan Newman pulled off an unexpected victory and let me say this if you do have a chance to go you absolutely must. Daytona Superspeedway’s “Daytona Rising” project is finally finished and this Sunday’s race will be an acid test of the new facilities following the practice run in the Unlimited. The 500 is a special race, though, with a magnitude all of its own. Win it and you’ll never be forgotten. Which driver will get the chance to earn their own little slice of NASCAR immortality this weekend? One way or another it should be fun to watch. Enjoy the race, ladies and gentlemen.
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