ONE: Barren Bristol
There isn’t a cameraman skilled enough anywhere in the world that could have made the Bristol Motor Speedway stands look any better than half-full this past Sunday. And the truth is, it’s a really sad sign of the gradual but continual malaise that has plagued the Sprint Cup Series these past few years. Although attendance numbers are no longer released, the Bristol Herald Courier estimated the crowd at 90,000 – a little over half full for the huge venue. Now I’m no great mathematician but it looked significantly less than that to me. This isn’t a new phenomenon — at a track that used to be one of the hottest tickets in all of professional sport not just driving fast and turning left at a high rate of knots. Weather wasn’t a contributory factor either; it couldn’t have been a more perfect day. It was so bad that a friend of mine even texted me about it. And for the record, I have about 2-3 max friends who’ll text me about NASCAR. Compounding matters, attendance at the Xfinity Series race was paltry at best and you could count the people present at qualifying on a couple hands. All told, it’s a worrying trend for NASCAR; let’s not forget tracks across the country are slashing seats at a rapid rate. The real question, when you combine this with ever decreasing TV ratings, is when do we hit bottom in this precipitous decline. Sadly, I’d say not quite yet. And while it’s so sad to type, and very much against my optimistic nature, the worst may yet be to come.
TWO: Celebrating the small victories
One of the things I love to do with this little column and this tiny corner of the NASCAR world is to celebrate the small victories – the wins for the guys you least expect it from. And this past Sunday boy did we see that for Mr. Matt DiBenedetto who finished a career-best sixth. “That’s unbelievable for a team like to us to be growing this much and for us to get a sixth-place run,” said DiBenedetto in a post race interview. “I’m sorry I’m so emotional. It’s just this is like a win for us. I’m so excited. I see my family back here – my wife, Taylor; my brother is in town from the military and I’m so glad he got to experience this. This is just… this is incredible. I’m so blessed to be here.” Even Carl Edwards when asked about DiBenedetto’s fantastic finish commented: “Man that’s unbelievable. That’s probably tougher than what we did.” And Edwards is probably right given the disparity in resources between BK Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. I’ll leave the last word to NASCAR’s most popular driver, as seems appropriate, who tweeted “Proud of @mattdracing. Good kid. Like seeing good things happen to good people.” Well said, Dale Jr. Well said.
THREE: Next Up – Richmond
Next up it’s another historic short track tilt at Richmond International Raceway and this time around it will be a day-time event, rather than a Saturday night under the lights shindig. This will be Cup race number 120 at the famous old venue; a streak that runs all the way back to race number six of the 1953 season. That inaugural event was won by none other than Lee Petty and the over all list of winners is very much a Hall of Fame Who’s Who of NASCAR. Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth won the two events held in 2015 in dominant fashion. Kenseth led a whopping 352 of 400 total laps in the fall event with Busch leading 251 of 400 circuits in the spring race. And in the final race of the 2014 season, it was Brad Keselowski who paced the field for 383 of the 400 laps. There were positive signs from the recent tire test: “Last year it didn’t seem like the track rubbered up a whole lot,” said participant Denny Hamlin. “I definitely feel like we have improvement – we got a little bit faster on the frontside and a little bit slower on the backside. So we’re very encouraged by that.” Let’s hope the JGR veteran is right and we see a better race than those in the sparsely populated Bristol stands saw this past weekend.
FOUR: Can anyone beat Joe Gibbs Racing?
With Carl Edwards’ dominant victory this past Sunday, three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing quartet of drivers (Denny Hamlin- one win, Kyle Busch – two wins and now Cousin Carl) are now essentially locked into the Chase. JGR has now one three in a row at the Cup level and four of eight thus far in 2016. And although Matt Kenseth has struggled he too, as I wrote last week, will almost certainly grab that elusive victory sooner rather than later. So the question I have right now is who can stop JGR? Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson would be two immediate answers with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano also in equation but as of now the team that dominated much of last year looks to be the preeminent force once again in 2016. Now even with all this success, we’ve seen over the years that this is cyclical. Roush Fenway put five drivers in the 2005 Chase, let’s not forget. And for a while no one could touch Hendrick Motorsports. So for the drivers of the JGR powerhouse team the time to make hay is now. It won’t last forever.
FIVE: A green-ish tint to IndyCar In California
Finally this week, a quick word about the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Long Beach this past Sunday. It was a race won in somewhat controversial circumstances by Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, but that’s not the purpose of this last point. Rather, it was a race that went green from wire-to-wire – the first time that had happened at Long Beach since 1989. It was also the first time in the IndyCar Series since the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in August 2012 – a race, in a curious quirk of fate, won by Scott Dixon, who should probably have won Sunday’s race. And since you might be wondering, I believe the last caution free NASCAR race was the October Talladega race in 2002 won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I wonder when we’ll see another one? My sense is it might be some time.
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