It’s this time of year interest in the sport of NASCAR racing tends to wane a bit. With the kids out of school, family vacations, and so many interesting outdoor options available across most of the country perhaps that’s to be expected. By coincidence or design, NASCAR’s schedule heads off to a series of tracks that, well to be kind, don’t top a majority of fans’ bucket lists.
With the reconfiguration and repaving at Kentucky prior to this weekend’s race, nobody really knew what to expect. Many folks dreaded a real disaster. Others felt the changes would make for great racing, a true triumph for the track best remembered to date for the massive traffic headaches encountered by fans trying to attend the first Cup event run there back in 2011. In the end, the race was neither the disaster some feared nor the triumph others hoped for. Life in general tends to work like that. The same driver won once again. In fact, Brad Keselowski has won at Kentucky every even numbered year since the track opened. (Seriously, I don’t make this stuff up. I just look it up.)
I’m not a big fan of races being decided on fuel mileage. To me, racing is more about mph than mpg though I accept this happens time to time. In any event, I’d prefer the race be able to play out naturally like it did Saturday night. It’s far better than for NASCAR to have thrown an unnecessary debris caution with ten laps to go, spicing up the end of the rather bland race to that point. It was the first time since Martinsville in early spring we didn’t see a caution for debris the entire distance.
Longtime readers know I’m not a big fan of the next track up on the schedule, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In fact, the track is mainly popular with folks who live within a few hours’ drive of the joint, and widely despised by older fans. How come? Well, you had the twin tragedies in 2000 at the track that cost Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin their lives. Next, you had NASCAR’s cynical overreaction to those deaths that involved putting restrictor plates on the cars rather than SAFER barriers along the walls. That led to Jeff Burton’s win there on September 17th, 2000 during which Burton led every lap of the race. Many fans still consider it the absolute worst NASCAR race in the modern era.
What really made NHMS unpopular with the fans was how the track managed to get its second date. Recall back in the mid and late 90s, having a Cup date was tantamount to a license to print money. North Wilkesboro had been on the schedule since the very first Cup season in 1949 with two dates a season since 1951. But the old time track was said to lack “amenities.” After all, don’t most race fans go to the track dreaming of misting showers and a nice cup of cappuccino to sip in the VIP lounge? Then-NHMS owner Bob Bahre and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. honcho Bruton Smith conspired to buy up North Wilkesboro Speedway. Bahre moved one race date to New Hampshire and Smith took the other to his new track in Texas. Trust me, it wasn’t a fair deal for the fans and yet NASCAR rubber-stamped the move with their full approval.
It took another few years but the same fate awaited the storied Rockingham Speedway, AKA the Rock. But that point, International Speedway Corporation needed a race date for their new track at Fontana and Bruton Smith was kicking up a fuss that he needed a second date in Texas and a fellow named Ferdinand Franco, who may or may not have ever existed, filed a lawsuit to make it happen. The official reason for shuttering the Rock was the track wasn’t able to completely sellout their grandstands every year. Ironically, neither could California or Texas once the bloom was off the rose. The final race at the Rock was run on February 22nd, 2004. Matt Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne by .010 seconds to score the victory, the eighth of his 37 Cup wins to date. Perhaps it was fitting. Matt Kenseth made his first big splash in NASCAR winning the February 21st, 1998 Busch Series race at Rockingham at the wheel of an unsponsored race car owner by Robby Reiser. Coming out of turn four on the final lap Kenseth put a bumper to then-leader Tony Stewart who’d led the previous 45 laps to take the win by .092 seconds. To date neither, California, New Hampshire, nor Texas has staged a race half as exciting as those two races at the Rock. And if not selling out races were to be adequate reason for a track to be dropped from the schedule today the entire Cup schedule would last less than a month.
After New Hampshire, the circuit heads off to the Midwest for the Brickyard 400 nowadays doubtless presented by some corporate entity, As a student of racing history I feel nothing but reverence for the Indianapolis Mother Speedway. The 100th running of the Indy 500 this year was one of those stories about auto racing that engaged even non-racing fans at least over the Memorial Day weekend. At the end of the event race fans and non-fans were briefly united, scratching our heads and wondering who the Hell the guy who won the race was. Like I said I’m not a huge fan of races decided on fuel mileage.
As far as stock car racing goes, Indy has proven to be a disaster. The entries into the corners are too abrupt and the banking in the corners themselves too low to stage a satisfactory stock car race with the bigger, heavier and relatively under-tired Cup cars . Yeah, it was an interesting concept when the Brickyard was first announced but this race’s time has come and gone. Besides watching full-bodied cars racing at Indy has always been like praying at somebody else’s church. I don’t expect much when NASCAR races at Indy and I’m normally not disappointed.
From Indy it’s back to Pocono, a track the circuit just visited the second weekend in June. You’d think with the two Pocono races run less than two months apart, whoever won the June race would be a prohibitive favorite to win the second event as well. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pulled off that feat back in 2014. (and if he makes the Chase by winning at Pocono this year, look for a lot of fans to hold Pocono as beloved once again.) Before Earnhardt, Denny Hamlin won both Pocono races in 2006, Jimmie Johnson swept the track in 2004, Bobby Labonte was victorious in both those races in 1999 and Tim Richmond won three straight at Pocono, claiming both races in 1986 and the June race in ’87. It does seem a bit odd it happens so infrequently, but as a relative local to Pocono, I can tell you there’s a huge difference between June and July here in Southeast PA, sort of like the difference between jumping in the hot tub in June and setting yourself ablaze in July. As a local, I don’t have much bad to say about Pocono and even the track’s staunchest detractors have to admit that the track configuration is unique and the racing has been a few notches better since the race distances were reduced from 500 miles to 400. If you’re going to hate on Pocono hate the pre-race and especially the post-race traffic. If Pocono isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere it’s not that far off center.
But if Pocono is a bit remote than Watkins Glen is even further off the beaten path. I think Neil Young was spending a week one night in Watkins Glen when he penned the line, “everyone knows this is nowhere.” I’ve never been a big fan of the road races on the Cup schedule but they’ve been growing on me the last few years thanks to their unpredictability, something sadly lacking at some oval tracks as of late. Overall there’s a lot more drivers skilled at the art of road racing than there once were back in the era when you just assumed Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart was going to win every time NASCAR ran a road course race. The drivers have gotten better; now if only NASCAR could get better at officiating the road course races. The Glen (and Sonoma) are great big tracks. There’s no need to throw a full course caution for a minor incident (like, a-hem, a spring rubber on the track at Sonoma.) A local yellow flag means the drivers must slow and maintain position until they clear that section of track but they keep on racing elsewhere. Full course cautions should be reserved for major catastrophes where a pig pile worth of cars have wrecked to the degree they are completely blocking the track. NASCAR officials still seem to be struggling to accept the notion they are there to officiate a race not orchestrate it.
The Cup series takes its final weekend off after the Glen perhaps to allow fans who left Pocono’s infield to celebrate finally getting home two weeks later. It also gives fans an extra week to get hyped up for a race once known as “Red Neck High Holy Days”, the Bristol night race. Truth be told, the buzz isn’t what it used to be concerning this race and perhaps the fans themselves are to blame. A large contingent of fans began complaining that the Bristol races had turned into a processional parade with little to no passing. (Well, you could pass, as Dale Earnhardt the Original notably demonstrated on the last lap of the 1999 Bristol Night race. It just wasn’t pretty. Earnhardt happened to be one of those throwback drivers to the old Alabama State Trooper mindset….knock twice then kick the door in…with the Jerry Garcia corollary….you can’t close the door if the wall’s caved in.) So they went ahead and reconfigured Bristol into a multi-groove track so that drivers can in fact pass without knocking the car ahead of them out of the way, and some fans complain that now the racing is too boring. In this case, Pogo had it right. “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
The summer season (titularly anyway; summer actually goes on until mid-September but most folks consider Memorial Day and Labor Day the start and end of summer) ends not to with a roar but with a whimper at Michigan. The track actually has an interesting history in that it was one of the first to be designed to be able to run both NASCAR stock cars and Indy car type open wheelers. Though the track dates back to 1969 it was copied almost exactly nearly 30 years later when Roger Penske laid out plans for his new track in Fontana. Michigan was built by a fellow named Larry LoPatin, the CEO of ARI. He envisioned eventually owning 12 race tracks across the country, each running two Cup race events annually. (This in an era back when the France family owned only two tracks, Daytona and Talladega.) Bill France was initially cordial to the idea awarding two race dates to the new Michigan track which in fact laid in the backyard of both Ford and Mopar who were engaged in a high stakes battle for NASCAR supremacy back in that era. The second race was actually scheduled to be a 600 miler but rains shortened the event to 330 laps with half of them run under caution. Not too long afterwards France and LoPatin commenced to feuding and all know how that worked out and who owns Michigan now. (If you’re interested in more on the story you can read an article I wrote back in 1998 on the subject)
While modern races at Michigan have tended to be a bit sedate and often decided by fuel mileage (groan) there was an era when Michigan races were often foot-stomping barn-burners. Back in that era the cars featured blunt aerodynamics to the point the draft was king on the big tracks. It’s hard to fully explain the draft to newer fans who never witnessed the phenomenon, but in that era a driver actually wanted to be in second place heading into turn three on the final lap. With the car ahead of his doing the heavy lifting, moving aside the air that second place driver could swing out and look like his car had magically developed another 100 horsepower as he blew by the leader. Imagine water skiing behind a boat. You’re riding along in the boat’s wake but then can swing out into glass smooth water outside that wake. It was a thing of beauty to behold when the draft was done correctly. The leading driver had little recourse but to block. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. You might recall the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. There’s a lesson there. When looking at aero packages NASCAR has been studying how one car reacts in the wind tunnel. It’s time to look at how a duo or even threesome of cars react when lined up nose to tail in an effort to find a way to bring back the draft.
I’ve railed at some of NASCAR’s decisions over the years but I’ll give credit where credit is due. After a long strange trip worthy of a micro-bus full of Deadheads, the Southern 500 has finally returned to where it belongs….Labor Day weekend at Darlington. Well, they’ve almost got it right that is. The race still needs to be moved back to Saturday or Sunday afternoon not run under the lights. Son, did Richard Damned Petty ever win a Southern 500 under the lights? (No in fact he didn’t. Despite having won 200 races in the Cup series, Petty only won three times at Darlington, and only one of those victories was in the Southern 500, in 1967 when Petty won everything but the Powerball lottery. And he’d probably have won that too if it had been invented yet.) The teams have stepped up to the plate festooning their cars with “Throwback” paint schemes to run at Darlington in what has become one of the most anticipated races on the schedule again. It’s funny how Howard Brasington got things right way back in 1950 until NASCAR’s inveterate tinkerers managed to make a grand old mess of things only to revert to Darlington on the Labor Day weekend again.
After Darlington, well, for all intents and purposes, summertime will in fact have come and gone, my-oh-my. The circuit heads back to Richmond to finalize the lineup for the “all-singing, all-dancing, all-live, all-beautiful, all-nude, all-night, only a quarter” Chase. It’s too bad in my humble opinion, because as of now Richmond is probably the best track left on the circuit. At 3/4 of a mile with just enough banking, the track combines the best of a short track and intermediate superspeedway. It’s a pity that the race can’t just stand on its own merits, but by then the mainstream media, particularly the TV types, will be having paroxysms about the Chase even while some of the best drivers in the sport, those already locked into the Chase with a win, will be phoning it in knowing the real battle for the title commences the following week.
While I still think the Chase is a gimmicky, unnecessary, maggoty steaming hot pile of male bovine manure come the autumn NASCAR is looking at another battle, the battle for TV ratings as the all-conquering NFL regular season begins and NASCAR struggles mightily to remain a blip in the public consciousness. Who’s going to win this year’s title? I haven’t a clue, my friends. There’s too many variables, vagaries, and perhaps another couple on-track muggings to settle one old score, one small point of pride. Who will prevail, the NFL or NASCAR is capturing the hearts, minds, and remote controls of sports fans? Well, you never can tell. Maybe this is the year NASCAR begins turning the tide against a formidable adversary. And maybe this is the year that Charlie Brown finally kicks a field goal. Don’t bet the farm on either.
“The good old days, might not return,
And the rocks might melt, and the sea might burn”-Tom Petty
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