It’s hard to believe that it has come and gone yet again. The Feast of the Excited Insect Day celebrations have reached their crescendo and are dying down now like the embers in a trailside campfire, though naturally the insects themselves remain quite jolly. It’s the same thing every year. You get caught up in the shopping, the parties, sending cards (in my case if I don’t people I haven’t talked to in a while might assume I’m dead) cooking, feasting and decorating and forget the real reason for the season. (For those of you who might have been homeschooled or ridden in the short bus to the prom, the Feast of the Excited Insects Day is a holiday that originated in China and Korea. The legend says on March 5th, the dragon wakes from his winter-long hibernation and causes such a ruckus stirring that it also wakes up all the insects that have been dormant for the winter. Having not had anything to eat and most especially having had no chance to mate in quite a while (imagine a teenage student returning home for the summer from an all-boys prep school) the insects are quite excited so they do a bit of swarming. Traditionally dumplings and other treats are thrown by farmers to the insects to ensure a bountiful harvest. It’s also a sign the all-sustaining rice crop should be planted as spring has arrived. Plant your rice too early and a late freeze might ruin the crop. Plant it too late and the harvest will not be as bountiful as it should be When rice makes up half your diet as it does in many developing countries (and New Mexico) you want to set it right. Think of the Feast of the Excited Insects Day as a somewhat less silly Groundhog Day in that nobody has to wear a top hat, deal with a bad tempered rodent, or endure a winter’s Pennsylvania morning.
Yep, back out on the high wire again, trying to somehow connect my mindless rambling with the sport of stock car racing. The Atlanta Cup race was in fact run on the Feast of Excited Insects Day Sunday. You’d be surprised how infrequently that occurs with NASCAR’s top series running damn near every Sunday in March for decades. The last time the Cup regulars raced on the FOEID was 1995. (There was a Sunday March 5th in 2006 but for reasons unknown NASCAR didn’t stage a race that day. Perhaps they were trying to show some cultural sensitivity?) In fact prior to Sunday NASCAR’s big dogs had only raced five times on the FOEID.
On this date in 1961, reigning Cup champion Rex White won at Ashville-Weaverville, a half-mile paved track in North Carolina right above the South Carolina border. White drove a self-owned ’61 Chevy replete with the bubbletop styling and bat wing rearend treatment. The winning car did in fact look just like the ’61 Chevys parked in the lot outside the tracks by the fans that day and perhaps driven to the levy by said fans after the race. No one is going to accuse Brad Keselowski’s Ford Focus of looking like it’s stock counterpart. White beat second place Cotton Owens to the checkers by six seconds. (Yes, the modernists like to tell you stock car racing in the days of yore as not so good, and rocks might melt and seas might burn but on this day the top three finishers were all on the lead lap. Ned Jarrett finished third that day in a 60 Ford enroute to the first of his two Cup championships that year. The race lasted all of an hour and 22 minutes (millennials take note!) and White pocketed 900 bucks for the win. You had to really love racing to run NASCAR in that era. It sure as hell wasn’t going to make you rich.
The Cup series returned to Ashville-Weaverville on FOEID in 1967. A skinny kid who’d finished a lackluster fourth at the 1961 event noted above was on a bit of a tear and about to shatter a whole series of records that haven’t been bettered since. In 1967 Richard Petty won 27 races of 49 races, ten of them won consecutively. Ashville-Weaverville was the first of those wins in 1967 but that bears some explaining. Petty also won the 1967 season opener in Augusta, GA but that race was held on November 13th, 1966! (all of 17 days after the Rockingham season finale of 1966.) And you thought today’s schedule was brutal? Petty obviously won the title that year over reigning Cup champion David Pearson who would return to the top of the heap in 1968 and 1969 as the factory aero-wars between Ford and Chrysler went nuclear.
Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine to March 5th, 1978. The tiny track as Ashville-Weaverville had been left behind in the dust when Winston signed on to be the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series. That year the holiday event landed at Rockingham and was won by three time champion David Pearson, who beat Bobby Allison to the checkers by 1.3 seconds. Petty had a rare off-day finishing fourth that afternoon. In that era, Pearson and Petty routinely battled for the top spot in one of our sport’s greatest rivalries. The following year, Pearson would have a falling out with his long term team, the Wood Brothers, and the two went their separate ways. Pearson would only score two more wins in his career, one of them in 1979 as a substitute driver in the Southern 500 for some kid named Dale Earnhardt who busted himself up pretty good at Pocono that summer. Pearson beat another upstart by the name of Elliott (Bill, not Chase) in that Southern 500. Petty would go on to win his last of seven titles in 1979. Yes, there was a major changing of the guard going on in the sport late in the 70s. Of particular note is there were 24 lead changes in that race at the Rock. Pearson’s purse that day $16,675. Yep, you still had to love what you did out there on Sunday to bother.
In 1989 the FOEID celebration was once again held at Rockingham. Rockingham was just the second race of that Cup season, but Rusty Wallace was already on a mission. Wallace felt he had been cheated out of a chance at a title late in 1988 when points leader Bill Elliott chose to cruise much of the closing races of the season rather than go all out gunning for wins. Wallace’s comments towards Elliott was less than gracious afterwards. That day Wallace won the first of six victories that year. To do so at the Rock he had to stage an epic late race battle with Rusty’s close buddy, the late Alan Kulwicki. Wallace and Kulwicki swapped the lead six times in the final 100 laps of the race. There were a total of 29 lead changes that day and Wallace’s eventual margin of victory was 1.6 seconds. Wallace’s race winnings were listed as $72,000. Yep, that’s worth crawling out from under the covers for even if you didn’t feel well. Ironically, Wallace would in fact win that year’s title by adopting a cruising mode similar to Elliott’s in 1988 though it was a close contest with Wallace prevailing by just 12 points over Dale Earnhardt the Original at season’s end for the crown. (Remember that next time some sleazy type tries to tell you before the Chase all the title hunts were runaways.) Dale most likely got a bit grumpy about Wallace finishing a conservative 15th to Dale’s win. And so it goes. It’s interesting that no competitor who ran against Wallace at Rockingham that holiday is still competing at the top level of the sport.
The last time the Feast of the Excited Insects Day was celebrated at a NASCAR track was in 1995 at Richmond. The changing of the guard was almost complete. Old guard stalwart Terry Labonte won the event by 1.25 seconds over that Dale Earnhardt guy again. (Editors note: As yer humble scribe sat shivering his tookus off in Richmond’s concrete grandstands alongside his youngest sister and two brothers-in-law. It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been a race track and only a heroic intake of suds kept me from hypothermia.) Earnhardt and Wallace swapped the lead nine times in the first half of the race (there were a total of 17 lead changes) with Labonte not asserting himself until lap 221. 25-year-old Jeff Gordon won the race prior to Richmond (Rockingham) and the next week’s Cup event at (wait for it) Atlanta. Gordon suffered a miserable 36th place finish, a DNF officially listed as caused by a “fuel pump.” If I recall, he put the fuel pump and a bunch of the engine through the firewall, but my memory is suspect there. Labonte claimed almost $83,000 in winnings, real money but you can still spend that much on a pickup truck these days without ticking every option on the sheet. Gordon would go on to win that year’s title by 34 points over Dale Earnhardt.
Curiously enough not a single driver who competed at Richmond that day in 1995 is still racing full time in the series. I mean cars built in 1995 aren’t classics, they’re just used cars, right?
The next time March 5th falls on a Sunday is 2023, six years from now. Which, if any drivers, who raced Sunday will still be active? Almost assuredly Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and others will be gone. What track will that race be held at? What network will broadcast it on TV, if any? Might you have to follow the “action” on line? How much will the race pay to win and how many new points systems will NASCAR have tried by 2023? The next time the date and day coincide is 2028 and then 2034. Will NASCAR still be around by then? If so what sort of cars will compete and at which tracks? Will the racecars be electric by then? Will the races be 50 miles long and pay about what Rex White won at Ashville-Weaverville in 1961? Stay tuned.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics I got a press release this week that stated that Sunday’s Atlanta race was in fact the 2500th Monster Energy Cup race in NASCAR’s history. Say what now? Is it just me or has there only been two MENC races run to date. (Four if you count the Duels which paid some points this year.) As we’ve all learned to abbreviate (and as I’ve learned I can get away with) WTF? The press release goes on to note that NASCAR’s first Cup race was run back in 1950 in Charlotte but not at Charlotte. Monster Energy didn’t come into existence until 2002, 52 years after the fact! Hell, in 1950 nobody had even considered the possibility of a cell phone yet either (and life was probably better for it) so don’t list them as Sprint Cup wins either. Hell, Winston didn’t sell their first cigarette until 1954. I’ve gone on the record as loathing this sort of historical revisionism before but this was a particularly egregious example of playing loose with the truth. Somehow “alternate facts” have invaded our sport. If that’s your fire, baby, don’t get burned.
In a related note, another press release I got this week was touting the fact Kyle Busch would be driving the “Snickers Crisper” sponsored car this week. I’d guess “Crisper” is a new variant of the candy bar not one that rolled under the front seat you forgot about a few months ago. Wipe off the mouse fur and droppings and it will be fine. Curiously enough the photo of the car didn’t have the Monster Energy logo across the top of the windshield or on front fenders as it presumably did on Sunday. And KyBu is one of Monster’s boys having had a business relationship with them for several years now. (NOS is a sub-brand of Monster.) Yep, get to the theater late and you won’t be seated up front.
As for Busch himself, bless his pointed little head, he had an interesting weekend. He won the pole for the XFINITY Series race but then missed the drivers’ meeting. In every other instance I can recall, that would have meant he started at the tail end of the field but NASCAR decided not to penalize him because Busch had been running truck practice immediately prior to the drivers’ meeting. So what? Wouldn’t the race have been more interesting for the fans (including his) if Busch had to make his way to the front from the rear? Hell, I’d love to see a rule all the Cup regulars had to start at the rear of the field and got to pick their pits last. If you’re going to steal the little kids’ lunch money it’s only fair you spot them a city block before giving chase. Be that as it may, Busch did in fact go on to win Saturday’s NXS race which surprised precisely no one but irritated quite a few folks. After the race Busch’s Toyota was found to be too low in the front and some sort of penalty is expected as a result. Not that Busch will be losing sleep. He’s not eligible to earn points in the NXS series anyway, and if the team gets suspended he can slap another number on the side of the car to race anyway. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion…welcome to the comfy chair, Kyle.
NASCAR said they needed to redo the championship format because newer fans couldn’t grasp how someone potentially could win a title without winning a single race. (That’s still possible though more unlikely under the new system.) News flash: Fans, long term and new to the sport, are baffled how a competitor’s car can be found to be illegal after a race but he’s still awarded the win. Ask Lance Armstrong how that worked out for him.
The second half of Saturday’s double-header at Atlanta was a truck series race, and once again Kyle Busch was on the entry sheet. Curiously enough it was Christopher Bell, driving for Kyle’s KBM team that dominated the race leading 99 of 130 laps. Say what you will about Busch but he clearly has an eye for young talent; Late in the race Busch beat his teammate/employee out of the pits to take over the lead. But during a final pit sequence on lap 109 the order up front got scrambled and Busch emerged fifth in the running order. In short order he found himself into the wall and out of the race. Bell went on to win the race. Karma.
Come Sunday it appeared young Mr. Busch had done licked all the red (or mouse fur) off his candy. Busch and the 18 outfit suffered through an uncharacteristically lackluster run in the Cup 500 miler on Sunday. At points Busch was multiple laps down though through strategy and the corporate welfare system that is the Wave Around Rule he did manage to finish 16th and on the lead lap one spot ahead of the powerhouse Danica Patrick and the No. 10 team combo, Busch’s worst Cup finish at a mile and a half track since the World 600 last May. Under NASCAR rules despite being a former Cup champion Busch is allowed to run in a number of support races. Whether he should choose to do so is another matter. Like many folks who have decided to get a second job to make ends meet when it becomes obvious your moonlighting is having a negative effect on your day job it’s time to blow that taco stand.
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