ONE: Empty Seats
As good as the racing was at NASCAR’s oldest, slowest, smallest track this past Sunday wasn’t it a shame to see great swathes of empty seats? If a track that is pretty much guaranteed to see excellent on-track action is struggling to fill the grandstands what hope is there for some of the, shall we say, less exciting circuits? It’s not a new problem, either, but you know that if you’re reading this column (except perhaps if you’re related to me and you have to read it.) A few years ago NASCAR stopped releasing attendance numbers, and after a race like Sunday you can see precisely why. My fervent hope is that NASCAR doesn’t see this as a reason to take away a date from the little old paper clip. That, for me at least, would be an absolutely disastrous idea. As a series we need to race at Martinsville, not least because of the link to the past. Remember it was the sixth race of eight in total in NASCAR’s inaugural season and it is my fervent hope that it always retains its two dates. I don’t have any easy answers as to how to make this better but perhaps it’s an initiative that the new title sponsor can help with. Butts in seats at races is key – absolutely key – especially at somewhere like Martinsville. Hopefully the powers that be can come up with a plan to ensure the stands are full come the Chase race in the fall.
For the 37th time in 432 Cup races across his storied 15-year career, Kyle Busch finished as first loser (or second place if you prefer) this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway. And I have to say that in all of sports, there might not be a more amusing interview than hearing Kyle Busch expound on finishing just behind the winner and that’s especially the case when he’s led most laps and had a dominant car on the day. Poor Matt Yocum got the post-race interview duties and it was a fun one as always. “All we did was put four tires on it and it went to junk,” noted Busch of his final pit stop, “So, I hate it for our guys. They’ve deserved much better finishes all year than we’ve produced and here’s another one today. Frustrating season so far.” This, of course, from a driver who finished third at Phoenix International Raceway and eighth at Auto Club Speedway in the past couple of weeks. Not to mention the fact he’s led 413 laps (including at least one lap in four of the six races), which is 71 more than his nearest competitor Kevin Harvick (342 laps led). And just for the record, his 37th second place effort means he is in 14th place (amongst all drivers) for first loser finishes, tied with Bobby Isaac and Ned Jarrett. Richard Petty tops that list with 157 in total so he’s got some way to go just yet. All told, though, it speaks to Kyle Busch’s immense passion for winning. You might not like him, but you can’t deny he is a true competitor. I look forward to the next second-place finish interview with some relish.
THREE: 601 and counting
I didn’t get the chance to write last week so I missed my opportunity to mark a milestone race in the career of NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. All told, Junior has run 601 top echelon races across 19 years. His first race was the 600-mile Memorial Day race at Charlotte Motor Speedway all the way back in 1999. Just to put this in context, his teammate Chase Elliott was a mere three years old that day. And amongst active drivers, only Matt Kenseth has raced more (620 races) with Kurt Busch in third place (582 races). So far this season, it hasn’t been a great start for Junior who is mired in 25th place in the overall standings, just below Ty Dillon, with a season best finish of 14th at Phoenix International Raceway and three finishes of 30th or worse (Daytona, 37th; Atlanta, 30th and Martinsville, 34th.) “I’m disappointed with the way we’re finishing.” Said Junior post-race. “We’ve got to finish better than this.” And while there is no reason to panic just yet, that fact is indubitably true. But with a good string of tracks coming up, there’s every reason to suspect he’ll turn it round. Either way, after a long absence last season, it’s just good to see him back healthy and racing again.
FOUR: Next Up, Texas
This weekend, we head to the lightning fast Texas Motor Speedway for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. This will be the 33rd visit to the mile-and-a-half track, a streak that extends back to April of 1997 and a race won by NBC’s own Jeff Burton. The last time we visited Texas in the fall of 2016 it was Cousin Carl Edwards who took the checkers, and although we didn’t know it at the time it would turn out to be the 28th and last win of Edwards 445-race, 13-year Cup career. I know he’s not officially said he’s retiring but it seems unlikely he will get back behind the wheel of a Cup car in the near future. Stats-wise, you’ll not be surprised to learn that Jimmie Johnson dominates, leading the way amongst active drivers with six wins, 14 top-5’s, 20 top-10’s and 1423 laps led. One stat that did surprise me, however, was that Kevin Harvick leads the way at the track with most races without a win: 28 races – a nice piece of symmetry with Edwards. But the big question this Sunday afternoon is how the track will race following the recent repave. All previous notes essentially get thrown out of the window and the one word that we’ll likely hear all weekend long is slick. Practice, as you might expect, will be absolutely crucial so expect to see teams maximize their own track time before we get to the main event on Sunday afternoon.
FIVE: Why aren’t you three inches tall?
As someone who makes a living in the advertising world (outside of writing for this fine site, of course) I wanted to quickly mention my favorite ad of the year so far and it’s the Mobil 1 spot with the three-inch-tall Kevin Harvick.
The sad fact of the matter is that there are fewer and fewer NASCAR specific commercials each season as sponsors look to more targeted and customized digital and social initiatives rather than the good old fashioned thirty-second TV spot. Making a thirty second commercial is harder than you might think (and typically it takes a lot longer than you would think too) so hats off to the team that came up with this one. It’s a simple message, communicated well, and one that has a smile moment too. Good stuff. Enjoy Texas this weekend, folks.
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