ONE: Home Track
For the first 13 years of the 16-plus years I’ve lived in this great country, my home was Manhattan. Not exactly a hot bed of NASCAR activity, to be fair, except for the occasional trial balloon “street race” concept that gets raised from time to time and fizzles out as soon as it is mooted. My nearest track then was Pocono Raceway, some 110 miles east and two hours of drive time which essentially doubles on race day, and it was one I visited on several occasions. Now, though, following our move west to San Francisco, my nearest track of Sonoma Raceway is much, much closer. All told, I’ve been six times – three straight NASCAR races, the last two IndyCar races and one time after I first moved, when I made what can perhaps best be described as a “geek trip” or a “honey please” visit. In short, I forced my wife to drive up with me just so we could just walk about the premises a little. So, as you might imagine, I’m pumped to get out there this weekend and to soak in the atmosphere, the bright sunshine and hopefully a great race (more on that below.) I’ll be like a kid on Christmas morning this Sunday and whatever else you want to say about the current state of NASCAR, that’s the sort of feeling I hope stays with me for many more races in the years ahead.
TWO: Three more years for the Champ
A quick point on Jimmie Johnson, who re-upped with Hendrick Motorsports for three more years, which will keep the seven-time champion in competition through 2020. In the week following his hard hit at Pocono Raceway, which thankfully was much more benign than it might have been, this was positive news for Johnson, who has won three of the 14 races run in 2017. “I remember hoping to just win one race,” noted Johnson on the deal which also extends Lowes as the primary sponsor through 2018.
“Winning seven championships and 83 races was inconceivable, and now we have the opportunity to do even more together. It says a lot to have one sponsor, one crew chief and one team for so long.” And indeed, it does. The real question here, though, is how soon a full-season sponsor is going to go the way of the dodo and into extinction. With more and more teams piecing together smaller deals and many teams unable to fill races with sponsors, this is even more the case. But given the sustained success and indeed the comportment of the man himself, this one was something of a no-brainer.
THREE: Next up, Sonoma
As I waxed lyrical above, the next stop on the NASCAR circus is beautiful Sonoma Raceway nestled in the golden wine country of Northern California. The track itself is 2.52-mile long track with over 160 feet of elevation change as it winds through the 12-turn course. For NASCAR, though, the course is modified to a 10-turn, 1.99-mile circuit. This will be Cup race number 29 at the venue, a streak that runs all the way back to 1989 and a race won by the irrepressible Ricky Rudd. Last year’s race was won by Tony Stewart, the 49th and final victory of his illustrious 18-year, 618-race career at the top echelon, in a thrilling finish with a last corner pass on Denny Hamlin. Pass, of course, would be the technical term for what happened but slam into the pit road retaining wall after Hamlin overdrove the corner would be more accurate. Specifics aside, it was a hugely popular victory for the veteran driver, snapping a winless streak that extended back to the first Dover race of the 2013 season. With a road course – a roval – now slated for the 2018 playoffs, this race and the one at Watkins Glen become even more important as there are direct playoff implications. Either way, this one is always a fun one. I can’t wait.
FOUR: JGR Wins Are Coming
One of the burgeoning themes this season is when Joe Gibbs Racing will break through and pick up its first Cup win of the year. Likely no one feels this more than Kyle Busch, who, for just the second time in his career, has led multiple laps in six straight races. On the previous occasion that this happened, the 2015 Cup champion won twice. This time around, no dice, much to his immense chagrin. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: seeing Kyle Busch react to a second-place finish is absolutely appointment viewing. After a sluggish start to 2018, JGR appears to be on the upswing and surely it is just a matter of time before the win happens. Perhaps it will come as soon as this weekend with either Denny Hamlin going one better than last year’s first loser spot or Kyle Busch who has two Sonoma wins (2008 and 2015) under his belt. Stay tuned, folks. It’s a-coming.
FIVE: Boogity, Boogity Bye Bye
And finally, this week, just one more race remains on the FOX Sports docket before broadcasting duties for the final 19 races passes over to the NBC Sports team. Over the years, I’ve written a fair bit about the sometimes bombastic, typically in your face style of broadcasting employed by FOX. This year, though, I feel like it’s been less grating. Who knows? Maybe I’m just mellowing with my increasing age. I will certainly miss the dulcet tones of the calm and knowledgeable host, Mike Joy, who is a true gentleman. And I’ll also miss Jeff Gordon, who is an insightful and fun color commentator. Gordon’s recent driving knowledge and deep, personal relationships in the garage add much to the broadcasts, and he is nearly always the first to discern and dissect what exactly happened after a big wreck. So in the words of the excellent Larry Mac, pull those belts down tight one more time, team Fox. Here’s hoping they finish up in 2017 with a brilliant race this Sunday afternoon.
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