Away from actual on-track action at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend, the big story of NBC’s return to lead broadcasting duties was the addition of a certain ex-driver to the team in the booth. As you may very well have heard, perhaps just in passing, the 15-time-straight Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. swapped driving gloves for an oversized microphone and a place alongside the incumbent NBC on-air team. And it’s fair to say that Junior’s excitable “SLIDE JOB! SLIDE JOB!” call as the final lap unfolded might go down as the moment he truly introduced himself to his post-driving career. It’s also one we’ll hear replayed time and again.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 1, 2018
Now it’s very early days, for sure, and I know I’m an audience of one here. But I thought this weekend was at least a really solid debut for Dale Jr. His enthusiasm and sheer love for the sport tumbles out of his every utterance. It also felt like he meshed well with — and added to — the established crew of three of Rick Allen, Earnhardt’s former crew chief Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton. For me, though, it was pretty much the final quote he said on the broadcast which summed up who Earnhardt is and the success he’ll likely play in his new role.
“Today, I don’t know if it’s like this every day, but this has been a lot of fun. I knew it would be. When I had the chance to do it over the years, it ticks a lot of boxes for me,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I love racing. I love being around the track. It felt so good just to be here and have a purpose – and be an asset to the sport, in any way, shape or form – that makes me happy.”
It will be interesting to see how Earnhardt follows this up by tackling Daytona this Saturday – a track so synonymous with his famous last name. All told, though, it’s so far, so good for Earnhardt.
TWO: Last Lap
There’s been a lot of talk about the thrilling conclusion to Sunday’s race (July 1). Depending on which side of the “Kyle Busch” divide you sit, you either loved it or hated it. Now I don’t have a dog in this fight, but for me, it was a tremendous end to a race with no quarter asked or given. Wasn’t this conclusion exactly how fans want races to be? Don’t they want phenomenal finishes and drivers fighting with every ounce of strength and speed? Sure, if you’re a fan of Kyle Larson, you’re disappointed. But even the man himself showed everything was copacetic in his post-race interview.
“I ran into him first, he got me after that, maybe a little bit worse than I got him, but that’s all right,” said Larson. “Love racing Kyle [Busch]. I know all these fans are probably mad at him, but hey, we put on a hell of a show for you guys and that was a blast.”
Larson was, of course, referring to the fans who, as Kyle Busch celebrated, unequivocally let the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran know they were not pleased with his efforts. They even prompted the winner to mock the fans by faux crying into the camera.
Fans are quick – greased lightning quick — to complain about boring, strung-out, follow-the-leader racing. But these final laps, aided and abetted by some horribly timed lap traffic, was mesmeric to watch. It’s the very reason you tune into NASCAR in the first place. If you don’t like the action in the final few laps — and OK, genuine Larson fans are the exception here — well, simply put, you don’t like racing. And if that’s the case, you’ve got plenty of other ways to spend your weekend leisure time.
THREE: First Lap
In keeping with the theme of a back-and-forth battle for the 2018 Formula One crown, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel retook the overall points lead by one solitary marker with a third-place finish. That’s coupled with a disastrous DNF and 16th place for the other four-time and series reigning champion Lewis Hamilton at this past weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix.
As is often the case with F1, it was a gripping first lap of the race with Hamilton wrestling the lead from his teammate Valtteri Bottas while holding off Ferrari’s hard-charging Kimi Raikkonen. From there, it settled down a bit. But it did get me thinking about the most exciting parts of motor racing and the first lap of a Grand Prix. The first corner, in particular, has to be up there amongst the very best.
Now, sure, it’s not breathless last-lap sort of stuff but in F1, it’s often times as much about qualification and getting to that first corner in the lead as it is the rest of the race. So, with that in mind, what other moments do you most love about racing? Is it the last lap at Talladega? Is it the start of the Indy 500? The pre-race pageantry? A winning burnout from a driver who hasn’t won before? Let me know below.
Interested to hear what you all think.
FOUR: Next Up, Daytona
Next up, we head back to Daytona International Speedway. It’s MENCS race number 143 on the high banks of the iconic two-and-a-half-mile track. Leading the way amongst active drivers is Jimmie Johnson, who has three Daytona wins. Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick all have a pair of their own. A further 11 drivers have a single win at the prestigious circuit, including last year’s winner of this race – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Fords have dominated proceedings on the two restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway of late. But in the season-opening Daytona 500, it was two Chevys that led the way in race winner Austin Dillon and second-place driver Darrell Wallace Jr. To date, it’s the only victory in 2018 for a suddenly struggling Bowtie Brigade. Given the way races have transpired this season, it’s also one of the few chances to double their win tally.
Another way to look at this race is that it’s an amazing opportunity for a hitherto winless driver to find a way to Victory Lane and into the postseason. Expect drivers in contention in the waning laps to act accordingly. I, for one, can’t wait for this one under the lights on Saturday night (July 7).
FIVE: Almirola’s heartbreak
Finally this week, a quick word on Aric Almirola, who had a tough afternoon after it had looked oh-so-very promising in the early going at Chicagoland. The driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won his first ever stage and led 70 laps. That’s 30 more than the combined 40 laps he’d led in the last five seasons before having to pit for a loose wheel. The veteran did manage to get his way back onto the lead lap but a second loose wheel on lap 212 essentially finished off his day.
“That’s the best car I’ve ever had compared to the competition,” said Almirola, who ran 25th. “It was just so fast…. especially out in clean air. We’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to put a whole race together. That’s the difference between being good and being great.”
You can’t help but feel that time is coming. Sooner rather than later Almirola is going to execute his way to Victory Lane. And after how his Daytona 500 finished? Maybe that time is this Saturday night.