NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: A Smorgasbord of Racing and the Reasons We Remember

Editor’s Note: Yes, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is one of the highlights on my schedule annually. Even the most gluttonous race fan can batten down on three major races, all shown practically back-to-back-to-back in one day. But amidst all the noise, speed, drama and danger the racing serves up, it behooves us to recall the reason for the holiday weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer, the barbecues, cruising the car shows, long ambling motorcycle rides to nowhere, and days lazing on the beach (in my case laying waste to a pile of paperbacks in or near Ocean City). Originally celebrated as “Confederate Memorial Day” down South after the Civil War, in the north the tradition of honoring veterans in late May began in 1868, but Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971. That may sound like a long time ago to some younger readers, but I was 11 years old at the time and finishing up the sixth grade at Flower Hill Elementary School. And digging a Monday off right at the end of the school year.

This year, Memorial Day has a special poignancy. In a couple short weeks (June 6), we will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France. Few days in the world’s history can rival that day’s importance.

On the bloody beaches of France, the tide turned with freedom getting the upper hand on fascism. On a day now noted for racing, D-Day kicked off an 11-month slog for the survivors of D-Day and their reinforcements as they made their way 884 miles to Berlin. All the freedoms we now celebrate and cherish hung in the balance but were preserved.

This June, we’ll celebrate the 75th Anniversary of “the Longest Day.” Even soldiers who were very young men as the Greatest Generation stormed ashore at Utah, Omaha, Gold and Sword beaches under relentless fire and artillery attacks by the Nazis. Each year the number of soldiers who fought at Normandy and toward Berlin dwindles as they head for their eternal reward. Each of them fully deserves their reward in Heaven as they had already fought through Hell that day in early June of 1944. Even after Germany surrendered, the task was not complete. The Japanese would not surrender until August of 1945, bringing the “War to End All Wars” to its conclusion. The heroes of the Pacific Theater, both members of the US military and our Allies, deserve equal praise and gratitude from us for their own terrible sacrifices and courage in the face of overwhelming horror.

Having acknowledged our veterans, I still have a column to write. Even the most maniacal race fans have to come away sated after the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend every year. Two disciplines of auto racing host their biggest events of the season: the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indy 500. On the NASCAR side of the equation, fans enjoy (or for the last hour or so of the race, perhaps endure) one of our Big 3 events, the World 600, now sponsored annually by some soft drink company, and the less said about that the better. As far as a prestigious line on a racer’s resume, the World 600 ranks right up there with the Daytona 500 and the Granddaddy of them all, the Southern 500. Only a handful of stock car racers have won all three in their careers.  David Pearson (1976) LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969) and Jeff Gordon (1997) won all three events during the same season.

First run in 1911 when a car that would last 500 miles was still a novelty, the Indy 500 captured the imagination and hearts of early 20th century Americans, just as “automobiling” was bridging the gap between hobby and transportation. Over the years and decades, the 500’s colored history has offered up moments of pageantry, triumph, elation and tragedy, but it is the one race annually that even non-racing fans are certain to know of. Sunday’s race was the 103rd Indy 500.

(No, the numbers don’t add up. The Indy 500 took two years off during World War I and a four-year hiatus during World War II.)

The Monaco Grand Prix was first run in 1929 in a tiny principality that is in fact its own nation, the second smallest country in the world, ahead of only Vatican City. Monaco encompasses just under 500 acres of sovereign territory. For comparison’s sake, Indianapolis Motor Speedway rests on 560 acres. Charlotte Motor Speedway encompasses almost 2000 acres. Yes, you could fit the entire Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the country of Monaco easily on the Charlotte property, though you would likely have to clear cut some trees to make it all fit, and that has previously gotten Bruton Smith in some legal hot water.

Monaco is a tax-free haven for millionaires who have thus flocked there for over a century. The tax-free status is made possible by the giant casino in Monte Carlo that opened back around the time the United States was ending the Civil War. The first Monaco Grand Prix was dominated by Bugatti, a brand of automobile you can still go out and buy today. Well, I could if every other resident of the tiny town I call home and I cashed out all our retirement savings and threw in together. Then we’d just have to worry about coming up with another 40 grand after 2,500 miles when the tires on our new Bug (Bug-gati not VW) needed replacing.

The first Indy 500 was won by Ray Harroun at the wheel of a Marmon Wasp. I’m fairly certain you wont find any Marmon dealers left out there, and if there is in fact still a new Marmon Wasp sold out there, it’s a cheap, sloppily assembled Chinese lawn tractor. In the early years at Indy, Peugeot was a major player. They still build Peugeots, but they are no longer sold in America. They weren’t very racy toward the end here in the States, and most of you under 40 have likely never seen one much less ridden in one. You can be thankful for that. Mercedes (who apparently wasn’t even dating Benz yet) first won the Indy 500 in 1915. Benz’s only other Indy 500 win was in 1994. Don’t ask the folks at Porsche how they did at Indy. They’re likely still rather sore after that debacle.

Joe Lee Johnson won the first World 600 in a Chevrolet back in 1960. Yep, you can still go out and buy yourself a Chevy suitable for hauling the clan to the levy or running through the woods of the Carolinas, but GM has been on and off life support for decades. The old marketing motto “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” the car makers used to justify their racing marketing programs has long since become archaic. But for one weekend each year at the end of May, here in the states, racing still takes center stage and grabs the attention of the general population, as well as hardcore fans of the sport.

This year, at least those who tuned in or showed up were treated to three pretty decent races, even though forecasts for all three races were a bit grim Sunday morning. All three events were run without a single weather delay, though an abundance of cautions had them running at Charlotte until almost midnight.

The Cup circuit heads off to Pocono this weekend. Some will doubtless note that unbelievably enough, should he fail to find victory lane next weekend, it will officially be two years since seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won a points-paying NASCAR race.

While Johnson and the No. 48 team have been running somewhat better lately, it’s still a less than stellar season by Johnson’s lofty standards. He’s managed just one top-five result (fifth at Texas), has led just 68 laps (60 of them at that race in Texas), and he’s averaging a decidedly unremarkable 14.5 finish. 

What’s gone wrong for the once dominant No. 48 team? Well if I had that answer I’d be scheduling a sitdown with Rick Hendrick after which I’d presumably spend the rest of my life chilling in a hammock on some Caribbean island with a well-stocked cooler within easy reach of my left hand, burning an occasional stack of $100 bills in the evening when it got chilly.

In looking over the stats, I noticed that Johnson has won just three of his 83 career races since NASCAR started running their Cup events in stages back in 2017. That might be coincidental. By the same token, one of the keys to Johnson’s success was his then-crew chief Chad Knaus on pit road. Knaus was practically psychic when it came to making calls as to when to pit. He understood the rhythms of how races tended to play out and the likelihood of the caution flag flying. Knaus often adopted a contrary strategy to what most of his rivals were doing, which often wound up with Johnson restarting a race on the front row with fresh tires on his Chevy and clean air on the nose of his race car. More than once, Johnson and Knaus “stole” a win away after being a non-factor much of the race, leaving their rivals shaking their heads how they’d done so… again.

With the stage breaks published before the event starts these days, everyone knows on what lap at least two caution flags during the event are going to fly and can plan their strategies accordingly. A caution might occur prior to a stage end, but it will certainly fly on or near the lap the green and white flag is displayed. Also, inarguably, Knaus was the first leading crew chief to wrap his mind around the Chase playoff format (even as flawed as it is) and to prepare his driver, strategies and cars accordingly. That playoff format has now been with us since 2004 and other crew chiefs have sorted things out as well.

Of course that might just be coincidental. Drivers, even the great ones, get older and the wins come less frequently. When Richard Petty won his seventh title in 1979, everyone just assumed that his eighth and ninth title would follow in short order. They didn’t call the man “the King” because he owned a fast food franchise in Level Point. After winning back-to-back titles in 1990 and 1991, Dale Earnhardt had a decidedly off-key season in 1992, finishing 12th in points and winning only a single event. Pundits were so desperate to find a cause for that aberration. I recall reading how someone thought a major volcanic eruption in the South Pacific had caused global cooling (yes, that was a thing at the time) sufficient that it gave a decided horsepower advantage to the Ford Thunderbirds (like the ones wheeled by Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, et al) putting the Intimidator at a disadvantage. I guess things warmed back up in the troposphere in 1993 and 1994 because Earnhardt scored back-to-back titles during those seasons. And everyone (fans and detractors alike) just assumed Earnhardt would break Petty’s mark of seven championships either in 1995, or certainly no later than 1996. That eighth title, of course, remained unclaimed.

Johnson won five of his titles consecutively between 2006 and 2010. The No. 48 team then went on to score titles in 2013 and 2016, and once again most fans considered it a foregone conclusion he’d become NASCAR’s first eight-time champion sooner rather than later. It could still happen. I just wouldn’t bet my retirement savings on it. and my guess is that Johnson will retire before I do.

Speaking of streaks, after winning Sunday’s World 600. Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last five Cup races, a rather remarkable achievement in any era of our sport. Because he’s so low profile, people tend to note that Kyle Busch hasn’t won any of the last five races, rather than the fact that Truex won three of them in the same equipment.

As for this weekend, Busch has won the last two July races at Pocono but has yet to win a June race at the track. Over 28 career starts at Pocono, Busch has won just those two races, and his career average finish at the track is 16.4.

As for Truex, he returns to Pocono as the defending winner of last year’s June race. Truex considers Pocono one of his two home tracks (the other being Dover), and he’s managed a 15th-place average finish over 26 starts.

Maybe there’s a reason that back in the day NASCAR typically didn’t release the following year’s schedule until the fall. I’ve heard from a couple readers this week who are under the impression that Pocono will be hosting two Cup races this weekend. That silliness doesn’t start until next year.

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Bill B

Nice read Matt.

Charlie

Well done.

Carl D.

Great read, Matt, especially the D-Day reminder. Per the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

janice

Carl – and do I fear this will come to pass in the future.

Echo

One more time, Jimmie cannot drive a lighter car with less horsepower. Couldn’t in Busch and can’t in Cup. I said two years ago Jimmie would never win another cup race and stand by that. Even Chad can’t help him learn to drive a lighter car. You either can or cant, Jimmie cannot.
Thank you Matt for mentioning the greatest generation. There will never again be anything close to those folks. I’m a veteran but those folks will forever be my heros. They saved the world for a cause. Never been a real cause for a war since then, or the loss of a life.

janice

And The Greatest Generation is growing smaller with the passing of time.

Bobby DK

My dad just passed and he was a Korean war veteran. He always told us ” I didn’t want to be a hero, I just wanted to get off the farm!” with a grin on his face. I introduced him to NASCAR and immediately he gravitated to Dale Sr. I asked him, ” Why him?” He said, “Us 8th grade graduates have to stick together.”, with a grin on his face. Cherish the time together, cherish the stories and go enjoy a race. Bye Dad.

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