Friday night’s (July 9) NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race had a somewhat slapdash jury-rigged feel to it even before the racing commenced. Nope, they don’t run many touring series races on Friday nights any longer, though for a few years as more and more Cup Series races were moved to Saturday nights the companion series were often forced into a Friday night time slot there for a bit.
Part of the confusion this Friday probably had to do with the TV networks. While their Cup Series coverage is over for 2021 the FOX family of networks is still broadcasting the remainder of the Truck Series races. Thus there was very little cross-promotion between the network rivals letting fans know the trucks would be racing Friday night at the somewhat awkward hour of 7 p.m. ET if you wanted to see the heat races too. Which I’m guessing not a whole lot of people did.
Heat races in the Truck Series? What the devil is that all about? Oh, did we not mention that this is a brand new event on a half-mile dirt track? Not just a half-miler either. Friday’s Truck race was held at the historic and revered (in some sets) Knoxville Raceway.
As I see it (which means you are free to feel differently on the issue) adding a different dirt track to the schedule was NASCAR’s way of extending a middle finger at former Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who just happens to own the Eldora Speedway dirt track where NASCAR will coincidentally not be competing this year despite the track hosting seven fairly successful Truck Series dirt track events from 2013 thru 2019. I would not say that Friday night’s race at Knoxville was a fairly successful event. I say that with all due respect to the track and its myriad of fans. Like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway NASCAR races it comes down to worshipping in somebody else’s church.
For those familiar with midget racing, the down-sized open wheel cars are about the smallest sized race cars an average size adult can fold themselves into. The trucks NASCAR bought to the track are jumbo-sized at least, looking a lot like those vehicles taking up one and a half parking spaces as the local grocery mart because some woman has convinced herself that she needs a three-quarter ton four wheel drive pickup to haul a sack of Oreos home to her kids.
Yes, the NASCAR entries are based on regular cab short bed trucks which have become as rare as hot pink Yetis out there in the real world.
The merriment started early in Friday night’s Truck race: the flagman accidentally waved the white flag on lap 7 of the first heat race which was supposed to be 15 laps in length. Confounded as what to do next, NASCAR ordered the yellow flag flown on the next lap in case any of the drivers saw that erroneous white flag and were preparing to cease racing which would have caused a big mess. As it turns out the race was about to turn itself into a big mess anyway.
Shed a tear for that errant flagman who waved the baffling white flag. If he flagged the entire race he probably woke up (I’d guess in an establishment licensed to sell beer, wine and hard liquor somewhere near the track) with his arm aching like it meant to fall off at any moment. There were 14 cautions for 80 laps in a race advertised to last 160 circuits. Green/white/checkered finishes (and a lengthy red flag interruption) lengthened the race to 179 laps and caused the race to continue damn near to the witching hour, which couldn’t have been good for TV ratings. It’s rare that I become so fed up with any sort of race that I just wish it was over but Friday night I was screaming profanely at my TV after the 16-truck pileup on lap 155 that bought out the red flag which seemed to drag on forever.
Knoxville? Still don’t have a bad thing to say about the place or the race track there. But as for the NASCAR officiating Friday night or the call to try racing full-size trucks on a track designed for go-carts on steroids someone’s reason has to be called into serious question. I kept waiting for Spanky and Alfalfa to come out afterwards and take a bow for “putting on a show.” When a NASCAR race, even in the Truck Series, concludes with an average speed of just 36.802 mph, something has gone badly wrong and a curious experiment should never be repeated.
Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway marked an important milestone in that series’ history. Kyle Busch swears that he was making his last start in NASCAR’s AAA division. Busch won the race to go a perfect five for five in NXS this year. Overall he’s won 102 races in NXS in just 361 starts. One hundred and two is a bunch. It’s one more than the size of Pongo and Perdita’s family of Dalmatians, though Busch is more likely to elicit reactions similar to Cruella de Vil than a passel of playful pups. I hear from some readers they love seeing Busch dominate, pointing out wins are only really special when you beat the best. But I hear from a larger number of fans that they don’t bother tuning into Truck or NXS races Busch is slated to compete in as they feel they already know who is going to win so the race itself is a bore. Allegedly some series regulars say they like racing Busch because they learn a lot about their craft doing so; I’m guessing after Saturday’s race Daniel Hemric, who has yet to win a series race but has finished second nine times, wasn’t so kindly towards the driver they call “The Shrub.” There’s not a lot to be learned on how to wreck someone out of the lead on a late-race restart.
Kyle Busch took great exception with the tactics Ross Chastain, Kurt Busch‘s teammate, employed on Sunday, throwing a crucial block for the elder Busch brother during the Cup event. As I see it fighting to stay on the lead lap is a legitimate strategy and Ross Chastain has never been the easiest fellow to pass anyway. Whatever you decide on the ethics of blocking, Kyle Busch was able to drive to a second-place finish in Sunday’s race, while on Saturday Busch’s erstwhile teammate got hooked into the outside wall by Kyle Busch and ended up with a 30th-place result after leading 45 laps of the event. If we’re lumping teammate conduct into the “goofus” and “gallant” categories Kyle Busch’s conduct Saturday gets listed in the former.
Atlanta Motor Speedway has been on the NASCAR Cup schedule since it hosted two races at the new track back in 1960. Over the years the track has undergone many changes. It started out as a standard four corner moderately-banked track with front and back straights of equal length. If back in the day you had the original NASCAR game for home PCs by Papyrus, Atlanta was probably your favorite track. With the entire track symmetrical there was no confusion as to what corner you were going into or where the flag-stand was. If you practiced a bit and set the strength of your computer generated competition down to around 80% you probably even won a sprint race or two at virtual Atlanta. I won my first such race at Atlanta probably somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m. on a work night. That’s how strong the allure of the game was and how much I liked beer back in that era.
But Bruton Smith and crew decided to take the bulldozers to Atlanta’s pure oval and change it into a tri-oval that mirrored its sister track in Charlotte (and later Texas, earning those tracks the “cookie cutter” nickname). Big plans are afoot now to reconfigure Atlanta again, adding steeper banking to both the corners and straights. Those behind the plan say they hope to have the racing at Atlanta be a slightly slower plate-track vibe channel in Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Yuck. I’m on record as wanting to see the plate races eliminated, not duplicated.
For one thing speed has always been an issue at Atlanta. Every time the track gets repaved the speeds increase and not just by a little. In 1997 Geoffrey Bodine took the pole at Atlanta at 197.478 mph, a speed NASCAR found disturbingly close to 200 mph. The previous year Bobby Labonte had taken the pole at Atlanta at just 185.877 mph.
The latest reconfiguration at Atlanta also involves the track’s plans to narrow the racing surface significantly. Of course we don’t know how fast the track will be next year at Atlanta because we still haven’t seen or even tested the new Next Gen cars in traffic. 2022 may seem a long way off but with Atlanta now in the rearview mirror we’ve got five regular season races left followed by 10 more races in the playoffs. Next stop after that is the 2022 Daytona 500. Might the paint still be dampish on some racecars showing up at the World Center of Racing this February? It’d be nice to have some large group on-track tests prior to the actual start of next season with enough time left to make changes to correct any flaws found with the cars in traffic without having the guys in the shop having to work on Christmas.
But, hey, what do I know? Back in 1981 NASCAR switched the field of entrants to the so-called “downsized” cars. Detroit had reacted to the second gas crisis (such as it was) by shrinking the size of their mid-size models. It seemed on paper to be a fairly easy change. In reality though things go somewhat more complex. The new smaller cars had an alarming tendency to go airborne as easily as a kite when they got sideways in the corners. Different aerodynamic packages were experimented with. Buick came up with the right answer first and that pretty much left NASCAR Winston Cup racing as a single make show with Buicks claiming 22 wins in 31 races in 1981 and 25 of 30 races in 1982.