1. Did we all just fall in love with racing at Bristol again?
It’s probably not fair to say NASCAR fans in general had soured on Bristol Motor Speedway. There’s always a strong outcry of “more short track races” whenever thought pieces are concocted on how to “fix” the Cup Series schedule, and it’s hard to argue that any short track NASCAR currently visits is more iconic than the Last Great Colosseum.
That said, while we all love Bristol, a strong case could be made that we weren’t all in love with it in recent years. Not many of the races from the last decade make lists of the most beloved events held in Thunder Valley. The once famous waiting list for tickets to the Bristol Night Race is now a thing of the past. Heck, NASCAR even literally dumped dirt on the track this spring.
Like finding the spark again in a great romance, this weekend served as a reminder of why so many fans have been enamored with Bristol for so long. The Cup Series race saw Kyle Larson, this year’s most likely series champion, get some of his mojo back, but only after some old-fashioned bumping with Kevin Harvick, who was making a strong bid to win his first race of 2021. Harvick also got into a heated post-race discussion with a certain Most Popular Driver, something we’ll revisit in a bit. It was a recipe for fan approval, as the race set a new record in in Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a Good Race?” poll.
If anything, the conclusion to the previous night’s Xfinity Series event was even more spectacular. If you don’t like an overtime finish with three different drivers looking like they might win, all bouncing off each other (and a fourth car) until two of them collide and take the checkered flag while basically wrecking, then in the words of the great philosopher Kyle Busch, “don’t even watch.”
Seriously, watch this ending again:
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) September 20, 2021
We’re so sorry we took you for granted, Bristol. Please forgive us.
2. The Kevin Harvick-Chase Elliott feud is just the thing to liven up the NASCAR Playoffs
One of the most frequent gripes about the NASCAR playoffs (besides, you know, everything) is that it narrows the focus of the race broadcasts and media more and more as the postseason progresses. It’s not really that bad in the first round when only 16 drivers are in the spotlight, because let’s be honest, it’s rare that any more than that get much love during an average regular season race. By the time we get to the Round of 8, more than 75 percent of the field is functionally irrelevant, which is suboptimal, to say the least.
This reality only makes this weekend’s … ahem, difference of opinion between Harvick and Chase Elliott all the more intriguing. Harvick is having a season that is pretty poor by his own lofty standards after winning a career-high nine races in 2020. Elliott has been better than that this year, but considering he’s not even the top championship contender on his own team, he’s as much of an afterthought as possible for what an incredibly well-liked defending series titleholder can be.
Certainly, both men are still alive for the title at the moment. But there’s a real chance neither will make the Championship 4, thus getting relegated to the background come Phoenix Raceway in November.
Except… now they may not be.
The drivers not only have a feud going, but it’s one where a case can be made that either of them is in the right. It’s going to be a topic of discussion for at least a few weeks, especially if they have any more on-track run-ins down the stretch.
I’m not saying Cup Series drivers should pick a fight if it looks like they might not be racing for all the marbles at the end of the season. But I’m also going to enjoy every moment of it when it happens… and this feud is certainly going to keep Elliott and Harvick in the spotlight.
3. When did Denny Hamlin make a heel turn?
In case you’re not familiar with pro wrestling lingo, the heels are (traditionally) the bad guys, the people the fans are supposed to boo (though they don’t always play along, especially in the 21st century). Great heels understand the psychology of getting people to boo them, playing into it and intentionally pushing their buttons.
Kyle Busch gets this philosophy, embracing this kind of role in NASCAR. Even though he has his share of fans as well, Busch realizes that many people cheer against him and is skilled at leaning into those reactions. If he wasn’t so good at driving race cars, Rowdy would have made a fantastic wrestling heel.
You probably wouldn’t say the same thing about Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. Not only is his personality a little more subtle, Hamlin seems most weeks to have plenty of people pulling for him. If he was a pro wrestler, he’d be the face who chases and chases and chases the world title, getting a fair number of big victories along the way while fans hope he finally gets his ultimate moment at some point.
But perhaps I’ve gotten this whole thing wrong and the majority of NASCAR Nation has switched sides when it comes to Hamlin. As the broadcast team on this weekend’s Cup Series race pointed out, Hamlin got a John Cena-style mixed reaction when he walked out for driver introductions, with the boos possibly outweighing the cheers.
Hamlin clearly noticed it and reacted with a great quip.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 18, 2021
That begs the question: When, exactly, did Hamlin turn heel? He hasn’t wrecked Elliott or any other beloved driver recently while remaining pretty consistent in terms of his demeanor with the media. Sure, there will always be people rooting against him because he drives a Toyota or FedEx left an important package out in the rain too long or whatever. But this heel-turn seems like a surprising development without an obvious cause.
4. It’s time for the Ryan Newman appreciation tour
It’s not often I use any of this column to send a shout to the driver who finished last in the most recent Cup Series event, but there’s an exception to be made this week because it was Ryan Newman who was the first driver out of the Bristol Night Race. It’s quite possible Newman is winding down his final Cup campaign, and per our earlier discussion about how the playoffs encourage a tight focus on remaining contenders, not much is likely to be said about Newman in the weeks to come.
Certainly, someone within the Frontstretch staff will devote an entire column to Rocket Man’s career if it ends in a few weeks, but let’s do at least a mini version here. In his prime, Newman was a joy to watch, a threat to win at a number of different tracks and, of course, a master at qualifying back when that actually meant something. Newman probably didn’t get enough credit over the years for being a driver who spoke his mind on a number of issues, but he did that, as well. And his reputation for being difficult to pass was awesome and well deserved.
It’s unfortunate one of the strongest recent memories of Newman, his horrific 2020 Daytona 500 crash, will also be one of the longest lasting. Thankfully, that had the best possible ending, with Newman somehow escaping serious bodily harm and returning to drive again. On a personal level, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact he has an engineering degree. Newman could probably give the most technical feedback on some aspects of racing of any NASCAR driver out there.
The No. 6 team doesn’t appear to have it in them for an upset win in the coming weeks, but if they could somehow pull it off (and since that’s Mark Martin’s former ride, I have a soft spot in my heart for them), that would be a cool final chapter to Newman’s Cup Series story, assuming this is, indeed, the end of the line for him.
5. What NASCAR fans can learn from Notre Dame football fans
By and large, NASCAR fans have it pretty good on the TV broadcast front. Even in the 2020s, when network TV is a shadow of its former self, a bunch of Cup Series races remain on either FOX and NBC, and the ones that aren’t are on cable channels most people get, either FS1 or NBC Sports Network (though that channel is going away at the end of 2021). There are few real questions about where a race will air and no one is forced to subscribe to a streaming service in order to see any points-paying events.
Until this year, Notre Dame football fans had it even better, with Fighting Irish home games airing reliably on NBC year after year. (The very, very few exceptions shuffled over to NBCSN.) That changed earlier this month, however, when Notre Dame’s home game against Toledo was aired only on Peacock — and exclusively on Peacock Premium, which is a paid subscription service.
Some members of the Notre Dame community complained on social media, of course, with supporters of other teams mostly telling them to be quiet because they were so spoiled for so long to have their games on basic cable. Hopefully, you weren’t one of the people calling them out, because that was essentially a glimpse into the future for NASCAR.
The word “future” is doing some heavy lifting there, as the current NASCAR broadcast deal is in effect through 2024. But NASCAR execs have already hinted strongly that the sport will be experimenting with streaming in some way in 2025 and beyond, which should come as no surprise if you’ve been paying attention to the broadcast landscape even a little bit over the last decade.
Of course, NASCAR could simply test the waters by shunting some Xfinity or Truck series races to streaming, so it’s possible the Cup Series situation could look more or less like it is now for a while longer. But if I was allowed to wager on such things, I would bet a Cup race ends up on some paid streaming service in 2025 or 2026, and when it does, we can all lock eyes with Notre Dame fans with understanding glances.
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