Alright, so that was a bit more like it. The Martinsville weekend provided entertainment on all levels. There were neon pink hot dogs, a bit of impatience in practice, a grandfather clock to be won, a late-race bump-n-run and even a moment of history. History – usually the kind that fills the books at school …
On Saturday night, Bristol Motor Speedway held a little extra something for race fans across the nation. The Scotts Saturday Night Special entry list read like a NASCAR history book: Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough and Harry Gant were only three of the drivers that brought us all back to better days. For the first time in an eternity, these legends got behind the wheel of a stock car and made some noise in Thunder Valley.
When the pre-race interviews begin on Sunday morning, I can guarantee at least one question that will be put to the drivers. “What did you do with your week off?” We will then be treated to a brief glimpse into the daily lives of our motor sports heroes. Kind of cool. After all, what else does a NASCAR driver do other than go in circles every weekend? What else does a NASCAR fan do when their favorite guy takes the week off?
It was the worst possible scenario. By lap 67, all but six cars had pitted on a green-flag run, then the dreaded yellow flag dropped. Unless you were one of the lucky fans whose driver had held off, the pit of your stomach dropped out. No… no… NO! Almost the entire field was a lap down! We bit our lips. What? Why! Who caused it? Already we could taste blood, anxious to bestow a withering blow to race control for declaring some infinitesimal piece of debris the culprit for the untimely caution. But in the end, we were to be awarded not even that dubious piece of justice. The replay showed a tire rolling across pit road and onto the grass in the frontstretch, followed by a hapless gasman, Jimmy Watts, from the No. 47 team running to retrieve it.
Sunday afternoon during the running of the Shelby 427, Jeff Gordon added yet another amazing statistic to his career resume. Joining only six other drivers in NASCAR history, he has led the field for a total of 20,006 laps in Cup races. While the wonderful commentators on FOX made suitable note of the event, for a moment I wondered where the special paint job, etched bottle of champagne and wave of ecstatic fans were. Then I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down on my couch. I am, after all, one of those fans who have followed Mr. Gordon’s career since he was an itty-bitty rookie way back in ’93.
OK, maybe not so long ago. But back when California didn’t grace our racing calendar, when the race after Daytona was truly the start of the season – we’d hunker down and get to it. It was probably cold. The skies were likely grey in the southeast. But the roar of the engines came to life and the race was on! While California is known for its sunny, temperate weather 95% of the year, there’s something special about February in the area around Fontana… it rains. Yep, I know you know. I know the weather service knows. Why doesn’t NASCAR know?
Well, that was fun. No, really! You have to admit that even with new rules changes, new teams, new double line, NASCAR applying different rules to different drivers and a rain-shortened event, you liked it. You can’t help it! You’re a NASCAR fan, and if there’s one thing that really drives this fact home every year, it’s the annual running of the Daytona 500.
So, the season is gonna suck because there’s a whole flotilla (I’ve counted 16 in the Daytona 500 entry list) of one-horse or new start-up teams. Right? Fans left and right are bemoaning the problems with field-fillers and all the trials that come with this lower echelon of NASCAR. But I don’t think it’s a problem. Personally, I don’t recall racing way back when where every team that started the race finished. In fact, in days of yore when the living legends of our sport were still behind the wheel, it was a weekly fact that about a quarter of the field would retire due to blown engines, exploding brake rotors and insanely loose cars. And just like today, the same 15 superstars competed week in and week out for the coveted Cup.
Normally at this time of the year, I’m hovering at the TV set in total anticipation of the pre-race countdown. I hunger for glimpses of new paint jobs, the familiar ring of the announcers’ voices, and the reassuring flutter of a green flag in the February afternoon. But this year is different. While the offseason plodded by to the tune of Christmas carols and depressed shoppers, our nation’s economy bit the big one. Big banks ate little ones, Detroit’s Big Three turned into the Three Blind Mice… and companies stopped spending altogether.
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, we couldn’t stop talking about the massive Silly Season upheaval due to Dale Jr.’s imminent departure from DEI. The moment word came down, there was… Chaos! Insanity! Panic in the streets! Entire wardrobes had to be replaced, cars underwent new paint jobs and shrubberies were chopped down. At the family dining table, arguments ensued over lost sponsorships, car numbers and blown engines. It wasn’t pretty… but it was passionate.