The big news for many this week was Danica Patrick signing ti go full time NASCAR racing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It was the worst kept secret in sports. The real story is the brutal level of competition that’s taking place in Sprint Cup. The Chase is close to closing.
Many fans are beginning to warm to road racing in NASCAR based on the intensity of it. This weekend the Sprint Cup Series invades Sonoma’s Infineon road course. Expect to see rough racing as the noose tightens on those desperate to get into the chase. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com
Were you to ask a NASCAR fan 5 years ago what they thought about the road races that NASCAR runs you would have by and large gotten a negative answer. The front-running opinion would have been that it’s boring and processional. No more. Nascar’s history has seldom been without a road race on the schedule with good reason. Bill France, Sr. liked it, he saw it as a way to make inroads into the Western United States and he knew most of the sports car racers of the day. In fact, he drove a Ferrari at Daytona one year, presumably for fun.
In the mid 1970’s it was unusual not to see what we called “Road Course Ringers” in the mix and up front. Now it’s Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and all of those you might not have expected. It isn’t news that they enjoy it. But what about the fans?
If you were a fan of Bristol, as were we all, you saw bumping, beating and banging–you know, “Rubbin is Racin”. Since the repaving of that iconic little track that sort of enthusiasm hasn’t been seen. The drivers like it, but overwhelmingly the fans don’t. Road racing has taken its place.
The last two seasons from Sonoma to Watkins Glen have produced some of the most exciting door to door, bumping, pushing and temperature raising racing that NASCAR has to offer. How did this happen? NASCAR is more competitive than it’s ever been in its history. Sponsors expect a championship or at least an entry ticket to the big show, The Sprint Cup Chase. The points system is now such that a team must grab all they can in the beginning of the season because certain tracks, or styles of racing, have lent themselves to be unpredictable. Those styles would be road racing and restrictor plate racing. The teams simply don’t have a true handle or more often than not a strategy that survives the first shot. It’s a slugfest.
In road racing there is indeed a strategy and that is track position, fuel and tire management and, this is the best one, anger management. If you look at the races from Sonoma and Watkins Glen what you see is a group of about fifteen road course experts that would truly push their Granny off a cliff to be up front. That’s racing.
These races now represent a means to an end, it just depends on what your agenda may be. Are you trying to survive the event in order to preserve points? That won’t work anymore. Are you desperately in need of a win? That would include practically the whole field, particularly those who have to win to have any chance of making the Chase
. Truth is some of the drivers have to punch above their weight to stay near the front to gain precious points while the others, anyone from 7th in points down to
20th, have to Banzai their way to the front come hell or high water.
If this type of racing sounds familiar it should. It’s what Bristol used to be.In keeping with the corporate directive that NASCAR should be a family friendly sport, what could be more enjoyable than sitting on a nice hill overlooking the track, having a picnic with your family and watching 43 cars try to push each other out of the way? It’s comfortable, it’s exciting, no one runs away in a NASCAR road race and the skill required is easily seen by the fans. When’s the last time you could say that about Fontana?
If NASCAR drivers truly want to be considered the best in the world, they have to be able to navigate virtually any type of track. NASCAR has made great gains on the global stage, it’s time to bring the core fans to the party.
** Let’s face it, just about every race at every speedway on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit comes accompanied with a lot of hype.
So it was with Martinsville. How many times did we hear, or read over the course of several days, that NASCAR’s oldest track was, because of its half-mile, paper-clip configuration, one of the most difficult on which to compete?
Drivers couldn’t succeed at Martinsville unless they figured out how to whoa down from high straightaway speeds, keep a low line and then roll their cars smoothly through the tight turns.
If they didn’t learn how to manage their brakes, they were doomed.
They could expect a lot of bumping, banging and gouging for position because it has always been extremely difficult to pass.
And so on and so forth …
Such things have been said, so often and for so long, about Martinsville (and admittedly every other track), that many of us tend to roll our eyes as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, so what else is new?”
Guess what? This year there was at least one new thing. It was discovered during practice that the tire compound provided by Goodyear did not permit the racing surface to “rubber up,” or, in other words, to create a second groove with enough grip, generated by runner burned into the asphalt and concrete, on which to race.
Instead, flakes or rubber – called “the marbles” for years but also known as “owl (business)” in days passed – were tossed toward the outside of the track. This created extremely poor racing conditions because of a lack of grip.
This was part of the Martinsville pre-race drama this year.
You know what? This year it, and everything else that’s been said about the track, wasn’t hype at all. It was true. The Goody’s Fast Relief 500 contained elements of everything racing at Martinsville is supposed to be, and then some.
For example, there was indeed only one racing groove. Those pieces of rubber flung toward the outside of the track made a second almost impossible – hell, you can’t race on “marbles.”
Consequently, drivers always charged toward the inside of the track – the only place to be. Those in the outside lane had no chance to pass, particularly on restarts. When they could, finally, move down one lane they did so, but often at the cost of several lost positions.
Now, as for the banging, bumping and gouging that is said to be so typical of racing at Martinsville, it was intensified this past Sunday.
One reason, and certainly not the only one, was that drivers on the preferred inside line had only one way to get past those ahead of them. And that was to, shall we say, perform the old “bump and run.” Sure couldn’t make a pass on the outside, right?
Such strategy was adopted many times, lap after lap, at Martinsville. Sometimes it was successful and other times not.
Additional incidents were caused when some drivers caught on the outside just forced their way to the inside in desperation.
This was done during a race in which even teammates were loath to give each other the coveted inside groove – especially if it cost them track position.
Consider this: Remember the “old” Bristol, the one in which there was only one racing groove and the only way to pass was to adopt the “bump and run?”
After the track was reconfigured and a second racing lane was created, bumping and grinding have been less prevalent.
The drivers love it. The fans do not and they have made that clear.
What we had, for the most part, at Martinsville in this past race was so very similar to the “old” Bristol.
There was jostling and bumping for position that created some, but not all, of the race’s 11 caution periods.
Some were caused by excessive brake use, which resulted in blown tires, and other things.
The point is that while all of the typical racing characteristics at Martinsville were displayed in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, the newest and most publicized one, the absence of a second groove because of the tire situation, played a significant role in the conduct of the race.
Reckon Goodyear will change all that by the track’s second race it October.
** That aside, the race itself turned out to be a beauty.
There might have been several caution periods and one red-flag stoppage, before the race was half complete, that caused us to wonder if everything might be over by nightfall.
In the end, however, none of that mattered as the race wound down to its exciting conclusion.
With 21 laps remaining in the 500-lap race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bumped Kyle Busch out of the way (sound familiar?) in the third turn to take the lead.
The “Junior Nation” went nuts and rightly so. Young Earnhardt seemed on his way to his first victory in 99 races.
However, be encouraged, “Junior Nation.”
Your driver has now compiled his best finish of the year and his third among the top-10 in six races. He also has an 11th-place run at Bristol.
After he fell from ninth to 12th in points after a 12th-place run at Auto Club Speedway, his runnerup finish at Martinsville has propelled him to eighth in points.
As I’ve said before, in 2010, he finished second at Daytona, was thus second in points, and slid downward from there. He did not make the Chase.
This year, he finished 24th at Daytona because of an accident. But he steadily rose in points from there, slipped at Auto Club Speedway and now, after Martinsville, has climbed four positions in the standings.
In 2010, his trend was decidedly downward. Now it is upward and his Martinsville performance has significantly contributed to that.
It’s obvious improvement that should offer promise for his many fans.
** I don’t know who “they” are, but they’ve named Kevin Harvick “The Closer,” and with good reason.
He won at Auto Club Speedway with his pass on five-time champion Jimmie Johnson on the last lap.
He won at Martinsville by getting the best of Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go, taking advantage of his rival’s loose Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
He was one of 12 drivers to lead a record 31 laps.
Let’s see … if I figure correctly, Harvick has won two straight races in which he led only five laps – the most important ones, of course.
You have to credit what’s happened so far to his perseverance and that of his Richard Childress Racing team. It has shown the ability to improve its Chevrolet’s performance throughout the course of a race.
My guess would be that Harvick might well prefer to have a strong car capable of victory from the start of a race rather than one, so far, that has been able to succeed only after a sizable amount of work and alterations, which were then accompanied by favorable circumstances.
Heck, to be honest, it doesn’t matter.
Harvick is currently fourth in points and the only driver with multiple wins this season.
So, unless there are unexpected meltdowns at RCR, the victories alone will be enough to qualify Harvick for the Chase this year.
** A while back I wrote a piece about how Bristol seems to have more than its share of “streakers” – drivers who win several races over many seasons – sometimes a number of them in a row.
I mentioned that Kyle Busch has been the most recent and, now, he continues to streak on.
His victory at Bristol was his fifth straight in a NASCAR Sprint Cup event there. Busch also won the Nationwide Series race on March 19 and swept Cup, Nationwide and truck series races at the 0.533-mile track last August.
Busch knows full well that he has easily been Bristol’s most dominant driver in recent years, but he also knows he’s not yet its most dominant ever.
That’s Darrell Waltrip, who has 12 career victories at Bristol, including a string of seven in a row.
“If I ever get past Darrell,” Busch said, “then they can name the track after me.”
There are perhaps several reasons why Busch has been so successful at Bristol. The simplest, and most reasonable, are that his Joe Gibbs Racing team excels at car preparation for NASCAR’s fastest half-mile track and that Busch just loves to drive on it. It suits his style.
Nothing unusual there – many drivers will tell you certain speedways fit their skills and preferences better than others.
Busch gave another reason why his streak continued at Bristol and its one that’s vital to any success.
It’s the work of the pit crew.
“Our guys on the last stop won this race,” Busch said. “Great work by those guys. I got out and got the track position I wanted and that kind of gave me an easier job instead of having to pass guys.
“Track position was everything.”
In years past Busch’s victory might have received a healthy amount of disdain, even outright disapproval, from fans. Not so much this year.
Many, including his fellow competitors, have noticed that Busch – known to be quick-tempered, sarcastic, and OK, loud-mouthed – has kept his lips clamped. I believe the fans have noticed.
I have to think Busch is making a serious effort to change his image. I think the one he’d like to achieve is that of the aggressive, no-quarter driver on the track – which he is – who is, at the same time, friendly and cooperative with fans and media alike.
If he asked me, I’d tell him that only a few drivers in NASCAR’s history have become such, but hey, go for it.
If Busch’s popularity should one day match the obviously high level of his skill, he’d be recognized as one of the best, all-around, in NASCAR. We’ll see.
** After Bristol, Carl Edwards remains NASCAR’s hottest driver.
He finished second to Busch in the Jeff Byrd 500. It was his second runnerup finish of the season, his first came in the Daytona 500, and he’s won at Las Vegas.
Edwards won the last two races of 2010, which means that in the last six events, he has three wins and two second-place finishes.
He’s currently second in points, just a single point behind leader Kurt Busch, who has finished among the top 10 in all four 2011 races.
Edwards is well on pace to match his best Sprint Cup season, 2008, when he won nine races and finished second in points.
Despite the generated promise and momentum, Edwards didn’t win in 2009 and wound up 11th in points. Things were better last year with the two wins and a fourth-place standing.
This year … well, there are already rumblings that Edwards will be the man who prevents Jimmie Johnson from capturing a sixth consecutive title.
Given what Edwards has done, this early in the season, such rumblings are fully understood.
Rumblings are one thing; what will be the truth is another.
But Carl, you’re looking good.
** Even at this point of the season it’s already been said that drivers want to win as quickly as possible to provide some insurance that will allow them to make the Chase.
As you know, the Chase accepts the top 10 drivers in points after the 26th race of the season and adds two others, between 10th and 20th in points, with the most wins.
At this point it’s Jeff Gordon who has already paid his premium. He won at Phoenix and stands 19th in points. I think he’s going to end up much higher in the standings, but the point is he’s already gotten, for now, his insurance policy.
The other driver who is among the four that have won the first four races of the year is Trevor Bayne.
But after his Daytona 500 victory his fortunes, through no fault of his own, have not been good. He’s 43rd in points and, unless Wood Brothers Racing finds the means to compete on a full schedule, a win isn’t going to do him a bit of good when it comes to the Chase.
That said, his victory has done him, and NASCAR, a world of good already.
** A lot has been said about Jennifer Jo Cobb’s refusal to compete in Bristol’s Nationwide race when she learned she was required only to start and park.
Among many other things she told us that she made the decision in consideration of her career. She felt she owed it to her fans, sponsors that she’s seeking and to NASCAR that if she says she is here to race, that she should go out there and do just that – and no less.
Regrettably, I’ve never had the opportunity to converse with Cobb. But I don’t have to in order to know one thing:
She has integrity. And that counts for a helluva lot more than being able to drive a race car.
No, no, not that – wow, the vision that just flashed in my mind was rather ugly.
It means that one competitor seems to win the majority of the races conducted over several years. He, or a team, thus establishes a victory streak.
Don’t think I really needed to tell you that.
It happens at every track, at least for a while, but at Bristol it appears to have gone on routinely since the track opened in 1961.
There were four different winners in the speedway’s first four races. But then, in 1963, Holman-Moody, the powerhouse Ford team, took over.
The organization won four straight races from 1963-64 with drivers Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts.
Over a period of seven seasons, 1963-1969, Holman-Moody won eight times at Bristol.
Then came the 1970s through the early ‘80s. As has been recorded often – and yet again this season – this was Junior Johnson’s era.
Actually, Johnson’s first Bristol victory came in 1965 in his own Ford. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s he won 15 more times as an owner with drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.
Johnson cars were virtually unbeatable. Yarborough won five of six races from 1976-78. Waltrip did even better with seven straight wins from 1981-85.
Waltrip holds the record for most Bristol wins with 12, 11 of which he won with Johnson.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. Although Johnson is credited with 16 Bristol wins as a team owner, he was part of five more victories.
From 1971-74 cars owned by Richard Howard and driven by Charlie Glotzbach, Bobby Allison and Yarborough won five of six races at BMS, including four in a row.
At that time Howard had partnered with Johnson in an effort to bring Chevrolet back to NASCAR.
Howard was listed as the team owner. But he never turned a wrench on the cars. That was Johnson’s responsibility – and all the work was done in his Ronda, N.C., shops.
Seems Johnson’s dominance of Bristol is greater than the record books indicate. He’s part of an astounding 21 victories at the track.
Starting in 1985 it was Dale Earnhardt’s turn. Ironically, he won his first career NASCAR Winston Cup race as a rookie at Bristol in the spring of 1979.
He won the same race in 1980, the year in which he earned his first career championship.
By ’85 he was starting to hit his stride with Richard Childress Racing and it showed, especially at Bristol.
He swept both events in ’85 and did it again in 1987. He earned another victory in 1988 to give him five wins in four years. Ultimately, he won nine times at Bristol, second only to Waltrip.
No driver established such dominance throughout the 1990s, although Rusty Wallace took the lion’s share of victories with seven in a decade.
It seems, however, the pattern has returned over the last 10 years or so – at least somewhat.
Kurt Busch won for the first time at Bristol in 2002 and then went on a tear. He won three straight races from 2003-04 and then won again in 2006, which means five victories in as many years.
Bristol has become a Busch brothers’ playground. Younger brother Kyle won at the track for the first time in 2007, swept both races in 2009 and won the summer night race last year. He’s won three of the last four BMS races.
You might say he’s our current streaker.
Oops, just had another horrid mental image.
Make no mistake, he’ll be a solid favorite to win the March 20 Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol.
So will Carl Edwards, who has won three of the last five Sprint Cup races, dating back to 2010. He’s also been victorious twice at Bristol since 2007.
Other than Kyle, he’s the only driver to earn multiple Bristol victories in the last five years.
As said, there are several tracks at which drivers display a keen propensity to win repeatedly.
It just seems that Bristol, over the years, has seen far more than its share. And it seems it still does.