Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2011

Another Fine Weekend At The Magic Mile

NASCAR returned to New England this weekend for the second of its two annual visits. The Saturday crowd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in tiny Loudon, a few miles north of the state capital of Concord, seemed smaller than usual. This may have been in part due to a less than ideal weather forecast; and in fact it remained mostly gray and overcast, with the first race of the day interrupted for a time when fog and a fine mist settled over the bowl of the race track. It was probably also a reflection of the fact that the second and headline race of the day was for the Camping World Truck Series. The third of NASCAR’s three national racing divisions, the pickup trucks simply don’t have the drawing power of the two stock car series; the top-tier Sprint Cup which ran on Sunday, or the developmental Nationwide which took the week off.

Those fans that did make the trek to the Magic Mile saw a truck race that was notable for two reasons. First was the dominating performance by winner Kyle Busch. The 26-year old Busch, who drives full-time in the Sprint Cup and nearly full-time in the Nationwide for Joe Gibbs Racing, also races closes to a full truck schedule for his own team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. As an owner Busch focuses on the Truck Series, where he got his start in NASCAR in 2001, when he was just 16. He’s fielded as many as three teams in some truck races, though on Saturday his own #18 was his team’s only entrant.

Starting on the pole, Busch led from the start, often by wide margins over his closest pursuers. In the end he led for 165 of the race’s 175 laps. Had he not had to pit for fuel and tires he likely would have gone wire to wire. As it was, when he crossed the finish line with the checkered flag waving he had put all but 5 of the 34 other starters at least one lap down.

For Busch it was the 6th victory of the year in the Truck Series and his 30th overall, giving him the 2nd most career wins in the 17 year history of NASCAR truck racing. With 23 Sprint Cup victories and 51 Nationwide wins, the young Busch has already won more than 100 times in his NASCAR career. His 100th victory actually came at the same track, in the Nationwide race this past July. Given his age, the odds are that his competitive driving career could easily run another two decades. If it does and if he maintains his current level of performance, he will eventually almost certainly be recognized as one of the truly great drivers in the history of the sport.

What’s less clear is where he will rank in the hearts of the sport’s fans. Long perceived as arrogant and cocky, and perhaps the recipient of a fair amount of envy for his youthful success, Busch has spent most of his NASCAR career being greeted by a chorus of boos and one-fingered salutes during driver introductions. Among the fans he sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has won the fan voting for the annual Most Popular Driver award in the Sprint Cup Series for the last eight years in a row while achieving limited success on the track.

Still, sooner or later there is something to be said for winning. In New Hampshire this weekend, while the boos were still prevalent, there were also some fans standing and cheering when Busch was introduced, and again when the dominant #18 Toyota Tundra roared down the front straight to yet another victory.

The other notable performance in Saturday’s truck race was by 21-year old Austin Dillon. Dillon was the 2010 Rookie of the Year in the Truck Series when he won twice. He’s added two more wins this season and was the only driver at Loudon who was able to consistently stay within even shouting distance of Busch. At the end he was turning lap times faster than the #18, but wasn’t able to close the gap. Still, his second place finish was enough to propel him to a slim 2-point lead in the season-long standings for the Truck Series championship (because NASCAR drivers can compete for points in only one series, results in the Truck Series for a Sprint Cup driver like Kyle Busch don’t count in that series standings).

With six races to go this year the Truck Series standings are close, with any of the top ten drivers still having a plausible chance of winning the championship. But for most of the past decade the truck championship has gone to one of a handful of older drivers who have made a career out of driving in NASCAR’s third tier. There is of course nothing wrong with that, but for NASCAR, which would like both the Truck and Nationwide Series to serve as vehicles for developing new talent, the prospect of a 21-year old who is slated to move up a notch to Nationwide in 2012 going from Rookie of the Year to Truck Series champion in consecutive seasons has enormous appeal.

On Sunday the skies cleared and more than 90,000 turned out for the Sylvania 300, the second race in NASCAR’s ten event Chase for the Championship. While the Chase races have a full field of 43 cars, only the top 12 drivers in the season-long points standings compete for the Sprint Cup title. New Hampshire’s last big race of the year offered fans plenty to cheer about. Popular veteran Mark Martin, who at age 52 is at the end of his competitive career, delighted fans by leading for a long stretch in the early going.

Then fan favorite Jeff Gordon dominated for most of the second half of the race. Gordon, a four-time Series champion and one of the 12 drivers in this year’s Chase, needed a strong finish after a disappointing performance in the first Chase race had dropped him to 11th place in the standings. For a time it looked like his finish would be as strong as one could possibly hope for. But in the last cycle of pit stops his crew committed an amateurish error, failing to completely fill his gas tank. Gordon was forced to throttle back to conserve fuel, though he did manage a 4th place finish and moved up to 5th place, the biggest move in the standings for any of the 12 Chase drivers.

The error by Gordon’s pit crew opened the door for Tony Stewart, a two-time Series champion. Stewart loves the Loudon track, almost always running well there. During NASCAR’s July visit he finished second to teammate Ryan Newman. This weekend he won easily after late race leader Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps to go. Like Martin and Gordon, Stewart is a broadly popular driver, and few in the crowd begrudged him his victory. Just two weeks ago, Stewart was sounding almost apologetic for being one of the 12 drivers in the Chase. He hadn’t won all year, and said he felt like he was taking the place of some other driver who might actually be competitive down the stretch. Then he won a week ago at the Chicagoland track and then again at Loudon. Now the driver who felt like he didn’t belong is leading the Chase.

NASCAR moves on now, first down the east coast to Delaware then out to Kansas, and on through the final eight races of the 2011 season. The Magic Mile in little Loudon grows quiet again, even as the leaves begin to turn. But before the fans went home, they were told that the track had secured two race dates for next season, removing a constant worry for local fans. At its only New England outpost, NASCAR rolls on.

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