Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2014

At NASCAR Weekend, Highs And Lows

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously indicated, this post was delayed by my weekend at the races.

The vast traveling road show that is the NASCAR racing circuit rolled into New England last weekend, pulling into New Hampshire Motor Speedway in rural Loudon for the first of its two annual visits. By the time the parade of logo-bedecked car haulers and luxury RVs hit the road on Monday, bound for Indianapolis and the next stop on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, fans who endured a pair of steamy days at the 1.058-mile oval had become sunbaked witnesses to both the promises and the problems of their sport.

The promise was there early Saturday afternoon, when Bobby Santos claimed his 13th victory on the Whelen Modified Tour in a three-way photo finish with Doug Coby and Ted Christopher. While the 28-year old native of Franklin, Massachusetts has had his fair share of success in seven years of driving the open-wheeled racers, he had never broken into the top three at Loudon in 15 previous starts. Coby and Christopher have combined for 7 wins at The Magic Mile, but Saturday it was Santos who held his nerve and the outside lane in a furious chase down the final straightaway.

It was there again later in the day, when Chase Elliott took to the track for the Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 behind the wheel of JR Motorsports’ number 9 Chevrolet Camaro. The 18-year old is the son of 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott. With a pair of wins earlier this year, at Texas and Darlington, Elliott is third in the Nationwide Series standings in just his first full season on NASCAR’s developmental tour. He has already set marks as the youngest winner of a race on the minor league ARCA Racing Series, the youngest winner at the time of a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event, and the first driver to win all four of the country’s major short-track races.

Elliott didn’t race to victory on the New Hampshire oval, but his 8th place finish was the twelfth time in seventeen races that he has crossed the finish line in the top-10. With what he has already accomplished and the consistency he has shown this season, the second generation NASCAR driver appears to have a virtually limitless future. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since he hails from Dawsonville, Georgia. In addition to the Elliott family the tiny city in northern Georgia, not far from where the state meets Tennessee and North Carolina, was home to several moonshine runners turned early stock car drivers as well as Raymond Parks, widely credited as the sports’ first team owner.

Because of his parentage Chase Elliott is merely the most recognizable of a growing number of young drivers eager to move up the NASCAR hierarchy. No longer a teenager but one who sees himself as a leader of a new generation of drivers is 30-year old Brad Keselowski, who surprised many by winning the Sprint Cup title in 2012 in his third full year on the circuit. The Michigan native slumped to 14th place in the standings last season, missing the Chase for the Championship. He has rebounded this season, posting a pair of wins prior to this past weekend. At Loudon Keselowski was dominant, stepping down a Series on Saturday to win the Nationwide race, and then toying with the field in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301. His third win of the season clinched a spot in the season-ending Chase for Keselowski. He is guaranteed to be joined there by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose 10th place finish was good enough to secure his spot under this year’s complicated rules for making the Chase.

But for Keselowski’s 2012 title the NASCAR crown has been owned by Jimmie Johnson and his six championships for much of the last decade, with Tony Stewart the only other driver to win multiple titles since 2002. The 38-year old Johnson and 43-year old Stewart are both obviously outstanding drivers, with a certain future place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But every sport must undergo constant renewal and if a new generation is rising on NASCAR’s ovals that is not entirely a bad thing.

Yet there was also plenty to lament as one sat and slowly baked in the grandstands this past weekend. On Saturday there was the usual spectacle of several Sprint Cup Series drivers running in the Nationwide race. Drivers can earn points in only one series, so they weren’t trying to win a championship. Rather they were looking to win still more cash and presumably learn something about how the track was handling in advance of Sunday’s main event. As is usually the case when this happens, the Sprint Cup drivers bullied their way to the top of the leader board, with the top four spots going to racers with full-time jobs in the big series. If the purpose of the Nationwide Series is to develop the future of the sport, taking away spots from the next generation of drivers seems an odd way to go about it.

There was also Sunday’s sad spectacle of 72-year old Morgan Shepherd wrecking Joey Logano, who was running in 2nd place at the time. Shepherd was 16 laps down and his underperforming and underfinanced car was barely making it around the Loudon oval above NASCAR’s minimum speed when Logan went to pass him on the outside entering Turn 3. But Shepherd slid up the track, forcing the popular Logano into the wall and ending his day. Morgan Shepherd has multiple victories in a career that spans four decades, and is understandably reluctant to stop driving. Whether the wreck was a function of his age, inferior equipment, or a combination of both, will never be certain. What is clear is that the incident raised the question of whether NASCAR should be setting more rigorous standards for both drivers and machines.

But the most glaring problem for NASCAR in New Hampshire wasn’t on the track but in the stands. The management of New Hampshire Motor Speedway removed two entire sections of the northern grandstand at the entrance to Turn 3 over the winter. What had been perhaps 5,000 seats is now a beer garden perched above the track, with a capacity of perhaps 200. But despite the decrease in seating capacity there were still large swaths of empty grandstand when the field accelerated to the green flag on Sunday afternoon. Clearly the days of sell-outs at Loudon are a thing of the past.

It is thus at virtually every stop on the NASCAR schedule. While still enormously popular, the halcyon days of seemingly constant growth have come to a full and final stop for the sport. Rules designed to make the inherently dangerous idea of driving 43 automobiles at high speeds in close proximity to one another have made passing more difficult and races more boring. They’ve also eliminated the old adage for car dealers of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Whether Chevy, Ford, or Toyota, today’s stock cars are all identical but for their paint schemes, and bear no resemblance to the nameplate on the hood. A decline in attendance originally fueled by the economy is now being accelerated by NASCAR’s own good intentions. That’s not the kind of acceleration that stock car racing needs.

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