Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 22, 2015

For All Its Problems NASCAR Can Still Thrill

The midwinter spectacle of stock car racing on Florida’s Atlantic coast known as Speedweeks wrapped up this weekend with the biggest event of them all, NASCAR’s Daytona 500. The preeminent sanctioning organization for stock car racing in the world, NASCAR remains a family owned and run business even as it approaches its 70th year in business. After years of spectacular growth and nationwide expansion that took the sport far from its southern roots, the enterprise begun by Bill France Jr., and now run by his son Brian has had its share of recent problems.

Putting a competitive car on the track is an extraordinarily expensive proposition, so the recession took an obvious toll. Expansion brought in new fans, but no matter the sport every new fan does not necessarily become a fan for life; and races at many tracks have been run in front of thousands of empty seats. The Car of Tomorrow, used from 2007 through 2012 was widely criticized as difficult to handle, leading to less exciting racing. Yet among sports NASCAR is second only to the NFL in U.S. television ratings, and the Sprint Cup Series races are broadcast in more than 150 countries. Every year several NASCAR races rank high on the list of single-day sporting events with the highest attendance. At venerable Daytona International Speedway during Speedweeks, both the sport’s problems and its appeal were on full display.

What began with the Rolex 24, the annual January endurance event won this year by a four-person team from Chip Ganassi Racing, gave way to last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race and then the multi-day and multi-format qualifying for the 500. Next came the season’s first outings for NASCAR’s truck series on Friday and the developmental Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series one day later. Tyler Reddick, all five feet five inches and 130 pounds of him, won the truck race and Ryan Reed took the checkered flag in the Alert Today Florida 300 Saturday. Finally on Sunday afternoon under a warm sun and a blue Florida sky, the best stock car drivers in the world took to the track for the Great American Race. Reddick is just 19 and Reed but two years his senior, making the combined age of the two young winners three years less than that of Jeff Gordon.

The long-time driver of the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon recently announced that this would be his final year behind the wheel. A four-time Sprint Cup champion, Gordon is third on the all-time wins list with 92. He’s won the pole position for 78 races, also third all-time and the most among active drivers. With two young children his decision to leave the stage is not surprising, but it highlights the sport’s need to continually develop a new generation of drivers who can in time become fan favorites in their own right.

That’s made more difficult when Sprint Cup Series drivers elect to do double duty by also running in Xfinity Series races. Every time a driver from the top series starts a developmental series race, it takes a spot away from someone who could use the experience and the exposure to stock car racing at a high level and to the sport’s fans.

On Saturday the other danger of this common practice was made plain. Late in the Xfinity Series event Kyle Busch made contact with Eric Jones in tight racing just past the start/finish line. Jones got turned around, sending Busch’s car initially up the track where it hit the car of Kyle Larson. That contact in turn sent the #54 of Busch racing down across the infield grass where it slammed head on into a cement wall. Busch, whose day job is driving the #18 in the Sprint Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing, suffered a compound fracture of his right leg and a broken left foot in the melee. When he will be able to return to racing is, at this moment, uncertain.

The costly wreck also highlighted the reluctance of too many track owners to do everything possible to increase safety at their speedways. While the outside walls at all tracks are now made of the combination concrete, steel and foam known as SAFER barriers or so-called soft walls, the ownership of Daytona hadn’t bothered to apply the same technology to the inside walls on the other side of the grass infield. Of course that ownership is the same France family that runs the sport. While promises of immediate action were being made even before Busch underwent surgery at a local hospital, they sounded both hollow and belated.

The #18 car was not the only one with a substitute driver for the 500. Friday Busch’s older brother Kurt was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after a Delaware judge issued a protective order preventing him from seeing or contacting a former girlfriend, whom the judge found Busch had assaulted and choked during a confrontation at Dover International Speedway last September. While NASCAR acted quickly in this case, it was one more distraction from the on-track product that should be the focus for fans.

That product finally took center stage Sunday afternoon, with the 43-year old Gordon celebrating the fact that the most recent of his record number of poles had been won for this 500. But even that served to remind that sometimes NASCAR seems to be trying too hard to tweak its rules. They rolled out a new qualifying format for select races this year. Rather than drivers individually running a pair of qualifying laps, the new procedure calls for all the cars to be on the track at once, but only for a very short timed window. The result may not have been exactly what NASCAR planned. Rather than taking to the track for the full allotted time, the drivers sat lined up on pit row as the timer clock ran down, waiting until there was just enough time left for a single lap. Watching race cars sitting still doesn’t make for a compelling televised sporting event.

Yet after all that they finally ran the 500, and once again fans were reminded of just how exhilarating stock car racing can be. The retiring veteran Gordon was cheered by the crowd as he led for 87 laps, more than any other racer. He was a factor to begin his final campaign with a victory all the way until the very last lap, when he got turned into the wall on the back stretch. As the race neared its end there was lap after lap of three-wide racing. For the uninitiated, tracks can easily accommodate two cars racing side by side, but when they race three abreast the quarters are perilously tight. At Daytona on Sunday the best drivers in the world ran lap after lap at close to 200 miles per hour, with not just with a row of three wide racing, but running three abreast six and seven rows deep in a closely bunched field. That these drivers did so without a major multi-car pileup, the so-called “Big One,” is a testament to their skill.

In the end 24-year old New Englander Joey Logano held his nerve and outlasted the field to capture his ninth Sprint Cup race and his first Daytona 500. Dropped by Joe Gibbs Racing two seasons ago, Logano found a home with Penske and contended for the championship last year. Now after just one race he is virtually assured of making this year’s Chase for the Championship. Logano earned his ride in a Sprint Cup car by first succeeding in the Xfinity Series. For all the earlier distractions, Sunday afternoon NASCAR demonstrated that it can still thrill, and that a new generation can rise, if only it’s allowed to do so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: