Friday, October 22, 2010

Sprint Cup 2010: Race 32 -- Running Out the Clock

TRADITION: Race winners receive a lovely Grandfather Clock. Let's hope if Kyle Busch wins, he doesn't destroy it like he did a beautiful Les Paul guitar upon winning at NASHVILLE!!!

What’s going on off the track might be more significant than what’s going on the track. On the track, can Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick give Jimmie Johnson a run for his money? The season is down to that. Martinsville is a track that can burn out cars, but who takes care of the equipment better than the #48 team when they have to.

Jimmie Johnson starts right in the thick of the pack with a 21st starting position while Denny Hamlin couldn’t have planned it better, grabbing the pole to start the race. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick put himself in a real bind with the 36th spot. Gaining on Johnson will require very careful driving and brilliant pit strategy. Nobody wants to think this week’s starting order might have already reduced the field to two drivers.

Of interest, Kenny Schrader returns to Sprint Cup in the #26 Ford. Hermie Sadler gets the honors to drive the #71 car in to the garage. As far as the “start and park” criminals get off the track, the better. It wasn’t that long ago, the starting field for Martinsville was just 37 cars.

The big news off the track is what is going on with Richard Petty racing? Last week at Charlotte, after the brakes had burned out in the #9 Budweiser Ford, he refused to return to the car to run laps for points. Earlier this week, he was released from his ride moving from beer to energy juice, the #83 Red Bull ride which he starts in the 33rd spot. Meanwhile, Aric Almirola pilots the #9 Budweiser Ford in 35th spot. Budweiser moves to the #29 car next year.

What’s going on with Richard Petty racing? It certainly had to be a major blow to the operation when Kasey Kahne announced his departure to Hendricks earlier this year. That Paul Menard would bolt with family sponsorship intact would certainly testify to his confidence in the organization. Menard will test his fortunes as a 4th car for RCR. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler’s contract is up. The team has been trying to move out Sadler for a couple years. Marcos Ambrose joins the operation to take over the #9 car while A.H. Allmendinger stays in the #43 car. The question is how the team is holding up financially. Talk is widespread about the i.o.u.’s piling up as George Gillette is selling off many of his other holdings. Talk is Roush-Fenway was withholding delivering hardware awaiting payment.

Could Richard Petty Racing be the NASCAR team that’s too big to fail? NASCAR needs this team to be competitive. Regardless, two teams from the select 35 guaranteed starters will be eliminated, though in this case is offset by Menard resurfacing with Childress. It also shrinks the Ford field by two cars.

These are not good days for NASCAR. Where there was DEI, Ginn racing, and Ganassi/Sabates – there is now only Earnhardt/Ganassi with two cars. Where there was once Evernham/Gillette racing with three cars, Petty Enterprises with two cars, Robert Yates with 2 cars, and Hall of Fame racing with one car; all that gets reduced to two cars next year. The new operation, Front Row racing, is struggling badly in its first year.

The notion that teams collapsing and compressing could lead to more “start and park” teams is unacceptable. They are no substitute for viable race teams and do not belong on the track. NASCAR must consider either reducing the starting field or setting stipulations that race fields shall include up to 43 entries.

From a fan’s standpoint, the sport might be more enjoyable to watch if there were fewer teams but all of them are legit competitors. While fans might not have one or two big reasons to turn the dial to watch something else, a lot of little irritations add up. Start and park entries build cynicism.

Meanwhile, what of Martinsville? It’s the one track that has been on the circuit for the entire history of NASCAR but being in a small town over an hour’s drive from the nearest Interstate exit or Metro area (Greensboro/Winston-Salem, NC), its small 62,000 capacity is currently not filling up. From a viewer’s standpoint, how much tolerance could there be for more generic 1 ½ mile tracks. Should the sport move on to new locations, a design like the Rusty Wallace track in Iowa could be the answer.

Jimmie Johnson is in great shape to win his 5th championship which will be one of the greatest milestones in recent sports history. Rather than building excitement with racing fans, the accomplishment is being viewed with sneering detachment.

NASCAR has to hope that next year will provide lots of attention spread out across the field and that hopefully, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will decide to put some passion back into his game and show he intends to win. How can anyone see the #88 team in action and not see a driver just going through the motions?

Now is the time to enjoy NASCAR history, the quirky little ½ mile track in the Virginia Mountains with its cole slaw drenched hot dogs dripping with red artificial coloring and beautiful grandfather’s clock for a trophy. There are few sites on the tour where the racing is better. NASCAR and the networks need to capture the competition and the atmosphere. This is good racing.


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