Ingram's Flat Spot On
Short Tracks Loom Large
by Jonathan Ingram
There was a time when every race weekend in NASCAR's premier series had enough story lines to compose a saga, each driver's career was like a novel in progress -- including those struggling to get due credit like Regan Smith -- and any conflict between drivers was like a gladiatorial challenge.
Welcome to the Martinsville Speedway and Round 6 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. It was just like old times with full grandstands, drivers full of bumper tag and harsh words for one another, a close race decided by the guy who was coolest (and best) at the finish, heavy drama among the newsmakers and a Chase where Jimmie Johnson's point lead has been whittled down to the nub with four races remaining.
Denny Hamlin's victory pulling him to within six points of leader Johnson headed into the Talladega Superspeedway was the top story on a day when Chase contenders at Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports bickered among one another and Kurt Busch again lost the handle on his hair-trigger temper, this time at the expense of Jeff Gordon.
It was almost enough to overshadow the possible demise of the over-leveraged sports and racing empire of George Gillett, the serial borrower who is constantly caught out on his debts now doing business in NASCAR as Richard Petty Motorsports. The fact Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 90 laps and had the full house on its feet in the later stages of the event became a footnote, although yet another sign of a strong pulse at NASCAR. As was Mark Martin's astounding flight to second at the finish.
There was so much going on in all directions, what with Kasey Kahne leaving RPM and Roush Fenway Racing repossessing the team's Talladega cars. The story of Chip Ganassi switching to Ford power next year from Chevy seemed like a small cloud on a big horizon. Sources at Ford have confirmed the deal is all but done. If so, that's a cultural change for an American manufacturer trying to bounce back from the current doldrums of depending on Roush Fenway Racing, an arrangement that has handcuffed the boys at the blue oval in Dearborn.
Any time the defending winners of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 switch manufacturers, it's a big deal. Ganassi switching to Ford is also the flip side to the possibility that Richard Petty Motorsports might not exist next year. In an era when great racing legacies are becoming an endangered species, it remains to be seen how the structure of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will continue, given that Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies is wedded to building Chevy engines.
A crackerjack race at Martinsville and a close Chase could not have come at a better time for a sport beleaguered on TV by stout competition from the NFL, a post-steroid Major League baseball and the NCAA's strategy of wall-to-wall college football events, now including week night games.
After Martinsville, I don't know what the TV ratings will look like, but I sat through every ad without the mute button to be sure to keep up. Sure enough, the tail end of major events regularly popped up after the ads due to enough fender-bending to cure most ailments of any disengaged or disgusted NASCAR fan. But most of the action was in full view such as the race's longest running dispute between RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton in the first race where pit crews were switched by team owner Richard Childress between Harvick and the No. 33 entry of Clint Bowyer to shake up some poor pit road performances during the Chase. (In other words, Childress nominated constant complainer and squeaky wheel Harvick, still a title contender, as the team's favorite son.)
Between Harvick and Burton fighting for the lead, over the radios and on pit road, Johnson trying to overcome a tight chassis plum out of adjustments and Hamlin and Martin free-wheeling to the front at the end, every lap generated as much excitement as key pitches in the current League Championships Series in baseball, or any third down conversion during Sunday's NFL telecasts and Saturday's usual logjam of college football.
A passionate romp at Martinsville may almost be enough to put to rest complaints about the COT chassis (especially given the new nose jobs for next year). Maybe Hamlin's incredibly smooth clutch performance will also be enough to get fans motivated about cheering against Jimmie Johnson, if they insist on towing the shopworn line that one of the greatest talents in the history of stock car racing is somehow ruining it.
Let's hope an outstanding race will prevent the powers that be from moving one of Martinsville's races in the future. It seems that precious few tracks have the restorative power of the Sprint Cup's six remaining short track races (as in the old definition of anything under a mile, not the new definition of anything a mile and under.) Perhaps for once the power of television might trump seating capacity.
As for the high-speed crap shoot coming up at Talladega, noted plate racer Harvick has already said his strategy will be to get out front and lead the most laps. That's as safe a place as any at a track where drivers earn the considerable wages they're paid these days. And that's the bottom line. Fans need to see and feel the passion, which the current Chase format and the much-improved COT, the car that truly unleashed the phenomena of bump drafting, are presently capturing quite nicely.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.