ONE: What a Season So Far
In the seven years I’ve been a weekly NASCAR columnist it is fair to say that there have been many more reasons to be critical than to be effusive. Sinking TV ratings, the car of sorrow, empty stands, mind-numbing races, Jimmie Johnson winning everything — you name it, and folks, to slightly paraphrase the industry parlance, have had at it.
But this year feels altogether different. Perhaps it’s the changes in this year’s car, the tires that actually wear out during long runs (what a novel concept) or maybe it’s the new win-centric Chase format, but for whatever reason the racing has been, and I say this without hyperbole, utterly compelling.
Saturday night’s epic race at the equally epic Richmond International Raceway was just another example. As one fellowNASCAR aficionado put it: your column could be 10 points this week (please, no, five is quite enough already) and if that [race] doesn’t entertain people they need to check their pulse. And he’s absolutely right; if you’re not enjoyingNASCAR this year you should probably follow another sport. Like I said to open this point, there’s been a real left turn after left turn spiral of negativity aroundNASCAR, but with the way the drivers are attacking this year there are little to no reasons to complain. And that, gentle readers, is something worth celebrating.
TWO: Talladega: What’s to Come?
Next up, we take a trip to the scariest and fastest track of them all: Alabama’s own Talladega Superspeedway. It’s the second trip to a restrictor plate track this year in just the 10th race of the year so if we can predict anything about Talladega (besides the inevitable big one) it would be that we very well may see our eighth different winner in 2014.
This will be the 90th race on the six-story high banks of NASCAR’s biggest track and as always we have no idea what to expect. One added wrinkle this year will be the pack qualifying — almost like a race in its own right — and this session will even be televised on network television, a privilege usually reserved for the Daytona 500. As Carl Edwards noted on qualifying: “If I weren’t in it, I would be tuned in to watch. It’s going to be entertainment.”
Last year the Talladega races were won by David Ragan (spring) and Jamie McMurray (fall) so don’t be surprised to see an unexpected name showering themselves in confetti and champagne in victory lane this Sunday afternoon — in fact, you could pretty much bet on it being the case.
THREE: A Solid Start for Newman
After making the move from Stewart-Haas Racing to the number 31 car at Richard Childress Racing, replacing veteran Jeff Burton, it’s probably not unfair to say the expectations for 2014 were not great. But quietly, the Rocket Man is authoring a very respectable season under crew chief Luke Lambert. True, he’s yet to record a top 5, but he has four top 10s and a worst finish of 22nd, good for an average finish of 14th and ninth place in the overall standings.
One long-time follower of Newman told me just today that his win is coming; it’s just a matter of when. Of his race at Richmond, Newman said: “Had we had a long run at the end, we may be in victory lane right now. We had one of the fastest cars on 40- and 50-lap, green-flag runs.”
Next up, as I mentioned above, is Talladega, a venue where Newman has suffered some vicious wrecks including two spectacular end-over-end type deals. “That superspeedway hasn’t been too kind to me,” said Newman, “so hopefully me and myRCR team can start a new trend together.” This will be start number 25 at the track for Newman, winless with four top fives and one other top-10 run. Perhaps this coming Sunday with the change of team will be the change of fortune he needs there.
FOUR: 200 Up for Ambrose
Another driver off to a solid start in 2014 is Marcos Ambrose, who has two top-5 runs already this season. Given he only has 17 total top 5s in his 200 races and none whatsoever last season, it’s a sure sign Ambrose and Richard Petty Motorsports have made improvements this year.
Of course, Ambrose made the headlines for different reasons this past weekend landing a solid head shot on Casey Mears following some on-track shenanigans which weren’t immediately obvious to just about any of us watching. At least, though, Ambrose actually hit his target.
After all the flailing, faux punches and water bottle throwing we’ve seen in the past couple seasons it’s hard to argue with a solid right hook to the face. “He got me good,” said his victim Mears the day after the race. Yes, he did, Casey. Yes, he did.
The likelihood is Ambrose will receive a fine for his misdemeanor, which in my eyes is something of a shame. I’m not condoning violence here or suggesting everyone can just punch whomever he or she likes but NASCAR is a contact sport and if the odd punch gets doled out then so be it. It will be interesting to see what Mears — one of the most amiable drivers in the entire garage — does, if anything, to retaliate. You have to feel we’ve probably not seen the last of this one. Can’t wait to see how it develops.
FIVE: The Month of May
A quick final point this week on the Verizon IndyCar Series, which now heads into the May and, on Memorial Day Sunday, the greatest spectacle in motorsports: the Indianapolis 500. So far in season 2014, we’ve had three entertaining rounds of open wheel racing with events at St Petersburg, Long Beach and this past Sunday in the rain at Barber Motorsports Park.
But it’s the big race — the Indy 500 — that everyone’s eyes will be on not least with Kurt Busch attempting to make the race this year. If he takes part he’ll become just the fourth driver in history to drive both the 500 and the Coke 600 in the same day following in the driving boot steps of John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon. With rookie orientation due to begin today at the venerable old speedway, it will certainly be a fascinating part of May watching Busch get up to speed in an IndyCar. Hopefully it will bring some more exposure to a racing series that certainly deserves it. Said it before and I’ll say it again: this series is really worth your time.