The Fall of 2004 was just like any other race at Lowe's. An event which featured nine lead changes among eighteen drivers was the total package for race fans: there was exciting passing, extended green flag racing, and even a dose of Kasey Kahne's rookie bad luck. The youngster was the class of the field, seemingly on track towards winning his first Nextel Cup race in the No. 9 Dodge until crashing out of it with just 67 laps to go. With Kahne forced to the sidelines, Jimmie Johnson was put in position to take the reins of the race; and that he did, leading the final seventeen laps en route to his second of what would turn out to be four consecutive points-paying victories at the track. Satisfied with what they had seen, an enthusiastic fan base approaching 140,000 left with smiles on their faces that night; no doubt, the racing at the track was as good as it had ever been.
Who knew that moment in time would be forever etched in their heads; at this point, that looks like the last "race" at Lowe's any of those fans - or the rest of us, for that matter - will ever see.
Sure, there have been cars going around in circles aplenty since that fateful October day, but nothing at the track located within the mecca of stock car racing has resembled anything near those races of old. For the past two years, we've watched helplessly as excuse after excuse has been shoveled everyone's way in the face of scary accidents, bad tires, and poor decision making that's reduced what once was one of NASCAR's marquis facilities into a black-eyed nightmare.
Of course, the wrong decisions always get debated first on any such long list of reasons why things can't go back to the way they used to be. For all the wonderful ways in which track promoter and president Humpy Wheeler has given this sport so much good, it was a call made on his watch that, in my mind, has forever tainted his legacy and started these problems. It was Wheeler himself who authorized "levigation" during that fateful offseason of 2004 in his latest idea to make Lowe's the best it could be. With the track convinced their last paving job, completed a decade earlier, had faded away into a series of antiquated bumps and bruises, they participated in a special "grinding" process that they hoped would not only smooth out the speedway but lead to better racing for everyone involved. Gone was the uniqueness of the special "bump" that had developed through turn four; it gave drivers fits, as handling the inconsistency of the pavement had become a critical way to figure out how to get around the track. However, it was the dreams of pretty new asphalt that won its way to Wheeler's heart - just as it cut its way through the track's very soul.
Well, no one can argue one central point — "levigation" made the track as smooth as silk. So smooth, in fact, that the pole-winning speed jumped over four miles an hour, with Ryan Newman zipping around the track at a 192.988 mph clip in the Spring of 2005. For a track which had settled on average speeds between 186-188 mph for years, it was too much of a jump for a fast fleet of Nextel Cup vehicles to handle. Goodyear was the most befuddled of all; coming to the track with a tire compound no longer capable of producing long-term performance on the new track surface, the two-week Nextel All-Star Challenge turned Coca-Cola 600 became a debacle of epic proportions. Tires blew, cars hit the wall, passing was at a premium, and the drivers nearly rebelled. The 600 itself endured a record 22 cautions, with the garage turned into a local junkyard by the time the carnage was all said and done.
You would think that type of catastrophe would cause everyone to panic and fix the problem; yet, that fall, NASCAR had the exact same situation staring them in the face. Too fast a track, too bad a tire, and too few solutions led to even worse problems than before; the race became a dangerous gambling game of "Who's going to blow a right front tire and hit the wall next," and in the end, it's the closest NASCAR has come in the last 25 years to calling a race for safety reasons. In the end, they probably should have; nearly half the field was done in by some sort of right front tire problem, and there were fears that with the high speeds, someone was going to end up dead.
With drivers calling for everyone's head, people were finally pressed into off-season solutions - or lack thereof. To Wheeler's defense, he tried to repave the track in 2006, still not realizing his primary fault; new asphalt has made the track too fast for the cars that run on it. Goodyear also responded - terribly - by bringing a compound so hard drivers complained they couldn't run side-by-side. Not content with staying on the sidelines in the wake of such terrible decisions, NASCAR chimed in with one of its own - the cars would run smaller fuel cells during the Charlotte races, necessitating pit stops every 35 to 40 laps to ensure no on-track tire failures.
Well, the pit crews got a workout but not the speedway - racing resembled a single-car parade of drivers simply trying to hang on with a harder compound. The Fall race resembled the same kind of snoozefest - so you'd think NASCAR would get together with Goodyear, the teams, and the track to put together a tire that worked.
You thought wrong.
"It's the same tire we had last spring – we couldn't really race then and I don't think it's gonna be better now," said Matt Kenseth after his seventh-place finish in the All-Star Challenge. "It's just tough. When we were in front, we could drive away or hang in there with those guys. (But) when we got behind, even in second or third place, you just couldn't do anything - you'd just get so tight and you couldn't really get anything to work for some reason."
The refrain of "tight, tight, tight" was repeated by almost every driver on the Cup circuit.
"That's the tightest race car I've ever had," said Carl Edwards after finishing third in the Open. "That's it. If I could make an adjustment, I'd raise the track bar 10 rounds. It was that tight."
Ask Ricky Rudd, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte – they'd tell you something similar. Once again, this year's culprit appears to be the tires. Sound familiar? Some of the drivers were saying the exact same thing last Spring.
“It is a tough race track, those tires are really tough, the rubber is just pretty hard," said Jeff Burton after the race. "Not conducive to this type of racing, just flat out. Not made for this kind of racing, but (it) will be good for the 600 next weekend.”
Oh really? That's interesting, Jeff; what's an 80-lap shootout compared to 400 on the same facility? Won't that drag out the agony? Several drivers disagreed with this assessment in their post-race interviews and press conferences Saturday night, and believe me, when half the field is bold enough to speak out against the track, NASCAR, or Goodyear, you know you have a problem on your hands. For every driver and crew chief speaking out, there's three more secretly applauding behind closed doors.
"The racing can be better if Goodyear will work with everybody, but I’m not sure if that will happen or not,” claimed Tony Stewart after his All-Star Challenge. Smoke is usually more critical of Goodyear at this track, but frankly, he's sick of repeating himself after having ripped the tire company a new one the past two times he's been here. Why bother when no one's listening?
Now, how you can go for two years and not come up with a solution to fix a problem that's remains consistent is beyond me. Does the track management magically think the cars will run side-by-side again each time they come back, as if nothing's happened? Does Goodyear think the teams will magically forget their last tire sucked if they bring the same version again? Does NASCAR think that fans are so ADD they'll keep forgetting this awful nightmare the day after the race is over? I'm not sure. All I know is there's a continual circle of blame that's like a beach ball batted around at a concert — it never seems to land, just keeps getting bumped around from place to place.
The drivers blame the tires. Goodyear blames NASCAR for the compound they ask them to bring to the track. NASCAR has the ability to blame the track for the "levigation" - and with the track owners being the "devious" Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., they seem to have no problem letting them hang out to dry in the press. It's an ugly mess that simply continues without interruption, the automatic ticking of a watch that keeps counting down towards devastation with no idea how to stop.
The solution, of course, is simple; slow the cars down. But that's easier said than done, an issue NASCAR seems reluctant to address with the implementation of the Car of Tomorrow causing them more issues they can count. So, Lowe's has been lost amongst the shuffle, this issue trying its best to replace the "restrictor plate" as the fix that became permanent amidst NASCAR's growing list of problems they just leave with no real solution.
Even Saturday night's winner had limited optimism for the speedway's potential for this weekend.
“The first part of the Open was painful to watch," claimed Kevin Harvick. "There were only, what, seven or eight laps of racing?”
"The cars are hard to drive side-by-side. (But) It is a lot better than it was last year, I will give them that."
Well, Lowe's best still isn't good enough for me. Unfortunately, it's to the point where I throw my hands in the air in disgust; with no real answers in sight, I'm convinced that's going to be all we're going to get for a long, long time.
Looking for how your favorite driver has performed during the first third of the season? Be sure to come back tomorrow and check out Matt McLaughlin’s Driver Report Cards for Nextel Cup, the first of a four-part series that can be seen only on Frontstretch.com.
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