RIDGEWAY, Va. – Please indulge me during this week’s Full Throttle column. While this is a commentary I try hard to minimize the amount of first-person references that I utilize just because I like the way it sounds. However, for the second time in the over five years that I’ve been penning this weekly little discourse it will have a bit more personal tone to it thanks to this weekend’s race in Martinsville. For the first time in some five years I attended a race weekend as a fan instead of as a member of the media and it was another great experience watching the highest levels of stock car racing in America.
Saturday (April 2) was filled with wandering the infield and saying hello to many of the people in the industry that I have met over the years and, thanks to my role as a fan instead of a member of the media, taking pictures with several of them. It was also a chance for me to show two of our friends around as they attended their very first NASCAR race weekend. Not only was it cool to hang out close to the stars of the Camping World Truck Series, it was even cooler to watch our friends wide-eyed and giddy about everything they saw and experienced throughout the day.
The weather was decent, although the 20-plus mph winds made things a little bit chilly, but the racing was hot and heavy and the ebbs and flows of the race kept us all on edge until the final lap of the race saw Johnny Sauter score the first win by a series regular this season.
When the race was over we were able to head right out and wander through the souvenir haulers with far less traffic than there would be on Sunday. It’s always fun to see the latest diecasts, t-shirts, jackets, hats and assorted paraphernalia with driver names, logos and numbers splattered all over them. The other joy of touring the souvenir haulers is taking in all of the other fans who are doing the same thing. It is so cool listening to the different accents and stories that are filling the air as people discuss the race, their tales of making it to the race or just their views on NASCAR in general.
I love that NASCAR is such a melting pot of people and cultures that all come together to watch and see which team can put their driver in the right position at the end of the race to take the victory. Whether people are a fan of the driver who wins the race or not, they always have an opinion and most of them are willing to share it with anyone, especially if the other person is wearing some article of clothing that identifies them as a race fan.
Sunday rolled around and, unlike Saturday, the weather was about as perfect as it could possibly be. The skies were Carolina blue, a gentle breeze was blowing out of the West and 50,000 of our closest friends crammed into the stands at the smallest racetrack on the schedule to see four hours of door-to-door racing and rubbing. A glee club sang God Bless America, two jets did a fly over after Trace Adkins sang the National Anthem and Dr. Dick Bergren was standing in Jamie McMurray’s pit when the rag was dropped.
Richard Childress sat alone on the back of Clint Bowyer’s hauler as the race began, Tony Stewart had a blond by his side before the race started and Krissie Newman walked past us carrying Brooklyn, who is one cute little girl. It was a cool start to a great day and, although the tires that Goodyear brought limited the ability of cars to do anything on the outside line, the number of cars that were wrecked while faster cars tried to make moves around them were rather limited.
As the race began to unfold Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson appeared to have picked up right where they’d left off over the last nine races and were headed to the front. Kevin Harvick was running like total crap and his attitude on the radio reflected that. Polesitter McMurray was hanging around the front of the pack even though his pit crew wasn’t taking advantage of the best pit stall and Juan Pablo Montoya was pushing hard to make it to victory lane for the first time on an oval.
The best part of it was that we were standing in the infield of the oldest track on the schedule and we could smell the rubber and fuel and feel the power of the cars as they whizzed past us lap after lap.
We moved to turn 3 for a different view of the race and shortly after that Martin Truex Jr.’s throttle hung, sending him into Kasey Kahne and then hard into the outside wall. You could feel the impact when the cars made contact with the SAFER barrier. Thank God those things have been installed at every track on the schedule because just under 11 years ago Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were both killed by very similar impacts with the wall when their throttles hung in a similar manner and the walls were not so soft. Fortunately this wreck ended with some torn-up racecars, some sore drivers and a red flag, nothing more.
Shortly after the red flag there was a very long green-flag run that resulted in green-flag pit stops at Martinsville, which we usually see about once every two or three years. When that run came to an end and the cars pitted, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the top five and looked like he might be able to stay there. Hamlin was strong but for some reason wasn’t able to go as far as everyone else on a tank of gas and Johnson was where you’d expect him, sitting in the top five and looking better after every adjustment.
What happened next was unexpected. Hamlin gets caught behind when he again can’t go as far on a tank and Johnson makes a mistake on pit road that puts him at the back of the pack with little time to make it to the front.
What was left was Kyle Busch looking to finally win a race at Martinsville, Montoya driving smoothly and very much in the mix, Earnhardt able to run well on a short run but losing the back end as the laps added up, and Harvick somehow making some noise with the back of his car torn up. Earnhardt ended up taking the lead from Busch on a restart, sending the stands into a total frenzy and Harvick was all over Busch trying to make it to second place.
Unfortunately for Earnhardt, Busch didn’t slow down Harvick enough and with four laps to go Earnhardt lost the lead to Harvick and barely holds on to beat Busch to the line for second while the No. 29 took the win for the second time in two weeks.
After the race we were able to stand next to the pit wall right where the post-race interviews were going on and ended up two feet from Earnhardt and Busch during their interviews. We then went to victory lane on the front straight and got some pictures of the celebration with the RCR crew. When it was all said and done we walked the track one last time before heading home. It was a perfect race weekend and the best part was we shared it with friends who’d never attended a race before, saw things they’d never seen before and ended up having the time of their lives.
Having the honor of writing about the sport I love and actually having people read it every week is a very humbling experience that I value immensely. However, every once in a while, it is great to step back and watch this great sport without having to worry about stories, positions, ramifications or points.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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