Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Smaller Crowds, Bigger Fights, Ugly Words Left for NASCAR to Chew On

ONE: Was Attention Towards Regan Smith Hurt More by Harvick/Busch… or Trevor Bayne?

Turns out Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick spoiled the fun for more than just themselves Saturday night (May 7). With throngs of media waiting outside the NASCAR hauler for word on what was going on between Rowdy and Happy, Regan Smith‘s dramatic upset win at Darlington stunningly took a back seat. Harvick himself told reporters outside NASCAR’s “oval office” that it was a shame they were covering his latest dustup instead of talking to Smith about his accomplishment.

It’s true; for a moment as big as winning the Southern 500 was for both Smith and Furniture Row Racing, it played more of a supporting role as NASCAR’s time in South Carolina came to a close. It’s not like it wasn’t a great story, unquestionably one of the sport’s bigger upsets at an unrestricted track in recent memory.

You had Smith tearing up in victory lane because his mom had missed a rare race to help with tornado relief; you had a single-car team that two seasons ago was a part-time effort, qualifying in on time from week to week capture one of the sport’s most prestigious events; and you had a driver that, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, understanding from the moment he arrived in victory lane the true historical significance of the race he had won. Regan Smith, Southern 500 champion, was just as Carl Edwards coined it: a “big deal.”

Yet for those watching away from the track, this triumph seemed a pebble in the pond when compared to the cinderblock Trevor Bayne threw into Lake Lloyd back in February. Which begs the question… for all the attention Busch and Harvick got for their latest tantrums, was it perhaps the Daytona 500 earlier this season that was more responsible for the muted reaction following the No. 78 team’s win?

Granted, the Mother’s Day version of the Southern 500 is not the Daytona 500, but there isn’t a driver on the circuit that would think to play down how much Darlington still means. Sad thing is, the story of a relative unknown winning a big-time race in a single-car ride had already been told this year. Bayne was the youngest Daytona 500 champion in history, while Smith has been a part of the sport for years (Talladega 2008, anyone?).

Furniture Row Racing is six years old, slowly building up their program to win just once; the Wood Brothers are synonymous with the history of stock car racing itself. And while Smith came out of nowhere to bring this trophy home, Bayne was in the Daytona conversation for over four days, a storyline from the Gatorade Duels that was hyped to no end and shockingly came to fruition.

Had this upset happened one season ago, chances are Smith’s first Cup win would have been stronger competition for the latest episode of Dumb and Dumber. Instead, six months from now it may be the most underrated story of this 2011 season.

TWO: Speaking of Darlington, The Masses Didn’t Speak Up

Even if it was on Mother’s Day weekend, stuck there for the seventh straight year this 500-miler at Darlington was still a sight to behold. The race became a marathon in every sense of the word, a test of man and machine that ultimately took a drastic toll on both (see ECR engine troubles, frayed tempers and late-race wrecks galore). Anyone questioning if 500-mile races were still necessary in this day and age got a strong reminder this weekend why we have them.

Too bad not enough people were watching to decipher that answer. TV ratings for Darlington were down significantly, as competition from the NBA playoffs helped decimate the audience in the Nielsens. But, perhaps even more distressing for this track’s long-term future, a crowd that old-school fans have continually pointed to was off this time around.

While the frontstretch was packed, looks on television could be deceiving; on the other side of the speedway, backstretch stands had lower rows that were closed to the public visible from overhead shots. And as for the grandstand in turn 1, forget about it. The official tally of 61,000 was the lowest reported since the spring race of 2004… and more significantly, it was the worst showing for a Cup race since the Lady in Black was cut back to one Cup race date.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Darlington Fans "Too Tough To Surrender"

There’s little more to be said. The racing, short of Smith being able to stay out on old tires and win, was vintage Darlington. The race still proved to be as grueling as any American motorsports has to offer, connected to a finish for the record books to boot. It’s a video we’ve seen played at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro before… and nobody likes a sequel when the original was junk to start.

THREE: A True Test of Machine That ECR Failed Miserably

It’s perhaps ironic that those relying on ECR engines seem to have developed a chronic motor problem in the same marquee events that they performed so well at one year ago. 2010 saw Jamie McMurray win both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard while finishing runner-up at Darlington for Earnhardt Ganassi.

This year, however, their partners over at Richard Childress Racing have accomplished nothing on those big stages short of cooking their racecars. Harvick and Jeff Burton both bowed out of the 500 earlier this year with engine troubles, wilting after the ECR camp overestimated the ability of their horsepower package to stay cool in two-car drafting.

This weekend, that aggression came back with a vengeance… and the results were the same. Though Burton, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer all had little to show in terms of grill damage, by race’s end all three were spewing water out of their overflows (Burton was the only one to officially retire with engine woes; Menard finished off the lead lap in 22nd while Bowyer was wrecked out on lap 364).

Darlington’s never been easy on engines, with the gritty sand that continually blasts the facility prone to clogging up radiators, intake, any opening a racecar has to offer. But again, another strenuous test of motor strength, another subpar showing for the ECR camp. Couple that with Harvick’s mega-meltdown and title hopes for Chevrolet’s number two squad aren’t looking so hot.

FOUR: Almirola’s Heart In the Right Place, But His Words…

After falling victim to a three-wide escapade featuring Denny Hamlin and Bowyer Friday night, Aric Almirola vented in his post-crash interview that it was frustrating to be taken out by a pair of racers that were racing for fun while he was out running for a championship.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Royal Purple 200 at Darlington

Talk about opening a Pandora’s Box. Yes, Almirola has plenty of reason to be frustrated with the situation; two Cup regulars with no concern for either points or racecars created an extremely compromising situation on track and he paid for it. But what his words hinted at, the mere suggestion that racing for a championship somehow entitles a driver to enhanced treatment on the track is ludicrous.

That’s absolutely untrue; the only wrong in this situation was Hamlin and Bowyer racing over their heads and taking out an innocent bystander doing it. The Nationwide Series always has been and always will be a place for part timers to race among the regulars, be it part-time teams like ML Motorsports or driver development deals.

The only difference is, in this case the Cup driver side of it is used to big-time sponsor dollars, racing only amongst their peers and having 15 cars to turn to if one gets torn up. So to Almirola’s credit, it’s great for drivers like him to be speaking up when episodes like this one occur.

They’ve just got to choose their words carefully. The last impression Nationwide regulars need, especially these days is that of entitled points jockeys.

FIVE: The Word “Duh” Comes to Mind

It was reported by The Virginian Pilot earlier this weekend that NASCAR is planning to allow teams to utilize fuel injection in a handful of tests later this season, beginning preparation for a complete transition away from carburetors in 2012.

What a concept. Can you believe it? Testing a rules change before transitioning to one. You see, even if it is something relatively insignificant, like moving to a halfway modern engine, how allowing for testing can be even up for discussion is mind-boggling. Between the problems that have stemmed regarding tire wear as a result of the implementation of both CoT cars, tire wear troubles themselves, problems at Fontana the year the Cup Series moved to unleaded fuel, changes in NASCAR have proven to time and time again have glitches that no one caught until race day.

There’s a reason testing exists. Shame there isn’t more of it done.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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