Race Weekend Central

Fact or Fiction 4-Pack: Vickers, Burton, Indy & Nashville

This off week may be over, but a look at the NASCAR news lately makes you feel like half the teams are still out vacationing in Hawaii. So with stories slowing to a crawl, just before 17 straight races to finish out the year it’s a good time to dust off that crystal ball, play Miss Cleo and pull off another slew of predictions. That’s right, folks; time for another NASCAR Fact or Fiction to head your way.

FACT: Brian Vickers Will Have a Ride in 2012

With all the talk about Carl, Carl, Carl (plus a side of Joey, UPS and David) Brian Vickers has gone from a sympathetic figure on the NASCAR circuit to free agency’s forgotten man. One year removed from blood clots that threatened his life, Vickers now finds himself threatened with a pink slip; his Red Bull Racing program faces an uncertain future at season’s end. All indications are the veteran would like to stay, but with just eight lead-lap finishes in 19 starts, a slump to 26th in the standings isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to proving the doubters he’s 100%.

So does BV end up in the unemployment line for good? After all, we’re staring at another offseason of Cup contraction, no new ownership combined with bailing sponsors and the cost of doing business going up, yet again. While this veteran should be at or near the top of every team’s wish list, the timing of his particular situation is proving difficult; all of the major teams are showing “no vacancy” or pursuing a man who backflips instead.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And in this case, where there’s a Hendrick, there’s a chance. Vickers’s former employer, while full on the Cup Series side has some solid connections with Turner Motorsports, an up-and-coming Nationwide team looking to one day advance up the ladder. Vickers knows them well, like Hendrick, who looks out like a second father; B.V. drove for the program last year when Todd Braun owned it, even went 5 for 5 in top-10 finishes before those ugly health issues sent him to the sidelines for good.

So now, with 2012 in question at the Cup level it might be the right time for Vickers to take a step back. Look what rebuilding confidence in Nationwide has done for two current series title contenders: Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson. Both major-league afterthoughts at Richard Petty Motorsports, they’re minor-league powerhouses leading the surge for a series whose ratings are up 15%. Could Vickers be in the same boat next year? Absolutely; and to be honest, unless start-and-parking is something he’s interested in that’s appears the best option from this perspective.

FICTION: Jeff Burton Will Win a Race This Season

Monday’s news (July 25) Todd Berrier was relieved of his crew chief duties at the No. 31 hardly comes as a shock; after all, his driver, Jeff Burton was suffering through the worst season of a 17-year career at the Cup level. New engineer Luke Lambert takes his place, a move owner Richard Childress hopes will finally end a nearly three-year victory lane drought for his prized veteran.

But while Burton’s used new blood to his advantage before – he and Berrier teamed up for three top-five finishes in four races when first paired together in Oct. 2009 – don’t expect the magic to happen this time. The next three races of Indy, Pocono and Watkins Glen are hardly Burton’s strong suit and considering the team doesn’t even have a top-10 finish using this chemistry change to hit the checkered flag first seems a bit of a stretch. Look for steady improvement for this program, but nothing substantial as RCR continues to have the puzzling problem of balancing the expansion of three cars to four within their program.

P.S. – Who would have ever thought that Paul Menard would be running circles around teammate Burton five months into this relationship? If Burton didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all but there’s no questioning he’s been outdriven by the man behind the wheel of the No. 27.

FACT: Indianapolis Still Matters

Sure, the at-track audience at Indy is nowhere near how it used to be; expect 5,000 stories proving that by the end of the week. Chances are we may have a precipitous decline, dropping to less than 100,000 fans in the stands for an event that had 280,000 watching it live just six years ago. Clearly, public perception has wavered since the Great Tire Debacle of 2008, exploding rubber every ten laps followed by the Two Years of Track Position Determines All, where passing with the aero push plus Goodyear’s tough tire combination has proven impossible.

See also
MPM2Nite: Does the Brickyard 400 Still Matter?

Sounds like a great ad to see the race, right? But wait… don’t go and turn that television off. Despite all the criticisms, all the negativity this race is still very much worth watching; and, most important of all, it means more to the drivers than any other event on the schedule sans February’s Daytona 500. Indy, after all, is still the mecca of American motorsports, giving that name on the trophy a little extra meaning for your Brickyard 400 winner.

Sprinkle in Sprint’s new Summer Showdown, a chance for Sunday’s victor to contend for a $5 million prize come Labor Day weekend and the stakes – well, they’ve never been higher. The on-track action may sometimes be a snoozefest, but in this age of consistency, there’s just two places where everyone has an attitude of “points be damned:” the Daytona 500 and here.

Not convinced? Then check out the top-three purses from 2010:
Daytona – $16,280,466
Indy – $8,055,895
Texas – $6,196,462

When it comes to competition, money talks, and every driver and team understands the value of running hard to grab the lion’s share of that cash. So, yeah, it won’t be the most exciting race in the world but write off Indy at your own peril; the drivers certainly won’t.

FICTION: Nashville Will Have Races in 2012

As Saturday’s crowd struggled to reach 18,000 in Nashville, less than half the number it used to draw at its peak the future of the Superspeedway is now in serious doubt. As I’ve written about before, there’s no shortage of race fans in the area but they’re all busy trying to save another venue, Nashville’s old Fairgrounds short track while putting together a silent protest on this cookie cutter. With the Cup Series never an option, plus this track’s rural location and tendency to produce forgettable races, it’s not a matter of if the Speedway will fold up for good but when.

Considering the parent company’s recent history of financial problems – Dover Motorsports Inc. has shut down Memphis and Gateway in recent years – the capital just isn’t there to make the millions in improvements needed for this track to become attractive again. More likely than not, it’s next on the chopping block as this one-time healthy company will pay the price for NASCAR’s cookie-cutter backlash from the fanbase.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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