Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: A Memorial Day to Remember for NASCAR

Last Sunday was one memorable day of racing.

If we move beyond the self-serving particulars of who won, who lost, and other such personally-driven details as those, we can treat this past weekend’s slate of events as a simple matter of earnest motorsports competition.

It was a Sunday as simple as one, two and three.

One was the fact that Carl Edwards scored his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup points race win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Edwards had not visited a victory lane on the Cup schedule since his success at Texas late in 2013. For fans of “Cousin Carl”, a win was long overdue. Edwards left Roush Fenway Racing (and Ford) at the end of the 2014 season in hopes of finding new opportunities and new energies elsewhere.

The changes Edwards sought were found at Joe Gibbs Racing. Carl’s first year behind the wheel of the No. 19 Toyota Camry began in somewhat of an understated manner, but then came last Sunday and his win at Charlotte in the season’s longest event. Matt Kenseth may have put his No. 20 JGR Toyota on the pole, but it was Edwards who benefited from a late-race gamble on fuel mileage to find victory lane.

While other contenders pitted late for a splash of gas, Edwards heeded the sage advice of crew chief Darian Grubb and stayed out. For once in 2015, a Cup race was decided by savvy pit strategy instead of “clean” air and the advantage of a frontrunner’s aero push.

Win number one in season number one for Edwards at JGR demonstrated that change, while often frightening, is often worthwhile.

Another driver to benefit from change was Juan Pablo Montoya, who came from the back of the pack twice to capture his second Indianapolis 500 victory. In JPM’s case, number two also meant a second chance at a successful career.

Despite his accomplished history in open-wheeled competition, Juan Pablo came to NASCAR and struggled mightily. His departure from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing at the end of the 2013 Cup season was difficult, but not altogether unexpected. Racing success is defined by more than being a popular driver with a loyal sponsor.

Enter Roger Penske. “The Captain” offered JPM an opportunity to revitalize his career, which led to Montoya running two Cup races and 18 IndyCar events for Penske during 2014.

Then came 2015.

Today Montoya has two 2015 Verizon IndyCar wins, including last Sunday’s 99th-running of the Indianapolis 500. While his first victory at Indy seemed all-too-easy (he led 167 of the 200 laps), Sunday’s achievement was one for the history books: JPM and Penske fending off an early brush with another car and a pit-road penalty to charge from the rear to the front on two separate occasions.

Win number two, while difficult, was doubly sweet for Montoya and his teammates.

And if two wins are sweet, how about three in a row? Nico Rosberg scored a hat trick in the Grand Prix of Monaco last Sunday by taking his Mercedes to victory lane after a dominant performance by his teammate Lewis Hamilton. The two Mercedes drivers led every lap in the Formula 1 event (Hamilton led the first 64 while Rosberg led the final 14), but it was (once again) late-race pit strategy that put Rosberg out front for good to snag his third consecutive Monaco win.

Winning any F1 race (or any race, for that matter) is an amazing feat, but to win a legendary event like the Grand Prix of Monaco on such a famous circuit that’s so steeped in folklore, romance and popular culture is life-changing. It’s on par with winning at Daytona or at Indianapolis, and doing so three years running is a sure-fire way to cement your place within motorsports history.

And so: one Sunday, three celebrated performances.

There’s an old joke that says children in North Carolina learn to count by saying “One, two, Earnhardt.” After last weekend, maybe the punch line will be changed to “Edwards, Montoya, Rosberg.”

This past Memorial Day weekend was certainly something to remember.

About the author

Dr. Mark Howell is a college professor whose life and area of specialization is all about motorsports. He has published two books on the topic, has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to talk about NASCAR and has been part of the Frontstretch team since 2011. Mark also spent three years (2001-2003) as a part-time pit crew member in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. As a professor, Mark teaches courses in advanced writing, popular culture, and film studies. He is also on the nominating committee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Florida. In January 2017, Mark was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It has curtailed his writing for Frontstretch, but he still manages to provide content whenever possible.

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