Race Weekend Central

In Praise of Underdogs

Have no fear…!

Underdogs were all over Bristol Motor Speedway even if fans in the stands weren’t.

For such a competitive race on such a perfect afternoon, the lack of attendance at Sunday’s Food City 500 can only be described as overcharged. The economics of NASCAR are nothing short of medieval alchemy, and the dollars needed to keep the sanctioning body, the tracks, the suppliers, and the local community in the black are often akin to recreational extortion.

Want to see a race? Here’s what you’ll need to pay. Want to eat while at the track? Here’s what it’ll cost you. Want a place to sleep? Here’s what a required minimum of nights lodging will run. Need a place to park? You’ll need to open that wallet a little more. You pay to play, as the saying goes.

And from the looks of the grandstands in Thunder Valley, the crowd decided to go. As in go away and not attend an otherwise great NASCAR weekend at Bristol.

For the 90,000 or so who paid to spend a glorious mid-April Sunday at the famed .533-mile oval, the payoff was more than seeing Carl Edwards put yet another Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in Victory Lane. What they saw was even better than Carl’s “signature” frontstretch backflip from the window sill of his No. 19 Camry.

What fans observed was even better (perish the thought) than the exciting scramble for second place that occurred over the final six laps or so – the thrilling give-and-take among Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch, and Chase Elliott.

Fans got to see something even more exhilarating. They enjoyed a front row view into NASCAR’s future….

The present state of NASCAR is much improved when compared to what we’ve seen in recent years. There’s little doubt that adoption of the low downforce aero package has been one small step in a good direction, but changes to the Goodyear tires being used has been one giant leap for competition in the Sprint Cup Series.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: the revived emphasis on pit strategy and tire management is a return the classic era of stock car racing that so many of us have dearly missed. An additional benefit to this kind of competition is the fact that smaller teams can sometimes outsmart bigger and better financed operations. Risky calls and well-timed gambles on tire changes can shift the momentum of any race team, and that’s a good way to upset the status quo.

One of the major stories to emerge from the Food City 500 was the performance of smaller teams – those underdog operations that are short on money but tall on guts. A quick scan of the official finishing order from Sunday reflects not only the nature of a short track like Bristol, but the nature of underfunded and unheralded teams looking to turn the corner from “chump” to “champ”.

Scroll through the top-ten and see what smaller race teams accomplished. Trevor Bayne – driving for a struggling Roush Fenway Racing outfit – scored his first top 5 since winning the Daytona 500 back in 2011, coming home fifth at Thunder Valley. Matt DiBenedetto snagged headlines when he turned his 30th-place start into a sixth-place finish for the “feel good” storyline of the weekend. And Clint Bowyer, who’s wrestled with lackluster performances this season, put his HScott Motorsports Chevrolet in the top 10 as well. Bowyer managed to finish eighth after starting near the near of the field in 36th.

And what of the talented, yet grossly-underfunded, Landon Cassill, who finished 22nd yet managed to lead twenty laps on Sunday afternoon? A feat such as this deserves to be acknowledged given the dominance of other Cup drivers like Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch: the only three, by the way, to lead more laps than Cassill at Bristol.

While Edwards found himself in Victory Lane, the uncertainties of tire management found the remaining three-quarters of Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin each suffered tire woes that scuttled their chances at winning and created opportunities for other drivers who were able to capitalize on the situation and get good finishes – good finishes like those earned by the young drivers who might be regarded as underdogs today, but who are emphatically the future of NASCAR Nation.

Sure, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney ran well; they drive for teams prone to do well week in and week out. It’s the underdogs like Bayne, DiBenedetto, and Cassill who showed their talent, their determination, and their potential as racers with the ability (if given the right situation) to change the face of NASCAR.

Let’s hope that kind of change puts more fans in the stands….

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