Even as NASCAR’s future waved its flag yesterday when Darrell Wallace Jr. captured the flag at Martinsville, so NASCAR’s past refused to wave the flag of surrender today as Jeff Gordon ran down Matt Kenseth to win today’s Sprint Cuo race at the venerable track.
Even as Martinsville is venerated by the NASCAR faithful, so is Gordon. No longer the kid pushing aside a slowing Dale Earnhardt as the sport’s leading light, Gordon is now the one whose every non-winning move is followed by whispers that his time is coming to an end. He made this year’s Chase far more via the twilight zone than being in the zone, written off as having no shot at any title save the sentimental favorite. Yet he is the one whose first move tonight after a day wheeling around NASCAR’s toughest track will be consulting with Ingrid about where to shoehorn yet another grandfather clock into the trophy room.
The race was as vintage as Gordon and Martinsville itself, filled with bumps and spins and strategy gambles that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Kyle Busch saw the paper clip remaining frustratingly outside his reach, another good run thwarted at the end as he faded from contention. Other Chasers suffered similar fates, Clippy clipping down if not completely trimming away their trophy dreams. Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continued to make every lap toward the championship must see TV even as their private little war gained a new third party knocking at the door, the AARP man reminding the two comparative kids that the old man has no intention of leaving them alone to settle the title by themselves. In the end, it was Gordon who chowed down on the victory hot dog while others ate Martinsville, as is its wont, once again serving several large portions of humble pie.
The Chase just become even more interesting. On to Texas.
Forget Martinsville’s nuclear hot dogs and the equally nuclear tempers demonstrated yesterday by Kevin Harvick, Ty Dillion, Richard Childress and associated minions. The story — the only story worth discussing — is Darrell Wallace Jr.’s win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200.
And not for the reason you think.
Yes, Wallace is black. Yes, he came out of NASCAR’s oft-ridiculed as nothing more than a publicity stunt Drive for Diversity program. Nice back stories. But, given how no car manufacturer has ever produced a steering wheel and/or pedal that can sense a driver’s ethnicity, still not the story.
The story is that a twenty year old beat a whole bunch of seasoned NASCAR professionals at Martinsville. And if that does not make you sit up and pay attention, you know absolutely nothing about NASCAR.
Martinsville is the nastiest, toughest, most unforgiving track on the circuit. Think you can blast down the deceptively long straighaways and slam on the brakes for its paper clip turns? Bye bye brakes. Don’t want to abuse the brakes so you don’t push it down the straightaways? Get ready to be abused by your competitors as they turn you into a rolling speed bump. It takes a precision mixture of aggressively pushing and feathering the gas, cutting the corners just right and stainless steel nerves plus maximum concentration on every inch of every lap to so much as have a decent run at Martinsville, let alone win. No place for hot shot kids. Martinsville is men only territory (no offense, Danica). Talent is key here, but experience is king.
In other words, no place for kids who can’t so much as legally buy a beer to wash down that Martinsville nuclear hot dog. Certainly no place for said kids to figure out where that grandfather clock will go in their apartment.
Darrell Wallace Jr. is the total package on and off the track. He is intelligent and well-spoken; a sponsor’s dream. Behind the wheel he is even more of a sponsor’s dream; a smooth David Pearson type seldom noticed until you notice how he’s passing everyone on his way to posing for pictures with the company owner in Victory Lane. Wallace Jr. made Clippy his own yesterday, putting his name alongside NASCAR legends in the record books. And not because of his skin color.
Because he is that good.
This weekend, while the claims jumpers take a nap the Cupsters and truckers make their way to Talladega. Oh, lucky them.
NASCAR fans are of an either/or persuasion when it comes to Talladega. Either they love its restrictor plate action, forty or so cars thundering as one lap after lap in a dizzying lockstep where the slightest miscalculation will at best send you to the pack’s back and at worse (i.e. normally) instantly change your ride from a snarling best to Scrapheap Sally, or they are working out the logistics of what it would take to disguise the track as a giant mobile home park just prior to tornado season. In short, turn the track into a used car lot and look for someplace else in Alabama where a nice little short track would suit people just fine.
There was a time when Talladega and Daytona were almost purposeful, venues showcasing stock car racing in an atmosphere as close to open-wheel oval racing as could be achieved. That time has long since passed. You no longer need to artificially jack up the speed in order to have a competitive, exciting race. What is needed is for cooler heads to prevail, assign Talladega to the memory banks and build a track that genuinely honors the Alabama Gang with some authentic racing action, not a vapid thrill ride looking for a place — which it almost inevitably finds — to spill.
Favorites? Whoever survives.
Enjoy the weekend, everyone.