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WAID’S WORLD: Short Tracks Belong In NASCAR – Many Say There Should Be More Of Them

Lately there has been much discussion about short tracks, namely; perhaps NASCAR’s sagging attendance and diminishing interest might be cured if it bothered to put more half-mile tracks on the schedule.

The argument is that the sanctioning body’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series is composed predominantly of superspeedways and, especially, tracks of a mile-and-one half in length.

There are three short tracks on the MENCS circuit, Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, which means that of the xx races conducted each season only six are on short tracks.

It has become so after decades of NASCAR evolution. During the 1950s – the pioneer era – virtually every race (as many as 50 per season) was held on a short track in such far-flung places as Macon, Ga., and Ona, WVa.

But starting in 1959 things began to change. Daytona International Speedway was built and was followed in the early and late 1960s by Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, Michigan, Talladega, Dover and Pocono.

The big-track phenomenon became so large it was suggested NASCAR become a “superspeedway” environment only. In other words, do away with the short tracks that existed at the time.

Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s president would have none of it.

Still the larger tracks gained a strong foothold with venue expansion in the 1980s. On board came Las Vegas, Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, Fontana, Phoenix, and Homestead – the majority of which were one and one-half miles in length.

They became known as “cookie cutter” tracks.

There were other additions not of the same mold. They were the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and the venerated two-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Still the new NASCAR landscape did not include any new short tracks. Long gone were Nashville and North Wilkesboro – one of the first tracks to become a part of the circuit – closed its doors in 1996.

Today, I believe the six short-track races are among the most anticipated of every season. One reason is rather obvious: They offer a different style of racing entertainment than we see on the larger tracks.

Raw speed is the selling point at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega, where the draft rules supreme.

None of the “cookie cutter” tracks is exactly the same. Each has nuances that provide for competition variety. But to observers that’s hard to determine. The racing looks the same and, they claim, it is predictably routine.

There are a couple things about racing on short tracks that have made them unique. Speed, for example, is not that prevalent except on the high banks at Bristol.

Instead it’s the inevitable jostling, the often-prevalent metal-to-metal contact – and the prevailing strategy that to gain position one driver has to unceremoniously shove another out of the way- that create short-track appeal.

It is a throwback to the way it used to be. And it is the reason why fans and competitors urge NASCAR never to drop its short tracks and even promote those whose weekly shows are not part of the MENCS circuit.

There are many examples of the style of racing fans enjoy at short-track events. Bristol, which just completed its first event of the season, has had more than its share.

So does Richmond, which is the site of this weekend’s MENCS event.

Richmond is perhaps the most unique speedway in NASCAR. It’s a handsome facility and is the only one three-quarters of a mile in distance.

It didn’t used to be that way. It was once a half-mile track surrounded by guardrails and wooden grandstands nestled in the Virginia State Fairgrounds.

But, like its short-track cousins, it could produce some wild competition.

A good example came in February of 1986. That year, in one of the most improbable finishes in NASCAR history, Kyle Petty won the first race of his career with the Wood Brothers.

He shouldn’t have. He was a distant fifth as the race came to its conclusion. With three laps to go, Darrell Waltrip, who had battled back from a lap down, shot past leader Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, who by this time was establishing himself as a no-quarter driver, responded by clipping Waltrip’s right rear.

Waltrip crashed headfirst into the third turn steel guardrail – a potentially dangerous situation – that set off a chain reaction that gathered up nearly all the leading cars.

Only Petty survived and he went on to take the checkered flag.

As you might expect, there was bad blood.

“I like to win as much as the next guy,” Waltrip said, “but I’ve never tried hurt someone to do it.”

Said his team owner Junior Johnson: “It was like Dale put a gun to Darrell’s head and pulled the trigger.”

To be honest, every track has a story like that. But there are more of them – far more – that emerge from short tracks.

They should remain a part of NASCAR and I think they will.      

And then … perhaps, as many desire, there may be more of them.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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OBSERVATIONS: Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol Motor Speedway caught a piece of every type of weather this weekend, but being able to survive through it enabled the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to put on the best race this season to date. 

The Food City 500 started off chaotic on Sunday afternoon as being over aggressive cost drivers early, namely Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr., after Michael McDowell got loose on Lap 4. You have to give both teams credit for sticking with it all weekend, returning Monday with wrecked cars to the end despite points not being worth a whole lot anymore. Really, the added experience could prove beneficial for Elliott. The No. 9 team has struggled for speed this year so lessons learned could prove important, along with the chemistry with crew chief Kenny Francis while Alan Gustafson serves his suspension.

There was also the factor of lap cars, too. Traffic is always a concern on the tight confines of Bristol being a half-mile oval, but that seemed to be tougher than usual with some of the back markers off the pace quite a bit. You have to feel for Ryan Blaney, and wonder if an increase in minimum speed is needed. That said, you can’t always blame the lap down cars – yes, I am looking at Kyle Larson. What else did he expect cutting across Ryan Newman‘s bumper? But he does get all the accolades for spinning around and getting back going with only losing two spots in the process. 

We’ve seen it before, but the Kyle vs. Kyle show at Bristol never gets old. Both Larson and Kyle Busch were masterful in utilizing the multiple grooves to their advantage, but the icing is the textbook bump-and-run by Busch for the victory. He didn’t wreck him, but rather simply moved him up a lane.

Point blank, the race was exceptional as there was passing all day long, with some close calls and even a bit of strategy. Hats off to NASCAR and the speedway on a job well done. Now, can we get some more short tracks on the schedule? 

Points To Ponder:

  • Starting a race, knowing it will get stopped before reaching the scheduled distance, or even worse shortly after by a simple glance at the radar just seems ridiculous. I get trying to do whatever you can to get the show in as scheduled, but something has to give.
  • Neat move by Bristol and the surroundings schools to let the kids have the day off and entice them to come out with free admission. That’s how you get the younger generation interested in the sport.
  • Hendrick Motorsports may have their struggles in the rear-view. After William Byron posted a top-10 last week at Texas Motor Speedway, both Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman scored top-fives at Bristol. It marks the first time the organization has placed two cars in the top-five since October 2017 at Dover International Speedway.
  • Paul Menard’s tire carrier deserves a pay raise.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR Needs New Heroes But It Has At Least One Villain

I’ve read more than once that a means by which NASCAR can alleviate its attendance problem, and the perception that it is a sport in decline, is for it to be blessed with a young driver who becomes a dominant competitor.

That would certainly be a positive factor. Several of the most popular and successful drivers in NASCAR are now out the sport. They have retired at ages that once in the sport were considered young – like 42 or 43.

Gone are Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., by far NASCAR’s most popular driver of the last two decades.

That some left the sport came as a surprise to us all. We were dumbfounded – Edwards, Kenseth and (gasp!) Earnhardt Jr.?

There are many reasons why they retired but a strong one is that racing was not their sole source of income (honestly, they had earned plenty of money) and therefore, why keep doing it and tempt fate?

Seems it would be a better idea to do some farming, take vacations with the kids while they are still young and perhaps even start a family.

Now, in my opinion, it is also true some of these drivers were encouraged to retire. Economic times have not been the best for racing and perhaps some team owners felt it only prudent to replace a veteran with a much younger driver – who would cost a lot less money.

Understand, this is only a theory.

But it is a fact that some of the top teams that have lost veteran stars have replaced them with younger talent – in some cases, much younger.

Drivers like Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and others have come into NASCAR showing a lot of promise. None of them are 30 years old.

Some have already won races while others are expected to do the same – a lot, by the way.

Observers believe that the first young driver who can back up his promise with performance, bring with him a pleasant personality and a talent for gathering, and keeping, fans will become a powerful karma for NASCAR.

There’s no argument here. Just about every NASCAR era has had its dominating personality and winner, from Richard Petty to Cale Yarborough to Bill Elliott to Dale Earnhardt to Gordon.

But let’s change the subject, shall we?

I am one of those who have said, repeatedly, that as much as NASCAR needs heroes, it needs villains – and not guys who merely do or say unpleasant things.

Rather, they are villains who are strongly competitive, win races and compete for championships. They back their words with deeds.

Which makes them more despised and drives interest – can some driver give this character his comeuppance?

In the past Darrell Waltrip filled the role. Believe it or not Earnhardt did for a time and so did Stewart.

I am not disposed to call any driver a villain but I daresay that if a poll were taken among the fans, the man who would rank No. 1 is Kyle Busch.

In many ways Busch fills the role. He’s outspoken, he won’t back down from confrontation, he’s willing to speak against the sanctioning body and happy to give as much as he takes on the track.

I think any driver who does all that is good for NASCAR and he’s called a villain.

Busch does wear the black hat.

He also does something else. He proves that as a competitor he can do much more than run his mouth. He is a top-flight talent.

Busch is only 33 and already in his 16-year career he’s won 43 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races and a championship in 2015.

Interestingly, he was just 20 years old when he started full-time in 2005, the year in which he won twice.

He’s won a record 91 XFINITY Series races and 50 more on the Camping World Truck Series.

But over the years he’s also been involved in more than his share of controversy. So much so that it’s almost expected of him.

This season, Busch is in top form. He finished among the top 10 in five of six races and wound up with three seconds and a third in the last four events.

It is little wonder he’s first in points.

He said after Martinsville he had a championship-caliber team and that “we will get there.”

I think it is reasonable to assume that eventually Busch will find himself immersed in controversy, big or small, as a result of his words or action.

I’m not sure he wants to play the role of villain.

But I would say that if he continues to produce the way he has, heck, he would wear the black hat.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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WAID’S WORLD: Maybe It Is A Slump – But It Doesn’t Worry Johnson

If you found yourself engaged in a conversation with Jimmie Johnson and at some point he said, “This is embarrassing,” you should have a good idea of what he’s talking about.

Johnson, a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, has performed like anything but a champ in 2018. He’s had only one top-10 finish in six races (a ninth place at Fontana) his average starting position is over 24th, (his best is 14th at Las Vegas) and he has not led a single lap – again, not a single one.

Prior to Martinsville he was in the midst of a career-high 28-race losing streak.

If I were Johnson I’d be embarrassed. But then, I’m not Johnson.

 Instead, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who won five consecutive titles is philosophical. He will tell you that he’s not worried, that these things happen and he will win again. He’ll point out that he did win three times last year, at Dover, Texas and Bristol.

With the departure of Lowe’s, the only sponsor he’s had in his 18-year career, at the end of the season some of the Hendrick faithful might rightfully conclude an era is coming to an end.

Not only that but Hendrick is, for now, a shadow of the powerhouse it once was. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have retired. Kasey Kahne has moved on.

The veteran Johnson is now joined by a “youth corps” of drivers including Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron. They show promise but have yet to show results. Johnson is the only winner on the team.

Additionally, Chevrolet has mandated a new car, the Camaro, for MENCS competition. When a manufacturer introduces a new model at least one team has problems adapting, for whatever reason. It is inevitable.

Johnson isn’t likely to blame the Camaro solely but he does admit there is much going on within Hendrick and it’s simply going to take time to work things out.

“I know what has happened at Hendrick is to build a better product,” he said. “Growth is going on right now and I feel we are making strides.”

Johnson admits that what has happened so far in 2018 is a continuation of what occurred for most of 2017. He may have won three times but finished in the top 10 only four times in the last 10 races, wound up 10th in points and recorded seven DNFs.

“There was a lot of frustration and yes, embarrassment last year because we couldn’t get things going in the right direction,” Johnson said.

What happened to Hendrick last year – and what continues now – has struck every NASCAR team, no matter how successful.

The once all-powerful Petty Enterprises, with which Richard Petty won seven championships, didn’t win a race for the last 20 years of its existence.

Junior Johnson and Associates, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and more have all endured seasons that were productively far removed from their banner years.

Even Dale Earnhardt, another seven-time champion with Childress, experienced a mortifying winless season in 1997.

“Now I know how all those other guys feel,” said RCR crewman Will Lind at the time. “And I don’t like it.”

Perhaps Johnson is a victim of his own success. He ranks sixth all-time with 83 victories. He’s tied with Earnhardt and Petty for the most career titles. His streak of five straight championships from 2006-2010 is unprecedented and, some suggest, not likely to be matched. It has to be hard to maintain such a performance level.

The fact is that, as in all other sports, the nature of competition changes in NASCAR. Perhaps it is created by new rules, evolving technology, internal team modifications, an infusion of new talent or even the erosion of the old.

It happens – always.

“I am not sure people realize how competitive it is in the garage area,” Johnson said. “Yes, we have done some amazing things, like winning five championships in a row.

“But nothing lasts forever.”

Maybe, but Johnson is not ready to see his own competitive demise.

“I don’t worry about it all,” he said. “I know I will still win races. I know that my team and I will compete for a championship.”

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR Not Dead Yet But Treatment Is Needed

The departure of Lowe’s as the principal sponsor for the Hendrick Motorsports team and driver Jimmie Johnson means, judging from some opinions, that another nail has been driven into NASCAR’s coffin.

Lowe’s has been in stock car racing since 1997 and its logo adorned Johnson’s Chevrolet through all seven of his championships.

So for the company to leave NASCAR after all the time it has been a part of it and after such immeasurable on-track success – which translated into millions of dollars in free advertising and marketing – is another indication of how the sport is on life support.

That might be, but don’t pull the plugs yet. NASCAR ain’t dead. But it does require resuscitation.

owe’s told us that it was going to develop new strategies when it came to spending its money and hence, its departure from NASCAR.

I believe that. NASCAR’s attendance and television numbers are down and the retail industry is suffering. It’s logical that Lowe’s concentrate on different, and perhaps cheaper, means of marketing.

Its decision is nothing new. Sponsors have done the same for years. But there is cause.

I think NASCAR’s slump from its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s comes from several sources, most of which were, and are today, in the sanctioning body’s control.

After Matt Kenseth won the 2003 championship in a season in which he won only one race, NASCAR was again criticized by fans that railed the point system needed an overhaul.

The next season NASCAR came up with the Chase, a 10-race playoff that was designed to inject drama into a championship battle while, at the same time, become a means for combating football’s TV dominance in the fall.

As you are aware, there have been numerous changes since, none of which has tempered the mood of the fans that claim gimmicks are not the way to determine a title.

Perhaps in 2004 a simple adjustment to the way points are awarded could have made a more welcome difference.

That said, I offer the opinion that if not in 2004, sooner or later NASCAR would have had to change its championship format. Television would force its hand.

I maintain that no matter how points are awarded the specter of a championship won before the final race of any season would be present.

It has been that way throughout NASCAR’s history, with rare exceptions. TV is not going to spend the kind of money it is for exceptions. And I daresay fans would not be happy with exceptions.

A controversial championship format is not the only thing that has alienated NASCAR. The admittedly noble rule and technical changes it made after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 did not end there.

It seems that an uncountable number of alterations have made since – in the offseason, during a season and to the race car itself. Consider the ill-fated Car of Tomorrow.

Rule changes may be good for safety and competition (and thus needed) but to many fans the high number of them give the appearance that NASCAR doesn’t really know what it is doing. It can’t get anything right the first time

Expanding its venues to places like Las Vegas, Kansas City and Chicago might have increased NASCAR’s base, and its lure for television, but to chop off events in the Carolinas alienated its core fans that felt they were snubbed after years of loyalty.

These are the same fans that do not like format or rule changes. They will also tell you they miss the “run what you brung” days, the constant duel between owners, crew chiefs and NASCAR inspectors and the time when drivers had real personalities.

Speaking of personalities if more of them were to emerge it could only benefit NASCAR. As successful as Johnson has been, many fans suggest he is boring.

Personally, Johnson may not be a firebrand but he’s not boring.

Still, NASCAR’s most riveting personality in the past, among many, was Earnhardt. His son filled the role but was never as successful. Danica Patrick might have been criticized for a lack of success, but she was a female and marketing magnet.

The sanctioning body has its villains but it needs its future icon – a driver with charisma who can win races. You know there are young candidates already out there. If one of them emerges it could mean a bump in popularity for NASCAR.

There are many more theories from many more sources about NASCAR’s seemingly imminent demise.

But put all of it aside.

Let’s not disregard those diminishing veteran fans. In addition to their disapproval of so many NASCAR changes they remember the days of The King, The Intimidator, The Silver Fox, The Alabama Gang, The Skoal Bandit and Awesome Bill.

Their numbers are shrinking. And younger fans are not replacing them. This is a fact.

I am certain the sanctioning body knows this.

And I am also certain it continues the hunt to find solutions.

Before it may be too late.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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WAID’S WORLD: Harvick’s Achievements – Are You Really Surprised?

The biggest story in the 2018 Monster Series NASCAR Cup Series season – for now – is the scorching start by Kevin Harvick of Stewart Haas Racing.

As well it should be, by the way.

Harvick has won three of the year’s first four races. He has charged to first place in the point standings and compiled three stage wins for 11 playoff points, more than any other driver.

He’s finished only once out of the top 10. That happened at Daytona where he wound up 31st after being caught up in an accident.

The fact that he and his SHR team incurred severe penalties from NASCAR, which included loss of points, fines and suspension, for this “Battle of the Bulge” rear window at Las Vegas hasn’t seemed to deter his progress.

Eyes are always raised when one competitor so far outdistances the others. Even rivals will admit that as of now Harvick clearly has an advantage – and it obviously doesn’t have anything to do with a rear window.

A few years ago I would be inclined to suggest that whatever edge Harvick has is likely illegal. But given NASCAR’s vastly superior technological inspection process of today, I am more inclined to say it’s not.

As surprised as many fans may be over Harvick’s start, which is understandable, they should not be overly so. As I’ve said many times this is nothing new.

Although it is indeed rare, several other drivers have won three races in a row. And still others have had even more impressive streaks.

In 1967 Richard Petty won 10 races in succession amid an incredible season in which he won 27 times en route to the championship.

To be honest his competition wasn’t formidable.

In 1991 Harry Gant won four races in a row, from Darlington through Richmond, Dover and Martinsville in September. He was 51 years old at the time.

A year later Bill Elliott, driving for Junior Johnson, also won four in row starting with Rockingham and including Richmond, Atlanta and Darlington in the spring. Elliott lost the title by 10 points to the enterprising Alan Kulwicki.

Just like it is today there were questions about the legality of the cars Gant and Elliott drove. NASCAR issued no penalties but that didn’t quell the suspicions – especially when it came to a Johnson-prepared car.

Harvick has indeed joined exclusive company and he seems poised to achieve more.

Perhaps a bigger reason why what Harvick has done should not be a total surprise is Harvick himself. He’s been SHR’s shining star since he joined the team in 2014.

In that year he won five races and the championship, the first of his career. In the next three years he finished third or better twice. He was always the top finisher at SHR except for 2016, when he wound up eighth and teammate Kurt Busch was seventh.

Presently it seems Harvick, who now has 17 victories with SHR, is starting down the same road Martin Truex Jr. followed last year.

And it doesn’t appear that Harvick is doing any less than he has for the majority of his tenure with SHR, even under some negative circumstances.

Harvick has addressed the penalties and chose not to do so after his victory at ISM Speedway. Instead he made personal observations.

“I have already talked about that,” Harvick said. “Today I’m happy. I’m proud to be a part of an organization and a team that is able to succeed and put all that stuff behind them. 

“There are not many things that you can do to showcase character. When you showcase character and grit as a team, as a unit, that’s more powerful than any of us being good at what we do. When you have that unity as a group, it’s so powerful. 

“It makes success easier to achieve just because of the fact that everybody is so on the same page and so determined to make something happen.”

There can’t be much of an argument about that.

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WAID’S WORLD: No Longer Part Of NASCAR Still Weighs On Pemberton

In December of 2014 Robin Pemberton was told he would be terminated as NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition.

There was a caveat. His release would not occur until the end of the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season. He would hold his position for nearly another year.

Pemberton was obviously taken aback by the news. But he was not deterred by his lame duck status. He vowed to spend the 2015 season working harder than ever.

After all, he had been working hard for years – for his entire professional life in NASCAR.

It started in 1979 with Petty Enterprises where he rose to the rank of crew chief. From there Pemberton elevated himself to prominence with such teams as Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing.

Pemberton served as Rusty Wallace’s crew chief for 230 races, which, at the time, was the longest driver-crew chief association in NASCAR.

His record as a crew chief shows 26 victories and 39 pole positions.

But by 2001 Pemberton’s mindset changed. Years of work and travel began to dull his enthusiasm.

“The kids (sons Briggs and Bray) were growing up and I got into the mode of wanting to spend more time with them before they went off to college,” Pemberton said. “So I tried a couple of different things.

“I went back to Petty for a year (as general manager) and then the Ford guys called and they needed a local presence in NASCAR and racing down south. So I went to work for them as field manager.”

Pemberton’s deal with Ford was for three years. But while on the job – and even before – he thought about working in a management role with the sanctioning body.

“The funny thing is I always had a good relationship with NASCAR in the past,” Pemberton said. “I didn’t bend the rules too bad. Bill France Jr. and I always talked ever since my early days when I was one of a bunch of kids coming up. There was just some reason we would talk.”

France told Pemberton that if an opportunity to change jobs arose to let NASCAR know about it.

Pemberton did. “I ran something up the flagpole a couple of times and was told nothing was ready for me.”

Well into his first year with Ford, Pemberton got a phone call which led to routine conversations with NASCAR.

But they did not affect his work. With Pemberton on board, Ford won the Cup championship and the manufacturers title with Matt Kenseth in 2003. Kurt Busch followed with his title in 2004.

Then NASCAR came calling. Pemberton was flown to Daytona Beach (alone) and then joined France and other executives for a meeting and a dinner.

“Afterward Bill put his arm around me and said, ‘I really want you to do this. I promise you won’t regret it.’

“I told everyone I appreciated everything and I was asked if anyone had told me what they actually wanted me to do.

“I said no but figured it would come up at some point. I was told I would be VP of competition, only the third they ever had.”

NASCAR helped Pemberton opt out of his deal with Ford and he went to work for the sanctioning boy in August of 2004.

The transition wasn’t new but nonetheless it was dramatic. Instead of being just one of the guys in the garage area, Pemberton became their overseer. He was in charge and he would enforce the rules.

It changed the dynamic of the garage area.

“I will say the relationships changed a little bit,” Pemberton said. “None of them got worse.

“But the hardest part was I just couldn’t go out and hang out with the guys. I just couldn’t go out and hang with my brother (Ryan, also a crew chief). I had to get into it before I got comfortable.

“My brother and I went from talking every day to not talking for months. And we’re close. It was awkward.”

Awkward, perhaps, but Pemberton never shirked his duties. For example, in February of 2007 he played a major role in one of the most prominent competition scandals in NASCAR history.

Prior to the start of a 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona he suspended six crew chiefs for various infractions. He also threw out the director of competition for Michael Waltrip‘s new team for using an illegal fuel additive during qualifying.

He also penalized the team 100 driver and owner points, one of the most severe point penalties in NASCAR’s top level of racing.

Despite the notoriety, Pemberton felt his main responsibility was to make the teams more comfortable with NASCAR and its rules via communication and economics.

“The thing that happened that was a surprise to some was educating my buddies in the garage on how NASCAR did things,” Pemberton said. “The biggest surprise was that in my day when the rules came down it took two years or so to develop them.

“Today they come out a lot quicker. They have to sometimes. I had to explain that to some of the guys who had no idea it took meeting after meeting to make things work.

“As teams got better with more and smarter people they really pushed the curve on the idea of acceptable lead time, which I supported to make things more economically feasible.

“It’s tough now. Teams are smaller and budgets are smaller. Look at pit stops now. They are slower so it looks like things are going through another curve. The thinking about doing things will have to go back to where it was 15 years ago.”

Pemberton enjoyed a good relationship with NASCAR officials, including those in New York and Daytona. There was never any animosity.

“But by 2014, the Gen 6 car had been introduced and for a couple of years I killed it.

“I went to all tests, above and beyond the races. I went to track tests, wind tunnel tests to Detroit to meet with executives.

“When the car was introduced I was going in a day early and doing media stuff, showing the difference between the car and production cars. I had to educate people because we had experienced some bad things with the Car of Tomorrow – and that’s a whole other story.

“I had two years of simply killing it. It was taking a bit of toll on me.”

Even so, Pemberton had no idea his position was being scrutinized. Late in 2014 at a meeting he was told that competition in NASCAR was going to be re-arranged.

He was given notice that he had only one more season left on the job.

“I don’t think I would have made it much longer anyway,” Pemberton said. “I was tired. I could not get a break. I was exhausted.

“When there are different people at the top things always change. I was used to doing things a certain way over 30 years and all of that was going to change.

“I worked as hard that last year as I ever did.”

When the 2015 season ended, Pemberton struck out on his own. He worked with son Bray, a sports agent, and in time developed a consulting business in which he works with young drivers.

He works extensively with motorcycles. He has clients throughout the country.

But his heart in still with NASCAR.

“Since I went to my first race when I was eight years old, working in racing and in NASCAR was all I ever wanted to do,” Pemberton said. “Even though I had a year to prepare, I always thought I would be told that maybe NASCAR had a different slot for me. But that did not happen.

“When I did leave, I was devastated. I was more than depressed. I was so very depressed even though I knew it was coming.

“I haven’t missed but maybe three races on TV in two years and the ones I missed I listened to on the radio because I was riding a motorcycle.

“It was rough, really rough.”

Pemberton admits that if NASCAR called and asked him to rejoin the fold he would say yes without hesitation.

“I would even get paid less to work less,’ he said. “But I just don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement   

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WAID’S WORLD: Daytona Weekend Provided Dramatic, Emotional Finishes

Racing, like any other sport, can stir our emotions.

We can be angry (“Can’t believe that @#*&! wrecked my driver!”) to gloriously elated (“Dale Earnhardt finally wins the Daytona 500!”).

Such was the case this past weekend. At Daytona International Speedway we saw two of the most compelling and entertaining races in NASCAR’s history.

They were the kind of events that fans crave – and want to see more of – and the sanctioning body needs in this era of diminishing interest.

Unpredictable circumstances and scenarios generated the high intensity of the weekend – which was fueled by unexpected participants.

Consider the PowerShares QQQ 300 XFINITY Series race on Feb. 17. There was some good racing throughout but what seared it into our emotions was the close finish between Tyler Reddick and Elliott Sadler.

That finish was set up only after a record five overtime periods and a red flag. It came down to a duel between JR Motorsports (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) teammates – which in itself provided high drama.

Reddick beat Sadler by 0.000-second (that figure is correct), the closest finish in NASCAR history, eclipsing the mark of 0.001-second set in the duel that took place between Butch Miller and Mike Skinner in a truck race in Colorado in 1995.

The finish was so close that, to some, even video wasn’t conclusive. After repeated viewings they thought perhaps Sadler did win the race.

It was a darn good day for Earnhardt Jr. – the recently retired driver who remains NASCAR’s most popular figure.

And perhaps what made the event even more compelling was that Reddick, the newcomer at 22, beat NASCAR stalwart Sadler, considered a championship contender.

Before the race it was reasonable to consider Sadler a favorite.

But no one thought Reddick would win the race – no one.

It was hard to imagine that the Daytona 500 might have a closer finish – and it didn’t. But for many reasons it had a more emotional one.

As you know, Austin Dillon was the winner. He led only one lap – the last. He won driving for his grandfather/owner Richard Childress. His achievement came 20 years after the death of Earnhardt, who was also Childress’ driver and the last to put a No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane for the Daytona 500.

None of which was lost on Dillon.

“There is a lot of pressure on me to preform because I have had a little bit of everything,” he said. “But I like that pressure. The same with the No 3.  There is a lot of pressure behind that. But I’m willing to take that and go with it.”

However emotional Dillon’s victory might have been, in one man’s opinion it was greater for the driver who finished second.

He did so in a close finish – one that reminded us of what we had seen the previous day.

Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba, finished a whisker ahead of veteran and Daytona 500 champ Denny Hamlin.

Wallace Jr. became the highest finishing African-American driver in Daytona 500 history. He nearly put a No. 43 Richard Petty-owned car into Daytona’s victory lane for the eighth time.

Wallace Jr. desperately wanted to win the race. It would have made history. He and his family were emotional afterward, not for what could have been, but for what Wallace Jr. achieved.

There are a few things to be noted here. Wallace Jr. is the first African-American to hold a regular Monster Series NASCAR Cup ride since Wendell Scott, a pioneer who is the only black driver to win a race and a member of the Hall of Fame.

He has advantages Scott never had. Scott competed on a shoestring budget with second-hand equipment. He was burdened as a minority in a white-only sport.

Wallace Jr., who has already proven he has ability, races with Richard Petty Motorsports. Perhaps it is not considered a powerhouse team but it has much more than offered Scott and attracts attention because of its iconic owner – known as the once and forever King.

Like Dillon, Wallace Jr. knows his circumstances well. There is pressure to perform. And, also like Dillon, he has shown he can handle it.

“Thank you to the King for giving me this opportunity,” he said. “We know how much stress this team has been through in the last three or four months just trying to get this program together. 

“It’s good to see the No. 3 back in victory lane here in Daytona with the No. 43 at the top of the board as well.”

Ultra-close finishes, young drivers coming to the forefront to prove they are capable, high drama and even higher emotions. We saw all of this at Daytona in a memorable weekend.

It was good for us. It was good for NASCAR.

It will also be good to see it all again – soon.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement   

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WAID’S WORLD: Truex Jr. Confident He Can Perform An Encore

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For the 2018 Monster Series NASCAR Cup season this will be Martin Truex Jr.’s challenge:

Do it all over again.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But it’s not going to be simple. It is going to be difficult.

It is not realistic to think Truex Jr. is going to match the numbers he posted in 2017, when he raced – and pretty much dominated – his way to his first championship.

Truex Jr. won eight races, double his previous career high, notched 19 top-five finishes and 26 among the top 10. He led 2,253 laps.

And in this era of “stage” racing he led the way with 19 stage wins to earn a whopping 438 stage points – plenty to lock him into virtually every stage of the playoffs.

He had never achieved anything like it at any other time in his career.

It’s fair to say Truex Jr.’s emergence as a champion was unexpected. He raced with Furniture Row Racing, a team that once was never mentioned in the same breath as powerhouses Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing.

However, the team, based in Denver, Col., has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing – another powerhouse – and obviously made the most of it.

Nevertheless, there are those who consider Truex Jr.’s accomplishment as merely the result of luck – or even a fluke, perhaps.

“It’s easy to say that kind of stuff when you’re on the outside looking in,” Truex Jr. said in a meeting with the media. “You don’t know what somebody is doing, how they’re doing it. It kind of messes with your head.

“For us, we knew exactly what we were doing, we knew exactly how we did it. We just have to try to repeat that.”

The situation now is that however unexpected Truex Jr.’s 2017 season might have been, he will be expected to perform well in 2018. He is considered by many to be a favorite to repeat as champion.

Again, it won’t be easy.

To win consecutive titles is nothing new in NASCAR. Richard Petty did it more than once, for example. Cale Yarborough won three in row from 1976-78 and, astonishingly, Jimmie Johnson won five in succession from 2006 to 2010 en route to his career seven.

Truex Jr. realizes the magnitude of the task facing him.

“It’s pretty crazy to look at the numbers, honestly,” he said. “ It’s pretty ridiculous. It’s going to be tough to beat. It’s going to be tough to match that, for sure.”

But with full confidence in his team Truex Jr. thinks a second title is reachable.

“I think we can do it,” he said. “I feel we could have won 10 or 12 races if things would have gone a little different.

“I think our focus is starting the season off here, figure out where we’re at, go from there. I got a lot of confidence in my team that we can still continue to do some great things.

“Certainly we won’t be happy unless we do.”

Truex Jr. knows he is playing a different role this season. Instead of a co-star he’s now the headliner.

“It’s been a crazy, busy off‑season,” he said. “There has been a lot going on. I haven’t had much time off.

“I think now that the season starts, it’s kind of set in even more what we did last year, how incredible it was, how much it means to us all.

“I feel less pressure, more relaxed, more confident than I’ve ever been. I am excited to start the season, absolutely.

“I mean it’s all just still coming. It’s been pretty amazing.”

It would appear Martin Truex Jr. is prepared to amaze us – again.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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WAID’S WORLD: Short Field Brings Consequences At Daytona – Not Good

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As much anticipation and excitement as the Daytona 500, the opening event of each NASCAR season, can generate, it hasn’t created as much this year – at least to date.

Something is missing.

Many fans that come to Daytona will tell you that one of the highlights of Speedweeks are the twin 150-mile qualifying races, scheduled for Feb. 15.

They are short and fast. But more important, they are riddled with drama because the results will determine the Daytona 500 starting lineup other than the front row.

Among other things, there are drivers in these races who know the only hope they have of getting a starting spot in the 500 is to race their way in. They are nervous and willing to take chances.

Some of these drivers have spent money they don’t have. They are desperate.

If one of them makes it, chances are he also makes headlines. For example, when journeyman driver Delma Cowart finally made the 500 years ago, his name and photo were on TV and in many newspapers.

Cowart, a piano-playing character blessed with a sense of humor, was a media delight. He was especially effusive after his qualifier.

He said these memorable words: “I may have never won a race, but I’ve never lost a party.” And he didn’t lose one the night he made the race.

There are no more Delma Cowarts in NASCAR.

And there may not ever be.

There won’t be any such news or drama in the qualifiers this year. Additionally, fans have no sense of anticipation – and many have said they might not even watch them.

That’s because only 40 cars have entered the Daytona 500. Every one of them has already qualified for the race that usually has a field of 43.

Consequently the qualifiers mean nothing. A driver doesn’t have to worry about racing his way in.

And, perhaps, all the teams in the races may not make much of an effort to be competitive. Since they have already qualified why bother to risk equipment or an incident which might mandate the use of a backup car  – and, at the same time, increase expenses?

Speaking of expenses, I believe that they are exactly the reason the Daytona 500 has only 40 cars.

The “independent” teams, those with little or no sponsorship (Cowart), that raced where they could with tight budgets, no longer exist. They haven’t for some time.

So, obviously, they are not at Daytona to gamble on qualifying and the potential reward of a good payday.

They have essentially been legislated out of business. In recent years NASCAR has created the “charter” system, which, in essence, guarantees all participating teams entry into every race.

This system is designed to protect sponsors. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of every team. Unlike the more economically sound times of the past it has been increasingly hard to find. And the amounts received have been less.

A sponsor has reason to believe its investment in a team may not be a good one if the car carrying its colors fails to make a race.

Knowing this is the principal reason NASCAR created the “charter” system.

It follows that NASCAR will tell you a short field for the Daytona 500 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Its reasoning is, “It is never a good thing for a sponsor not to make a race.”

That may be and NASCAR has taken action to assure it does not happen.

But for every action there is a reaction.

And the reaction to a 40-car field for the Daytona 500 and the loss of meaning and drama for the qualifiers has been negative – even hostile – from many fans.

One even declared, via social media, that “NASCAR is dying on the vine.”

Maybe not, but given loss of some of the allure that comes with each Daytona 500, it doesn’t appear to be a far-flung conclusion.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement