Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: A Dominant Trio Is Something NASCAR Has Seen Before

The character the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season has assumed isn’t the kind most fans would like to see.

And a sport that often promotes its high level of competition probably doesn’t like it, either.

Three drivers have dominated the season. They have won 14 of 18 races. They have 19 stage wins among them. They occupy the top three positions in the point standings. It’s reasonable to assume they will be strong favorites to battle for the championship – and one of them will win it.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have become known as “The Big Three” of the season so far. Busch and Harvick have five victories each, Truex four. If you want a foursome include Clint Bowyer with two wins.

Unless you are a fan of one or more of them, this isn’t the kind of thing you perceive NASCAR to be all about. To have multiple winners is your thing. The sanctioning body also likes it.

But as it is in every sport sometimes a select few teams or athletes rise above the others. Happens all the time.

I assume you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you it’s happened in NASCAR before – more than once, in fact.

It was particularly flagrant in 1974 when three drivers combined to win 27 of that season’s 30races.

It happened during a time when NASCAR tried hard to equalize the competition and made many expensive rule changes to make that happen.

But it was to no avail.

It was the season of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. They were already seasoned stars and multiple championship winners, so no one was overly surprised that they were successful.

But no one figured they would be so dominant. Petty and Yarborough won 10 races each and Pearson, who did not compete on short tracks, won six.

NASCAR desperately attempted to regulate competition and derail their efforts. During the year it made a whopping five major rule changes.

In March of 1974 the sanctioning body made what it said was going to be its only rule change of the year. It mandated that teams use a new carburetor on engines no larger than 366 cu. in.

But by April NASCAR allowed teams running larger engines to utilize yet another carburetor, one that allowed the intake of more air.

However, after Chevrolets running the smaller engine filled the top six positions at Martinsville, with Yarborough the winner, competition was in trouble. NASCAR reacted with yet another change that called for more carburetor alterations.

And there were more to come.

As you might imagine teams became frustrated for several reasons – most of them financial.

“I got home from Martinsville and got another rule change in the mail,” said independent driver/owner Richard Childress. “A few hours earlier I spent $70 on a carburetor that was obsolete before I ever used it.”

 “NASCAR has things so screwed up I don’t know what’s fair and what isn’t,” Petty said. “This small engine thing has cost us $50,000.”

“We get a lot of criticism,” said Bill France Jr., president of NASCAR. “But if you have a bad rule and you know it why stick with it?”

No matter what NASCAR did – this engine, that engine, this carburetor, that carburetor – it did nothing to stifle three of its best teams and drivers.

There was a reason for that. The teams, Petty Enterprises, Wood Brothers Racing and Junior Johnson and Associates, had the money and technical talent to capitalize on every new mandate.

Glen Wood, for example, had his engine builder develop and new 366 cu. in. Ford engine. As a result, Pearson never lost one fathom of his superspeedway prowess.

Among other things, the Pettys beefed up a 340 cu. in. Chrysler engine.

No one knew what Johnson was up to but that is the way he wanted it as Yarborough won repeatedly.

Petty’s words about the season and its revolving rule changes proved prophetic.

“No matter what the rules are the same teams are going to win,” he said. “The only difference is it costs everybody more money to make the changes.”

This year, to date, NASCAR hasn’t made any significant rule changes. Why bother? There is plenty of time for the competition to equalize before the season is over.

 Then again, that might not happen.

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.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Richard Petty Miffed at Losing Smithfield, and Almirola Leaving, too

One of NASCAR’s dirty little secrets is that the competition in the board room is even tougher than a restart with two laps to go at Talladega Superspeedway. We got another example of that Tuesday.

The latest team to get blindsided by a competitor is Richard Petty Motorsports, which is losing longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

The move means driver Aric Almirola won’t be back after six full seasons with the team. It also imperils the short term for RPM, which must quickly figure out where to find new money.

Understand, SHR did nothing wrong. Sponsor dollars are the lifeblood of NASCAR teams and it’s not at all unusual for corporations to move from one driver or team to another. It happens all the time.

But in a strongly worded statement, Richard Petty said he was not pleased by the turn of events.

“We have had numerous discussions with Smithfield Foods regarding the extension of our relationship dating as far back as February,” Petty said in a statement released Tuesday. “Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship. I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I’m sad to see this is where we are now. This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction.

“Losing a sponsor of this magnitude in September is a significant set-back to Richard Petty Motorsports, but Andy (Murstein, team co-owner) and I are committed to moving forward with the No. 43 team. We have a lot of great partners who have expressed their continued support, and our fans will rally around the No. 43. We’ve been around since 1949, and we’ll be around a lot longer.”

RPM, which scaled back from two teams to one this year, was looking for a new and smaller shop. Now it’s also looking for a new driver and new sponsors, not an enviable position to be in this late in the season.

For its part, Smithfield fired off its own scathing response Tuesday afternoon.

“We are extremely disappointed that Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) has chosen to disparage Smithfield – its lead sponsor – after five years and tens of millions of dollars of unwavering financial support, despite years of subpar performance on the track. RPM’s claims of a “handshake deal” to extend our sponsorship are unequivocally and patently false,” the company said in a statement attributable to Kenneth M. Sullivan, President and Chief Executive Officer, Smithfield Foods, Inc.

“Smithfield’s numerous discussions with RPM over the past several months focused exclusively around one issue: RPM’s inability to deliver on the track and the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness. Smithfield is a performance driven company and we demand performance from the people we do business with. For that reason – and that reason alone – Smithfield decided not to renew its contract with RPM when it expires at the end of this year. It is very unfortunate and disheartening that RPM has chosen to disseminate false statements regarding our communications to NASCAR fans who we have supported wholeheartedly with more than a $100 million investment in the sport over the last several years.”

 

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

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.

Categories
Commentary

7 Takeaways From The Kyle Busch Sweep Show at Bristol

Kyle Busch crushed it at Bristol Motor Speedway, sweeping all three NASCAR National Touring Series races for the second time in his career, a feat no one else has ever done once.

Saturday night’s Bass Pro NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway was great fun, with first Busch and Kyle Larson and then Busch and Erik Jones putting on an excellent display of hard racing.

Here are seven takeaways from the 24th of 26 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series:

Oh, what a feeling

The top four finishers at Bristol all drove Toyotas: Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. After winning just two of the first 17 races of the season, Toyotas have won five of the last seven, which proves how quickly things change in NASCAR. It’s also a reminded that could change again before the year is out.

Not making the playoffs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano aren’t going to make the NASCAR playoffs, and I doubt Clint Bowyer is, either. To win a race, most of the time you’ve got to lead laps and run up front with regularity.

In the last 14 races, Logano has only led once — 7 laps at Kentucky — and his best finish in the last four races was 13th at Bristol. He just hasn’t had much speed lately.

In the last eight races, Earnhardt’s best finish is 12th and his cars have consistently lacked speed, too.

Bowyer has run well lately, but his ceiling at short tracks and intermediate tracks seems to be around the top five.  Worse yet, Bowyer has led only 22 laps all year, less than one per race.

The crowd

It was great to see a solid crowd at Bristol Motor Speedway again. It maybe wasn’t what it was in the sport’s heyday, but was impressive nevertheless. Thanks, race fans, for coming to the show. You saw an excellent race.

Keeping up with the Jones

David Wilson, Toyota’s racing boss in the United States, told me at the spring Richmond race that Erik Jones would win a race before the year is out. I thought for sure that victory was going to come Saturday night, as Jones qualified on the pole, led a race-high 260 laps and finished second to Kyle Busch. Keep an eye on Jones — he’s an up-and-comer.

Busch’s broomstick

What can you say about Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway? He just owns that track, winning six Cup races, nine NASCAR XFINITY Series races and five more in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

Busch deserves congratulations for an amazing accomplishment. That said, watching him race in the Truck Series is how I imagine watching LeBron James play against a junior college team would look like.

The King

I spoke briefly with Richard Petty before Saturday night’s race and it reminded me of how truly dominant he was in the day. Kyle Busch so far has won six Cup races at Bristol, which is very impressive. Now check this out: Petty won 15 races each at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro; 12 at Richmond, 11 at Rockingham, 10 at Daytona, nine at Nashville and seven each at Dover and Columbia (S.C.). No disrespect at all to Kyle, but Petty is and will always be The King, and for good reason.

The title fight

Anything is possible, but the way I see it, the 2017 champion will be one of four drivers: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson. Collectively, the four have won half of the 24 Cup races run so far this year and 29 of 48 stages. These four are also the only four drivers with more than 15 playoff points.

Could a Brad Keselowski or a Kevin Harvick or a Denny Hamlin crash the championship party? Sure, they could. A lot can and will happen over the final 10 races. But if someone not named Johnson, Larson, Truex or Kyle Busch is the 2017 Cup champion, I will be well and truly shocked.

E-MAIL TOM AT tom.@jensen@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @tomjensen100

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.

Categories
Commentary

Do the Math: Kyle Busch Not Closing in on Richard Petty’s Record

This weekend could be another huge one for Kyle Busch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where, in each of the last two seasons, he’s swept the Brickyard 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and the NASCAR XFINITY Series race.

Between the two series, Busch has five race victories and three runner-up finishes at Indy, consistently showing impressive results in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.

If Busch should happen to win one or both races this weekend, somebody will certainly say he’s closing in on Richard Petty’s career total of 200 victories.

Except he isn’t. And that’s no disrespect to Busch. None at all.

Busch is one of the best NASCAR drivers of this or any generation. He has won championships in two series, and he’s won 175 NASCAR Touring Series races — 38 in the Cup series, 89 in XFINITY and 48 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

Those are huge numbers, and they will make Busch a first-ballot lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame after he retires.

But they aren’t Richard Petty numbers.

Petty won 200 races in what is now the Cup series.

Let that number sink in for a minute. Two hundred Cup wins for Petty, 38 for Busch.

Again, no disrespect to Busch and his phenomenal career, but he’s chasing 200 victories across three series. Fact is, 137 of Busch’s victories came in NASCAR’s minor league series.

All 200 of Petty’s victories came in the big leagues.

Not. The. Same. Thing.

When Barry Bonds was chasing the Major League Baseball home-run record, did anyone add in the dingers he hit with the Prince William Pirates of the Carolina League in 1985 or the Hawaii Islanders a year later?

Of course not.

Busch is a great racer and a great champion.

But unless and until he wins, oh, maybe 150 more Cup races, he’s not chasing Richard Petty’s record. The numbers don’t lie.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @tomjensen100

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.

Categories
Commentary

Could 2017 Match Historic 1967 as One of Motorsport’s Greatest Years?

Fans that have watched auto racing all their life and have been alive long enough to remember might say 1967 was the most memorable year in motorsports history.

It was the year “The King” Richard Petty won 27 races and his second of seven championships in the NASCAR Grand National Series. That season, the sport consisted of 49 points events, meaning he won 55 percent of the races.

Racing legend Mario Andretti made his presence known in stock car racing by winning the Daytona 500 in the No. 11 Holman-Moody Ford. He started 12th and led 112 laps that day, and his victory is still considered one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.

19-22 January, 2009, Concord, North Carolina USA Mario Andretti (c)2009, Nigel Kinrade, USA Autostock
Nigel Kinrade, USA Autostock

“At that point, I had not won Indy [500, won it in 1969] yet,” Andretti once said. “I was competitive with a couple of poles but had not won at Indy. So arguably the Daytona 500 win at that time was the biggest event of my career at that time and particularly satisfying to do it somewhere where it wasn’t my specialty.

“Can you imagine the same thing as if one of their drivers — Richard Petty or David Pearson -— had come to Indy and won the Indy 500? It had a special sound to it, and it still does, actually.”

“Super Tex” A.J. Foyt won his third of four career Indianapolis 500s in 1967. He also won the iconic sports car event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France co-driving with Dan Gurney just two weeks later. Foyt went on to win his fifth USAC Champ Car Series title at season’s end.

Now, let’s jump ahead 50 years. Think about what the racing world is like today. It’s a lot different, wouldn’t you say?

2017 NASCAR Cup - Clash at Daytona Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL USA Sunday 19 February 2017 Denny Hamlin, FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Daniel Suarez, ARRIS Toyota Camry, Kyle Busch, M&M's Toyota Camry and Matt Kenseth, Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry World Copyright: {Nigel Kinrade}/NKP
Nigel Kinrade / NKP

Today, NASCAR has three national series with its top division sponsored by the increasingly popular Monster Energy drink. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which it is now called, begins its 36-race season with its most historic race, the Daytona 500, often referred to as “The Great American Race.” Races are also divided into three stages and the final 10 events of the year make up the elimination-style NASCAR playoffs, which started in 2014.

Open-wheel racing has evolved exponentially over the years too. Both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 have become exceptionally safer. In the 2013 Ron Howard film Rush, three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda says, “Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula 1, and each year two of us die.”

Although the film took place in 1976, Lauda’s statement emphasizes the danger of being a racecar driver of more than 40 years ago. Deaths of both drivers and spectators were not as unusual as they are today.

In the last six years, two IndyCar drivers have died from accident-related injuries. The 2011 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who lost his life in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the same year he won the 500, and Justin Wilson, who was struck in the head by a flying piece of debris from Sage Karam’s wrecked car at Pocono Raceway in 2015.

In 2014, Jules Bianchi died after an accident in the F1 Japanese Grand Prix — the European sport’s most recent death. It’s still three lives too many when you include the two IndyCar drivers, but racecars have been redesigned countless times to enhance safety for each competitor.

In NASCAR, following the death of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the sanctioning body mandated the use of the Hutchens system, which was the head and neck restraint system required until the end of the 2004 season.

jimmie HANS
Rainier Ehrhardt / NASCAR via Getty Images

In January 2005, NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS Device, which most drivers were already using, as the required safety system because it felt the Hutchens didn’t meet minimum safety standards.

The 2017 racing season is still just beginning, but many storylines could make this year another one for the history books.

The new three-stage format NASCAR created during the offseason made its debut at the 59th running of the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson embarks on his quest for a record-breaking eighth championship after winning No. 7 in 2016. And the “Monster” era of NASCAR began with a “Monster” win by 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, who is sponsored by the drink, in the “Great American Race.”

2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup - Daytona 500 Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL USA Sunday 26 February 2017 Kurt Busch celebrates his Daytona 500 Victory World Copyright: Rusty Jarrett/NKP
Rusty Jarrett / NKP

“The more I run this race, the more I’ve learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip,” Busch, who had previously finished runner-up three times, said. “The performance of the [Stewart-Haas Racing] team has been incredible. My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go, and I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn’t even see the cars behind me, just heard my spotter in my ear, once we made that pass.

“It’s just unbelievable to have all this teamwork to get us in victory lane.”

Busch’s victory not only was a triumph for him but also for Tony Gibson, who won the race for the first time as a crew chief, and SHR co-owner Tony Stewart, who ran the race 17 times in his racing career but never won it.

Now being retired from NASCAR racing and having won the 500 as a team owner, Stewart jokingly said, “If I knew all I had to do was retire to get it done, I would have retired a long time ago.”

In IndyCar, Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will defend his 2016 title and look to become the first repeat titlist since Dario Franchitti, who claimed three consecutive championships from 2009 to 2011, and the first Penske driver to repeat since Gil de Ferran, who accomplished the feat in 2001.

Lisa Davidson wrote a POPULAR SPEED story about Pagenaud’s approach to the 2017 season in which he says he’ll be in more of an “attack” mode than a defensive one.

“… I would say I really understood better what it all meant last year [his championship year],” Pagenaud said. “It’s about defending. Everything is back to zero. The counts are all back to zero. It’s all reset.

“Now it’s time to attack, attack a new championship, attack a new year. Last year, if I was so successful, it’s because we attacked and we didn’t look in the mirrors. The goal is to do the same thing, not defend, but attack a new season coming up.”

Pagenaud finished second in the season-opener in St. Petersburg behind fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, who won the race after starting from the back.

Across the pond in F1, a retirement announcement heard around the world shocked the entire auto racing industry. The most recent World Champion Nico Rosberg decided that 2016 would be his final season in the pinnacle of motorsports and left the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team. It ended a rivalry — which had the potential to match the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s or Lauda and James Hunt in the mid-1970s — with teammate Lewis Hamilton.

skysports.com
Skysports.com

Hamilton, now paired with Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes, will look to be the fifth driver in F1 history to win a fourth title. He’s 32 years old and already has 53 career wins, 104 podiums, and 61 poles. By the end of his career, whenever that is, he’ll likely be considered one of the sport’s greatest, if he isn’t already.

During preseason testing, Hamilton said rather interesting comments about the Scuderia Ferrari team, which last won the championship with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. Hamilton said, “I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing. They are very close, if not faster.

“It’s difficult right now to say who is quicker.”

If what Hamilton said proves to be true, it will be an intense competition for this year’s championship. Mercedes cars won all but two races in 2016, and Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Raikkonen won none.

Red Bull Racing won the other two races, once with 19-year-old Max Verstappen in his Red Bull debut at the Grand Prix of Spain after Hamilton and Rosberg wrecked each other on the first lap, and the other at the Malaysia Grand Prix with Daniel Ricciardo after Hamilton suffered a catastrophic engine failure while leading.

The 2017 IndyCar and F1’s campaigns are just getting underway, and there will surely be plenty to pay attention to as their season’s progress. If there’s one thing that holds true about racing, it’s that the unpredictability factor is always predictable.

So my question to you, whether you were around in 1967 or not, can 2017 be just as memorable 50 years from now?

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Lessons Learned From The Wild 1976 Daytona 500 Finish

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – By the time the year 1976 rolled around I had been on the sports staff of the Roanoke World-News for four years. I spent a lot of time covering local games and such, but I did get to dabble in more prominent events.

For example, I was the beat man for the local hockey team, the Roanoke Valley Rebels, of the Eastern Hockey League.

By the way, if you’ve seen the movie “Slap Shot,” then you’ve seen the Eastern Hockey League.

I also covered NASCAR. I had gotten some experience and knowledge while I was at the Martinsville Bulletin. The Roanoke folks knew this and counted on me to be their point man when it came to racing – well, that’s what they told me anyway.

But what experiences I had. I covered races in Martinsville, Bristol, Darlington, Atlanta, North Wilkesboro and Richmond.

But something was missing. In my first three years at Roanoke, I never made it to Daytona.

That changed in ’76. Budget constraints meant I would be in Daytona only long enough to cover the 125-mile qualifying races and the Daytona 500. I didn’t care.

I readily admit I have told the tale of the first Daytona 500 I ever covered more than once.

It’s a good example of how someone who is attempting to establish a career might have bitten off more than he could chew – and wonder if that career would be finished before it hardly got started.

My trip did not start off well. A big snowstorm hit the Southeast and many roads were impassable. I found that out the hard way after the company car I was driving, a big red Ford Galaxy, spun out at the bottom of the hill down from my house.

I recovered and told myself conditions would be better the farther South I went.

Wrong. When I finally picked up I-95 outside Florence, S.C., only one lane was open. I could manage about 30 mph.

I was a nervous wreck. If I came up on a slower car or truck, I’d have to pass and that meant shifting to a snow-covered lane. And could I make it up and down the exit ramp to get gas? And what if traffic was stopped?

I-95 wasn’t completed to Daytona so I had to traverse two-lane highways through most of Georgia.

Finally snow gave way to rain at Savannah and traveling was much easier. By the time I got to Daytona and found my motel I had been on the road for 14 hours.

It took me some time to get accustomed to the massive 2.5-mile speedway, its seemingly acres of garage area and huge pit road.

I had no problem composing what I thought was interesting copy. I had become familiar with several of the drivers and they didn’t hesitate to talk to me.

I thought, “This is fun. This is going to be a cinch.”

Wrong again. The bottom fell out.

As you know, the 1976 Daytona was arguably the most exciting in the track’s history.

The final 22 laps became a trophy dash between Richard Petty and David Pearson, the top stars of the day.

Pearson took the lead on the backstretch on the final lap but he drifted high and Petty moved under him.

They rode side-by-side out of the fourth turn when suddenly their cars bobbled. Pearson whacked the wall nose first and clipped Petty in the process.

Their two cars spun out of control. Petty ended up in the grass about 100 feel from the finish line. Pearson came to a halt at the entrance to pit road.

Pearson managed to keep his foot in the clutch and was able to limp across the finish line at 20 mph to win. Petty’s engine had died.

I had never seen the likes of it. To be honest, no one in the press box – or anywhere else – had either.

After the completion of Pearson’s press conference my mind went blank. I sat there unable to come up even the first words of the piece I had to write. I was overwhelmed.

No one else seemed to have that problem. Typewriters were clicking rapidly throughout the press box.

I wrote, “They wrecked.” Naw, no good. I wrote, “It was one for the ages.” Cliché. I wrote, “You had to see it to believe it.” Terrible.

I started to panic. After time, I was among the last in the press box and I had not even started.

Finally I just started writing. And I kept writing. When I was finished I hardly knew what I had written- heck, I don’t know to this day.

But I made my deadline and didn’t get a midnight phone call from my editor telling me I was fired.

In time I realized why it took me so long to do my job. Those around me were experienced. They were veterans who long ago learned how to do the job competently and quickly – no matter the circumstances.

I told myself that someday, if I learned my lessons, I would be like them.

But if nothing else I am glad I was there to see a part of NASCAR history.

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.

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: A Look Back To 1979 – The Year Petty Won His Last Championship

That Jimmie Johnson won his seventh career NASCAR Sprint Cup title and joins Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as the drivers with the most championships in the sanctioning body’s history is, indeed, an accomplishment which establishes the California driver as one of the best of all time.

He is forever linked to two NASCAR icons and – think of this – he has the opportunity to surpass them both.

However, that is in the future. Let’s look to the past. Petty won his seventh and last title in 1979, a tumultuous and dramatic season that has passed into NASCAR lore.

 

— It was in 1979 that NASCAR plowed its way into the nation’s consciousness through the magic of television. The Daytona 500 was televised live by CBS.

As fate would have it a huge snowstorm hit the Northeast and, unable to leave their homes, many decided to tune in and see what NASCAR was all about.

In an exciting and completely unexpected finish, Petty sped past the wrecked cars of leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison to win at Daytona yet again.

That wasn’t the end of it. “And there’s a fight in the third turn!” CBS broadcaster Ken Squier yelled.   Sure enough, Yarborough and the Allison brothers – Bobby joined the fray – were mixing it up in the infield, arms and legs flailing.

Folks who watched on TV later said they were slack-jawed. They had never seen anything like that – and said they wanted to see more. NASCAR’s popularity grew accordingly.

Had Petty listened to his doctors he would have never entered the race. During the offseason about 40 percent of his stomach had been removed due to ulcers. He was urged not to compete until declared fully healed.

He ignored his doctors. And that he did was the first step toward what was then a record-setting championship.

 

— In 1979, a skinny kid from Kannapolis, N.C., finally landed a quality ride with Rod Osterlund’s team.

Earnhardt would quickly become a sensation. He won the spring race at Bristol in a sport where rookies seldom win.

He was dynamic on the track. Even though young he gave no quarter and asked for none. He said that was the way his father Ralph, a champion on the short tracks, did it.

He would go on to become the Rookie of the Year despite the fact he broke both his collarbones in a crash at Pocono in July and missed four races.

Osterlund had to find a replacement driver, particularly for the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.

Enter David Pearson.

 

— In 1979, Pearson and the Wood Brothers team had already established themselves as one of NASCAR’s best all-time unions. Since 1972 they had won 44 races running limited schedules on mostly superspeedways.

But at Darlington’s Rebel 500 in the spring of that year, Pearson sped down pit road with two left-side wheels unattached. They came off and the team’s Mercury collapsed at the pit exit.

It was one of the most unusual events in NASCAR history. For Pearson it was also a career change.

Soon afterward the Woods announced that they and Pearson would split. It was said the pit road incident had nothing to do with it. Few believed it. Pearson was without a ride.

Osterlund hired Pearson to replace Earnhardt. Pearson finished second at Talladega, fourth at Michigan and seventh at Bristol. Then came Darlington’s Southern 500 on Labor Day.

Pearson won the race. It was his 10th at Darlington and the 104th of his career.

One driver who could have beaten him yet lost all chance when he spun out two times was Darrell Waltrip. He would figure prominently in the championship battle.

 

— In 1979, Waltrip signed a five-year deal with DiGard Racing Co., something he would later deeply regret.

After the Darlington disappointment Waltrip held a 162-point lead over Petty, which grew to 187 points after Richmond, the 24th race of the year.

But over the course of the next four races Petty cut 170 points off Waltrip’s lead and then, after the fall race at Rockingham, Petty took an eight-point lead. It was the first time he had been atop the point standings all season.

There were two races to go.

Waltrip was fourth at the next race, in Atlanta, and Petty was sixth. Waltrip held a two-point lead going into the final event of the season at Ontario, Calif. NASCAR had never seen the likes of it.

Waltrip ran a conservative setup at the California track to improve reliability. Petty said he came to win – and had his car prepared to do just that.

Waltrip looped his car to avoid a wreck, pitted and went a lap down. He finished seventh and earned 147 points. Petty, meanwhile, finished fifth and was credited with 160 points.

Petty won the championship by 11 points – at the time the closest finish in NASCAR history.

 

— At the end of 1979 no one knew Petty’s title would be the last of his career even though he raced through 1992.

No one knew that Earnhardt would win the championship in 1980, one season after his rookie title. And certainly no on knew he would go on to win six more.

No one knew that Waltrip would buy his way out of his DiGard contract to join Junior Johnson in 1980. Waltrip would win three championships with Johnson.

No one knew Pearson would win once in 1980 thus end his career with 105 victories, second all-time only to Petty.

And today, no one knows if Johnson will make history with an eighth championship.

We’ll have to wait and see.

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. 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

MILNER: A Seventh for Johnson Wouldn’t Diminish Earnhardt’s and Petty’s Legacies

With his win at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson didn’t just earn himself another grandfather clock. Taking the checkered flag last weekend assured Johnson an opportunity to race for another Sprint Cup title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If he can finish ahead of the other three challengers, he will win his seventh championship.

If the pieces come together, it will be a historic achievement. It will be Johnson’s first championship since 2013 and his first under the new Chase format. He will also become only the third NASCAR driver to win seven championships, a feat previously accomplished by Hall-of-Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

As Johnson marched toward multiple championships, he became a polarizing figure as some fans who booed his every win. Even last weekend, as he climbed from his car, you could hear a smattering of boo.

Should Johnson win at Homestead, there will be those who will be quick to declare his feat to be insufficient to place him alongside Petty and Earnhardt. While every fan is entitled to their opinion, they should not be so quick to downplay Johnson’s seventh win as if it takes away from Earnhardt and Petty’s legacies.

Usually, the word “I” doesn’t figure into my articles for Popular Speed but here, I will make an exception: I am a Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fan. With due respect to Johnson, Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and others who enter the conversation as who was the “greatest driver of all time,” my vote goes to Earnhardt.

Having said that, I respect what Johnson has done in his career and will not be disappointed if his 2016 season ends with his seventh championship. Jimmie Johnson tying Dale Earnhardt’s record will not diminish Earnhardt’s legacy any more than Richard Petty’s legacy was in 1994 with Earnhardt’s seventh championship.

Richard Petty, with 200 wins, seven championships and an equal number of Daytona 500 wins, earned “the King” a place in the upper echelon of NASCAR all-time elite drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. did the same with 76 wins, seven championships and his 1998 Daytona 500 victory. Johnson, with six championships, 79 wins, and two Daytona 500 victories is already among the all-time greats. A win at Homestead for a seventh championship would raise his career achievements up, not bring down those of either Petty or Earnhardt.

If Johnson’s seventh championship were to come to pass, NASCAR would not lose anything. Instead, it would gain a historic moment not been seen in a generation and likely will not to be seen again for another.

Even if Johnson’s seventh championship doesn’t come in 2016 or ever, he is still worthy of being part of the conversation as to who is NASCAR’s greatest driver. Whether he, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. or any other driver deserves the title is up to individual opinion. Nothing that happens at Homestead will change that.

Johnson, for his part, says he is honored to be a part of that conversation. Nothing that happens at Homestead will change that, either.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kentucky Belongs to Generation Now

Kentucky Speedway opened with an ARCA race in 2000. Since then, NASCAR has held races in various series at the track. Greg Biffle won the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at the track and Kevin Harvick, the first XFINITY race.

The history of the Sprint Cup series at Kentucky, meanwhile, is actually quite limited. With only six Cup races held at the Sparta track, there are but three drivers with Kentucky wins on their resume: Matt Kenseth, two-time winner Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, who became a three-time winner this past weekend. It would be safe to assume (barring any major complications) every Kentucky winner will return to compete in next year’s race.

When the Cup series returns to the 1.5-mile track in 2017, those three winners should be joined by every driver with more than one top five at Kentucky, every driver who has recorded double digits in laps led and every driver who has sat on the pole. There is probably not another track that will be able to say the same.

Kentucky may lack in longevity, but there is an opportunity for this generation of Cup drivers to make this track their own. They need not worry about living up to the standards set by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. Even Jeff Gordon failed  to win at Kentucky before retiring last season.

Instead, they will be the ones setting the standards and to do so, they will compete against the drivers next to them, rather than the legends they know only from studying NASCAR history.

The history of the Kentucky Speedway may pale when placed alongside Daytona, Talladega or Darlington, but if it is to be raised to sit alongside those tracks in esteem and prestige, it will be because of the exploits of those drivers we are watching on TV or at the track every week.

Right now, Brad Keselowski would be considered the man when it comes to Kentucky, the way Petty is considered “The King” of Daytona or the way Waltrip ruled Bristol. If there is a driver who knocks Keselowski off his Kentucky throne, it will be one of his current or future competitors.

Cup history in Kentucky may not be long, but it is being written before our very eyes.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

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