The third weekend of October was a boffo weekend for racing as Talladega opened up for the Truck Series and Winston Cup while Thompson Speedway brang down the curtain on its 2013 season and that of the Modified Tour. A scattershot look at both -
Donny Lia, Rowan Pennick, and Ryan Preece give the Mod Tour a fresh new class of stars - The final 20 or so laps of the Sunoco 150 were a spirited battle between Lia, Pennick, and Preece; Lia had won at Stafford a few weeks earlier while he and Todd Szegedy got into it in September at New Hampshire's FW Webb 100-miler with Ryan Newman. Preece had won the most races and won the series title while Pennick had not led a lap since the Town Fair Tire 100 at Loudon in July. The three of them got into it and Pennick took the win, his first since the 2010 Riverhead 200.
The three of them showcased youth and spirited competition that will serve Modified Racing well.
Johnny Sauter makes a nice living in NASCAR's high minors - Over the years there have been drivers who've never made it in Winston Cup but whose talent is showcased in NASCAR's "high minors" of the Busch Series and the Trucks. The Truck 250 was one of the most amazing Talladega Truck races ever seen and Johnny Sauter's rally to the win - his ninth in the Truck Series - was as brilliant a battle as seen anywhere.
Sauter reminds one of Todd Bodine, Mike Wallace, Ron Hornaday, and Randy LaJoie, drivers who tried a go of it in Cup and never made it, then established their own mini-kingdoms of success one level below Cup. That's not a bad way to go in racing.
Jamie McMurray again defies assumptions - In 398 Cup starts McMurray now has seven wins. He may never contend for a series title but he doesn't have to to have a memorable career. It reintroduced the sport to a driver who hadn't won since his eye-opening 2010 season and who most had pretty much written off.
Aric Almirola again shows he is a disgrace - It may be fitting that Almirola was born in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs have degenerated into an embarrassment to the NFL. Certainly his two seasons in Richard Petty's #43 have been a disgrace even with the surprising fifth at New Hampshire and five other top ten finishes. Winning the Diehard 500's pole by rain-induced default, Almirola led eight laps and then was never heard from again, limping home 22nd after just riding around all day. Petty deserves a lot better than that - winning Talladega is what Petty deserves, not the pseudo-effort Almirola phoned in.
Talladega again showcases the best of racing and the worst of NASCAR's rules ineptitude - The Truck 250 was another case where the supporting race to Cup was better than the Cup race. NASCAR's Generation Six racecar has done poorly all season (necessitating early October's aerodynamics test at Charlotte) and Talladega showed it can produce great racing even with a bad rules package as the lead changed 52 times. But even with that passing was graphically difficult since NASCAR's radiator rules discourage tandem drafting - the cars seemed even not to want to touch at all - and the points-racing ethos in the sport kicked in with drivers running in line the last ten laps waiting for a moment that didn't happen.
Contrast this with the Truck 250, where tandem drafting was prolific; the most striking part of the race, though, was how conventional drafting was able to keep pace and once a tandem took the lead the push-Truck would dive under and take the lead. The negatives of the tandems in the past - the push-vehicle before would push a leader into the clear and just stay there; conventional drafts could not keep up - appear to be evolving away. The Truck race didn't have the weird look that tandem races had had; it looked and felt like an old-fashioned superspeedway shootout.
It's why Brian France and NASCAR need to stop opposing tandem drafting; it is the strongest power to pass the sport has ever seen. Perhaps Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR's innovation director, can persuade the sanctioning body that the best innovations often are going back to the future.
Denny Hamlin wasn't the only one hoping his season ends soon - Hamlin blew up and it was mentioned on the mediacast that he's looking forward to end a lost year. Meanwhile Stewart-Haas Racing had a bad ending - Danica Patrick shockingly ran strong then disappeared in the final 30 laps, while Austin Dillon ran great all day then got spun out and then blasted viciously on the backstretch - a fitting image of the team's lost 2013 season.
Yes, there was a Trevor Bayne sighting - Some compared him to Tim Tebow - fitting since Bayne's 2011 Daytona 500 win hasn't gotten any positive follow-up aside from two Busch Series wins. Even with that he basically has disappeared since that Daytona win.
NASCAR needs to rethink whether to have paved run-offs - Over and over vehicles have slid hard into the inside wall at Talladega and elsewhere and never have we seen any evidence to think paved run-offs are doing any good.
And with that NASCAR heads to Martinsville, though we're a little puzzled why it's been pushed to late October the last number of years.