The Winston 500 weekend is now approaching and as NASCAR marches toward Talladega it sees several issues jostling about the sport during this past Richmond 400 weekend. The Richmond 400 as is common brought out some good racing and considerable ugliness, first between Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski after a late-race set-to amid Joey Logano's first career short track win, then between Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears where they exchanged blows and Ambrose got cheap-shot in the garage area.
The Richmond 400 came following a story about possible scheduling gimmicks by NASCAR with Brad Keselowski still lobbying for a Winston Cup date at Iowa Speedway. NASCAR official Steve O'Donnell's comments have been interpreted in some circles as an endorsement of a Keselowski idea for a Winston Cup race at Iowa on a Wednesday night followed by the race at Kansas four days later. O'Donnell also talked about possibly scheduling a Truck Series race at Knoxville Speedway to go with the race at Eldora and also of a Busch Series All-Star race, ostensibly at Iowa.
That such talk is going on illustrates a lot of people aren't getting it. First, Iowa Speedway under no circumstances deserves a Winston Cup race. It's not a bad racetrack like Darlington or the road courses, but it's not that good, either. For all the hoopla about short track racing - and people will cite Richmond this past weekend as evidence - the Richmond 400 wasn't much until the late fireworks, and those fireworks were less about good racing than the serial stupidity of some drivers. It is noteworthy that Richmond saw fewer lead changes (20) than Martinsville (33).
The blunt truth is Winston Cup is a superspeedway league and people need to accept it as such; stop trying to make it something inferior.
As for the Busch Series and Trucks, what those series need is not an All Star Race or scheduling gimmicks - though the Trucks do ought to have second dates at Daytona, Pocono, Talladega, and Kansas, tracks where the series has put on genuinely good races. What those series need is for NASCAR to start using some of the multi-billion-dollar TV money and putting it into the purses. The dirty little secret of the Busch Series is only about a third of the field contests the entire schedule, the result both of Winston Cup driver involvement - which has bled the series dry and thus needs to be ended - and NASCAR's refusal to use some of the TV money for better purses.
Also in need for NASCAR to start investing some real money is the Modified Tour, which showcased some genuinely good racing without the high-buck idiocy of Cup diva-dom via the 2014 Spring Sizzler at Stafford Spweedway, CT. The physicality of the racing was somewhat unusual, and a plethora of yellows helped make the fight for the lead in the first 61 laps a real fight. Bobby Santos won last year's Sizzler and this time clawed to the lead again, he held off Doug Coby's surge for the win.
What stood out for about 2/3rds of the race, especially with all the restarts, was that the bottom groove didn't work. It finally got going in the final third of the race. Between the SK Modified feature won by Ryan Preece - who never got going in the 200-lapper and fell out with a mysterious engine problem - the mini-stock feature, and the first 2/3rds of the Tour race, the high groove worked much better than the low, especially in Turn Two, and a lot of passing up front resulted. Then the track changed and the high groove became less effective - in part because Santos became noticeably more aggressive on late restarts on the bottom.
Once the terror of Northeast racing, Ted Christopher settled for sixth. His decline as a racer once again made his finish surprising in his Stafford debut with Robert Katon, Jr's car, painted in the colors reminiscent of the old Rod Osterlund #2 Winston Cup car.
So with the dawning of May, the sport hits Talladega for the Aarons Dream Weekend - one that always leaves a lot of racers calling it the Aarons Creamed Weekend after their cars get creamed. Some quick takes before the weekend -
Cup is becoming a two-team showdown - Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing have won the last four races and six of the last eight. Hendrick Motorsports as usual has been the other power contending with any consistency, but remains winless since Daytona, and their one winner has been spotty, though two top-seven finishes the last two weeks suggest Junior has a return of momentum going.
While Junior has some momentum going, Stewart-Haas didn't have a memorable Richmond, and even with Martinsville and Darlington wins the outfit has just five cumulative top-tens among four cars in the last four races - and had a decidedly mediocre Daytona 500. And while Tony Stewart himself has been largely MIA this year, the driver in clearest decline has been Danica Patrick, this after that puff piece earlier in the year claiming improvement in her performance.
The guy showing real improvement in performance has been Joey Logano, entering new territory having won more than once in a season for the first time - yet to be expected given he's clearly usurped Keselowski as Penske Racing's top dog.
Talladega may be a rare chance for someone else to steal a win - The track's history speaks for itself, so teams that haven't been able to keep up with Penske and Stewart-Haas had better jump out and steal this win given the rest of the year right now isn't offering much in the way of additional chances. JGR has shown muscle this year but it hasn't been as powerful as one would expect - though given the chaos of Toyota's program it's not surprising. Mismanagement by a manufacturer also leaves Ford pickings other than Penske slimmer and slimmer.
The wildcard as always is the draft, and unlike the exercise in frustration that was Daytona this time the Busch bash should be able to race for the lead with less encumbrance.
So we await the first shot in the fight for Talladega.