NASCAR has struggled in the last decade and plus as its popularity has declined and the costs and absurdity of its economics have taken a toll on raceteams and speedways. 2014 was promised to be something different with yet another wrinkle to Brian France's absurd Chase format.
Yet as the NASCAR tour heads to Michigan International Speedway for the Yankee 400, the stunning win by AJ Allmendinger over Marcos Ambrose and the ferocity of the racing at Watkins Glen - not to mention the ferocity of the numerous crashes - have made one reflect that this season has turned into one that has genuine reason to be remembered.
The sport's most popular driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Junior has finally found the groove in his racing career that's been missing. He's raced to win, and has won three times, from the Daytona 500 through his sweep of Pocono, the first driver to do the Tim Richmond sweep since Denny Hamlin. And once again the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut has won a lot, highlighted also by Jeff Gordon's resurgance to reach 90 wins - though chronic back issues have plagued Gordon recently.
And Gordon's back hasn't been the biggest story at the Hendrick shop - Jimmie Johnson's campaign for the seventh series title has been bombed like the PLO by crashes and mechanical failures, and suddenly the #48 team that looked a Cup title lock no longer is.
While Hendrick has run up more wins, the resurgance the sport has seen - and needed - has been from Richard Petty's organization. Aric Almirola's surge to competitive legitimacy has been striking and the return of the #43 to the Firecracker 400 victory 30 years after the STP Pontiac's historic triumph has only been liberating. A NASCAR season where Earnhardt Junior is winning has certainly benefitted the sport; that same season seeing Richard Petty's team winning again is the ultimate fusion of the old guard and the new - a fusion that is only right.
Watkins Glen brought these trains of thought on a curious collision course as multiple melees affected the field and put a damper on a stunning slugfest of a finish between Petty's #9 car of Marcos Ambrose and the Brad Daugherty #47 driven by Petty's former driver in AJ Allmendinger. Coming after Ambrose drove a Petty car to win the Busch Series 200 the day before, the weekend was a Petty-themed weekend the sport hasn't seen to this level in many, many years.
And the finish at Watkins Glen brought out some of the vinegar seen in other races, such as the two Daytona races, Talladega, and the NASCAR Modifieds at New Hampshire, races where passing and repassing were the focal point and the winner got the win by outfighting the field.
Yet hanging over everything was the ugliness of an upstate dirt track set-to between Tony Stewart and local racer Kevin Ward where Stewart ran over Ward and thus took his life. It brought out the uglier side of recent NASCAR history and the surge to success of drivers displaying the kind of irresponsible deportment that leads to situations like what happened the night before the Watkins Glen NASCAR GP. Drivers getting out of their cars to call out those who raced them dirty is universal to racing, and cars calmly drive by even when helmets are thrown at windshields - or even when we see situations such as at Stafford Speedway years back where a driver hammered by another car jumped onto the hood of the offending car trying to get the ignition wires. That Stewart did not calmly drive by with enough opportunity to do so is the gravely disturbing reality of this situation - one simply cannot concoct a scenario exonerating Stewart here, though it hasn't stopped multiple forums from being filled with nonsensical condemnation of Ward for walking toward Stewart's car.
Even if running over the other driver was indeed accidental, Stewart is still guilty of gross stupidity in not paying enough attention to see Ward walking onto the racetrack - as other cars did in calmly driving by him without any harm. And it bears remembering it began with a hard sideswipe by Stewart that took out Ward's racecar. Slide job crashes are not uncommon in dirt racing - or even asphalt oval track racing for that matter - but most are not malicious. Stewart's history, though, carries a malicious quality to wrecks in which he's been involved. And NASCAR's recent generation of racers has seen numerous others who display a similar level of psychotic quality to their racing - Carl Edwards and his numerous crashes, notably his savagery in encounters with Brad Keselowski; Joey Logano and the 2009 Irwindale melee that has carried over at times to his Cup career (notably the Fontana crash with Denny Hamlin); the Busch brothers, widely hated by fans for derangement spanning years; even Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have displayed heavy rap sheets of tearing up someone else's sheetmetal.
And there is the overlooked fact his Winston Cup raceteam issued a statement early Sunday morning that Stewart would race and it was "business as usual," a statement that raised eyebrows on such non-racing forums as WEEI Radio in Boston. It was around noon that Stewart announced he would withdraw from the race and Regan Smith would take over the #14 that Sunday. That timeline looks suspicious, like Stewart was going to race as though nothing had happened and had to be persuaded at the last hour not to go through with it.
In the past the likes of Ernie Irvan and Ricky Rudd were drivers under the microscope following brutal on-track set-tos; the upshot is Irvan wound up paying the price as his own injuries ultimately ended his career. One now wonders if Tony Stewart pays some price, not in injury but in the cloud that will hang over him now.
With the Yankee 400 at Michigan the sport returns to the big tracks still grappling with the technology arms race and its harmful effect on passing - ironically shown in a recent K&N series race at Iowa Speedway (won by Brandon Jones, who looks all of thirteen years of age even though he's older) where the cars, running on bias ply tires instead of radials, were four abreast for the lead in a wild ten-lap battle to the finish. Should Michigan see racing like this the sport will take another step forward in making itself better.
And it will showcase how a season already shocking isn't over yet.