NASCAR's 2016 season now enters Bruton Smith's speed palace in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. Curiously overlooked is this marks the 20th season of Texas Motor Speedway, and the flying of time has made one forget the near-disasterous debut seasons for the track to where rumor of NASCAR quitting after 1998 seriously circulated. Texas hits with several issues jostling for attention - which seems par for the course of any NASCAR season.
The Virginia 500 didn't see the on-air lobbying for NASCAR's low downforce package that previous races had seen, but Randy hallman at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Tom Jensen at Fox Sports' NASCAR page authored pieces on the Martinsville race that basically lobbied for it anyway. Jensen in particular noted the varied battles outside the top five, presenting it as evidence of better racing. while Hallman made a thoughtful argument that NASCAR's short tracks have the best racing.
The argument about battles outside the top five is an old one and I remember it used to drive the late David Poole nuts; it drives me even more bonkers. The lead is the spot that matters; those battles outside the top five or top ten aren't supposed to be an end in themselves, they are supposed to part of the battle for the lead.
On the issue of short tracks, they are what NASCAR started on, but from the beginning the signature races for the Grand National series were the beach race at Daytona and the Southern 500 at Darlington; the building of Daytona International Speedway set off the big-track boom and the sport quickly evolved into a superspeedway league. Short tracks are great for local racing and the smaller tours like the Modifieds and the K&N Tours, but even in the Modifieds the signature races were long at the 1.5 mile Trenton Speedway, at Pocono on the 2.5-miler in the 1970s, and since 1990 at New Hampshire International/Motor Speedway. In the 1970s the Winston West tour's big races were at Ontario Motor Speedway and for awhile in recent years at Fontana.
Historically some 78 Winston Cup-Grand National races have broken 40 official lead changes, and just one - the 1991 Southeastern 500 at Bristol - was a short track. Talladega has broken that competitive barrier a whopping FORTY times (and for good measure the Busch/Xfinity Series broke that barrier there twice). Daytona broke the barrier thirteen times; Charlotte nine times, Pocono seven times, Michigan six times. Atlanta and Darlington broke that barrier once apiece, both times in 1982. And all these tracks plus Ontario Motor Speedway and the Fontana track have flirted with forty lead changes plenty of other times.
This isn't to say the short tracks haven't seen highly competitive races. Indeed the bullrings have quite often held their own competitively in their own way with the superovals. Martinsville broke 20 official lead changes for the first time in the 1980 Old Dominion 500 won by Dale Earnhardt. Geoff Bodine's 1992 Old Dominion 500 win was one of the nastiest races of the celebrated 1992 season. The Virginia 500 in 1998 and 1999 saw memorable nose-to-nose battles for the lead, both times involving John Andretti. Martinsville then broke 30 official lead changes for the first time in 2010's Virginia 500 won by Denny Hamlin when a late restart exploded into a three-abreast fight, while the 2014 (won by Kurt Busch) and 2015 (won by Hamlin) Virginia 500s put up some eye-popping numbers - a combined sixty-four lead changes.
Bristol began to establish itself as a must-see race first in the 1968 Southeastern 500 and a memorable duel between Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Leeroy Yarbough where at times they were three wide for entire laps - such was that race that it was prominently featured on the Car & Track television series that season. The 1974 Volunteer 500, coming five years after the track was banked much higher for faster speeds, turned into a memorable event as Cale Yarborough led over 350 laps but Buddy Baker stormed to an upset bid; on the final lap Cale forearmed under Baker and swerved him to the Turn Four fencing for the win, which delighted Cale and Junior Johnson and left Baker and Bud Moore stewing.
Bristol turned the competitiveness up another notch in 1988's Southeastern 500 with Bill Elliott's comeback from getting spun out by Geoff Bodine; a year later the lead changed 34 times in the Southeastern 500 as Greg sacks led 119 laps but despite numerous saves couldn't sustain the lead and Rusty Wallace grabbed it; two years later came the 1991 race that broke 40 lead changes, again won by Wallace.
The track's conversion to concrete took a lot of passing away, but work on the turns by 2010 brought back old-school battling for the lead there, as Jimmie Johnson won the Southeastern 500 in 2010 in a race that hit 29 official lead changes and numerous additional ones.
So there's certainly something to like in the short track portion of the Cup season. Ultimately the short tracks may not measure up to the best of the big tracks, but there is something competitively to them for the big leagues.
It matters because as the Sports Media Watch site showed, NASCAR's TV ratings have been poor all season and not getting any better. The lobbying by NASCAR media for this low downforce rules package seemingly every race has gotten ridiculous and it's also not being honest with anyone. While there has been spots of decent racing, overall 2016 is proving anew why low downforce packages and high horsepower simply don't see better racing. Getting NASCAR's popularity back won't come overnight; it will take years. But NASCAR and its media first need to start being honest about things.
Give us back the 40-plus lead change races the sport was built on; eliminate the Chase concept and give us back a points race that incentivizes winning and most laps led.
The puzzling story that isn't going away is the story about whether Kevin Harvick is staying at Stewart-Haas Racing when it switches to Ford. Ford Motorsports chief Dave Pericak, who took the job at the start of 2015, stated flatly Harvick will be racing Fords in 2017. One would have thought this a done deal, yet the story that Chevrolet intends to grab Harvick and place him with Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 simply isn't going away, and it leaves me wondering if something indeed is going on behind the scenes.
A star driver suddenly switching teams or car makes isn't a new thing; controversy surrounding the switch isn't new, either, yet remains unusual, given the memory of the rancor that followed first the grabbing of Jeff Gordon by Chevrolet (what stood out most was Ford boss Michael Kranefuss' public anger at that) and the similar rancor when Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd switched to Fords for 1994 and made a point of ripping General Motors as basically crooks for their handling of racing, which led to a memorably sharp exchange of press releases before the 1994 season.
So that's how it is right now as Texas Motor Speedway beckons.