Martinsville Was The Fan’s Wakeup CallBy Ron Fleshman
The racing at Martinsville Speedway this weekend was a refreshing as a dip in a West Virginia lake in the month of February. The collective fan base woke up, dried itself off and became interested again. Funny how a short track does that.
There was little to warn folks this would happen. It was 26 degrees as I entered the track on Saturday morning. People were huddling together as if body heat would keep them warm. Sprint Cup practice started and even my camera failed to take pictures because of the cold and the trusty iPhone wouldn’t work because my frozen fingertips wouldn’t work the touch screen. The wisdom of scheduling this race weekend in late October is debatable at best, especially when a better weekend might be the first race of the Chase in September. That would move the rest of the schedule a week later, but that’s a subject for another column. Truth is, it all worked out. The temperature got into the mid 50’s by truck race time and was even in the mid 60’s on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin won the pole for the Camping World Truck Series race and was expected to lap the field, closely followed by Kevin Harvick. It didn’t exactly work out that way. Hamlin had his problems and Harvick, shall we say, had his. Darrell Wallace, Jr. won the race to become the first African-American to win a major NASCAR race since 1963. The African-American who won in 1963 was the late Wendell Scott and he lived only a few miles away in Danville, Virginia. Unfortunately for Wallace, everyone was more interested in the scuffle between RCR grandson Ty Dillon and RCR driver (temporarily) Kevin Harvick. It’s certain that most of you know, the two got together, both were upset, Dillon tried to spin Harvick several times on his way to the pits, Harvick drove into Dillon’s pit stall, Dillon’s crew came out throwing sledgehammers and trying to get to Harvick, Harvick came out and made references to “little rich kids who have been spoon fed,” and said it was the reason he was leaving RCR at the end of the season. The alarm went off after the sleep-inducing race in Talladega, but it was full wakeup time on Sunday.
Fans rolled into Martinsville Speedway on Sprint Cup race day. I hadn’t seen the walkways and roads so full since, well since things started going south in NASCAR. The stands were nearly full, and as a bonus, the campground was heavily populated. One wag told me, “they came to see a race and they know they’ll see one here.” His analysis rang true. They saw one.
Just as in the truck race, many had crowned Johnson or Hamlin as the winner on Sunday morning as I drove into the traffic jam getting into the track. Maybe Hamlin or Harvick would get close, but Jimmie was the man. As ESPN’s Lee Corso is famous for saying, “not so fast, my friend.” Several drivers took turns at leading, but it was mostly Matt Kenseth in the first half of the race, and Johnson in the second half. In the end, to simplify things, Johnson pitted for four tires and fell back into the field. It was entertaining to see him pushing and shoving himself to the front. That is, to everyone but Greg Biffle. Biffle took issue when Johnson wore his bumper out trying to get by him and driving like a man possessed to stay in front of the five-time champ. Finally, with the bumper cover connected to the car on only the right side, Biffle had to pit and have it taken care of, and the battle was over. Of course, watching a very fast Biffle work his way up to the top ten was almost as entertaining as watching Johnson earlier.
Up front, Gordon had moved to second and got by Kenseth, who had re-taken the lead for several laps. Kenseth called it a lack of experience. Gordon smiled and waved goodbye as he streaked to the win. Everyone seemed surprised at the turn of events, but watching out the big press box window, I saw the fans truly engaged. I’ve watched those fans from the same venue for 34 consecutive races, and never did I see so much rooting and hand slapping as on Sunday. The fans even got a good show on the big screen in the middle of the infield when Biffle confronted Johnson and stuck his finger within an inch of the Chevy driver’s nose. On the two stops as I traveled home, all anyone could talk about was Harvick, the Dillon boys, and Biffle. Never mind that Bubba Wallace and Jeff Gordon won their races.
The weekend was clearly a wakeup call to the fans of NASCAR racing. The Chase is filled with “mile-and-a-half’s.” It has only one short track—Martinsville. As I stopped at the new Cook Out restaurant in Rocky Mount, an older gentleman said that “they” needed to build a few more tracks like Martinsville. A gentleman in Roanoke said he turned the TV off during the Talladega race, but his interest was now totally on the last three races. Let’s hope the interest and attendance is as brisk as it was at Martinsville. The race was like a cup of strong coffee first thing in the morning.