Charting the Future From the Past

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NASCAR's Throwback Season

NASCAR's Throwback Season

by Vito Pugliese

Ever notice how everything that’s about 25 years old comes back in style again? There are many sayings that help corroborate the observation: Everything old is new again. Nothing is original – steal from anywhere. Heck it’s even in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Even Yogi Berra chimed in, saying, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

In NASCAR’s case however, Yogi might be mistaken.

You’ll find no better example of this than the 2011 season. The year started with Daytona getting its first repave since the Carter Administration, and the irony in that should be lost on no one with regards to our similar economic climate. The result was a Daytona 500 that was as impactful as the 1979 version that had a captive East Coast and Midwest audience glued to the tube as America got its first dose of flag-to-flag NASCAR coverage. And we haven’t looked back since, other than to marvel at where the sport came from, and confirm where it’s headed.

Trevor Bayne’s win in a Wood Brothers Ford stoked vivid memories of an era, team, car and driver long gone — and much lamented. Seeing the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford in all its mid-70s Purolator regalia — red, white, and true glory — warmed the cockles of even the most cynical fan’s heart.

It was a popular win not only because of the character of those who won, but that the all-American work ethic and success story that is so intrinsically intertwined in NASCAR was brought back to the forefront.

Witness too the return of — dare we say it — RACING. The Car of Tomorrow now more closely resembles the Car of Yesteryear, with the deletion of the Erector Set front splitter and Top Fuel Dragster rear wing. A blade in the back, and a more traditional integrated lip spoiler that is a bit reminiscent of those of the 1980s has emerged, and we are all better for it. Don’t think so? When was the last time you saw a three-way battle for the win and a last-corner pass for the checkers at California? How about Phoenix with a race-winning pass with eight laps to go courtesy of a legend we hadn’t seen in the Winner’s Circle for quite some time?

Martinsville is the oldest track on the circuit and one of the last links to NASCAR’s storied past. And, as if on cue, it produced a fantastic final few laps which culminated in the Earnhardt name returning to relevance once again, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. showed the racing community that he hasn’t hung it up just yet. Talladega was further proof of that.

Ah yes, Talladega. The 2.66-mile behemoth is always good for a rollicking good time and photo-finish. And last weekend’s race was no exception, coming down to eight cars battling for the win, with Jimmie Johnson eeking out a victory over Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds, tying the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Going back to the future hasn’t just been limited to the Cup Series, either. In the Nationwide Series, Challengers have replaced Chargers and Mustangs run wild where the Taurus used to tread and the Fusion once, uh … fused things. Chevrolet still hasn’t gotten the memo on what is cool, and Toyota pulled the plug on the Supra a couple of years ago, so it has to make due with a butched-up version of its bread-and-butter grocery getter.

We’ve even seen a few faces from the Busch Series-glory days make an impact this year, with the all-time series wins leader — 52-year old Mark Martin — taking a win on the last lap at Las Vegas, while Mike Wallace and Joe Nemechek were up front and in contention at Talladega (just before Wallace suffered an old school Talladega blow-over on the backstretch). Even newcomer Danica Patrick — who endures her own army of detractors — has shown promise, posting a fourth-place effort in Vegas, in part from some prime-time coaching from 1995 Busch Series champion Johnny Benson Jr.

Other than that … well, yeah, count on Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards winning everything else. Brad Keselowski’s Dodge should get back in the mix too, once it stops blowing right front tires on a weekly basis.

The Camping World Truck Series has started to get in on the throwback act, as well. Last year the series seemed to degenerate into Kyle’s playground, bringing into question the validity of the third-tier division that originally served two purposes: to sell pickup trucks and provide short-track drivers a new place to play while getting some exposure in a NASCAR touring series.

There are some new names on the Trucks Series horizon — Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon to name a couple. Both show tremendous promise, the latter currently driving a black Chevrolet bearing a number three in a very familiar font. They are joined on the tailgate tour by a crop of youngster you’ll be hearing from in the not too distant future — namely, Parker Kligerman, Clay Rodgers, Miguel Paludo and Timothy Peters.

There is also some guy who used to ride dirt bikes that is coming of age on four-wheels — Ricky Carmichael — and yet another Earnhardt (Jeffrey), who bears a startling resemblance to photos of his granddad as an up-and-coming short tracker. He’s really going to blow some minds if he can one day muster a mustache.

That’s not to say that everything has been a big candy machine full of sugary-good memories.

Goodyear tire problems have reared their ugly head on a couple of occasions, most notably at Bristol, where teams were limited to a set of tires for practice until more could be rushed in. Dodge is struggling to remain relevant in the sport, with all of two legitimately solid teams in the Sprint Cup Series (Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski) under the Penske banner. Robby Gordon’s game of musical manufacturers has fallen on Dodge this season, but he is consistently on the cusp of falling out of the top 35 in owner points.

There are also just barely enough cars to fill the field of 43 every weekend which is good, in that not many teams have had to go home this year — but cars absent from the starting grid point to some serious concerns with the model of the Cup Series, and hint that, perhaps like in the early 1990s when NASCAR experienced it’s stratospheric growth and rise to national prominence, that less may actual be more with regards to field counts. And perhaps the number of races on the schedule.

The ratings also tell a troubling tale. Over the first seven races, ratings were, on the surface, up four percent from last year, with Talladega numbers still incomplete. Three of those 2010 races were run on Monday due to rain delays, and Talladega’s preliminary numbers are off about six percent from lat year. Those 2010 Monday races in question were some of the best of that season, as well.

But for now, I say no need to fret about the future, just simply enjoy it for what it is while we can.

Like Sarah Connor’s foreboding of what Terminators lay ahead, unseen past the horizon, there is another looming economic collapse that could cripple the sport — and much more beyond that. With fuel prices set to spike past $5.00 a gallon come Memorial Day, might the Summer Stretch of races be best viewed from the comfort of your couch, whose gallons per mile is measured in cola, beer and bottled water? What if the manufacturers — particularly those fresh off a Federal furlough — decide that driving around in a circle is not a responsible way to spend limited capital? It happened on a couple of occasions for each of the Big Three during the 1960s.

Should that come to pass, remember that NASCAR has weathered this storm before in the early- and mid- ‘70s. It wouldn’t be the first time the sport suffered challenges that forced it to improvise, adapt and overcome. And it won’t be the last.

After all, there is nothing new under the sun. And our best ideas are those we’ve had before.

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<p> <span>After a few years of bumbling about, NASCAR seems to have finally hit on a winning formula in all three touring series. Who knew it only had to look in the rearview mirror to find out how to get there? Athlon Sports’ contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look at what’s working — and why.</span></p>

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