Groovin On A Sunday Afternoon

The skies were threatening overhead, but the race was promising as all short track events are. For once this season Mother Nature relented of her fury. Instead there was a flurry of controversy over the track surface at Martinsville. The two concrete lanes through the corner had been ground down to smooth the track and left with diamond grooving much like what they did at Indy. Did the changes improve or hurt the racing? Well firstly it’s pretty hard to improve the racing at Martinsville anyway. The tire wear problems some drivers had predicted never developed. There were in fact many tires that went flat but that’s because of the debris and contact between cars expected in a short track race. And it did appear it wasn’t quite as necessary to hug and hog the bottom line all day, which made for more side by side racing in the corners than is typical at Martinsville. Ward Burton certainly appeared to have mined gold in that outside line. Jeff Gordon and his fans won’t agree, but I don’t think the changes “ruined” the track.

But it doesn’t get much better than short track racing anyway. Fenders get bent and tires autograph the side of competitors cars. The bump and run is an art form. Smoke pours off of the tires as two drivers vie for the same piece of real estate. Yep, some sheetmetal gets torn up, but it’s rare you have one of those bad wrecks that has fans holding their breath worried about a driver’s safety because the speeds are much more under control. Nestled in a pretty and bucolic area of the country where the NASCAR history runs deeper than the Atlantic trench, there’s no more fitting place to hold a race, though it’s sad there’s only six short track races left on the schedule and Sunday’s event was the last of 2002.

It was a convincing victory for Kurt Busch who assumed the lead on lap 389 and never gave it up despite a hard challenge from Johnny Benson in the waning stages of the race. Busch had to be holding his breath working through lapped traffic because while he’s had a career year he’s also infuriated a lot of his fellow competitors this season and more than one of them was in position for a payback late in the going. When fans hear the term “payback” they always assume it’s one driver wrecking another in response to a previous wreck. Often it’s as subtle as holding up the driver a fellow feels wrecked him to allow other cars to catch him. The win was the second of Busch’s career with both occurring on short tracks.

At least Johnny Benson’s fans (and presumably Johnny himself) are well used to dealing with the heartache of “almost.” Sunday’s second place finish was the third of his Winston Cup career, but after the injury and mechanical DNF plagued season the 10 bunch has endured it could be considered a moral victory anyway. But they don’t give out trophies for moral victories.

If the race at Martinsville was fifty laps longer, Ricky Rudd might have given his home state crowd something to cheer about. He was clearly coming in the late stages of the race and not afraid to get a little physical when he had to make a pass. Considering Rudd lost two laps after equalizing a tire on lap six it was a fine comeback anyway.

Dale Earnhardt might not have won the race or the affection of some of his fellow drivers with an aggressive run, but Junior now has four straight top 10 finishes and is running the way pundits predicted he would all season in battling for the championship. Apparently that head injury at California really did derail his season. Don’t look now but Junior has an outside chance at creeping into the top 10 in points by the end of the season.

If Benson has had some hard luck this season, Ward Burton’s luck has been worse. He led the most laps at Martinsville Sunday but pit strategy and the length of his stops ended his chances at victory. Still a top 5 finish beats the sort of luck Burton’s been enduring and he’s finally inside the top 25 in points again.

Jimmie Johnson struggled early in the race and Chad Knaus seemed baffled as what to do with the car to fix it. But with each stop the car seemed to get a little better and in the end Johnson finished sixth on a day it looked like he might finish several laps down in a car that was running at full capacity. The finish allowed Johnson to close some ground on points-leader Tony Stewart, but Jimmie managed only a nibble at the gap when he needs to take a big bite with only four races left. (Well three races then Homestead.)

Ricky Craven won this race last year to score his first ever Winston Cup victory. At times Sunday it looked like he might manage to score his second win but the car appeared to fade late.

Dale Jarrett was lucky to drive away from some hard beating and banging between three cars (the 88,8, and 20) precipitated by Junior’s spinning out Jeremy Mayfield. It’s amazing none of those three cars had the toe-in knocked into left field nor did any of them cut down a tire, usually a given when they bang together that hard.

Rusty Wallace was once NASCAR’s short track ace and today he had a good shot at ending his winless drought and keeping himself in contention for this year’s title. His ninth place finish didn’t accomplish either task. One of the major reasons Wallace will not get the second title he so dearly covets is he’s averaged only an 11th place finish in the six short track races run this season, and won none of them. If Wallace is to repeat as champion my guess is that year he’ll win three short track races and average a fifth place or better result on the bullrings.

Mark Martin finished tenth, one spot ahead of points-leader Tony Stewart, to keep his slim chances at a championship alive for another week. It was Martin’s first top 10 in four races.

Of the title contenders Jeff Gordon had the worst day, and there were a few drivers who aren’t shedding any tears for him after being spun by the 24 during the race. Gordon’s pit crew severely hurt their driver’s chances leaving lug nuts loose during the third caution period. Jeff Burton then tried to pull a slide job and put Gordon into the wall hard enough Gordon was forced to make green flag pit stops. Jeff Gordon will not be the 2002 Winston Cup champion. (A note to all his fans: You can cut and paste the previous sentence to email it to me if I’m wrong so I have to eat some crow at the end of the year, but if you forget I wouldn’t leap out of bed overnight to do so, because it just ain’t going to happen.)

Tony Stewart finished 11th and declined to speak to the press after the race. While its becoming evident he’ll probably be this year’s Winston Cup champion it’s becoming equally clear he’s probably not going to be a good one at least in off-track terms. NASCAR has to be contemplating black-flagging Stewart for speeding on pit road during the next four races to avoid such a PR disaster.

As we head towards Atlanta and my favorite holiday of the year (the night you get to set the clock back an hour and get an extra sixty minutes sleep!) there are four races left to run in what has been to date a wild and unpredictable season. When looking back on the 2002 Cup campaign during the long off season there will be some special memories to cherish and among the best will be a gray late October afternoon in Martinsville, Virginia when racing returned to its roots for an all too ephemeral moment. The Boss might be waiting on a sunny day, but I’ve got the Martinsville spring race already circled in red on my 2003 calendar.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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