Rating The Racesbr Part 1

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Sometimes it takes a healthy dose of retrospect in the rearview mirror to rate a season's worth of races. Events have to be seen not only as individual events but how those events played a role in the entire season. Below are my grades for the 36 points races that made up the inaugural 2004 Nextel Cup season.

The Daytona 500- My guess is the folks at Nextel were absolutely delighted to have their "era" kick off with a very popular Daytona 500 win scored by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Daytona 500 was the one huge prize in the sport that eluded Earnhardt's father almost forever. And eventually it was the Daytona 500 that cost the elder Earnhardt his life. Even Junior had seen 500 victories go up in smoke after dominating Speed Weeks during his relatively brief Cup career. With 17 laps to go Earnhardt Jr. passed Tony Stewart for the lead and a huge portion of the crowd rose to their feet never to sit down again. The race was marred by a nasty crash that saw Michael Waltrip's Chevy roll through the infield grass in a shower of mud but no one was hurt during the wreck. Any plate race that doesn't maim or kill someone gets graded on a curve. We'll give this one a B with a half grade added for sentimentality.

Rockingham- This spring's race at the rock was a coming out party for Kasey Kahne, an unheralded rookie who came dang close to winning the race on the final lap. Reigning Cup champion Matt Kenseth held on by a whisker to win the race and send a message to his critics who said he won the 2003 title with consistency not brilliance. There was also a good deal of controversy because of an ill-timed caution, which called NASCAR's scoring system into question for the first of many times this season. Kenseth and Kahne had already pitted handing the lead to Jamie McMurray. But when the caution flew and McMurray pitted he wound up restarting behind Kenseth and Kahne. Still overall the race gets an A as it was one of the best races of this somewhat lackluster season. Only in retrospect is a footnote to the Rockingham race weekend significant. NASCAR's Mike Helton warned drivers for the first time that weekend that use of foul language could result in points fines. Despite an outstanding event that left fans in the stands and watching at home breathless sadly we now know this spring's race was the last Cup event at Rockingham I give whoever made that decision an F-.

Las Vegas- Vegas gave race fans their first good look at how the new aerodynamic rules package combined with the purportedly softer Goodyear tires might improve racing on the low banked superspeedways often referred to as "cookie-cutters." The verdict was not good for race fans or the sport. Matt Kenseth dominated a tepid race. The only interesting portion of the race came after Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson beat Kenseth off pit road late in the race but Kenseth was able to make quick work of them. So many had expected so much of the new rules package only to see so little change. This race was ominous precursor of the rest of the season. It gets a D. For fans of Earnhardt Jr. the fact he was so out to lunch and so far off the pace at Vegas was a troubling harbinger of the inconsistency that would plague the 8 team all season.

Atlanta- The spring Atlanta race has provided some thrilling finishes but this year's edition wasn't one of the better races at the track. In fact the first third of the race was so atrocious many fans probably drifted off to sleep before the action heated up there at the end mainly as a result of various teams trying different pit strategies to beat the dominant 8 car. Pundits were left scratching their heads wondering how the Bud team could have fallen flat on their faces only a week before at Vegas than showed up with a dominant car at Atlanta. I'll give this race a B-, which is generous, but coming on the heels of the debacle at Vegas any race would have looked good.

Darlington- The circuit returned to the sport's Mecca with dark clouds hanging over the future of NASCAR's toughest and proudest track. While attendance was up this spring it wasn't enough to safe this race date from the greed-heads. Next year Darlington will have just one race date and it will be run on the Saturday night prior to Mother's Day. Talk about gassing a puppy and telling your kids the dog went off to live on a farm. If the spring race wasn't the best in Darlington's history it was a pretty fair race in its own right especially in light of the rest of the season. The last couple restarts had race fans on their feet hollering. And race fans weren't the only ones hollering that week. The normally mild-mannered Jeff Gordon got into a screaming match with a news crew in Cincinnati after an emergency landing. If Gordon was annoyed with the reporters he was even more incensed with Tony Stewart after the race. Stewart ran out of patience with field-filler Andy Hillenburg and sent Andy spinning. Jeff Gordon was able to avoid that spinning car and saw his day end in inglorious fashion at a track where he normally runs very well. More than a few other drivers were peeved with Stewart who'd been running overly aggressively all season. We'll give the race itself minus the off track antics a B.

Bristol- Race fans were served up a heaping helping of the intoxicating mayhem and continuous carnage that is part and parcel of racing at Bristol. Tony Stewart got slapped with a one lap penalty for rough driving. Jamie McMurray ended up on probation for slamming into Matt Kenseth's car after the race and he got little sympathy from rookie phenomenon Kasey Kahne who accused McMurray of wrecking him. Desperately in need of a caution Earnhardt Jr. spun himself out then bragged about the stunt after the race costing himself a points penalty. Through it all Kurt Busch claimed his car was down on power and he refused to pit late into the race despite his crew chief's pleas. Somehow Busch managed to keep his remarkable winning steak alive at Bristol to the vocal disgust of most of the 150,000 fans on hand. It's ain't pretty but it's exciting. Bristol gets an A.

Texas- A trend in Cup racing 2004 was becoming obvious by the time the circuit reached Texas. Once again most of the race was terribly tedious but action heated up at the end thanks to a flurry of caution flags NASCAR chose to throw to bunch up the field and add a little spice to a bland race. Elliott Sadler went on to win the race giving clear indication after years as a journeyman driver he was ready to step up to the plate in the bigs. Kasey Kahne posted another remarkable second place finish. Most of this race was a D- but the end gets a B as one of the closest in NASCAR history. You just had to wade through a whole lot of manure to find the pony.

Martinsville- In a sport where advanced age has become almost a sin Rusty Wallace broke a 105 race long winless streak using fresher tires to outrun whippersnapper Jimmie Johnson to the checkers. Once again Tony Stewart was accused of overly aggressive driving. Wallace's cause was greatly aided by a bizarre incident that saw the track surface fall apart. A piece of the track the size of a boulder ruined Jeff Gordon's day and caused an hour and seventeen minute red-flag period while the track crews tried to patch up the surface. Wallace's win was very popular with many fans and any race at Martinsville is a sentimental glance at racing the way it used to be. Thus this race gets a solid A.

Talladega- NASCAR ended up with a pair of black eyes for their officiating this weekend. First there was a bizarre Busch race in Memphis in which the cars running in the first four positions wrecked themselves out on the final lap of green flag racing. The driver running fifth slowed to miss the wreck but Michael Waltrip drove through the carnage at full speed to steal the win despite the rules banning racing back to the yellow. It was a good thing for Waltrip too because it seemed about the only other thing he could win this year was a job biting the heads off chickens in a carnival freak show. Then there was Talladega itself. The fans, most of them nattily clothed in Bud red attire showed up to watch Junior win Junior always wins at Talladega. And in fact Junior was locked in an epic battle with Jeff Gordon for the top spot when a single car wreck bought out the caution flag with five laps to go. Though there was no video evidence to back up their decision NASCAR decided that the 24 was ahead of the 8 when the wreck occurred. They also decided the race would not restart denying Junior another shot at Gordon. And the outraged fans of NASCAR finally got a chance to send a message to the powers that be albeit in a truly ugly fashion pelting the track with beer and soda cans and other debris. For a moment it appeared rioting would break out but cooler (pun intended) heads prevailed. Still this was just an ugly, ugly race and a real disgrace to our sport. F isn't bad enough. This one gets an H.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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