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What I learned about NASCAR from Dale Earnhardt’s final Martinsville win

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My NASCAR memories start to come into focus around 1996, a year before I attended my first race at Texas Motor Speedway as a 6-year-old. Even now, most of my NASCAR recollections prior to 2001 get fuzzier by the day.

But boy, did I love NASCAR in the 1990s.

The names, the races, the paint schemes. It’s embedded in my DNA as deep as the Top Gun soundtrack.

But was it really that great? That’s the question I hope to answer with this series, while learning more about the sport.

Why start with the 1995 Goody’s 500? With having covered the STP 500, I’ve had Martinsville on the brain for the last two weeks. The half-mile track is one of five Earnhardt claimed more than five wins at, and the 1995 race was the last one.

Also, the NASCAR of 1995 and 2017 have a couple things in common. Both seasons follow one where a driver won their seventh championship (Dale Earnhardt vs. Jimmie Johnson) and they’re the coming-out parties for the sport’s “youth” (Jeff Gordon vs. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, etc.).

Before we start, here’s a fun fact: There were two Goody’s 500s in 1995. The pain reliever also sponsored the Aug. 26 race at Bristol Motor Speedway (aka Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte, Part 1). Goody’s first sponsored the fall Martinsville race in 1983 and continues in 2017.

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Setting the Stage

When the Winston Cup Series rolled into Martinsville on the weekend of Sept. 24, 1995, Bill Clinton was in his third year as president of the United States.

The air was filled with the sounds of Tim McGraw’s “I Like it, I Love It,” which was enjoying its third of five weeks as the No. 1 country song. Brad Pitt was asking Morgan Freeman “What’s in the box?” in David Fincher’s second film, Seven.

The Goody’s 500 was the 26th of 31 points races on the Cup schedule. Jeff Gordon, in his third full year on the circuit, had been in the points lead since the July 9 race at New Hampshire, 10 races prior.

Dale Earnhardt’s reign of terror was in its twilight. Despite three wins (North Wilkesboro, Sonoma and Indianapolis), he trailed Gordon by 309 points after the No. 24 won the previous week at Dover, his seventh win of the year.

On the afternoon of Sept. 24, the two defining names of NASCAR in the 1990s were on the front row after rain canceled qualifying. Gordon’s “pole” was his ninth of the year. At the time, Earnhardt had five career wins on the short track. Gordon had none.

With ESPN airing the race, Bob Jenkins had the call along with Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett.

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What’s Different – Part 1

In 2017, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over car counts. After the Daytona 500, only one race has reached the field maximum of 40 entries. Just a few years ago, the maximum amount was 43 cars.

But in the mid-’90s, short tracks had their own rules. A full field was 36 cars. For this race, six entries went home.

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Graphic Rules

ESPN’s contributions to auto racing and how it’s presented on TV are immense. But in 1995, the practice of constant on-screen graphics depicting race position was still in its infancy. Here during the opening laps, Jenkins explained to viewers that new contraption up in the left-hand corner.

The race broadcast went to its first commercial on Lap 14 of 500. When it came back, Jenkins read ads for Ford, AC Delco and NASCAR’s 1994 season-in-review VHS tape. This tape can now be bought on eBay for $13, plus shipping and handling. As with any 22-year-old advertisement I see, I’m always tempted to call the toll-free number.

So I did.

It was disconnected.

On Lap 32, the first caution came out due to rain. Earnhardt had a commanding lead over Rusty Wallace, who had won the last three Martinsville races.

I’m all for bringing out the tarps to stay dry when there’s a little moisture, but this is ridiculous. I’ve seen enough movies to know Richard Childress Racing is hiding an alien or an ancient artifact under there somewhere. My money is on an alien.

During the caution, everyone’s favorite pit road reporter, Dr. Jerry Punch, interviewed Childress. Andy Petree was Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time, but it already was known he wouldn’t be back the following year. Punch asked multiple questions about who would lead the No. 3 team (David Smith, Earnhardt’s longtime jack man, would get the job, and 1996 would be his only season as a Cup crew chief). An owner giving a midrace update on a crew chief search would be weird in 2017.

The race went back to green on Lap 51 with Earnhardt still in the lead. He lost it for the first time when Wallace passed him with 438 to go.

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What’s Different – Part 2

In the 22 years since this race, NASCAR has developed a quicker trigger finger when it comes to throwing cautions. The following accident, just shy of Lap 80, would undoubtedly cause a caution in 2017. In 1995? Move along, nothing to see here.

We’re just getting started. This is Martinsville by the way. While the broadcast showed a slow motion replay of Kyle Petty losing a large piece of metal debris that also would cause a caution today, race leader Wallace was taken out by Ward Burton, whom he just lapped.

As a result, everyone pitted. On top are 1995 pit stop times. Below, Martinsville pit times from 2016.

      

The next significant caution occurred on Lap 232. Every once in a while, Martinsville will catch you off guard. Such as this instance when Ted Musgrave went for a ride ON the backstretch wall courtesy of Robert Pressley. The broadcast showed a replay just as Musgrave went sprinting down pit road to confront Pressley at his car.

Remember what I said earlier about NASCAR throwing cautions? With 102 laps left in the race, Mike Wallace caused a fog drift to form when he spun exiting Turn 4. Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett sounded just as baffled as I that it didn’t warrant a caution. Not that it mattered. Within three laps, there would be a caution involving Elton Sawyer’s No. 27 Hooters car and the No. 8 of Jeff Burton right in front of the leaders. Rusty Wallace lost a bunch of spots while avoiding a collision with Sawyer.

With 38 laps left, Earnhardt assumed the lead for the fifth time. Given the outcome, the following moment sent a jolt through me. Lake Speed, driving the No. 9 Spam car, spun in Turn 4. As Speed came down the track to get going, Earnhardt’s car flashed into view, seemingly avoiding hitting the No. 9 just in time.

During the resulting caution, the battered No. 2 of Rusty Wallace stayed out while the rest of the leaders pitted. In 1995, double file restarts among lead lap cars still were 14 years away. Earnhardt restarted behind Wallace, while the lapped car of John Andretti was the first car on the inside.

There would be one more restart with 20 to go after an accident with Dale Jarrett and Derrike Cope (the latter is the only driver in this race still competing in the Cup series in 2017).

Eleven laps later, “The Intimidator” made his presence known. The No. 3 forced Wallace to make a mistake entering Turn 3.

Nine laps later, Earnhardt took the checkered flag with ease. It was his sixth and final win at Martinsville.

Though Earnhardt significantly narrowed the points margin over the next five weeks and won the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the championship belonged to Gordon. Earnhardt missed out on an eighth title by 34 points.

There were 16 lead changes, with the last coming with nine laps to go. That’s compared with the 18 lead changes last Sunday in Brad Keselowski’s Martinsville win. Keselowski took the lead for the final time with 43 laps left

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Whatever Happened to that Sponsor?

Heilig-Meyers – Sponsor of Mike Wallace’s No. 90 Ford: Heilig-Meyers was a furniture company founded in 1913 in Goldsboro, North Carolina, by Lithuanian immigrants, W. A. Heilig and J. M. Meyers.

The company was the primary sponsor of Cup series entries driven by Bobby Hillin, Jr., Wallace and Dick Trickle from 1993 – 1998.

In August 2000, after becoming one the largest furniture retailers in the United States, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. All of its stores were closed by the end of the year, except for its RoomStore branches, which would be liquidated in 2012.

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Yes, there is NASCAR racing Sunday: Xfinity entry list for Road America

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Who says there’s no NASCAR racing this weekend?

Sure, the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series will enjoy the weekend off, but not the Xfinity Series.

Drivers in that series will be competing Sunday at what has become one of the most challenging and popular road courses on the Xfinity schedule: the twisting 4.048-mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

A total of 42 cars are listed on the preliminary entry list released Monday.

Only 40 cars will qualify to race in Sunday’s Johnsonville 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC). This will be the third road course the series has raced on in the last four races.

One driver position and one crew chief position remain to be filled.

  • Team JD Motorsports has not named a driver for the No. 15 Chevrolet.
  • And the No. 172 Chevrolet, driven by John Jackson and owned by James Carter, has yet to name a crew chief for the race.

This will be the eighth Xfinity race at Road America since the series first visited there in 2010.

The winners since then have been Carl Edwards (2010), Reed Sorenson (2011), Nelson Piquet Jr. (2012), A.J. Allmendinger (2013), Brendan Gaughan (2014), Paul Menard (2015) and Michael McDowell last year.

Click here for the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Xfinity race at Road America.

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones ‘has to be put on the radar for Darlington, Richmond’ (video)

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Like a stealthy cat sneaking up on a mouse, Erik Jones has been riding under the radar the last four races.

Few may realize that he’s had a pair of top-10s (8th at Pocono; 10th at Watkins Glen) and back-to-back career bests in his last two starts (tied his previous career best with a 3rd-place finish at Michigan, and then was runner-up Saturday at Bristol).

“It’s just been a consistent upward trend from the start of the year,” Steve Letarte said on Monday’s NASCAR America.

Not only did Jones finish second to winner Kyle Busch at Bristol, he also started from the pole and led 260 of the 500 scheduled laps (while Busch led 156).

“I thought he did such a good job,” Jeff Burton also said on Monday’s episode of NA. “He didn’t lose the race because of a mistake, they just got out-run by someone who’s real, real good at Bristol.”

With Darlington and Richmond still ahead to make — or miss — the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Letarte said Jones can readily win either of those races.

“We’re forced to put him on our radar for Darlington,” Letarte said. “Maybe, maybe not, it’s a tough race track. We’ll see, first time there in a Cup car.

“But Richmond, this is a short track racer going to a short track. I don’t know if Erik Jones can be ruled out at any of the upcoming two tracks.”

If the young Michigan native, who is also the leading candidate for NASCAR Cup rookie of the year, does win at either Darlington or Richmond, he could ultimately have a profound impact on the playoffs.

A win at either track would serve to potentially eliminate the likes of Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and maybe even Chase Elliott, who are all above the cutoff line to make the playoffs.

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Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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NASCAR America live 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Kyle Busch sweep recap, Erik Jones

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America airs from 6 to 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Kelli Stavast joins Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • For just the second time in NASCAR history, a driver was able to win in all three national series in a single race weekend. In both occurrences, the feat was performed by the same driver, Kyle Busch, and at the same venue, Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch collected his first sweep in 2010, and came back to do it again this past weekend at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. We’ll hear from Kyle after his victory on Saturday and examine how this affects the current playoff picture.
  • Erik Jones did everything in Saturday’s Bristol Night Race but win. It was a great weekend for the rookie NASCAR Cup driver from Furniture Row Racing. The leading contender for Cup rookie of the year earned his first pole, led a race-high 260 laps, but finished second to Kyle Busch. How soon will it be before Jones gets to victory lane? Our panel discusses that.
  • Eclipse fever has spread to NASCAR. We’ll take a look at how drivers and tracks appreciated this natural phenomenon today.
  • We interview Kyle Larson at today’s announcement of a new sponsor at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.