As the NASCAR community caravans to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, many will drive by Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the way to the Cup Series’ shortest track.
Although one can’t see Bowman Gray Stadium from the roads that many teams, media and fans will take to Martinsville, its impact on the sport can’t be overlooked.
Bowman Gray Stadium, which recently completed its 71st season of racing, could be the most important track to NASCAR.
As the sport looks to 2020 and beyond, NASCAR is carving a schedule that increases the chance for conflict and controversy — exactly what made Bowman Gray Stadium a must-see for fans, inspired the TV show “Madhouse” and stocks Google searches with stories and videos of altercations and cars ramming each other.
This could be the future of the Cup Series.
Call it a return to its past.
Beating and banging is nothing new in NASCAR. It’s part of Dale Earnhardt’s legacy. It’s why fans long for North Wilkesboro. It’s how some measure the present.
But NASCAR is putting in motion a plan that could increase the likelihood that the chaos often seen at Bowman Gray could become more common in Cup.
While next year’s Cup schedule features the same six short track races as this year, those tracks will have greater significance in the playoffs.
The Bristol night race moves into the playoffs for the first time and is the opening round’s elimination race. It will be held the week after Richmond, marking back-to-back short track playoff events for the first time. Don’t think there won’t be some contact and tempers?
And to raise the intensity, NASCAR moved Martinsville Speedway to the final race before the championship race next year.
Look at what Joey Logano did last year at Martinsville when it was the opening race in the Round of 8. Knocking Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win guaranteed Logano a spot in the championship race in Miami. Logano went on to win at Miami to claim his first Cup title.
Aric Almirola said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week that “Martinsville is always kind of a place where you have to get rough when you need, but I do feel like that Joey opened Pandora’s box there. … I think anybody else that is in the Round of 8 that saw that and sees that if they have an opportunity to win at Martinsville, don’t be nice. You have to take that opportunity.”
Imagine what it will be like next year when Martinsville is the last chance to get into championship race (which will be held at ISM Raceway, a track more conducive to beating and banging than Homestead-Miami Speedway).
Desperate times call for desperate measures. That could lead more contact on the track, which would could lead to an altercation with drivers and crew members on pit road after a race.
Isn’t that what many fans want to see? Drama, conflict and controversy.
Fans could see that again Sunday at Martinsville (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and even more likely next year with its place in the playoffs.
Yes, it could be just like a Saturday night at Bowman Gray Stadium.
“The first year moving here, I went to Bowman Gray,” AJ Allmendinger said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week. “I was like what is this place? This is insanity … but this is awesome. I love this place.
“I love seeing the races there, the videos that go with it because it’s true passion and a little bit of craziness mixed in.”
And the future.
2. A faster approach
Although Corey LaJoie says he hasn’t signed anything with Go Fas Racing for next year — “we’re working toward making that happen,” he said last weekend at Kansas Speedway — he is seeking to add partners so the team can purchase better engines for some races next year.
“Faster you can make that horse that I sit on every week run a little faster, it hopefully puts me in the conversation the next couple of years for a race-winning ride,” he said.
“It costs money to go fast. It’s a matter of trying to get more and more of that money, because upgrading the engine package is substantial, especially stretched out for majority of the year.”
LaJoie said the focus is on upgrading engines with plans for the team to purchase some cars from Stewart-Haas Racing.
The key will be money. As it is for any driver and team.
“Bringing funding is the name of the game,” LaJoie said. “You can act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. The first thing they say is, ‘We’d love for you to drive for us.’ The second question is ‘How much you got? Because I’ve talked to this guy and he’s got $2 million and this guy has a million and a half. What are you bringing to the table?’ Bringing helmets and seats isn’t what moves the needle. You have to have actual cash money.”
3. Chasing a record
Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 wins this season are two short of the modern-era record of 18 set by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. NASCAR’s modern era is from 1972.
It seems likely JGR will tie the mark with four races left. JGR drivers have won the past four short track races: Kyle Busch won at Bristol in April, Martin Truex Jr. swept the two Richmond races this year, and Denny Hamlin won the Bristol night race in August.
Also, consider Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance at short tracks since 2009.
JGR drivers have won 31 of the 65 races at short tracks since that time. The next three teams: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Team Penske (10) and Stewart-Haas Racing (seven) combine for 27 wins in that stretch.
4. A new look
The Kannapolis Intimidators are no more. The minor league baseball team, which took its name from Dale Earnhardt, announced previously that this would be its last season with that name. A team official told NBC Sports in February why it was changing the name that it had used since 2001.
“Dale’s always going to be the Intimidator, Vince Marcucci, assistant general manager of the team told NBC Sports in February. “We’re not trying to get away from (it). I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. But, like, own our own brand. Because we don’t own the Intimidators. (Earnhardt’s widow) Teresa has the rights to that.
“So for speed and flexibility as we try to do creative things in the future, we’re going to need something we own ourselves.”
The team will be known as the Cannon Ballers.
But there still be an homage to Earnhardt. The mascot will have a bushy mustache like Earnhardt did. Also, in the logo, the B in Ballers is shaped like a 3 for Earnhardt.
Kyle Busch seeks to tie Jimmie Johnson this weekend for second on the all-time list of most consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville Speedway.
Busch has placed in the top five in each of the past eight races at Martinsville. Johnson had a streak of nine top-five finishes in a row from Oct. 2005 – Oct. 2009.
Jeff Gordon holds the record at the track with 11 consecutive top-five finishes. The streak began in April 2005 and ended in March 2010.