No greater authority than Richard Petty, a winner at Martinsville Speedway a record 15 times himself, put the seal of approval on John Andretti’s stirring Cup win at the historic half-mile track on April 18, 1999.
“It looked like the good old times,” Petty said.
Andretti overcame an early spin that put him a lap down and charged past Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in the final laps to win. Andretti completed a sweep for Petty Enterprises that weekend after Jimmy Hensley won the Truck race for the team the day before. Andretti’s win marked the first Cup victory for Petty Enterprises at Martinsville in 20 years.
Andretti started 21st and spun on Lap 48 after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton. Andretti passed leader Jeff Gordon on Lap 135 to get back on the lead lap and began working his way through the field.
A key moment came when the field pitted on Lap 383 of the 500-lap race. Andretti entered 11th and exited fourth after taking two tires. He trailed only Gordon, Mark Martin and Burton.
“I’d been begging for (two tires) all day because I wanted track position, and I wanted to get up there and fight,” Andretti said that day.
Said Gordon afterward: “I’m sure he didn’t take two tires at the end. There’s no way.”
Andretti was third with 50 laps to go, trailing only Gordon and Burton. Andretti passed Gordon for second with 12 laps to go. That left only Andretti’s close friend, Burton, for the win. Andretti charged while ignoring a vibration with the car.
Andretti ran underneath Burton on Lap 494 and they ran side by side for much of two laps before Andretti got by.
“I’ll never forget coming around and taking the checkered flag at Martinsville,” Andretti said that day.
Leonard Wood has been to a lot of race tracks and seen a lot of things.
Sixty years ago this weekend, he stood near the guardrail at Bowman Gray Stadium and watched his brother, Glen Wood, beat a handful of fellow future NASCAR Hall of Famers to earn Wood Brothers Racing’s first Cup Series win.
In a sign of the times, Glen led all 200 laps around the short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, nicknamed “The Madhouse.”
“I watched (Glen) run and enjoyed how he was in and out of traffic, working traffic and leading every lap of it. So fun to watch your brother go out and beat everybody like that,” Leonard told NBC Sports. “You could just come right to the guardrail and watch them come in. I learned more about handling at Bowman Gray than any other one race track because you’d stand at that guardrail and watch the car come in the corner, you’d watch it drive through the middle and then you’d watch it drive off.
“The changes you’d make, (you’d see) right in front of your eyes. You could see the suspension and how it worked. Great place to learn as a young kind trying to figure it all out.”
The brothers from Stuart, Virginia, had been visiting the track since the early 50s, competing in modifieds, convertibles and NASCAR’s top division.
Leonard detailed his brother’s driving style that helped him lead every lap that day and in two more Grand National races at Bowman Gray that year, on June 25 and Aug. 23, for a total of 600 laps led.
“(Glen) had just a technique of how he passed on the outside,” Leonard said. “What he would do (is get his) left-front fender up to the outside of (the other car’s) right-rear fender and he’d hold it tight against the guy.
“(Glen) wouldn’t be like a foot or two away from him. He’d hold it tight against him to even touching him. When he’d come off the corner, he’d inch up another foot. Then the next lap he’d inch up another foot and then once he got up beside of him, he’d just blend out and away he went. Just give a guy all the room he needs, but to hold it tight against him, it kind of messes him up too, it slows him down.”
Using that method in the April 18 race, Glen beat Rex White, Jimmy Massey, Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett. In June, he beat Lee Petty and White. In August, he topped Lee Petty and Junior Johnson as he lapped the field.
By the time Glen retired from racing a few years later, he had 29 wins at Bowman Gray in modifieds, convertibles and the Cup Series.
Another level to Glen’s dominance at “The Madhouse” in 1960 is what the Woods were competing against.
Their blue Ford Fairlane, which had the No. 16 on it, had a bolt-on hard top which could be removed to transform it into the convertible it spent most of its time as.
While they were racing a 1958 Ford, every other driver in the top five of the April race was piloting a 1959 or 1960 model car.
To emphasize how well that No. 16 performed, Leonard recalled a visit with it to Martinsville Speedway.
Glen was pulling out of the pits when Marvin Panch drove by in a 1959 Ford. Panch passed him going down the backstretch. With Glen still on his warm-up lap and Panch exiting Turn 2, Glen caught him and passed him on the backstretch.
There were two keys to the car’s power. One was its lightness, a product of the Woods tending to build their cars from the remains of vehicles that had been in fires, which burned the heavy soundproofing materials located in the door panels.
Second, it was a low rider.
“Nobody really seemed to think about how low you could get your car,” Leonard said. “We had it just as low as you could get it suspension-wise. There was no limit, you know with the height rule. … I always liked it as low as we could get it.”
Sixty years and 98 Cup wins later, the Wood Brothers are synonymous with with the No. 21 on the side of their Ford cars. But they wouldn’t take that numeral to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series until six months later when Speedy Thompson won at Charlotte Motor Speedway for their first speedway win.
Leonard explained how the No. 21 became their permanent number (aside from using the No. 7 in 1986 as part of a 7-11 sponsorship).
The first race car they ever had was labeled with the No. 50. But after being involved in a wreck that burned the car, they rebuilt it and placed the No. 16 on it, the number Glen won with in 1960.
“When we started running convertibles, we was running 22,” Leonard said. “Fireball Roberts had the hard top running the 22. When they’re running (convertibles and hard tops) together, the convertible had to change the number. The hardtops had priority. So we put 21 on it and left it.”
While there was no sentiment behind the decision that led to the No. 21 becoming one of NASCAR’s most iconic numbers, Leonard got a little sentimental when asked if it felt like six decades had passed since the Wood Brothers’ first Cup win.
“In some ways it does, in some it don’t,” he said. “It feels like it’s been a long time. I get to looking at things, looking at the (team) museum (in Stuart, Virginia), the history of the Wood Brothers and just think everyday about Glen and I, how much fun we had and what all we did starting out. You didn’t have a lot of money and you just had to make your parts … just how far we’ve come since we started.”
There’s no racing going on amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s not keeping Leonard from staying active at home.
“I design remote control cars,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for a long time. I’m catching up on a lot of that right now.”
Like the cars he tinkered with in his days at Bowman Gray Stadium, they have quite a bit of power. His 1/10th scale cars “run like 70 mph … Like full 2.5 horsepower. That’s a lot of horsepower for a little car.”
With COVID-19 being particularly harmful to people in his age range, the 85-year-old former crew chief “don’t want to take no chances on that.”
Whenever he goes out, Leonard wears a double-canistered mask, “like you use at a paint booth.
“If I have to go out to get groceries, post office or bank or anything, I put a double-canistered mask on. Whenever I take it off, I spray it with Lysol.
“Another thought is, if you go somewhere and you’re a little worried about where you been, spray the inside of your car with Lysol and close the doors when you park it.”
Call this NASCAR’s season of rage: Drivers sniping, fussing and even a few fighting.
The anger was evident last weekend at Watkins Glen International. A seven-time champion ridiculed a competitor in an interview on NBCSN. A young driver’s expletive-laced comments explained why he spun a former champion.
The confrontations and cross words are not surprising in a season that might best be described with an angry face emoji.
The Cup Series is going though a transition. A new rules package is meant to excite current fans, coax new fans and create tight racing that can lead to clashes on and off the track. While the new rules have enhanced racing at 1.5-mile tracks, drivers say that passing remains a challenge. Thus blocking, once a tactic found primarily at Daytona and Talladega, has become commonplace. So have the conflicts.
There’s also a battle between veteran drivers and the next generation. The last few years have seen many veterans leave, and several new drivers arrive. Seventeen of the 40 starters in the Daytona 500 three years ago are no longer full-time Cup drivers, a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. One driver who missed that race with an injury was Tony Stewart. He returned nine races into the year for what was his final Cup season.
Mixblocking with a generational gap in how to race, and one gets a mercurial situation. Add the pressure to make the playoffs and simply stand back because somebody is about to lose their cool.
Farther up pit road, Bubba Wallace said he wasn’t backing down. He turned Kyle Busch — Wallace’s former boss when Wallace ran in the Truck series — in retaliation for contact that sent Wallace into a tire barrier.
“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.
“I won’t put up with no shit. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”
These disagreements have been going on throughout the season. It’s just that they’ve become more common lately.
“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down,” Newman said. “You, as a racer, are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”
As for his discussion with Blaney, Newman said he told the fourth-year Cup driver: “The next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.”
Blocking was an issue Clint Bowyer had at the end of the Kansas race with Erik Jones in May. Jones, who is in his third full season, moved multiple lanes to block Bowyer’s charge and then drifted up to keep Bowyer behind.
“It would have been, I feel like, more professional to come talk to me about what was wrong instead of tearing up a race car and make my guys have to bring out a backup and have to work all the way through last night and show up early this morning and have to work even more,” Byron said the day after the incident. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s kind of the unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.”
It hasn’t just been veterans and young drivers having issues. Bowyer and Newman had contact after the All-Star Race that spun Bowyer. After exiting his car, Bowyer, ran to Newman’s and started punching Newman as he sat in his car.
Even young guys have been upset with one another. Alex Bowman was not happy with Joey Logano‘s driving at Charlotte, saying Logano “about crashed us in practice and then he drove into Turn 1 and tried to turn us (in the 600). I like Joey a lot. It is what it is. We’re all racing hard. I’m not super mad about it, I just thought it was dumb, that’s all.”
Asked about how drivers are racing each other, Bowman said: “Everybody has to race everybody hard with this package. There’s not a lot of room for give and take. I thought the situation was, there was a good chunk of the race left, it was pretty unnecessary. Probably wouldn’t have been as mad as I was about it if (Logano) didn’t about crash us in practice, which I thought was really unnecessary.
“It’s all good, and he’ll get his for sure.”
Bowman, who has a victory this season, doesn’t face the pressure to make the playoffs that Johnson does. Johnson, who has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004, holds the final playoff spot by only a tiebreaker on Newman with four races left in the regular season. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season for the first time in his career.
The tension is only going to increase in the Cup garage.
2. Life on the playoff bubble
Alex Bowman understands the pressure of trying to make the playoffs. A year ago, he held the final playoff spot with four races to go. He made the playoffs, but he admits to the anxiety he felt, something he doesn’t have to worry about with his win at Chicagoland Speedway qualifying him for a chance at the title this year.
“It’s definitely tough,” Bowman said of the pressure last year. “It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It really wasn’t that bad last year until we got to Indy (for the regular-season finale), and we crashed pretty early, and we were kind of riding around just trying to finish. And I could see that Jamie McMurray was pretty close to the front, and, I’m like trying to look past 30 cars on restarts and see where everybody’s at. So, that was really stressful.”
3. Quest for tires that wear
NASCAR and drivers have made it clear that they seek a tire that wears more and that’s something Goodyear is looking to deliver.
“When it comes to tires, no secret that we want more wear, especially on the short tracks, and that’s the goal,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’re going to work closely with Goodyear to get that. We think that’s a huge component of what goes into a race. The more we can deliver on that, that’s where the drivers want to see us go, and we’re going to push hard to do that.”
Case in point was a recent tire test at Martinsville Speedway.
“I think the main deal for that tire test was finding a left rear (tire) that fell off,” said Ryan Blaney, who took part in the test. “We ran through a bunch of different sets and combinations and things like that. Some were better than others. I don’t know what we’re coming back there with.”
Paul Menard, who also participated in the test, likes the idea of a tire that wears more.
“I think that Goodyear kind of sees that and is making a push to maybe be more aggressive to give us a softer compound that wears out more,” he said.
4. Winning again
Chase Elliott‘s win last weekend at Watkins Glen International gave Chevrolet four wins in the last six races: Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona), Kurt Busch (Kentucky) and Elliott.
Chevrolet drivers had won only four of the previous 51 races before this recent streak.
Bobby Labonte will get his first taste of “The Madhouse” in his first career modified race.
“The modified races there are really competitive, and the teams and drivers are serious and talented,” Labonte said in a media release. ” I am sure they will make it tough on me, but I am looking forward to strapping on my helmet and giving them a run.”
Friday 5: Cup rookie will ‘Turn the Page’ to new chapter
HARRISBURG, N.C. — Wailing strands of a saxophone leap from Ryan Preece’s phone. The distinctive opening notes of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” take Preece back in time even as the NASCAR Cup rookie looks ahead.
“If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot of things I can relate to,” Preece tells NBC Sports. He speaks while seated at a table that comfortably accommodates 10 people in the competition room at JTG Daugherty Racing, his new home after running limited Xfinity races the past two years with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Although Seger’s song is about a musician, it could be about the highs and lows of a racer. Preece, born 17 years after the song’s debut, has lived life in the spotlight and experienced the late-night road trips on his circuitous path to Cup.
On a long and lonesome highway
The song’s opening line resonates with Preece. The 28-year-old Connecticut native raced modifieds throughout the Northeast and traveled to the South numerous times in his quest to reach NASCAR’s premier series. There were many nights on the road.
Preece worked his way to the Xfinity Series in 2016 but had limited success with an underfunded JD Motorsports team. With no other opportunities after that season, Preece returned home and faced the likelihood he would race modifieds the rest of his career.
If Edwards had not left the sport, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Preece said.
“There was no talk of going anywhere. When I went home, I went home (after 2016). I spoke to a few teams and the (cost to run those cars) were so high. I just figured I could go make a living running a modified and winning. It wasn’t a sense of I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond … this was my best chance at being successful.”
Preece spent 2016 living in former Cup crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion’s race shop before moving back home after the season. After Edwards’ announcement, Manion called Preece and told him to contact JGR.
“I was going to figure a way out,” Preece said. “That was the chance I was waiting for.”
He gathered enough money for two races, won at Iowa and got two more races that season. That turned into 15 races in 2018. He won at Bristol. His success that season led to the ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in place of AJ Allmendinger.
When you’re ridin’ sixteen hours
and there’s nothin’ much to do
And you don’t feel much like ridin’
you just wish the trip was through
A crew member often played the song on long road trips and it has remained with Preece since, a reminder of those all-night drives from one region of the country to another to race.
As he plays the song on his phone, Preece slips back to the past. He recalls a time he raced at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, finished around 11 p.m. and drove through the night with his team to be at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a race that Saturday. He won that weekend.
Preece smiles at the memory.
Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star again
There I go
Turn the page
“When I was younger, I was like that’s pretty catchy,’’ Preece said of the song. “As you grow older and you go through different events and different situations in your life, you start to relate to it. Every time there has been a great moment in my life, the more I can relate to that song.”
He hopes to add to the collection of memories this season with the No. 47 team. Preece is ready for the season to begin. He’ll get an early start. His team will be among those that will test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 31 – Feb. 1.
Shortly after that, he will be off to Florida to compete in his first Daytona 500.
Even as he heads on a new journey with Cup, Preece won’t leave the modified series behind. He plans to run a few races this season when his schedule allows.
But after years of going back-and-forth from the Northeast to the South, Preece has one trip left. He heads to Connecticut today to retrieve the last of his belongings and complete the move he and his wife have made to North Carolina. He also will tow his modified with him.
He plans to leave Connecticut at 3 a.m. Sunday. He knows through experience that’s the best time to depart to avoid New York traffic snarls.
One more overnight road trip. This time he’s headed for a new journey and a chance to turn the page in his racing career.
2. Study habits
Coleman Pressley admits he’s a “huge note taker” and he’s been doing just that as he reviews film and prepares for his first season as Brad Keselowski’s spotter.
Pressley, the son of former Cup driver Robert Pressley, spent the past four years spotting for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing. Pressley became available after Allmendinger was not brought back for this season.
One of the biggest challenges for Pressley will be Daytona Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. Keselowski is among the sport’s premier drivers at that track and Talladega. He and former spotter Joey Meier — they had been together since 2006 until parting after last year — were among the top driver/spotter duos, winning four of the last 17 plate races (only teammate Joey Logano matches Keselowski’s record in that span).
Pressley, who doesn’t have as much experience spotting a car at the front of the field at a plate track, has been studying how the race is different there than in the middle of the field.
“I went to school the last two or three weeks just learning what the first two or three rows do,” Pressley told NBC Sports. “It’s amazing how much the draft changes in the first three rows then it does in the 10th or 12th row. I’m learning from arguably the best superspeedway racer right now.
“I feel like I’ve learned more in two or three times sitting down with Brad than in four years of spotting. He’s that good at it. It’s like dealing with AJ at a road course. AJ is so good at a road course, I learned a lot from him there.”
One of the challenges with racing at Daytona is how the lead car controls the field and moves up and down the track, blocking the run from the cars in the lanes behind. It’s critical for the spotter to tell the driver which lane is making a move so the driver can block and remain in the lead.
“Everything that we’re reviewing is more situational,” Pressley said. “Like what happens when three cars are this close and this lane is a car length apart. … Does this change if you’ve got a slower car third in line or what happens if there’s three lanes. We’re trying to make sure that when we get there, when I’m on the roof, that when I see something I know what is going to happen.”
Pressley already has watched last year’s Daytona 500 multiple times and planned to watch the race with Keselowski this week.
It’s an interesting concept. While it’s not something that could be done for a 500-lap Cup race, maybe it is something to ponder for the K&N Pro Series. Possibly a Truck race. Or maybe don’t count caution laps in the last 50 laps of a Cup or Xfinity race at a short track.
Cathy Rice, general manager at South Boston Speedway, a .4-mile track, told NBC Sports that the change — caution laps did not count previously for local races 75 laps or less — was made to give fans more racing.
What if the race has several cautions and the night stretches on? Rice, entering her 31st season at South Boston, said they would shorten the event. It goes back to her belief that they should limit the racing to three hours (not including practice and qualifying). If the first race takes the green flag at 7 p.m., then the checkered flag should wave on the final race by 10 p.m. so fans can return home at a reasonable time.
“I’m pretty hard on that … that’s what we want to do, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Rice said.
Rice said she’ll keep a close eye on how long the races go with the caution laps not counting. The rule may work perfectly or may need some tweaking, but for Rice it was worth trying after fans had told her they wanted more green-flag racing.
That’s what they’ll get this season.
4. Close quarters
Daniel Suarez’s first time on the track with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing was Wednesday and Thursday at a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway.
Two other cars were there, including Suarez’s former team, the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing now driven by Martin Truex Jr.
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Bowman Gray Stadium has had many uses throughout history and has seen many shining moments when racing began there in 1949. This weekend will mark the 1,000th NASCAR sanctioned race at the quarter-mile track in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In this hour-long video, watch interviews with various NASCAR legends who raced at Bowman Gray, including Junior Johnson and Richard Petty, the latter having won his 100th NASCAR race there.