Martinsville more of what we need
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson was on the chopping block again last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, again being targeted for all that ails NASCAR because of his domination of the Chase and wrongly perceived vanilla personality.
Is he the reason television ratings are down?
Is he the reason attendance is down?
Is he the reason the price of tea in China is down?
Fortunately, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion hasn't developed a complex. And he shouldn't.
If NASCAR wants to get back to when ratings and attendance weren't a concern, back to when people were talking about what happened at the track around the water cooler, back to the grass roots that made the sport the most popular form of racing, build more short tracks like Martinsville, where the Sprint Cup series heads this weekend.
What has homogenized the sport isn't Johnson, the lack of personalities or even the Chase. It's the 1.5-mile and larger tracks that make up 23 of the 36 races on the schedule and the lack of tracks with distinct shapes such as the paper-clip at Martinsville.
With short tracks -- which make up only six races, and only one in the Chase -- you don't need double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes to create excitement that lasts for a lap or two, although those certainly accentuate the drama on the smaller surfaces.
With short tracks, defined by NASCAR as surfaces less than a mile, you don't need mystery debris cautions to tighten up the field because the leader has checked out.
The lower speeds and tighter confines at short tracks naturally create the bumping and banging that helped grow the sport and naturally keep the field tighter. They take away all the worries about aerodynamics and clean air and let drivers be the focus instead of the cars.
Ask most reporters or even drivers where to see the best racing and Bristol (half-mile), Richmond (three-quarters) and Martinsville (half) almost always are in the top five. The other two usually are Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor plates keep the cars from getting strung out and there's always the threat of the "Big One."
"I wish they'd use most of these racetracks for parking lots and build another one inside of them, but that's just a short-tracker from the Midwest talking," Clint Bowyer said this past weekend at Charlotte, a 1.5-mile track.
It's tough to find a driver in the garage who doesn't agree or at least wouldn't like to see more short tracks.
"Part of the history of our sport and what has made our sport great was the short tracks," Jeff Burton said. "I don't care what you say; there is no way you can have as exciting of a race on a two-mile racetrack as you can on a three-quarter-mile racetrack.
"Lap-for-lap you're going to have more action on a short track than you do on a big track. That's where the racing action is much more intense. They enhance the racing, which ultimately people want to see."
"It seems like the bigger the track gets, the harder it is to put on a good show," Stewart said. "I think the era of people building mile-and-a-half tracks hopefully is coming to a close."
When NASCAR began rising in popularity and expanding beyond its southern roots, tracks such as Bowman Gray Stadium (quarter-mile), North Wilkesboro (0.625 of a mile) and North Carolina Speedway (1 mile) became victims.
You could toss in unique-shaped tracks such as the egg-shaped Darlington (1.366 miles), too.
But instead of replacing them with short tracks, we got 1.5-mile facilities at Texas, Kansas, Las Vegas and Chicago that are referred to as cookie-cutters because they look like they were made out of the same mold.
"I like going to Kansas and Chicago," Stewart said. "They're two markets and areas I love to go race at because of my open-wheel background. But when you pull into Kansas and Chicago and go through the tunnel, you don't know the difference of which one you're at.
"I like the individuality of the tracks and the individual personalities of a Martinsville. Building the same track in another location, that's not what this sport needs."
If those tracks look the same to Stewart, then you can bet they look the same to fans who attend and watch on television. Like in baseball, people want to go to places that offer something different like the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park or the ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley Field.
"Richmond is a nice short track but it's even a little bit big," Gordon said. "It acts a little bit more like a Charlotte. Aerodynamics plays a pretty big role there. It would be pretty cool to have something sort of in between a Martinsville and a Bristol; a little bit more banking and a little bit more sweeping corners.
"That would be very cool. I'm a big fan of that."
Had the folks in California built a half-mile instead of a two-mile track, perhaps they wouldn't be losing a race to Kansas, where they're adding a casino hotel. The biggest negative about moving a race out of Atlanta in 2011 is the date is going to another 1.5-mile facility in Kentucky.
Fortunately, Martinsville didn't become a victim in the schedule reshuffling as it was rumored for several years. That would have alienated the same people who were outraged when North Wilkesboro was shut down.
Perhaps Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith should consider reopening North Wilkesboro that he still has part ownership of and move one of his three Charlotte races there. He can't have any worse ticket sales than this past weekend.
"We went to North Wilkesboro my first time this year," Harvick said. "That's a great track. There needs to be more short tracks in the sport in general. The fans enjoy it."
So do drivers, who can't set their cars practically on cruise control as they do at many larger facilities.
On the short tracks, yeah, I definitely think the driver comes into play a lot more, which is fun.” -- Jeff Gordon
And there has to be a reason why some of the top drivers in the history of the sport are among the all-time leaders in wins at Martinsville (Richard Petty has 15, Darrell Waltrip has 11, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon have seven each, and Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson have six each).
Short tracks show off a driver's skill.
"On the short tracks, yeah, I definitely think the driver comes into play a lot more, which is fun," Gordon said.
Hopefully, the seven-eighths-mile facility designed by Rusty Wallace in Newton, Iowa, is the next to get a Cup date. Wallace made it that length because he took ideas from what he considered the best tracks he'd driven and combined them into one.
He believed there were too many 1.5-mile tracks and this would offer something unique that fans and drivers would want to visit. That the 5-year-old track already has secured two Nationwide Series dates for 2011 is a sign he was right.
"Iowa would be a great one [for Cup] because it's one-of-a-kind," Stewart said.
Yes, a lot of what ails the sport could be fixed if more short tracks such as Martinsville were added to the schedule. It's not going to happen anytime soon because NASCAR has no plans to expand the schedule and larger tracks aren't going to give up dates.
Good thing Johnson doesn't mind being a target.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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