- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Certain racetracks on the NASCAR circuit carry greater expectations than others.
Fans expect excellence from Bristol and Martinsville and Daytona and Talladega. That means excellent races. Not just excellent finishes. (Although great finishes have a tendency to help us forget mediocre events. Happens all the time.)
It's the "victim of your own success" scenario. At these tracks we're accustomed to being entertained throughout the majority of their events.
There's a common denominator among them: history. Hardcore race fans that thought NASCAR was cool before it was chic hold classic venues dearer to our hearts than newer ones. They're like an old buddy we grew up with. Don't get me wrong, everyone enjoys amenities and frills and all that mess, but not at the expense of great racing.
When the sport was just beginning to skyrocket in popularity 25 years ago and coverage was sparser than it is today, NASCAR made Richmond, Va., and Darlington, S.C., and Wilkesboro, N.C., and Rockingham, N.C., destination points. Our heroes raced there, stayed in the hotels and ate at the restaurants. There's a certain love affair with that dynamic.
Baseball notwithstanding, respect for history matters more in NASCAR than possibly any other sport. As it should. The King and The Fox and the Allisons and Cale and Dale and Handsome Harry and Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and Jocko Flocko and everyone else that risked life and limb deserve that respect and admiration.
Big Bill France and Bill Jr. deserve it. T. Wayne Robertson and Ralph Seagraves deserve it. And so do the racetrack pioneers who put it all on the line to bring NASCAR to town, folks like Harold Brasington and Larry Carrier and Paul Sawyer and H. Clay Earles.
We forgot that for a while. We were more concerned with glamour than roots. But eventually, as with many things in life, we realized it was pretty good the way we had it. It's a lot like a kid wanting terribly to leave his hometown after high school, but by the time he hits 32 and has a couple of kids, all he wants to do is get back home.
That's one reason we expect Bristol and Talladega to be great. It's getting back home.
We give passes to venues such as California or Chicago. Those newer tracks aren't held to as high a standard. They just aren't. And even some historic tracks, such as Pocono Raceway, don't carry high expectations.
But the greatest ones do. That's why folks are so upside down about this season's events at Bristol and Talladega. I personally enjoyed the race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in March. But when it comes to racing, I am very easily amused. I typically find entertainment in the show even when the show is fundamentally very different than it once was, and generally isn't as entertaining.
The edginess that forever defined Thunder Valley is gone. Drivers love variable banking and side-by-side racing and the opportunity to choose multiple lanes. They can control their own destinies now. They're more comfortable. And more often than not, when drivers are comfortable, fans aren't.
And that finish at Talladega Superspeedway? It was nearly more than this ol' heart could handle. It was fantastic. But even homers can't lie: the two-by-two Noah's Ark draft doesn't deliver what 40 cars, four- and-five-wide, six-deep for 500 miles deliver. The edginess there is absolutely intact for competitors, but for fans at home the luster isn't quite so shiny for whatever reason.
Given that fact, I can't help but think this is a critical time for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing. Richmond and Darlington are next on the docket. Both are great. And they fall at the perfect moment on the schedule. Both, too, are among the NASCAR destinations steeped in history that typically produce great racing. That, then, is exactly what we expect of them.
"I think there is a higher expectation among fans when they attend or watch races at certain tracks, especially Darlington," Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning said. "Our sport is very unique, in that the 'playing field' does influence the event. The field at Bank of America Stadium [in Charlotte] is the same as the field at Cowboys Stadium [in Texas]. Same thing for baseball, basketball, hockey, etc.
"Darlington is obviously one of, if not the, most unique tracks on the circuit. Our competitors are our biggest champions. We don't have to give them talking points. They know Darlington is the real deal and talk openly about it, and the fans pick up on that easily. Nothing is fabricated when it comes to Darlington's reputation, image, brand, etc., which is what makes it special."
Well said. True authenticity says all that needs saying.
"Thankfully, Darlington is honestly and truthfully challenging, and it delivers excitement almost every time cars are on the track," Browning continued. "Hell, even qualifying is exciting here! Remember a couple of years ago when Turn 2 jumped up and bit Jimmie Johnson on his first qualifying lap?"
The first eight weeks of 2011 have produced seven different winners and a slew of excellent storylines. The racing is generally very good. Do races get strung out during long green-flag runs? Sure. They always have, and barring an unforeseen engineering miracle, likely always will.
But you don't expect that at Richmond or Darlington. They must deliver now if NASCAR is to maintain the momentum from what, to date, has been a great season.
"There is pressure on the whole industry to provide a great product every week," said Richmond International Raceway president Doug Fritz. "We all have interest in this. And here at Richmond it's pretty easy. I don't feel much extra pressure. I've never had to worry about the quality of racing at Richmond.
"I have no reason to expect this weekend will be any different than it's been since 1988, when they reconfigured the track. Fans expect beating and banging, sparks flying, emotions from the drivers and helmets thrown and all that. It's a short track. It's NASCAR."
That's right. It is NASCAR. So expectations are very high.
"The bottom line is, unlike many other tracks, Darlington still puts a premium on the driver," Browning said. "Not technology, not aerodynamics, not teammates or drafting. The fast way around this place is truly razor thin, and you can't fake it. And that's something obvious to both hardcore and novice fans sitting in the grandstands or on the couch."
He said it. You can't fake it.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
You can't fake greatness in NASCAR, but a track with a long history has that expectation thrust upon it. That's what makes the next two races at Richmond and Darlington so important.