NHRA basks in approval at Speedway

Oct 18, 2005 3:39 AM

This weekend on the Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, motorsports’ most fan friendly event rumbles through Vegas. The NHRA brings all its high-octane nitro powered dragsters to town for the second time this season in what has become a favorite stop for the series.

Not only do the sponsors, crews, and drivers like coming to Vegas for obvious reasons that other cities can’t compare with, but the fans flock from all over to jam pack the stands on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday for the Final eliminations. Packing the fans in for Friday night qualifying is something that always amazes everyone associated with the series and is uncommon at other venues.

The Friday night qualifying session is always my favorite night to visit the track because it’s electric. The energy, coupled with the rumble and power of these magnificent machines ripping down the quarter mile is best seen at night in my opinion. Just off the horizon, you can see the entire beauty of the lit up Las Vegas skyline. Then when looking at the track, you can see the blue, red, and yellow colors of the flames roaring out of the pipes as they take off. It’s a thrill of a lifetime and a must see for anyone who likes motor sports. Scratch that, it’s a must see for anyone who drives a car!

Beyond the excitement on the track, off the track is where some of the better experiences take place, especially for the children. If looking for a fun place to take the family out that is relatively inexpensive and gives the kids a real thrill, this is it.

While the teams break down their motors, clean them, and then put it back together, the drivers are available to all for conversation, autographs, and just observation. They are accessible to all and that facet alone makes it attractive to all fathers, who know how difficult it is to get close to celebrities and make their children smile. The drivers supply photos and happily sign for anyone.

The overall atmosphere is unmatched by any sport, not just motorsports. For the adults, there is also the opportunity to make wagers on the drivers — something that they can’t do on any other NHRA stop. A few Las Vegas books place odds on the three major classes and have been received very well not only by the fans, but also the teams.

The favorites in each class are Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel, John Force in Funny Car, and Greg Anderson in the Pro Stock division.

NASCAR Nextel Cup Series

Last week’s race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte had a huge impact on how the final five races shape up in the Nextel Cup chase for the championship. The speedway has always been a huge advantage for Jimmie Johnson, who coincidentally has Lowe’s as his sponsor.

In the midst of winning his fourth straight Charlotte race and fifth of six overall, Johnson jumped all the way to the lead or at least a share — tied with Tony Stewart, following his win last Saturday night. In what appeared to be a chase where Stewart was methodically running away from everyone, widening his lead each week, one race saw it all come crashing down — and into a wall.

All 10 drivers in the chase are within 142 points of the leader. Last season with five races remaining in the chase, the gap was 349 between first and tenth with only two drivers within 100 of the leader. This is how NASCAR intended the chase to be when the concept was conceived prior to the 2004 season.

However, the manner it was brought closer last week had to make NASCAR frown. Humpy Wheeler, the track’s President, has unfairly taken a lot of criticism with his attempt to make the track better by resurfacing it prior to the May race.

The wear and tear on the tires made it impossible for the race to have any long runs because someone kept blowing their right side tires out and also made it impossible for the drivers to utilize all their horsepower in the car. Drivers had to run at 80 percent for most of the race for fear of wearing the tires.

There has been plenty written from all over the country with regards to what NASCAR should have done during the race, namely cancel it halfway through. I couldn’t disagree more.

I liked seeing the short runs and teams having to over-strategize to compensate for the unplanned elements. The drivers weren’t able to just mash the pedal or they would endure a fate like the others blowing a tire or hitting the wall. They had to walk a tight rope and race for the big picture, which ultimately was the final few laps where they could press a bit harder.

It was almost the same tight rope that Formula One and Le Mans drivers have to walk when they race in the rain; If you go too fast, you’re going to have a short day. Those cars have all kinds of horsepower but they have to channel their driving ability into playing with the elements.

In this instance, the track was bad and there was a possibility someone could have really been injured badly which no one wants to see, but the race was a pleasant change from the normalcy of a NASCAR oval race.

As for the luck Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’s team experienced this week, let’s be clear on what "luck" we’re discussing. The "Luck’ Johnson had was purely on having Stewart experience some of the tire issues and having a poor run. Johnson winning the actual race, based on his great past, great pre-race set up, and championship worthy team was not "luck" at all. He was one of the smarter drivers, who laid back and waited after seeing what all the other cars were doing.

What’s the point of running up front when all the cars that have led laps are falling out of the race? Had they been able to run in normal conditions, Johnson probably would have won too. He would have just had to race with Stewart down the stretch. Because of the position Johnson and his crew put themselves in last week they are now the favorite at even money to win the Championship.

Stewart comes in next at +120. The weight leaning towards Johnson is all about the run last season when he crushed the Cup series seemingly every week down the stretch. Stewart is still considered the favorite by many, but the pressure is squarely on him now and not Johnson.

Both Johnson and Stewart will both be considered favorites to win this week at the half-mile short track of Martinsville even though Johnson has experienced much more success on the track in the four seasons. When Stewart burst onto the NASCAR scene it appeared that Martinsville was a place where he would consistently win.

After posting a victory in his fourth career attempt on the track, he hasn’t done so since. Stewart had a few third place finishes and earlier this year he finished 26th. Look for a much better run out of him this week compared with the past few years.

The driver we will root for this week is Rusty Wallace. He is perhaps one of the greatest short track drivers of all time and this is his final try this week. More than just being nostalgic and rooting for Wallace is the fact that he actually has a great shot at winning. He finished fifth earlier this season at Martinsville and won the spring race last year, giving him seven career victories on the track.

While personally being agitated with Wallace several times because of his early driving style, I can say that Rusty had just as much to do with helping NASCAR arrive where it’s at right now. When NASCAR became more than just a Southern thing and televised audiences got to see these rowdy guys on and off the track, it was exciting to all who were sitting in their living rooms.

Wallace was always right in the middle of any squabble and as the networks came aboard full time, Rusty was one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, but not necessarily the most liked. He had stirs with all the top drivers. When the young kid, Jeff Gordon, came along, Rusty picked on him just like the other veterans did making for great television drama.

Good luck to Wallace this week in his final short track race.