MARTINSVILLE, Va. – This is exactly what made NASCAR.
Boil it all down and strip away the color and the money and the TV and everything else that is just so much window dressing today and THIS IS WHAT MADE NASCAR.
It’s why it became the fastest-growing, most popular sport in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s what made it immensely popular throughout the South long before that. Stick and ball sports reigned elsewhere. Below the Mason-Dixon it was four tires and the roar of an unrestricted engine.
It was an intense battle for the lead in the closing laps of a race. Emotions and sheetmetal rubbed raw from an afternoon spent wrestling a 3,400-pound car around the tight confines of a short track.
It was forcing the car to do things it shouldn’t do, willing it to do things it couldn’t do, but by God making it do them just the same.
It was contact and smoke and dented metal and donuts in the door and more smoke and the checkered flag.
It was a good guy and a bad guy and someone’s fuming and someone’s celebrating.
That’s a big part of what’s been missing from NASCAR.
It was there again on Sunday. On display. In all its forgotten glory.
Fittingly, it played out at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the shortest of the short tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule and the ONLY track that has been hosting NASCAR events since the inaugural 1949 season.
Joey Logano won Sunday’s First Data 500 because he moved Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead. On the last lap. In the last turn. With his front bumper. And with an opportunity to race for the championship on the line.
Those opportunities don’t present themselves every week, mind you.
The push came after several laps of side-by-side racing between the two. Truex had taken the lead on the white-flag lap, passing Logano cleanly on the inside as the two rolled out of the second turn and headed for the backstretch.
Critics howled. How dare he! Logano mugged him, knocked him out of the way!
Others came to Logano’s defense. Under those same circumstances, any driver would have done the same thing, they said. Particularly one of the eight needing a win to guarantee a spot in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.
Both groups are correct. Logano did knock him out of the way.
Just as many, many others have done in years past. Name a former champion, name a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Don’t make me do it because good Lord if you’ve followed NASCAR for any time at all you’ve seen it happen. Don’t be naïve. Those guys with seven championships? Yeah, you’re damn right, they did it. And the rest of them, too.
Doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just makes it what it is.
Races can be and have been won without “punting” the leader. Truex had every right to believe Logano would race him exactly as he had raced Logano.
It was the final lap. With a ticket to Homestead on the line. You can expect whatever you want but I’ll tell you right here and right now, I know how this is going to end more times than not.
There was a point earlier in the race when a driver complained about slower cars running side by side in front of him, making it impossible to pass.
And I thought rather than complain about slower cars, why not go up there and put the bumper to someone and move them out of the way? Is that so wrong?
That’s how races have been won and lost on short tracks for as long as there HAVE BEEN short tracks.
Is it “dirty” when a slower car holds you up in an effort to stay on the lead lap? No. It’s what any driver will try to do.
I’m not saying what Logano did was right or wrong. I’m simply saying it was a decision. No different from Truex.
Until then, a surprisingly quiet race, almost sanitary you might say, had played out before a good crowd.
But then things got interesting and I don’t care who you feel was right or wrong, you can’t say that it wasn’t a memorable finish and one that will be talked about for quite a while.
It’s the kind of thing that made NASCAR great. It’s what could make it great again.