Sunday, August 30, 2009

On closing the deal eight years later, Chicago Motor Speedway, and improving the racing in the CWTS

Kyle Busch again dominated the Truck Series, this time in the series inaugural series race at Chicagoland Speedway. It's no surprise to see Busch in victory lane in a Truck but this win had to be especially sweet as it was redemption from 2001. Busch was within a handful of laps away from winning in just his second series start, as a 16-year-old, at the old Chicago Motor Speedway before fuel and eventually tire problems derailed his bid for victory. Not that Busch needs a redemption - afterall, he's since gone on to score 56 total wins among the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck series - but it puts a nice end to a story that was started just over eight years ago.

Seeing the highlight footage from the two truck races at Chicago Motor Speedway during the SPEED broadcast brought back memories. The track was wedged into property between a residential neighborhood and a solid waste transfer station in Cicero, just a couple of miles from Midway Airport. The track packed them in for a couple of CART Champ Car races, and drew a decent crowd for the first Truck race in 2000. But the attendance for the second Truck race in 2000 set an unofficial record for the smallest crowd to ever witness an official Truck Series event. Some veteran observers trackside estimated attendance at less than a thousand, making the cavernous grandstands that were capable of holding upwards of 60,000 to appear absolutely desolate. One joke going around on race morning in 2001 was that the drivers would go up into the grandstands and shake hands personally with the fans in attendance, and since there were so few of them there it wouldn't take any longer than the traditional driver intros do. It is a real shame the event didn't gain any traction because, despite its location, it was a cool racetrack. It was a tight paperclip, more of a Martinsville clone than even New Hampshire, and the racing was pretty good. It looked like a decent crowd was on hand Friday night at Chicagoland.

NASCAR's best kept secret has been the quality of the racing in the Truck Series. But rules changes in the engines and on pit road have degraded that competition this year. The tapered spacer that restricts horsepower means that drivers can run wide open around virtually every 1.5-mile track on the schedule. So rather than drivers testing themselves to see how deep they can run into the corner, they simply hold it to the mat and guide the truck - almost like a slot car. At Chicagoland, cameras caught some side-by-side racing (usually after restarts), but there was a lot of single-file running with very little racing for position. The pit stop rules that don't allow tire changes and refueling on the same pit stop hurt the quality of the on-track product too. If a team needs tires after a 60-lap green flag run, they must make two pit stops - one for tires and one for fuel. If a caution falls during a round of green flag stops, someone's night is essentially ruined. Hopefully things will change in 2010 and teams won't have to make the choices they are forced to make now. There are plenty of changes NASCAR can make that will improve the quality of the show without increasing the number of people that the teams need to take to the track. Allow four tires and fuel and eliminate the tire carriers. Only allow two tire changes during any one pit stop. Or go back to the way it was with full-blown four-tire changes.

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