Thursday, August 24, 2006

Tennessee Tiltin'

One could say that Mark Martin is the most underrated driver in NASCAR. We may ask how he could be underrated when he is quite possibly one of the most popular drivers in the sport, has a total NASCAR win record of 85 wins--placing him fifth on the all time wins list--and has peranually been a strong contender for the Cup Championship? The thing is, he has never won a championship, in Trucks, Busch, or Cup Series. Yet, he has won more races than any other currently active driver.
Wednesday night, at Bristol, he won his fourth Craftsman Truck Series race this season. It was only his seventh race in that series this season, so you can see his percentage is pretty high. Martin says that he will be racing full time in CTS next year, that is, if he isn't needed in the Cup Series to drive for his boss and friend Jack Roush. I believe we can look forward to some very good racing in the Truck Series next year.
Bristol is a great track, an oval short track with high banking all around. It is by far the most popular venue on the NASCAR circuit, and, for the Cup Series, nearly impossible to get tickets for. The high banks account for higher than usual speeds for a short track, and the close proximity of other cars ensures that there will be plenty of contact. The key to winning will be driver skill and temper control. Aerodynamics will not be a factor, which doesn't matter, because the cars will be very beat up anyway. There may be some tire issues, but whatever happens in the pits has to be flawless. It is very easy to go one or two laps down at Bristol.
There should, however, be plenty of cautions. The race at Bristol earlier this year had 18 of them. Cautoins mean that the first car not on the lead lap is allowed to gain one lap. This is for good reason; not so long ago when there was a caution flag due to an incident, debris, or TV commercial, the drivers could still race for position to the end of the lap. This was extremely dangerous, as any car stopped on the track could be hit at full speed by cars racing to the start/finish line. That practice was stopped by "freezing the field" at the time of caution, meaning that no one could gain position once the yellow caution flag was out. This also prevented drivers who could race their way back to the lead lap, by passing the car leading the race, from doing so. The free pass, or "lucky dog," came about as compensation.
Still, I don't care much for a race that has more laps under caution than actual racing laps, though it does make pit strategy a factor. Pitting for position, as in refueling or fresh tire change in a different sequence than the rest of the at Bristol is not a good idea anyway, as any advantage would be negated by the next caution. If the drivers are as skilled as they appear to be, and tempers are held under control, there don't necessarily need to be so many cautions.
The driver does, however, have to be agressive enough to take advantage of any situtation. Reflexes have to be even faster than usual. Because anything can happen on any lap at Bristol, the race has the potential of producing a surprise winner. But often, it is as specialized a race as the road races are, and only the drivers with the most adabtable skills are usually consistant here. There are the usual suspects--Stewart, The Gordon, Elliott Sadler, Robby Gordon, Martin, Jeff Burton, either one of the Busch brothers, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick--who can be expected to come out in front of the field. Dale Earnhardt, Jr has also been competitive at Bristol, as has Kasey Kahne. But, there are also other drivers who may "guts" their car through the field, such as Scott Riggs or Dale Jarrett, who could be a surprise winner. Thus, I have a ghood excuse for not picking a winner for this race.
All in all, it should be a good race, a blood and guts Saturday night free for all. I'm sure we'll have a good time watching.

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