By Jerry Bonkowski
It used to be that NASCAR would adamantly refuse any semblance of tying races and race tracks together either geographically or by their overall length on a consecutive basis.
But that’s not the case anymore.
The early season so-called “West Coast Swing” – where NASCAR races three weeks in a row at Fontana (Calif.), Las Vegas and Phoenix – has become one of the most popular segments of the 36-race Cup schedule.
This weekend, we kick off another three-race segment, where the three shortest of short tracks on the circuit follow each other back-to-back-to-back.
First is Sunday’s race at Richmond Raceway (3/4-mile). Next week, it’s a Saturday night special at the sport’s shortest track, Martinsville Speedway (.526 miles).
And then, two weeks from now, the so-called “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” – a.k.a. Bristol Motor Speedway (.533 miles) – puts the cherry on the top of the three straight short tracks with a thrilling and exciting event held on trucked-in dirt.
While they all are short tracks, they couldn’t be more disparate and unique. And even though they all are geographically within a few hundred miles of each other, the racing at one venue will be completely unlike what we’ll see at the other two.
Richmond races like a track twice its size, Martinsville is one of the tightest and most punishing tracks (particularly on brakes and tires) there is, and Bristol has its notorious high banks – dirt or no dirt.
Many NASCAR fans got their start following stock car racing by watching races on their local short tracks, grass roots style. That’s why places like Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol are so popular, as they bring back memories of how racing was back in the day when fans were growing up and first getting into the sport.
A lot of times, those same three tracks also were the first race track fans watched a NASCAR race in-person. There’s just nothing like being so up-close and having such a personal feeling to the action.
What’s especially good this year is after back-to-back-to-back races on the three shortest tracks on the Cup circuit, then NASCAR goes in the exact opposite direction and competes on the longest and arguably one of the fastest tracks in the sport, namely, Talladega Superspeedway.
At 2.66-miles in length, the Talladega tri-oval is a night-and-day difference from racing on a short track. It has plenty of room to pass and oftentimes go three-, four- and on rare occasions even five-wide on the straightaways or in the turns.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to Richmond for a moment. It used to be one of the premier tracks on the Cup circuit, although it’s competitive level has dimmed somewhat in recent years.
In fact, as I mentioned in this week’s “Hot Heads,” to me the most exciting race we saw at Richmond in recent years came in 2014 when an inebriated fan thought it would be a good idea to climb the catch fence and watch the race cars fly by literally underneath him.
I still have shivers thinking what might have happened if that fan had slipped and fell onto the track and into the path of an oncoming pack of cars.
While it may have slipped a bit in terms of recent races and the competition and outcomes we have gotten so used to seeing at the track they call “Double-R,” I predict this Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 is going to produce an event like we haven’t seen in quite a few years.
The Next Generation car was designed and built for all kinds of tracks, but it seems to have one key element: it should be racier and more competitive at places like Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol than other tracks.
Sure, we’ve seen some great races to date in the first six events of the season, including this past weekend’s thrilling last-lap win by Ross Chastain on the road course at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Chase Briscoe’s win at Phoenix and Austin Cindric’s win in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Not coincidentally, all three of those race winners were also first-time winners on the Cup circuit, part of a string that has seen six different winners in as many races thus far in 2022.
Will we potentially see another first-time winner at Richmond? Sure, it’s possible – although the number of potential first-time winners is starting to wane. But at the same time, the Next Gen car was built to be a versatile car that can run equally on all sorts of race tracks, from long to short, ovals to road courses, and yes, even on dirt.
But for all the exciting action we’ve seen thus far in the first one-sixth of the season, I predict Sunday could wind up being the best race we’ve seen to date. Strap yourselves in, fans and drivers, because it’s going to be one heck of a ride!
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski