Friday, April 11, 2014

The Era of Historic Opportunity: Five Questions for Darlington

(Credit: ISC Archives)
To some, history is pointless. The past isn’t important anymore. Who cares about things that happened decades ago?

Those people are wrong, and I’m going to tell you why.

Friday night, Chase Elliott won at Texas Motor Speedway, his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory. The confetti flew after a performance that told observers one thing: this kid is the real deal. Being the son of former champion Bill Elliott, how could he not?

He isn’t the only one, either; there are many young drivers who are worth watching. Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney, Ty Dillon, Dylan Kwasniewski and many more. Most are in the NASCAR Next program, which was created to heighten their stance in the sport. Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are graduates of the setup, making noise on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series level.

What used to take ages to achieve now happens in a matter of a year. This is the era of historic opportunity. Why don’t we embrace it?

NASCAR is different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. Some see that as a miscue, others find it to be a relief. Either way, where the sport once was needs to be recognized. To see the steps made, you have to know where you’ve been.

A win is sweeter when you understand which drivers drove to the checkered flag years before you did. Without history, that taste would be nonexistent.

Knowing about the past is important, and Darlington Raceway’s past is louder than the track itself. With multiple personas, the venue is bound to mess with some drivers’ heads. In this edition, I’m discussing Matt Kenseth, predicting winners and ranting about SAFER barriers. It’s all here in these Five Questions for Darlington.

Will we see an eighth different winner? Seven drivers have visited Victory Lane this season, and you can color me shocked; since The Chase’s inception 2004, that hasn’t happened. The year before that, there were nine different winners in the first nine races. I believe we’ll meet that mark, and I can even tell you who will be hoisting the trophies this weekend (see the next question) and at Richmond (Hint: it rhymes with "Benny Tamlin"). The new and improved Chase structure has heightened competition, which is its purpose, and has drivers scrambling for a win. Chaos will happen at Darlington, but an eighth face will emerge as the victor.

Is it time for Jeff Gordon to tame the Lady in Black? This fickle mistress has tangoed well with Gordon; seven wins, 19 top fives  and 22 top 10s make for a deep understanding for this track. Will he land a win this coming weekend? It seems highly likely if you take his recent performances into consideration. He has the mannerisms of a starving animal, and each race brings him one step closer to satisfying that hunger. The stars are set to align and help Gordon close the deal.

Where are you, Matt Kenseth? Numbers don’t lie: 61.3 percent of Kenseth’s 31 wins in Cup have come from tracks between one and two miles in length. They’re his bread and butter, and that fact was reiterated last season. However, the No. 20 has faded into the background so far, barely making any noise. What’s going on? Kenseth won this race last year, and he knows how to get around it, but that means nothing if he’s not up to par this season. Besides, 2014 Kenseth isn’t as fun as 2013 Kenseth. Bring the other one back.

Are we STILL talking about SAFER barriers? Once again, there was a nasty, unprotected hit, and it happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr. early on in the Duck Commander 500. The impact ruined Earnhardt Jr.’s day and left an impression in the wall. Enough is enough. I’m sick and tired of seeing heart-stopping collision after heart-stopping collision, wondering if the driver will make it out of the car. There isn’t one reasonable explanation as to why every wall at every track doesn’t have SAFER barrier technology. Drivers like Gordon and Kevin Harvick have both attested that money is one of the main factor, and that is appalling. NASCAR is a business, but this is about protecting drivers from serious injury and death. There can’t be bare walls when the cars are going 217 mph. It’s always been time for them to do something about this issue, but now it’s time to actually act on it. If something isn’t done, there are going to be severe consequences, which can range from lawsuits to fatalities. Let’s try to prevent that while we still can, shall we?

Can this be the most promising crop of young drivers in history? Elliott’s win emphasizes a well-known fact: there’s a lot of talent brewing under the age of 21. Wallace, Blaney, Dillon and Kwasniewski are just some of the names blasting onto the NASCAR scene. Up higher on the ladder, the older Dillon brother is battling with Larson and a slew of other youngsters to win the Rookie of the Year honor. This is only the beginning of a beautiful youth movement within the sport. They have resurrected the “no names” and forced themselves to be heard. New chapters of the record books are written every day, and we are first-hand witnesses. Isn’t that phenomenal?


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