Outside Perspective: It's Not the Same
Same as it ever was. Not.
The Talking Heads got a lot of mileage in the 1980s, and beyond, from their hit song "Once in a Lifetime."
Perhaps you recall it. Or at least its oft-repeated refrain: "Same as it ever was."
"Same as it ever was." "Same as it ever was." Same as it ever was."
Coming back to you now?
So what do David Byrne and his cohorts have to do with 2014, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR, you ask?
Here's the thing.
The Talking Heads come to mind when I start thinking about NASCAR in New Hampshire and New England as the Speedway celebrates its 25th birthday this summer.
NASCAR has been bringing the best of the best in auto racing - all of the superstars - to Loudon for a quarter century now and that part of the equation has not changed one bit.
But same as it ever was? Not even close.
So much has changed.
In early June, the honchos from heavyweight Hendrick Motorsports brought Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne and their teams to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first of their valuable and limited (teams get just four during the season) test sessions.
The differences at the track and in the sport from back in the day - way back in 1990 - when the speedway kicked things off with a whopping 42,000 fans for the Budweiser 300 Busch Grand National race on July 15?
There are many.
Besides a fancy new shower and bathroom facility, there are people-moving carriages that shuttle fans back and forth on the property, tens of thousands of added seats in the stands, improved and paved parking areas, amenities in the camping areas, an expanded year-round store in the main office and even a dealership for Legends cars for those looking to break into racing. And those are just a few of the changes.
Consider several others.
Check out Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and the rest, larger than life.
As Earnhardt and Steve Letarte and Johnson and Chad Knaus went about their testing in early June, pictures of the drivers flashed on the giant scoreboard tower in the infield. The show gets more impressive with the huge video screens brought in for race weekends.
And how's this for change: Earnhardt reaching out to JR Nation via twitter.
He's just getting started on that social media platform and before June ended, already he had 700,000 followers. Don't look now Junior, but I'm closing in on you: Only about 699,760 folks to go.
Gotta love Earnhardt's Twitter profile: "Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster."
While in New Hampshire on this trip, it was Earnhardt who kept everyone - the media included - informed about when practice would resume on a rainy Wednesday.
He let everyone know how things were going, too.
"Still testing @NHMS," he tweeted at one point. "Been almost a 12-hour run. Cars are solid. All 4 teams getting some great information."
And: "Very happy with our speed and the car feels great. I love this track."
Tweeting's one thing. Training's another.
Think many of the drivers in the past spent hours working out, the better to get in shape to handle the rigors of racing?
Jimmie Johnson not only does that, but trains to compete in triathlons as well.
He missed out on a session with the press in New Hampshire because he was working out.
Mr. Six-Time - or should it be Mr. Six-pack? - took advantage of a lengthy rain delay to get in a 1,200-yard swim, an hour on the spin bike and 48 minutes, good for six miles, on the treadmill.
Then he jumped into his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet and went to work for eight hours or so on the short day of the session: On Tuesday, Johnson and his fellow drivers went out onto the track and came back into the garage time after time after time and practiced hard for about 12 hours, all the while compiling piles and piles of information for the engineers to study and decipher.
They were looking for any edge to make sure they secured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, and perhaps even more than that, looking for an edge for when the Cup drivers come back here for Race No. 2 in the Chase in September.
Ahh, the Chase for the championship.
Hard to believe this is the 11th season since NASCAR injected some major pizzazz into its championship run with the Chase, the 10-race dash for cash and a title that lends playoff-style suspense to the end of the season.
Even the Chase is not the same.
Getting to the Chase is all about winning races now.
Staying in the Chase once you're in it and winning the title is all about racing at the front of the pack and surviving rounds of elimination - set up in three-race segments - down to a four-driver clash at the season finale at Homestead.
The drivers can't wait.
"I think it's going to be exciting to be a part of the Chase," said Jeff Gordon, who won the most recent of his four Cup titles in 2001. "It's going to be exciting to watch if you're not a part of it. I think it has the potential to be one of the most intriguing championship battles we've ever seen. I think it will be actually."
The value of the two New Hampshire Motor Speedway races - along with other races - instantly got ramped up, Gordon said.
"It's more important," Gordon said. "Way more important. I mean it's a win. It's a win and it's in the Chase. To me, every racetrack, especially if it's in the Chase, is far more important. Whether it's a win to get you your second or third win, or whether it's a win to get you into the Chase. The fact that if you ran well here, it bodes well for you for when the Chase starts."
The Chase will be here soon enough.
In the meantime, meet me near the Granite Stripe on the start/finish line on July 13 before the Camping World RV Sales 301, if you would.
I'm getting my race day started with some rocking good times from Recycled Percussion, the wild and crazy group from Goffstown, coming to the Speedway by way of Las Vegas.
Same as it ever was? Not by a long shot.