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BUMP STOPS: Big Win, Big Weekend And Boys Will Be Boys

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Photo: NASCAR

It's Wednesday again. Time to roll the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

WHAT WOULD AN auto racing column be without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday?

It was good for NASCAR on a lot of levels, none bigger than likely cementing the sport's far-and-away most popular driver as a legitimate Chase for the Sprint Cup contender. It was so good that I floated the idea that maybe it was, well, too good...

Let's preface all of this by saying that I'm not a guy who believes in conspiracy theories. I'm just not that guy. But if ever the stars all aligned just right for a sport in dire need of a kick in the pants, this was the time.

Consider the following:

  • NASCAR's most popular driver mired in a four-year, 143-race winless streak heading into last weekend...

  • A fan base still clinging to memories of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died more than 11 years ago...

  • A win for Dale Jr. on Father's Day, almost exactly four years to the day of his previous win...

  • A race event that was sullied by discussion of speeds at the newly repaved Michigan being “too fast”...

  • Severe left-side tire problems that prompted NASCAR and Goodyear to ship in an emergency batch of left-sides for all its Sprint Cup teams, necessitating an extra 75-minute practice session on Saturday evening...

  • Half-empty grandstands virtually all season long, continued criticism of television's coverage of races, and a dearth of caution flags (and subsequent restarts to generate excitement late in races)...

Of course it would be easy for a pinhead like me to joke, “Sure, it's obvious NASCAR fixed this one.” But the reality is that, like I said, I'm not into conspiracy theories. NASCAR has weathered too many comparisons to professional wrestling – you can thank Tony Stewart for that – and has tried to hard to ensure it's competition is held on fair and equal footing in the light of a decades-long culture of cheating and rule-bending on behalf of its teams.

To toy with that for the benefit of a good story would set the sport back 30 years, at a time when it can't afford to have its credibility called into question.

NASCAR needs people to believe in this sport again – and believe in it enough that it will buy tickets to the races, watch the events on television in massive numbers and return to supporting corporate sponsorships on the grassroots level.

So, did NASCAR “fix” things for a long-awaited Dale Earnhardt Jr. win at Michigan?

Not a chance.

But the stars certainly lined up in a way that will benefit everybody associated with the sport – whether they're a fan of Earnhardt Jr. or not.

SPEAKING OF EARNHARDT connections, Tony Eury Jr. didn't do anybody – least of all his driver – any favors on Saturday in the aftermath of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Michigan.

After Danica Patrick was involved in three separate incidents in the 250-mile event – including two single-car spins – Eury Jr. suggested that the reason his driver was struggling is because the boys don't like to play with the girls on the race track.

Let's not make this a discussion about Danica-mania and whether or not she's a talented race car driver who can't catch a break or a marketing mogul who has simply capitalized on her ability to attract a crowd. Let's make this a discussion about women breaking into NASCAR's top levels.

It's difficult. That's a given. What's tough is to discern whether or not it's tougher for a woman to break into high-level stock car racing than drivers of minority descent – whether it's a Darrell Wallace Jr, a Kyle Larson or a Daniel Suarez.

I'm not sure there's a lot of difference, to be completely honest.

It's still about having been brought up in the sport, about having the right connections to top-level teams willing to stick it out with a driver and about having the talent to then make the most of an opportunity presented with a slim (if any) margin for error.

Here's why Eury's comments are so bothersome: Not unlike an X Team Racing, which is trying to find a marketing niche for drivers from Central and South America, the key to finding funding for women drivers is about finding a new company that is willing to fork over enough coin to support a very costly venture.

Unfair? Perhaps. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a reality.

The issue here is that when one of these companies new to the sport are weighing the pros and cons of signing that big check over to a team, they look at what an “insider” like Eury is saying and likely rethinking their commitment.

“If someone like that says everybody's picking on the women out there, then why are we going to throw our money into something that won't be allowed to run up front?”

It might not be the truth to the letter of the law, but in today's world of instant results, perception rapidly becomes truth. And that's a bad perception for someone like Eury to be throwing out there.

IT'S A CRUCIAL weekend for the ACT Late Model Tour.

The White Mountain 150 at White Mountain Motorsports Park on Saturday night not only marks the season's midway point, but it also sits as an anomaly on the 2012 ACT schedule. It's the only points race over a more than two-month stretch.

The last ACT race was the won that Ben Ashline won at Oxford Plains Speedway on May 20. The next points race after this weekend isn't until after the Oxford 250 – on July 28 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.

That's a lot of time to ponder a bad finish this weekend. And, after this weekend, there will only be five races left in the entire season. Get yourself in a hole coming out of White Mountain, and it's likely you're not going to have enough time to climb out of it.

Not everybody running a ACT-legal Late Model has been standing pat during the break, though. Austin Theriault – the runner-up in last August's ACT race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – has been busy running weekly events at White Mountain in preparation for this weekend.

“I think the break is good for everybody that keeps racing and tries to find more speed,” said Theriault, who sits fourth in the ACT standings, 19 points behind leader Wayne Helliwell. “I don't think you're helping yourself out by just taking a break, A month off from racing can do you a lot of harm, too.

“It might do some good to give guys on the crew time to spend with family, but you need to find a track to race at every weekend so you keep on your game and don't let other guys get a lot better than you.”

Theriault certainly isn't alone is keeping busy during the down time. Helliwell has been competing weekly at Canaan Fair Speedway and has risen to 11 in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings, while Brian Hoar and others have competed in the Vermont State Championship Late Model Series. Joey Polewarczyk has been running both Late Models and Super Late Models.

The list goes on and on.

“We're technically not 'off,'” Theriault said. “We've gotten to as many tracks as we could. We're anxious to go back (to the ACT Late Model Tour).”

RACE FANS IN Connecticut are in for a treat this weekend, that's for sure.

Not only is the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour making a celebrated return to Waterford Speedbowl on Saturday night with the Mr. Rooter Richie Evans 161, but several of those Whelen Modified Tour standouts will be at Stafford Motor Speedway on Friday night for the Valenti Modified Racing Series event at the half-mile track.

Drivers like Doug Coby, Ted Christopher and Rowan Pennink are entered in both events – and it's also likely that drivers like Mike Stefanik and Keith Rocco could join that mix. That's a heck of a weekend double-dip for Modified fans, for sure.

While the VMRS might not boast the depth of talent that the NASCAR Tour does, when you can filter in a half-dozen Tour drivers at a track synonymous with Modified racing – and where those Tour drivers and teams have mountains of experience and know-how – you're bound to see a great show.

Not to mention, the VMRS race is scheduled for 80 laps – roughly half the distance of a typical Tour race at Stafford – so you won't get any riding around in the pack for the middle stages of this race. It will be a dash to the front in the most literal sense of the word.

Follow that with the rough-and-tumble bullring style of racing that Waterford produces, the weekend holds the promise of producing the kind of racing that has driven such a loyal Modified fan base over the years.

BUT MODIFIED RACING isn't the only attraction for Nutmeg State fans this weekend.

On Thursday night, Thompson International Speedway hosts its second in a series of 50-lap Super Late Model “Specials.” The event is expected to draw a number of cars from Thompson's previous weekly fields (the division no longer runs weekly at the track), as well as Super Late Models from Seekonk Speedway, Monadnock Speedway and the New York tracks.

Two-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track champion Derek Ramstrom, a part-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East competitor, is entered. He won the first 50-lap event of the season in April at Thompson.

With no points and a sizable purse, it should be an interesting night for fans.

YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the fresh fruit salad and sweet tea, and don't forget to tip your waitress. Dirigo is here, so stick around.

– TB