Road racing, once considered a dreary hybrid by NASCAR loyalists, has blossomed into one of its premier spectacles, as demonstrated by Denny Hamlin's stirring victory in the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen on Sunday.
The title was the only cheesy aspect of what went on in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York. Four races remain before the Chase, which begs the oft-asked question:
Why no road course in the Chase? Beats Hamlin, who nearly won the earlier such race in Sonoma, California. He said:
"There are so many opportunities. You can see the leader right there in front of you, even if you're in eighth place. The leader is right there. You're trying to dive into the corners, do everything you can to make a move.
"The track is barely wide enough. It's a one-lane race track. When you go to pass, you have to force somebody out of the way or they have to give you the spot. When they don't, it makes for very exciting wrecks.
"It just seems like, over the last five years, the road courses have taken a turn to the aggressive. I think this has to do a lot with the Chase format, guys seeing this as a win-and-you're-in type format."
Imagine what it would be like if a road course was one of the 10 stops in the actual Chase. The Glen might be a bit brisk in the fall, but October is nice in Sonoma. The Chase cries out for a road course. It screams, almost as much as those who felt wronged at the end of Sunday's roving game of bumper cars through the hills and dales.
As the urgent final laps wound down, no one mounted a final charge on Hamlin partly because they squabbled with each other. It seemed as if everyone other than Hamlin had someone to whom an apology was in order. A.J. Allmendinger expressed remorse for dumping Kyle Larson. Martin Truex Jr. used his Toyota to crumple some sheet metal on Brad Keselowski's Ford after the official roughhousing was completed.
Joey Logano, who took advantage of the tiff to slip past teammate Keselowski for second place, said, "It's aggressive racing. Sometimes you're on the other end of it."
Sure, a road course in the Chase would add volatility. Someone important would probably tumble out of championship contention because of something unlucky and strange.
Like, oh, maybe Talladega, which is in the Chase. Or Martinsville, the tiny Virginia track known for the pushing and shoving that translates in NASCAR as good, clean fun.
An unfair advantage for the adept road racer? Who, in this age, isn't? Hamlin grew up on the short tracks of Virginia. Logano cut his teeth driving around and around in karts and Legends cars. Hamlin's first road-course victory was almost his second. Tony Stewart squeezed past Hamlin on the final turn to win in Sonoma.
As Hamlin's owner, Joe Gibbs, said:
"For Denny, I felt like Sonoma was a heartbreak there to go to the last corner and lose the race out there on a road course. Then to bounce back and race like he did here, they were big hitters, great road racers. For him to come out on top here says a lot about Denny.
"I think you have to consider him a threat everywhere we go, but certainly at a road course now, he's proved that he's somebody who can contend for a win."
Out of the top-10 finishers, only fourth-place finisher Allmendinger, whom Larson called "flat-out stupid" for the last-lap dump, cut his teeth as a road racer. Over the years, the stock cars have grown more supple at careening left and right, up hills and into valleys, changing gears and sliding off-course. That they are more ungainly than sports and open-wheeled cars adds a rough edge that seems to get more in vogue with the fans every year.
|Active Drivers with Road-Course Victories|
|Martin Truex Jr.||1|
Carl Edwards, the one-time Missouri dirt tracker, won poles at both road races and led the first 25 laps on Sunday.
He was a casualty of the mayhem, but on Friday at a media conference, Edwards had said, "Yeah, if we had one more road course, I'm sure, like this year, people would say, 'Oh, Carl' (as a favorite), but by next year, they'll forget it and it will be the start all over again."
The old excuses are no longer valid. All the NASCAR kids are road-racing whizzes. The balance of competition is no longer threatened, if ever it was. A road course is an all-around test of drivers and teams. The fans love road races. They translate exceptionally to the television screen.
When the Chase is winding its stodgy way through the glut of intermediate, largely generic layouts that constitute half the Chase and smother all of it—Chicagoland, Charlotte, Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead—a few will look back to the summer and think about how regal a visit to the Formula One course in Austin, Texas, might be.
Or Road America. Somewhere with a winding road. The Chase needs something to cut to.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.