Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Forget the gimmicks, we want good NASCAR racing in Martinsville Sunday

MARTINSVILLE -- The best thing that can be said about today's race is that the now-famous phrase that has altered the complexion of this season -- "Boys, have at it" -- has become irrelevant.

Drivers don't need some verbal permission slip from NASCAR to police each other here. They've been doing it for 60 years.

The space to race is so tight at Martinsville Speedway, the mental strain is so pronounced, that there is constant contact. Crashes happen. Tempers flare. Scores get settled, sometimes without us even noticing it; our eyes are on a jousting match somewhere else on the track.

In other words, we're going to see some action today.

This is a welcome deviation from the spoiler vs. wing debate. I'll be honest: The interest this topic has generated baffles me to no end. It was all the talk in the media center on Friday.

"Do you like how it looks?" we asked the drivers.

"Oh, yes," they said.

"How does it affect the car?"

"Can't tell yet," they said. "Wait until Texas."

This is what we've been reduced to: Debating the merits of a piece of aluminum.

No wonder attendance is down and television ratings are flagging.


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But apparently this is a HUGE deal to a lot of racing fans, so NASCAR officials changed it. Just like they changed the overtime rules and loosened the administrative stranglehold on the drivers, symbolized by the words of vice president of competition Robin Pemberton in January: "Boys, have at it."

NASCAR is trying, at least. After years of drifting further and further from their roots, officials are starting to listen to their core fan base again.

But what the core fan base really wants to see is good racing. Not gimmicks. Not manufactured feuds. Not a pretty car. Good, hard racing that tests the ability and patience of every driver out there.

Martinsville delivers that -- or at least it has lately. The past two events here have been the best I've seen in 10 years of coming to this track. There have been better finishes over the decade, no doubt, but often those have followed 480 laps of nothing in particular. Both events in 2009 were engaging throughout.

Last spring, Jimmie Johnson won after dropping to the 30th position early in the race. He literally thought he was going to blow a tire with as hard as he had to drive. Although the result was familiar -- Johnson in Victory Lane -- the path he had to take was enthralling, a champion put to the test.

Then last fall, Juan Pablo Montoya shook things up with a rugged, bold attempt to get to the front, making contact with anybody who got in his way.

That included Johnson, who was striving for his fourth straight Cup title, and Jeff Gordon, the erstwhile king of this 0.526-mile oval.

We even got a Virginia-born winner, Denny Hamlin.

Count on some empty seats today. If Bristol can't sell out its race -- and didn't last week -- then nobody can. An iffy weather forecast also might keep some folks away.

But if the rain holds off, the boys will have at it. And it ought to be good.

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