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DARLINGTON, S.C.— Although he and “The Track Too Tough To Tame” exchanged blows, Kyle Busch and his No. 18 M&Ms Indiana Jones Toyota triumphed Saturday night, winning the Dodge Challenger 500 before a sellout crowd at historic Darlington Raceway.
As the Victory Lane interview was broadcast over the public-address system, a chorus of boos rained down from the grandstands at Darlington Raceway.
“These guys love it. They love the noise the fans make,” Busch said in retort. “So keep it up, everybody.”
Busch earned his third win and eighth top-10 finish of 2008. He also led seven times for a race-high 169 laps, capturing his first Darlington victory and his ninth in 125 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. He remains the series’ standings leader for the second consecutive week.
Carl Edwards finished second, followed by Jeff Gordon in third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth and David Ragan in fifth. Saturday's event was the first on Darlington's newly paved surface, which yielded a new track-record average speed of 140.350 mph.
“First of all, my hat’s off to Kyle,” Edwards said. “Man, I wanted to beat him bad. I wanted to beat him so bad. Now we’re tied for wins. I wanted to keep him down a little bit, but he did a great job. I tore it up just a little bit on the left front, but I definitely had a good time—a lot better time than last night. The new surface is growing on me. It’s all right.
“Anytime you see somebody running that well, that Gibbs bunch is running really well, and you want to beat ’em. A lot of times this year, we’ve had some good battles, and they do a great job, so my hat’s off to ’em. They earned this win, that’s for sure.”
Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Travis Kvapil, Dave Blaney and Jeff Burton rounded out the top-10 finishers.
Polesitter Greg Biffle, who appeared to have the dominant car, retired with engine problems after 234 laps. He finished 43rd despite leading seven times for 95 laps. Jeff Gordon led three times for 24 laps, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led four times for 35 laps.
Top-12 Chase Contenders after 11 of 36: 1. Kyle Busch-1690, 2. Burton-1611, 3. Earnhardt-1556, 4. Hamlin-1500, 5. Bowyer-1490, 6. Johnson-1442, 7. Edwards-1400, 8. Stewart-1397, 9. Harvick-1396, 10. J. Gordon-1326, 11. Biffle-1308, 12. Ragan-1266
Top-10 Nationwide Series drivers after 12 of 35: 1. Bowyer-1740, 2. Kyle Busch-1628, 3. Edwards-1590, 4. Reutimann-1572, 5. Bliss-1546, 6. Ragan-1521, 7. Keselowski-1500, 8. Leffler-1480, 9. M. Wallace-1385, 10. Stremme-1327
WHO WILL FILL THEIR SHOES?
Many of the older NASCAR drivers are gone.
We lost Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Rusty Wallace no longer races. He turned in his driving helmet for a television commentator’s suit. Ricky Rudd is out. Bill Elliott and Mark Martin are running only a handful of races this season.
Morgan Shepherd is still trying to run a few Nationwide races, but his competitive Cup career is over. Jimmy Spencer said he has no plans to return to racing.
Sterling Marlin is still trying to hang on after being released at the end of last season. Dale Jarrett has one more race to run, and it’s out to pasture for him. Terry Labonte has retired, and his brother Bobby probably doesn’t have many years left.
Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader have almost reached the finish line.
There aren’t many full-time drivers left that are over 40. Jeff Burton is right on the border, and he is “old,” when you consider the age of the youngsters that are now behind the wheel of a Cup car.
So where does that leave all their fans?
It’s a dilemma. Most of their followers are middle-aged or older, and some of the new crop of drivers have barely reached the age where they can drink alcohol legally.
Beginning in the mid-’90s, NASCAR set out to bring in a new and younger fan base. They actually wanted to get rid of Earnhardt, Elliott and Martin. By doing so, a new and younger group of fans would be brought into the sport.
That’s exactly what is happening. NASCAR has succeeded in bringing in lots of younger drivers: Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt and Kyle Busch, Juan Montoya, David Ragan, Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola and several others.
Not many of these young drivers have gained a widespread fan support. With the exception of Johnson, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr., the fans aren’t with them. Now of course, I don’t mean to imply they have no fans. I mean they don’t have the large fan following most of the older drivers enjoyed.
I’ve had many fans tell me they don’t really have a favorite driver any more. Most fans I talked with aren’t able to identify with the young drivers, because they didn’t work their way up through the ranks.
They may have loads of talent, but they lack the personality most fans want.
Steven Wallace is one example. His father, Rusty, has spent millions of dollars grooming him for a Cup career. Does this make him acceptable to racing fans?
To me, it shows he is the son of a rich father and a spoiled brat.
The older race fans watch the new kids and squirm. How can a fan that spends a week’s salary going to a race relate to the new 21-year-old who is picked up after the race by a helicopter and then flies home in a private jet?
A long time ago, drivers had to interact with fans. Now they distance themselves from the fans and go out of their way to avoid them.
Who’s going to fill the old- time driver’s shoes? Young drivers have slid into their driving seats, but they aren’t cutting it with the fans who remember Richard, Dale, Rusty, Sterling, Jimmy and the many other racing legends.
To develop a large fan following, a driver has to develop a personality the fans can relate to.
Right now, I don’t see any young driver, with the exception of Dale Jr., standing out. What has happened reflects the overall change in NASCAR. It’s gone from a driver-oriented sport to a team sport.
I don’t think there will ever be another driver with a fan following like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott or Rusty Wallace. I think we as fans are going to have to be content to rooting for the entire team, not just an individual driver.
Can Jon Wood revive the Wood Brothers?
Both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will be at the 1.6-mile Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord. The Nationwide Series has an off-week.
Fri., May 16, Craftsman Trucks N. C. Education Lottery 200; Starting time: 8 p.m. (EST); TV: Speed Channel.
Sat., May 17, Sprint All-Star (non-points) Race; Starting time: 7 p.m. (EST); TV: Speed Channel; Format: There will be two 20-lap segments called the Sprint Showdown, then the all-star race will consist of four 25-lap segments. The winner of the Sprint Showdown will transfer to the all-star race.
Racing Trivia Question: Which is NASCAR’s longest distance race of the season?
Last Week’s Question: Jimmy Spencer hasn’t raced since 2006. What are his future plans? Answer. Spencer has no plans to return to the racing. He says he is very content as a television analyst.
GERALD HODGES is a Beacon correspondent. You may contact the Racing Reporter at: firstname.lastname@example.org.