by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR commentary and driver pictures, 2012 NASCAR schedule, video, Bench Racing With Steve and Charlie
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.April 26, 2012 8:32 pm UTC No Comments
As I write this, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is on the Speed Channel, and through 25 of 75 laps, Greg Edwards is leading the late model race. Right now, the Langley (GA) Speedway legend is doing a good job of holding the lead, though he’s got another car filling his mirrors.
Did I mention that that car is being driven by Tony Stewart?
Sprint Cup stars dabbling in late model racing has become a hot, and very entertaining, trend in the past few years, as many drivers look to run as many races as they can. The Prelude to the Dream, held at Stewart’s own Eldora Speedway, has become a major pay-per-view event. The Hamlin event also gathers some attention as local drivers get the opportunity to prove themselves against stock car racing’s best. But these races mean just as much to the Sprint Cup drivers as they do to the locals with something to prove.
Some drivers even go all out to build their own cars. Kyle Busch, of course, fields his late model out of his own shop. Guys like Kenny Wallace, Ken Schrader, and Bobby Labonte have been doing it for years. Jeff Burton spent his own money to build a brand new late model out of his own shop just for Hamlin’s event, with the goal of handing it over to his son in due time.
That got me thinking – with so many great opportunities for late model races, why isn’t there a de facto late model championship for top NASCAR drivers?
Hear me out. For one, these races aren’t about winning money, they’re about winning over competitors, making them a perfect candidate for charity benefit. Plenty of people will be willing to show up for a bunch of exhibition races between top NASCAR drivers, especially for a good cause.
Second, there are plenty of tracks on the NASCAR schedule that either already hold late model races, or could easily establish one. Hamlin’s race is at Richmond in April, while Bristol used to hold late model races for old-timers in March and New Hampshire has an ACT late model invitational in September. Rockingham could serve to add a race as a warm-up for its Truck event in April, while Lucas Oil Raceway Park could use an event in July to replace the Nationwide and Truck events. Throw in affiliations with Eldora for the Prelude to the Dream, Oxford Plains for its annual 250-lap event, and Five Flags Speedway for the Snowball Derby in December, and you have a 10-race schedule.
Lastly, there’s the hope – maybe a small hope, but still a hope – that a series like this would get some of the Cup drivers out of the feeder series and into their own exhibition races. Most of the reason they run those races is for the sake of racing, anyway. Plenty of stars have said that they want to contest the Truck race at Rockingham after watching Kasey Kahne win it this year. But if they choose to return to their late model roots rather than race in the bigger events, maybe it cracks the door open a little wider for some development driver to run once or twice more and impress somebody.
I’m sure a bunch of drivers would sign on, especially with charity involved. Stewart, Busch, and Hamlin would undoubtedly headline it, while Wallace and Schrader might even make it their primary goal to win the title in any given year. The races would make for great television, which the sponsors love, and running for points that determine how much each charity benefits adds an extra layer of motivation beyond bragging rights.
You’d watch it. I’d watch it. A lot of folks would.
Hamlin’s race is now in its intermission, setting up a 25-lap dash for the checkers. Edwards has fallen to third place, with Stewart now in the lead. For Smoke, this could be just another victory won for the love of racing. But for some other driver, a win could be the realization of a dream – beating what may be the sport’s best driver.
Some things may just be pipe dreams, but someone ought to make this dream come true.