--Martinsville is an "Old School" track--in fact, its so old-school that Dick Berggren was only 40 when the track opened.
--Last year this was the site of Brian Vickers' one-man war against his own career, with Matt Kenseth's car as the battlefield.
--You may not know this, but I'm sponsoring the new #19 car driven by Mike Bliss. Yeah, I don't have a logo on it, but that's because its stealth marketing. Very, VERY stealth marketing.
--Sure, Penske is debuting the new Dodge engine this week, but they're leaving at the end of the year. That's like divorcing your spouse at age 80.
--Does anyone know why this year's pit caps only have logos on one side of the hat? Are they advertising blank cotton/twill?
--Bored by all the long green-flag runs lately? Don't worry--Sam Hornish Jr.'s planning a comeback!
As required by law, anybody on the fringes of the sports journalism world (that's me!) must do an article based around a "bracket" in the month of March. Well, here's mine. People love to compare the different tracks on the Nascar circuit, but look who's doing the comparing: Sports writers. They might not realize that Track X provides great side-by-side finishes, because Track Y has that awesome media center snack spread (which they refer to as "something about this track's racing that fans just don't get"). So which tracks are the best on TV? Well, lets bracket it up!
FRANCE FAMILY REGION (ISC-owned tracks)
First Round (Top 4 Seeds get Byes)
5. Darlington vs. 12. California (Auto Club)
In a Southern 500 Labor Day grudge match, we see classic Nascar go up against California style. Darlington provides history, a challenging track layout, driver-blowups, and surprise winners. California provides an answer to the question, "What if they built a track and nobody came?"
WINNER--Darlington in a rout.
6. Watkins Glen vs. 11. Chicagoland
Road Courses USED to be boring, but then came double-file restarts. Now The Glen is the site of beatin', bangin', side-by-side racin', and Australians. Chicagoland tries its hardest, but at the end of the day its a boring track with a plum spot in the schedule (kinda like Saturday Night Live).
WINNER--Watkins Glen dominates in solid fashion.
7. Phoenix vs. 10. Homestead
Phoenix is a bit on the gimmicky side (a dogleg? on the backstretch!?!). Homestead has had more facelifts than Kenny Rogers, but the progressive banking has been adopted by plenty of other tracks. Plus, its the season finale, which means there's only about two weeks till an excruciatingly unfunny awards ceremony.
WINNER--Homestead in an upset.
8. Kansas vs. 9. Michigan
Ugh. This matchup couldn't get ratings if they promised Wendy Venturini in a bikini. Both are dull, both allow for strung-out racing, and both usually induce napping. But Kansas gets points off for ripping off Dover's idea of a Casino at the track. Anytime you're ripping of something from DELAWARE, you're in bad shape.
WINNER--Michigan in a snoozer.
Sweet 16 Round
1. Daytona vs. 8. Michigan
The only POSSIBLE impediment to Daytona's dominance of this match-up would be if it was called-off for cruel and unusual punishment. Oddly enough, making somebody watch video of that caution-free race at Michigan a few years back IS cruel and unusual punishment.
WINNER--Daytona delivers a beatdown.
2. Richmond vs. 10. Homestead
Homestead's cinderella run ends here. Yes, it has the season finale. But just like in other sports, sometimes the more exciting battle is simply MAKE the postseason. Richmond's had so many close-calls and wild finishes that its impossible to pick against it.
3. Talladega vs. 6. Watkins Glen
Talladega is a tough track. Watkins Glen is a tough track. Talladega has history. Watkins Glen has history. Talladega has a sister track (Daytona). Watkins Glen has a sister track of sorts (Sonoma, more like a step-sister track). Talladega has a crazy infield. Watkins Glen has a crazy infield (bus-tipping!). This one's too close to call. Guess this one comes down to what was more fun last year. Hmmm…first-time winner and post-race drama vs. bump drafting…
WINNER--In a HUGE upset, Watkins Glen triumphs in overtime.
4. Martinsville vs. 5. Darlington
The two oldest tracks in Nascar do battle. Both are drenched in history, and both managed to survive the Nascar boom of the last decade (although Darlington lost a race date). Both offer great racing, unique layouts--heck, even the nicknames are cool (The Paperclip vs. The Track Too Tough to Tame). Its another close match-up, but Martinsville has one big strike against it--announcers praise it endlessly, but it seems MUCH more fun to be there. And really, guys, we know about the hot dogs. You can let it go.
WINNER--Darlington scores at the buzzer to advance.
Elite 8 Round
1. Daytona vs. 5. Darlington
This is an intriguing matchup, isn't it? No track provides more good AND bad to fans as Daytona. Both have history. Both provoke emotional victory lane celebrations from fans. Daytona, though has been snake-bit lately. Its had a pothole in the track, a jet-dryer hit under caution, and its signature driver this past decade was Michael Waltrip. Sorry, Daytona.
WINNER--Darlington takes advantage and pulls out a squeaker.
2. Richmond vs. 6. Watkins Glen
This tends to depend on personal preference. Some like speedways, some like road courses. You have to dig a little deeper, though, to see the real difference. Richmond (in both its forms) has been a Nascar tradition for decades. Yes, Watkins Glen has been around for just as long, but its still an anomaly on the schedule. And really, people do LOVE road courses, but I don't think that people love Watkins Glen particularly.
WINNER--Richmond pulls ahead and doesn't look back.
Final Four Round
5. Darlington vs. 2. Richmond
Both have history, both have great finishes. But only Darlington has the GREATEST finish in recent history.
WINNER--Darlington wins a close one by the length of Ricky Craven's nose.
(Final is below)
BRUTON SMITH REGION (SMI and independently-owned tracks)
First Round (Top 4 Seeds get Byes)
5. Sonoma (Infineon) vs. 12. Rockingham
Sonoma, with its hairpin turns, quirky pit stalls, and elevation changes, makes for a great race worthy of sitting through three hours of wine jokes. Rockingham (winner of the "Former Track Play-In Game" vs. North Wilkesboro) was a challenge for the drivers, but also a bit of a challenge for the viewer. Yeah, there were great finishes, but other than that, its best known for being the place where Carl Long did a barrel roll.
WINNER--Sonoma fends off a comeback attempt late.
6. Texas vs. 11. Pocono
Texas has overcome a disastrous debut to become one of the prime spots on the schedule. It also earned a special in place in many fans' hearts for being the track that finally made Kyle Busch snap. Pocono takes a LOT of abuse from fans for being too wide, too gimmicky, and too boring. But really, when you look at it objectively, well, its all deserved.
WINNER--Texas in a rout.
7. Dover vs. 10. Kentucky
Dover provides the fan at home lots to enjoy--a unique track surface, wild wrecks, DW going on endlessly about some crab place called "Sambo's". Kentucky is new to the schedule, so its hard to judge. Unfortunately, we have to, and last year's race was a bit of a disappointment.
WINNER--Dover dominates the inexperienced Kentucky.
8. Atlanta vs. 9. New Hampshire
Atlanta got cut back to one race, and has since become a great spot for jet-dryer watching. Really, does Mother Nature have something against Atlanta's race fans? New Hampshire, meanwhile, has really improved over the years. Yes, its not exactly exciting, but its quick and allows for plenty of time to ponder its mysterious nickname, The Magic Mile.
WINNER--New Hampshire rains on Atlanta's parade.
Sweet 16 Round
1. Bristol vs. 9. New Hampshire
Bristol's taken a beating over the past few years for its repave job. But watch it on TV, and ignore all the criticism--its still a pretty damn fun race to watch. Yes, attendance is waaaay down, but this is for tracks on TV, not in person. New Hampshire, meanwhile, gets all sorts of praise from the media, about 1/3 of which is from Connecticut. Draw your own conclusions there.
WINNER--Bristol shows that old short-track magic.
2. Charlotte vs. 7. Dover
Charlotte has lots of advantages that other tracks don't--its close to all the non-Furniture-based race teams, it has the All-Star Race, its in the Chase. The 600 can get rather dull, but the Monaco-Indy-Charlotte Marathon demands a day's worth of attention. Dover's a fun track, but it just can't compete with Nascar's Home Track.
WINNER--Charlotte infuriates Miles the Monster with a strong win.
3. Las Vegas vs. 6. Texas
These tracks have lots in common, so its a pretty evenly-matched contest on the track. Off-the-track, you might think that Las Vegas offers much more than the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex--and that's the problem. We're treated to endless gambling analogies and casino jokes at Las Vegas, not to mention a pretty lousy date for a single-race venue.
WINNER--Texas triumphs in an upset.
4. Indianapolis vs. 5. Sonoma
Why did Indy get a first-round bye? Because its Indy. Why do people say that Indy is a great race to watch? Because its Indy. Why do people say that, even though its mostly follow-the-leader with passing only on pit road? Because its Indy. Why doesn't Indy move on in this tournament? Because its BORING.
WINNER--Sonoma shocks the world.
Elite 8 Round
1. Bristol vs. 5. Sonoma
Can Bristol pull out some more of that old-time magic to keep it going? It just might. Bruton "Mr. Magoo" Smith is considering redoing the racing surface to bring back old-time Bristol. Sonoma's nice, but only for the finishes. Bristol's still fun all through the race.
WINNER--Bristol wins a close one.
2. Charlotte vs. 6. Texas
Texas is a "sister-track" to Charlotte, so these two places have lots in common. But Charlotte has plenty that Texas doesn't. This is a pretty easy one. Really--most of us look forward to the All-Star Race, but when was the last time you looked forward to a race at Texas?
WINNER--Charlotte's solid in a big win.
Final Four Round
1. Bristol vs. 2. Charlotte
Its a tough one, no-doubt. Guess it comes down to this--which track's races do you most look forward to NOW?
WINNER--Charlotte pulls ahead late.
5. Darlington vs. 2. Charlotte
There's a reason why one of these tracks has been here since the beginning.
WINNER AND CHAMPION: Darlington wins a close one, but The Lady in Black Triumphs.