A bit of feuding might be good for NASCAR.
To rev up sales for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday, Darlington Raceway went old school – raising the possibility of a rematch to last year’s post-race tussle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. And even though it was not part of the marketing plan, the track got a bonus when a top attraction – Danica Patrick, who will make her second Sprint Cup appearance Saturday – pushed Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall after last week’s Nationwide race.
Southern 500 ticket sales are up at Darlington for the first time in four years, track president Chris Browning said.
“Things like that get people talking,” he said.
The sight of empty seats at NASCAR tracks has been common this year with fans complaining about high gas and hotel costs, less banging among cars and the lack of feuds that fuel passion.
Just don’t expect Patrick to seek revenge in the Pee Dee. She said Thursday that she apologized to Hornish, who had swerved into her car because of a flat tire. Busch and Harvick have not clashed this season – especially since Busch was suspended for one race and was dropped by his sponsor for two more late last year after crashing another driver.
“It does appear the aggressiveness is down a little bit,” Browning said. “The fire kicked off here last year. I think that’s what people like to see. Last year was a flashback. It was cool to see that emotion. It’s a different world today. Sponsors are hard to come by and drivers are in tune with that.”
NASCAR Fox TV commentator Mike Joy said fans want to see those priorities changed.
“I don’t want my driver to climb behind the wheel thinking about (how to avoid) upsetting his sponsor,” he said. “I want him thinking about what he has to do to win.”
That doesn’t mean there might not be another dust-up at Darlington – a narrow, 1.366-mile raceway that has been called a short track with cars cruising at larger raceway speeds.
“There are racetracks like Charlotte or Texas or Talladega that are wide enough to cut somebody some slack,” Joy said. “There’s no room on this racetrack to give anybody an inch. Fenders are going to get bent. Tempers are going to get ruffled. That’s the kind of place Darlington is. There is so little margin for error that a whole bunch of somebodys are going to be mad at somebody else.”
Driver Ryan Newman, a veteran of 13 races at Darlington, said the egg-shaped track has a way of pushing buttons.
“The track just kind of gets everybody on edge because you have to race the racetrack,” he said. “It’s so easy to be frustrated at the guy in front of you because he’s just trying to keep it off the fence.”
Driver Martin Truex Jr. had his own theory for the lack of feuds after 10 races this year: “It’s early.”
“It’s not every weekend that we see things like what happen last year (at Darlington),” Truex said during a promotional stop at Love Automotive in Cayce to help repair S.C. National Guardsman Blair Raines’ pickup. “You never know when it could happen again. It could be any day.”
Still, drivers said they wish fans would appreciate the quality of racing – without all the busted fenders and bruised egos.
“We’re stuck in the whole dilemma of talking about racing versus crashing,” Newman said. “Not everybody wants to see crashing, but there’s a good part of them that want to see that big crash. I wish we could just talk about the racing.”
Improvements to the tires and car body designs allow drivers to save themselves from wrecking when they get pushed around.
“We don’t want to see boring races, nobody does,” Newman said. “Used to be, if somebody slips a little bit and somebody gets underneath them, (it) spins them around. It may have been intentional, it may have been unintentional. We’re not seeing that stuff anymore.”
That could change with new car body designs introduced next season, he said.
“Let’s see if they race better in the fans’ eyes.”