Darrell Waltrip says Charlotte All-Star weekend, Coca-Cola 600 weekend great ride for fans, terrific experience with Hall of Fame festivities, Kasey Kahne win.
By Darrell WaltripFoxSports
As I have told you many times, the crown jewels of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing back in the day were Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte and then Talladega. When Winston was our series sponsor, they even paid a cool $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of those four races.
Now, I have been going to Charlotte Motor Speedway since 1972, and I have never once been disappointed, left feeling like it was just another race. And since 1985, the May race in Charlotte has been enhanced with the running of the All-Star race at the same track.
But look how far it has grown since then: In 1985, we ran the first All-Star race on Sunday, after the then-Busch series race on Saturday; now the All-Star race is its own stand-alone event.
May 18, the Friday before the All-Star race, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2012 had our Hall of Honor displays unveiled to the public. That was really cool. The next night saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the Sprint All-Star Showdown and then his teammate Jimmie Johnson win $1 million by capturing his third Sprint All-Star race.
This past week saw the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class announcement. You had the Pit Crew Challenge. You had Speed Street going on the in uptown Charlotte. The Nationwide race was on Saturday afternoon, with Brad Keselowski holding off Denny Hamlin. And then our longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600, was on Sunday, with fan favorite Kasey Kahne winning for the first time this year, driving for Rick Hendrick.
Mixed in with all that went on the last couple of weeks were driver appearances, charity golf tournaments, the Speedway Children’s Charities dinner, race shop open houses, racing at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, and on and on. There is just so much to do around Charlotte Motor Speedway during the All-Star and Coke 600 weeks.
But let’s go back to this past Sunday for a second. I looked out my motor-coach window Sunday morning and I swore we were either preparing for an invasion or one heck of a prerace show. There were soldiers everywhere. There was artillery deployed and ready for action. It was just an incredible sight. Then the flyover during the prerace show featured a B-52 that came right over the speedway. You talk about an impressive sight.
Even more impressive was the huge American flag unfurled in the infield for the national anthem by Darius Rucker. We had Tim McGraw there. Hollywood starlet and Charlotte native Brooklyn Decker was there.
That race had it all. Ol’ Hammond was waving the green flag on Top Fuel dragsters roaring down pit road. There were military parachutists landing in the infield. Even out in front of the speedway, along with all the souvenir rigs, they had pony rides, a ferris wheel and a rock-climbing wall. It was a show, and it felt like a really big show. That’s the kind of feeling I always get when I come to the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway — you are part of a really big show.
You can be nothing but impressed with what track president Marcus Smith and all his people put together for the fans. It didn’t just happen overnight; we are talking about months of planning. When I was asked to give the invocation on Sunday, I was given a schedule of prerace events that literally was timed to the minute.
I still maintain the All-Star race could use just a few minor tweaks. I told Marcus to tell the Sprint folks that next year they should really ramp up the excitement and pay out $1 million per segment, and then step back and watch what happens. You won’t need a 10-lap shootout, trust me. If you still wanted to have a final segment, well, maybe you give a big honking trophy, because drivers absolutely love big ol’ trophies.
Early on in the existence of the All-Star race, they tried moving it around. We had it at Atlanta once, but it just wasn’t the same. The All-Star race belongs in Charlotte. Did everyone see the crowd that showed up? That was a huge crowd for only a 90-lap race. Mother Nature gave us a great evening with cool, breezy conditions. It really was all but perfect.
How about the all-Petty front row for the Coca-Cola 600, with Aric Almirola on the pole and his teammate, Marcos Ambrose, right next to him? That was huge for that team. How special on Memorial Day weekend was it for the pole sitter to be sponsored by the United States Air Force?
In all, Sunday, May 27, gave race fans across the world three premier events. We started the morning in Monaco with the Formula 1 race. Midday had the running of the Indianapolis 500, which saw my neighbor Dario Franchitti win his third Indianapolis 500 and join a very elite fraternity of drivers to ever win three times there. Then we finished off the day with the Coca-Cola 600. Three races, three different types of crowds — all on the same day. Does it get any better than that?
Our race Sunday night was even record setting — literally. Kahne’s race pace of 155 mph set a track record, those drivers running 600 miles in less than four hours. That is incredible. We had something like 11 different leaders. Some guys led early only to fade later. Greg Biffle dominated the race, but just didn’t have enough at the end when it counted. You saw drivers like Kahne, who was steady throughout the race as the track changed from afternoon to dusk and then to nightfall.
Kasey was the one who got better and better as it got darker and darker. He was able to simply drive around everyone. Like I mentioned, Kasey got his first win driving for his new car owner, Rick Hendrick. Kasey also has had the weight of the world on him worrying about his slow start here in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports and whether maybe Rick was second-guessing his decision to hire Kasey.
We all had said even before the season started that with Kasey’s God-given talent, combined with his brilliant crew chief Kenny Francis and the resources that Hendrick Motorsports has at its fingertips, that this was going to be a championship-contending team.
They started slow — real slow. Yet, slowly but surely they started notching top finishes week after week and now that monkey, which had to be the size of a gorilla, has jumped off of Kasey’s back with the win Sunday night. I think this win is only the start of many for that team this year. Kahne is able and the Kahne-Train is on track. Watch out everyone else.
So now we head to Dover and the Monster Mile. While I am excited to be going back to Dover, there’s also a bittersweet feeling as well. Dover will mark the end of the 2012 NASCAR on FOX coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup races. I tell you this every year when we are finished: It makes me sad.
We’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I believe we are the best team in racing. I wish we could do all the races. All of us on the NASCAR on FOX team feel that way. We’re just so passionate about what we do.
So Dover is tough because we know when we are done Sunday afternoon, we have to hand it off to another group who will cover it for six weeks before they then hand it off to yet another group. It’s a feeling we share that we’ve set up some great storylines for everyone else to finish covering.
This 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has flown by, at least in my book. We’ve seen some amazing racing so far this year. There’s no reason to believe that will change. So I will simply close by saying “See you in Dover because it’s over in Dover.”