Talladega – A lesson in perseverance

You know how folks always tell you that if you think you can, then you will but if you think you can’t, then you won’t? What we saw Sunday at Talladega in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race was a perfect example of that on a number of different levels.

First off, you have to give a tip of the hat to NASCAR for their perseverance in trying to get the complete race in for the fans. They could have easily called that race with sixty-some laps to go, seeing that they had already reached the halfway point in the race, thus making it an official event.

If that had happened, Carl Edwards would have won the race and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would have been second. Honestly there wasn’t an absolutely good reason to do that. When Bill France Sr., Big Bill as he was known, founded NASCAR all those years ago, he made a commitment to the fans that were willing to pay to attend his events. It was also a commitment to the drivers, teams and quite honestly, a commitment to the integrity of the sport. The commitment was simple – NASCAR will try and finish every race in its entirety if it’s at all possible.

Late Sunday afternoon, NASCAR could have easily said it was going to rain again or that darkness was coming or drying that big 2.66 mile superspeedway was going to take too long. They could have used a million and one excuses to justify calling it early and sending everyone on their merry way. That’s not the NASCAR we all know. Bill France Jr. continued that commitment and so does his son and Big Bill’s grandson, Brian France. If there’s a reasonable chance to finish all the laps, then NASCAR will do it.

Having the new track drying system, the Air Titan, helped the drying process dramatically. It did its job, the rain held off and we got back to racing. My gosh, aren’t we all glad they got to finish that race? We saw an absolutely amazing finish.

Talladega never disappoints. I know that doesn’t hold true for the drivers and teams that rolled home Sunday evening with their race cars all wadded up. From the fans in the grandstand or home on the couch and, quite honestly, us doing the broadcast, it’s that anticipation of the unknown. No one knows what’s going to happen next. You are literally on the edge of your seat each and every lap. Well, that is if you are even sitting down. We always tell you anything can happen at Talladega and it usually does. Well Sunday was no different.

Very few race tracks we go to produce the drama and unpredictability we saw Sunday at Talladega. We saw the best drivers in the world making mistakes. We saw the mega-teams get beaten by the underdog team and beaten handily with a one-two finish. Those things only happen at Talladega. While we see it occasionally happen at Daytona, we consistently see it happen at Talladega.

Not only did we see perseverance on the NASCAR front, but we also saw it from car owner Bob Jenkins. He’s the owner of Front Row Motorsports. He came in as part owner in 2004 and became a full-time owner in 2005. While he fields three cars, Front Row Motorsports is clearly the David to the Goliaths of Hendrick, Roush, Penske, Gibbs and Childress.

This guy has persevered. When you stop and think about it, he has done it in a quiet, under-the-radar kind of way. He fields the No. 34 Maximum Human Performance/Farm Rich Ford Fusion for David Ragan, the No. 38 ModSpace/Love’s Travel Stops/A&W Ford for David Gilliland plus the No. 35 for Josh Wise.

Bob Jenkins lives in Dandridge, Tenn. and owns something like 160 Taco Bell, Long John Silver and A&W franchises. He has used those same business management skills to put together what we can now call a winning racing organization too. I know a lot of those guys over there. Derek Finley, who worked with me when I drove that No. 1 car for Dale Earnhardt Sr. back in 1998, is an engineer over there. Jay Guy, who has been with a number of big organizations, is there as well. Frankie Kerr, who is one heck of an innovator, is over there as well with Bob Jenkins.

Bob has put together a host of guys who are sort of looking for a second chance in their career. It’s no different when you look at his drivers. David Ragan, who once drove the No. 6 car for Roush-Fenway Racing, is there. Had it not been for a mental mistake on the track following a restart, David probably would be a Daytona 500 champion instead of Trevor Bayne. David went on to win in NASCAR at the July Daytona race, but without sponsorship funding, the No. 6 was forced to shut down and David was without a ride. I have always said that David was one of the best restrictor-plate racers we have out there.

David Gilliland used to drive for Yates Racing, the Wood Brothers and others before signing on with Bob Jenkins. He is the son of former NASCAR and West Coast driver Butch Gilliland. He’s won in the Nationwide Series at Kentucky and has scored a couple pole positions on the Sprint Cup side.

Josh Wise is the third teammate over there. He drove part-time for my brother at one point. He has a top 10 finish to his credit on the Sprint Cup side. The common denominator is these three have all bounced around somewhat in our sport trying to get their careers on solid ground again. So they and a lot of others at Front Row Motorsports are simply looking for a second chance.

So I tip my hat to Bob Jenkins. He has persevered and invested a lot of his own money into being a car owner in a very, very expensive sport. Now he’s a winning car owner. Not only did Front Row win, but like I mentioned earlier, they did it in dramatic fashion as Gilliland pushed Ragan to the front and to the checkered flag. So they got their first win. They got the purse money for finishing first and second. Then the cherry on top to all this is that David Ragan is now entered into the Sprint All-Star race. Remember what it pays to the winner? That payout in a couple weeks under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway is $1 million.

The moves that both Davids made at the end of that race Sunday afternoon were as good as any I have seen. David put a “Shake and Bake” move on Carl Edwards going down the backstretch. Carl bites on the move, going to the outside to block, David goes to the inside. Gilliland hung with Ragan coming through the tri-oval to the checkered flag and Talladega once again delivered us an upset. What an exciting finish. When you can beat guys like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth – the best of the best that are on these mega-teams, then you have really, really accomplished something spectacular.

I am so happy for everyone at Front Row Motorsports. Its tough going to the track under-funded every week just hoping to get a top 25 finish and if you do, considering it a great weekend. That’s what I love about Talladega. It’s the great equalizer. If you can just keep your nose out of trouble all day long, miss the Big One and then be there at the end, you literally have a chance to win.

That’s the double-edged sword part of Talladega. As a driver, sure you go there with mixed emotions because it’s not a question of IF the Big One is going to happen, but a matter of WHEN that big wreck will take place. Then on the other hand, you also know that if you can survive all day, you have just a good a shot as anyone out there to pull into Victory Circle.

I love it when the little guys succeed and the underdog prevails. That’s what makes our sport so exciting. It’s so unpredictable. That’s what makes it so fun for our NASCAR on FOX gang to bring you these races because of the unknown factor. You just never know what’s going to happen next.

Sunday was a big surprise and trust me, I love surprises. So now we’re off to the Lady in Black – Darlington – the track most folks will say is “Too Tough to Tame.”