For the Nostalgic Purist Maybe Xfinity Is the Place
In recent years I’ve made no secret of my feeling that the NASCAR Xfinity Series has become kind of irrelevant. The cars are pretty much the same as Cup (from the fan standpoint), and all too many of them are buy-a-rides. Cup organizations dominate, and the modern-day equivalents of the old-time “independent” teams – Jeremy Clements, RSS or Jimmy Means – struggle to be competitive.
And yet . . . as this season draws to its close, there are compelling reasons to keep up with the final Xfinity races and hope they shine some positive light on the future.
The big plus, at least to me, is that we have drivers in the championship hunt who obviously deserve to be there. I need to watch how I say this, but at this point in his career, Christopher Bell is pretty near Jeff Gordon reincarnated. He was USAC’s National Midget Champion at 18, won his first World of Outlaws sprint car race the next year, and began to win asphalt late model races almost as soon as he caught Kyle Busch’s eye and got a ride with Busch’s organization. He owns a record three Chili Bowl midget wins.
This was taken at Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway, but Christopher Bell also brought the #21 to Port Royal Speedway a couple of times last month. I’ll always cheer for the racer who keeps up his “roots” racing alongside his NASCAR gig.
He has won 15 Xfinity races in the past two years (plus one earlier) and has seven Gander Outdoor Truck Series wins as well. He turns 25 next month.
Then there’s Tyler Reddick. His record doesn’t jump off the page quite like Bell’s, but he’s excelled everywhere he’s been, and that has included both stock cars and sprints/midgets. He’s been the youngest driver to do a lot of things: win at the East Bay Nationals and on the Lucas Oil Late Dirt series, win the pole for the World 100 at Eldora, qualify for a World of Outlaws race. He started driving in the truck series at 17; he’s 23 now.
Here’s a 16-year-old Tyler Reddick looking pretty comfortable in the dirt late model spotlight
I’d really rather not have those “youngest” distinctions, because that means Reddick kept moving around too much to build up the maximum fan base, but clearly the guy can race. The same can be said of Cole Custer, who has even less of a track record prior to NASCAR touring series, but who – at just age 21 – knows what to do behind the wheel.
Besides all that, these guys have a pulse. They don’t mind scrapping, both on and off the track. You feel at least a little guilty going out of the room for a beer while they’re being interviewed. They offer something to the fans besides a smile on a cardboard stand-up.
A little of this – whether between Reddick and Custer or others – makes you hesitate to cut off the TV right after the checkered flag waves.
They’re the three leaders for the championship case going into this weekend’s race, but Xfinity also has some good stories beyond its playoffs, starting with Ross Chastain.
He may or may not be doing everything possible to capitalize on the watermelon farmer schtick, but you can hardly blame a guy for capitalizing on what he’s got, and if NASCAR had a few more guys with hard-work-and-sweat backgrounds away from the track, it might have more fans. Besides, he’s a good driver, he’s an aggressive driver, he’s got a personality, and he’s not afraid to mix it up. Those who don’t like NASCAR’s playoffs probably don’t want him to disrupt the competition between Bell, Custer, Reddick and the others, but I think it gives us something extra.
The other great thing about Chastain is that he drives for Kaulig Racing, an “independent” team (albeit with a RCR affiliation). Along with Maurice Gallagher’s GMS Racing, Matt Kaulig’s team is showing that there’s room at or near the top for cars that aren’t part of Cup mega-teams, and I think that’s great. Yes, I know that both Kaulig and Gallagher are pretty well-heeled businessmen, not old-school scrappers like Jimmy Means, but with today’s NASCAR, you’ve got to have money, and at least these guys are OK with spending their own to pay part of the freight.
Chastain after his Daytona win for Kaulig Racing
We know that Bell and Reddick will be in cup racing next season; if 2020 builds on this season, Chastain might just follow them in 2021. That’s a good thing for NASCAR’s top echelon, because it gives us more racers who might attract more fans (back) to the sport, IF NASCAR will keep hands off and let the personalities appeal to us. We’ll never get back to the days of Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Herb Thomas, but we just might do something constructive that will keep this troubled sport alive and kicking. Go guys!
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Speaking of getting the real-people racers back in front of the public, please cheer a bit for Stewart Friesen in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series playoffs. Not only is Friesen one of the best dirt modified drivers in the East, and not only is he fighting with the big boys at the top of the Truck Series standings in an “outsider” car/team, but he’s also a Canadian who’s doing all this at age 36, far too old by conventional corporate standards. As somebody old enough to be his father, I say “Go Stewart,” whip their gluteus maximuses.
This is from last year’s Eastern States 200 modified race in New York, but it shows Stewart Friesen with wife Jessica, who’s also a racer, and their son. This year, Friesen started in last place in this extraordinarily tough event and won it again . . . just another day off from quest for the Truck Series championship.
I don’t care what part of the country you’re from, if you don’t like the honest, hard workers who come up through the ranks and succeed despite the odds, then I’m glad our seats at the races aren’t next to each other.