Gravel’s Move to NASCAR Is a Bright Light
The news that David Gravel will get a shot in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series next season should be welcomed by all traditional NASCAR fans. The 27-year-old Connecticut native brings a track record with him that harkens back to what we used to see in prominent new drivers, before the days of the dreaded driver development programs.
David Gravel after a World of Outlaws sprint car victory
Gravel is already a legitimate star in open-wheel racing, with a sizeable fan base. He brings a resume that includes 50 World of Outlaws sprint car victories and a good number before that with the All-Star Circuit of Champions (in an 11-year career on those circuits). Even earlier, he became the youngest winner ever with the regional United Racing Club (called United Racing Company at that time), standing in victory lane when he was barely old enough to drive there in a passenger vehicle.
This is what NASCAR needs, desperately. People like Gravel, Ryan Preece, Stewart Friesen, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell bring rock-solid reputations with them, and because they haven’t teethed on the PR/marketing pablum of don’t-say-anything-unless-it-will-make-your-sponsor-smile, they have genuine personalities that draw even more fans.
It may not be easy for Gravel, though. World of Outlaws (WOO) drivers haven’t always been able to make the transition to stocks easily. I’ve always suspected that racing with giant wings was part of the problem; it just seemed that wingless sprints (like in USAC) developed skills that transferred better. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart would lead my exhibits to support that less-than-authoritative thesis. But dirt specialists (like most of those listed above, other than Preece) seem to be doing OK these days, whatever their specifics, so I wouldn’t write David off.
NASCAR has always thrived on having top drivers from diverse backgrounds (including those who grew up in the Grand National/Cup world with fathers who raced). In the earliest days, there was a fair amount of back-and-forth with open-wheel racing (AAA and then USAC), and drivers like Red Byron and Johnny Mantz were once better known for “big cars” than stocks. Later, a good number of motorcycle riders – Joe Weatherly and Paul Goldsmith, for example – ended up as prominent NASCAR racers.
Today it’s hard to think of future NASCAR stars coming from the ranks of motorcycle racing, but in the early days, Paul Goldsmith and others showed it wasn’t that unusual.
In the days when most of the Grand National/Cup events and teams were in the Southeast, Goldsmith also was a leader among the string of Midwestern drivers who found success and brought a diversity of sorts. Fred Lorenzen probably topped the list in the ‘60s, but Dick Hutcherson, Darel Dieringer and others made their marks as well, with Benny Parsons and Dave Marcis among those who later joined them. Other regions began creeping as well: Geoff Bodine (and later his brothers) from the Northeast, Terry Labonte (and brother) from Texas. Also, as NASCAR began to eclipse Indy Car racing, drivers from that racing arena (like Tim Richmond) began to consider NASCAR as a full-time move up rather than a part-time diversion.
Next came an influx of Midwestern racers from the old ASA circuit – Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki and others – and, along with various others from outside the traditional NASCAR South (Ernie Irvan from California, Ken Schrader from the Midwest via USAC stock and sprint cars), they gave NASCAR’s top division a much less regional look. The 1990 Winston Cup standings showed fewer than half the top 25 drivers with competitive roots in the Southeast.
Before Mark Martin made his name as a NASCAR star, thousands of racing fans knew him from driving this and similar cars in the old ASA (American Speed Association) and elsewhere in the Midwest.
As NASCAR exploded in popularity, that trend continued: by 2007 (perhaps the last year before the decline began), Jeff Burton was the only driver in Cup racing’s top 10 with traditional Southern roots (some also would count Carl Edwards from Missouri, but if the number of NASCAR races held in a state over the years determines its place in the NASCAR universe, that’s a hard sell).
Some caveats: my “diversity” here has been strictly geographical; gender/racial/ethnic diversity are subjects for another day. Also, the names above are solely illustrative and not intended to be comprehensive – I know people have been left out.
The other thing about all those names above is that nearly every one of them had a lengthy track record when he began running GN/Cup. Several were champions elsewhere. Their presence boosted the attraction of a NASCAR race to potential ticket buyers, and that’s what the sport needs today.
So say a little prayer that David Gravel succeeds with the trucks next year and maybe moves up, and say another prayer that others follow him. I still maintain that somebody should give Bubba Pollard a ride. A Georgian, the 32-year-old Pollard races late models pretty much all over the country and wins regularly against all comers. Years ago he had a shot at Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” driver competition, and he drove a handful of ARCA races, but this guy is in his prime now and would draw a lot of attention if he got into a NASCAR traveling series car. Another possibility would be Aaron Reutzel, the 29-year-old Texan who won 16 of 40 races in Tony Stewart’s All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car group this year (no other driver won more than four events).
At left above is Bubba Pollard following a major 2018 win in Canada (and to his left is teenager Carson Hocevar, who recently ran the Gander Truck race at Phoenix and who won his first late model event at age 12). At right is Aaron Reutzel (with family) after an All-Star sprint win.
If you want somebody who brings a little controversy with him, how about 24-year-old Floridian Stephen Nasse, a consistent late model winner who seems regularly to get into scrapes on and off the track. In the 2016 Snowball Derby at Pensacola, he was spun by William Byron and, under caution, turned his car around and drove back around the track to find and clobber Byron’s car, putting him out of the race. I am not condoning this kind of thing, but I will note that it keeps fan interest (and ticket sales) higher.
I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the developmental driver norm of “a year in go-karts, a year in Legends, a year in late model stocks, and a year in ARCA/K&N” does not develop a fan base. What these drivers accomplished does. When the new drivers on the circuit were people the fans had heard of and even seen racing for a few years already, they filled seats, regardless of how silly NASCAR’s rules or point system were at the time. The sanctioning body’s current efforts at rebuilding miss this important component, and we all suffer as a result.
Just one more note: most of the drivers mentioned above are too old by NASCAR’s (or the corporate world’s) current thinking, so just as a reminder, I include this photo of Harry Gant, who began his Cup career in earnest at age 39, won his first race three years later, and took his last Cup checkered flag at 52. Today he’d never have had the chance, thanks to idiots in suits.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Congratulations to Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota on their 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Even though Busch won the championship driving a Toyota (the third time that car has taken a driver to the championship), Chevrolet won the 2019 NASCAR Manufacturer’s Championship, and that sent me to RacingReference.info to look at how the champion’s car and the Manufacturer’s Championship car have aligned over the years. It turns out that, quite often, they aren’t the same.
For the record, the Cup champion has driven a Chevrolet 32 times in the series’ 71-year history, although in several of those 32 years, the champ also drove something else; in three of those years, the champ also won driving a second brand.
Say what? Well, in the first half of the series’ history, several champions drove more than one brand of car, either because they changed rides, the owner changed brands, or the drivers “borrowed” rides in cars other than their primary ride.
Example 1 – In 1951, Herb Thomas began the season in a Plymouth he owned, but for a July race in Pittsburgh, he hopped into Hubert Westmoreland’s Oldsmobile and won the race. Then, in August, he added a Hudson to his team and – for a while – went back-and-forth between the two cars, winning one race in the Plymouth and four in the Hudson. He drove the last four races of the year in borrowed cars, winning one of them in a Marshall Teague Hudson. He ended the year having won races in three different brands of car.
Everybody remembers Herb Thomas winning in the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” but during his 1951 championship year, he also won in an Oldsmobile and a Plymouth.
Example 2 – In 1963, Joe Weatherly was driving Pontiacs for Bud Moore and was the defending Grand National Champion, but General Motors had gotten out of racing, and Moore was having trouble fielding the car for every race. To keep earning points, Weatherly hopped into cars owned by eight other people over the course of the year. Most of them were Pontiacs – possibly just a coincidence – but the champ did compete in a Dodge and a Chrysler along the way. Then, near the end of the year, Moore switched to Mercuries, but Weatherly still drove his old Pontiac a couple more times, including once to victory at Hillsborough, N.C.
It goes on. In 1960, Rex White won the championship in his own Chevy, but he also borrowed rides in a couple of Fords. Wonder what today’s manufacturer brain trust would say to that.
Anyway, for the record, Ford was the ride of the champ nine times (none shared). Dodge is more-or-less third with five years of being the sole ride of the champ, plus 1956, when Buck Baker won the championship for Carl Kiekhaefer while driving Chryslers and Dodges sort-of interchangeably (he also bummed a couple of rides in Fords). Oldsmobile can try to lay claim to seven championships, but that would include Herb Thomas’ ’51 title, when he only drove an Olds once.
The last “shared” championship was in 1979, when Richard Petty drove Oldsmobiles at the restrictor plate tracks (plus three others) and spent the rest of the year in Chevys.
These days the teams at the bottom of the pecking order occasionally have more than one brand in the garage, but we’ve probably seen our last champ with more than one make posing for the championship photo.