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Inside NASCAR: Menzer goes full circle, seven tracks stand out

August 10, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Inside NASCAR: Menzer goes full circle, seven tracks stand out
Menzer goes full circle at Watkins Glen, and these NASCAR tracks stand apart

It has taken going on five years, but this weekend at Watkins Glen International the mission at last can be declared accomplished.

Five years since this reporter traded his NFL notebook for NASCAR and started covering the sport full time, not a single track that currently hosts a Sprint Cup race remains to be visited. With a schedule so grueling, the job thankfully has never required attending all 36 points races (not to mention the non-points events at Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway). Few can do that and hope to remain married, let alone assist in raising four children.

At NASCAR.COM, two (sometimes three) writers are sent forth to cover each event on a rotating basis. So it took roughly four years, seven months and two weeks to attend races at all 21 venues presently hosting Sprint Cup events.

There have been memorable moments enjoyed at each of the facilities in the process. This weekend, in fact, will not mark my inaugural visit to Watkins Glen. That came at the Tony Stewart-Lewis Hamilton seat swap this past June, and was a very cool event at an obviously unique and very cool place in of itself.

Having said that, and admitting off the top that this list is totally subjective and surely will be left open to vigorous debate by the masses, what follows is a compilation of my seven favorite tracks to date -- along with the reasons why and a few of the most memorable moments I have been fortunate enough to witness live.

Why seven? Well, 10 seemed too many. Five didn't seem enough. So away we go ...

1. BRISTOL MOTOR SPEEDWAY

There is something about Bristol Motor Speedway, the way it suddenly appears on the horizon in the hills of Tennessee as you're driving in, that makes you fall in love with it at first sight. And that's even before you go inside the place, where 160,000 seats rise up and surround the seemingly tiny bowl that makes up the .533-mile short track and cramped infield.

The night races are the best, but don't sell a Sunday afternoon event short. In fact, standing in the infield at Bristol for pre-race as a packed house begins to get emotionally ramped up for any event will make your arm hairs stand on end. It's on par with and even surpasses the buildup to most Super Bowls.

While some will argue that the racing there hasn't been as, uh, spirited in recent years, the potential is always there for instant memories to spring forth. Such was the case in August 2008, on a night when Kyle Busch had dominated the Sharpie 500 by leading 415 consecutive laps during one long stretch. With 30 circuits remaining in the 500-lap event, Carl Edwards caught Busch and nudged him out of the way in Turn 1 -- and then went on to claim the victory. During the cool-down lap, Busch showed his displeasure with Edwards' racing tactics by coming up from behind and bumping his car. Edwards responded by immediately driving the nose of his No. 99 Ford into the right side of Busch's No. 18 Toyota, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

* Final Laps: Edwards nudges unhappy Busch

2. DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

Driving through the tunnel into the spacious infield at DIS on a sunny morning or afternoon, knowing a race lies ahead, is enough to stir the emotions and heat the motor oil in your blood. Nothing is more special than the season-opening Daytona 500, where no one knows what to expect and rookie Trevor Bayne proved this past February anyone can emerge the unlikely hero.

Even going back just the last five years, there have been numerous great moments documented in both the 500 and the annual July 4 weekend race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. For instance, who can forget Mark Martin nearly winning the 500 in 2007, only to have Kevin Harvick edge him out as Clint Bowyer slid across the start/finish line upside down, his then-No. 07 Chevrolet billowing smoke and fire?

But nothing in recent memory tops what Bayne was able to accomplish in the most recent 500. Whether you liked the two-car drafts that jumped into existence seemingly overnight after an overdue repaving job at the facility -- and despite the howls of purists, there were plenty of those who didn't mind seeing something different -- Bayne's victory in the No. 21 Ford prepared by Wood Brothers Racing (with a heavy hand of assistance from Roush Fenway Racing) ranks as one of the sport's all-time greatest upsets.

* Final Laps: Harvick noses Martin, Bowyer belly-up

* Victory Lane: Bayne youngest Daytona 500 winner

3. PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY

Ever climbed the hill adjacent to PIR and caught the view during a race? Do yourself a favor and try it sometime if you're ever fortunate enough to attend an event at the quaint 1-mile track located on the edge of the Arizona desert, with outcroppings all around. There is no better view in all of NASCAR.

Do yourself another favor and think twice before accepting a ride on the back of a four-wheeler from Carl Edwards up and down said hill. While it's certain to save your breath on the exhausting climb up, it's just as certain to take your breath away and make you fear for your life as you hang on during the high-speed descent.

As for the racing itself at Phoenix, it is a unique configuration that tests the drivers and generally produces entertaining, unpredictable finishes. Since a stretch in 2007 and '08 when Jimmie Johnson won three in a row at the facility, it also has produced a series of different race winners. The past five races there have been claimed by five different but highly accomplished drivers -- Mark Martin, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Edwards and Jeff Gordon.

* Sights and Sounds: Gordon ends winless drought

4. INFINEON RACEWAY

Infineon? At No. 4 on this list?

Yep. Maybe some of us are simply fools for road-course racing or maybe we're influenced by the fine food in nearby San Francisco, but this always proves to be a trip well worth the long flight west.

The 1.99-mile track has either 11 turns or 12, depending on how you count them. It also has a variety of cool places from which virtually all of the layout can be viewed during a race, giving you a real appreciation for some of the steep climbs up hills and descents down tricky curves that must be negotiated and can't be fully appreciated while merely watching on television. It's something unique and different, and the weather always seems to be superb.

As with Phoenix, it's difficult to predict who is going to win each year at Infineon. There has been a different winner in each of the past seven races -- but the most memorable recent one came in 2009 when Kasey Kahne was driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. What's neat about the road courses and when a guy like Kahne or Jimmie Johnson wins after years of struggling on them is that you know they've paid their dues and worked hard over time to get better at the craft.

Such was the case with Kahne in '09, but it was more than that. He won while road-course specialists Juan Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, as well as others, beat and banged on each other and tried everything they could to get to the front down the stretch. Kahne then held off a late charge by Tony Stewart. Plus Kahne, who had never before so much as finished in the top 10 at either Infineon or Watkins Glen, put Petty in Victory Lane as a car owner for the first time in more than a decade.

* Final Laps: Kahne takes course, passes road test

* Victory Lane: Kahne celebrates, King congratulates

5. CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY

No, it's not because CMS houses the largest high definition television in the world. And maybe it's because this is where I was introduced to NASCAR, attending races regularly long before covering them became my job. But no other track in NASCAR is home to more big events each year -- not even Daytona, unless you count the Budweiser Shootout or Gatorade Duel non-points races as registering higher on the excitement meter than the All-Star Race (not a chance in my book).

No other track in NASCAR hosts a wider variety of big-time races, either. The Coca-Cola 600, held in May, is the sport's longest race and a true test of man and machine. It comes on the heels of the All-Star event that, in most years anyway, rates as exciting and memorable in its own unique way. Then the final race in the fall always carries huge implications in the Chase.

Somehow, the 1.5-mile track is a perfect blend of old and new. It is steeped in tradition, yet open to new ideas and additions (hence, the hype behind the new TV, which truly is remarkable). Never was that better illustrated in a race itself than during the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 -- a fuel-mileage gambit won by the popular Casey Mears, who probably will never win again in NASCAR's top touring series. That night the eclectic top-five finishing group included not only first-time and only-time winner Mears, but also J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers. Ricky Rudd finished seventh.

* Final Laps: Leaders pit, Mears wins on fumes

6. RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY

You've gotta love how this .75-mile short track pops up in the middle of a residential neighborhood, reminiscent of Green Bay's Lambeau Field in the NFL. There is a certain strength of character immediately derived from that, somehow making the place seem more flesh and blood than steel and asphalt and concrete.

The latter of the two Richmond races each year always produces a fair amount of drama as well, in large part because it's the final race of the year before the Chase commences. There is always some pre-race intrigue about who might race their way in, and who might stumble and fall out, even if much of it never actually develops during the race itself.

It's also the place where those already secure with spots in the Chase scramble to set the final seeding order. Denny Hamlin was ninth in points heading into last September's race, but came out as the top seed after he won his series-high sixth race of the season in dominating fashion. It was on that night, perhaps more than any of the others during the 2010 season, that he established himself as a true challenger to defending champion Jimmie Johnson -- and Hamlin had to hold off a spirited late-race charge from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to do it.

This year's Sept. 10 affair could be wilder than ever as drivers in contention for the Chase via points and wild-card eligibility jockey for position.

* Johnson, Hamlin go back and forth at Richmond

* Final Laps: Hamlin holds off Busch for victory

7. MARTINSVILLE SPEEDWAY

The first time I attended a race at Martinsville, it cost a speeding ticket on the way. The second time, I got off to a late start and soon found myself stuck in a horrible traffic jam -- an unfortunate incident magnified by the fact that state troopers and others directing cars to parking areas near the track seemed to be rather clueless.

To be quite honest, upon first glance, there didn't seem much to like about the place except for the fact that it had been open since 1949 and was steeped in tradition -- always a big selling point. In fact, there was so much speculation that the track was in danger of losing one of its two Cup race dates that track president Clay Campbell held a pre-race news conference to deny it and lambast the speculators. Unfortunately, many of them were still stuck in traffic and missed it.

Regardless, even then, once the racing began on the .526-mile short track shaped like a paper clip, all else was forgiven and forgotten. Many believe it offers the best racing on the Sprint Cup circuit, bar none. As with Bristol, media are afforded the opportunity to watch portions of the race both from the infield and from above in a press box that offers a fantastic view of the entire track. To accomplish this, all it takes is a brisk walk through a pedestrian tunnel. Add in the fact that the aging facility has undergone some major repairs and much-needed renovations in recent years, and suddenly there no longer is much talk of taking a date away from the storied facility.

Plus there is something cozy about the place that seats just 65,000, as there is with Phoenix and Richmond. Perhaps in this day and age, when many of the bigger tracks obviously are overbuilt and large sections of seating are being covered or removed as race fans continue to battle the effects of a struggling national economy, places such as these are a solid fit for the sport going forward.

It is short-track racing on par with Bristol, if lacking some in overall atmosphere. Who can forget Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon banging on each other over the final laps in April 2007, with Johnson hanging on to win by a mere 0.065 seconds, or barely half a car length? It was good stuff indeed, and frequently imitated by others at Martinsville.

* Final Laps: Johnson, Gordon beat and bang to the finish

DISCLAIMER

What? No Talladega? No Darlington? No Las Vegas Motor Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway?

Surely the complaints already are rolling in, loud and clear. Listen, those places are great in their own right, too. But you have to cut the list somewhere and open up the debate.

The Super Seven noted above is a totally subjective list, compiled by one person and based on this reporter's personal experiences and preferences. Heck, give it another five years and if Kentucky Speedway fixes its massive traffic problems, maybe it will even make the list. Of course, track officials also would have to start serving Skyline Chili in the media center dining room for that to happen.

What? You thought the food in the media center had nothing to do with this? Haven't you ever had a Martinsville hot dog?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.