Apr 14, 2012; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman (39) makes a pit stop during the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE
At Saturday's Samsung Mobile 500, a NASCAR newcomer talks to fans and garage personnel alike about Dale Earnhardt Jr's popularity, the difference between the best drivers and the best teams and the thrill of a Sprint Cup race.
Driving up TX-114, the first thing you notice about Texas Motor Speedway is its sheer size. The banked track runs a mile and a half around, surrounded by 160,000 seats on the outside and a 50,000 person party in the infield underneath.
The closer you get, the more you appreciate the sheer speed racing there requires: an exacting level of precision is necessary to control the cars on the huge, banked turns.
Most of the fans were rooting for a certain driver (usually Dale Earnhardt Jr.), but a good number were team loyalists as well. Some came for the speed, some for the feuds, one Marine even said he came for the teamwork. What they could all agree on was that racing was three wide on the turn.
It's not like they were waiting for a crash, just the tight racing that can produce one. Nothing's better than a caution flag in a spread out race to bunch the drivers back up.
Of course, while the drivers are the face of the operation, the Sprint Cup series is just as much about the massive support staff helping them with everything from the pre-race strategy to the set up of the cars and the use of fuel. Every week is different, from the huge slant at TMS to the flat track at New Hampshire.
Every year, the car becomes slightly more important than the driver, but we're still a long ways away from removing the element of human error. Kyle Busch can "win driving anything" while Dale Jr., as it was explained to me, has 700 people in his garage and still hasn't won in over 100 races.
However, funding and the resulting man power it creates is a decided advantage for larger teams. They can make adjustments faster and they have more eyes looking at the same problems, which puts the driver in the best position to be successful. Indeed, the decline in the economy has been reflected in the quality of the racing, as fewer sponsorship dollars trickle down to the teams.
The crew chiefs are now swapping teams more often, and it's more significant now than before. Gone are the days of unspoken non-disclosure agreement; the chiefs now take their book of secrets with them. The spread of information, in turn, has inspired greater creativity.
Despite his lack of success, Dale Jr.'s 88 shirts were everywhere, in sharp contrast to the marked absence of memorabilia for Jimmie Johnson, racing's dominant force over the last few years. Some point to Johnson's lack of a Southern accent and his California roots, but then again, no one roots for the Yankees either.
Dale Jr., in contrast, is nice guy with an iconic father who passed suddenly and tragically. Racing fans have yet to give up on one of their own, even if he lacks the pure talent at the top of the sport.
It's these bonds that seemed to truly define the NASCAR experience. Values and personality are, to an extent, more important than talent and winning. None of the drivers are quite Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, but I'm already waiting for November's AAA Texas 500.