TRAN­SI­TION TIME

Past and present col­lide at Indy — in front of a lot of empty seats

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS -

The mostly bar­ren grand­stands around Indianapolis Mo­tor Speed­way pro­vided an ex­cep­tional con­trast to the scenes un­fold­ing just af­ter Sun­day’s Brick­yard 400. Two driv­ers — Jeff Gor­don and Tony Ste­wart — cir­cled the 2.5-mile track af­ter the check­ered flag for a fi­nal time in side-by-side for­ma­tion. Both had been part of un­for­get­table mo­ments at IMS, pre­vi­ously defin­ing their il­lus­tri­ous ca­reers with wins in NASCAR’s an­nual stops at a fa­cil­ity once re­served for open-wheel cars, and this was an­other one.

“I don’t have the words for it. That’s a mo­ment I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber,” said Ste­wart, drip­ping with sweat af­ter de­part­ing his No. 14 on IMS’ pit road.

Ste­wart fin­ished 11th af­ter a pit road penalty, and Gor­don fin­ished 13th in his first race since re­tir­ing from full-time rac­ing last Novem­ber.

“Be­ing out of the car this long made me re­al­ize how tough this truly is — how not only fit are th­ese driv­ers, but how tal­ented they are,” Gor­don said. “They just took ad­van­tage of me on those restarts.”

Sun­day, Gor­don and Ste­wart were paired in an im­promptu cel­e­bra­tion of Ste­wart’s cre­ation that again de­lighted the crowd. But that crowd, over­heated af­ter watch­ing the Brick­yard in excessively warm weather, likely ranked as the small­est ever for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series at IMS. The es­ti­mated that 50,000 peo­ple “filled” the 250,000-plus seats and in­field areas.

And then there was Kyle Busch, spin­ning his No. 18 in a smoky burnout on the frontstretch to cel­e­brate his sec­ond straight Brick­yard win — just like he had done in the XFIN­ITY Series race the day be­fore. Busch be­came the first NASCAR driver to sweep both poles and both races in a dou­ble-header NASCAR week­end. In win­ning Sun­day, he led the most laps ever (149) in a Brick­yard 400.

“I fig­ured our strength was our long-run speed, but we also had short-run speed too and could get out on the field there the first cou­ple of laps,” Busch said. “It was a great day for us.”

It was sure-fire dom­i­nance, but his team’s visit to Vic­tory Lane un­doubt­edly played sec­ond fid­dle to Gor­don’s and Ste­wart’s trip down mem­ory lane.

The com­pet­ing mo­ments and swaths of empty seats pro­vided a stark look at how dif­fi­cult NASCAR’s on­go­ing tran­si­tion be­tween eras con­tin­ues to be. Gor­don (re­tired but called back to duty for Indianapolis and this week at Po­cono Race­way to drive the No. 88 car of an in­jured Dale Earn­hardt Jr.) and Ste­wart (re­tir­ing in Novem­ber) both are prod­ucts of NASCAR’s 1990s and 2000s boom. They re­main im­mensely pop­u­lar among fans as they depart.

Busch, mean­while, is the de­fend­ing Cup series cham­pion and very of­ten seems to be leaps and bounds bet­ter than any­one cur­rently driv­ing in NASCAR. He’s win­ning in all three NASCAR na­tional series at an ab­surd clip that seems to have no bounds. It’s Hall of Fame-level stuff, but fans are strug­gling to con­nect with him and other driv­ers not named Dale Earn­hardt Jr. Busch’s sup­port­ers were drowned out by groans from the small crowd when he won the pole Satur­day at Indianapolis, and the con­tin­gent of fans watch­ing Busch and his team pose on the IMS frontstretch in the tra­di­tional post-race pageantry Sun­day was far from large.

NASCAR’s tran­si­tion also is com­pli­cated by the ac­tion on track. The series has made dras­tic changes to its rule­book in at­tempts to bring closer rac­ing that will at­tract back fans who have be­come dis­in­ter­ested in re­cent years. The for­mula seems to be a pos­i­tive one in races to date in 2016, but it has yet to drive no­table in­creases in in­ter­est.

Nowhere was the more ev­i­dent than at Indy. Once a venue that guar­an­teed NASCAR’s largest crowd of the sea­son (of­ten over 250,000 peo­ple), the speed­way has seen plum­met­ing ticket sales in the last five years as the com­pe­ti­tion on track seemed to grow more spread out.

NASCAR said Mon­day that it re­mains com­mit­ted to the venue. “It’s an im­por­tant mar­ket for us, but by the same to­ken we’ve got to put on the rac­ing that peo­ple want to see,” said NASCAR vice pres­i­dent Steve O’Donnell in a satel­lite ra­dio in­ter­view. “It’s a bal­ance, but we’ve got to make sure when we go there it’s the best of all worlds, and this year was a chal­lenge, and we want to see that turn and re­verse.”

Kyle Busch’s Brick­yard 400 win came in dom­i­nant fash­ion, but the small crowd on hand saved its en­thu­si­asm for Jeff Gor­don and Tony Ste­wart.

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