Craig Murto: CARS Tour winner for fans

The first event of the newly created CARS Tour for Late Model Stock Cars and Super Late Models proved to be a winner.

Almost 70 cars were on hand last weekend at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park. And despite temperatures in the upper 30s by race time, a good crowd was on hand to witness history.

The CARS Tour features both Late Models and Super late Models, each running in their own 150-lap race. Stars in both types of cars competed at Southern National, with Cole Timm grabbing the win in Super Late Models and Todd Gilliland, son of Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland, visiting Late Model victory lane.

The series is owned by Jack McNelly, who kept the old Pro Cup Series alive as long as he could before throwing in the towel after last season. Pro Cup never regained the glory it once had when sponsored by Hooters, and 10-car fields didn’t interest fans.

After the UARA touring series for Late Models folded following the 2013 season, a void was created. The new 10-race CARS Tour fills that void by giving Late Model competitors a touring series of their own.

But the Super Late Models are also on the bill. Kept alive in Virginia and the Carolinas by the PASS South Series, Super Late Model racing is a hard sell to fans in the region, who are more familiar with their Late Model Stock competitors. The CARS Tour dual-race events should draw crowds, and to CARS’s credit, none of their 10-race 2015 schedule directly conflicts with the PASS South schedule, allowing Super Late Model competitors the opportunity to compete in both series rather force them to choose.

Already it appears the CARS Tour has no problem drawing competitors. Part of the reason is the $53,000 combined purse for each event. The Super Late Models pay each race winner $5,500 with $550 to start, and the Late Model Stocks pay $4,500 to win and $450 to start. Not too shabby for 150-lap races.

The CARS Tour travels to Orange County Speedway in North Carolina next on April 18, followed by a May 9 visit to Hickory Motor Speedway and a return to Southern National on May 30. Circle July 10 on your calendar, as the tour will be at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., that day, just a couple hours down I-81.

What will a Late Model Stock Car tour do to car counts at weekly shows? Can the region support two Super Late Model touring series? Will the CARS Tour build momentum and prosper as it races forward? Only time will answer these questions. There is no denying that the CARS Tour got off the starting line in strong fashion. For information visit www.carsracingtour.com.

CARS were not the only racing organization getting the green flag last weekend. The IndyCar Series ran its first 2015 race at St. Petersburg, Fla., and Juan Pablo Montoya proved to be the best driver on the track. It was his 13th IndyCar win, and his first on a road course since 1999.

MotoGP’s season began in Qatar, and Valentino Rossi rode his Yamaha to the win followed by Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone on Ducatis. Supercross competed in St. Louis and Ryan Dungey’s KTM stood on top of the podium.

Sebastian Vettel stood on top of the podium after Formula One’s visit to Malaysia. The Ferrari’s strong run was quite a surprise, as was the competitive event following F1’s rather lame season opener. The win was the 40th in Vettel’s career, and Ferrari’s first in nearly two years. Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen, 17, became the youngest driver to ever earn F1 points.

Denny Hamlin earned his place into the Sprint Cup Chase by winning at Martinsville. The win proves the toughness of the Joe Gibbs Racing team, especially since it is dealing with J.D. Gibbs’ treatment for concussion-like symptoms. For racers, there is no better medicine than a win.

Top-10 finishes are pretty good medicine, too, especially if you’re Danica Patrick.

Few drivers are under as much scrutiny as Patrick, mostly because of the hype that surrounded her when she came into NASCAR. She’s somewhat of an enigma, often struggling on mile-and-a-half tracks, then turning around and scoring a seventh-place finish at Martinsville, noted as one of the toughest tracks to drive. Love her or hate her, she still gets the attention, and this case deservedly so; her top-10 finish at Martinsville is her fifth, tying her with Janet Guthrie for most top 10s by a female driver.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.