Craig Murto: NASCAR needs more Martinsvilles

NASCAR needs more Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races on tracks such as Martinsville Speedway rather than tracks such as the cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half in Las Vegas.

Brad Keselowski won his first grandfather clock on Sunday, the unique trophy awarded Martnsville winners since the mid-’60s. The race provided exciting fender-banging short-track action, the type of action from which NASCAR was born.

But since the 1980s some short tracks have gone off the schedule. North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina is closed, the old “Winston Cup Series” signs barely standing. The Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee continues to host stock car racing, but will never again host a Cup event.

Instead, NASCAR recently approved a second date for Las Vegas, in exchange for New Hampshire’s unique one-mile oval cutting its schedule to a single race each year. The move made sense to track owner Bruton Smith’s shareholders, but it’s questionable how beneficial the move is for the sport as a whole. I have yet to hear a fan state, “That’s great! I love the mile-and-a-half tracks!”

It’s interesting that every time NASCAR makes a change – and there have been quite a lot of changes lately – the organization claims it is reacting to requests from fans. In reality the fans are burned out on change. Even changes that promise to add excitement, such as the change to stage racing, are met with skepticism by fans who simply want to recognize the sport each season without the need to memorize a new playbook.

If NASCAR wants to make a change to please the fans, it should add another short track race to the schedule, or another road course. Fans are tired of these look-alike tracks. The least entertaining races this season were on the cookie cutters.

And this week we go to Texas, though we might be in for a surprise. When the track was repaved, Turns 1 and 2 were reconfigured. The corners are wider, with less banking. The track might race like Darlington, where it’s impossible to get a car to work properly at both ends of the speedway and setup is a compromise.

In a couple of weeks the series heads to Richmond. If you’ve never been to Richmond to see a NASCAR event, it is worth the trip. Certainly no cookie-cutter track, the facility always provides good short-track action.

We have plenty of local short tracks that provide good action, including Hagerstown Speedway in Maryland. Gary Stuhler turns 62 in a couple of weeks, but celebrated early by scoring his 135th victory on the Washington County dirt oval.

Starting sixth in the 25-lap Super Late Model feature, Stuhler grabbed the lead with about 10 laps to go. Brian Tavenner finished second and Scott Palmer was third.

Just a few hours away in Hampton, Va., Langley Speedway reopened for the first time since the end of the 2015 season. Greg Edwards, the 2015 Langley Speedway track champion, picked up where he left off and won the 100-lap feature.

The standing-room-only crowd at Langley was estimated to be more than 8,000, and called the largest crowd the track’s seen in decades. The mayor and city council members were on hand to address the crowd. It was a big deal for the community, which celebrated the start of the track’s 67th season of racing.

The local government is not shy about its support of the racetrack. The Hampton Convention and Visitor Bureau actually sponsors events at the track, realizing that the track brings money into the city every time it opens.

Washington County, Maryland also recognizes the benefits of local racing and a properly managed facility. In the 1980s the county did a study that determined that Hagerstown Speedway generated about $10 million annually for the county. That was in the 1980s; it can only be more now. And as packed as the grandstands always are at Langley, one can only imagine the economic benefits of that track to Hampton.

As the crowd funneled into Langley Speedway on Saturday night, the track read a congratulatory Tweet from none other than Cup star and Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who won a Mini Stock championship at the speedway years ago.

Short tracks such as Langley Speedway are where most of today’s Cup stars cut their teeth. It’s where talent and ability can shine as brightly as equipment and technology; the driver means as much, or more, than the car. We need more short-track races on the NASCAR schedule.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.