Hallman: Past, present overlap in passings, playoffs

November 15, 2018

This has been a stretch in which the high-definition and sometimes problematic reality of today’s NASCAR overlapped with the sport’s past — for me, a past seen through a lens that softens the hard edges and tints racing’s history with gold.

NASCAR present was embodied in this season’s next-to-last race in stock car racing’s big-time Cup Series, locking in the sport’s final four — the quartet of drivers eligible to win the series championship in Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR past arrived via three death notices that crossed my desk — for David Pearson, Samuel “Sammy” Bland Jr. and Melvin Eugene “Mel” Bradley. The three of them, from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of fame, represent so much of what made the sport strong enough to survive (so far at least) the difficulties it faces today.

First, the present.

That penultimate 2018 race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix cut the list of championship-eligible drivers from eight to four. It was part of the elimination process in NASCAR’s playoff system, which lasts 10 races and starts with 16 potential winners.

I don’t like the system, which doesn’t reflect a full 36-race body of work for drivers and teams. The system creates a path in which a truly undeserving driver could squeeze into the final four and then become champion through luck in the last event.

Watching the Phoenix race on TV, I tweeted about the ills of the playoff format. I didn’t like it that one or more of the best candidates for the title might be left out of the final four. I didn’t like TV’s constant need for if-the-race-ends-like-this updates.

That said, I admit I was interested in the race. Not once did I flip channels to see how things were going in Sunday’s NFL action. That’s rare for me.

And flawed or not, the eliminations left NASCAR with an appropriate final four. Racing for the title at Homestead-Miami will be this season’s Big Three — former champs Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and defending champ Martin Truex Jr. — and the hungry driver who is on a playoff hot streak, Joey Logano.

Any of the four can be considered a worthy 2018 champ.

Harvick and Busch have each won eight of the season’s 35 races. Truex is next with four wins. He has kept his focus despite the fact that his current team will close down at the end of the season, forced to disband because of the cost of racing.

Logano’s two 2018 wins include one during the playoffs at Martinsville Speedway, secured with an aggressive final-turn move that punted Truex aside. Truex vowed afterward to prevent Logano from winning the championship. From Logano’s perspective, it’s good that Truex is in the hunt for a second straight title and therefore headed for Homestead-Miami with something other than a get-Logano mindset.

That’s where the sport sits now. NASCAR goes to South Florida with four drivers battling for the championship, along with several others determined to punctuate the season with a victory in the season finale.

Which points me to NASCAR’s past.

Through most of its history, NASCAR had no playoffs, no final four. Championships were built on season-long achievement. David Pearson, who died Monday, is testament to that.

“The Silver Fox,” as Pearson was known for his on-track cunning and his graying hair, won 105 Cup-level races, second only to Richard Petty’s 200. Only four times did Pearson run nearly all the races in a season. Three of those years, he was the champ.

In his championship years — 1966, ’68 and ’69 — Pearson won, respectively, 15, 16 and 11 races. In playoff-era NASCAR, despite those gaudy win totals, he could have been denied all three titles. His finishing position in the final event in each of those seasons? Respectively, seventh, third and 26th.

Pearson’s death at age 83 brought about an outpouring of tributes. He was, many say, NASCAR’s greatest of all time. He was certainly half of the sport’s all-time best rivalry, with Petty the other half. I looked up something Petty said to me about Pearson in 1981.

If he was behind Pearson and there was trouble on the track ahead, Petty said, the best option was to follow Pearson. “If he turns right and goes through the fence, then I’m gonna turn right, too, because that must be the best way to get around the trouble.”

As Pearson was emblematic of on-track greatness, Sammy Bland, who died last Sunday at age 89, was a perfect example of the phenomenal off-track talent that propelled NASCAR to its most successful era.

Long the golden-voiced announcer at Richmond Raceway, with a deep knowledge of the sport and its competitors, Bland gave much more to racing. A radio talent and media businessman, he helped build a network that broadcast races from many tracks. He hosted his own widely heard racing talk show. He was a mentor to up-and-coming broadcasters.

Bland was also a successful bandleader and variety show host. He brought his prodigious skills as an entertainer to racing as well.

Mel Bradley didn’t race for fame. He was one of those drivers whose career gave the sport its short-track backbone. Bradley, who died Nov. 6 at age 85, raced speedways in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Racing weekend after weekend on high hopes and tight budgets, he managed to win races in an era when the competition included some of NASCAR’s all-time greatest short-track talents.

At Homestead-Miami on Sunday, all of NASCAR will pay a richly deserved tribute to Pearson’s legacy, perhaps to Bland’s, too. Bradley’s name may not be spoken, but his contribution to the sport is significant as well.

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