If first impressions are indeed everything, St. Louis gave one hell of a memorable one in welcoming the NASCAR Cup Series to town for the first time.
Sunday’s race was the icing on the cake for an area that threw its arms open to the NASCAR community from the start of the weekend until long after the checkered flag. The race was a sellout, providing fantastic images for highlight reels, but the World Wide Technology Raceway was packed every time the gates were open, with fans milling about and enjoying all that was offered.
And they were a passionate bunch, making their presence known both in their grandstand reactions and attendance. Fans flocked to the track for both races, infield access and the accompanying music festival. There were artists playing all weekend, including St. Louis-born Nelly.
There were dedicated NASCAR fans who had waited years to see a Cup Series race at their track, and some appeared to be first-timers. Or maybe those with access to get up close and personal to the cars for the first time.
Walking back from the garage Saturday afternoon, a fan could be overheard saying, “this is so cool.”
Curtis Francois and his group has worked for years to prepare for a Cup Series race and it showed. They did their best to make it feel like more than just another race weekend. The field of 36 took a photo on the frontstretch before taking to the track for the first time Friday, and Richard Petty had the honors of making the first laps on the track.
Drivers and teams seemed right at home with the amenities. The infield was revamped to welcome more fans and provide plenty of activities.
“I think what you look at for St. Louis, what we did here this weekend is a huge success for the city, our sport and the fans,” race winner Joey Logano said. “The racing was good. It was good action all the way down until the end. The fans were on their feet coming for the green-white-checkered. Every one of them were here. I think they’re all still here down in [Turns] 3 or 4 enjoying a concert with somebody.
“So, I think the track did a tremendous job promoting the event. You see the billboards on the highways. They were ready and they really promoted it. They did a fantastic job, and I think that’s something that we shouldn’t just look past because they promoted it correctly. They had good racing. They cared about the racing as well.
“Then they had good entertainment when there wasn’t racing. They have concerts. I think they had Nelly here last night. They had cool stuff. It makes for a fun weekend for fans to be here. Home run on every department, if you ask me.”
Logano and Kyle Busch going at it in overtime to win the inaugural race was a perfect ending to the weekend. Sunday’s 300-mile race was entertaining in both the shenanigans on track between the many enemies Ross Chastain made and how well the Next Gen car performed.
WWTR is a mostly flat racetrack, and the car has not performed well on flat tracks this year: think Phoenix and Martinsville. Martin Truex Jr. predicted it would be a race of restarts and pit stops, and Ryan Blaney said there would be no passing. Fortunately, both appeared to be wrong.\
“The racing, honestly, was better than I thought it was going to be.,” said fourth-place finisher Blaney. “(The track) widened out a little bit, so I thought it was decent. I feel like there are some things we can work on coming back if we do come back – maybe a different tire or more fall-off, I think, would be strong. I thought it was a really good first time for the Cup Series here, but there are always things to learn.”
Dirty air was still an issue, but NASCAR has something to work with. The track wasn’t the problem but the car still needs some tweaking, mostly with regard to eliminating shifting and making drivers pay for their mistakes.
NASCAR’s philosophy with racetracks seems to be to go where the fans are. The fans were in St. Louis and showed they would support racing. They’ve done so for years with a standalone Camping World Truck Series race, and perhaps it should have been no surprise they did so with the Cup Series.
WWTR and its fans should be rewarded by staying on the Cup Series schedule as long as the attendance is there. Don’t change what’s working. Clearly, racing in St. Louis is working – the market and fan support are there, so that means a Cup Series race should be, too.
“I thought the track widened out nicely, but we shift, and I know I’ve been harping on the shifting stuff, but it just really, really makes it difficult,” Denny Hamlin said. “It looks like we had a good couple of passes there for the win, which is really good. We got to work on tires and getting them better to wear out. Obviously, if you don’t pit inside your last fuel window, the tires need to wear just slightly more.
“But overall, I thought the track widened out well. I thought this whole city – I think this whole track did an absolutely phenomenal job preparing for a race. This is first-class; the whole thing is first class. I definitely believe we have a future here.”