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First Place
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Remembering Jabe Thomas and Jim Vandiver

Quietly, they slip through the cracks of NASCAR like some long-forgotten track, unnoticed by many of today’s fans, with names that fail to stir memories of fantastic finishes or incredible accomplishments.

You probably won't find them on highlight reels, unless it's in the background. The Hall of Fame hasn't come calling.

But the contributions of drivers such as Jabe Thomas and Jim Vandiver, small as they may seem to some, were just as important to NASCAR during their time in the sport as the contributions of the better known, more successful drivers they competed against.

For every Petty or Allison, Yarborough, Baker or Pearson, there was a Thomas and Vandiver, an Arrington and a McDuffie. Through the years, generations have come and gone. Success in NASCAR followed some while turning a cold shoulder to others. But still they came.

Thomas, father of former Rookie of the Year Ronnie Thomas, passed away June 4. His career as a driver in NASCAR's premier series lasted 14 years, and while it produced no wins, Thomas, a Christiansburg, Virginia, native, did finish eighth or better in the points standings for four consecutive years.

Vandiver, who called Huntersville, North Carolina, home, passed away last week at the age of 75. He, too, competed for 14 seasons, but never on a full-time basis. His record shows only 85 career starts during his time in NASCAR. In 1972, Vandiver started a career best 16 races; there were 31 on that season's schedule.

But in 1969, he led 102 laps en route to a runnerup finish at Talladega Superspeedway, back when it was known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Turns out it was one of the most pivotal races ever contested by the sanctioning body.

When the series' top stars of the day deemed the new 2.66-mile track unsafe for competition, they withdrew. It's been the only time in the history of NASCAR that drivers have boycotted an event en masse.
Vandiver chose to stick around. He piloted a 1969 Dodge fielded by owner Ray Fox and in his first Grand National start on a superspeedway, he finished second to Richard Brickhouse.

But it wasn't just the Talladega result that etched Vandiver's name in that often-overlooked segment of NASCAR lore. Nor the top-10 points finishes for Thomas, impressive as they were.

It was because of the efforts and appearances of such fiercely independent drivers that the sport was able to keep churning forward. NASCAR needed traction, and they were there to help supply it.

They were drivers who relished the opportunity to compete against the bigger, often factory-backed teams of the day. They raced against them at Daytona and Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta. And they raced against them at lesser-known stops as well -- places like Macon and Montgomery, Hillsville and Islip, too.

Thomas and Vandiver were just two of many who could be counted on to show up, maybe under-funded and over-matched, but they showed up just the same. There would be a race, and whenever possible, they would be there, lined up and hoping for the best.

Of the 184 drivers who have posted at least one victory in NASCAR's premier series, 60 never won more than once. It's likely that hundreds of others had careers that never saw a single trip to the winner's circle.

That didn't make them any less worthy of recognition then and it doesn't make them any less worthy now. Drivers such as Richard Petty and Bobby Allison and David Pearson went on to become legends in the sport, but they did so with the help of guys like Thomas, Vandiver and a host of others.

NASCAR's history is filled with them. And lest we forget, NASCAR exists today because of them.

They weren't household names. They were racers. And thank goodness for that.

Hot diggity dog: Martinsville decision ruffles tradition

They're trifling with tradition at Martinsville, and you'd think a track that has been on the circuit ever since there was a circuit to be on would know better.
 
They're not changing race dates or moving the start/finish line from the frontstretch to the backstretch. There will still be asphalt on the straightaways and concrete in the corners. And the train tracks up on the hill? They're still there.
 
This goes deeper. Much deeper.
 
Martinsville Speedway is changing hot dogs.

In a pig's eye, you say?
 
There's a new purveyor of pink wienies at the series' shortest venue and its name is Valleydale, a division of Smithfield Foods.
 
Jesse Jones has been gunned down.
 
You remember Valleydale, don't you? Cartoon pigs playing trombone, drum and cymbals back in the day. "Everybody shouts hooray for Valleydale!"
 
The racing connection came later -- title sponsorship of the spring Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Valleydale 500, lasted 11 years, from 1980 through 1991.
 
Jesse Jones hot dogs have been a staple at Martinsville for much longer. Some say they've been a part of the concession fare almost from the beginning, which would have been around 1948.
 
That may or may not be the case, but they've certainly been an essential part of the race weekend experience for decades.
 
The infield concession stand, located near the start/finish line and run by a local booster club, does a brisk business on race weekends. Crewmen and fans can be found lined up throughout the day purchasing hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
 
Officials are hoping that's again the case next week, when the track hosts the Kroger 250 Camping World Truck Series race (March 28, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) and STP 500 Sprint Cup race (March 29, 1 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1).
 
Other tracks have gone hog-wild with different types of food offerings. Phoenix International Raceway officials unveiled the CARBuretor Crunch for this past race weekend. The deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich came with Cap'n Crunch and caramel on the outside, bacon and bananas on the inside.
 
Fans visiting Charlotte Motor Speedway can partake of the new Brunch Burger, a quarter-pound cheeseburger topped with hash browns, cheese, bacon and egg. It comes on French toast and includes hot maple syrup.
 
But the Martinsville hot dog? It's gone unchanged and unchallenged. Until now.
 
Actually, that's not quite true. The track did switch hot dog vendors several years ago when International Speedway Corp. purchased the facility.
 
New owners, new hot dogs, same $2 price.
 
It caused quite a ruckus. Folks complained. The original hot dogs were quickly brought back. Order was restored.
 
Track officials seem confident that this latest change will satisfy fans and competitors alike. Lessons were learned.
 
I hope they're right. Race fans have adapted to schedule changes, rules changes and how the championship is determined.
 
But when it comes to the Martinsville hot dog, they've proven to be less understanding.

Harvick, Johnson took unnecessary risks at Chicagoland

Jimmie Johnson was at fault for slamming into the side of Kevin Harvick during Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
 
And Harvick's team was wrong to leave its driver out on the track following the contact, taking an unwise and unnecessary gamble in a race that had just reached the halfway point.
 
And this was not just any race. This was the opening event in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the first of three races that will determine which 12 teams from the field of 16 will advance to the next round, the Contender Round.
 
Sure, hindsight might be 20-20, but we're not talking about a couple of Johnny-come-latelys here.
 
Both drivers are former Sprint Cup champions -- Johnson a six-time winner while Harvick captured his first title this past season.

There are several reasons why the two teams are considered among the very best on the track each and every week. They rarely make mistakes and when problems do arise, the teams don't fall apart. If anything, adversity draws the respective groups closer together.
 
They haven't won races and championships because they've made bad decisions. They've won races and championships because they’ve made smart ones.
 
In Sunday's Chase opener, both made bad choices and it had nothing to do with Johnson's visit to Harvick's bus in the motorcoach lot after the race. That's fodder for another day.
 
Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet shot underneath Harvick on a restart on Lap 135, and the reason he took to the track apron is open for debate. Replays made it appear as though a shove from Joey Logano forced the Hendrick Motorsports driver to dive low to keep from running into the back of Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet.
 
From other angles, it appeared Johnson went low not because of any contact, but simply to avoid hitting Harvick, whose Stewart-Haas Racing entry didn't seem to get quite as good of a launch on the restart.
 
Either way, Johnson was in no man's land and he knew it. With Turn 1 just ahead, he had two options -- try and force his way back onto the track or lift and give up track position as others sped past.
 
Maybe Johnson didn’t win six titles by giving up ground, but it could have just as easily been his car that sustained a tire rub and eventually found itself in the wall. It was a pretty questionable decision with so much on the line.
 
No doubt Harvick was aware of Johnson's predicament and perhaps he openly chose to keep his fellow racer pinned on the bottom.
 
Maybe Harvick didn't slide up a lane and let Johnson in line for fear of another car being on his outside. Logano was there somewhere; Jeff Gordon was as well.
 
Maybe he chose to hold his line because he never expected Johnson to come rocketing back up onto the track and slam into the side of his car.
 
There's no way of knowing, of course, but one has to wonder what decisions would have been made had the roles of Johnson and Harvick been reversed. Would Harvick have tried to force his way back onto the track? Would Johnson have moved up a lane to avoid contact?
 
Once the contact took place, Harvick's team felt any damage was minor enough to leave their driver on the track. Smoke from a tire rub had lessened; radio chatter informed Harvick that all appeared OK, keep pushing.
 
And then he hit the fence. In the opening Chase race and with nearly half the race remaining.
 
There was no way of knowing how significant the damage to Harvick's car was after the contact with Johnson without coming to pit road. But why take the chance? Why put your entire season in jeopardy when a trip to pit road would have alleviated any concerns for both driver and crew?
 
Yes, a pit stop for fresh tires and to check for damage would have put Harvick a lap down, perhaps two. According to NASCAR statistics, however, there were only 16 cars on the lead lap at that point in the race. The likelihood that he could have raced his way back onto the lead lap was extremely good. Denny Hamlin went on to win the race after nearly losing two laps in the opening stages of the race. Carl Edwards, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, rallied to finish second despite falling off the lead lap when he was penalized for speeding on pit road on Lap 52.
 
Instead, the No. 4 team chose to roll the dice. By the time repairs had been completed and Harvick returned to the race, the driver was 57 laps down.
 
Harvick, who finished 42nd Sunday, has only two races to climb back into contention. His is not a lost cause, but the team can't afford any more mistakes.
 
Johnson dropped six spots, falling from first to seventh and that's not the way his team expected to open the Chase.
 
It's not unusual to see teams with nothing to lose take risks.
 
But for those who repeatedly succeed by making the right decisions at crucial moments, putting an entire season on the line with a questionable decision is totally out of character.

Gase uses old-school transporter after fire

DOVER, Del. -- It might be the oldest transporter in the garage. Hard to say, but if there's one older …

Up front in the lounge area there are mirrors on the ceiling. The cabinet includes a stereo system that features a side-by-side cassette tape deck. The lone photo on the wall is an artist's rendering of the No. 52 entry. The car in the picture is sporting sponsorship from Alka-Seltzer.

Maybe it's the oldest hauler, maybe not. But the white trailer used to move the Jimmy Means Racing entry from its shop in North Carolina to Dover International Speedway this weekend served its purpose. Called back into active duty after a fire destroyed the team's primary hauler, it's a throwback of sorts to an earlier era.

"Watch your head when you go up there," team owner Jimmy Means advised. "This one's old school."

Driver Joey Gase finished 21st in last Saturday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race and Means was headed back to North Carolina when a wheel bearing overheated and caught a tire on fire. The fire quickly spread into the hauler.

"We had just stopped 30 miles up the road," Means said Saturday, "fueled up and I personally went around and laid my hand on all the hubs and they were normal."

In the days after the incident, other teams reached out and offered assistance. Some offered to loan trailers. One Sprint Cup team owner told his group to give Means whatever he needed to make sure he made it to the next race.

Friends and fans raised more than $10,000.

Fortunately, help from the No. 22 Team Penske team, which stopped to help, lessened the damage done by the fire.

"If it hadn’t been for them … we used up all the fire extinguishers, 42 bottles of water, coke soda, orange soda, ice by the handful," Means said. "We actually thought we had it out and it (flared) up again and we were all out of supplies. Watched it burn for about 15 or 20 minutes until the fire department got there.

"At least they helped us keep it from burning the cars up. If they hadn't have stopped it would have burned the cars up for sure."

Other than damage to the hauler itself, and the pit box used on pit road, most of the damage to the contents was smoke and water related. The cars, while looking the worse for wear, were salvageable. The trailer and pit box were not. Gase competed in Saturday's Hisense 200 at Dover in the same car he raced at Kentucky.

"The cars, I'm amazed they weren't hurt," Means said. "They needed to be completely taken apart, everything painted and all that. They did get warm and from the water on them naturally they all rusted. Plastic strips to keep the heat and the air in (at the rear of the transporter) melted, all that went up in the air and just settled on everything. It was just a big mess.

"It really didn't hurt the equipment that much other than just being filthy and water damage to some of it. We were fortunate that our radios were in the front … did get a little water damage but didn't get any intense heat."

Prepping the back-up hauler, built in 1990, was a task in itself. It had been sitting idle for several years -- Means said he hadn't kept the license plates up to date and had to rush to the courthouse to pay three years' worth of taxes to get it back on the road.

Volunteers joined in to help the team prepare for this week’s race.
"Definitely a thrash to get it done," he said. "Actually, by the last day it came out better than we thought it was going to be. We were prepared to be here Friday morning; we loaded Wednesday night at 9:30. Thought that was a pretty good job.

"Probably the average age of the crew helping us was 65. Anywhere from 78, 74, 65, 68 working on this stuff, getting it clean. Crew chief (Tim Brown) did a whale of a job of getting everything cleaned up and hopefully putting on the truck what we needed to get through this weekend. That will give us a little more time to get this thing stocked so we can operate out of it the rest of the year."

Gase called it "kind of the worst time possible for us for this to happen," but said after going through the car "as best we could," nothing seemed beyond repair.

"We had a lot of guys come in, worked a lot of hours, even my girlfriend came in and helped get everything cleaned up," he said. "That was the hardest thing. But it was a group effort and I think we did pretty good to get it back and get it here."

Gase's Donate Life Chevrolet started 28th Saturday as the field was set per the rulebook when qualifying was canceled. After a flat left rear early in the race, he finished 24th.

It wasn't a win, but given all that the team had to overcome just to get to Dover, it was impressive just the same.