This weekend at Kansas Speedway, longtime independent driver Carl Long will make his return to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. After reaching a settlement with NASCAR on a fine that was levied against him after the 2009 All-Star Race weekend, the Roxboro, North Carolina driver will run in his first Cup race since 2006 at Bristol.
For the better part of the decade, Long was banned from the Cup garage due to an unpaid fine stemming from an oversized engine from a third-party supplier. After Long’s engine for the 2009 Sprint Showdown was deemed to be .197 cubic inches over NASCAR’s tolerances, the sanctioning body sacked him with a $200,000 fine – The largest in NASCAR history until Michael Waltrip Racing was fined $300,000 for a race-fixing scandal in 2013. Unable to afford to pay the fine, Long switched to competing and fielding cars in the XFINITY Series and Truck Series. However, NASCAR and Long reached an agreement earlier this year, resulting in a commutation of Long’s fine and allowing him the opportunity to compete in Cup once more.
Though success for the 49-year old driver has been hard to come by – His career highlights include a wicked tumble down Rockingham’s backstretch in 2004 and allowing Darrell Waltrip to drive his car in the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 after Waltrip had failed to qualify – Carl Long’s return this weekend will no doubt be a popular story. Not only does Long get a chance to compete once more, but he also provides the Cup Series with an independent driver: The very sort that, while receding into the annals of history, served as the backbone of NASCAR racing for decades.
In the shadow of the stalwarts of each era, independent drivers who owned and drove their own equipment supported NASCAR’s top divisions. But as the sport grew and the cost of owning a Cup Series team escalated, the likes of J.D. McDuffie and Dave Marcis have become relics of a bygone era. With the introduction of the Charter System to Cup team ownership in 2016, the privateer model has been diminished even further: A non-chartered team may enter a Cup race to compete for four “Open” spots in the field, but there is little reward due to Open teams receiving significantly less purse money.
With his re-entry into Cup competition, Carl Long now becomes a welcomed presence as the lone traditional owner/driver in the Cup Series. As drivers have become more polished and are more likely to spend time with the media than they are in the garage area, Long serves as a throwback: A driver who works on his own cars, which he prepares out of a small shop that lacks the modern luxuries the sport’s top operations enjoy.
When Carl Long takes the green flag on Saturday night, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will once again have the kind of enterprising, blue-collar competitor that propped it up throughout its history. And even though times have changed, the series continues to be better for having drivers like him in the field.