Category: essay

Something I Need to Get Off My Chest…

Depending on which circle of the world, cyber or otherwise, you inhabit, NASCAR’s dying. Or already dead. Or some zombified semblance of a once-great sport now shuffling along in search of Brian France’s brains.

To hear some of these “fans” tell it, everything’s terrible. The races suck. The crowds are pathetic. The drivers are boring. Everyone’s leaving in drones (except, interestingly enough, these people… funny that).

And while I won’t deny NASCAR has its issues, I daresay the largest one is… the fanbase.

Yes, you read that right.

Yes, I am a member of said fanbase.

Yes, it is embarrassing as hell sometimes to admit that.

Ryan McGee, who has worked in various capacities within NASCAR media for decades, wrote an article for ESPN.com last year (or maybe it was the year before) in which industry insiders told him this segment of the fanbase had a hand in driving away sponsors or keeping new ones from entering.

Basically, they see this behavior and decide they want no part of it.

The rampant negativity is bad enough (especially now that it’s so damn predictable). But there’s also a hypocrisy sprinkled throughout that makes the negativity even more galling – to the point that I now watch races without Twitter, even though I love the information some of my NASCAR follows provide.

Some examples:

-No race is good enough. Even a race with a lead change in the last 10 laps. Even a race that features two- and three-wide racing throughout the field. Even a race where the dominant car is passed late for an upset of a win. Races with cautions suck. Races without cautions suck. None of it matters, because to some fans, it’ll never live up to a NASCAR that I’m not sure has ever existed.

-NASCAR sucks if it stands pat and doesn’t do anything. NASCAR sucks if it tweaks rules in an attempt to make things better. Fans bitch about how the racing sucks (see above), but the second NASCAR makes a rule change to try improving things, fans cry bloody murder (yes, even if it’s just for the All-Star Race).

-Related to the above: aero issues aren’t there because NASCAR one day decided that it would be really cool to create aero-dependent cars. That’s just… the natural evolution of racing technology and engineering (I mean, what do you propose – banning teams from hiring engineers?). Every racing series in the world fights the aero battle, and it’s guesswork as much as anything else. You try something, and maybe it works…?

-Drivers clinching titles with a race or two left in the season sucked. But so does the Chase/Playoffs that ensure that never happens again (and apparently, a winner-take-all final race is really egregious because… reasons?).

-Fans want more short tracks! (Hey, so do I!) Fans also don’t go to Martinsville, Bristol or Richmond.

-Fans want Cup drivers to stop running Xfinity and Truck races. Fans do not attend said races. (Perfect example: this past weekend at Bristol. It was an Xfinity race with NO Cup drivers in the field… it was at a short track… yet fans shoved up in droves dressed as empty grandstands).

-Fans want drivers to go all out and race hard for wins – but as soon as they do, and something happens, someone’s an idiot. I get that some of this boils down to which driver you root for and which driver you hate, but… asking for something and then bitching once you get it is just…

-The good old days might not be as good as people think. I mean, everyone foams at the mouth whenever a driver wins a race by more than a second. But remember, there was a time the margin of victory was routinely measured in laps instead of seconds. Ned Jarrett once won the Southern 500 by 14 laps. Wendell Scott’s lone Cup win was by two laps. Even in the 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t unheard of for a driver to lap the field. Imagine the Twitter meltdown if someone lapped the field today.

-North Wilkesboro isn’t coming back. It’s just not. And even if it did, would you support it? Fans begged for NASCAR to go back to Rockingham; two Truck races later, no one showed. North Wilkesboro tried to start up again with Late Model races. Again, no one showed.

-Related: to everyone whining about all the empty seats… you know there’s something you can do about that, right? Like, it’s literally as easy as calling or going online and… *gasp!* buying a ticket! And as far as gate prices go, NASCAR is on par with the other professional sports, if not better.

-”NASCAR’s gimmicky!” Look, I love IndyCar, too, but that series has a button on the steering wheel that you push to help you pass a guy. NASCAR has no such button. Just something to think about…

Is NASCAR perfect? No. I’d overhaul the schedule to add more short tracks and road courses, and drastically cut back on the 1.5 milers (as of now, Charlotte, Atlanta and Homestead are the only ones I definitely want to keep). I’d keep tinkering with the downforce and sideforce every chance I get – even in-season. I’d work with sponsors and race teams to find a perfect balance to the Cup-drivers-in-the-lower-levels conundrum.

And really, some of the issues NASCAR faces are issues every sport faces to some degree. So while we’re certainly not where we were in the boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the sky’s not really falling, either.

But you’d never know it to listen to some “fans.”

(CC: @latemodelsportsman)

Exciting Race, Unsettling Finish

I get more jacked for the start of NASCAR season every year. Like, I literally count down the days on the calendar once the checkered flag flies at Homestead. And this year’s Daytona 500 was thrilling. But… man, I dunno about that finish…

From my perspective, Austin Dillon dumped Aric Almirola for the win. Sure, it was the last lap. Yeah, it was the Daytona 500. I get all that. I get that when a win is on the line, especially in that race, you do what you gotta do. I get that the No. 3 car winning the Daytona 500 20 years after Dale Earnhardt won the race is a great story.

I also get that Almirola blocked. You know my stance on blocking.

But still… I mean, it’s not like my memories of the No. 3 car bumping people out of the way for wins are especially fond (I could not stand Dale Earnhardt when he was still alive), so the image of that car pulling that stunt yet again… let’s just say the optics were jarring.

I wanted Chase Elliott or Brad Keselowski or Ryan Blaney to win. They didn’t, and it stinks, but hey, they were all really fast and they put on a great show. Sometimes, in racing, shit happens.

And sometimes, shit is done to you.

Look, Dillon’s never been a fan favorite. He’s not the uber-marketable rising star Elliott, Blaney, even Bubba Wallace, are. A lot of that is simple heritage; as Richard Childress’ grandson, Dillon has the reputation of being a silver-spoon driver. Had everything handed to him, never earned it like other drivers, simply because of who he’s related to.

And come on… the guy dabbed after he won. Seriously?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to deal with the same mentality – even as in the latter part of his career, people wondered why he didn’t just put his nephew, Jeffrey Earnhardt, in one of his Xfinity Series cars.

So I think some of the reaction to today’s finish is simple anti-Dillon bias. Had Almirola done that to Dillon, I don’t think the blowback would be quite as loud.

From one replay, it looked as if Dillon gave Almirola a shot down the backstretch when Almirola blocked. Fine, happens all the time. But then Dillon appeared to give Almirola another shot as they went into Turn 3, which was when Almirola spun and wrecked.

That just looks bad.

I’m not a fan of wrecking for the win. I hated it every time Dale Sr. did it. I hated it when Denny Hamlin did it to Elliott at Martinsville last year (though it helped a little that Hamlin wound up not winning anyway). I don’t like it when drivers I root for do it.

But for me, it’s even worse at Daytona. Dumping a guy at Martinsville or Bristol or Richmond is one thing. But at a plate track? At those speeds? That move could have easily wiped out half the field under different circumstances.

I dunno… like I said, I loved the race, and I love that NASCAR’s back. I can’t wait for Atlanta next week, and every race on the schedule after that. I’m just not sure I loved what Dillon did on the last lap.

2016 NASCAR Musings

Now that the 2016 NASCAR season is in the books, some thoughts:

-We saw some fantastic racing this season, across all three national series. The Chase really infused some excitement into the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, and the lower-downforce areo rules in the Sprint Cup Series really helped the on-track product. We didn’t always get carnage and blown tempers, but we had intense, close competition and more than enough dramatic finishes.

-For all the fuss over the caution clock in the Truck Series, I think it ultimately had little effect on the season. More often than not, an incident or debris would bring out the caution before the end of the 20 minutes. For the most part, I think Truck races still unfolded naturally. That said, I’m not a fan of the concept and I don’t want to see it in the other series.

-Don’t underestimate the potential impact of Daniel Suarez winning the Xfinity Series title. NASCAR’s biggest asset is its drivers, and if the sanctioning body wants to see a more diverse class of competitors and a more diverse fanbase, Suarez’s success is key. It’s not enough for minorities to compete in NASCAR’s highest levels; they have to be successful. Golf didn’t open up to minorities because Tiger Woods was there; it did so because Tiger Woods kicked everyone’s ass for so long.

-A lot of people are blaming the new Chase on William Byron not winning the Truck Series championship despite having won seven races – by far the most in the series. And that’s possibly true, but let’s not forget that the season-long points format also saw its share of drivers who won the most races but didn’t win the title. In 2003, Ryan Newman won a Cup Series-high eight races… but finished sixth in points while a driver with one win won the title. In 1996, Jeff Gordon won 10 races to Terry Labonte’s two – but Labonte won the championship.

-Before Suarez’s win on Saturday, Cup drivers had won four straight Xfinity Chase races. Thankfully, this won’t be an issue come 2017; as part of a restructuring of competition rules, NASCAR announced that full-time Cup drivers with at least five full seasons’ worth of experience would not be eligible to run Truck or Xfinity Chase races – and that anyone who declared for Cup points would not be eligible to run at Homestead in the lower series. While I’m not completely against Cup drivers in the lower rankings – for reasons I’ve already outlined – I love keeping them out of the Chase. The Chase in the Truck and Xfinity Series is time for those drivers to shine, and the best Xfinity Chase races this year were the ones Xfinity Series regulars won.

-For most of the 2016 season, the prevailing questions in the Cup Series were “What’s wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?” and “Who can beat Joe Gibbs Racing?” Amazingly enough, it was a Hendrick driver who wound up winning the championship.

-There’s no one to blame in the Carl Edwards-Joey Logano wreck at the end of the season finale in Homestead. On a late restart, Edwards was on the inside of the front row with Logano right behind him. Logano got a great launch and looked inside on Edwards. Edwards blocked, but Logano was already far enough alongside that he turned Edwards into the inside wall. Edwards shot back across the track, hit the outside wall, and was collected by other cars. An unfortunate incident that cost Edwards his best shot at a title since 2011, but both drivers were doing what they felt they had to do to win. It was, as they say, one of those racin’ deals.

-Great class from Edwards after the wreck to approach the No. 22 pit box, apologize, and wish Logano luck in finishing out the rest of the race. He’s come a long way from the guy who intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski twice in one season a few years back.

-Alex Bowman deserves a full-time ride in quality equipment.

-NASCAR’s limit on Cup drivers competing in Truck and Xfinity races will only truly work if the sponsors are on-board and agree to support young drivers in the same manner as the established names – because that’s why Cup drivers run so many of those races in the first place.

-Part of me is glad the 2016 season is over, because it means we’re that much closer to seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in a race car again.

-If Dale Jr. decides to go into broadcasting once his driving career is over, I think Fox and NBC will fight each other for his services. His guest stints on MRN and NBCSN during the Talladega and Martinsville races were fantastic, and he was really good in Saturday’s Xfinity pre-race coverage. He’s a lot better at this than he gets (or gives himself) credit for.

-Don’t expect a sophomore slump out of Chase Elliott. I think he wins a handful of races and is a serious Chase contender.

-Also, calling it now: Ryan Blaney will make the 2017 Chase.

-Calling it now, Part 2: William Byron will win four races and advance to Homestead for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

-I was never much of a Tony Stewart fan, but I am bummed to see him step out of the car. He’s always been fun to watch sling a race car around, and his win at Sonoma this year was one of the season’s highlights. My best memory, though, comes from Martinsville circa 2004; sitting front row on the frontstretch, I would flip him off whenever he went by. Well, one time under caution, I did it again – and Smoke gave me the finger right back. That was cool as hell.

-First Jeff Gordon, now Tony Stewart. Damn…

-Sunday’s race at Homestead was the best in this current Chase era. The racing itself was fantastic, and there were times throughout the day when all four Chase contenders had a legitimate claim to throne. But Jimmie Johnson was best when it mattered most… and let’s not forget that in the three years under this format, the champion was the driver who won at Homestead. That’s neither accident nor coincidence.

-Make no mistake: we saw history on Sunday.

-Critics will argue that Johnson’s seven championships can’t compare to Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty’s. And in a way, they’re right. Johnson’s titles are different… but so were Earnhardt’s, and so were Petty’s. They each raced and succeeded in drastically different eras of the sport. The fact that Johnson’s titles were achieved differently does not diminish the magnitude of Johnson’s accomplishment. His name totally belongs in the same breath as Earnhardt and Petty.

-Don’t be surprised if Johnson winds up with eight or nine titles – and he has a real shot at 100 race wins. He’s 41, and I think it comes down to how much longer he wants to race. Does he bow out in his mid-40s the way Gordon and Stewart have, or does he go longer?

-I don’t think Johnson will really get his due until decades from now. That’s how things typically go in NASCAR; the sport, writ large, doesn’t appreciate greatness in the moment, but in hindsight, the greats and lauded as gods. Give it 20-30 years, and Johnson will be revered.

-When Gordon won his fourth title in 2001, the talk instantly went to when he would reach seven. Yet Gordon never even got to five. Ironically enough, he’s partially to blame for that, since he was the guy who discovered Johnson and helped get him his ride with Hendrick Motorsports.

-When Stewart won his two titles in the Chase era, he did so without having to beat Jimmie. Same for Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Kyle Busch in 2015. The only two drivers to actually beat Johnson for a Cup title in the Chase era? Kurt Busch in 2004 and Brad Keselowski in 2012. Those two have bragging rights no one else in the Cup Series has. 

-98 days until the 2017 Daytona 500. That’s 98 days too many.