The Frontstretch: Keep Your Hands to Yourself! NASCAR Struggling to Let Championship Weekend Unfold in Homestead by Bryan Davis Keith -- Saturday November 20, 2010

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NASCAR, or any professional sport for that matter, couldn’t ask for better storylines to close their season with. With the ultimate race of the season less than 48 hours away, three drivers stand within striking distance of the Cup championship in one of the closest points battles seen at any level of racing in recent memory. Coupled with a Chase that has seen events at Martinsville and Texas go down as two of the best races seen anywhere in 2010, the season on paper seems to have the momentum of a freight train running away from Denzel Washington.

Still, no one seems to care. TV ratings are down a double digit average for all nine Chase races run this far. Attendance has down, reaching even woeful levels at Dover and Phoenix. And it’s clear from this writer’s dealings, both in and out of the sport, that non-Chase features have easily outstripped the readership of the 500 million Hamlin vs. Harvick vs. Johnson features bogging down the airwaves the last week. Accurate or not, whatever side one takes on the Chase, this year’s points race is being perceived as contrived, turning race fans off to this title hunt, no matter how close it may be.

Yet, for the deafening cry coming from fans, a rejection of the sanctioning body’s best efforts to insure close finishes and standings, NASCAR can’t seem to keep itself from contriving it’s season finales even as they run their final laps.

Friday night’s Truck race, for reasons good and bad, offered a clear preview of what the fans that are still tuning in can expect to see in Sunday’s 400-miler. The Ford 200 featured more than constant side-by-side racing…it offered three, four and five-wide exchanges that saw trucks utilizing every square inch of the progressively banked oval. Those progressive banks provided all the surface needed for great racing, but claimed their share of victims as well; Greg Biffle, Patrick Carpentier and Scott Speed all had trouble during Cup qualifying Friday afternoon, while a number of drivers including polesitter Austin Dillon, Jack Johnson and Timothy Peters all lost control of their vehicles trying to handle the turns of the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Though Todd Bodine wrapped up the Truck Series driver title at Phoenix last weekend, there was plenty of drama left to unfold in Friday’s 200-miler at Homestead. Even before NASCAR’s yellow flag intervened.

And for a Truck Series that had its driver title wrapped up last weekend by Todd Bodine, the battle for the owners’ crown carried into Homestead and was an incredible plot in itself. Germain Racing’s Todd Bodine vs. Kyle Busch and his new-formed team. Two drivers with previous history during the 2010 season, after an on-track incident at Chicagoland late in the summer, duking it out for their respective teams’ season-long efforts. Two teams that had overcome tremendous adversities throughout the campaign; Todd Bodine’s team won a major driving title without a primary sponsor scarcely one year removed from a 2009 season that saw the operation literally one race away from closing it’s doors, while Kyle Busch Motorsports was forced into contraction less than halfway into its inaugural season after expected primary backing from Miccosukee Indian Gaming Resorts was yanked mere weeks before Daytona.

For the first 104 laps, the battle raged. Bodine and Busch combined to lead 70 of those first circuits, with both running in the top 5 and looking like legitimate contenders for the win. Then, disaster struck for Kyle Busch. Contact while racing hard with Johnny Sauter in turn 2 sent Busch into the outside retaining wall, flattening his right front tire.

Busch slowed and was unable to make it to pit road, looking likely to lose at least one lap as the field roared by. But Busch’s pursuit of the owner’s title was saved when a suspect caution flag that flew on lap 105. Suspect because, while Busch’s tire was clearly down, there was no evidence of debris on the track. Yet, the debris caution flew, Busch stayed on the lead lap, and was able to pit under yellow to change tires and have his fenders checked out.

The end result was all too familiar. Busch stormed through traffic, bested rival Ron Hornaday on a lap 131 restart and drove off to his eighth win of the 2010 season and clinching the owners’ title in the process in his first season as an owner in the Truck ranks.

What was odd about the caution that ultimately saved both Busch’s race and season was that later in the running of Friday’s event, Austin Dillon scraped the outside wall and was suffering from an apparent tire going down in what was almost a picture-perfect recreation of Busch’s incident. Yet the yellow flag never flew. In fact, the only two yellows to fly after Busch’s debris savior were for spins in the racing groove.

Truthfully though, one incident is far from proof of what many will deride as a conspiracy theory. But Friday’s night subjective officiating call that, intentional or not, played an enormous role in securing Kyle Busch his first title as an owner and kept a tight points race going even for just a few laps longer (the incident in question took place with only 29 laps left in the Truck Series season), was not the first time in NASCAR’s closing weeks that officiating played a role in dictating a race’s outcome.

Flash back to the final 56 laps of the Cup race at Martinsville last month, the race that served as a catalyst for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team’s run to the points lead. In this case, a legitimate debris caution was needed, and yet it never flew. Marcos Ambrose cut a tire and spewed parts all over the track. Multiple cars hit the wall. Travis Kvapil lost a rear-end in his machine and dropped a visible line of oil and grease on the backstretch racing surface. And yet, with Denny Hamlin roaring off to victory and Jimmie Johnson struggling to keep what had looked like a race winning car in the top 5, the yellow flag that the sanctioning body has never hesitated to fly to close up the field never flew. Johnson and the No. 48 team never got a final pit stop to play strategy or make adjustments, and Hamlin scored arguably the most important win of his career.

It didn’t matter that the points were close anyway, thanks in part to a highly competitive Chase field and the Chase system that renders the first 26 races of the season all but a moot point. NASCAR’s officiating broke away from what their widely accepted practice of throwing the yellow for debris (and especially for fluids on track), and the challenger seemingly most capable of taking down Mr. Four-Time and saving the sport from a vanilla champion reaped the rewards.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence that NASCAR stands ready and willing to do what they have to from the scoring tower to get the tight finishes they’ve been trying for years to architect as each season unfolds came on Friday afternoon, long before the green flag fell on the Truck Series finale.

In a Q&A session with media, NASCAR CEO Brian France made the intent of the sanctioning body very clear, remarking when asked about possible further changes to the Chase that “the idea is to create big moments by the best teams at the end of the year, who have to put their best performances forward to win it all, and if there’s a better way to do that, like every other commissioner, I’m sure that we’ll consider it.”

There’s something glaringly wrong with the leader of not just a sanctioning body, but a sport having an attitude that it was their responsibility to create big moments. Apparently Brian has forgotten (or just never cared for) the old adage that “racing is not entertainment. Racing is entertaining.” And it’s far from a stretch to conclude that a sanctioning body willing to alter the way its champion is crowned for the sake of a close finish would handle its competitions in a similar manner.

It’s a shame really, because the battle that will go down for the 2010 Sprint Cup on Sunday will likely be a thrilling race, the three-way battle between three polar opposite drivers gripping and unpredictable. But thanks to a points system that fans have never accepted and a sanctioning body that can’t seem to ever accept a good story and leave it the hell alone, an air of manufactured goods is hanging over championship weekend in Miami.

Friday night’s opening act did little to assuage those fears.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Sal
11/20/2010 06:31 AM
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Brian France’s attitude isn’t so strange when you consider his reaction to a question that began with the statement that many fans had said they were disgusted with the ‘chase’ format. Brian France was supposedly shocked that the media person had talked to someONE who said that. If you need more proof that he is totally oblivious…..

Stephen HOOD
11/20/2010 08:00 AM
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Can the television commentators be more honest? Busch goes from 22 to 2 in four laps because there isn’t any damn competition. Yeah, he made some bold moves, but the fact that his truck seems to be about 10 or 15 mph faster than all but about three or four of his competitors does not speak to Busch’s prowess but to the fact that he is racing in AAA. The same holds true in Nationwide.

I’m impressed when Busch wins in Cup against his peers and I’ll give him appropriate praise for his skills. But, I’m not impressed when he goes down and beats up on the guys in trucks and Nationwide. Sure the dude loves to race, but why doesn’t he win 10 or 12 Cup races in a season? When he accomplishes that feat, then we can truly speak of Busch as one of the greatest drivers ever. Until he does that I’ll continue to be a doubter.

Craig
11/20/2010 10:43 AM
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Brian France is an emperor without any clothes. He’s gonna gimmick up the Chase until it looks like a 10 race version of Talladega. A spoiled rich boy intent on destroying the sport his family built.

wcfan
11/20/2010 10:44 AM
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Bryan

Great Review
I remember when Matt’s Recaps were informative like this review.
At first I was upset over your raving about the Busch caution, but upon reading the rest of your review and then your Bio, you did point out other questionable cautions during the Cup chase and your Bio points out your “pet peeve/Kyle Busch”.
If you look thru nascar history the “Stars” have more times then not gotten the caution when they need it for a spin or rubbing the wall while the “lesser” drivers can “knock the wall” down and not get a caution.

DoninAjax
11/20/2010 11:19 AM
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In 1992 five drivers had a mathematical chance for the title.

This is a great time for the forty invisible drivers to stick it to the three “racers” going for the chumpionship. They should race them harder than ever because the three will not “race” anybody.

Brian France in 2008:
…France said there are no plans to tweak the points system even though Johnson enters the season finale with a nearly insurmountable 141-point lead over Carl Edwards.
“I’d love for all 11 drivers to be within 25 points of (the leader) myself,” France said. “The reality of it is, that’s sports. There are World Series that are not as exciting as others, that’s just the nature of a dominant performance quite frankly.” So tell me again why we have the chase.

Ken
11/20/2010 11:29 AM
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I almost fell on the floor laughing when I read the highlights from the Brian France press conference. I don’t think it’s really a case of him not having any clue as to what the fans are saying over and over, it’s a case where he does not care. If he did, you would see him at the races more. Even though, as has been pointed out, under the old system, the 2010 Championship would have been decided last week, this weekend’s race is seriously contrived, given what many have said that the Champion for this year was decided before the first transporter pulled through the tunnel into the Daytona garage back in February, and there will be every effort to ensure that The Felon get’s his fifth-in-a-row and tenth overall, even though as Team Sleeze begins celebrating their fifth title, that banging sound you will be hearing is the last nail being driven into NASCAR’s coffin, courtesy of Brian France’s total contempt for the fans. NASCAR is on death watch now, and if the final outcome is the same as it was for the last four years, NASCAR will not survive the 2011 season!

Rufus
11/20/2010 02:47 PM
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WARNING!*WARNING!**
BOVINE FECAL MATTER ALLERT!!

Brian France is supposed to be making an appearance on Speed Channel’s Raceday tomorrow morning to give his (bourbon laced) state of the union address! Get out your hip-waders, shovels, and paper bags! Brian is going to tell us that the chase is great and is loved by all, and that NASCAR has never been stronger, and the future has never looked better!

(Insert the sound of someone throwing up into a paper bag here!)

Dave
11/20/2010 03:41 PM
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If I made “Brian France Sucks” t-shirts, would you buy them?

Dave
11/20/2010 04:08 PM
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I could definitely see myself becoming an Indy Car fan next year.

EZ
11/20/2010 10:24 PM
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The na$car stuff is dead on.
But anyone that can’t see Kyle’s ability to drive a racecar knows nothing about it

lilj
11/20/2010 10:40 PM
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Quote “NASCAR will not survive the 2011 season!”

your kidding me right??? You must not know much about this sport! Nascar is just fine there getting paid billions until 2014 from the networks! Nascar fans will be back

I use to watch wrestling dont anymore but I remember how popular it was then the ratings went down so bad for a few years people were saying oh the WWF is going to shut down they wont survive… Well from what I hear its pretty popular again gets good tv ratings! Remember when there were talks of the NHL shutting down well look where there at now! Theres talk of no NFL season next year hmmm wonder whos going to benefit the most if that happens A Nascar!!! i live in Chicago and the United Center couldnt even give away tickets to Bulls games last year! Ratings were down 25 % for MLBS World Series its happening all over shove you BS

Jacob
11/21/2010 08:44 AM
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WOW!!! lilj, I don’t usually comment on other people’s grammar, spelling, or overall writing style, but WOW!!!
I hope that you were drunk when you wrote that unintelligible comment. If there is a chance that you were sober, elementary school might be a good place for you to go first thing Monday morning.

Ken
11/21/2010 03:08 PM
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It’s ok, Jacob, I’m used to people like lilj snapping vile responses at what I say. but I stand by my statement.

I don’t care what Brian France says about the health of NASCAR, the numbers tell the story. As for the comment about the money paid out by the television contracts, look how ABC dumped the broadcasts off onto their cable-only partners. And right now, I wouldn’t be surprized at all if they tried to pawn their Nationwide broadcasts off onto Speed to cut their revenue loses. And in all honesty, I can see that happening after today’s Cup race is completed. And for a joke, I looked up the two ABC affiliates in my area, WKBW in buffalo, and the ABC affiliate from Seattle that I get on cable. Both have really hard-hitting shows on this afternoon. The Buffalo station has all infomercials all afternoon, while the Seattle station has some show called Northern Exposure plus infomercials. Wow!

Yes. lilj, you may say what i posted was BS, but if Team Sleeze wins the title, and it looks like they are going to, NASCAR will be finished! If you thought the attendance and veiwership was down this year, wait until next year. NASCAR already killed Gateway. Watch Chicagoland, Fontana, and (unfortunately) Michigan be next to close. And watch souvenir sales take a bigger hit!

Enjoy it lilj! You, Randy, and DansMom can enjoy it, as you will be the only ones!

By the way, did anyone else see France on Speed and ESPN today? He didn’t take his sunglasses off when he was on Speed this morning, and when he appeared on the NASCAR Countdown on ESPN, he looked like he had been out on another binge!

djlilj
11/21/2010 09:38 PM
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Yeah ok big guy we will be the only ones! Why dont stop writing about Nascar cause from your mouth after tonight (JJ WON) you wont be watching and me and 3 others will be the only ones! Please do me and the rest of us a favor and from here on out dont talk Nascar! Simple

dont like the channel change it

Steve
11/22/2010 12:37 PM
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Kind of ironic that I read this after the championship has been decided. Yet another race where a controversial call determined the outcome of the race.

There is going to be alot of conspiracy talk about that speeding penalty. I’m a little baffled that you can call someone 3rd in line during caution pit stops is caught speeding but the 2 in front of him are not. Doesn’t make sense to me.