Happy Hour : The "Official" Journalist Of NASCAR · Kurt Smith · Friday November 21, 2008
When a few of the Frontstretch gang get together for Mirror Driving on Monday nights, what happens in that room gets chopped and mangled and edited before its airing on Wednesday. Conversations are stitched together for coherence, off-topic rants are removed, and a sincere effort is made to ensure that at least most of the words are spelled correctly.
We don’t have much time to discuss the questions that are laid out for us, and no one knows what they are beforehand. So, when the question “what is the biggest news story of 2008” came up, plenty of things came to mind in the short time provided for answers. Easily, Jimmie Johnson’s third straight title was the winner, but there were other memorable moments, including: the mess at the Brickyard; the meteoric rise and fall of Kyle Busch; a winless season for Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth; and Johnny Benson and Clint Bowyer winning titles in the lesser series.
However, after our chat I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing). Memory is short, and we tend to forget things at an astonishing rate. Most of us couldn’t remember what we wore two days ago, unless we had set clothes for each day of the week. With that in mind, there are some memorable moments in the 2008 season that we’ll have most certainly forgotten by 2013.
So, as a public service to you — the intelligent, savvy, and born of high taste Frontstretch readers — I’ve picked out some of the better stories of 2008 while we all still remember them. Save this column somewhere, and if you are bored with the racing in 2013 (and who can imagine what things will look like then?), you can pull it up and reminisce.
In fact, maybe I’ll do this every year.
OK. Without further doo-doo, here are some of my favorite not-so-obvious highlights of the 2008 NASCAR season, in no particular order:
Michael McDowell Flips Over His New Ride While Qualifying
Usually, the wrecks we remember the most happen during the biggest races. Daytona 500s in particular seem to produce some of the most colossal episodes, in no small part due to that confounded restrictor plate. But rookie Michael McDowell wasn’t in a race, nor did he have a restrictor plate on his car at Texas. Instead, during what was supposed to be a harmless qualifying session, he lost control and smashed head-on into the wall with an impact that was promptly followed by multiple flips. At one point, McDowell was airborne long enough to radio in for a landing.
Michael Waltrip, his car owner, had to be near soiling his pants watching this unfold. I can’t imagine what an owner who loses a driver goes through, and Mikey has already had more than his share of ownership headaches. Even his brother, at the time in the booth for SPEED, had trouble watching it all. But McDowell walked away from the incident, immediately provoking praise for the new car in the booth.
However, I always was puzzled at how people could praise the safety features of a car that lost control and hit the wall that easily. As Jeff Dunham’s Walter might say: “Helllllooooooo!”
Closed Doors On Open Wheelers
Heck, you’ve probably forgotten about these guys already, haven’t you?
Following the relatively successful first season in NASCAR for Juan Pablo Montoya, including a win at Sears Point, several open wheel stars saw an opportunity to drive in the most popular series in America and maybe make some decent coin. It was like Sir Robbin at the Bridge of Death… “that’s easy!”
Combine this with a dearth of developing talent in the Nationwide Series thanks to the abundance of Cup drivers competing there every week, and you have the surprising NASCAR rookie class for the beginning of 2008: Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, and Sam Hornish, Jr. all made the jump from Indy Cars to fenders. It had to be a stressful time for the hard line proud rednecks, who as it is are still getting over the rise to prominence of that polished kid from Indiana.
But by the end of 2008, only Hornish remains in Cup racing, with few noteworthy finishes to his credit. Villeneuve’s ride was nixed by Bill Davis immediately after failing to qualify for Daytona, Franchitti lost his ride when Ganassi had to close up a shop and chose the 40 (ignoring the star power of Ashley Judd) and Gillett-Evernham replaced Carpentier in October after a season’s worth of disappointing performances. Most evident from them all was a clear inability to navigate short tracks, where it was a struggle to simply keep their car in one piece.
In fairness to these fellows, it was a big adjustment, and none of them were in the top notch equipment supplied to the likes of Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Still, it seems like the open wheel invasion was extremely short-lived — unless Scott Speed has something to say about it.
This racing with fenders stuff ain’t as easy as it looks, is it, boys?
Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d Ya Get Those Weepers?
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana has been the object of vilification from many NASCAR fans and commentators. Some of it is justified, while some isn’t always fair. In February of 2008, though, the girl didn’t make much of a case for herself.
As we know, the second and third races of the season are in Fontana and Vegas, respectively, resulting in a major logistical migraine for North Carolina-based racing teams. So, NASCAR was already under the gun with a late start time at ACS; then, there was a rain delay, followed by an ugly crash involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Casey Mears that ended the evening for both drivers. But things would get worse; the cause of the crash turned out to be a “weeper,” one of many wet spots caused by cracks in the track. Failed attempts to fix the “weeper” problem, combined with more rain, finally prompted NASCAR to run the race the next day. The fans in the grandstands must have been thrilled to hear that after sitting in the rain for 10 hours while the sanctioning body tried in vain to get the race restarted.
So, thanks to a late start time, track cracks, and a baffling schedule, NASCAR had to pre-empt a race because people who had to work on Monday couldn’t watch… and ran it on Monday afternoon, when people who had to work on Monday couldn’t watch.
Someday, I swear, someone will get to the bottom of why Auto Club Speedway hosts two NASCAR races every year.
Si Senor, Gracias For Your Pesos
This summer, NASCAR mercifully chose to end the yearly Mexico City experiment for 2009 after four races of rapidly plummeting attendance. In response, relieved drivers, crews, and truckers finally were able to put away their industrial-size Kaopectate.
The last event in Mexico City was marked by mediocrity largely attributable to the venue itself. Busted walls needed a red flag to repair, yellow flag periods were frequent and unacceptably long, and ESPN even lost the broadcast feed for several minutes. By the way, Kyle Busch won that event, in case you were no longer awake at the finish.
But as we know, mediocrity never stops NASCAR. It took meager attendance, dropping to nearly half that of the first race, for the sport to finally declare Mexico City no longer worth the trouble for the Nationwide Series teams.
So, was going south of the border a mistake then? Not if you consider the exposure gained by racing there, resulting in the formation of the NASCAR Corona Series in Mexico!
Finally, a decent beer sponsoring something in NASCAR. If only Sam Adams would sponsor the No. 9…
Lepage LeWrecks The Talladega Field
Whatever your opinion of restrictor plates, they certainly make things exciting at Talladega. Apparently, the sight of the big pack sailing by in the Aaron’s 312 was so exciting for Kevin LePage as he was coming out of the pits that he couldn’t wait to join the fun and jumped right in.
Sixteen destroyed race cars later, LePage was interviewed and asked what in the world he was thinking. He originally showed no contrition, suggesting that NASCAR had said in the driver’s meeting to merge in Turn 1. Seconds later, commentator Allen Bestwick demonstrated better knowledge of the rules than LePage, pointing out that it is actually Turn “2,” a subtle but important distinction. LePage later apologized for causing the incident, and promised to have a right side mirror put on his Nationwide car. For the record, he finished 35th that day.
That’s plate racin’.
NASCAR Implements “No Complaining” Rule
OK, maybe we will remember this one. But it’s too great to take that risk!
Shortly after a diatribe from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following 500 miles of maneuvering the Snow Plow of Today at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR called the drivers together and asked them nicely to please stop complaining about having to drive this mandated nightmare.
At this point, the “you need us more than we need you” speech probably didn’t wash, since it was the sport’s most valuable star vocalizing his displeasure. But NASCAR did attempt to get across that drivers’ complaining about the car had an impact on fans and was hurting attendance.
Being good company men, most of them complied, and with drivers’ criticisms of the SPoT no longer influencing opinion, over time the world of NASCAR fans gained a newfound appreciation — dare I say love — for NASCAR’s mandated automotive creation. You can just see it in the lack of sheer numbers in the grandstands…
Tony Stewart Sounds The Alarm After Atlanta
Any Tony Stewart rant could probably be found on YouTube, but his diatribe after the first Atlanta race, galling as it may have been for NASCAR and Goodyear, turned out to be prophetic. If it was not obvious that the tire had not been worked out for the SPoT, Tony (and several other drivers in agreement) tried to make that clear.
NASCAR let Stewart’s rant ride without penalty, well aware that their heavy-handed reputation for enforcing vanilla in drivers was costing them fans. But Tony’s desire to call serious attention to the tire situation wasn’t quite successful enough, as we would soon see at Indianapolis.
I promised Tom (Frontstretch’s Managing Editor) I would try to be less negative in the future, but there isn’t any excuse for what happened at the Brickyard. In seven years of research, one of the most important parts of the car was not researched thoroughly enough, or even sufficiently when looking at the results. Because Stewart’s Atlanta rant was not given its due weight, NASCAR spent all day at the Brickyard stopping the race out of safety concerns…with a car that is touted for its attention to safety.
And so there it is, gang — the best stories that you won’t remember from 2008. There were some other ones that space prohibits me from discussing: Carl Edwards going after Kevin Harvick in the garage and the subsequent photo-gate; the slowing of the Toyota engines; Joey Logano winning in just his third Nationwide start. But I think I covered the ones we’ll want to remember.
Onward to 2009, with seemingly no place for NASCAR to go but up.
Kurt’s Shorts – Obrigado
- Well I’m not sure if this is the final Happy Hour of 2008 or not, but in case it is, I would like to put in some acknowledgments.
Thanks to Tom Bowles, who took me on as a writer here at the Frontstretch despite probably all of his better instincts screaming at him to pass on this guy. Not to mention his praise for what I sometimes thought was work of dubious quality, and especially for his permission to submit articles that potentially could have hurt him professionally. I will remember that in 2013.
Thanks to the rest of the gang at the Frontstretch, particularly Danny Peters for his linking my articles to his on occasion, Ren Jonsin for unfailingly ensuring that I was able to submit articles on time, Amy Henderson and Toni Montgomery for running the show for Mirror Driving — no easy task with us riding off on several tangents constantly (I always marvel that the finished product of Mirror turns out as clean as it does), and all of the editors who publish my articles virtually untouched — as well as the ones who touch them some and spare me embarrassment. Oh, and thanks to Bryan Davis Keith for the can of pork brains with milk gravy that I proudly display on my desk. It is probably the only can with contents of its kind in the entire state of New Jersey.
- Thanks to Bob Henry, the editor and all around good guy at That’s Racin’, who allowed me to broadcast my tirades to a wide audience for the first time. Without Bob, I would probably be freed up to do other things today. Fortunately, I’m not. To your health Bob.
- Thanks always to my beautiful and loving wife of nine months, who puts up with my in-person rants in addition to the fantasy league I run on the side and never complains.
- Speaking of fantasy leagues, thanks to Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mark Martin, and Casey Mears and their teams for securing a second straight Division B title for Vapor Trails Racing.
- And last but of course not least, thanks to all of you who read any Happy Hours and for your mostly kind comments and e-mails. Happy Hour had some people really angry with me and calling me some creative names, but I am still grateful to all who tuned in — especially my favorite commenters, Kevin in SoCal, Douglas, and of course SrRaceFan. Thank you one and all. If I don’t see you next week, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa and/or anything else you might celebrate.
See you all next year, God and our troops willing.
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