The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Thinks Out Loud : Is It The Rider Or His Horse? by Matt McLaughlin -- Sunday August 19, 2007

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Matt McLaughlin Thinks Out Loud : Is It The Rider Or His Horse?

Matt McLaughlin · Sunday August 19, 2007


In horse racing, they say it is the jockey that matters but even the best can't win on a pack mule. As it becomes more and more likely that the Joe Gibbs Racing teams will switch to Toyota Camrys next year, you have to wonder just how many millions of dollars are being thrown around behind the scenes for Gibbs even to consider such a radical move. Gibbs latest acquisition, Kyle Busch, has complained out loud that he is unpopular with many fans because they aren't giving him a fair break. (That's a valid argument to a point, but in fact, it is Busch's antics on and off the track that have caused many folks to write him off as a horse's ass.) My guess is driving a Toyota isn't going to endear him to even the most open minded fans. Of course, maybe Busch will be the first to win a race in a Camry and he'll say afterwards, "These cars still suck". I'd buy him a beer if he does.

The Future of Bud and the No. 8

How much does image matter as opposed to substance these days in Cup racing? Well, the lucrative Bud sponsorship that's in play right now is said to be heading to the No. 9 team of popular young driver Kasey Kahne. My guess is Kahne still gets carded when he heads out to pick up a six pack of suds at the local Piggly-Wiggly. If it is results they are after, why are they pursuing a team that is currently 27th in points with no Top 5s and just two Top 10 finishes this season?

A lot the Earnhardt loyalists seem pretty upset that Junior won't be running the number 8 next year. Frankly, I don't see the change as any big deal — Earnhardt, Jr's father ran a bunch of races using the number 2 or 15 and he won some of them. Yes, Dale Earnhardt — whose name will forever by synonymous with the Bow Tie brand — won three Cup races in a Ford. He started his Cup career behind the wheel of the No. 8 Dodge Charger — a number Dale, Sr. chose in honor of his father Ralph. Ralph Earnhardt did race using the No. 8, but never carried that number in any of his 51 starts in NASCAR's top division. As I see it, in this sport riders change horses all the time…it's the jockey that matters.

Blue and Orange Just Don’t Mix

One of the things that bothers me about the Cup Series these days is the Powers-That-Be spend too little time at Darlington and too much time in courtrooms. This week, a panel of three wise jurists decided that the No. 31 team can't run the AT&T logos after all. Perhaps their delicate sensibilities were offended by the clash between the blue graphics on a basically orange background, a scheme that nobody has managed to pull off since it worked on Ossa Motocross bikes back in the early 70s. (Yeah, Ossa, kids, Orpheo Sincronic Sociedad Anónima). That leaves Richard Childress’s second team, currently sixth in the points and solidly in the Chase, scrambling to come up with new war paint before next week’s race at Bristol.

It is my nature to solve the world's most pressing problems, and to do so before the sun goes over the yard arm signaling cocktail hour, so I'll offer my suggestion. Why not use the 31 car to promote the wildly hyped and popular Apple iPhone? Why? Well, it turns out the world's most coveted cell phone only operates on the AT&T network, and since it's a device and not a carrier, I think it would fly under NASCAR's radar. And given the price of the damn things it would seem that our friends in the Silicone Valley could afford to pony up.

Michigan in November?

The Michigan race was the fourth event to be affected this year due to inclement weather. Given the nature of NASCAR racing, which is held outdoors, there's always going to be a chance that rain will postpone an event. That's why I can't understand why NASCAR doesn't have at least one off week scheduled somewhere in the ten race stretch that makes up the Chase to allow for a race to be rescheduled without needing to extend the season. The Michigan race was slated for this afternoon, and the forecast for Monday looks just as grim.

With the Cup stars slated to arrive Thursday at Bristol for the big goings-on of the redneck high holy days in Thunder Valley, the unsavory chance of Michigan running the week after the scheduled season finale at Homestead is being bandied about. That would, in turn, cause the Chase itself to start at Dover in September with the results of the second NHIS race deciding which 12 drivers make the Chase. The folks at ESPN and Richmond International Raceway have got to be less than thrilled with that contingency plan. Hopefully they'll get Michigan in this week.

Modernized Traditions?…No Thank You

It's still a couple weeks off, but those of you who know me know I won't be covering the race at California on Labor Day weekend. For those who might not understand why, I can only remind you that I remain a hidebound traditionalist whose interest in the sport dates back to the era of those funny looking Plymouth Superbirds that I admire so much, even if some folks mock me for loving them. Here's how I see it — the Labor Day weekend show is supposed to be at Darlington. It's supposed to be a 500 mile race run in the sweltering heat of a late summer South Carolina afternoon and it's supposed to be called "The Southern 500", not the "Some soft drink that makes kids fat" 500. Yes, the ritual can be a bit uncomfortable for the drivers and even the fans in the stands, but then the Southern 500 was a defining event that separated the wheat from the chaff on both sides of the catchfence. The best fans watched the best drivers run the best race of the season at the circuits best track, and legends were born.

Even the LA Chamber of Commerce is going to claim that the "modernized tradition" (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) of the Labor Day race at Fontana has struck a receptive chord with the fans. The Powers-that-be claim that the reason Darlington lost its coveted traditional date is the fact some seats went unsold, yet Fontana is struggling to sell seats for both their Cup events. Television ratings for the California races haven't exactly sent the Suits in the network boardrooms dancing either. You can hype the Hell out of a race, but most fans with a few gray hairs realize that California is likely to produce a processional parade that will try the patience of even the most laid back fan.

So will my quixotic one man campaign restore the Southern 500 to its rightful place on the schedule? Even I'm not foolish enough to think so, but if enough of you don't attend or watch the race and don't buy Sony products (that electronics firm is title sponsor of this year's farce) then maybe, just maybe, someday the powers that be might take notice.

Does Someone Need a Timeout?

Based on Dale Junior's comments this week, maybe Dr. Phil ought to arrange a little sit down with Teresa and Junior? This is one family that's gone from dysfunctional to out-and-out hostile. On a related note, it seems extremely unlikely NASCAR's most marketable driver will make the Chase this season; you have to wonder if there's a correlation between the above items.

Why is Kevin Harvick is making such a big deal about his run-in with Juan Montoya at Watkins Glen? It would appear that Harvick's selective memory doesn't extend back to the Montreal Busch race when, in his own fit of temper, he wrecked his own teammate and triggered a field decimating late race wreck. Mr. Kettle, meet Mr. Pot.

In Remembrance

Unfortunately, racing is always going to be a dangerous sport and, at its worst, it can cost young drivers their lives. That fact was driven home by last week's tragedy at the Thompson Speedway in Connecticut during a modified event. John Blewett, III was racing his younger brother Jimmy for the lead after a late restart when it all went horribly wrong in the first turn. John Blewett passed away as his brother watched helplessly by his side. There's no need to assign blame for the wreck. This is the dark side of auto racing and while the sport is infinitely safer than it once was, it is still at every track, every weekend waiting there in the wings. My most sincere condolences go out to the Blewett family and their friends.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

08/19/2007 11:19 PM

You won’t be alone on Labor Day Matt. There are several of us greybeards who’ll be doing things other than listening to the continuing story of how many fans are under the stands shopping. I’m going camping by a lake with my other half, having some Wilkes County Champagne, and enjoying a nice, quiet sunset free of smog.

Put the Southern 500 back where it belongs. Darlington SC!

08/20/2007 04:45 AM

Showing just how desperate Cali is to try to bring spectators to their Labor Day race, the speedway unveiled (pun intended) their ‘Speedway Girls’! Yes, several scantily clad, perhaps surgically enhanced young things to prance around the track(?) and attract visitors…presumably from shopping under the stands so they can be counted on television. Isn’t this the ultimate irony from an organization that spends so much time running away from it’s southern bootlegging roots, and fines drivers for speaking a vulgarity on the air? Guess it never occurred to them that having a better race might be more help than cleavage.

Dr. Wolfgang Mohr
08/20/2007 05:57 AM

When will the paper tigers in the un-hallowed halls of their secret NASCAR office finally go back to reality and race in the rain also? I was born near the Nürburgring and raced there, rain, heat, storm, slate or snow, which is DEMANDING for the drivers and a bit more fun to watch. Supposedly the ancestors of NASCAR didn’t give a darn about the weather either!
And I also assume that NASCAR does not care about the spectators, who paid big bucks to see Sunday’s race; many of ‘em can not afford to stay another day.

08/20/2007 08:18 AM

“Perhaps their delicate sensibilities were offended by the clash between the blue graphics on a basically orange background, a scheme that nobody has managed to pull off since it worked on Ossa Motocross bikes back in the early 70s.”

Matt, have you forgotten the absolutely kick-ass blue and orange Gulf Oil sponsored GT-40’s and Porsche 917’s? Or how about “Lone Star JR’s” McLaren Offenhausers from the mid 1970’s, decked out in orange paint with blue numbers and trim?

08/20/2007 08:51 AM

grey-haired and dedicated—never did we miss a race-we taped or stayed home—not anymore—though we love Jr. it breaks our heart to see what has become of this sport—life does go on and sadly we miss going to 2 or 3 races and camping out all week —Nascar has ruined a wonderul thing and Teresa and her greed has turned any sympathy for a grieving widow into distaste for a vindictive step-mother….we said all along that it seems Jr.‘s “bad” luck came about the same time as his announcement to leave DEI did—makes you go “HMMMMMM???”

08/20/2007 12:06 PM

I’ve been to California Speedway………twice for the Spring race. There is no “shopping” under the grandstands. You have to exit the gate to get to the souvenir trailers…… Thanks, Mike.

08/20/2007 01:33 PM

Clutch put together backwards??? How much does that cost?? Too many “mistakes” in a time of many “mistakes” by Nascar and the direction it has taken….a few years back you could not beg tickets for a race anywhere—look now and you see empty seats at almost every track..and they think the answer is to build more tracks????? DUH!!!!

08/20/2007 03:23 PM

“the redneck high holy days”
Love that Matt…made me laugh before I almost cried when reading about Darlington…you will not be alone in your boycott…I refuse to watch too…it just ain’t right. They could race 20 years at Cali and not produce the excitement of 1 race at Darlington

08/20/2007 04:04 PM

Fontana has celebs, VIP’s, Rolfgang Puke, and boring racing. Darlington has Chicken Bone Alley, screaming fans, and racing excitement. Which do I want to see? It sure isn’t Pee Diddly, The Arnold, or Gillian Sucker.

You’re welcome MMarshall.

Dr Mohr, I went to Nurburgring when I was stationed in Germany in the 1980’s. Great track. Wish we had one like it here.