Matt McLaughlin · Thursday February 14, 2008
Somewhere in the hurricane of publicity surrounding Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s move to Rick Hendrick's organization over the offseason, some comments made by Brian France about the upcoming year were lost. In one of those comments, France stated that perhaps the sanctioning body had been a bit too hasty in handing out penalties for less than stellar conduct and comments made by drivers in the heat of passion. As a result, fans were raging that the drivers had become bland cartoons, not real personalities. The rivalries of the past had been eliminated by NASCAR's school-marmish discipline… so France stated that NASCAR was going to lighten up a bit and let the boys be boys.
A lot of folks had their doubts. In subsequent statements, France added that there were still limits, but those borders had been extended a bit. Where the actual borders governing behavior were set is still open to interpretation; and in perhaps an unwitting test of the new policy, the sport's most public driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., went on record as saying that he believed NASCAR wasn't really going to loosen up — they were just parroting what the fans wanted to hear.
Well, it didn't take long for the new policy to be put to the test. After an altercation late in Friday night's practice for the Bud Shootout, Tony Stewart got into the back of Kurt Busch's Dodge, causing the No. 2 car to slam into the wall. It was the latest in a long line of altercations dating back to last year; these two drivers have history together, and their relationship could politely be termed “adversarial” at best. But despite having been fined $100,000 and 100 points for running into Stewart's car on pit road at Dover last year, Busch rammed Stewart's Toyota several times as the two headed for pit road. Stewart then used his car to block Busch from driving into the garage area, where the two drivers were summoned to the NASCAR trailer for a chat. What happened next is a matter of speculation, but, by most accounts, Stewart upped the ante to the max by punching Busch while still in the trailer. Those who saw what actually happened aren't talking, though; so much for glasnost and honesty, huh?
But if nothing else, the confrontation gave fans something to talk about this weekend. Now, there are those not only in NASCAR management, but in the media who say it is time to lay the story to rest and move on.
Quite frankly, that's not only unlikely, it's insulting. Fans are going to talk about what they want to talk about, and they will have strong opinions on both sides of the matter. That's a good thing. As a writer, I am going to at least attempt to discuss in my articles what is on the fan’s minds. As an opinionated fan who just happens to have this electronic soapbox to speak my piece from, I'm not going to dance around the issue, either. I'm going to say what I think, draw Hashanahs from a limited quarter, outrage from other quarters. and bored yawns from others.
Here's my take on Friday night — Busch was pissed off, and I can understand why. His decision to let Stewart know that by ramming his car a few times was OK by me given the history of the two drivers. I noted with relief that Busch broke off the hijinks prior to the pair of cars actually hitting pit road where crew members, officials, media types and other non-coms not fortunate enough to be safely strapped within a roll cage and sheetmetal would have been put at risk. Bully for Busch! Perhaps that $100,000 dollar fine caught his attention last year after all, despite his income. (Sorry, but $100,000 is pocket change to these drivers, while to me it would be a godsend. Of course, if I suddenly had 100g in the bank I'd be running around the fields behind my home in an old lifted Ford with 48-inch tires available locally with the usual suspects, not writing this). Stewart, on the other hand, crossed the line. That's just my opinion — no more or less valid than your own. Busch had been summoned to the trailer; He did not go there of his own accord. While in that trailer, he was under the protection of NASCAR officials, who also summoned someone who was clearly irritated with Busch to the same space. In punching Busch, Stewart just reinforced my opinion of him as a bad tempered punk who thinks he is a law unto himself. You, on the other hand, might think that Busch was a punk. He wasn't man enough to get out and get in Tony's face man-to-man, so he used his car as a weapon instead. After all, we are talking the same Kurt Busch who once drove his car over to Jimmy Spencer's trailer and taunted the larger driver until he got himself punched in the mouth. Then, to cap it off, he acted surprised he'd gotten himself punched and filed a police report. A lot of the animosity directed towards Busch still stems from that evening in Michigan; when Spencer was suspended the next week and Busch won the race, the boos were deafening.
For better or worse, the Internet message boards immediately lit up like the great Chicago Fire after the on-track incident and the allegations of Stewart's behavior in the trailer. It was a matter of great civil discourse, and some out and out nasty name calling. Very few people didn't have an opinion on the matter, and that's a great thing. When trying to decide what to write about each week, I tend to hit a few of those message boards and wade through the chaff to find the wheat. I want to know what fans are thinking about and talking about; and the fact that a fan from the great Northwest can debate a fan in Maine about issues they feel strongly about is a good thing as I see it. In the bad old days, you'd just debate racing issues with your buddies in a taproom and reach a consensus without perhaps hearing the other side of the argument.
Also — this time of year at least — a few high profile media members with journalism degrees from August institutions are going to crack wise at some of their favorite targets. One thing that seems to incense some of these ladies and gents are those very message boards where anyone with an internet connection can express their opinion on an issue — a right once reserved for the few, now bestowed on the many. They will point out snidely some of these posters are demonstrably ill-informed, can't spell very well, and might even resort to typing their thoughts in all capital letters. They will point out that these "Bubbas" don't know what they are talking about, might not have a college education much less journalism degrees, and as such, they should just shut up and let the demigods of the professional media tell them what to think. I've always held that that thought process is upside down. Writers should not tell fans what to think; fans should tell writers what they are thinking, even if means those writers better don asbestos underwear from time to time. Meanwhile, look at this way — you literary giants, as long as the fans are debating the issues, reading what you have to say and debating your article's merits, you have a job. When the fans just stop giving a damn about our sport is when you better start brushing up your resume…
Another favorite target of the big league media is their little league colleagues, those faceless scribes whose work exists only out here in cyberspace, not in ink. Yes, it's true, with a bare minimum of effort and expense just about anyone familiar enough with a QWERTY keyboard can now write articles on the sport. Some of those writers and articles are very good. Some aren't so good. Some are just plain awful. But I will defend to death the right of even the most awful of them being allowed to express their opinion without having to show a journalism degree to justify their thoughts.
As I see it, and most other things in life, it's a lot like beer. You're always going to have the Budweiser's and Miller/Coors big dogs; beer, sometimes bland that they might be, pasteurized, but palatable to a large segment of the population and readily available. Nobody is likely ever to knock the big dogs off the top of the hill.
But just as there are websites across the country churning out a variety of writers’ opinions, there are also microbreweries churning out beer in smaller quantities. A more adventuresome drinker might decide to sample some of these microbrews. Some will be too sweet, some will be too bitter, but eventually, he might just find a small brewery producing a product that appeals to his tastes in a way no mass-produced brew ever has.
Whether it is the lonely pamphleteer working on his website and articles in the basement of his parents' place or the microbrewer working on his next batch in his garage, as long as the product they produce isn't actually toxic, it deserves a shot at the market.
And so, the 2008 Cup season has begun. Pull up a barstool. Long-term readers know what I serve up and there's plenty on tap. Those sampling this brew for the first time might find it too sweet or too bitter, but like Mike Helton Dark Lager, at the end of the day, it is what it is. In the infamous words of John "Bluto" Blutarsky in Animal House… "Grab a brew. Don't cost nothing."
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