The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Previewing NASCAR's Summer Stretch by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday June 5, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Previewing NASCAR's Summer Stretch

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 5, 2008

 

As I noted last week in this space, the second third of the Cup season kicked off Sunday at Dover. And while officially, summer is still a few weeks off, the de facto summer is now officially in session. What do fans have to look forward to in this next string of 12 races? Sadly, not a whole lot. A combination of the new cars, the points system, and tracks that usually offer less than scintillating action might just form the perfect storm to make this a tedious few months for even devoted fans to endure. And for the growing number of fans who are on the fence about sticking with the sport, these next 12 races might just be enough to make them decide their valuable spare time is better devoted to other activities — like watching the paint dry on the corner fire hydrant.

Looking at the next 12 races on the schedule while trying to muster some enthusiasm, one needs to look on the bright side. The Bristol night race is one of the most anticipated races of the season for most fans, but that event isn’t until August 23rd, which seems an eternity away right now. I might be in the minority, but I actually enjoy the racing at Dover and the two Pocono races on the schedule. Of course, in that respect, I can be accused of geographical bias, as those tracks are the two closest to my rural Chester County home. I won’t argue with those who accuse me of bias in that regard—I’ve had a lot of fun at both tracks and seen some great races, though truthfully, it’s been awhile.

Despite many teams enlisting the help of road course ringers, Matt McLaughlin just can’t muster any enthusiasm for NASCAR road racing.

Some other “highlights” of the summer stretch include both of NASCAR’s Cup Series road races. I’ll have to admit, I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for Cup cars taking to the road courses. I have nothing against road course racing per se, even in full-fendered cars; in fact, the Trans Am series of the late ’60s and early ’70s provided some of the most intense racing action I’ve ever witnessed. But those cars were specially designed for road course racing (while keeping some semblance of their street counterparts) and the heroes who drove them like they hated them were accomplished road course aces. There’s a few NASCAR drivers who are quite good on the road courses, but there’s also a great many who just go out there and make themselves look silly at the helm of cars that were, by and large, designed to go fast and turn left. Passing is at a premium and side by side action is rare. All too often these races are decided on fuel mileage, too; a pet peeve of mine. Yes, I am aware there are fans out there who really love the road course races. I hear from them every time I call for the road course races to be eliminated. Their opinion is no less valid than mine; but the fairest of those fans will admit they are in the minority. Traditionally, the road course races draw some of the worst ratings of the season. In the good old days, NASCAR actually had to pair TV rights for the road course races with more popular events just to get them televised.

There are also fans that seem to think that the Brickyard 400 is as big a deal as NASCAR officials try to pretend it is. To me, the Brickyard is all sizzle and no steak — a case of worshiping in somebody else’s church. I am well aware of the rich heritage and lofty position the Brickyard holds in the pantheon of auto racing circuits, but Cup cars are too large and ill-handling to race very well around the relatively flat and sharp corners at Indy. Add in the new car factor, and my guess is this year’s Brickyard 400 will provide the SAFER barriers with their most severe test yet.

As for New Hampshire, the less said, the better. The track has provided some of the worst races in recent memory. Even the new owner, who shelled out a ton of change for the joint, is ready to level the place and start from scratch. Yes, I think fans in New England deserve a race; it’s just that they’ve been shelling out money for tickets to NHIS for over a decade, and they still haven’t gotten to see a good one. If I were Bruton Smith, I know where I’d get my new dates for Las Vegas and Kentucky.

It pains me to see the quality of racing at Michigan today because in the ’80s the track used to host some of the most exciting races on the schedule – thundering side-by-side packs of cars drafting and sling-shotting on the final lap looking for the checkers. But nowadays, Michigan is about MPG, not MPH, and there’s something Shakespearian about the Mid-Summer’s Dream that fans in attendance catch during their naps. The fact this track will host two dates this summer makes me consider the second race, “This – Again?” Note to Brian France: One of these dates could be moved to Rockingham to general fanfare.

Some fans really seem to like the plate races, but there are others like me who considered them dangerously contrived excitement. I’ve never warmed to the idea of moving the race from an early Saturday start to beat the thunderstorms to a night race.

That leaves a place called Joliet, the insipid little asterisk on the schedule at a venue reputed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago. This joint was doomed from the start, designed as a dual use stock car/open wheel race track in an era where folks in the region felt open wheel racing was great even while the rest of the country lost interest in the whole soap opera of CART and the IRL. I know of one lone false prophet who routinely writes Joliet deserves a second race, and he has to — he works for the owners. I know of many more fans from the area who used to attend the Joliet races, but tell me they wouldn’t go back even if track management agreed to have Heather Locklear chaperone them there in a limo and then sit in their laps in a luxury suite during the race.

Yes, this is stock car racing, and you just never know what’s next. Any one of the tracks not noted for great racing could serve up an instant classic this summer… and I truly hope they do. If writing something interesting about a good race is difficult, there’s nothing worse than trying to write something interesting about a really terrible race once you get beyond the purple-faced histrionics in the first sentence. Experience tells me that the ratio of classics to clinkers this summer will be such it will drive more fans from the sport rather than swell our ranks. I understand why some will find other pursuits to fill their Sunday afternoons this summer; I once took a summer off from writing about racing and I may do so again next year. There’s too many country roads to be ridden, old cars that need fixing, and young ladies that need wooing to spend Labor Day weekend looking back at a summer spent dog-earing the Thesaurus on the pages that notes synonyms for “tedious” and “disappointing.” So, why don’t I take this summer off? Quite frankly, I need the coin. Willy G ain’t giving his scoots away, you know?

Adding to the malaise this summer is the Car of Horror, the Winged Blunder that nobody in NASCAR officialdom will admit yet is the biggest design blunder since the Pontiac Aztek. It’s turned even once competitive race tracks into no passing zones, so one can only imagine how bad those cars will be at tracks where passing was already at a premium. Post-race quotes by drivers, public and private, after the recent Pocono test aren’t encouraging. Eventually, someone in Daytona Beach is going to have the gumption to admit this new dog won’t hunt, but I doubt it will be this summer.

Then, of course, there is the upcoming Chase. As the summer wears on, drivers who are already in the Top 12 are going to adopt increasingly conservative strategies to maintain those positions. That keeps them from going all out to put on a show for the fans — and we’re discussing a group of drivers many fans consider their favorites. You can’t blame those drivers, though. Their sponsors want to see their boys in the Chase, and they aren’t going to be appeased if their driver led the most laps at Bristol, but wrecked out gunning for a win on the last lap. It’s a harsh truth… but it’s reality.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that come Labor Day weekend, I’m sitting here at this same keyboard banging out a column that compares this summer’s events favorably to racing in the good old days. I’ll gladly eat crow if that’s the case as, at heart, I remain an optimist. You have to be an optimist to ride a motorcycle here in Chester County with our booming populations of suicidal white tail deer and brain dead yuppies yapping on the cell phone at the wheel of their oversized leased luxury SUVs. (Truth be told, I’d prefer the deer drive the trucks and yuppies try to dash across the street in front of me).

So, let’s all hope together that this is finally the year the summer races shine and Santa finally brings up that pony — even if it does make us look a little foolish now that we’re wearing relaxed fit jeans rather than Dr. Denton’s. But meanwhile, if you see a guy who you think might be me aboard a black Harley stuck in pre-race traffic at Indy or Joliet… that’ll be somebody else.

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Ed
06/05/2008 07:14 AM
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No Matt, I don’t think you are wrong at all. It will be a long hot summer until Bristol. Even there, I don’t expect too much. At least it’s summer, so there are plenty of things to do on Sunday afternoon. If I’m home, I can check in now and then, and, maybe, catch the last few laps to see who is getting good mpg, who hasn’t wrecked yet, and who is running away with the race.

SS mike
06/05/2008 08:27 AM
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NA$CAR admit they are wrong? Never happen. Smokey came up with the fuel cell after Fireball died. That big asshole Bill France still would not allow the fuel cell in NA$CAR.

Smokey pateneted a soft wall in the sixties. France would not allow it.

With Brain Dead France at the helm nothing is gonna change. For all NA$CAR faithfull that love NA$CAR and FOX, well, just keeping drinking the NA$CAR Kool Aid and keep eating those Mickey Waltrip Poopcycles.

HankZ
06/05/2008 08:44 AM
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Could not agree more with your Brickyard assessment – can’t stand the place. 3400lb cars have no business there. 5 laps in, and they are all single file after that. In 13 years, I’ve seen only two full flag to flag races. The other 11 I’ve napped.

Man, you really have bone to pick with Joliet. I guess I’m missing something there.

Scott
06/05/2008 08:51 AM
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I am afrid Mikey you are spot on with your summer assessment. I enjoy the road courses so those will give a couple of weeks of interest. The others on the schedule will be good nap material.

Bristol will be a snoozer as well, since they went to this totally stupid Chase format the fall Bristol race has been boring. No one will race with the Chase contenders and the Chase contenders are content to just hold thier positions.

Lastly, the other thing I see the coming from the Chase. I predict that drivers are going to start missing some races. Jeff Gordon for instance, last year held such a large point lead that this time last summer he could have missed a race and still had a one race cushion. I look for some guys to start looking at this as an option in the next couple of years. Why run all these races if you can get yourself a week off and it does not hurt you.

dawg
06/05/2008 09:31 AM
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Really a damned shame that Joilet was ever built. This race should be on the historic Milwaukee mile. I have to disagree about the road courses, but you are spot on with the rest. Especially Indy. If the suits really want to return to their roots.(what a crock!) Then I can tell them how. Move this Joilet mess, about 150 miles southwest. If you think the Prelude to the Dream, was big Think about 300 laps on the dirt,Springfield Mile. That would the most talked about, & anticipated race since Indy. This would be so BIG that Big BS,(Bruton Smith) would be trying to buy the Ill. State Fairgrounds! PLEASE Suits from Daytona, give us something besides more Pablum!

Travis Rassat
06/05/2008 10:24 AM
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Scott,

That’s an interesting point you bring up about Chase teams skipping races, but I personally don’t think we’ll see it happen. First off, the sponsors probably wouldn’t like it.

It might be an interesting strategy for short-term savings, but I think it would be costly in the long run. If a 2008 chase team struggles a bit in 2009, a good run at one of the later regular season races based on setup data from this year could be what gets them in the chase next year. There’s a lot to be learned by actually running.

Mike In NH
06/05/2008 10:45 AM
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Actually, as a NH race fan, I can say I have seen some good racing at NHIS – er, NHMS. Having been closely monitoring the situation, Bruton Smith hasn’t said anything about levelling and starting over. He wants to make improvements, by that I guess more seats and amenities. Though it wouldn’t be the first track he’s bought that he’s changed the configuration of. Still, it beats the hell out of the cookie cutter tri-ovals. Anyone who is a Pocono regular should definitely not be throwing stones about how dull racing is elsewhere.

As for our races, if they want to be stupid and lose money – NHIS has sold out two 90,000 seat races every year since it opened, something you can’t say about many other tracks like Pocono, Dover, and Rockingham before they closed it – then go ahead and piss off the fans in one of the markets that NASCAR values heavily. Of course, saying we deserve a race then saying they should both be yanked is contradictory anyway. Just because we don’t constantly blow our horn about how great a tradition for local racing of all types there is up here doesn’t mean there isn’t any – I have three local tracks within an hour or two, and several other two or three hours away. It’s fertile racing ground NASCAR wants to keep happy. That means we won’t be losing both races. We may lose one – though I can’t see how losing 90,000 seats at one track to put them at another makes Smith’s company any more money, and it could wind up losing money – Kentucky would have to expand to get to 90k, not to mention cannibalizing fans from other nearby tracks, and adding another race to Vegas would probably result in smaller crowds at the other LV race (like what happened in Atlanta) or at least an even greater impact on struggling California Speedway (or whatever it’s called now).

Bill B
06/05/2008 10:55 AM
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I have a question about the COT to which I am hoping someone might have an answer.
The teams can not make changes to the cars to make them run better or they get a huge penalty, so their hands are tied.
Is NASCAR still actively working with the car in and R&D sense to make them race better or have they just abandoned developement (beyond safety measures).
The whole problem I have with the COT is that the real incentive to make them race better lies with the teams. NASCAR has less interest (or at least urgency) in making them race better because R&D costs money (and we all know how NASCAR is with spending money), so if they aren’t actively doing R&D work on the COT then how will innovations be made to make them race better to improve the product (the actual on track racing) that NASCAR is trying to sell to we viewers?

Connie
06/05/2008 10:59 AM
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Joliet is only 2 hours away for us and we have been attending the races there since they started. This year will be our last. We used to drive it back and forth. No over priced hotel, airfares, rental cars and most important no vacation days used. Now with night races we will have to take off Friday to get to the track. We really don’t follow Arca at all. We follow a little of IRL only because Danica is from our area, but we don’t sit and watch a whole race. Joliet makes you buy season tickets which is really a rip off when we don’t care for the Arca/IRL races. We have tried to sell those tickets and only once have been able to get any thing back for them. We have even tried to give them away and can’t.

Last but not least the races there have just not been all that great and last year was the worst.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/05/2008 11:24 AM
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Regarding cars skipping a race before the Chase…the Happy Hour column before Richmond will discuss that very topic…stay tuned.

Sorry for the shameless plug…back to you Matt.

Mike
06/05/2008 11:34 AM
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I happen to be one who enjoys road racing because it goes back to the roots of bootleggers running moonshine on country roads. That aside, the biggest mistake that NA$CAR has made in recent years, beside Brain Dead Brian taking the helm, has been the Box on Wheels. When you take great races, like Bristol, and turn them into an afternoon nap from the boredom, that alone should tell you something is majorly wrong.

Maybe with Bruton buying up all these tracks he’s getting prepared to start the much speculated about racing series he’s been rumored to have been wanting to start for many a year. If he puts the “stock” back in stock car racing and makes it more about racing than sponsors, he could get a big draw from all the disillusioned NA$CAR fans.

Dennis
06/05/2008 11:56 AM
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The triangle of boredom is a rotten place to see a race. I have been there 3 years and will never go back. There is hardly a good seat in the house.

People go to races to see a race. Not 15% of a track and then some sort of movement off in the distance. Of course if you are in the few sections where you can see the giant screen you can see more but I would rather be home if I am going to watch TV than on those back breaking benches. Even while sitting on the top row at Pocono the view blows.

Connie
06/05/2008 02:45 PM
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I will say that Joliet was built so that from every seat you can see all around the track. But watching cars play follow the leader is a snoozer.

I for the life of me can not understand how Indy gets the crowds it does to the races. Of all the tracks we have been to it has the worst view of the track. We were 3 rows from top in the shade. Tickets were 150.00 each. All you can see is the cars coming out of 4 then into turn 1 you get a peek around the museum and then you set and watch the monitors until they come back out of 4 because of a stupid golf course and woods. The day was hotter than all get out and we could have watched TV at home in our recliners with the air on. Indy is our 2nd closest track but we wouldn’t go again if someone gave us tickets.

For some reason Darlington (even over Bristol) has been my favorite track. Maybe because I felt like we were going back in time and the race was great. We need more tracks like these

Keith
06/05/2008 03:28 PM
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Mike in Nh even with your sellouts in Nh we still had more people in Dover than you ever had up there for any race. There are 140,000 seats at Dover and only 107,000 in Nh even with our 10,000 empty seats we still had 25,000 more than you if you don’t belive me look at jayski track facts and I would not take a free ticket to Nh.

Douglas
06/05/2008 03:43 PM
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Matt!! Your the best!

Simply the best writer one could read, and this column has all the eamarks of being one of your greatest yet!

HEY!! Do I have your undivided attention???

I happen to love road racing!

Go stand on the back stretch at Watkins Glen while 43 cars come at you at speed! All trying to make the bus stop at the same time!

AWESOME!!

Too bad Brian took that excitement away with the CoT! I will not go this year for sure! And that equates six (6) unsold tickets!

What a shame!

Steve
06/05/2008 07:38 PM
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Hey Matt:

I agree with you on probably 99% of your points (the Chase, the COT, plate racing, etc.), but I enjoy NASCAR road racing if for no other reason that it lends some much needed variety in a sea of anonymous tracks. And as a self-proclaimed traditionalist you have to admit that road racing is at least as much a part of NASCAR as (dare I say?) the Southern 500 at Darlington. And sweet Jesus would you please stop about the whole Chicago / Joliet thing. Yeah, the track may stink and yes it is in Joliet and not Chicago, but every time you mention it you insist on emphasizing the Joliet thing (why they call it ChicagoLAND Speedway maybe) like NASCAR is trying to perpetrate this insidious fraud on race fans but you’re having none of it. As you well know there’s way more wrong in racing these days than the names of the tracks.

Otherwise, keep on keeping it real!

Matt Howell
06/06/2008 10:40 AM
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Keith,
What exactly is your point?
That Dover seats more than NHMS? No argument here. That doesn’t change the fact that NHMS has sold out for every Cup race since it opened, and Dover hasn’t. If you just wanted to bash NHMS then admit it, and BTW, we NH race fans really don’t care if you come or not.

John
06/07/2008 09:15 AM
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As a 40 year follower of Nascar — the biggest problem Brian France has is my DVR — I now use it every weekend to zoom thru the race and commercials, then watch the last 30 laps