The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Of Rodents, Late Sunday Afternoons, The Crown Prince's Temper Tantrum, Cabbages, And Kings by Matt McLaughlin -- Wednesday February 18, 2009

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The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things — of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. -Lewis Carroll

Daytona Speedweeks has reached its less than satisfactory conclusion, and the real racing season now starts this weekend out in California. Now, the standard railbird pundits, this writer included, will tell you that the one thing you can tell about the upcoming season after Daytona is… that you really can’t tell anything about the upcoming season ahead after Daytona. That speedway is a beast all unto its own; heck, even the July race at Daytona is a markedly different animal in itself. Only the Brickyard 400 at Indy generates a lower steak to sizzle ratio than the 500, and let’s face it — this year’s Great American Race wouldn’t be added to many folks’ top 10 lists even if rain hadn’t forced a premature conclusion to the event.

Monday morning, my email inbox was flooded to the point I’ve given up on even making a dent in the mail. I’m not surprised the largest volume of email was generated by the controversial wreck Dale Earnhardt, Jr. set off on lap 125 and its outcome, in which nearly a quarter of the field wound up wrecked. The second most commented upon topic was FOX’s abhorrent and abortive coverage of the race, with that annoying little rodent Digger seemingly emblematic of everything the fans despised about Sunday’s race coverage. Those two topics easily outweighed every other one my readers had on their minds, including Matt Kenseth’s first win in over a year in the series’ biggest race — and the first ever Daytona 500 victory for Jack Roush after all his years in the sport. That’s too bad.

But since you’re all still talking about the big wreck, let’s go tackle that one first. I’ve read Earnhardt’s sometimes tart defense of his actions that triggered the crash, and I am both unimpressed and certainly unswayed in my opinion. Earnhardt let his temper get the better of him, and drove on smelling like a rose while a lot of other drivers paid for his foolish decision-making. I’ve watched Earnhardt, Jr. race at Talladega and Daytona just as I watched his Dad at those two tracks. Both of them are legends at fitting a car through a hole that isn’t quite wide enough for it to be possible, able to do so without even nicking the paint on the sides of their cars in the process. Even on Sunday, Junior came charging up the middle more than once in a line where angels fear to tread without incident.

But two crucial and unforced pit road errors took a highly competitive car and a skilled driver and dropped them back into the pack. That left Earnhardt clearly furious, driving with his id and ego on the restart and not his brain. Some fault has to go to Tony Eury, Jr. here as well. When the NASCAR official pointed out the right front tire of the No. 88 car was “out of bounds” (on the white line) work on the car should never have been allowed to begin. Yes, the No. 88 bunch would have lost some track position pushing the car backwards, but they wouldn’t have lost that lap the subsequent penalty cost them. When Junior returned to the track, it was clear he was enraged, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach something ugly was about to happen. Sure enough, it did not long afterwards. My guess is that’s why Earnhardt has never won a Cup championship, and at this point, may never do so.

Following this one-lap penalty for stopping outside his pit box, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was clearly unnerved — and five minutes later, a nine-car wreck showed how much his patience had worn thin.

Those of you who have been following the sport awhile have watched Earnhardt’s Hendrick teammates overcome adversity, whether it was getting spun out, an untimely flat tire, or a blown pit stop. Throughout his career, Jeff Gordon has taken bad days and bad-handling cars that dropped him to the rear of the pack and had his detractors delighted — only to emerge with a win or a solid top 5 at the end of the day to leave them deflated instead. And as for the man who’s the three-time defending champion, one need only look back at Jimmie Johnson finishing second at Atlanta last Fall on a day that originally looked like it might throw the title fight wide open.

So, what’s the difference with Earnhardt? In Johnson and Gordon’s case, there was a crew chief on the other end of the radio who knew how to pull in the reins on their drivers’ temper and reassure him everything was going to be fine. Even on the rare occasions when Gordon or Johnson seem demonically possessed, their crew chiefs have been able to extract the vital information they need to make the car better. But Eury seems cowed by his famous cousin, and more than once has looked like he wanted to run and hide from the Wrath of Junior.

That’s a problem, because Rick Hendrick has made a substantial investment in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. NASCAR right now really needs Junior to run well, win races, contend for championships, and not make a horse’s ass of himself. His legion of fans want and deserve to see Junior run better because a famous last name is only going to take you so far… just ask Kyle Petty.

It occurs to me that former Gordon/Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham has recently divested himself of his Dodge team and is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the outfit. Evernham and Hendrick remain close friends, and recently, a rumor popped up linking the two for a possible reunion down the road. I’m thinking that at the very least, maybe Hendrick needs to offer Evernham a spot atop Junior’s pit box while he still can.

It’s not my intention here to disparage Jeff Gordon’s talents, but Ray Evernham had a lot to do with his early success. When the duo started out together, Gordon was a rookie. He was occasionally ill-tempered and even despondent; but there was always that calm voice at the other end of the radio, a second set of eyes that saw the race developing from another perspective and opportunities where Gordon only saw challenges. Evernham might just be the man who could stand up to Junior and convince him to bring his “A” game back to the races each week, leaving his ego in the motorhome while getting him to think rather than react on the track. After all, Evernham brings a lot to the table. He can tell Earnhardt, “I’ve sat at the head table in New York. I’d like to go back. Do you want to come with me?”

That brings us to FOX’s coverage of the 51st Daytona 500, a disaster that makes the Battle of Little Big Horn look like a Smurf’s picnic. A lot of folks took exception to the fact that the race itself didn’t start until 3:40 EST. They correctly point out that if FOX had begun the race earlier in the day, and rain was in the forecast, fans might have seen the entire 500-mile event. All day long, the boys in the booth were urging fans to tune in for all the action of the final 20 laps. But we never got to see them, did we? Instead, we got to see animated gophers showing us their butt, drivers dancing about like they’d been given a dose of bad brown acid at a Dead concert, countless tributes to ol’ DW as if he was the only driver ever to have won the Daytona 500 (did you notice FOX was a little light on highlights of the first Daytona 500 they broadcast?), a barrage of wreck footage, and the usual tsunami of stupidity from the Hollywood Hotel — where egos check in but information can never leave. The pre-race show was 90 wasted minutes that at best could be described as pathetic and more realistically might be called unconscionable. Somewhere out there, there might be someone who enjoyed it — but they haven’t written to me or posted on any of the message boards I’ve visited.

The lightning rod of the prattle-fest for fans was the new animated Digger and Friends animated segment, which FOX has threatened will be a weekly part of their broadcasts. Animation during a sportscast? That’s certainly innovative — or, I should say, it is an innovative way to try to sell overpriced plush toys, T-Shirts, and comic books without adding anything or worth to a race broadcast. To then prolong the agony by adding a musical interlude celebrating said rodent was just too much. I offer this as proof positive that if FOX has enough time to run the Digger segments, their pre-race show is by definition way too long. I still have my old tapes of races from the glory days of ESPN in the ’80s and early ’90s. A quick, concise pre-race show bought the viewers up to speed on the sports news and developments that week, and offered a few quick segments that gave some insights into who the drivers were as people away from the track. They’d cover the latest controversy, then say the prayer, sing the song, fire the engines, and go racing. And it worked… minus all the gimmicks, the egos, the noise, and the music videos. Back then, broadcasters realized they were there to report on the show… they weren’t the show itself.

No, I’m not looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. I do remember the Buffet Benny and Hat of the Week segments; but they were short and painless, and they were never allowed to intrude into the race coverage itself. To give an example, I don’t really give a fiddler’s fig which pit reporter’s voice I am listening to. Take down that graphic and let us see what lap the race is on, so we can figure out how long it is to the next set of green flag stops. It’s time for FOX to start treating race fans with respect — and to stop trying to convert them to the Cult of Personality that holds DW its high priest. If the money and time devoted to Digger were spent on a piece showing what teams had merged, what drivers had new seats, and why instead of that rodent stupidity, maybe fans wouldn’t have had to constantly check their programs to see who was driving which car.

Things don’t appear to be getting better near-term, either. Next week’s California race is unlikely to take the green flag until 6:15 or so next Sunday. By then, the sun will be down here on the East Coast, where the TV ratings seem to indicate most stock car racing fans still live. And the working class people I know, myself included, tend to turn in early Sunday nights to get ready for another long week of work ahead. Any weather delays (or given the race is in California, a possible earthquake, mudslide, wildfire, or plague of locusts) could easily push the conclusion of the race past midnight here in the East — the very thing NASCAR said they were trying to avoid when they pulled the plug on the Daytona 500 after twenty minutes of rain Sunday. (You do recall the California race that wasn’t called until 2 AM EST last year, right? Consistency…well, that’s a topic for another column.) The interesting thing to me is that FOX has chosen to push next Sunday’s race into a time slot where it will compete live against the Oscars, another bloated show celebrating egos — but one that tends to pull in pretty good ratings nonetheless.

It’s high time to make a declaration. We, the people, hereby hold this truth self-evident; no stock car race, with the exception of a Saturday night event, should end after 4 PM EST on a Sunday. There should be enough time left after the race to get a few more chores done, maybe take the scoot for a blast, wash the car, fire up the grill, and sit down to dinner with the family before sunset. Yeah, I’ve heard the argument that the networks and NASCAR are trying to appeal to West Coast fans. Oddly enough, a lot of my left coast friends always enjoyed the fact the races started earlier in the day, leaving them several hours of daylight in the afternoon to enjoy other pursuits after the event. Here on the East Coast, it was always traditional for fans to attend Sunday services, then hurry home to catch the start of the race. One of the key selling points of the new network package was supposed to be that fans would always know which channel to tune to in order to catch NASCAR each week (that didn’t work out too well for the second two thirds of the season). Now, fans know what channel the race is on — they just don’t know when. And, in increasing numbers, they also don’t seem to know why they should bother.

How can that be good for the sport?

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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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
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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02/19/2009 04:57 AM

matt—well said!! my sentiments exactly! best “real-world” cup article i’ve read all week! all the others had that characteristic bad “nascar smell”!!

02/19/2009 07:40 AM

I was always told there is “cause and effect.” Well, when NA$CAR decided to make the race into a show they lost one hell of a lot of respect from a huge fan base. You hear it, and see it, and read it. It comes from every aspect of the sport. Super-duper racecar driver says “Well, we’re sure gonna put on a good show for the fans today….” I don’t want a show!!! I want good, hard-nose racing. I don’t need all the hoopla, rodents and all. It’s simple, tell me who’s on the pole, how he got there and maybe how his wife and kids are….stuff like that.

Basically, when NA$CAR decide to become a “show” the caused one nasty effect. It’s more recognizable in track attendance figures, and TV rating… and yes disgruntled fans, such as myself, writing disparaging pieces like this. Sunday was a joke from the word go. I don’t need rodents mooning me, goofy catch phrases to start the race (see note below on that one) and I don’t need a show, see above. NA$CAR and TV networks, please, get back to the basics and dump the gimmicks.

Note: D. Waltrip had a poll within one of his Fox News article taking votes on the Boogity, boogity, boogity (ugh that’s just hard to write) phrase he blathers out to start a race. The last time I checked it – January 30th, 2009 at 8:03AM, there were 29,672 votes cast. And of those votes the 60% were cast in favor of him dropping it. Guess the website got hacked again. I wish I had an email address for him so I could ask him what happen this time.

02/19/2009 07:59 AM

MJR – I saw the same thing about b.b.b…..then Sunday he still shrilled it. Guess polls mean the same to him as they do politicians!

After the season that the Jrs at HMS had last year, I was surprised there wasn’t a change made over the winter. Maybe it’s a new marking idea. I doubt Evernham will be back on the pit box anytime soon, he’s too busy with Erin Crocker and wedding plans.

I keep waiting for NA$CAR to take Kenseth’s 500 win away from him for some rules violation. You know Rousch’s luck with penalties and how they get him every time. Martin and Edwards both had championships out the window. Yeah I know, cheating is cheating, but Knaus is King of the Cheats and still won the whole banana.

02/19/2009 08:48 AM

Way to go Matt! You always read my mind with your comments on TV coverage. Just when you thought Fox couldn’t get any worse, they always do. Leave it to the overblown ego of DW to have to relate Matt winning to his own win in the 17 car. 6:15 start this Sunday is just absurd! Us fans know that Daytona could’ve easily been completed the full distance had they not insisted on such a ridiculously late start. Thanks again for your comments, especially standing up and telling it like it is about the 88’s tantrum.

Annie Mack
02/19/2009 08:53 AM

Good column, Matt. Last year we stopped watching the races because Sunday is a family dinner day for us. Sunday is the one day we can all show up and catch up on each others’ lives. I love stock car racing, but not more than my family. I’ve tried taping the races, but unless you stay up and watch it, the winner is plastered all over the internet and the newspaper. So, family has come first and I just read the Frontstretch to find out I didn’t miss much anyway. I miss our Sunday afternoon races followed by a great Sunday evening dinner. Nascar lost when they made me choose. But I’ll always read your column, Matt! Thanks for the honesty of your opinions.

02/19/2009 09:04 AM

strong work matt! the fox and nascar brass are like slinkies…not really good for anything, but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.

02/19/2009 09:36 AM

that picture of the offical holding his hand up is a nice try to bad it was after pit work was complete you hack

02/19/2009 09:38 AM

Wow, have you been listening to me yell at the TV for the past 8 years? I, too, remember very fondly those ESPN NASCAR broadcasts with breezy, informative, and clever features and personalities alike. Not only was the TV better, but so was the racing, the drivers, and the cars. No, I don’t mean technology, I mean authenticity. But that was before NASCAR became a gigantic $ multi-million corporation capable of partnering with other $ multi-million corporations (FOX) to degrade not only the sport, but its presentation. I stopped attending races in 2006 (something I had been doing since my first, in Hillsboro, in 1961), and I stopped watching the TV broadcasts the next year. I still love the sport, but I have to work very hard to find something about it to enjoy.

02/19/2009 09:39 AM

The Daytona 500, is by design. 150 laps of boring riding around. Punctuated by the occasional wreck, when someone screws up.Followed by app. 50 laps of real racing. This particular one. Due to the ridiculously late start time. We got to see all of the 150 boring laps. But were cheated out of the real racing. To all concerned, WTG, & you wonder why your ratings, & attendance are down.

02/19/2009 09:48 AM

Hey Hatchetwacker, go watch the replay, The official was telling them as soon as junior pulled in that he was over the line. The only attention they paid to the official was when they shoved him out of the way.

02/19/2009 10:04 AM

As a “left coast” fan, I TOTALLY agree with you! GET BACK TO A DECENT start time!! I also agree on most everything else too!! GREAT job, as usual, Matt!!

Ken Smith
02/19/2009 10:06 AM

Travis is the first person I have seen mention the fact that the front tire changer for Jr actually shoved the NA$CAR official out of the way as he was pointing at the pit box line!! I think they should have been penalized for the shove as well as for pitting out of the box!

Bill B
02/19/2009 10:33 AM

Maybe NASCAR officials should be given a penalty flag like NFL officials. Or maybe a Denver Boot would be more appropriate.

Cliff B
02/19/2009 10:43 AM

I think Tony Sr needs to be Dale Jr’s crew chief again, because Jr seemed more focused and had more wins with Tony Sr as his crew chief. Tony Jr is not even on the same level as Steve LeTarte!

I generally ignore all that stuff going on with Fox, otherwise, it would irritate me just as much as everyone else

02/19/2009 11:13 AM

What race? It was pitiful! This week-end at 6:15p.m. nope not us California is a snoozefest. Won’t be wastin my time for that one.

02/19/2009 11:32 AM

I live on the west coast and view the 3:15 start out here as a joke. I can imagine how the east coast folks feel. I said this repeatedly last year and I’ll say it again. nas$car has lost all touch with their core fans. That is, the ones who haven’t turned their backs on the sport. nas$car has also lost all control of their race times to the big networks. I threatened to turn my back on the sport after last year due to the constant unwanted and un-needed changes over the last few years. But as Febuary neared I started to get the itch again. But it seems we’re in for another season of the same tired excuses and boring races. As for that idiotic rodent, it has to go. It just makes a further mockery of what nas$car is today.

02/19/2009 11:37 AM

Blaming Tony Eury Jr. for Dale Jrs. lack of success is really a waste of time . The problem lies squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Earnhardt . He is not what you would call focused on racing , hasn’t been for several years . He is never able to communicate to the crew what the problems are with the car during the race , so they can’t make any changes to help him . He has begun to believe his own press , he feels he has proven himself to be a championship race car driver even though the results over the years say otherwise . He has driven for two top flight teams , and still doesn’t seem to be able to seal the deal . He is not the driver his father was . He is not really even in the top ten of current NASCAR drivers . The fans , and press , are simply expecting too much from him . But to blame the crew chief is absurd .

02/19/2009 11:42 AM

Good job Matt!
Encore, encore!

Bill B
02/19/2009 12:27 PM

What the networks and NASCAR is doing is trying to find a way to expand viewship by messing with the start time. I can tell them what they will discover when the experiment is over: Nothing they do will get the casual viewer to tune in each week but they can further alienate the hardcore fanbase by screwing around with the norms.

02/19/2009 02:16 PM

Excellent article as always!! Can’t wait to read your article about the CA race next Monday as I start work early in the morning and I can’t justify missing sleep for the Fox Hackcast and that great CA race.

Marshall (a different one)
02/19/2009 02:18 PM

That penalty was stupid on the part of the 88 team. The official was clearly indicating they were outside the box before they started servicing the car. They could have had JR cut the wheel hard right and rolled the car back a foot and they would have been fine. Granted, Tony Jr likely could not see that from atop the pit box; but the guys servicing the front should have communicated the situation to the crew chief. On the other hand, the official was “shoved out of the way” because he was standing in the way…same as NFL refs sometimes get run over when they are in the way. The team had obviously decided to take the penalty, he did not need to be there in the way, with his back to the people doing the work, while they finished the stop, other than to hold the car after the stop was finished.

02/19/2009 03:06 PM

Matt: Great column! I am still reeling from being force-fed Digger, the DW Love Fest, the late starting time when they knew rain was in the vicinity and all the other totally abhorrent things FOX does to ruin a race broadcast. I’m just about ready to give it up quite frankly. FOX and ESPN have ruined watching racing for me. And still, King Brian does nothing – amazing, isn’t it?

Henry M
02/19/2009 04:20 PM

Over 50% of the US population lives in the Eastern Time Zone, so why does the left coast dictate the start times for sporting events?
I remember the old ESPN telecasts, if there was threatening weather nearby the cars were on the last pace lap when they came on the air and the green flag flew within a minute!
Good column, Matt, as usual.

02/19/2009 04:40 PM

Authority. Respect. Accountability. Junior will find no substantial success until the person on top of his pitbox demands these. I’ve thought about it long and hard, and it has nothing to do with blood being thicker than water. I have some cousins I respect and some I don’t. How about you? It all comes down to respect. Simple.

02/19/2009 04:56 PM

I think Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds should shut up when it comes to a racing incident. Neither of them has ever driven a race car. Larry can comment on car set ups and crew chief business. DW should comment on the race (but I do think he has forgotten how many times he was involved in a wreck). Mike Joy should just stand on his pulpit and preach (he is so freaking politically correct) AND they should all watch the replay before commenting on anything!!! None of the “booth” guys call a race the way it should be called anymore. They might hurt someone’s feelings. Oh, boo hoo!!

02/19/2009 06:36 PM

Hey MJR! Your “I don’t need all the hoopla, rodents and all. It’s simple, tell me who’s on the pole, how he got there and maybe how his wife and kids are….stuff like that.”

Spot on my friend!


02/20/2009 09:34 AM

EXCELENT points all!!And as a fan for over 25 years I agree completely.

The best part of any FOX telecast is the “Crank it UP!” segment!

One lap of bliss, among hours of mind numbing visits down DW’s memory lane and HMS worship!!

Dont even get me started on this 3pm PST start time thing. Just WHO exactly complained about this enough to even consider the thought of changing it?

(Crickets chirping)I thought so!!!

02/20/2009 02:09 PM

nothing about a fox broadcast is enjoyable. my wife , who will now and then watch a race, commented on how lame CRANK IT UP is. and ya know, it is. the whole broadcast is a @#%$#$g joke. i sure miss larry nuber and chris jenkins.

Big Henry
02/20/2009 06:15 PM

Last weekend, ESPN Classic ran a marathon of Daytona 500s past. It was amazing how much better the broadcast was then. Few graphics cluttering the screen. Great commentary by solid announcers (David Hobbs rules, check out the F1 races on SPEED – he announces them there)