The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Ramblin' Man On Junior, Digger, And Qualifying by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday April 2, 2009

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Here are some brief thoughts on a variety of NASCAR topics while waiting for fickle Spring to make its long overdue arrival…

Qualifying When the Rain is Flying – The record books will show that Jeff Gordon earned the pole at Martinsville this weekend. But he did so without having to turn a lap in anger, instead relying solely on his point lead when arriving at the track to get the spot. With rain washing out the chance to qualify, some folks will say that Gordon earned the pole based on his performance this season to date. In all honesty, Gordon hasn’t qualified outside the top 10 at Martinsville since 2002, and he’s won four pole positions in that period — so it’s likely the No. 24 car would have been starting at or near the front, anyway.

Starting up front at Martinsville is a huge advantage, but the ability to pick a pit stall first is an even bigger one on its notoriously treacherous pit road. Thus, Gordon was handed a two-fer advantage on a track where he’s already a favorite.

Now, it wasn’t that long ago that the reigning (no pun intended) Cup champion got to select his pit stall first at every race. That didn’t guarantee Dale Earnhardt seven titles — but it didn’t hurt him any, either. Earnhardt was a notably lackadaisical qualifier whose average starting spot in his final three full seasons was around 24th. Earlier this decade, NASCAR finally decided to take that advantage away from reigning Cup champions to the general approval of those in the garage area.

Much like the State of the Union Address, FOX television’s primetime lineup, and the presence of your uncouth uncle who starts drinking at 10 in the morning at family gatherings and hasn’t been able to hold a job for more than a month, rain at race tracks has been, is, and always will be one of those unpleasant, unfortunate, but unavoidable circumstances we must endure. As long as races are held outdoors, it’s going to rain during race weekends. (Though sometimes during seasons like last year’s weather-plagued schedule, it seemed the Higher Power was getting in on the act to hand down his views on the unholy abomination that is the Car of Sorrow.)

I know Jeff Gordon didn’t make it rain, and Jeff Gordon couldn’t stop it from raining. But I’d like to see a different set of rules devised for use in the event of inclement weather. First and foremost, if there’s a window of opportunity for additional track time, I’d like to see qualifying rescheduled prior to the race itself. If they have to run it Saturday morning prior to the Nationwide or Truck Series event, that’s fine. With a dreary and damp Saturday at Martinsville, that wouldn’t have worked this weekend, though.

Another idea is to use practice speeds from the last session that was run on a race weekend to set the field. A rainy forecast for the qualifying spot would certainly spice up those practice sessions. If the weather is so bad there’s no on-track activity prior to the race, I’d suggest NASCAR go to a random draw to set the race lineup and pit road selection. That would be equally fair to all drivers and might add a little excitement to the early stages of the race. A random draw is already used to select the qualifying order of the top 35 teams, which often gives an advantage to drivers who run during climactic conditions more favorable to speed during those sessions.

A demented part of me wants to suggest that NASCAR actually invert the field if qualifying is rained out, with the points leader starting dead last. That would make for some excitement for the first hundred laps or so of a race and give the backmarkers and their sponsors some much needed airtime. My guess is the cream would still rise to the top, but there’d be some bent fenders and frayed tempers as things sorted themselves out.

Heck, I’d be open to having the drivers run their qualifying laps using a video game console in the press box in the event of rain. For if history has taught us nothing else, we’ve learned that if there’s anything more dangerous than a toddler with a full loaded assault rifle it’s FOX or SPEED having to fill air time during a rain delay.

Ratings and Racing — Nielsen ratings for this season’s races are down significantly… to a point all the usual “top rated sports event of the weekend” spin can’t hide the bleeding. I’m not a TV guy, but it seems obvious to me whether you’re talking primetime sitcoms, late night talk shows, reality shows, stick and ball sport broadcasts, or racing, ratings are a reflection of how people feel about the “product” being presented to them on the TV screen. If they like the product, they watch it. If they don’t, they channel surf away.

The problems that plagued Junior at DEI have followed him to HMS — but is his relationship with cousin and crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. to blame?

Obviously, some percentage of race fans don’t like the product that is being presented to them this year — they’re not watching. Still, there’s a valid question to be asked as to what exactly those folks voting “no” with their remotes don’t like. Is it the racing itself — an increasingly homogenized and bland form of motorsport with the new cars and venues, less green flag passes for the lead, less displays of genuine human emotion from the drivers, and some venues that have provided less than stellar racing to date replacing longtime fan favorites like Darlington and Rockingham? Or is it the gimmicky, rodent-infested, ego-driven pabulum that FOX tries force-feeding fans?

The answer seems obvious: it is a combination of the two. For better or worse, a whole lot more fans will see racing on TV than will watch it from the stands, and even the best network with a stellar broadcast team can’t make a boring race fun to watch. Likewise, even the greatest race the sport can produce is doomed if the TV coverage is poor and even downright annoying. The cold, hard truth is that both NASCAR and its “broadcast partners” aren’t in this game to please the fans. They’re in it to make money… and lower TV ratings mean all entities make less money. It behooves NASCAR, FOX, and ABC/ESPN to take a long, hard look at what they’re doing wrong and make some rapid corrections — even if they’re painful up front. Both sides of the equation need to work together. A good start would be to dump the Hollywood Hotel and Digger, start races at one o’clock EST, and get rid of Fontana, New Hampshire, and Joliet.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the Media — Even though I am little league media, I realize that the media needs Dale Earnhardt, Jr. more than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needs the media. That having been said, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. does need us to keep his sponsors happy, and the coverage he receives is all out of whack to what he’s accomplished as of late.

Junior went on record recently telling the media to back off his crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. and the jungle drum beat that Eury has to go if Earnhardt is ever going to win more than an occasional race. Earnhardt even cowboyed up a bit and said if anyone has to be blamed for his recent lack of success at Hendrick, he’ll gladly take the blame himself. (Larry McReynolds never got that sort of backing from Junior’s old man when they hit a slump. Ponder that for a minute to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.) Certainly, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a lot closer to the situation than anyone in the media. But with that closeness there lies a danger — he can’t see the forest for the trees.

When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. failed to live up to the hype at DEI, everyone was ready to pile on Teresa Earnhardt as an absentee owner who was destroying the team that was her husband’s legacy by refusing to spend the money to give the No. 8 team the tools it needed to win races and contend for titles. While tactfully defending his stepmother, Junior acknowledged he wanted more control at DEI, which at least implies there were things he wanted to change within the organization. When he didn’t get a stake in ownership, Earnhardt moved on to what was perceived as greener pastures at HMS. On paper, he’s right: Rick Hendrick’s organization has won oodles of titles and over a hundred races in its 25-year tenure.

Yet somehow, the problems that plagued Junior at DEI continue at HMS. It’s kind of hard to blame Teresa Earnhardt for that. Rabid Earnhardt fans are already blaming Rick Hendrick for Junior’s lack of success, claiming that Gordon and Johnson get all the good stuff while Junior gets junk.

I don’t buy it. Like Kyle Busch might say, “Negatory, Night-Rider.” At least in the current climate, Hendrick’s decision to replace Busch with Earnhardt might seem like the most foolhardy deal since the French signed off on the Louisiana Purchase.

Nobody is saying Tony Eury, Jr. is a bad guy. I don’t know the man, so I’m not going to shovel dirt into his grave while he tries to dig himself out. Given another driver, he might be an outstanding crew chief. But sometimes, the chemistry just doesn’t work between a good driver and a good crew chief. What he brings to the table as a broadcaster is a matter of opinion, but Larry McReynolds was a brilliant crew chief in his day. He enjoyed a ton of success with many different drivers, and his pairing with Davey Allison was pure magic. Richard Childress saw hiring McReynolds away from Robert Yates Racing to call the shots for the No. 3 team as a strategic move to help his old buddy Dale Earnhardt out of a slump. Now, no sane man can doubt the elder Earnhardt’s talents as a race car driver. Larry McReynolds did, in fact, play a key role in finally getting Dale that elusive Daytona 500 victory and, for that weekend at least, all was sweetness and light. But the honeymoon didn’t last very long, and eventually Childress had to move McReynolds over to the No. 31 team at Earnhardt’s behest.

When a driver-crew chief combination isn’t working, there’s some who will say that given a little time, the pair still might gel. Eventually, though, changes have to be made — even if its temporary — to eliminate that issue as the source of the problem. In the Earnhardt-Eury relationship, there’s no doubt who’s the Alpha Dog. Sometimes, a crew chief needs to have the gumption to tell his driver to quit bellyaching and tell him what the car is doing so he can make improvements on the next stop. Sometimes, a driver is going to want changes that a good crew chief knows won’t work, and that crew chief is going to have to convince his driver to trust him. But when you hear Earnhardt tell Eury, “I’m pitting this time by whether you want me to or not…” that suggests theirs is a lopsided relationship that’s going nowhere.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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MJR in Springfield VA
04/02/2009 07:37 AM
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I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the saying is “he can’t see the forest for the trees.”

And on rained out qualifying: Do everything possible to get it in; Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon or even Sunday morning… what ever it takes. And if that doesn’t work, take the top 43 in drivers’ points and let them draw a starting spot with the ping pong balls and call it a day

On Ratings and racing; and I quote “they’re in it to make money….” You’re damn right they are. NA$CAR and what it really stands for:

Now
All we
Seriously
Care
About is
Revenue

Bill B
04/02/2009 09:15 AM
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Why is it that so many NASCAR fans like to see things decided by random crapshoots than by accomplishments or some kind of quantifiable methodology?
The practice speed idea could open up a different set of issues. What if practice was cut short due to rain? Some of the drivers may not have even gotten a qualifying practice run in before the rain came. How is that a fairer way to set the field?

Bill B
04/02/2009 09:19 AM
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Inverting the field based on points??? Doesn’t that wreak of fixing the competition to manufacture excitement? Isn’t this why debris cautions are prevalent and the chase was conceived? I thought you hated rules that were designed to fix the field to be most entertaining. Make up your mind dude.

Managing Editor
04/02/2009 09:30 AM
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MJR,

You’re right … Matt had the forest phrase right and we actually screwed it up in editing. The correct phrase is back up there for your viewing pleasure.

Thanks for writing in and reading FS!

Mike
04/02/2009 11:26 AM
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McReynolds’ problem with senior was that he wasn’t Kirk Shelmerdine. Maybe they didn’t win a ton of races; but, I recall Mike Skinner saying that if Larry Mac told him he’d win the race by turning the car around on the track and running against traffic, he’d simply say ‘where do you want me to turn around?’. I’m sure Davey felt the same way.

As far as qualifying order for rained out sessions… If you can’t get a session in before the race (best solution), why not take the average of the last 5 qualifying efforts for the driver? I’ve always thought that points from race results shouldn’t play into the qualifying order – where one or two hot laps are the objective.

MïK
04/02/2009 01:26 PM
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Matt, your prejudice is showing in the tracks you mentioned. Not a one is in the south. Are you saying that Atlanta is better racing than New Hampshire? Why is Chicago worse than Charlotte? And, if the extreme racing at Martinsville is OK, why isn’t a race at the other extreme at California?

Oh, ‘cause they ain’t in the South? don’t you have enuf tracks down there already? Leave some for us ‘regular’ folks, too.

nascrud1
04/02/2009 02:54 PM
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The tracks down south just seem to have the quirks that give it better racing to watch. The “cookie cutters” are just an enlarged version of the slot car tracks we used to race on the living room floor as a kid. They are just so unimaginative and plain and crappy!If you have to choose between “The Rock” and Chicago…come on…it’s simply no contest!

Keith
04/02/2009 05:18 PM
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My thought when Qualifying is canceled was give the point leader the choice of pole postion or pit selection not both and the go down the line that way.Also yes the racing is better in Charlotte than Chicago and Atlanta is better than New Hampshire. Mik you picked two bad examples.

Gary Inman
04/02/2009 06:02 PM
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Junior isn’t his father and never will be. Senior forgot more about racing than Junior or Larry Mac, will ever know or care to know.

Junior has made his money. What does he care ??? $36M a year and he wants a championship ?? What for ?? He know’s his abilities are “limited” at best. He does the best he can with what he has and that’s it. His abilities just aren’t good enough to ever win a championship.

That is the cold, hard facts.

Matt
04/02/2009 08:35 PM
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Mik,

I need to remind people time to time that I was indeed born in the South, South Jersey that is. The Philadelphia metro area has been my home most of these almost 50 years. My home tracks are Pocono and Dover not the Rock and Darlington.

Again, the vast majority of fans, even in the local area, are going to see the race on TV not in person. I could care less if the race is held across the street from my house or on the moon as long as there’s good action.

There’s a reason that tracks like Darlington, Martinsville and such survived for decades while others like Ontario, Texas World Speedway and others fell by the wayside…historically the storied tracks of the South provided the best action. If you feel the trade off of the Rock for Fontana was a fair one, I’d like to take a moment to welcome you to the sport as a newer fan and offer my sincere condolences you never got to see races at the Rock.

Matt

Ryan
04/02/2009 09:10 PM
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Larry Mac has lived off of his accomplishments with Davey and Dale for years , but believe me , he had very little to do with either drivers success .
It can’t be difficult to negate the advantage of the first pit stall . Put the line a little further out off of pit road . Use a line that forces the driver in the first pit to actually turn left just like every other driver rather than driving straight out . Or in case of rained out qualifying , pull a number out of a hat to see who gets the first pit stall and everyone else pits by points except the man thats first in points . He gets the pit pick of the driver who won the drawing .

MïK
04/03/2009 01:35 AM
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Wrong, Matt. I’m not a newer fan, but I’ve only been able to watch NASCAR on TV, ‘cause I’m up here in the PacNW. So, I don’t have a ‘Home Track’ in Cup racing (though, South Sound is the best one to get your jones massaged around here).

Sayin’ that a track should be eliminated is sayin’ that the racing is not worthy of watching. I’m saying that ALL racing is worth watching. Racing at Martinsville is as relevant as the racing at California …different as hell, but still 43 guys tryin’ to get to the front.

And that’s racing! You can deny it all you want, but California, New Hampshire, and Joliet have just as much to do with racing as those ‘storied’ tracks you are bally-hooing. The Rock is not on the schedule because those who don’t race are hoping for more attendance than the stories can draw, not because it didn’t have the best action.

Rachel
04/03/2009 11:53 AM
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I disagree 110% with the idea of using practice speeds to set the qualifying results. There are some drivers who are great in practice, but can’t “bring it” when the pressure of qualifying is on. There are others who consistently qualify better than they practice. I would rather go for a Saturday qualifying run or leave it as it is. Practice doesn’t count! (And shouldn’t count.)

Chip
04/03/2009 05:48 PM
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The mile-and-a-half tri-oval or D-shaped oval tracks used to be great places for racing. Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas were fast tracks with good competition. The advent of Joliet, Vegas and Kansas which were patterned after the original 1.5 mile tracks, yet somewhat homogenized, marked the advent of the cookie cutter era. I’d take The Rock over any of the three, and throw in California, Michigan and New Hampshire to boot. The best thing to happen in track construction, IMHO, was the reconfiguration of Homestead to a true mile and a half OVAL, which was something the circuit lost when Atlanta was rebuilt in the late 90’s. I don’t care where you build the tracks, just give us something with decent racing on it. And if anyone thinks what we’re seeing today is really worth following, I’d have to disagree. OUT with Myers, Hammond, Waltrip and Digger. Amen! Let’s go racing on some more mile and under tracks.

Michael T
04/06/2009 12:12 AM
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You aren’t going to get a Matt McLaughlin article without him crying about Darlington. I think it’s in his contract. He either gets to cry about Darlington or bust out his Tim Richmond shrine every week. His local law enforcement is going to have to do 15 minute welfare checks on him when Darlington loses their only race.