The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : NASCAR Ten Years Down the Road by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday September 10, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : NASCAR Ten Years Down the Road

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday September 10, 2009

 

This long holiday weekend, I was doing some research for a book I’ll probably never write. As this season draws towards its conclusion, I found myself studying the results from the 1999 Atlanta season finale, run on November 21st almost 10 years ago.

If you’re in your 20s or even 30s, a decade seems like a long period of time. As you get older, the decades seem to go by like years once did. My two daily drivers are over a decade old and still seem like new cars to me (though the GMC is flirting with 200,000 miles.) The pair of jeans I’m wearing as I write this is over a decade old, too, washed countless times to near white in color; the indigo blue is long since gone, but it’s still my favorite pair nonetheless. My coffee pot, microwave, and dirt bike are all over a decade old yet serving me well. Tonight at dinner, I was listening to music, some of which was recorded over four decades ago, but still seems fresh to me. Nah, a decade ain’t that long…

But it’s been a decade of cataclysmic change in NASCAR racing. Of the 43 drivers who started that race on a nice November afternoon back in 1999, only seven are currently still competing full-time on the Cup tour with proper funding — Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart (a rookie in 1999), Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon. Matt Kenseth ran five Cup races in 1999, and Atlanta wasn’t one of them, while Atlanta was Junior’s fifth and final start of the 1999 Cup season. Bobby Labonte still has a ride; however, his future is up in the air for 2010. Former series champions Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte still make occasional starts in the Cup series… but that’s it.

Joe Nemechek has joined the ranks of start and park drivers, while John Andretti hangs on with an underfunded team. Jeremy Mayfield is trying to salvage his professional career fighting NASCAR allegations that he abuses drugs. (By the way, we haven’t seen the end of that one, my little pretties. Oh no, keep your hands inside the car… this is going to be a dark ride.)

A decade ago, point leader Tony Stewart was the young hotshoe in the Home Depot No. 20 car.

Rusty Wallace, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Dale Jarrett, and Jimmy Spencer have successfully made the jump from racers to broadcasters. Darrell Waltrip, who failed to qualify for that Atlanta race, is also a race broadcaster of sorts. Kenny Schrader does some ARCA broadcasts.

Todd Bodine and Mike Skinner continue to race successfully, but in the Truck Series. Unfortunately, three drivers who ran that afternoon in Atlanta have passed away. Racing accidents took the inestimable Dale Earnhardt and Kenny Irwin from us, while cancer claimed Bobby Hamilton, Jr. after a valiant fight. Jerry Nadeau, Ricky Craven, and Steve Park had their careers in the big leagues curtailed by injuries suffered in racing incidents. Ernie Irvan had been forced to retire during the 1999 season due to lingering effects of his horrific practice wreck at Michigan in 1994 while battling Dale Earnhardt for a title. Some might add Geoffrey Bodine to that list after his horrific Truck Series wreck at Daytona the following year. Remember, a decade ago no tracks had SAFER barriers, and the carnage caused by cars slapping into unyielding concrete carrying triple digit speeds was considered acceptable. At least a few things have improved over the last decade…

Other once-familiar names like Ricky Rudd, Chad Little, Ward Burton, Kyle Petty, Dave Marcis, and Brett Bodine have fallen by the wayside. Bodine is now NASCAR’s pace car driver and was active in developing the Car of Tomorrow. My guess is that Brett wanted to see new safety features incorporated in the car after his brother’s fearsome Daytona wreck, but as a former single-car team owner, he must have known the new cars were going to put such teams out of business.

Speaking of which, a lot of teams that competed in that 1999 race have fallen by the wayside, too. In addition to Bodine’s, others include cars owned by Michael Kranefuss, Andy Petree, Tim Beverly, Junie Donlavey, Cale Yarborough, and Travis Carter. Simply put, the era of single-car teams is over. Even back in 1999, Jack Roush had four teams (three of which finished in the top 6 at Atlanta) and Joe Gibbs had just expanded to two teams to give Stewart a seat. Rick Hendrick had three teams, and Dale Earnhardt was still fussing about RCR expanding to two cars.

Some companies that backed various teams back in 1999 are still primary sponsors in our sport, like Mobil 1, Lowe’s (then with RCR and Mike Skinner), Caterpillar, Pennzoil, Miller Lite, Bud, Home Depot, M & M’s, DuPont, and Kellogg’s which now splits sponsorship on Mark Martin’s car with CARQUEST Auto Parts. What’s worrisome is the amount of Fortune 500 companies that used to be NASCAR primary sponsors which have been either priced out of the game or found stock car racing a poor fit with their marketing efforts. They include Coors Light, Interstate Batteries, Ford Quality Care/Credit, Valvoline, GM Goodwrench, John Deere, Tide, Kodak, Citgo, Skoal, McDonald’s, BellSouth, and Kodiak. (Coors was acquired by Miller, so one could argue that they are still in the sport, though no longer promoting the brand on a car.)

Of course, the biggest name missing from the list of 1999 sponsors is Winston (which also backed Jimmy Spencer, who drove Travis Carter’s car.) Since the cell phone company folks took over from Winston, a major partner in NASCAR’s Cup series rise to fame, their “hands off” “we let NASCAR make that sort of call… we just want to give you brain cancer” marketing approach has allowed things to slowly head downhill. In contrast, Winston was an active partner in the sport and a leading advocate for the fans. Nextel/Sprint just seems to be, ahem, phoning it in, waiting to see who will acquire them to staunch the bleeding.

The tracks on the schedule have undergone some changes, too. Rockingham had two dates on the 1999 Cup schedule, while Darlington also had two. Now, the loss of the Southern 500 at Darlington still embitters fans come every September, while the Cup Series has been absent from Rockingham’s one-mile oval for over five years.

At Atlanta that year and for most races that season, broadcasts were still handled by ABC/ESPN, though some events were shown on TNN, TBS, CBS, or NBC. Fox was still two years away from their onslaught of aural terror that would further embitter many fans when they outbid ESPN for the rights to broadcast the series. Now, ESPN is back, but not in the form longtime fans recall them in their prime. We invited Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, and Ned Jarrett into our living rooms back in 1999. They amused us, they informed us, they respected the sport, and they were welcome houseguests… cherished friends who made us want to tune in again next week. Ten years later, Ned Jarrett has retired, Benny Parsons has passed on, and somehow, Little Digger hasn’t filled that gap. While Dale Jarrett is giving it a yeoman’s effort, he still hasn’t filled the big shoes Ned left behind at ESPN.

Back in ’99, Dale Jarrett was officially crowned that year’s Winston Cup champion in a bit of a rout. Leading the points for much of the season, he’d actually clinched the title the previous week at Homestead, though the official balloons, floats, fireworks, and dog and pony show were thrown at Atlanta. The final margin of victory had Jarrett leading Bobby Labonte by 201 points in second. Jarrett had won four races to Labonte’s five, but had been more consistent throughout the year to earn the trophy. Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth in that year’s points, had actually won seven races, and some of his fans were perturbed that Gordon’s seven wins and 21 top 10s in 34 races (offset by seven DNF’s that year) had left him so low in the standings. That was perhaps the seeds sown that led to the unholy harvest of the Chase; but that hasn’t worked to fix the problem, either.

Looking down those standings, five of the drivers who finished in the top 10 in points in 1999 are still full-time competitors at the Cup level — but none of the drivers who finished 11th through 20th still compete full-time in the Bigs.

Dale Jarrett earned a little over 3.5 million dollars in purse money for winning the 1999 title. This year Juan Pablo Montoya, who is eighth in the points and hasn’t won a single race, has already earned more than that with 11 races left to run. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 21st in the standings and averaging a 21st place finish in 25 starts, is flirting with the three million dollar mark. Points leader Tony Stewart is approaching 4.25 million dollars in purse money, which ought to keep him in Whoppers and Plavix for awhile. Matt Kenseth earned 1.5 million bucks just for winning the Daytona 500. There’s a reason those race tickets and hot dogs are so expensive at the track these days when the Big Show is in town.

Besides Jarrett’s title, perhaps the other big story in NASCAR racing was rookie Tony Stewart, who had won three-points paying Cup races to break a record Davey Allison had set in his rookie season. Coincidentally, Stewart was driving the No. 20 Home Depot car at the time. So far, driving the same car for the same team, Joey Logano has only managed to if not steal, at least shoplift a win at New Hampshire. But that’s OK. Stewart didn’t score his final two victories in 1999 until the last three races of the season — taking the checkers at Phoenix and Homestead.

So while 1999 might not have been the best season of stock car racing, it was still pretty good, and certainly better than the season we’ve endured so far to date. Fans were vastly relieved because after a one-year experiment, NASCAR had dropped their “five and five” rules package that had been intended to provide better racing and increase parity between the manufacturers. As a result, 1998 might have been the worst season in stock car racing history, even if 2009 is giving it a run for its money. But if only NASCAR would toss the Car of Tomorrow into the scrapheap of history beside the “five and five” rules, things could be good again in Oh-Ten.

And yeah, I was already making a living beating dead horses back in 1999. I wrote several columns that season noting how much better the racing was back in 1989… one of my favorite seasons in stock car racing. Yes, as you get older the decades get shorter. I’m fortunate to have those memories of 1989 and 1992 to keep me warm as a cold, low, dreary, rain mass settles in here over Chester County.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Wayne Hobbs
09/10/2009 04:03 AM
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Matt, glad to have you back on the keyboard! Thanks for the look back along with the fresh perspective.

Dans Mom
09/10/2009 08:41 AM
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6 drivers I see still racing in 2019:

Denny Hamlin
Rowdy Busch
Kasey Kahne
Brian Vickers
Joey Lagano
and Mark Martin!!!!!

Ed
09/10/2009 08:56 AM
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Don’t kid yourself, Dans Mom. I’d bet that most of those won’t be around in 10 years. Good column Matt.

janice
09/10/2009 09:09 AM
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better thought about 10 yrs from now, will marting have finally won a championship? will jr have won one (ha)? will there just be three owners in the sport, roush, hendrick and gibbs?

guess you don’t realize how good you have it til it’s gone.

sometimes i daydream and envision dale sr with his hands around brain farts neck (like homer simpson does to bart), and he’s shaking the whatnot out of france.

MilChad
09/10/2009 11:51 AM
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I have several posters from The Winston all star race. I was looking at the one from 1998 the other day and the only thing that is the same today (as far as driver, owner, sponsor is concerned) is Jeff Gordon. My how times have changed.

Kevin in SoCal
09/10/2009 01:33 PM
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Can someone explain what the “five and five” rule was please? A quick internet search didnt turn up anything.

Matt
09/10/2009 02:38 PM
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Kevin,
Prior to 99 all the different makes of cars had various size spoilers front and rear that were occasionally increased or decreased in an attempt to have parity between the makes. In 1999 NASCAR said all teams would have five inch rear spoilers in back and spoilers five inches off the ground in front. It was a mess. None of the cars had any grip making for very little side by side racing. Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin combined to win almost 66 % of the races. Once GOrdon clinched NASCAR dropped the rule.

Joe
09/10/2009 05:57 PM
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Matt, Bobby Jr is still with us. his dad, Bobby Sr, is the one who lost the fight with cancer

Wayne
09/10/2009 07:42 PM
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I like your points in this column. You are so polite when you refer to DW as a broadcaster of sorts.The fact of the matter is he is terrible on TV. DW, his dopey younger brother and his former crew chief should be removed from any NASCAR broadcast and kept away permanently.They are pathetic and frequently insult us fans with their arrogant,dumb presence on TV.As far as aural terror, you hit the nail on the head there also. ESPN may not feel as good as the old days, but it is light years ahead of what FOX/SPEED shoves at us, unless your name is Daley, former disgruntled ESPN employee who actually is the #1 male FOX/ SPEED cheerleader.I also miss the old Buddy Baker days on TNN, remember, “Live by the sword, die by the sword during a Pocono race? Why DW and not Buddy? he is so much better.

Wayne
09/10/2009 07:51 PM
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MilChad, I have a number of the posters from past Winston Allstar races. My favorite is the May 17, 1987 poster I have framed in my workshop. BP, Buddy, Bobby Allison, Harry Gant, etc. Most of my friends love it, one keeps threatening to steal it. But it is my favorite although others I have are good also.

Dave
09/10/2009 09:29 PM
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Funny thing about that “five and five rule” is that it was brought about because 1997 was terrible racing too. Coincidentally the first race at fontana was in 1997. Just saying..

RAEckart
09/10/2009 10:22 PM
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Wayne,

Is the ’87 poster the one with Tim Richmond? “Lettin all hang out”, if you catch my meaning?

Kevin in SoCal
09/11/2009 02:15 AM
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The first race at Texas was 1997, too. What’s your point?
I think you’re trying to say that 1997 was the beginning of the “cookie cutter” movement, right?

Wayne
09/11/2009 09:32 AM
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Yes RAEckart, the 87 poster is that one that has Tim Richmond letting it all hang out.Not really a supries that Tim Richmond would do that .Pretty sharp of you to know that as few people who come into my shop know that thing about that poster.The guys all look so young in it, Buddy in the Crisco uniform, Cale in the Hardees, Bobby Hillin Jr.even Rusty , so young . To me it was the best all star poster of them all. I’m sure other people have different favorites.