The Frontstretch: 2009: The Year That Wuz, Part I by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday December 17, 2009

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2009: The Year That Wuz, Part I

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday December 17, 2009

 

The ponderous, clanking, larger than life beast that was the 2009 NASCAR season finally stumbled across the finish line at Homestead, completing its nine month marathon. By that point, it was smoking badly, listing to port and shedding parts like a leper on a trampoline; but somehow it did complete the marathon. Some folks tuned in to see Jimmie Johnson claim his fourth consecutive title, some tuned in to see the unseemly abomination come to an end out of habit, and some percentage of former fans simply no longer tuned in after enduring a sometimes trying season. Whether objects in the rear-view mirror are actually larger than they appear or not, it’s time to take a look back at the NASCAR season that was. Keep your hands inside the car, please; this is a dark ride.

The Top Stories

It was hard for Rick Hendrick and Gene Haas to stop smiling in 2009 — not when their cars combined for five of the top 9 spots in the final point standings.

Hendrick Motorsports Domination: For the first time in series history, a single team had drivers finish 1-2-3 in the points. Not even Carl Keikhaefer, who was fishing for guppies with dynamite back in the ’50s, managed that feat. Jimmie Johnson claimed his unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title. Mark Martin finished second in the standings for the fifth time in his career and claimed five race victories along the way. Jeff Gordon returned to Victory Lane after being shut out in 2008 and finished third in the standings. In fact if one allows that the relationship between Rick Hendrick’s organization and the newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing teams is a bit chummier than even Kentucky marital law allows, five drivers for one organization grabbed up spots in the Chase. The big 3 at HMS claimed 13 of 36 race victories, and combined for seventy top 10 finishers out of a possible 108 such results for those three drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored five additional top 10 results, and part-time HMS pilot Brad Kesolowski added another. Whether one team dominating the sport is good for NASCAR or not, devotees of the history and heritage of the sport have to admit, joyously or grudgingly, that those are some pretty impressive feats of strength.

Fan Apathy: While those three Hendrick Motorsports drivers were posting all those impressive stats, it seemed less and less fans were watching them do so. Attendance at most tracks was down, and in some cases the size of the crowds were downright embarrassing. TV ratings declined significantly. NASCAR racing does not exist in a vacuum. The same economy that caused such havoc across this great country in ’09 took it’s toll on race ticket sales. So did the price of gasoline. (It’s not still four bucks a gallon, but it sure ain’t cheap.) Fans who lost their jobs or feared losing their jobs had to decide between expensive race weekends or paying the mortgage, the car payment and the grocery bill. It’s tough out there, no denying it. But that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop in NASCAR’s TV ratings. A majority of races, at least in the Cup series, are now shown on broadcast TV. Even fans who canceled their cable TV plans should have been able to tune in, but a lot of them chose not to.

There are a variety of reasons folks have put forward to explain those bad TV numbers. Some blame fans’ distaste for the Chase points format. Other blame the increasingly bland racing and drivers that fans don’t find as savory as spicier racing and drivers back in the day. Many blame the Car of Tomorrow and the dearth of passing. Some want to blame later race starting times. Still others claim it’s the quality of the NASCAR TV broadcasts themselves which does indeed, at times, seem to test the limits of the Geneva Convention’s protocol on torture. I’m not sure what the problem is. But here’s two thoughts on the issue. Recall the First Rule of Holes; when you find yourself in one, stop digging. Secondly no great problem has ever been solved by assigning blame. Fixing problems takes two steps; admitting there is a problem and working hard to correct it. Nobody at NASCAR headquarters seems ready to take even the first step.

More and more of the fans the sport has left tell me they tune in for the first thirty laps to see which driver is going to dominate that day’s race, then don’t watch again until the final ten laps to see how much that cat wins by.

Amazingly, during NASCAR’s meteoric growth in the ’80s (and for the record meteors fall down not up) there was even talk that someday NASCAR TV ratings would eclipse those of the NFL. Let’s just say right now nobody at NFL headquarters is hiding under their covers in their corporate pajamas waiting for for the NASCAR steamroller to level the joint.

Side by Side Restarts: There was at least a glimmer of hope here that NASCAR is listening to its increasingly disenchanted fan base. The concept of starting the lead lap cars side by side in their running order rather than restarting a race with lapped cars in the preferred inside groove, with lead lap cars to their outside proved popular at the Winston… err whatever it’s called these days. With surprising haste, NASCAR quickly adopted that restart formula for points-paying races as well starting at New Hampshire. As such the first five to ten laps after a restart tend to feature some of the most intense racing of the afternoon or evening as drivers jockey to make up positions gathering their rosebuds as they may, rather than trying to circumvent lapped cars in the racing groove. All too often, that sets off a series or wrecks and more restarts, but the concept of side by side restarts is no more bogus than throwing debris cautions for a hot dog wrapper late in a race to bunch the fields back up. Combine the two, and I have two words for you: “Talla” “Dega. Oh, yes, we’ll get to that gentle readers. I have a lot of ground to cover here.

NASCAR’s Drug Policy: NASCAR officials warned participants that their new drug policy was going to be thorough and draconian. It was all that and then some. The first name driver to run afoul of the policy was Jeremy Mayfield and the resultant cat fight has dominated the headlines this year the way few race finishes have. NASCAR said their tests revealed Mayfield was using methamphetamine aka, crank or meth. Mayfield passionately protested that the drug test yielded a false positive caused by a combination of an allergy medication (whose maker occasionally sponsors the 99 car) and a prescription drug a doctor gave him to treat Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. As such he flat out refused to begin the NASCAR mandated process that would have allowed him to eventually be allowed to return to driving so he could start and park his car for big paychecks. Game on. NASCAR said no such false positive was possible. An accredited drug testing center proved it was. Mayfield tried thumbing his nose at NASCAR by showing up in the infield at Charlotte. NASCAR tossed him out. NASCAR tried making Mayfield submit to another random drug treatment test. Mayfield said he got lost on the way to that test so he went to another testing facility and passed the test. NASCAR obtained a statement from Mayfield’s stepmom, a woman who admittedly would need years in charm school to reach trailer trash status, who said she witnessed Mayfield snorting crank on race day more than once. Mayfield responded by claiming his stepmother was not only a liar but that she had killed his estranged father. Lawsuits were filed, counter-lawsuits were filed and injunctions and accusations filled the air like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. It might be years before this is all settled in court but meanwhile it’s playing out in the media. Oh, well. At least it gave fans something to talk about.

Jimmie Johnson’s Five Steps to a Title

Step One: After a slow start to the season including a 31st place finish at the Daytona 500, Johnson serves up notice that he plans to defend his title and gun for a fourth straight with a convincing win at Martinsville in the fifth race of the season.

Step Two: At the Brickyard 400 Johnson serves notice that the sleeping giant is wide awake beating Mark Martin to the line by .400 seconds in one of the sport’s most prestigious and best paying races. Johnson first and Martin second? A preview of things to come. 48 team is seen leaving Indy whistling “See you in September.” Their goal during the regular season is just to make the Chase. It’s worked before.

Step Three: Dover, Fontana and Charlotte, Fall 2009- With the Chase on Johnson wins three of four races early in the title hunt. The pay window has opened and the 48 team is muscling their way to the head of the line for the check with the big numbers on it as their adversaries find a variety of ways to falter.

Step Four: Johnson’s early wreck at Texas leads some to believe that the title chase is back open especially TV commentators desperate to revive moribund ratings. Johnson’s Chevy is well and truly used up after the wreck and by all rights should have been pushed to the nearest pond and submerged. Instead the 48 team does what amounts to a complete front clip job and returns their boy to the fray in record time. If three wins in four races hadn’t demoralized his competition the calm way the 48 team returned a thoroughly used up race car to battle that quickly probably served notice the rest of them were running for second. You can’t touch this…

Step Five: Any of those Pollyanna optimists who still had their hopes set there’d be a legitimate title fight at Homestead have their heads stoved in with Johnson’s dominating win at Phoenix. The 48 car led a mere 238 laps of a possible 312. I believe the rest of the time Johnson was in the pits using dental floss to appear pretty in the photos of his coronation. It’s so hard to floss with those full face helmets on, you know. Game, set, match, Johnson. Homestead was just a matter of waiting for the inevitable.

Best Races of 2009

Martinsville (Spring): It was if Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin actually wanted to win the race not just score maximum points to make the Chase. On lap 455 Hamlin made a daring pass for the lead that would have made Junior Johnson proud. With 11 laps to go Johnson forced the issue and the 48 and 11 car were completely sideways, fenders askew and tires smoking. Johnson went on to win the race and the huddled masses let out a mighty cheer. God bless ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay.

Darlington (Mother’s Day Eve): OK, by Darlington’s history this isn’t going to be considered one of the great ones. But by 2009’s standard it was a classic. Mark Martin was determined to pass teammate Jimmie Johnson on the final restart. Whether Johnson was testicles to the wall trying to keep Martin from passing him or just trying to gobble up points to make the Chase is open to debate. But for one brief moment in time it was 1989 again. Hmmmm. The seasons best two races were held at its two oldest tracks? Am I sensing a pattern here?

Worst Race of 2009

Talladega (Fall): Shortly before the race NASCAR officials told the drivers they weren’t going to tolerate any bump drafting in the corners. Apparently some drivers had asked NASCAR to clamp down on the practice. What resulted was not only the worst race of the year, but perhaps the most fatally flawed human endeavor since the McGovern presidential campaign. For a majority of the event drivers circled the track in a single file parade keeping a respectful distance from one another. In the end it was still the same old Talladega with potentially fatal wrecks, drivers on their roofs and the unseemliness of several competitors running out of gas. Simply put it was about as horrid an event as NASCAR could have staged and they’ve thrown some real stinkers in their time. Brutal, awful, utterly without redeeming social value, you choose your adjective. How bad was this race? Even the TV announcers threw aside their cheerleading pom-poms and said it sucked hind-teat. Brian France responded by saying the TV crew needed to be more positive, not with any ideas how to fix the mess that was Talladega this year. My guess is that as a result in 2010 we’ll have a lot more positive coverage of a pair of truly awful races. Anyone else remember way back in 1988 when restrictor plates were added to the Talladega and Daytona races as a “temporary” fix until NASCAR could come up with a fix for the insane speeds at the two tracks? Two decades later someone needs to be flogged with desert thorns then hung upside down in a vat of boiling battery acid for allowing this insanity to continue. Oh, did I mention I don’t think much of plate racing?

In the matter of five seconds, a thrilling last lap finish to Talladega nearly turned deadly as Carl Edwards’ car came dangerously close to breaking through the catchfence and into the stands, injuring seven fans.

I Know It’s Only Wreck and Roll, But I Loathe It

When ESPN cues up the highlight reels for the 2009 Cup season it’s likely to be laden with wreck footage. Here’s three surefire clips.

Talladega (Spring): Well OK, last year NASCAR sent a clear message to the drivers. Regan Smith was deprived a win he richly deserved last year at Talladega for yielding enough room to Tony Stewart trying to pass him to avoid a wreck. This year Brad Kieslowski wasn’t about to make the same mistake when Carl Edwards tried to pass him coming to the finish line. Kieslowski (who some nicknamed “Cause-A-Wreck-Ski) chop blocked Edwards Ford and sent him sailing into the catch fence off of Ryan Newman’s Dodge. A 3,600 pound stock car carrying over 180 miles per hour came so close to entering the stands that it still makes me sick to the stomach to recall it. It would be a massive bit of understatement to say that wouldn’t have turned out well. As it was seven fans were injured by flying debris including a young lady whose jaw was badly broken and is still recovering from her injuries. Racing is racing. Competitors accept a certain degree of risk they can be killed or seriously injured in a wreck, To send a fan who arrived in their daily driver home in a Bambulance or a hearse is simply not acceptable. If you thought the finish of the spring Talladega race was cool I invite you to go taunt a local gang member to the degree he punches you in the jaw and shatters it. How cool does that feel?

Dover is well known for day ending contact into the inside wall and heavy impacts into cars sideways across the track but not so much for sideways barrel rolls. Still Joey Logano managed to flip his Toyota side over side seven times with a possible half-gainer on lap 30 at Dover in September. While uninjured Logano was clearly shaken after the tumble. Yeah, these new cars are safer once in a wreck but their top heavy center of gravity seems to make them more prone to tumble.

Talladega in the fall certainly ranks among the worst races of 2009, if not the worst race. It was so bad even the TV commentators were noting just how bad the lack of action was. But things came to a full boil in the final laps. First potential race winners began running out of gas and coasting to the pits muttering less than polite things on their radios. On lap 183 Ryan Newman made contact with his teammate Tony Stewart and after hard impact with the outside wall ends up landing on the hood of Kevin Harvick.’s car. Coming to the white flag Mark Martin also landed on his roof. NASCAR drivers are almost unanimous in saying this was the stupidest excuse of a race ever held. Brian France claims it was just typical Talladega. Of course his oversize butt wasn’t in a race car in those final ten laps.

Quotes of the Year

Jeff Gordon wins this one after running out of gas in the final laps at Talladega in the fall, then returns to the track only to have the 24 car wiped out in a wreck: “I guess I’m kind of glad we ran out when we did, because we were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car.” An usually gregarious Gordon went to add “I look forward to the day when I can watch this on TV instead of being inside of it.”

More Insight From Talladega from Ryan Newman, who ended the race upside down on the hood of the 29 car: “I wish NASCAR would do something. It was a boring race for the fans. That’s not something anybody wants to see—at least I hope not. If they do, go home because you don’t belong here. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other. I guess they (NASCAR) don’t think much of us anymore.”

But for the most succinct account of racing at Talladega, we got to Carl Edwards, whose car almost ended up in the grandstands at Talladega this spring: I guess we’ll race like this until we kill somebody. and then we’ll change it.”

Finally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. weighed in on the Car of Tomorrow after the Atlanta spring race, saying, “This is one Hell of an excuse for a race car.”

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Mark
12/17/2009 09:25 AM
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The drop off in popularity of NASCAR racing really boils down to two distinct problems . One , the suffocating of competition by micro managing the racing . A one lap penalty for this , a black flag for that , points taken away for everything . Even speeding ( at an auto race ???? ) down pit road . The sport is badly overregulated .
And the other major reason for the NASCAR freefall is the constant drumbeat of paid shills posing as announcers toward certain drivers and teams . Well … really only one team and two of its drivers . This very column proves the point . The steps it took a certain driver to win a “ championship ??? There are over fifty drivers in the Cup series . All of those drivers have fans . Those fans tune in to race broadcasts to see and hear at least a little about their favorites .
But in most cases , unless they are fans of the one team , or one of the two drivers , there is no mention of their favorite . Now it doesn’t really require much effort to envision why people who pull for other drivers would become very disenchanted with the whole NASCAR tv schedule and simply listen to the races on the radio , or find some other interests .
NASCAR fans are notoriously loyal to their favorite drivers , and their favorite drivers are being ignored , so why is it any surprise that fans are leaving the sport in droves .

Richard in N.C.
12/17/2009 07:07 PM
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Not up to the normal standards for your biased NASCAR bashing, but still full of distortions and ommissions. You might have mentioned EESPN’s mediocre race coverage driving fans away, but they always get a pass.

Sure am looking forward to Speed Weeks.

mkrcr
12/17/2009 09:38 PM
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I’ve been dancing in the streets. Doctor Jerry Punch got kicked out of the booth. “Well, Folks” I see that as at least a small,though very small, indication someone’s listening. ‘Ole DW ain’t going anywhere though. Fox execs are as deaf as bats.Their broadcasts are nothing more than infomercials for DW’s store. Digger for Christmas anyone?
My hope is that when TV contracts come up for renewal, the ratings will have dropped so far that the networks will scale back to the point of simplistic broadcasting of the races.That formula seemed to work very well before.

Robertin Texas
12/17/2009 10:15 PM
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At the Dega spring race Edwards was in the lead (not Brad)and tried to block Kesolowsi, Brad didn’t lift or move below the yellow line to abod the contact.

Robert in Texas
12/17/2009 10:17 PM
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avoid the contact.

Bad Wolf
12/17/2009 10:36 PM
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I lay the blame for the decline directly on Fox, and DW in particular. These are the clowns that dumbed down the sport to the lowest common denominator trying to lure in the rubes and their money. A close second in Brain France and his inept attempt to run a major corporation.

The new double file restart-shootout style, while exciting, just gives Nascar another excuse to throw the caution to try to add some excitement to an otherwise boring show.

Wayne
12/19/2009 08:59 AM
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Maybe Haas and Hendrick are both smiling because they are both convicted criminals who have tons of money and their freedom. Has anyone else thought of that? I am sick that FOX has kept their dumbed down crew again, it will be another long first half until TNT takes over. I will miss M. Waltrips poor on track performance, it was a really good reason to smile and chuckle. Watching the lowest budget teams continuously out perform him was fun to watch.

Mr Bill
12/21/2009 01:17 PM
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Matt, over the 2009 season I would watch the NASCAR race and then read your article the next day. I found that I could read your article and save myself the torture time of watching the race. I think you were “right on” with your comments and coverage of the 2009 NASCAR weekends. Stay where you are and continue to do what you do. Merry Christmas and happy new year to you and the staff of Frontstretch.