Matt McLaughlin · Thursday December 15, 2011
Was the 2011 Cup season a good one, a bad one or a lousy one? Truthfully, there were moments this year that met all three definitions. One way or the other, what is conclusive is that the season is finally over. Before closing the books, let’s take a quick back look at some of the highlights, lowlights and abominations of this season’s NASCAR series…
Kentucky Traffic Woes: After years of wrangling, Bruton Smith finally landed a Cup date for his Kentucky track. Apparently, track management never got the memo the big show was coming to town. Traffic getting to the event was a nightmare, with the backup reaching up to seventeen miles of gridlock at its height. Some pissed off fans pulled U-turns and headed home to get out of the hopeless mess. Other fans who endured that traffic arrived at the track, tickets in hand only to be told they had to leave because there were no more parking spaces available. The most dedicated of those folks found places to leave their cars alongside the road, often miles from the track. By the time they hiked to those seats they’d paid big money to buy, they’d missed the majority of the race. All parties involved, track management, the state of Kentucky and the police admitted it was a boondoggle of yahoo major league proportions but wanted to absolve themselves of blame by pointing fingers at one another. A lot of fans will doubtless not be returning to Kentucky in 2012. (If, in fact, they have managed to find their way home yet.) One more mess like that and they might as well just dump the racing program and build a Super-K there in the infield.
Trevor Bayne: When young Trevor Bayne improbably won the Daytona 500, the majority of NASCARdom stood up and cheered. (To the best of my knowledge, only one of them lost his job for doing so.) But weeks later, Bayne disappeared from the radar screen as suddenly as he’d popped up there, plagued by a mystery illness that affected his vision and balance and kept him out of a race car for over six weeks. While the mystery ailment seemed to be Lyme Disease, the fact the doctors can’t say for sure what was wrong with Bayne is troubling to me, especially given his youth.
Chad Knaus’s Pre-Race Comments at Talladega: Chad Knaus is normally a very detail-oriented person. But it apparently slipped his mind that his pre-race conversation with driver Jimmie Johnson was open microphone on the Race Buddy on-line race coverage. Knaus told a clearly startled Jimmie Johnson that in the event he were to win the race, he had to back his car into the wall as part of the post-race celebration antics. While Johnson was clearly surprised by the request, he did not demur. During this postseason break, I’ve began wondering if Johnson’s decision not to make a move towards the front that day in Talladega was his way of covering his butt, knowing the car was likely illegal and NASCAR wouldn’t be happy about that. As it turned out NASCAR wasn’t too happy with that pre-race conversation they heard as well as about everybody else in the world. The 48 car was tagged for a trip to the NASCAR R and D center for a thorough inspection after every race for the rest of the season.
The situation was especially troubling in that Johnson had won the spring race at that same track. Was the car legal that day? How often does Knaus try to slip something by NASCAR? Often enough; he’s been suspended several times and at one point escorted off the property at Daytona for a major rules infraction. Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports tried painting a happy face on the situation but I heard what I heard. As far as I’m concerned you have to look at every race win and championship the No. 48 team has won as suspect now. Way to shoot your own legacy in the foot, guys!
Uneasy Lays the Head of He Who Is Atop the Box: I’m still stunned by Darian Grubb’s predicament. Here’s the crew chief that not only led Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team to the Chase, he subsequently partnered with Stewart to win five of those ten Chase races. Yet at the end of the season, he’s out a job. (Grubb has since landed at JGR as crew chief for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team.)
Grubb’s situation was not unique. Kevin Harvick finished third in the standings the last two seasons, yet Gil Martin was also released from his crew chief duties after the season. Steve Addington got Kurt Busch into the Chase but apparently decided to resign at the end of the season fed up with Busch’s abusive comments. Denny Hamlin also made the Chase and darned near won the title last year, but his crew chief Mike Ford was also let go at the end of the season.
All these crew chief changes amongst the sport’s top teams are counterintuitive. You’d think if your results show you to be among the best at your profession, your job would be safe, but that’s not the case. Perhaps its telling that Rick Hendrick has had Jimmie Johnson paired with Chad Knaus since his first Cup race. Together, they’ve been through the ups and downs of the sport, the giddy times and the lean times. They’ve learned to speak the same language, and the combo paired up for five consecutive titles. There’s a lesson there. Maybe it’s not time to start outsourcing crew chief duties to the Chinese just yet.
So what’s going on? Simply put, given current economic conditions there’s just more talented crew chiefs, pit crew members and team members than there are jobs available for them. And why is that? Read on.
Sponsorship Crises: It can cost upwards of twenty million dollars annually to back a top-notch team in the Cup series, a team likely to win races and to contend for a championship. Given the economy, that’s a huge marketing investment for any corporation. (And the deal can inadvertently backfire on that company, as it did for Mars Candies with Kyle Busch.) After this year, UPS is gone as a full-time primary sponsor (Though they are still presumably writing big checks to be the official delivery company of NASCAR.) That shut down the No. 6 team and put David Ragan out of work. Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 team lost Crown Royal as their primary backer at the end of the season, leaving Kenseth to implore the company to reconsider from Victory Lane at Charlotte in one of this year‘s most awkward video clips. Despite Carl Edwards’ outstanding season, AFLAC is cutting back on their involvement with the sport. (Yeah, things are so tough at Roush right now that Trevor Bayne and eventual series champion Ricky Stenhouse ran most races this season without sponsorship.)
Over at JGR the Home Depot, which has been around a long time is cutting back their sponsorship to twenty races as the primary next year. (Dollar General will sponsor the car for the remaining races.) General Mills pulled up stakes, forcing Richard Childress to shut down the No. 33 team and leaving Clint Bowyer’s future uncertain. He landed a job at Michael Waltrip Racing (in large part because he brought the Five Hour Energy drink sponsorship bucks to the table) leaving David Reutimann without a ride next year. Red Bull Racing was in a unique position as both sponsor and owner of two teams, but they’ve decided to shut down operations. As of December 8th, all members of that team were let go. And in addition to being out a paycheck, those guys and gals no longer have medical insurance. Trust me, I realize what a big deal that can be after I blew out my knee (again) in August. I owe the hospital more than I made this year… by a wide margin.
Yeah, the economy is tough. Yet when I watch my old VHS tapes of races during the 1980s and ’90s, it never fails to amaze me how many Fortune 500 companies have left the sport, leaving sponsors with deep pockets few and far between. If we’re to weather this storm, NASCAR needs to find ways to cut costs to the teams so that a team with less than ten million in sponsorship (and preferably half that amount) could be competitive. And while they’re at it, with so few fish left in the pond NASCAR needs to stop angling for those same corporate dollars by selling the rights to be the “Official Something Of NASCAR.”
The Busch Brothers Behave Badly: Man, what a pair these two jokers (not my first choice of words) are. I’m not sure how either of them survived high school much less made it to the Cup ranks.
While he led the points early in the season, elder brother Kurt was tough to satisfy. He constantly berated his crew chief, pit crew, team, and engineers over the radio. At times, he had the audacity to cuss out legendary team owner Roger Penske. He had numerous fallings out with the media this year, which culminated in the now infamous incident at Homestead with Dr. Jerry Punch, one of the most respected members of the media.
Kyle Busch’s episodes started with getting caught speeding on a public highway at 128 MPH, roughly triple the speed limit and not far from a school in session and the area where Rob Moroso was killed in a high speed crash. He had his little dustup at Darlington with Kevin Harvick, which led to a rather lopsided fist fight with AARP member Richard Childress, who had been warning Kyle for more than a year if he tore up one more piece of RCR equipment the owner was going to kick his ass. Busch made the Chase after winning four races, but true to form, once in the title hunt he went into meltdown mode. That frustration culminated with Busch’s now infamous on-track mugging of Ron Hornaday, costing the Truck Series veteran a shot at the title while putting him at risk of serious injury. Busch being Busch, he managed to destroy his own truck in the incident as well. If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t level an anthill.
At one point, it looked like Kyle might be out much more than a truck as well. For a week there, it looked like he might be out a job. In fact, his sponsor got so much negative feedback on their boy they decided they didn’t want him flying their colors for the final two races of the season. Somehow, NASCAR allowed Busch to compete in the final two races of the season and somehow, Joe Gibbs lined up alternate sponsorship for those two events. I’ll admit earlier this week I needed two batteries for the GMC to prepare it for the winter. I didn’t buy Interstate Batteries, though they were on sale (I went with Dekka instead) simply because I’m not going to spend my money on the products of any firm foolish enough to align themselves with Busch.
What infuriates me is that Roger Penske finally decided to cut his losses and let Kurt Busch go but Kyle still has a job. While unpleasant, Kurt’s unseemly tantrum at Homestead lacked even the implied threat of violence against Punch. Kyle could have killed Hornaday at Texas. Yet in NASCAR’s eyes, at least, both offenses were equal. Both of the Busch brothers were fined the same $50,000 for their abhorrent behavior.
The Tragic Death of Dan Wheldon: Only months after winning the Indy 500, Dan Wheldon was killed in an early race wreck during the IndyCar season finale held at Las Vegas. If it wasn’t the most savage wreck in the history of motorsports (that award should go to the LeMans wreck that killed a driver and around 85 spectators) the incident was certainly the worst accident ever broadcast on TV live. The aftermath looked like a passenger jet had crashed onto the circuit. As such, the lurid replays of the wreck made it to media venues that typically don’t even give auto racing a thought, including all three major nightly news broadcasts that Monday night. The common thread of those newscasts seemed to be, “What are those idiots doing out there and what sort of ghouls pay to watch them do it?”
Wheldon’s tragic death was a horrific reminder that even in this era of SAFER barriers, HANS devices and numerous other commendable safety innovations over the last decade at the heart of the matter racing remains a dangerous sport. Had it not been for those SAFER barriers, Jimmie Johnson’s Charlotte wreck the night previous to Wheldon’s death would almost certainly have been fatal. The angle and the impact looked eerily similar to one that took place at Daytona on February 18th, 2001.
Though Johnson miraculously walked away from that crash, now is no time for the powers that be in NASCAR to get complacent. In this year’s Daytona 500, ten years after his father’s death at the same track, Junior managed to auger the No. 88 car into a section of the wall STILL not protected by a SAFER barrier. Jeff Gordon has joked about being a crash test dummy because every time he wrecks hard, he manages to find an unprotected section of wall. Elliott Sadler’s 2010 wreck at Pocono was savage enough that it sent his engine tumbling across the track. Fortunately, Pocono attended to that matter this year and upped their safety standards.
No, racing cars is never going to be completely risk free. But let Dan Wheldon’s legacy be that his death serves as a reminder when it comes to safety there’s no way for any sanctioning body to do enough to promote it. Because, in the end, there’s no way to do enough when trying to preserve human life.
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