The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: NASCAR's Summer of Discontent by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 24, 2012

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MPM2Nite: NASCAR's Summer of Discontent

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 24, 2012

 

In my mind I’ve always divided the Cup season into three segments. The first, the Spring Segment, runs from the season opening Daytona 500 to the Coca-Cola 600 (i.e., World 600) over Memorial Day weekend. During this opening segment we start sorting the contenders from the pretenders as drivers and teams jockey to assert themselves as potential champions. Well, OK with the silly Chase format these days — they’re actually jockeying for one of those safe top 10 spots for the Chase.

The second segment, which I call the Summer Stretch runs from Dover until the Labor Day weekend race which is at Atlanta this year rather than at Darlington as it shoulda oughta be. Yes, I am aware meteorological summer doesn’t start until June 21st. But if you grew up as I did Memorial Day weekend kicked off the summer season at the Jersey Shore, (not beach…it’s a Jersey thing) and that’s where the fondest memories of my childhood and adolescence were forged running bopping down the beach down by the tilt-a-whirl. It is during this portion of the season that some drivers who started the year slowly will emerge as potential contenders while others who started the season strong will see their chances fall apart.

The final segment is the Fall Finale. In this era of the Chase that includes the 26th event of the season, the Richmond night race which cements the twelve potential champions and the ten races that decide who that champion is. For a lot of fans that mean’s it’s time to channel surf between the race and the regional NFL game.

Right now it’s shaping up to be a real long summer that’s going to have NASCAR shedding fans like a shaking retriever puppy fresh out of the bath sheds water.

Whatever momentum NASCAR had going after a dramatic championship battle last year and the surprise Monday night time slot for the Daytona 500 (featuring an exploding jet dryer) has long since been squandered – and then some. Using the various forms of electronic communications available to them fans are expressing extreme amounts of discontent and frustration with a sport that was once a cornerstone of their weekends.

They say the races have become boring and sanitized. They rue the lack of side by side fender banging action, the lack of passes for the lead, and the top 10 often running separated by polite several second intervals. They’re disheartened by the lack of displays of genuine human emotion on the part of the drivers, though as Kurt Busch discovered (again) while we want to see a little emotion and drama we don’t need to see someone make an ass of himself. Interest in the sport is waning and if Brian France thinks the great and wonderful Danica is going to reignite the flame, his vision is clearly clouded to the point that he needs a seeing-eye dog. (Sorry, service-animal.)

When they came up with the current Cup schedule it was almost as if NASCAR took dead aim and shot themselves in the foot. Over the last few year’s the tracks scheduled during the Summer Stretch have featured lackluster droning parades with the outcomes too often decided by fuel mileage. So what tracks are part of the Summer Stretch? They’ll race at Dover, Pocono (twice) Michigan (twice), Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Bristol and Atlanta.

“And the crowd goes mild!” This scene from Michigan following a Tuesday rain-delayed 2007 race might be a bit exaggerated. However, there’s a reason why they removed a large swath of grandstands last year.

I don’t see an AKC Blue Ribbon winner anywhere in that litter.

Despite my cynicism I remain at heart an eternal optimist. I’ve been following racing long enough to realize that on any given Sunday at any given track there could be a classic race that everyone will be talking about for months afterwards. The Kansas track may have produced some of the worst races I’ve ever endured, but I still remember a magical afternoon back in 2004 when Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd went at it hammer and tongs for a win, decided by less than a tenth of a second.

A lot of folks don’t like Pocono but most of them will recall a Monday afternoon there in 2000 when Jeremy Mayfield rattled the Intimidator’s cage out of the final corner to take the win, even though Earnhardt has now been eleven years in his grave. While I don’t like road course races (and they are usually amongst the lowest rated TV races all season), I will admit both last years races with right turns featured some incredible action.

500 grueling miles used to have drivers, teams, and fans alike screaming “Poc-Oh No!” Mercifully, the distance has been reduced to 400 miles for 2012.

There are also some stories I’m anxious to see play out this summer. Bruton Smith is spending a ton of money trying to bring back the old “bullring” at Bristol. (Frankly I’m afraid he’s wasting his money. I think the problem at Bristol is how the drivers points race these days not the track surface.) Both Pocono and Michigan have been repaved which ought to shuffle the deck some the first time out. In addition the two Pocono events have been shortened from 500 miles to 400.

I’m anxious to see if that helps eliminate the long boring stretches during the middle of the race where the drivers set it on cruise control. A valid argument could be made that 400 miles is still too long and 300 miles would be better still. In fact I’ll go ahead and say every race with the exception of the Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500 ought to have their distances slashed in half as the worst part of most races is the middle. If drivers are only going to race the last fifteen laps in the Firecracker 400, how about we make the races 25 laps long and get out of there in under an hour.

Some races I’m pretty much resigned to being terrible. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of road courses or plate racing. There have been some memorable winners at the Brickyard, but not a single memorable NASCAR race I can recall. I keep a DVD of recent Michigan races handy for nights that I have trouble falling asleep. Using a DVD of any New Hampshire race for the same purpose would just be self abuse. Atlanta is just one of those tracks where either the race is terrible or its outstanding with few falling in between. My favorite Dover race was run awhile back featuring Bill Elliott in Junior Johnson’s Bud Ford against Ricky Rudd in the Tide car. Had Elliott won that race he would have in fact been the 1992 Cup champion.

Let’s look at the bright side. After Dover, DW and the FOX crew will pack their things and boogity, boogity, boogity out of town for another yearm leaving a wake of aural torture, misguided notions, unsold Digger t-shirts, swimsuit pictures of Danica, and lame single car and wreck footage. Truthfully, I never thought FOX could get any worse, but this year they’ve been relentlessly putrid. I feel that their coverage or lack thereof is one of the reasons fans have adopted a mindset the racing is awful.

McLaughlin has never been a fan of road course racing at Infineon Raceway or Watkins Glen. Apparently nothing interesting ever happens there.

In my opinion no network, not even ESPN in its glory days back when, can make an awful race seem like a good one. No network, not even FOX at the extremes of their ineptitude, can make a great race seem like a bad one. But in their day, Parsons, Jarrett and Jenkins could make a decent race a pleasure to watch, while FOX’s coverage of such an event makes it intolerable. Most fans I interact with think the brief weeks of the season that TNT covers are the best race broadcasts, even if they’re not necessarily the best races of the year. Then ESPN takes the reins, though their only interest in NASCAR lately seems to be using it as a platform to promote upcoming and even concurrent college football games.

My guess is that they’ll be a lot less voices complaining about racing this summer not because most of the races won’t suck but because they’ll be dramatically fewer former fans following the sport. Come on, folks, it is after all sweet, sweet, summertime, summertime (or it’s about to be and frankly in these parts its often felt like summer time even in February this year.) It’s time for a carnival life down the shore in Jersey and the beach in the other coastal states. It’s time for neighborhood barbecues and tossing horseshoes with your friends, ‘till cold beer renders you unable to even hit the pit.

For folks of my ilk, it’s time for long rides in the saddle of a V-twin motorcycle, the sun on your back and the pipes singing a staccato opera. For others its afternoons on the boat in open water and trying to land that big old bass that got away last year. It’s time for amusement parks (rising bold and stark), clambakes and county fairs featuring country singers I won’t put a name to, because you’re all bored of the joke and I’m afraid of getting sued. It’s time for car shows. It’s time for girls in their summer clothes and the intriguing possibilities they present though like those bass they usually get away.

It’s time for hot summer nights on the front porch counting the fireflies and smelling the tiger lilies hoping for a breeze as Orion chases the Pleiades sisters in a violet sky above. It’s time for carefully polished old fire engines and Shriners on monkey bikes in the Fourth of July parades and dazzling fireworks displays to celebrate our great fortune to be Americans. It’s time to stomp open the four barrels of an old muscle car riding home from the fireworks with Sandy* blasting as loud as that old 8-track can manage.

I don’t mind a stock car race on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It passes the time. But for most of us when the mercury rises, the sun is shining and living is easy it just seems a shame to waste four hours of your life watching a race that likely will leave you frustrated and angry not excited and sated. As one of my readers, DKAP, wrote in the comments section under Monday’s recap “It’s getting to the point where a person can’t drink enough beer to make this ‘racing’ interesting.”

  • Yes, I know it’s actually Fourth of July, Asbury Park, but you don’t know my lifetime ago girlfriend Sandy.

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///CLONED//CAR//
05/24/2012 05:21 AM
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No nASACR weekend for me. Gone fishing.

A Red Carr
05/24/2012 07:08 AM
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The First Indy was a good one. Jeff Gordon winning after battling Ernie Irvan. The Bodine brothers putting on a great show with Geoff crashing and Brett finishing 2nd. But it’s funny I was there and I knew I never wanted to go back … and that was eighteen years ago.

Joe Hickory
05/24/2012 07:38 AM
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It obvious now days everyone is “strokin” as they use to say.
Just counting the points needed to make the “chase”.
I think they should give a very large amount of money to the mid season points leader. That might get some real racing started at some point.

Gordon85Wins
05/24/2012 07:56 AM
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I freed up my Sunday afternoons a couple of years ago. There’s usually something better on now.

The NFL was once threatened by NASCAR before the wonderful chase, now it bats NASCAR around in the ratings like a toy.

john
05/24/2012 09:25 AM
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Still love the road courses, still wish there were more of them.

Bill B
05/24/2012 10:50 AM
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First, some very fine Rockwell images there Matt. Almost as if you are advertising summer and living life instead of NASCAR. Good call.

The only problem I see with shortening the races are for the schmucks that actually go to the track. It’s much harder to convince someone to drive 3 hours each way for a two hour event (at least in the numbers most tracks need to fill the stands). I suppose they could run both the NW and Cup races on the same day for added value but I’m still not sure that would sweeten the deal enough. (It would end cup drivers driving in the NW races though).

It seems with each year the NASCAR flame in me dims a little bit more. I keep waiting for things to get “fixed” but it ain’t happening. It’s a combination of so many things that there almost needs to be a total reboot:
the cars, the rules, the broadcasts, the chase, the prevalence of 1.5 mile tracks as opposed to shorter tracks, the list just goes on and on. And you can’t forget the economy with respect to track attendance (although the economy can be factored out with respect to tv ratings).

The bottom line for me is that I am loyal to Jeff Gordon and that’s the only thing that keeps me watching (and brother it’s been hard this year). When he retires the relevance I give NASCAR in my life will be re-evaluated. I may become a casual fan, I may walk away, or I may become a DVR fan (condensing the race into an hour or less).

NASCAR has been on the hot seat with their fans since BF took over and they are either too stupid to realize it or they just don’t care.

pepper
05/24/2012 10:58 AM
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Things killing my desire for NASCAR;

The Waltrips

The Chase

The COT

NASCAR inconsistency

Ninty-five percent of the media

Sue Rarick
05/24/2012 11:35 AM
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I haven’t sat through a complete race all year. The exception will be this weekend. Like your memories of the Jersey Shore (Where I made a pretty darn good income playing the bars like the Beachcomber, Joe Pops and Tony Marts) I will watch the trifecta of racing – The Monaco GP, Indy 500 and the 600. Then I will go back to reading about the races as I wake up to my coffee.

AncientRacer
05/24/2012 11:39 AM
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I dunno, Matt. The World 600 has, IMO, outlived its usefulness.

I grew up schooled to believe it was the “mechanics’ race”. This was before the full-on corporatizing of NASCAR; when “areo” was just the first part of the word “Airplane” if you were British; when real cars not made-up cars raced; when Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed had wind tunnels and the Woods, Junior Johnson, Dale Inman and others, some now lost to time, built their cars and engines. When the thing was to see who could manage to build a car from stock roots that could manage to hold together long enough to win the damn thing.

Nowadays it is a much too long version of the All-Star Race. On each Green Flag run someone will get out front and check out until a hot dog wrapper flutters onto the track and Race Control hits the debris button (inserting a “yawn” seems appropriate here).

Then you have the Waltrips and the blind as a bat production truck. Oh my.

And you are right about the summer stretch — something which makes me happy I can get, via the majick of actual science, broadcasts of the Canadian Tire Series.

Sherri T
05/24/2012 12:00 PM
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Great article Matt!

I definitely agree with Bill B. As a Gordon fan, I’ve been trying to keep my attitude in the “up” mode, but I’m hanging on by my fingernails now.

I tend to fall on the “they don’t care” side of things as far as NASCAR’s interest in the fan’s discontent.

I also agree with a lot of Pepper’s points – placing most of my discontent with #1 the Chase and #2 really bad TV coverage (mostly bad camera/directing).

sigh

laidbackracing
05/24/2012 12:06 PM
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pepper….AMEN!!!!! couldn’t have said it better myself….

just talking
05/24/2012 12:09 PM
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I remember being on the “shore” a long time ago and seeing a horse go up an elevator and diving into a pool. Of course I was really really drunk – so who knows.

Thanks for bringing me back.

Nascar needs to worry when the anger changes to apathy. From some of the remarks above, that process has already started.

If you antagonize the core fans, the ones who got you here, and don’t add new fans – what have you got?

Bruce
05/24/2012 12:10 PM
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This article nailed it pretty good. The TV coverage is horrible. There is way more bias in the commentators and pit reporters than back in they 70’s-1990’s. Watching a race is more like watching a parade or a train go by one car right after another. Shameless over-hyped promotion of a 2nd rate driver known as Danica won’t fix any of this. They need to reduce the aero dependency of the cars. Keep the splitter up off the track to reduce the areo dynamics. Do something to drop speeds by 10-20mph at the 1.5 mile tracks. Do those 2 things and you’ll have some racing.

Matt
05/24/2012 12:28 PM
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JT,
You were at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and yes that was a real horse jumping into the pool from a dizzying height.

Rob Bolling
05/24/2012 01:29 PM
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NASCAR was mortally wounded Sunday Feb. 18th 2001.

All of the gimmicks began after that day.

Some good things happened, SAFER Barriers, mandatory restraint systems and safer cockpits.

At the same time, chases and spec cars invaded our beloved sport.

I don’t think you can overstate the loss of a true legend, and you can’t replace the dark presence that was brought to the track week in and week out. It was a dark presence that the sport needed, and it was one of integrity. Never wavering, never frivolous. Simply always no holds barred and capable of backing up the image.

The closest thing I have seen since was Stewart at the end of last year, and to the closest degree, at Homestead, but no one holds their breath every time Tony is on their back bumper.

There simply is no one out there that wears the black hat like he did. There is no antagonist in the story that threatens all of the other cowboys.

The “forced parity” and gimmickry that NASCAR perpetuates almost guarantees that we have seen the end of what kept us coming back week after week. There is no longer someone we love as fanatically or love to hate with as great a passion or reason.

No spoiled brat, do something stupid kind of bad guy will bring back the true “dark presence” that the sport lost that day.

The presence that said, “I will do whatever it takes to win” died that day and with it, so did much of the soul of NASCAR.

From now on, NASCAR will follow the marketing surveys and gimmick their way to entertaining the passer by “new fan”. After all, we fans that grew up with NASCAR in the 70’s and 80’s don’t spend money like the younger generations do and it is really open wallets they are interested in. I just believe they have forgotten what keeps wallets open requires integrity and substance.

SHOEMAN
05/24/2012 01:48 PM
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I have noticed since THE CHASE has been around the lack of interest in NASCAR. Why do you think that is?

GinaV24
05/24/2012 01:54 PM
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Matt, you made me very nostalgic with your comments about the Jersey shore in the summertime. I’m probably going to bail out of actively watching the races for most of the summer. I agree that TNT does the best job of actually covering the races of the 3 broadcast groups – even though as said, they have the WORST selection of tracks. Racebuddy is awesome!

Fox has become the cult of personality for coverage and ESPN has its script to follow and so neither of them actually seem to be interested in covering the actual race.

When you said that about Bruton wasting his money, I have to say I thought the same thing. As long as the chase is the end goal, the track configuration will have little to do with how they race.

Mile and a half tracks and the aero dependence (wasn’t the COT supposed to fix that?) along with the introduction of the chase has resulted in lackluster competition. The media guys, the drivers and NASCAR mouthpieces can all SAY that the “racing has never been better” but if TV doesn’t show it to the fans at home and if I go to a track and watch a parade for hrs on end, well, as a fan, I feel cheated. No, I’m not wanting to see them wrecking all the time, but I do want to see actual competition.

Funny how all the advertising is wrecks and beating and banging. Problem is that doesn’t exist very often and the fans have figured it out.

So since all of the powers that be seem to think that we fans are either bloodthirsty, too stupid to appreciate “good” racing or “needy”, well I’ll just take my time and money and do something else with it for the summer.

One of my friends just gave up cable completely. I’m giving that a lot of consideration myself.

Excellent comments from all the posters above as well. I, too, am a Jeff Gordon fan – when he retires, I doubt that I’ll continue to follow the debacle that the sport has become – it simply isn’t worth the effort.

Rocky
05/24/2012 02:30 PM
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Good article Matt, writers are supposed to inspire us to think for ourselves and you’re one of the best at this racing writing. It seems to me that NA$CAR has run out of ideas. Here’s mine, one race a year let the crew chiefs have at it. The rules are as follows: you have to run the stock frame and roll cage with the 358ci engine, other than that lets see how innovative they can get! Any chassis setup, transmission, or rear end setup is okay. Let’s even throw in traction control. If someone showed up with a six speed tranny with traction control, we would quickly separate the men from the boys if this race was run on an intermediate track or less. Ah yes, Watkins Glen with traction control and six gears would equal Nirvana!!!

Matt
05/24/2012 02:36 PM
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I have to agree with Rob on this one.
The thing that makes me miss Dale the most isn’t that the other drivers were afraid of him, it’s that the management was. Can you imagine the fear in Brian Frances eyes upon walking into his massive office to find “The Man” sitting in his chair, at his desk, starting to give him a verbal a$$-whipping for the ludicrous chase? Or allowing the harder tire? Debris cautions? It’s really an amusing image.
Dale was the only one around who was actually outspoken, had enough power in the sport, and enough common sense and knowledge of the sports past and present to keep Brian France, his stupid ideas, and the whiney divers at bay. Here’s another one, can you imagine Dales reaction if another driver got out of the car after a race and complained that Dale was racing him “too hard?” That driver would have been laughed at by Dale, and because of Dales example, he would be laughed out of the garage by the other drivers as well. That kind of behavior would have never been tolerated 15 years ago.

I miss Dale.

The Mad Man
05/24/2012 02:41 PM
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Ditto what pepper said.

Matt
05/24/2012 02:43 PM
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By the way, this “Matt”, the one who just made the Dale comment, isn’t the same Matt that is the author of the article :)

john
05/24/2012 03:11 PM
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The only problem I see with shortening the races are for the schmucks that actually go to the track. It’s much harder to convince someone to drive 3 hours each way for a two hour event (at least in the numbers most tracks need to fill the stands). I suppose they could run both the NW and Cup races on the same day for added value but I’m still not sure that would sweeten the deal enough. (It would end cup drivers driving in the NW races though).

Then why not? A World of Outlaws Sprint Car feature is only 50 laps and, even counting cautions, can often fit inside 30 minutes. That’s why they fill the evening with other classes racing, and heat races.

This is why I love the Truck Series (at least when Cup drivers don’t show up to ruin it)… The races usually work out to about 2 hours, which gives you just enough time for a couple pit stops, for strategy reasons, but also a short enough race that guys are driving 100% from the get go.

So why not have a smaller opening show on Sunday? Either Trucks, or a local series (if applicable to the track).

But, keep the Coke 600, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 (either that or just don’t go to Indy, it sucks anyway), and the Southern 500. Otherwise, shorten all the races.

john
05/24/2012 03:14 PM
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And yeah, easily the best stockcar racing on the continent remains the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. If you live in the States, you owe yourself to find somewhere online to watch it. Half road course, half oval (all short tracks) and really, really fun and competitive.

gasman
05/24/2012 04:39 PM
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I totally agree with Rob in reguards to Feb 2001. Taking that a step further, what would have been Dale Sr. race plan for this years allstar race format….win one and sandbag till the final segment, or smoke the field each segment and let the rest of the garage know, he’s ready for the 600.

GinaV24
05/24/2012 05:24 PM
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Matt (the poster), I love that image of Dale E in BZF’s office. That made me smile! Sorry for many reasons that it can’t happen.

AncientRacer
05/24/2012 06:04 PM
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I think of Dale often, too and in exactly the way Rob wrote, but I do not talk much about him or his absence anymore because I find whenever I do “Glory Days” starts playing in my head.

SB
05/24/2012 08:22 PM
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Ancient…I hear “Like A Rock”.

gasman
05/24/2012 08:58 PM
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I go back far enough reading Matt, that I recall him using the Stephen Stills Manassas song, “So begins the task” after the death of Dale Sr. I still listen to the song, and always recall when nascar racing was a weekly part of my life. In 11 years, no one has stepped in, and with the decisions from last several years, I’m just about ready to go from a “part time fan”, to a “no time fan.”

Russ
05/24/2012 10:20 PM
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Good article, but I doubt that anyone can put their finger on whats wrong. Certainly points racing, (btw did you ever attend a race to see who was leading in points at the end?) the Chase and on and on.
BUT, is it that we remember racing that didnt really happen that way? Or, has the sport just been passed by?

Bad Wolf
05/24/2012 11:50 PM
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“I think of Dale often, too and in exactly the way Rob wrote, but I do not talk much about him or his absence anymore because I find whenever I do “Glory Days” starts playing in my head.”

I hear “Gimme Back My Bullets”

Fear not, Nascar has a fix for the troubled Stock Car Wracelin, and it’s all about going green.

http://washingtonexaminer.com/politics/washington-secrets/2012/05/epa-nascar-green-deal-covers-everything-racing/640431

DoninAjax
05/25/2012 12:23 AM
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Dale Earnhardt and Richie Evans meant the same to their series’. They were never the same after.

Matt L
05/25/2012 12:47 PM
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Yeah, I’m pretty much on the same boat. I only watched the last 10 minutes of the All-Star race last weekend, it was a great decision.

It just seems like time has caught up to NASCAR. The cars and equiptment are so advanced, tough, and durable, a 500 mile race is more grueling for the fans than the cars.

Before the wave-around it was much harder to overcome falling a lap or more down. It required drivers to RACE very hard to stay on the lead lap or get the lap back. The aggressive driving led to some bumping…and some more bumping…and probably a wreck and some tempers. But now, they can coast around until NASCAR throws a caution for a beer can.

Even from my perspective, I would not notice the poor racing as much if the cars actually looked nice. There was loads of aero-push in the early 2000’s, but the cars looked so slick, just watching them race was entertaining enough. Thank God the POS COT is getting a facelift in 2013.

upgrayedd
05/26/2012 10:56 PM
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This season I’ve been recording the races and then watching them in fast forward. I didn’t set of the DVR for the All Star race and I didn’t miss it one bit.

A lot of people are complaining that the racing is becoming too contrived. The All Star race is the epitome of that. Why not just get rid of the cars and have the drivers wrestle in a ring WWE style?

The only races I plan on watching this summer are the two road courses.