Matt McLaughlin · Wednesday December 5, 2012
Editor’s Note: Our apologies on being a day late and a dollar short on posting Part II. After all, it is the offseason! For Part I of Matt’s look back on the end of 2012, click here.
As you know I am retired, officially so I can offer the following only as anecdotal evidence. What were the two big stories in NASCAR this year? Working at an auto parts store, a place where you’d expect a fair amount of the clientele to be car guys and race fans, and in addition hanging in the classic car community near 24/7, I can tell you what folks talked to me about. First and foremost, they talked about the near disaster with the jet dryer at Daytona. Of course, their curiosity was heightened by the fact that despite having around 80 cameras at the track, FOX by and large missed the incident itself, leaving baffled boys in the booth wondering just what in the hell had happened. (But you don’t expect a wreck under caution, right? Hmm… I seem to remember Joe Cooksey in the ARCA race wrecking the pace car under caution. Or the time the pace car got its revenge and took out Bryce Carlson’s race car under caution at Texas. There’s a fundamental truism at a race track… you never turn your back on a moving race car.)
The second incident that drew a lot of casual and non-fan’s attention, and recall this was nine months later, was Jeff Gordon’s mental meltdown at Phoenix when he decided to wreck Clint Bowyer, a thuggish move that also collected Joey Logano. As soon as I arrived at work, my co-workers wanted to know, “what the hell was that all about and what is NASCAR going to do about it?” They wanted to know if Gordon had actually been in the melee by the pit box throwing punches and if Bowyer had ever caught up with him. None of them had actually been watching the race, but they’d seen the coverage of the incident on SportsCenter while waiting to see the highlights of that afternoon’s NFL action. Among the more informed fans (and customers) the general consensus was, “If Kyle Busch got parked for wrecking Hornaday in that Truck race, Gordon needs to sit out this weekend.” Others harbored darker thoughts. Gordon was, after all well and truly out of title contention. His teammate (in fact, Gordon is listed as de facto owner of the No. 48 team) was engaged in a tight title bout with Keselowski. Charging into the picture was a surprisingly resurgent Bowyer, looking to spoil the party as third in points. That little late race dust-up eliminated any chances Bowyer had for winning the big prize. Team orders? I’d like to think not. Gordon is one of the elder statesmen of the sport. His character and talent have been tested numerous times in the heat of title battles and races. Only very occasionally has his temper flared out of control on or off the track. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not surprised if others think something smells rotten in Denmark.
From the same perspective, let me tell you what nobody was talking about at the store this year. First and foremost, they weren’t talking about NASCAR. Nobody seemed interested in the title battle between Johnson and Keselowski as it waxed and waned during the Chase. Nobody seemed concerned that Busch and Kevin Harvick were struggling down the stretch. Nobody really seemed to give a damn that after a stellar 2011 season, Carl Edwards couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. If there was any moaning and hand-wringing Dodge was leaving the sport, I never heard it online or in person. What seems to have stopped mattering worth a large pile of legumes to NASCAR itself is that the Bean Channel is probably getting bigger ratings. NASCAR TV audiences are down, and down at an alarming rate. But those who are supposed to care? They don’t seem to. Yeah, I’ve read this one before. The HMS Titanic is unsinkable, sir, we’re just stopping off for a bit of ice.
Have you nothing to say positive, you cranky old bastard, some of you are thinking by now. I do indeed and let me shout it from the rooftop. In a break of character worthy of Lindsay joining a cloistered order of Nuns, NASCAR decided to try something radical next year. If you hadn’t heard, next year the Truck Series will head to a short track, a decade after weeding most such tracks from the schedule even though that’s where the Truck Series was birthed. And this isn’t just any short track where the trucks will race. This is Eldora, a tiny little dirt track owned by Tony Stewart and legendary amongst the Outlaws ranks. That’s right; a top-tier NASCAR series is going to take them out and get them dirty. I’ve espoused the idea of a NASCAR Touring series returning to the dirt for a decade but as I’ve done so, I’ve always felt like a kid who lives in an apartment in the Bronx asking for a pony for Christmas.
Running the trucks on a dirt track is no simple business. They’ll need a new aero package for Eldora that doesn’t give one manufacturer an advantage. Goodyear is going to have to develop a special tire for the event, perhaps even one with tread if there’s to be a good race this July. Perhaps almost as astounding is this event won’t be a Friday night race. The race is scheduled for a Wednesday night. That will allow Cup regulars, N-W competitors, and even drivers from other disciplines of racing (several have expressed interest) a chance to compete. Midweek summer races are another cause I have promoted for years while feeling like a monkey seeking self-gratification in a gum-gum tree.
This idea isn’t NASCAR just pushing the edges of the envelope. It’s NASCAR tearing the envelope to shreds, tossing the pieces aside, hopping off the desk and heading down the basement to the rumba room, limbo sticks in hand. It’s NASCAR finally listening to disenfranchised fans who can’t stomach the bland fare they’ve been serving up in all three touring series the last decade. Maybe the Eldora race will be a disaster, with only a few trucks finishing and the winner two laps ahead of the field. I don’t think that will happen, but even if it does this experiment is a noble one worth trying. NASCAR, after a decade of denial, is finally listening to the fans. We’ll have to wait until July to see how the experiment works out and I, for one can’t count the days until it does. I wish I could say the same about a longer race they’ll be holding in late February in Daytona…
Speaking of Bowyer, who deserves the honor of NASCAR’s “Driver of the Year?” Well, Brad Keselowski of course. All drivers compete for the prize but only one gets the Big Enchilada. However, the first runner-up has to be Bowyer. Recall, a little over a year ago Bowyer was damaged goods, unsure where he’d be driving in 2012 after the loss of his sponsor(s) at RCR. (Mainly General Mills.) In an almost unprecedented deal, Bowyer approached Childress with money on the table, a letter of intent from 5-Hour Energy to sponsor a full-time effort in the Cup Series for 2012. In an even more unprecedented move, given the state of the economy and the sport Childress turned down that option. It didn’t fit with his long-term plan for RCR, one which obviously involves his two grandsons. (Even stalwart Kevin Harvick has seen what’s going on and decided to bail after 2013. Childress has pretty much indicated he doesn’t give a damn and he’s got sponsorship in place for his grandson even if Bud bails with Harvick.) Left with limited to no options, Bowyer signed with Michael Waltrip Racing, an organization that quite frankly had been a joke people, including Toyota, were getting tired of. To walk into that situation, that late in the year and to end up winning three times (at a road course, a short track and a superspeedway) was impressive. To total 23 top-10 finishes overall, making the Chase and finishing second in points with a new car on that team is nothing short of amazing.
Conversely, the biggest disappointment in the sport this year has got to be RCR. Yeah, Harvick kind of backed into the Chase but he was never a factor once it began. He ended up eighth in the standings and, of course, posted that one win at Phoenix in what amounted to a battle of “Last Man Standing” when NASCAR failed to throw a caution flag late whilst Harvick was in the midst of running out of gas. His two teammates, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton, struggled to finish sixteenth and nineteenth in the points, respectively. Between the three full-time RCR teams, the drivers managed eight of a possible 108 top-5 finishes, about a seven and a half percent batting average. Things were a bit brighter on the other side of the shop, where apparently the money and attention were being spent. Austin Dillon won twice and finished third in the points, while younger brother Ty won once and finished fourth in the points. Both Dillon brothers, down the stretch appeared serious title contenders but late-season problems bit them both. Meanwhile, for reasons not readily apparent late in the year Elliott Sadler, who once appeared a shoe-in for the N-W title became persona non-gratis and was set afloat on an ice drift. I have no idea what was going on at RCR this year, but I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall to capture the behind-the-scenes soap opera that increasingly featured the Dillon boys.
The official name of the ceremonies leading up to the Awards Banquet? “Strip Seize.” Classy guys, very classy. Did anyone else, even Brian France his very own self, note that the Betty Jean France Humanitarian Award was being given out during “Strip Tease”? I sure did.
So what did I think of the Awards Banquet itself? To be frank, I didn’t watch it. I had to floss my teeth that night. The ceremony has become so lame that I simply can’t. It’s that bad. I don’t care if it’s in Las Vegas, New York, Tucson, Tucumcari, Tehachapi, or Tonopah. It has become, as I have said before, a three-hour commercial which is often interrupted by commercials. It all spun out of control too many years ago to count. That year, Bill France, Jr. was unable to attend the big party as he was hospitalized. Naturally, he was watching the extravaganza but nature called and he had to use the restroom. When he returned, the broadcast was showing some bizarre act where people were dancing and performing gymnastics while twisted up in curtains. “Who the Hell changed the channel?” a baffled France asked. Well Mr. France, let’s be frank. This year, everyone who tried to endure the awards broadcast changed the channel, probably within 15 minutes. They could catch their favorite driver’s comments later that night on YouTube and probably didn’t bother. In its prime, the banquet was a silly diversion. Its now become an annoying test of endurance. Change the channel, please.
Here’s an oddity from the awards nightmare. This year’s “Sponsor of the Year” (Well, actually, Marketing Achievement Award) went to Mars. As best I recall, Vile Kyle, won once this year, at Richmond, missed the Chase and finished 13th in the points. I’m clueless as to how much candy that sold but will admit I still feel dirty when I very occasionally buy a sack of M and M’s out of habit. About the last notable thing Mars did was to sit out the last few races of last year after their driver’s reprehensible behavior, but they didn’t have the balls to fire his ass. My vote for Sponsor Of The Year? (And as you know, NASCAR relentlessly hounds me for my input every season): Miller Brewing. It would be unfair to say this longtime supporter hasn’t enjoyed some success along the way. But Miller hasn’t won a title since 1983, when Bobby Allison drove the white and red Miller car yet they’ve stuck around anyway. Mars ain’t no sort of place to raise your kids; in fact, it’s cold as hell.
Here’s a shocker out of Vegas. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won Most Popular Driver honors for the tenth time in a row, matching Bill Elliott’s record. Junior’s fans have a turn out the vote effort every year that would be the envy of the Obama campaign, just as Elliott’s partisans did every year until he asked them to stop. I’m rather tired of the whole sham. Let’s at least make it meaningful. Right now, fans can vote for their favorite driver at no cost as many times as they want. Let each driver nominated for the award name a charity. Let fans vote for any driver as many times as they want, but let each vote result in a one dollar charge towards their credit card posted to their driver’s charity. All votes exercised result in a donation, not just the winner’s. Sure, there will be a lot fewer ties, but a lot more good will result from what has, in fact become a meaningless exercise.
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