The Frontstretch: NCAA's Cinderellas Reminder Of NASCAR's Fragile Glass Slipper by Thomas Bowles -- Monday March 24, 2008

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NCAA's Cinderellas Reminder Of NASCAR's Fragile Glass Slipper

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 24, 2008

 

More than just the Easter Bunny occupied the NASCAR fan's attention this weekend. Coinciding with the break in the Cup schedule was the beginning of the fastest-growing tournament-style sporting event to hit America each year; and as a result, race fan's minds were busy being filled with basketballs, not Goodyears, this holiday season. With the 65-team NCAA Tournament getting underway, America's productivity screeched to a halt as the first two rounds played out upon a national stage. Office pools, not office memos, become the order of business on a Thursday; and even for the most dedicated racing fan, Friday night became as much about what 12 seed was going to break through as to who's in the best position to win the Nationwide Series race the following day.

Yes, this college basketball tournament has been gaining popularity on pace with NASCAR over the past decade; and as such, men and women that wouldn't even know how to dribble a basketball have become enamored with programs that come from schools they can't even locate on a map. Belmont, American, Cal State Fullerton; unknowns just days earlier, they spent their games puncturing the heart of our sporting consciousness, producing 15 minutes of fame while facing off against bigger, stronger, and faster opponents.

In hindsight, it's easy to recognize through those small schools why and how this event has become so popular; in a country in which anything is possible, we thrive on rooting for the underdog. Hopes and dreams lies within places like Siena, Davidson, and Western Kentucky (all of whom won their first round matchups on the weekend) - not just for them, but for all of us. While these are places we may have never even heard of, their story of resilience in face of bigger, stronger adversaries is something we relate to our everyday life, as run-ins with bosses, significant others, and even finances threaten to beat us down.

But life is a constant battle to overcome these obstacles; and with the NCAA's unique tournament format, the path for any team is never easy. Americans like to view their lives through a prism of perseverance; as these tiny colleges rise up to beat the mega school Goliaths, we enjoy the small battles in which they come out on top, despite knowing the chances of them winning the war are slim.

But how does this concept relate to NASCAR? Well, while enjoying the flurry of upsets that sent home traditional powers like Georgetown, Duke, and Connecticut in the college realm, I couldn't help but notice the attention these upsets bring to their sport. It's a feeling I hadn't experienced in a long time; and as I sat there thinking about it, I figured out why.

It's because that feeling is bordering extinction within the sport I cover.

Single car operations have been hitting a wall in NASCAR as of late; the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is one of those being hit hard. They’ve missed 3 of 5 races this season.

When you think about the last time a true underdog won in NASCAR, the short answer is … it's been awhile. If you define the "underdog" in our sport as a single car team, you'd have to travel back in time to 2003 to find the last win for such a program; that's when Ricky Craven narrowly edged out Kurt Busch at Darlington in Cal Wells' No. 32 Tide Pontiac. If you take the "driver / owner" route, you'll need to go back even farther; Ricky Rudd won Martinsville on September 27th, 1998 in his self-owned No. 10 Ford.

Ten years later, that team's long been disbanded, along with several other small-time organizations that couldn't keep up in this age of consolidated money and power. Larry McClure, Junie Donlavey, Travis Carter, the Mellings; they're owners whose names are dotted on the landscape of the past, with cars collecting rust in shops no longer meant for the big time. There will be no 16 seed coming out to race under their banner anytime soon; the 1 seed has already routed them off the court, with the blessing of the NASCAR officials overseeing the madness.

Instead, we're left each week with four and five-car mega-team conglomerations, a bunch of Ohio States built on the precipice of dozens of former campuses. Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated; each of them bring intriguing stories to the table, but what they don't bring is a lack of money and equipment at their disposal. Nothing against these teams; they give it all week in, week out, earning their victories through blood, sweat, and tears. That doesn't mean the racing they do on the track - or even the racing itself — isn't exciting; but when Victory Lane is inhabited by the favorites week after week, there's a sense of unpredictability that dies on the vine. Even when a Casey Mears wins out of the Hendrick stable, the feeling is a bit different than, say, if an independent team owner like Robby Gordon pulls an upset with a single car operation on life support just months earlier.

And even in the face of the Car of Tomorrow, increased parity has stopped short of even the thought such an improbable win is on the horizon. To date, single car operations have but a lone Top 10 to their credit in five races; and with several without a guaranteed starting spot, most are more concerned about survival than success. That's a problem, for as any good Cinderella knows, to pull off a miracle you must first make it to the dance. However, the more costs skyrocket and the big teams take control, the more exclusive the dance becomes to attend; black tie affairs don't contain much time for fairy tale endings.

That cold reality proves a shortcoming in the world of public perfection. It's a problem if a sport that bills itself on the fact that anyone can win fails to take steps towards leveling the playing field - and the resources of the Cup Series "1, 2, and 3 seeds" of Roush, Gibbs, and Hendrick. But as Western Kentucky and Davidson continue to dominate the headlines this week, I wonder - perhaps hope a little too much — if NASCAR is noticing the degree of importance to which those surprising wins have influenced the sport of college basketball was good. It's a case in which Cinderella was spotted, and fans anxiously anticipated a public and dramatic fitting of the infamous glass slipper.

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Douglas
03/24/2008 09:44 AM
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I really do not believe the CoT has brought “parity” to the game, nor has it reduced costs to a team!

The teams that have the gold, have the resources to wring out every minute detail of the CoT, giving them a considerable advantage over the low-buck teams, or single car teams! Testing and engineering is where it is at!

Oh, sure, a “low-buck” team may spend less on building different cars for different tracks, but me thinks the “big-buck” teams are already doing that with the CoT!

The “subtleties” between a short track car, a super-speedway car, and a road course car, all make it logical for the well healed teams to have cars for each venue!

So much for that thinking! (cost savings & parity)!

Just think if all cars are the “same”, what a mere additional five (5) HP would do! Or a better “shock” package would do!

All at an extreme cost!

Margo L
03/24/2008 12:05 PM
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It wasn’t unusual for teams in the 50s and 60s to have only one or two cars, and they were used at all tracks. Take the cars back to the shop after North Wilkesboro , put the road race or dirt track setup on it and go again .
In theory the new car should reduce costs for the teams because the same car can be run at more than one type of track . But in racing , there will always be people whose job it is to find ways to go faster . And if the cars are all the same , then the search for more speed or better handling becomes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to find tiny improvements. And a top team will try to find many tiny improvements to the tune of millions of dollars . There will really be no savings by going to the new car .

Rearview Mirror
03/24/2008 02:54 PM
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The whole concept of the top 35 in points being “garunteed” a starting spot has also stacked the deck against the single car teams! How many times has a non35er qualified faster than the slowest top 35ers but has had to go home? Bring back open qualifying, run too slow no matter who you are, you go home!

 

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