The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Long's Last Words, Driver Of The Decade, And GM's Rough Road Ahead? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 3, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That at the end of a provocative, fantastic
interview by ESPN’s Marty Smith, Carl Long took a swipe at NASCAR worth expanding on. In case you hadn’t heard, Long lost his appeal of an oversized engine penalty on Tuesday, meaning not only is he stuck with a 12-race suspension from the Cup Series, but his crew chief remains responsible for a record $200,000 fine. If the duo doesn’t pay it (Long refuses to let his head wrench, Charles Swing, fall on the sword on his own), they won’t be racing in NASCAR as of February 2010. The fine leaves Swing without a license and Long’s team in irrecoverable financial difficulty.

The decision amounted to a brow-raising move from the NSCRC, especially considering the difficulties small teams are having even staying in business to begin with. But when Smith asked Long about the future of blue-collar, independent organizations like him, he got bluntly honest:

“They want somebody to come and start four teams,” Long theorized. “Or, maybe they’re just trying to weasel all of us out so they can franchise. I don’t know. I’m not a part of their kings of the round table.”

Ah, the “F” word. Not much has been written about franchising over the last 12 to 18 months, even though it’s been a hot topic since mid-2007 and continues to be heavily rumored throughout the Sprint Cup garage. And interestingly enough, from the very first time I’ve heard the franchising rumor, the key date NASCAR was targeting for making that move was at the end of the 2009 season.

Guess what year we’re in right now.

Of course, the merits of franchising have been hotly debated. For years, NASCAR has been the type of sport where any Joe Schmo with a dollar, a dream, and a driving background can get out on the track and make a name for himself. I think that’s why fans identify so strongly with Long’s story, because they feel like he’s one of them. For so long, that’s how NASCAR built its popularity, with people in the stands able to relate to men coming from their own blue-collar, hard-working roots.

NASCAR to Gunselman Motorsports (above), Carl Long, and the other underdogs out there: Don’t let the gate hit you on the way out. On second thought, let it hit you… we don’t care.

But with franchising, that dream dies on the vine. Instead, the sport is taking a big risk in hoping the common fan continues to identify with the superteams led by Childress, Gibbs, Penske, and others who would buy into a system making them the equivalent of owners in the major stick ‘n’ ball sports – with guaranteed participation in the starting lineup. It’d be a collection of multi-car giants not unlike the system in Formula One, where millions in engineering, research, and personnel make the difference in who finishes of front just as much as the talent of the driver behind the wheel. Blue-collar underdogs would be replaced by white-collar privilege, million-dollar machines backing big-money drivers who’d always have all the tools they needed to be successful.

It’s a touch of irony, the concept of franchising, isn’t it? NASCAR, the sport’s world’s underdog story, would cleanse itself of any concept of underdog. To me, it’s the equivalent to competitive suicide; but more than ever, it looks inevitable. For if the powers that be wanted to implement such a system, there’s no better opportunity than right now. At the moment, the top 33 cars in the owner points are owned by just eleven men, with two of those programs “satellite” operations of super-owners Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush. In theory, at least two of those teams are planning to add another car for 2010 (Gibbs and Stewart-Haas), bringing the number of full-time cars owned by those eleven people to 36 (Scott Speed needs to be included here, as his Team Red Bull Toyota sits outside the top 35 in owner points).

That number’s just seven short of the 43 currently needed to fill the field each week. But who says NASCAR needs to stick with that number? If they could get 40 cars or even 38, that’d be plenty to set up a franchising system exclusive to the country club of owners we currently have. And for all the sport’s talk about parity, the CoT, and the rough economy leading to opportunities for others to launch into this business, 2009 has been an unmitigated disaster for any owner fielding less than two cars. None of the single-car operations are fully funded for all 36 events, and the dozen owners that started the season hoping to run full-time have been dwindled to less than half that amount. Those that remain are merely filling out the field, starting and parking for cash while giving NASCAR the opportunity to play good cop and franchise in order to “save the system from these freeloaders.”

Again, there’s no definitive word from anyone that franchising is on the horizon… yet. But Long has a very serious, provocative point; the way NASCAR’s setting up its method of doing business, the only way a new owner is going to be successful right now is to come in and start four teams. And if you’re a small-time guy looking to get your feet wet, why in the hell would you even attempt it if you knew one mistake could lead to a fine like this one? Of course, if NASCAR is heading in that direction it makes it easy to snuff out any and all underdogs and draw a clear delineation between who’s awarded a “franchise” and who is not.

And as we’ve all just discovered, it’s readily apparent Carl Long falls on the wrong side of that line.

In the meantime, for those interested in protesting the decision, there’s a petition circulating here. 50,000 signatures is the goal … last I checked, it already had almost 1,000 and the penalty is just hours old.

Did You Notice? … Who’s the winningest driver of the decade? Jimmie Johnson’s under-the-radar pursuit for four straight championships got me thinking about that on Monday, as his second win of the season had me wondering where the three-time champ stood overall on that list.

Well, turns out in a bit of a surprise it’s not Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart that’s leads in that category … it’s Johnson himself.

Check it out:

NASCAR Cup Series Wins Since 2000
1) Jimmie Johnson – 42
2) Jeff Gordon – 33
3) Tony Stewart – 30
4) Kurt Busch – 19
5) Matt Kenseth -18
5) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 18
7) Carl Edwards – 16
8) Kyle Busch – 15
9) Greg Biffle – 14
10) Ryan Newman – 13

Those stats tell us a couple of things. I think if there’s any doubt as to whether Johnson has surpassed Gordon as the No. 1 driver at Hendrick Motorsports, that list all but erases it. In a head-to-head breakdown, Johnson beats Gordon in wins, championships (three to one), and average points finish (2.5 to 5.2) this decade, leaving little for Gordon to fire back with as to who’s actually been the better driver. And when you look at the hard numbers in the win column — 42 to 33 — to me, that’s not even close. In fact, Johnson has at least twice as many wins as everyone else except for Gordon and Tony Stewart, making it even more amazing that the most dominant driver of the decade continues to be a shell of a marketing tool compared to the other two.

Kyle Busch may be the center of the NASCAR universe right now, but he’s still got fewer Cup wins and NASCAR championships than his older brother…and the driver who replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports.

Another interesting comparison is the Busch brothers, both young and old. Yes, Kyle Busch has exploded onto the Sprint Cup scene as of late. But just because he’s a brasher, bolder version of his older brother doesn’t mean he’s that much better. Not only does Kurt have more wins than “Shrub,” he’s also got that 2004 Chase for the Championship trophy sitting on his mantle. And had Kurt chosen to stay with Roush Fenway Racing rather than drive the last four seasons in Penske equipment – admittedly a small step down – his victory total might be bumped up to 20 or 25. Yes, it’s true the younger brother will inevitably pass the old, but it’s not inconceivable to predict that Kurt will win another championship before his far more inconsistent brother wins his first.

And then … there’s the matter of one Dale Earnhardt, Jr. With 18 series wins, only four drivers have won more this decade than the beleaguered wheelman of the No. 88. It’s one of those brow-raising stat lines that show Earnhardt once did more than cling on to his famous name. In fact, as little as five years ago, he challenged for the season championship, won the Daytona 500, and rose to an almost God-like level in popularity. You may not like the fact NASCAR continues to kow-tow to Junior as its most marketable tool; but lists like this one remind you why they at least have a reason to try.

However, this note both starts and ends with the man who always wins on the race track but not with the hearts of the fans. With Johnson creating a dominating lead in this category, it’s hard to argue with an assessment that labels him the driver of the decade by a longshot – which makes it the biggest shame of all that he continues to draw only lukewarm interest. Successes like these should be a good thing, not a bad thing for any sport; instead, Johnson’s been lumped with the type of growth and progress hardcore fans love to hate.

And at this point, that’s never going to change.

Did You Notice? … For fans wondering about why Dover attendance was declining, I’ve got another iron to throw onto the fire: Security. For years, the track has had a reputation of having some of the most stingy, argumentative parking attendants with cops and others so bent on enforcing the rules they’ll go out of their way to make fan’s lives a living hell.

Let me share my own personal common sense experience as an example. On Sunday morning, I needed to get through the back entrance of the speedway in order to access the parking lot for the media. Considering the logjam that is Dover traffic – cars often sit for hours to get into the front entrance – fans that access the back roads to enter the speedway from behind the track often do themselves a huge favor. They’ll either park inside the speedway or in a lot adjacent to the track, paying a small fee but saving them a huge headache once the Cup race is over.

For me, I’ve always gone over the bridge and parked behind the speedway, as the media lot is always right next to the track. But as I prepared to make my turn, much to my chagrin … that back entrance was closed. I stopped and tried to talk to the police, who rudely told me I’d have to go around the front entrance of the speedway in order to access my lot. While they were doing so, cops were pulling cones out of the way for other, track-related vehicles to cross the bridge and get to where they needed to go. It would have been easy for me to make my turn – but the cops stood their ground.

In the end, I and several others in the same boat were left with only two options. We could A) Pay for parking and walk the mile to the track or B) Turn around and go to the front entrance, where the wait to enter and get to the lot would be between an hour to an hour and a half. Since B wasn’t a viable option – after all, there’s a job to do and you can’t waste time – I was forced to pay for parking and walk.

Now, that’s not a big deal – heck, I needed the exercise – but it’s the principle of the thing that bothered me. The traffic flow made no sense, as you’re forcing all the cars to siphon through just one small entrance when you’ve got several different ways to enter the speedway. That causes fans to be further inconvenienced; and no matter how good or bad the racing is, if you wait in line for hours to simply park your car you’re not going to go back to Dover, are you?

If anyone else had some horrific experiences from Dover, please share them below. I hear from fans a lot, and the more you get those comments out in public the more the track is likely to listen up and make the changes they need. Because after all, if you don’t pay, then those mighty CEOs can’t play… and judging by the crowd this weekend, there’s plenty of folks who have simply had enough.

Did You Notice? … In the wake of GM’s bankruptcy filing — in which the manufacturer reaffirmed its support of NASCAR — we heard the same types of comments from Dodge, almost to a T. Rewind to the end of April, and you get the following statement from Chrysler’s Director of Brand Marketing:

NASCAR is a strategic part of our marketing plan and the Dodge brand. We plan to continue our Dodge sponsorship and relationship into the foreseeable future.”

Now, two months later we hear a federal court is both restricting the amount of money Chrysler can use to market, as well as team owners complaining they’re no longer being paid support money due from the manufacturer for about the last two months.

So with that pattern already established, tell me, please … why would GM be any different? How is it going to avoid this same type of scenario? Especially with the government – directing their attention towards more modern, fuel efficient cars that are exactly the opposite of what NASCAR represents – owning 60 percent of the company?

Houston, Houston, Houston! We’ve got some serious, serious problems … and not even Danica and double-file restarts can solve them.

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wcfan
06/03/2009 01:44 AM
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How do I get to the petition? Clicked on link ended up here.

Managing Editor
06/03/2009 01:56 AM
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Hey wcfan,

Thanks for catching this early! Glitch in our system … the link has now been fixed. Sign away!

Carl D.
06/03/2009 07:59 AM
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In my opinion, Nascar is 99.9% franchised already, at least in practice. Take out Keselowski’s win for James Finch at the restrictor-plate crapshoot in Talledega, and Reutimann’s pit-strategy win at Charlotte for Michael Waltrip, and the only other wins over the last two seasons by teams not affiliated with Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, and Penske are two by Kasey Kahne last year. I certainly don’t endorsing franchising, I’m just being realistic. Franschising is coming. Besides, huge franchise fees means more money for Nascar, and we all know how giddy that makes Brian France.

Carl D.
06/03/2009 08:08 AM
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I accidently left Childress out in my above comment about wins by drivers for major teams. Should read “…by teams not affiliated with Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, Childress, and Penske…”

marshall
06/03/2009 09:28 AM
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Oh Tom , how can such a tragedy ever be made up to you . To think that a superstar media person like yourself should be forced to endure what every single fan always has to endure , well… its just unthinkable . I’m still sobbing over the injustice of it . How can Carl Long have the nerve to complain about his tiny problem when you are the one who had to cope singlhandedly with a true travesty of justice .

Ryan
06/03/2009 09:44 AM
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You know i’m curious about the constant shilling you do for Johnson . What are you trying to tell us . That because Johnson isn’t very popular the majority of fans are just stupid ? My take on the Johnson story is that the car has far more to do with his wins than he does . And the same case could easily be made for Jeff Gordon’s wins .
But heres what i don’t get . Why would any reader of yours be able to believe anything you write ? Better yet , why would anyone want to read your columns knowing that Hendrick , Johnson , and Gordon will always be the best , the brightest , the best looking , and the most attractive to male writers . Because with the exception of that last one , there’re all untrue .
If you want to be taken seriously , stop the way over the top shilling for your favorite driver . Because it makes your readers know that you can’t be trusted to give an un-biased report or opinion where the above three are concerned .

dawg
06/03/2009 09:54 AM
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I had hoped that somewhere in NA$CAR officialdom there was a shred of sanity. Alas, that seems not to be. NA$CAR worships money. They won’t come down very hard on the stars, from the mega buck teams. After all they put butts in the seats, albeit not as many as previously. They won’t risk alienating a major sponsor. Just how to get their message across. Stomp on the little guys. They don’t have a herd of Cash Cows, following them, no sponsors big enough to matter. NA$CAR seems to be operating just like the school yard bully. Damn, I so want Jeremy to win his suit, take enough of their $$, so he can set up a nice ARCA, or ASA,(does ASA, even exist anymore?) operation, for as long as he wants to be in racing.

Ed B.
06/03/2009 10:01 AM
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Wow want to talk about a parking mess and traffic try to go to Pocono sometime and get in and out of there!!!

Edwin J Ham
06/03/2009 10:46 AM
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Don’t ever park by the Drag strip when going to a cup race at Bristol. 3 Hour Wait to get to US 11
The closser you park the longer you wait to leave.

24Crazy
06/03/2009 12:13 PM
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6hrs to get from MIS to my home which is an 1 1\2 away. What a mess. I will allways camp from now on.

midasmicah
06/03/2009 01:09 PM
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Nas$car seems to be dead set on alienating their core fan base. The empty seats at Dover spoke volumes. The shoddy way they treated Carl Long was insidious. As far as franchising goes, it’s already there. I used to love this sport. It really hurts me to watch it self destruct. I read where more than a few fans were so disgusted with the Carl Long fianco that were finally at the pint where they were washing their hands of nas$car. All I can say is, what a shame.

Brian France
06/03/2009 02:08 PM
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I love this ship. What a beautiful, unsinkable, piece of work this Titanic is. But wait, why am I standing in water while I’m trying to listen to the wonderful music?

bobobobobo
06/03/2009 02:50 PM
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I went to many races during the eighties and nineties but I will never spend another dime on anything NA$CRAP related as long as that little drunk Brian is running the show (into the ground).

Vicki
06/03/2009 07:15 PM
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I appreciated the section about Jimmie. It’s not like this was simply your opinion. Facts are facts and statistics tell the truth of your piece even if some don’t want to admit it.

Jambalaya J
06/03/2009 08:54 PM
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DOVER SUCKS! They have been treating fans like crap since the early 80’s. One time a friend of mine was standing off the first turn and the security told us to move behind the line, we complied and then they kept telling us to keep moving back until we were under the stands and couldn’t see the race anymore. when we protested how they were treating us they kicked us out of the race. we were so pissed we didn’t care. Then as we’re walking back to the van a guy starts following us. We can hear him radio about a possible auto break in. He asks us for proof that it“s our van. My friend gets his keys out and opens the door. HOW’S THAT ASSHOLE! then he left with his gay vest between his legs. As I said Dover Sucks!

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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