The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Death Of NASCAR's Killer Instinct, Sauter's Surprising Resilience, And Who's Desperate Already? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 30, 2009

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*Did You Notice?*… Joey Logano’s state of mind after that horrifying wreck heading into Turn 3 at Dover? If you check out the “interview,” what you’ll see is the equivalent of a 19-year-old scared out of his wits. In case you missed it, here’s some highlights of what was said once he had a chance to stand back on solid ground for a minute…

“It just really scared the heck out of me. I’m not sure I want to see a replay. It started rolling and I was in there like, ‘Damn, please make this thing stop.’ And it wouldn’t. It just kept going and going. It just startled me.”

“It was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on. You can’t go on a roller coaster any worse than that. When I was on my side, that’s when I was getting worried for a minute, but it came back down. Thank God the good Lord was with me on that one.”

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with how Logano reacted after that incident. 99% of the population would feel the same way, and in fact a good many people wouldn’t be able to even speak, much less form sentences in front of a camera with millions of people watching. It’s by far the first major wreck the teenager’s been involved in throughout his racing career, a wake-up call to the dangers within his chosen profession he hadn’t seen firsthand – so no wonder he’s frightened.

But with all that said … my mind wandered a bit while watching in the media center. I thought of the Daytona 500 in 1997, when Dale Earnhardt flipped his car over and back again, yet was so determined to finish the race he got back in and drove the second he realized the car would start. I thought of Jimmy Horton flying over the wall at Talladega in 1993, emerging just a few minutes later as if it was no big deal his mangled car wound up a pile of scrap metal in a parking lot just outside the track.

And I think of the soaring popularity of the X Games, where BMX riders, skateboarders, and rally racers go through death defying crashes only to jump up, say “That was awesome” in so many words, and then go out and prepare to do it all over again.

When I compare that to the innocence of Logano, a teenager scared of the danger instead of welcoming it with open arms … it makes you understand the difference between this generation of racer and the last. Since Dale Earnhardt’s death, risk aversion has been the goal for drivers, eerily uncomfortable at times with the natural consequences of pushing a car to its ragged edge. In the “points racing” era, they aren’t always doing what it takes to win … they’re doing what it takes to finish, and there’s a difference. Banzai moves of the kind Carl Edwards made in Kansas last September are too often replaced with the “hold back and play it safe” attitude of not putting yourself in a bad position on the race track so a wreck won’t ruin your day.

I feel guilty for bringing it up because I try and write from other peoples’ shoes and if I were Joey Logano and I flipped seven-and-a-half times, then my God, I’d be petrified. But at the same time, I’m not a professional race car driver for a reason. And there’s no question some of the best race car drivers in our sport’s history didn’t cower from the danger – they reveled in it. In fact, it’s fair to say a few had that “killer instinct” that left them immune to anything but trying to win a race, period. Dale Earnhardt alone with the blue-collar version of the X Games on steroids … he wasn’t going to cower away from anything.

In the current generation of drivers, I see that type of instinct in Brad Keselowski. And … that’s about it. Instead, the Logano mentality wins out … and as horrible as it is to say, I wonder if that’s not what fans want to see even though they won’t consciously admit it.

It’s a tough call, but on a weekend where popularity continues to be dropping, that interview just stood out to me as to how much the personality of racers have changed in this series. For the better or for the worse, I don’t know; but it’s just different.

Did You Notice? … The third time might be the charm for Johnny Sauter? This guy has had not one but two chances at Sprint Cup, failing to last beyond one full season each time. Back in 2004, he was simply too immature to handle a full-time Cup ride at Richard Childress Racing, forcing a two-year stint back in the Busch Series where he did things the right way and started readying himself for another chance. Once he got it, though, sponsorship and ownership changes in ’07 left him on the outside looking in after an admirable first year with Haas CNC.

That left Sauter in a less-than-admirable position where he had to rebuild his career yet again in a sport that isn’t even keen on second chances. The low point came shortly thereafter, where a brief partnership with James Finch in the Nationwide Series lasted only the first five races of ’08. With both sides mutually agreeing to split, a lack of full-time rides available left Sauter in the awkward position of starting and parking in a half-dozen starts late in the year.

Yet somehow, Thorsport Racing saw the talent that lay buried underneath, signing him to a full-season deal that qualified him for the Rookie battle in this year’s Truck Series. Looking back, all you can say is what a steal: five recent top 5 finishes got capped off with a dominating win in the Las Vegas race on Saturday night. Teammate Matt Crafton is also benefitting from the recent success, enjoying the bonus of a teammate finally running just as well as the No. 88.

It’s one of the underreported yet wonderful stories of the season; for now, at 31, Sauter might even have one more shot at the big time in another year or two. With brothers Jay and Tim forced out of the business due to a lack of sponsorship money, he’s the only one in the famous racing bloodline with a chance at something father Jim never achieved despite 76 career starts: a Cup Series win.

Did You Notice? … So many things in NASCAR are being blamed on the bad economy? It’s true that the last time the field was filled with start and parkers in 2004, the series eventually recovered and bounced back with the addition of Toyota and several other top-tier organizations in 2007.

Here’s where I feel the problem comes in this time, though. Check out final results from Dover, including the number of car owners and teams with at least three cars, five years ago compared to now:

2004Penske, Roush, Hendrick, Yates, Evernham, Ganassi, Gibbs, DEI, Wood Brothers, Petty Enterprises, Childress, Bill Davis, BAM, MMM, Joe Auer, Cal Wells, MB2, Shepherd, Haas, Mach 1, Shelmerdine, Phoenix Racing, Arnold. Total: 23 owners.

2009Penske, Roush Fenway / Yates / HoF, Hendrick / Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi, RPM, Michael Waltrip Racing / JTG, Childress, Gibbs, Team Red Bull, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row, Robby Gordon, PRISM, TBR, TRG, Phoenix Racing, NEMCO. Total: 17.

As you can see, the owners doing stuff at least partially on their own shrank by about 25%. That’s a pretty extreme consolidation of power, and with seven teams now possessing three cars or more, trying to jump in and compete against all that is a tall order at best. It’s clear new owners will need manufacturer-type money to play the game, but I’m told our next Toyota is at least two years away.

In the meantime, some of the smaller teams will spend the next two months trying desperately to not go broke. Not exactly what we expected at the beginning of this season, was it?

Did You Notice? … The Chase teams behind the eight ball heading to Kansas?

Here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands, and then I’m out:

Cruise Control — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin. Guaranteed top 5 finishers unless lightning comes down from the sky to strike them.

Overconfident — Juan Pablo Montoya. No wonder why I smell a 20th place while wrecking a Chaser in his future?…

Emotional Roller-Coaster — Denny Hamlin. Just the wrong place at the wrong time to have a sports psychological breakdown last week.

Desperation Mode — Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon. These two guys have their specialty, intermediate tracks, staring dead ahead as they try and become unlikely title contenders. But with both in a deep early hole, anything less than a top 3 is unacceptable. As for Gordon, he knows how on point his two Hendrick teammates will be during the playoffs. At over 100 points outside the championship, he can’t afford to drop any further behind.

Don’t Panic Yet … But A DNF Would Kill Us — Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman. Perfect timing for that faulty Hendrick equipment to show up!

Title? What Title? Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch. This trio has too many distractions going on for even you to pay attention to them.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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09/30/2009 06:44 AM

I think you’re right on about the difference in the drivers attitude today vs. the ‘old days’. No one wants to see a driver get killed or injured, period. Yet, watching people who have the guts to do something most of us would be terrified to try is part of the fascination with racing. As Hemingway said, “The only sports are mountain climbing, bull fighting, and car racing. Everything else is just a game.’ We admire those willing to risk injury or death to do something they love. The ‘being safe’ attitude has definitely taken something away from the mystique of racing. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but it’s definitely different now. When playing it ‘safe’ becomes more important than winning, it changes the game.

09/30/2009 07:32 AM

So are you predicting that the chase could come down to either Mark or Jimmie?

The Turnip
09/30/2009 10:05 AM

Hey SB, nice comment!

To quote: “The ‘being safe’ attitude has definitely taken something away from the mystique of racing.”

Right on! NA$CRAP right now is just a GAME! as you said!

Auto Racing inherently (and I mean real auto racing), is a dangerous game, and that is what made it stand out for many years as “unique” and “exciting”!

Now it’s just 3500# tanks you couldn’t get hurt in if you tried!

Might as well play video games!

I remember what Sir Stirling Moss stated once on Speed TV, when asked about the drivers of the past, and the drivers of today!

He simply stated “THERE IS NO COMPARISON”!

He went on to say “when racing in the past, you weighed heavily on each and every move you made on the race track! because your life was at stake! And at times you disregarded that fact! You simply wanted to win!”

(Racing today, particularly in NASCAR is a shell of real auto racing)! note, I can’t put that in quotes as I don’t remember his exact words to Dave Despain, but that is close to what he said!

The good news, and the bad news!

First, the good news: NA$CRAP racing today is totally safe!

Now, the bad news: NA$CRAP racing today is totally safe!

Joe W.
09/30/2009 04:33 PM

Well I guess I am in the minority here, but I do not ever want to see a driver killed. I am not some macabre vulture watching to see death. Some of you really need to take a look at your priorities. The idea of the COT was to make a safe car so people could take some chances, like Carl Edwards move last year, without being killed. I see enough death all around in this world. I do not watch a sport to see it. If that is how some of you feel then you should have been Romans watching Gladiators. That is not what I want to see. That is all I have to say on this. So go ahead and bash me Turnip. By the way are you the same guy as Douglas? You sure sound the same.

The Turnip
09/30/2009 06:56 PM

Hey Joe W. yes, one in the same, I changed to “The Turnip” not long ago just after King Brain Farce gave another interview on how great the sport is doing!

He treats us like we have the mentality of a TURNIP, thus I might as well be one.

Admittedly, this is a delicate, at most subject! but here I go, hoping you might, just might, understand where I am coming from! (then tell my wife, please)!

I “grew up”, in the 50’s, and have been involved in auto racing directly since 1961! 1961 because you had to be 21 in those days to drive a race car, so 1961 became my year of getting behind the wheel of a race car. Something I did for the next 35 years or so, off and on.

(oh, I also used to watch the Indy cars and the stock cars at my local mile dirt track from the time I was 12 years old).

Amateur of course, SCCA road racing. I also had the privilege of hanging out with Sir Jackie Stewart in my early years, he was/is, an old family friend, My Dear Aunt used to babysit him, and take care of him, may she rest in peace!

Dumbarton, Scotland was the location, by the way.

So, I grew up watching, participating, and knowing a great many drivers, amateur and professional. Racing in those days was dangerous, and that was a given, week in, week out.

When I was not racing myself, it was off to the various tracks to either spectate, or work a race.

Through the years, I have witnessed the extremes of motor-sports.

I have been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, (attended at one time some 12 in a row), and experienced the traumatic events this track is/was famous for.

I, unfortunately, have had friends either severely injured, or killed in auto racing. I have been in races where these terrible events have occurred. I have seen some of the greatest drivers never return from the race track. (I have also watched spectators being killed, but that it not part of this discussion about “RACING DRIVERS”!)

And none of it is good!

But it is AUTO RACING! At least as it used to be!

I had a good friend killed at Mosport one year, his wife of course was distraught at the time, but never ever, regretted the fact she bought and paid for the car her husband raced! Why? It was his passion!

As is stated many times, and as she repeated many times, he died doing what his passion was, driving a race car (Can-Am series).

The stories are many, each though have to do with a man’s passion, and that passion is doing things most other people never have the courage to do! It is the way of the human being!

Bruce McLaren had a statement one time, that went something like this: “To die trying to do something better or faster, than anybody else, can hardly be called foolhardy. It is the way of life. It is the human spirit”! (I will try to locate in my archives the actual quote)!

I have an appreciation of life. I have also been involved in the frailty of us humans.

But the bottom line in my terms, that driving a #3500 tank around in circles, with ZERO RISK, simply cannot be called RACING! It is simply a show!

Next act please!

Understand my viewpoint or not, it is my belief.

Yes, racing should be “relatively” safe!

But racing by nature, GOOD RACING, cannot be made totally safe!

And if it is, i.e., NA$CRAP! Then it ceases to become the sport that it is based on!

Now you are left with the “pretty boys”, no risk, just look good for the cameras!

It’s a shame!

My humble, but honest opinion!

I hope you understand just a little!

We all have our views!

Ford fan
09/30/2009 10:16 PM

Sorry Turnip passion can take many forms and saying if you aren’t willing to die you don’t have it is moronic. Many drivers from the past thought that almost every safety improvement took away from the racing. In fact one thought the HANS device wasn’t necessary and we all know how that turned out. I just can’t buy the argument that today’s drivers are less courageous than drivers from 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I also seem to remember that there was a boycott one year of Talladega because the drivers’ felt it was unsafe. It’s too bad that the if a young driver such as Joey Logano is shaken by a violent crash we think less of him. Tony Stewart was also a little bit shaken by his part in the accident. Joey’s comments if you listen where actually uttered somewhat tongue in cheek. Maybe you and Tom would like to go back to the good old days when Joe Weatherly raced,whoops — died because of lack of restraint device, or maybe when Fireball Roberts raced, whoops — no fire retardant jumpsuit or burst resistant fuel cell. I guess my point being, racing is always dangerous and it is pretty silly for anyone to argue otherwise.

10/01/2009 04:11 AM

Joey has every right to be scared. If he’s the driver I think he is, he’ll not be affected next week. It was in a joking way he said he was scared and didn’t want to see the replay.

NA$CAR and Brian Fartz continually refer to the show the fans saw today. I think that’s what it is, a show, not the real hard headed competition of yesteryear.

But it is not completely safe any more than a high-wire or trapeze act is safe. while there are many safety devices in force, danger and the chance of serious injury and death lurk at the sidelines. With all the safety drivers should feel more comfy taking chances, right? Mark Martin quoted someone who told him early in his racing career, “…to finish first, first you must finish.”

These guys still have to drive the 3500lb “tanks” and get in the best position on the track. Indy cars and F1 are said to drive themselves and the driver is merely a passenger. Maybe that’s true, but ask Kanaan if a fuel fire hurts. Still there is danger present on the track and in the pits as well.

An after thought, is Dale Jr’s lackluster performance due to his father’s death on the track?

The Turnip
10/01/2009 07:50 AM

Hey Ford Fan, “moronic”?

Get real, sure I am happy that Joey walked away, after all, NA$CRAP is only theater these days! The participants of these shows need to survive so they can put on next weeks show, same time, same place, same results! Oh, and look good for the cameras during the week!

A watered dwon version of what once was, “a man’s sport”!

I certainly don’t, as you suggest, think poorly of Joey for surviving that crash. But one of my points is, and maybe the biggest complaint and thought, is I have seen SPRINT CARS roll several times, the driver walked away. I have witnessed terrible INDY CAR crashes, the drivers(s) walked away.

Why, and I ask again, WHY? Do we have to be exposed to a 3500# TANK, that has an extremely high C/G, one that basically has no suspension, has reduced whatever racing NA$CRAP supplied to a “follow the leader”, take no chances, drive for the points form of motorsports?

And it goes without saying, I hope anyway, that maybe us “older” folks have a different view and different attitude about auto racing, REAL auto racing! And what REAL auto racing is about.

We, the “older” folks, did not grow up in front of a “safe” computer screen playing video games! We grew up with the actual dirt in our teeth, the actual wind in our faces!

And call it what you want, call me what you want (moronic?), but “racing” today (in NA$CRAP) is nothing more than a scripted show, week in, week out.

And once again, thanks for your comments, simply different viewpoints!

It is “THE OLD”, vs. “THE NEW”!

Ford fan
10/01/2009 07:01 PM

Just to be clear, I wasn’t calling you moronic. Just as all of us have mad dumb mistakes or statements, it does not make us dumb. My point is that there is a certain point of view that I find moronic. That view is that today’s racing isn’t dangerous enough and the drivers aren’t as brave as those in the good old days. I think if you told that to Mark Martin he would set you straight. As to your contention that the racing was so much better in the past or as you put it — REAL auto racing is certainly open to legitimate debate. That we could debate until the cows come home, along with whether that the COT is at the root of all that ails NASCAR. On the other I guess we will just have to disagree. Repectively, Ford fan

Joe W.
10/02/2009 01:45 PM

I am with you 100% Ford Fan. Racing and really all sports can be dangerous. I think it is our responsablity to try to make them all as safe as we can. Turnip/Douglas, I have also driven a race car. We did not have the hans and things like that available then. I tryed to make my car as safe as I could and nobody but me was allowed to install my seatbelts. I do not want to see death, and I agree with Ford Fan that the drivers today still have courage. I may not be a Logano fan but I sure am glad he was able to walk away from that crash. By the way Ford fan, I’m a Ford fan too, and my racecar was a black Thunderbird.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
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