The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... People Don't Believe In NASCAR Fairy Tales? by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday July 8, 2010

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Did You Notice? … That in today’s world of sports, giving athletes the benefit of the doubt is suddenly a thing of the past? Instead, steroids, cheating scandals, and bad calls have turned us into a nation full of doubters, cornered into a defensive stance of guilty until proven innocent for our own emotional protection.

As proof, look no further than a blue and yellow number 3, 1980s vintage Wrangler on the side wrangling its way to Victory Lane Friday night. In the final drive with his daddy’s number on the side, Earnhardt drove like the restrictor plate master of old, leading the final 33 laps of the race in holding off challenges from Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and a handful of other Cup veterans. It was a made-for-TV moment, NASCAR’s best-case scenario in which their Most Popular Driver took home a trophy for the first time in two years – and doing it with a classic new car design to boot, hopefully tearing at the heartstrings of everyone who sat there nostalgic on the couch.

“It’s hard for me,” he said post-race, the magnitude of the moment clearly weighing on him. “It’s a balancing act between you and the public and myself and my own feelings [to run the No. 3].”

“I always loved the scheme. I just love the car. I wanted to race it once, and I did… I don’t ever want to do it again. And I’ll never change my mind, ever.”

Ten years ago, those quotes would be the clincher, dramatic realism capturing thousands of new fans almost instantaneously. But now? What you get is a slew of emails and comments that infer Earnhardt’s virtually reading from a script, the final act of a race too good to be true in which everyone was seemingly holding back for a forced coronation of NASCAR’s favorite son.

It’s a sad state of affairs, really, but not the only one. Lance Armstrong challenges for the lead at the Tour De France this week, but all we can talk about is whether he was doping the whole time. In both cases, fans have been barraged with negativity from all sides, a slew of criticism and questioning that makes the word “fix” impossible to block out of your head. There’s Earnhardt’s 2001 victory in the No. 8 at Daytona, five months after his father’s death where not only did he pass with ease, but legend says the car was never properly examined during post-race inspection. Then there’s Earnhardt’s first race in the No. 3 car after his father’s death, another Daytona domination in which he led 59 of 120 laps in February, 2002. During a time of great despair – where his slump has reached career-worst proportions along with NASCAR – securing the victory could be looked at as a convenient step one, a brilliant strategy to try and salvage the sport’s popularity before it’s too late.

When you put it like that, it’s so easy to buy into this notion of fixing a finish. But aren’t sports as much mental as they are physical? Isn’t it fair to say Earnhardt and Armstrong have emotional boosts during these special events, inward confidence from attempting something that’s really important to them? Could their competition also be awed by what’s it stake, losing their focus just enough on the letdown of somebody else instead of buying into their own strategy to walk away with the first-place trophy?

While Junior Nation was in tears after a heart-wrenching win in Daytona, a percentage of skeptical fans called conspiracy.

You see, not every storybook ending we see is courtesy of a little extra horsepower in either your system or your stock car. It’s just that a decade filled with too many bad eggs in all sports have made us willing to throw the whole batch away now, fighting off an emotional investment that comes attached with the risk of getting burnt.

It’s just a phase, I hope, but one that needs to turn around for this sport to be fully on the upswing again. When we grow up, we learn a sad lesson that most of what we’re taught to believe in as kids – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny – aren’t real. At some point, though, the optimists within us have to start believing the occasional fairy tale really does come true.

Did You Notice? … How sometimes stats on paper are nothing more than just that? At NASCAR’s halfway point, a handful of numbers have been trumpeted to showcase how the racing has “never been more competitive.” Here’s one that stuck out the most to me: an average of 43 green-flag passes for the lead all along the track, the highest through 18 races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

If you read that, you’d think the racing is the equivalent of a July 4th fireworks show on crack every week. Far from it. Of course, that number doesn’t take into account how the pass was accomplished. Was it the type of move that made the 1992 Winston an instant classic? Or are they more like the one at the 8:39 mark of this clip, Denny Hamlin blowing by Sam Hornish, Jr. to grab the lead late in the race at Pocono?

Other than the restrictor plate event, what we’ve typically seen is more of the “quick ‘n’ easy” version, the one that happens so fast that if you blink, you just might miss why you watch the darn three-hour thing. And there’s a big difference between a one-turn, keep ten feet apart and get it over with pass versus a sparks-flying, fender-banging, wondering if both cars are going to make it through the corner type. It’s those passionate side-by-side battles that were a weekly highlight of the NASCAR scene in the 1990s, the pre-Loop Data stats we’ll never know about – because we weren’t keeping track of them back then. But even if we had, say, 20 green flag passes on-track in those classic races, most of those events were guaranteed to have at least one or two that left you talking at the office that Monday.

I’m reminded here of a quote I read about in Sports Illustrated’s midseason report (July 5th) that included a five-driver roundtable on the state of the sport. It’s a simple, direct philosophy on how these men are trained to think, courtesy Greg Biffle: “We’ve all figured out that we don’t get paid until the end.”

So if the finish is what you’re focusing on, of course those early passes at the start aren’t going to be ones that put the driver at risk – and when they happen between teammates, it’s the equivalent to making a pass on your local highway. Does your heart beat when you pass that Mazda that pulls over from the left lane, 10 feet apart from you while going about 15 miles an hour slower just so you could get by?
If it does, then I’d go see your doctor. I’m worried about your health. Patience is a virtue, but not in this sport, and philosophies need to change in order for that number to become as meaningful as we’d all like to think.

Moving on, we have 31 drivers this season who have scored at least one top-10 finish. Sounds great, right? But let’s break that number down a little bit. When you take the road course at Infineon and the two “lottery” races away – Daytona and Talladega – that number falls to 26. Of that lower number, they come from just eight different chassis and engine combinations, all of which are familiar faces: Penske, Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, etc. So in one sense, we do have parity… with the same people and the same faces we see up front all the time.

Beyond that, this year has just seven different winners who come from just six teams: Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi, Penske, and Childress. If you take out those plate races, once again the number drops to just four: Hendrick, Gibbs, and then three big ones eked out by Kurt Busch (Penske) and Newman (SHR). There are no new first-timers in either the driver or owner category, with the Gibbs/Hendrick combo combining to win 67 percent of the first 18 races with Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. Again, it’s a case of the same faces in the same places, with Johnson still looked at as a dominant force, albeit a slightly more vulnerable one.

Now, the numbers aren’t all bad – how much would you have bet Kevin Harvick wouldn’t be leading the points, let alone still aligned with Childress at the halfway point? – but they’re not the type that has me hyping this racing as the best we’ve ever had. Have we bottomed out from the low point of 2009? From a competitive standpoint, absolutely; I do believe things are on the right track. You just don’t go from an F to an A in a heartbeat, and that’s the problem NASCAR faces right now: I’d have a hard time arguing for a better grade than a B- so far, at a time where fans are demanding nothing less than an A+ after years of frustration.

As Elliott Sadler ponders his future, it seems Ford has already decided it by moving Todd Parrott over to the No. 19 Dodge.

Did You Notice? … That two weeks after Jack Roush claimed Todd Parrott had trouble getting Matt Kenseth’s car through tech at Infineon, the reassigned crew chief has now been picked up by the No. 19 of Richard Petty Motorsports? Not only does it show how connected the Roush and RPM organizations are, but how must you feel if you’re Sadler? Yeah, I know the two worked together during their time together with the real Robert Yates Racing (you know, before Doug “bought” it and suddenly Roush runneth over). But let’s not forget this is years later, and the last time we saw Mr. Parrott, he wasn’t exactly being complimented.

“We were a little slow in the garage area,” Jack Roush said of Parrott’s swan song with the No. 17 on that road course. “I don’t fault the guys for that, but the direction and the plan may not have been as well-defined or understood.”

In English, that means he wasn’t getting the job done. But never fear! Keeping him on the roster, the Roush/RPM conglomerate has found the perfect pairing: black sheep with black sheep. Man, if I’m Sadler, I would have to see the writing on the wall by now.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we go:

- Could ESPN roll in an announcement on Jimmie Johnson’s baby name tomorrow night with LeBron? Good way to kill two birds with one stone (and congrats to Jimmie, while we’re at it). On a serious note, make fun of the hype all you want but the bottom line is it’s getting the NBA both free publicity and a popularity boost. When’s the last time we had an hour announcement on a leading cable network for a Silly Season move?

Anyone? Anyone? I guess pink slips don’t really get people circling ‘round the TV these days.

- Among the drivers still searching for more sponsorship next season: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger, and yes, Jeff Gordon. That’s an A-list group of names, including up to hypothetically seven men who could make the Chase. Sure, they’re negotiating with companies, but it’s an issue to keep an eye as the industry struggles to remain economically viable.

- The new NASCAR Licensing agreement for merchandising, announced Wednesday, joins together 11 total teams that have signed on board. In a perfect world, those 11 owners, running four cars apiece, would be able to fill a 44-car grid under a franchising system. Sure, some of them don’t even have Cup cars yet, but you wonder how this could be testing the waters for more “new ideas” down the road.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Robin
07/08/2010 06:36 AM
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Jr.‘s Nationwide Win – I saw the end of the race and I don’t know if I would call it a conspiracy,but I truly believe that Joey Logano was told to not pass Junior for the win or wreck him. Right before the last re-start, Junior was on the radio telling his crew chief “tell the #20 to push me, but don’t wreck me.” Joey said in his post-race interview that he was really going for the win if Ricky Stenhouse had been able give to him a push past Junior. You can’t convince me that Stenhouse’s crew chief didn’t tell him to back off. None of these guys are going for the Nationwide Championship, so if they ended up 2nd, 3rd, or 4th it didn’t really matter from a points standpoint.

Stephen Hood
07/08/2010 07:15 AM
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Watch the last lap of the cup race and the same scenario played out. Some tried a run early and when it didn’t play out, they got back in line and followed Harvick to the finish. I don’t think there was a conspiracy to get Harvick a win, although it probably is important that your points leader have a couple of wins to legitimize his high points standing.

I think the writer of this article makes some important points about Junior’s extra motivation and the mind games played on the other drivers because of the Wrangler #3. If I’m Joey Logano, I want to win, but do I want to beat the #3 on the last lap? Hell yeah!

I think the reality is some people think that Junior is a crap driver, and when he wins, it must be a fix. But, looking at the Nationwide Series and the dominance by Busch/Keselowski/Harvick/Logano, why is anyone surprised that a good plate racer named Dale Earnhardt, Jr., wins the race? If Danica wins her next Nationwide start, then I’ll agree the fix is in, but come on. Dale Jr. Plate track. Great finish. The odds of that are pretty good.

Budreaux
07/08/2010 09:57 AM
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Blue and Yellow Wrangler Car! #3! An Earnhardt at the wheel. Wins @ Daytona!

Only someone in complete denial would not believe that this was a scrpted win.

All I heard from the time that car was first unvieled was “How good for NASCAR it would be” if Jr. could take that car to victory lane. What a tribute to a legend.

Yeah, Jr. could have been caught up in a wreck. He wasn’t.

He could have blown a tire. He didn’t!

He could have had a half dozen of his friend battling him for the win but backing off to allow him to “Honor that car and his Dad.” He did!

Who didn’t know that he would win at Daytona in July 2001? the same people who didn’t know he would win on Saturday night.

Anyone who believes otherwise is living in a world of denial

Budreaux
07/08/2010 10:09 AM
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And, one more thing.

I can hear Mike Helton now, going around the
Garage talking to drivers and owners.

“I’m not saying you have to let him win. but, if that car is leading as the end of the race nears, just remember how Dale Earnhardt would be honored if that car went to victory lane.” “Now, remember, I’m not saying you have to let him win.”

Robin
07/08/2010 10:44 AM
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Totally agree with you Budreaux. I won’t deny the fact that Joey “wanted” to win…but would it have been a smart move on his part – probably not. If he had tried to pass Jr. and accidently caused him to wreck, Joey would have been the biggest “LOSER” in the eyes of the media, the Jr. fans, and everyone in the NASCAR family (read “the France family”).

JerseyGirl
07/08/2010 10:59 AM
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yep, sounds like you guys were all watching the same race as me and oddly enough I can hear Helton saying the same things. “just sayin” and they wonder why the fans just aren’t as “engaged” with the sport any more between the number of races won by the SAME few drivers – for anyone who isn’t a fan of theirs, it has become who cares, rather than must see.

Susan
07/08/2010 11:25 AM
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I don’t generally believe in conspiracy theories, but there was certainly a “perfect storm” of coincidences that led to Junior winning: Kyle Busch pits before the green-white-checker, putting himself back in the pack and out of contention unless we have multiple GWC’s; Kevin Harvick spins his tires on the restart (didn’t happen Saturday night, did it?); Joey Logano relies on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to draft with him, and then chickens out when the 6 doesn’t appear to be coming with him. And Logano is not racing for points, and has lamented helping his teammate to win on other occasions.

I don’t think there was a payoff or a “fix,” just a lot of guys who weren’t trying very hard to win. And for guys like Kyle, Brad, and Kevin, that just isn’t part of the normal script! Add to that Junior’s depressed demeanor after the Coke 400 and you have to wonder if he realized the victory Friday night was not so meaninful after all.

Conelly
07/08/2010 11:27 AM
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Just like the WWE wrestling. It is entertainment, not sport.

the old guy
07/08/2010 12:04 PM
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Budreaux is spot on!

There’s too much smoke for there not to be a fire.

Gail
07/08/2010 12:07 PM
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And Tom, how about Richard Petty’s 200th and final win at Daytona with President Reagan in attendance? Also, in the late 90’s, a lot of us speculated about how one or another driver had gotten the call or the “good restrictor plate.” Once I even suspected my own favorite driver had gotten the plate, because he was much better at Daytona than he had recently been. Circumstances (racing luck)kept him from winning, but I was upset that he did not win the one race that had been set up for him! That is not even being paranoid, since I thought the fix was in for my own guy!

Frank
07/08/2010 12:42 PM
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If all you “experts” really, truly think the race was fixed, why are you here talking about it? Why are you still watching races? If its that obvious to you that the sanctioning body controls every driver and owner every race then quit whining and get a new hobby. Don’t you think that if that were true the most respected man in the garage (Mark Matin) would have a championship by now? Give me a break. This is why I seldom read comments anymore.

gopapa
07/08/2010 12:49 PM
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Nobody has been able to explain to me why the leader, the sitting duck in any other plate race, was not passed in this plate race. 2 or more cars are faster than 1 and should have been able to just pull out drive around the leader. So why didn’t they?

espn sux
07/08/2010 01:21 PM
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This nonsense about espn and lebron james is ridiculous. It’s like a slave auction in reverse, which makes it hilarious if you think about it.

Ken
07/08/2010 01:43 PM
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Anybody with half a brain knew who was going to win the race when the car/driver was announced. The only thing Jr. had to do to be assured a win was to keep from blowing or wrecking. Everything else was set up for him.

Also, Frank, many people are not watching and many will watch NA$CAR like people watch professional wrestling.

Carl D.
07/08/2010 01:45 PM
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I completely disagree about the so-called “fix”. There’s not a driver out there (at least one whose not a teammate) who’s not going to do everything they can to win a race. I can see a driver not taking a chance on wrecking themselves when a championship is on the line, but Logano wasn’t points racing. If anyone thinks he would purposely let Junior win the race because Mike Helton or Brian France told him to, you don’t understand racecar drivers. Besides, I can’t think of anything would dishonor Earnhardt Senior more than someone being allowed to win a race because his old number was on the car.

chad
07/08/2010 02:02 PM
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The only conspiracy involving Jr. is the one that Mr. H directs. The one thing that the win friday shows is that when you give him the best equipment, Jr. can still win. But then the two golden boys at hendrick would look too bad. Just sayin’

no Spin
07/08/2010 03:33 PM
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NASCAR HATE JACK R MARK, HAD CHAPIONSHIPSS STOLEN FROM HIM BY NASCAR……..

Matt
07/08/2010 04:31 PM
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As someone in the non-NASCAR media said (Wilbon on PTI,) if NASCAR could just fix a race for Junior, why the hell would they wait this long? If they can decide who wins, then they would have been doing this far earlier when it became apparent that it was necessary. When Junior does bad, it’s a conspiracy (Hendrick gives him the bad equipment!) When Junior does good, it’s a conspiracy (NASCAR fixed it!) In any case, whenever it comes to fans’ opinions on Junior, it’s always a joke.

gopapa
07/08/2010 04:43 PM
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I didn’t state any form of opinion. I asked a simple question, on several sites, to which NOBODY has attempted to answer. Still waiting for ANY reply. (Why didn’t any of the 3 cars that could have pulled out and passed junior even try to do so?) (1 car is a sitting duck on ANY plate track, 2 or more cars should be able to pull out and drive around 1. It didn’t happen. Why not?)

Wayne
07/08/2010 05:35 PM
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As I watched the buildup leading to this race and running the number 3 to honor Dale sr., I began to chuckle. This was done for one reason and one reason only , merchandise sales, diecast cars, hats, shirts lots and lots of money for all of them.If tugging at the heart strings of some fans also resulted, then that’s OK too. But following the money usually holds true, especially in NASCAR.Even Kenny Wallace who usually just babbles and rants, mentioned the HUGE merchandise opportunity that this created.Don’t be offended by this, it’s just realty, these people have huge houses, some multiple,expensive planes, pilots to pay and more toys to buy. The money must keep coming in and what a teriffic way to do it, HONOR DALE sr. hope you were not fooled by this!

WindyCityEasyE
07/08/2010 05:39 PM
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If you listen to both Joey and Jr in their post race comments, Joey peaked outside. When he did, Ricky peaked down low. Joey didn’t get off 2 very well so he didn’t have a run. Joey then peaked outside but when he did Ricky wasn’t going to go with him. Joey wasn’t going to go and get shuffled back without any help. Ricky knew he didn’t have a chance at the win so he was hoping Joey would go and he would move up to second.

DansMom
07/08/2010 05:43 PM
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Tom,
Not to preach doom and gloom here – but with all the Lebron talk can we get an article about whether or not the NBA is #2 behind the NFL and does that leave NASCAR as #3 or… #4 behind Baseball???? (maybe even a temporary 5 behind the World Cup…)

gopapa
07/08/2010 06:12 PM
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Windy – this was a plate track, E was protecting the yellow line, only leaving the high line open and everyone knows that. When you’re making your move, you go high – period.

Richard in N.C.
07/08/2010 06:18 PM
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What is clear is that most of the media is more concerned with a story that sells, than with getting it right.

twominutetommy
07/08/2010 06:41 PM
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Actually, in the Nationwide, Jr has done more with the #3 than his dad ever did. Race was not fixed, there is no X Files scenario here. Maybe, just maybe, since the whole field was in new cars never previously run before, and very similar to the current Cup cars, Jr had the best of the best on this day. He has, after all, between cup an NW, had the best of the best more than 40 times before. Just sayin.

Plus, everything said over the radios on race teams is open to the public. You don’t think somebody would have noticed if Joey Lagono’s Crew Chief told him to sandbag it? Come on ya buncha knuckleheads, Jr won that race the old fashioned way, he was the fastest car on the last lap. Plain and simple.

Budreaux
07/08/2010 07:58 PM
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Amazing, isn’t it.

The amount of denial from the Jr. Camp.

wingcars6970
07/08/2010 08:56 PM
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I am a racing fan and have a bunch of drivers I like – no faves. To say a fix of that perfect magnitude was in is beyond ridiculous. You Jr. haters (another dumb-ass thing – hating a driver that never did anything bad to you, your family, your friends or country) need to get some kind of life – take up yoga and chill a little. Sheesh. And Tom – writing about the possibility of it is below hair salon gossip.

mkrcr
07/08/2010 10:01 PM
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Y’all can say what you like, but I thought that 3 car in victory lane looked mighty sweet! Sometimes all the hub bub just don’t matter.
Besides, this article was nothing more than a hook with a big ‘ole piece of tasty bait on it. Fish On!

Bean
07/09/2010 02:10 AM
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I agree with Wayne. It was done for merchandise money. I thought the whole deal was sickening.

Robin
07/09/2010 06:25 AM
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I am not a Jr. fan and I am not a hater either. I was perfectly fine with the fact that Jr. won – however, I still believe in my heart that Joey, Stenhouse, etc. did not pass Jr. for the win because it would not have been in their best interest.

DoninAjax
07/09/2010 03:09 PM
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Joey to Ricky, “If I pull out to pass will you go with me?”
Ricky to Joey, “You bet. Make the move and I’ll be right behind you.”
Joey (to himself) “Yeah right. Like I believe that.”
Ricky (to himself) “Boy is he in for a surprise. One of us is going to the back.”

Susan
07/10/2010 12:11 PM
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Who seriously believes debris cautions after long green-flag runs are legitimate? Kasey Kahne doesn’t; Joey Logano used the word “fix” in his on-radio comments last night in the Nationwide Race. If NASCAR will use debris cautions to get a more dramatic finish or tighten the field in a run-away, how much of a leap is it to suggest they will go the next step to get the result they want? The problem for NASCAR is that they have lost credibility with their abitrary rules enforcement, so when a win looks like a fix, a lot of fans are going to call it a fix. NASCAR made its own bed on this one.

Karie
07/10/2010 02:41 PM
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Amazing isn’t it? The amount of denial in the Hater camp.

People, give it up already. You sound like idiots with this tinfoil hat and WWE stuff. It was a great win. The fans enjoyed it. If you want to believe it was fixed, then I have some ocean front land in Arkansas to sell you because obviously you’ll buy any amount of baloney.

Susan
07/10/2010 06:37 PM
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Karie, the amount of denial in Junior Nation, not to mention Danica Nation, is what is truly amazing! Brad and Joey were so miffed at their own mistakes last night that they refused on-camera interviews. Last Friday, they were all smiles. Where was all that competitive fire when they were supposed to be trying to beat Junior? Logano is not even racing for points, he has no excuse for backing off.

And for the record, I don’t HATE any of the drivers – I just think the drivers who get the most publicity aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve it.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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If you want to know more about Tom Bowles or to view all of his articles here at the Frontstretch, check out his archive and bio page.

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