TweetDid You Notice? ... Can Childress Still Get The Last Laugh?, South Park Blues, And Eight Month Evolution
Thomas Bowles · Wednesday October 6, 2010
Did You Notice? … This latest appeal denial had a much different feel than the first? Former GM exec John Middlebrook, no stranger to Richard Childress, was in charge of making the final decision on a 150-point penalty, $150,000 fine, and two six-week suspensions within the No. 33 team that have defined this year’s Chase. Last week’s panel voted 3-0 that the penalties were warranted, its decision coming amidst Childress bringing in an accident reconstruction expert, Dr. Charles Manning, to show a virtual example of how the measurement problems NASCAR documented could be caused by a tow truck.
In between, Childress threw out a whole new barrage of accusations at the appeals process in general, taking shot after shot at NASCAR and questioning the fairness of the hearing. One week later, he still didn’t get the result he was after: Middlebrook reduced the suspensions of crew chief Shane Wilson and car chief Chad Haney from six weeks to four, the fine from $150,000 to $100,000 but upheld the killer 150-point deduction that, for all intents and purposes, is the Press Your Luck whammy that knocks Clint Bowyer out of the three-person RCR quest for the title.
“After reviewing all the data, presentation and factors involved, I am ruling NASCAR was correct in its decision to levy penalties,” said Middlebrook, the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer who presided over the hearing. “I believe that the revisions that have been made to the penalties are consistent and fair to both parties involved.”
You would think such a statement would leave Childress hunting for a different type of prey than on his Montana vacations, right? Yet after being as outspoken as possible the last two weeks, March, not October, became his favorite month as he entered this process roaring like a lion … but left it quiet as a lamb.
“I’m disappointed that the results are not what we wanted, but I feel we received a fair hearing today,” he said as if someone had tranquilized his right to freedom of speech. “The final step in the appeals process is very good, and I can assure you we would not have taken our case to the chief appellate officer if the first step in the process had been as fair as today’s. I want to thank all of the fans for their support. I’m proud to be a part of this sport and proud to represent RCR’s partners. We all need to put this behind us and get back to racing. There are seven races remaining in the Chase, and Richard Childress Racing will continue our focus on winning the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”
Huh? Who conked Childress on the head and put the fake PR person in charge? What’s more, this statement doesn’t appear to be out of character for him today, as reports from the ground state he was much more calm and relaxed after exiting the appeals room with Middlebrook – even though Dr. Manning wasn’t asked to return.
For NASCAR’s part, John Darby called it a situation where “nobody wins, nobody loses” even though they still haven’t A) Explained what’s specifically wrong with the car to the public at large, who still views the decisions with skepticism and B) Bowyer laid out a six-step anti-inspection speech at Dover that was the equivalent of turning NASCAR into a piñata, then beating it with a baseball bat until it broke into tiny little pieces.
So why did Childress lay off? Secret fines, anyone? Well, I’m sure part of it is he knows the decision is final, and there’s no reason crying over split milk when even a reversal won’t bring back the momentum that has since dissipated from the No. 33, knocking Bowyer out of the championship Chase. But if I were Childress, I’d also be looking at the lone true title contender I have remaining, Kevin Harvick, and moving forward knowing he could still get the last laugh.
How does he do it? Simple: by doubling the Jimmie Johnson – Jeff Gordon strategy of sharing setups. Sure, that’s a concept adopted by every multi-car team but not to the point of JG-JJ, where Gordon basically pulls Johnson aside with the bases loaded, his team up by three, then describes what the pitcher’s going to throw and where over the plate so his “driver” can hit the grand slam. How Gordon sleeps at night knowing he’s providing the tools to get beat, time and time again, is another topic for another day … but at the moment, Childress has a terrific opportunity to harness the same type of superior teamwork.
Let’s face it; Bowyer’s out of the Chase, and Jeff Burton seems out of sorts at ninth in the points, 101 back and coming off a horrific intermediate performance at Kansas. Why not have a “rah rah” team meeting, bring the gang together and change the entire focus of their season towards winning a title for the No. 29? Turn Burton and Bowyer – both willing, take-one-for-the-team individuals – into the equivalent of R&D cars collecting that extra information that will keep pace with a Gordon-Johnson juggernaut taking notes of their own over the course of the weekend.
Can it be done? I still think it’s a longshot to beat the No. 48 one year after the organization had no cars in the Chase at all. But in a way, this penalty frees Childress to give it his best shot with one car, able to stand up at NASCAR and say he beat both the officials and his major nemesis – Hendrick, who forced him to go to the multi-car model after winning the final single-car championship with Dale Earnhardt in 1994 – that he beat them at their own game.
Did You Notice? … What a difference eight months makes … or does it? The last time we visited Southern California, it was one week after Daytona and the top-5 storylines were radically different from what they are now. Here’s a look at how quickly things can change in eight months:
Daytona Storyline #1: Is Jamie McMurray for real?
Answer: Yes. McMurray was never able to dodge the Daytona 500 curse – the last three winners have now failed to make the Chase – but for all intents and purposes he’s had a career year driving for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. A second victory at the Brickyard 400 left him one of three drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett) to ever accomplish the feat, and runner-up finishes at both Charlotte and Talladega this spring lead one to believe he could squeak out a third before the year is over. That would leave him trailing just Johnson and Denny Hamlin in victories this season, making McMurray the rare Cinderella story that actually does pan out over 36 races – playoff appearance or not.
Daytona Storyline #2: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is back!
Answer: Um… no. The difference between Junior’s demeanor now and then is so pronounced, it feels like five years have passed since a series of banzai late-race moves left him second, walking into the media center torn over coming so close to victory but confident in his team’s 2010 outlook for success.
“It’s great for our team to have a finish good anywhere no matter what,” he said. “I was happy. I’m happy for the finish; it validates the changes they made and the hard work they’ve done over the offseason to get better.”
“You know, I just hope we can keep it up.”
All eyes were on the spring Fontana race, where unlike McMurray, Earnhardt’s season began to unravel already. The No. 1 car won the pole, but the No. 88 started 27th, had some sort of axle issue and wound up 12 laps down, in 32nd place and with its driver immediately back in the same type of “no confidence” zone he’d spent the previous 12 months.
“Can’t build the cars,” he said. “What do you want me to do? I just drive them.”
Nothing’s changed since, the roller coaster wave of emotions typical of a tenure with Lance McGrew that’s failed to meet lofty expectations. With seven top-10 finishes, he sits just 17th in points and could easily fall outside the top 20 with some ugly history at the remaining tracks on the schedule.
Daytona Storyline #3: Will the ratings decline ever stop?
Answer: No. Coming off a lackluster year in 2009, the sport was hopeful this season’s “Have At It, Boys” regime combined with some new rules and positive energy would turn the fan base back from the exits. But right off the bat, a better-than-expected Daytona 500 was sidetracked by the pothole from hell that caused a two-hour delay, incensed fans and led to the lowest TV rating for the race since 1991. It was an ugly start from the series that had all eyes looking to Fontana for better-than-expected competition – parity that might cancel out the Nielsen woes.
Instead, Jimmie Johnson won, the race was another snoozer and the overnights dropped six percent, the start to another season where simply breaking even from year-to-year in either attendance or television viewership for a track has to be considered a victory.
Daytona Storyline #4: Will Kevin Harvick be a wild child in his free agent year?
Answer: More like a title contender. While failing to win his second 500, Harvick clearly influenced the outcome, leading a race-high 41 laps before losing his chance to win through contact with Martin Truex, Jr. that sent the No. 56 squirrelly, left McMurray in the front row for the final green-white-checker restart, separating him from teammate Clint Bowyer and ultimately sealing his fate. An irate Bowyer was incensed on the radio, but at the time no one thought much of it because Harvick had one foot out the door to Stewart-Haas or the world of free agency.
Boy, how little we knew. The next weekend he led 27 laps, then gave Johnson all he could handle en route to a runner-up California finish that started mending fences behind the scenes. The stage was set for a Harvick-Johnson title battle, and while Hamlin remains the main challenger to the No. 48, “Happy” sits just third heading to Fontana a second time, armed with the “glory” of a regular season points title and a contract extension with RCR.
Daytona Storyline #5: Is Danica any good?
Answer: No. Daytona left us a little confused with the IndyCar star because it’s hard to judge overall talent in a plate race; the GoDaddy girl had a sensational comeback into the top 10 in ARCA, giving the 200 or so reporters tracking every move legitimacy to stick around another week.
Eight months later, what NASCAR’d give for even two reporters to stalk her. Her first Nationwide Series start was filled with questions about first-grade NASCAR terms, a low-grade experience running at the back of the draft and an eventual wreck not of her making that left the car leaving on a wrecker. Just one race later, the wide open, forgiving spaces of California proved no match for a woman determined to find her groove at a snail’s pace. Qualifying just 36th with superior equipment, she was penalized in the pits, fell three laps down and never so much as sniffed the top 30. It’s been a worst-case scenario ever since, a best run of 24th offset by two DNFs, countless crashes and a fade from the next big thing to the latest NASCAR PR sham.
Here’s another interesting stat for you: Just five of Daytona’s top-10 finishers return to Fontana having made the Chase. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards succeeded; McMurray, Earnhardt, David Reutimann, Truex, and Juan Pablo Montoya failed. Compare that to the following Fontana weekend where eight of the top-10 drivers made it, and those who didn’t (Mark Martin, Joey Logano) came razor-thin close to sneaking in the field.
It just goes to show you how far from the norm plate races are perceived when it comes to the meat of NASCAR’s schedule. There was also little talk about Johnson’s 35th-place finish at the 500, because smart observers knew the No. 48’s dream for five titles was far from done; as expected, they were sitting in Victory Lane that Sunday, their third victory in the last four races in Fontana while asserting themselves as the team to beat once again.
Guess in this era of NASCAR, there’s some things completely incapable of change.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off:
- California’s second date, set for its swan song this weekend, came into being the year NASCAR peaked and began to go downhill: 2005. Pure coincidence? Watch five laps here, compare it to the track it replaced – Rockingham – and judge for yourself.
- So the South Park season premiere is centered all around NASCAR, premiering tomorrow night at 10 PM on Comedy Central. The preview episode reveals all you need to know, Eric Cartman inside the car and saying to his one-man pit crew, Butters: “I’ve learned everything I can about being poor and stupid. I’m ready for NASCAR!”
Now, don’t get me wrong here; I can’t wait to watch, the show is hysterical and I’m sure this episode will be no different. But is this satire the type of publicity NASCAR needs? The episode targets a key demographic the sport’s been trying to reach — 18-35-year-old males — but is depicting the sport as a bunch of stupid, white rednecks incapable of doing anything more than driving in circles really going to whet their appetite to watch? I don’t think that’s what the Daytona Beach offices would like to see, stereotypes they’ve worked hard to erase reconfirmed to the casual observer through one 22-minute, satirical episode they’re powerless to contradict.
- After a disgusting drop to start, NASCAR’s TV ratings have stabilized at 2.3 for the first three weeks of the Chase. But now’s a case study in how much Jimmie Johnson’s dominance means to fans turning off the television. This weekend marks his first as point leader, and this track has typically tilted straight in the direction of the No. 48. Will people click away just because of the sheer thought of Johnson winning the title, or does the whole rest of the race take precedent?
There’s a whole lot of interested parties looking to find out.
- At some point, the ratings can only go down so far before the power lies not with the sport but with the TV networks themselves. If you’re losing $xx millions of dollars per year on a contract and it gets to the point you’re halfway done, what’s the difference in telling the sport you’re losing $3-4 million more, investing your money elsewhere and not bringing cameras and crews to the track without a discount? Clearly, it’s a story to watch going forward – especially considering two of the three networks vying for the next Olympics package are saddled with the NASCAR contract.
- So whom are the “A” level movie stars heading to the “Hollywood” track on Sunday? Kenny Loggins – yes, the Winnie The Pooh songwriter Kenny Loggins – will be performing in concert beforehand. What, I guess Paris Hilton was still pissed Kasey Kahne never called her back? Where’s all the big-time support when you need it? Not that they ever put fans in the stands or anything, but having popular people embracing the sport is as good of a publicity push as you can get.
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