The Frontstretch: Junior's Win Gave NASCAR What It Needed: Putting The Focus Back On Racing by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday June 18, 2008

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Junior's Win Gave NASCAR What It Needed: Putting The Focus Back On Racing

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday June 18, 2008

 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s first win in over two years could not have come at a better time for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The sanctioning body desperately needed something positive to transpire for the sport after a week in which it found itself in the forefront of the national news — and not for anything race related on the track. Instead, they were being sued by a former employee, Mauricia Grant, a NASCAR Busch [Nationwide] Series official who alleges that she had been subjected to racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination. The $225 million lawsuit details, among other particulars, racial remarks that Grant, a black woman who was employed by NASCAR from January 2005 – October 2007, was subjected to by co-workers.

Before Dale Jr. trumped the field at Michigan International Speedway Sunday in a fuel strategy race, the lawsuit appeared to be continuing to “grow legs” and threatened to be a headliner going into this week. NASCAR has “circled the wagons” and denies that Grant had ever made the organization aware that there was a problem; nonetheless, hours before the running of the LifeLock 400 and following their own preliminary internal investigation of the matter, NASCAR announced that they had suspended two officials accused in the lawsuit of exposing themselves to Grant. NASCAR Chairman Brian France, still attempting to douse the spreading scandal, has asked the public to not jump to conclusions concerning the suspensions, and instead offered a pretty weak explanation. This leads some to conclude there may be at least some validity to Grant’s claims.

With the sport reeling, NASCAR was becoming somewhat desperate for some positive PR. On the heels of the filing of the damaging lawsuit earlier in the week, the sport called a mandatory meeting before Sprint Cup practice at Michigan last Friday to request some help from drivers and owners. Accounts of the closed-door meeting confirm that NASCAR officials pleaded with the assembled group to curb the negative and continual public criticism of the sport and, more pointedly, the new generation Sprint Cup car formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow. The lawsuit was not a topic of discussion.

Junior’s win on Sunday at Michigan couldn’t have come at a better time for NASCAR’s public relations team.

The request was made because the France family understands, after more than 60 years of promoting stock car racing, that what fans talk about on Mondays following a race directly impacts their business. Folks gathered around the water cooler discussing sexual and racial discrimination lawsuits or just how “crappy” their favorite driver claims his race car handles harms the bottom line. What the stock car racing organization has learned through the years is that a family-friendly image, close competition, top-flight equipment, and drivers and teams focused on giving fans the best race possible is a winning formula.

That is pretty much what Dale Jr., his Hendrick Motorsports team, and the other 43 competitors delivered Sunday at Michigan. The No. 88’s team’s gutsy call to stay on the track when others erred on the side of caution in itself would have made for some great workplace chatter for the week. But additionally, the racing was pretty darn good at the wide, two-mile, speed friendly track. Judging from the frequent side-by-side racing throughout the field, NASCAR’s new generation of race car performed pretty well on a circuit known at times to produce some real snoozers. Also worth noting is no one was complaining about the race car very loudly, either.

It would seem that NASCAR has gotten out in front of further damage from the Grant lawsuit and curbed the negativity that had increasingly permeated driver interviews… for this week, at least. NASCAR management, no doubt, is enjoying the respite from the problems of last week. However, their damage control efforts aside, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s popular win Sunday was the best answer to NASCAR’s mounting public relation problems. The only better solution for the sanctioning body going forward would be for Junior to continue his winning ways.

For there simply is no other driver that can remotely compare to the positive fan impact that the son of seven-time Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt brings to the track with him. Perhaps another win by the also well thought of Kasey Kahne could have stolen the nation’s sports headlines, but not like Junior’s first win in over two years has. It’s been “Junior time” since the checkered flag dropped at Michigan; I have not witnessed so many fans so enthused and talkative about a win by a driver since, well… since 1998, when Junior’s Dad broke a 20-year drought at the Daytona 500.

Oh sure, there has been some grumbling that Junior was given special treatment by not being penalized for allowing his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to coast ahead of the pace car, a last ditch effort to save fuel during the race’s final laps ran under caution. But a little criticism involving favoritism is something NASCAR can live with. That is familiar territory for them… they’ve always been accused of having some “golden boy” or another. It’s small potatoes compared to controversies involving non-competitive race cars and certainly sexism, racism, and condoning lewd behavior.

Frankly, the sport and its fans needed a break from the week-in and week-out external distractions that have infested the sport for the better part of the 2008 season. There has been more than enough time given to generally disliked and disrespectful, multi-millionaire drivers winning races and then badmouthing their peers and the sanctioning body. Likewise, the almost constant complaining about cars too difficult to drive and a chronic compulsion by some to critique every decision that NASCAR makes has eroded fan involvement. The weekly storyline has steadily become farther and farther removed from what it should be… the race.

Well, this week’s big news is that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the LifeLock 400 Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. That is good enough. Perhaps it is a start in the right direction towards getting the focus of the sport back to where it belongs. Racing!

One can hope.

And…that’s my view from Turn 5.

Contact Tommy Thompson

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True Fan
06/18/2008 06:57 AM
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A twenty-one year old is in position to win a cup title in a sport dominated by 40 somethings and that is not headline news in this sport and I find that very conspicuious.

Mark
06/18/2008 11:56 AM
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So let me see if I got this right….. if the drivers don’t talk about “it,” then “it” doesn’t exist and “it” doesn’t need to be fixed. You know what they say…. denial is one of the biggest signs there is a problem…. and I think this is a serious problem…. don’t you?

Mike Cannon
06/18/2008 12:21 PM
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If NASCAR gives favoritism to Dale Jr, why did they wait over 2 years to ‘give’ him a race?

Douglas
06/18/2008 03:44 PM
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MMMM, racing, NA$CAR style!

Spectator #1 to spectator #2: Hey, he just turned his engine OFF!! What is he trying to do?

Spectator #2 answer: Oh, he is trying to win the race?

Just how dumb is that scenario?

And Jr. is proud to win!!!

Well, I guess if your A SECOND RATE DRIVER AND YOU CAN WIN VIA TURNING YOUR ENGINE OFF AND COASTING, YOU JUST TAKE IT!

How sick NA$CAR has become! You win a race at ZERO RPM’S, but cannot at 9,500!!!

Yep, real racing folks!

Hope you were in the cheap seats!

Sure glad there was no body at the track that day to witness this fine event & winner! (or is that “whiner”??)

Frank
06/18/2008 04:25 PM
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So big deal, he won on fuel mileage. HE WON THE RACE. Period. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, winning at Michigan often comes down to fuel. If you look it up none of the other drivers that have won like that have an asterisk next to their name. Get over it. I knew Jr. winning would bring out all this b.s.

Scott
06/18/2008 05:30 PM
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Frank:

We are not mad that Jr. won the race, we are mad because of the circumstances. After Jr. passed the pace car the first time, he was warned not to do it again. He did it two more times and NASCAR did nothing.

If the driver had been anyone else but Jr., he would have promptly been penalized and not allowed to get the win. It is that simple. We just want NASCAR to apply the rules equally to every driver, no matter who they are.

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