Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 26, 2007
I may be in the minority here (my heritage notwithstanding), but for many reasons, to me this season has been one of the worst in recent memory for NASCAR.
To look back on it that way is quite disappointing – especially since 2007 started out with so much promise. There was the addition of a new manufacturer in Toyota, a new face in the form of a former Formula One superstar, and the network that started the ball of unencumbered growth rolling in the mid 1980's was about to take over NASCAR coverage again. And, if all that wasn’t enough, for the first time since 1981, a new breed of car was about to hit the track.
Then the season actually started.
In all fairness, things began to suck big time before the green flag ever fell on Speedweeks in Daytona Beach. A week after New Year’s, on the 7th of January, Bobby Hamilton Sr.'s courageous 9-month battle with head and neck cancer drew to a tragic close. On January 16th, Benny Parsons passed away in a Charlotte hospital from complications resulting from lung cancer. Losing one of the Truck Series’ fiercest competitors – followed up by one of the most beloved figures in the sport's history just one week later – put a damper on festivities as the season began, to say the least.
But the show went on.
And just as it went on, many competitors went home. After qualifying for the Daytona 500, Roush Racing crew chief Robbie Reiser was sent home, as were all of the Evernham crew chiefs, for creative use of duct tape inside the racecar. To this day, no one really knows for sure who put what in Michael Waltrip's fuel cell. Following the Gatorade 150 qualifiers, Jeff Gordon's car was found to have a suspension "failure" that lowered the back of his car significantly. He was sent to the back of the field, but no further penalties were handed out.
And thus began the year of the make-up-the-rules-as-we-go-along knock against NASCAR. Accusations flew that the sport was devolving into little more than professional wrestling with helmets instead of masks, SAFER barriers replacing turnbuckles, and sponsor mentions replacing personality. This was further fueled by the last lap antics in the Super Bowl of Racing, the Daytona 500. As Mark Martin was headed towards a very nice consolation prize for never having won a Championship in NASCAR's premier series, a wreck of Mad Max proportions was occurring behind him. With cars upside down, on fire, spinning, crashing, and careering into one another, NASCAR, for the first time since the Fall of 2003, did not freeze the field under yellow.
The result was, ironically, a controversial win for a car festooned in Caution Flag Yellow and Race Has Stopped Red.
Speaking of yellow flags, we saw a lot of those early on this year, too. The very next week at California, the term "Phantom Caution" and "NASCAR Yellow" were thrust into our vocabulary. Statisticians dug up numbers that clearly suggested that racing must have gotten a lot more dangerous since 2001, because all of a sudden there was a threefold increase in cautions per race. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to ever actually "see" what or who the caution was for. Things got so bad Tony Stewart actually mouthed off about the subject in April, claiming NASCAR was throwing the caution flag too often and never giving a reason why.
You will note that, amazingly, since then, we've had a lot of green flag racing in 2007, and not nearly as many cautions as we once had.
But most importantly, it’s the development of the Car of Tomorrow and how it’s come along which has made both old and new seasons turn into more of a waste. The CoT was touted as being the machine that would save NASCAR from the pitfalls of ever-rising costs and technology run amok: gone would be the contorted cock-eyed, twisted bodies of today, taking aerodynamics out of the equation and putting control back in the driver's hands. At least, that was the goal. I’m not so sure it happened every time; Kyle Busch won the first CoT race back in Bristol, and his first comments about the machine that he had just made history in were simply, “it sucks.”
Also, when NASCAR developed the CoT, they forgot one key component: aesthetics. The goal was to create a car that looked and acted like a truck: the last time car builders embraced that idea, the results were such abominations as the AMC Eagle, Dodge Rampage, and Subaru BRAT. And don’t even get me started on El Caminos.
Handsome machines, they are not. Just like the CoT.
Moreover, the car seemingly has had just about the opposite effect on budgets and reigning in technology to date. A team may not need a fleet of ten race cars at $200,000, a pop or invest a lot of time in the wind tunnel - but they now are forced to acquire a $3 million piece of equipment known as a seven-post shaker rig, and a crew of engineers to work it, interpret the data, and apply it in a useful form. Roush Racing driver Greg Biffle, following this past Sunday's race at Dover, said the car was set up exclusively from notes gathered on their machine - he offered virtually no input to the car as a result.
In a way, that’s good, because you can't work on these things anymore, either. Tony Eury, Jr., Chad Knaus, and Steve Letarte found that out the hard way. The body is off limits; suspension is limited so much so that on flat tracks, the left front wheel is carried in the air through the turns. And just last month, NASCAR began exploratory testing on spec engines at Martinsville, making IROC-looking race cars a possible reality sooner rather than later.
For the better part of this year, we were treated to a drama that would make “Dallas” look like an episode of “Teletubbies”. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sparred with his wicked stepmother over the rights to a number. Instead, Junior got a second 8 from Robert Yates, a bunch of new merchandise to sell, and he might actually see a decent cut of it this time around. At least it reached its zenith during the summer; while Numbergate dominated the headlines, NASCAR degenerated into NAPCAR, with little interest or excitement to be had short of the Kevin Harvick and JPM handholding/slap fight in Upstate New York.
Then there's The Chase for The Championship, perhaps the most reviled component of our sport since the restrictor plate was introduced. One Saturday in early September, Jeff Gordon had a 349-point lead over Tony Stewart. Seven days later, he trailed teammate Jimmie Johnson by 20 points. Apparently, running well and winning all year long doesn't mean quite what it used to. Following Carl Edwards' 25-point fine for his quarterpanels being too low (at a track where downforce is king and only by raising them would anything positive result), Jeff Gordon now leads Tony Stewart's armpits by two heading into Kansas…instead of by two full races.
There’s so, so much more. I could go on and rail about ESPN's coverage being a shadow of its former self. There is plenty of room here in this forum left to question how they were able to cover racing better 15 years ago with only a handful of cameras and a distinct lack of cheesy animation to explain something so complicated as "drafting," or air blowing around. What I won't do is ramble on how NASCAR and the networks are going far out of their way to draw parallels to other traditional stick-and-ball sports, in a desperate attempt to lure anyone and everyone from the 18-45 age demographic. But while the new fans have been harder and harder to come by each year, ABC’s new pit road feature will likely split the teams in groups of 11.
You might think I'm wrong, and say if it's so awful; why don't I just change the channel and watch baseball or football? Good question, folks; it's because I live in Michigan. I'm saddled with the Detroit Lions, the worst team in the history of sports; and the Tigers are now officially out of playoff contention. So, now I can likely do both.
But in the meantime, looks like you're stuck with me for the next eight weeks. Like it or not, looks like we’re stuck with the worst NASCAR season ever, too.
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