To anyone who missed Friday night’s Craftsman Truck race, shame on you. For the last several years, the trucks have put on the best race of Speedweeks, and Friday night’s three-wide finish was outstanding. Yeah, I was pulling for the guy with the Blue Oval in the grille, not the foreign trucks, but that didn’t keep me from rising to my feet and letting out a holler as the threesome swept to the finish line. Let’s see: the trucks have more power than the restricted Cup cars, but are much dirtier aerodynamically. Is there a lesson there? You betcha.
Well, if every dark cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining has a dark cloud. I’ll admit that I haven’t followed the Truck Series as closely since the Toy trucks started dominating, but I was stunned to see just two Dodge entries in the season-opening Truck race. There was a time Dodge was a major player in this game, but it appears they’ve pretty much thrown down their cards and left the table. I wonder how long it will be before the American car makers decide to do the same in the other two major NASCAR touring series, as a plant continues to wither straight from its roots.
Related to the above: Johnny Benson pushed Jack Sprague to victory in the Truck race, causing Sprague’s crew was to go over and thank Benson as soon as he pulled down pit road. Obviously it is not the first time one driver has assisted another in winning at a plate track by playing favorites, but in this case, it seems ganging up on the other makes seems to be a part of the Toyota Racing Development philosophy. Team orders have greatly diminished the intrigue of other forms of racing, particularly Formula 1, where one driver might be ordered to pull over and allow his teammate to pass him for the win… but I thought NASCAR would be at least partially immune to team orders. After all, as a sponsor who is laying out big bucks to back a driver, I want to see my boy going hell’s bells for the win, not aiding another driver with a different sponsor. But I guess I was wrong. To be fair, the Toy Truckers weren’t the only ones playing games this week to help teammates corporate or otherwise. In the second qualifying race, Sterling Marlin let out of the gas at the end and dropped back several positions to allow his teammate Joe Nemechek to make the race. I could do without that strategy, too, and so could Jeremy Mayfield, who missed the race as a result.
Back to the silver lining; it was great to see Brendan Gaughan back in the spotlight sounding so pumped up for the season ahead despite a bump in the road at Daytona. Gaughan is one of the most personable and likable drivers in the garage area, though an ill-fated move to the Cup series pushed him back into obscurity. Yeah, the Cup Series is the big time where the big money is made, but other drivers like Randy LaJoie have figured out along the way that it’s better to be a big fish in a smaller pond than a small fish in a great big pond full of carnivores.
One more note about the trucks before moving on: maybe moving the truck race to Friday night from the afternoon will boost the ratings, but I doubt the move was appreciated by the fans standing there freezing in the grandstands. The temperature in Daytona Beach got down to 29 degrees this weekend, not exactly perfect weather to be watching a race outside in the wintertime.
- Robin Pemberton is “absolutely certain” that the No. 24 team did not intentionally break the rules, even if Jeff Gordon‘s car was found too low after the second 150 qualifying race. After all the modification was dangerous! Yeah, Robin… no team searching desperately for speed in the highest profile race of the season is going to take a risk like that. Didn’t Pemberton used to work for Rick Hendrick? At Daytona, where many drivers will surrender starting positions towards the front anyway, falling to the back and pacing themselves until the inevitable wrecks thin the herd, make Gordon’s penalty for his infraction the lamest since Monte Python’s comfy chair.
- Does Michael Waltrip have a dog named Checkers? ‘Cause his wife surely doesn’t wear a sensible Republican coat. Why is it I see the MWR and Toyota philosophy as being “the end justifies the means?”
- A note to talent coordinators who book drivers and other personalities for the plethora of NASCAR-related programs: Don’t book John Force. He makes the Cup drivers look even more like bland sponsor-spewing robots with his forthright, over-the-top personality. A further note: If Jeff Hammond thinks a comedy skit is funny, it isn’t.
- The loud whirring sound you hear at the end of the new Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevy commercial is Ronnie Von Zandt spinning at about 8,000 rpm is his grave.
- General Motors is considering buying Chrysler from Mercedes? Of course, the master plan includes the two corporate giants combining talents to produce a new large SUV. Wasn’t it Detroit’s overreliance on large SUVs and pickups that bought the whole house of cards crashing to the ground when the oil companies decided to use the Hurricane Katrina tragedy as an excuse to inflate profits to obscene levels? Hmmm. Maybe they should combine forces to produce a comfortable, affordable and practical four-passenger hybrid sedan with acceptable performance and stellar fuel economy? Nah, that would never sell.
- ESPN’s first NASCAR race broadcast in years wasn’t perfect, but it was encouraging. First and foremost, having Dr. Jerry Punch back on the broadcast team was like having an old college buddy show up at the front door with a case of Corona. Rusty Wallace seems to have made the transition from driver to broadcaster fairly well given a season in the IRL to earn his chops. All racecar drivers have egos, but Wallace managed to keep his on a leash a lot better than one of his compatriots at FOX has done this week. With Neil Goldberg back in the truck, the video work was simply outstanding, as was the producer’s decision to focus the broadcast on the race itself rather than trying for comedy or heart-wrenching pathos. Andy Petree and Tim Brewer need some work, though; they sounded like they split a Quaalude prior to the race. But my biggest disappointment was the screen crawl… come on, ABC/ESPN, put the running order back at the bottom of the screen, where God and Neil Goldberg intended it to be. If we want to catch college basketball or NHL scores, we’ll run to the computer during commercial breaks. Speaking of commercials, while I can’t say ESPN ran any less ad minutes on Saturday, at least the ads were spaced better and the announcers were able to keep fans current with what was going on after a break.
Editor’s Note: This is the second edition of Matt’s Blog, with some random notes before the start of the 49th Great American Race Sunday afternoon. To read the first edition, click here.