For all intents and purposes, 2007 has been an absolute disaster for professional sports. Major League Baseball is about to have its most coveted and hallowed individual accomplishment bested, and the commissioner of the league’s position regarding his attendance of the event is predicated on if he doesn’t have anything else better to do. Not to mention the player who is preparing to beat the home run mark of 755 by Hank Aaron is in the center of a grand jury investigation for using steroids and human growth hormone, among other unsavory allegations, including an affair and funding his mistress’ lifestyle through the sale of baseball memorabilia.
In Virginia, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is under an Federal indictment for not only participating in, but running an elaborate dog fighting operation known as Bad Newz Kennels. The indictment spells out his role in the torture and killing of dogs who would not fight through strangulation, electrocution, and slamming them into the pavement until dead. Another NFL player, Tennessee Titans DB Adam “Pac Man” Jones, when not “making it rain” in strip clubs, has been accused of being involved in fights and shootings where people have wound up paralyzed. Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals is due to be picked up for another DUI shortly, and feel free to name whatever member of the Indiana Pacers this week is going into the stands or emptying a magazine outside of a strip club.
This, coupled with the debacle that the Tour de France has degenerated into since Lance Armstrong hung up his Huffy, the worst and lowest rated NBA Finals in history, a lackluster Super Bowl, and the NHL barely keeping it’s head above water, it is times like these we thank NASCAR for being part of the national consciousness, and showing once again what is right with sports.
This past weekend’s Brickyard 400 was one of the more memorable races since stock cars were allowed to run on the historic 2.5-mile oval. Kevin Harvick and Hoosier native Tony Stewart diced back and forth over the final few laps while nearly 300,000 people looked on. As always, there was a strong military presence, a pre-race invocation and prayer, as well as performances of “God Bless America” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” replete with a fly-over by pair of B-1 Lancers. It was perfect weather for a great race, albeit one with some controversy, what with the fender-banging incident by Stewart unto Harvick, which effectively crippled the No. 29 Reese’s Chevrolet, sending it back to seventh place by the time the checkered flag fell.
Then Stewart had a few choice words on ESPN.
Yes, NASCAR is packaged as a family friendly sport. The bright colors and accessible drivers, their image and likeness emblazoned on pretty much anything you can stick a price tag to, are very popular among children who play with diecast cars and proudly wear their favorite driver’s t-shirt on the playground. With Stewart’s comments regarding bovine by-products being uttered as he was finishing his interview while parked along the yard of bricks at the track where he would rather win than anywhere else, some parents might have cringed and went “ear-muffs” on their kids.
Hey, at least he didn’t bodyslam a Collie onto the bricks or bust a cap in the air. Our guys aren’t showing up on Dateline NBC or doing the perp-walk into a Federal arraignment hearing. Let’s be honest: It’s nothing Junior’s never heard from his dad in the garage before.
That slight incident aside, there were a number of other great stories surrounding the event. Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver of ethnicity that extends past Kannapolis, qualified next to his teammate on the front row, and after falling back, finished second at the track where he won the 2000 Indianapolis 500. And how about his teammate? Reed Sorenson became the youngest pole winner in event history in the Target Dodge, after a rough season that had him sitting 28th in points before his fifth-place finish. Ward Burton, struggling to get the Morgan-McClure No. 4 back into making races on a regular basis had a fantastic top-15 run. Dale Earnhardt Jr., trying to make the best of a difficult situation that has played out publicly, had a car that could have won the event, suffered engine failure late in the going and handled himself with aplomb.
And rumor has it, none got in a gun fight at a strip club the night before either.
This season has also seen a number of great finishes. The initial Car of Tomorrow race at Bristol was a last lap affair, as were the races at Martinsville and New Hampshire. Atlanta and Texas provided more close finishes, and the two photo-finishes at Daytona this year were among the greatest finishes in the sport’s history.
But then things did get a little ugly.
Truck Series driver Aaron Fike was arrested along with his fiancee after striking a security vehicle with his SUV in a North Carolina/Ohio amusement park. Fike was found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia, including syringes and spoons containing the residue of the granddaddy of all controlled substances, Heroin. NASCAR immediately suspended him “indefinitely” (i.e., forever) for the incident. While it is an absolute baffling and tragic story, it wasn’t in the premier series of NASCAR, but essentially the AAA farm club of racing. Don’t get me wrong; it is still something that no sanctioning body wants to be a part of, but considering how other organizations have endured, NASCAR got off easy. While 90% of drivers want a drug-testing policy in place, NASCAR has been reluctant to go to mandatory involuntary testing for the simple fact that they want to control it and not appear to be susceptible as competitors in other major sports.
That one incident aside, 2007 has been quite a stellar year for auto racing and NASCAR in particular. While the ratings have slipped a little bit, the atmosphere and action on the track has been something to behold. Although we may nit-pick some of the calls on the track (note that the number of “debris” cautions have been all but eliminated), bemoan some of the soap-opera/professional wrestling-type events (what else would you have to complain or read about?!), the fines and penalties assessed to teams stretching the rules, the dominance of a certain manufacturer who’s emblem resembles neckwear… when you take a deep breath, sit back and compare it other sports, we’ve still got it pretty good. The race to make the Chase is shaping up to be as close of a battle as ever for the last spot, and with Stewart, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. beginning to pick up steam, we could have a Chase finish that was every bit as close as it was in 2004.
And we don’t have to put up with Barry Bonds’ bull$&^ either.