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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Thinks Out Loud: Is It the Rider or His Horse?

In horse racing, they say it is the jockey that matters but even the best can’t win on a pack mule. As it becomes more and more likely that the Joe Gibbs Racing teams will switch to Toyota Camrys next year, you have to wonder just how many millions of dollars are being thrown around behind the scenes for Gibbs even to consider such a radical move. Gibbs’s latest acquisition, Kyle Busch, has complained out loud that he is unpopular with many fans because they aren’t giving him a fair break. (That’s a valid argument to a point, but in fact, it is Busch’s antics on and off the track that have caused many folks to write him off as a horse’s ass.) My guess is driving a Toyota isn’t going to endear him to even the most open-minded fans. Of course, maybe Busch will be the first to win a race in a Camry and he’ll say afterwards, “These cars still suck.” I’d buy him a beer if he does.

The Future of Bud and the No. 8

How much does image matter as opposed to substance these days in Cup racing? Well, the lucrative Bud sponsorship that’s in play right now is said to be heading to the No. 9 team of popular young driver Kasey Kahne. My guess is Kahne still gets carded when he heads out to pick up a six-pack of suds at the local Piggly-Wiggly. If it is results they are after, why are they pursuing a team that is currently 27th in points with no top fives and just two top-10 finishes this season?

A lot the Earnhardt loyalists seem pretty upset that Junior won’t be running the number 8 next year. Frankly, I don’t see the change as any big deal – Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s father ran a bunch of races using the number 2 or 15 and he won some of them. Yes, Dale Earnhardt – whose name will forever by synonymous with the Bow Tie brand – won three Cup races in a Ford. He started his Cup career behind the wheel of the No. 8 Dodge Charger – a number Dale Sr. chose in honor of his father Ralph. Ralph Earnhardt did race using the No. 8, but never carried that number in any of his 51 starts in NASCAR’s top division. As I see it, in this sport riders change horses all the time, it’s the jockey that matters.

Blue and Orange Just Don’t Mix

One of the things that bothers me about the Cup Series these days is the Powers-That-Be spend too little time at Darlington and too much time in courtrooms. This week, a panel of three wise jurists decided that the No. 31 team can’t run the AT&T logos after all. Perhaps their delicate sensibilities were offended by the clash between the blue graphics on a basically orange background, a scheme that nobody has managed to pull off since it worked on Ossa Motocross bikes back in the early ’70s. (Yeah, Ossa, kids, Orpheo Sincronic Sociedad Anonima). That leaves Richard Childress’s second team, currently sixth in the points and solidly in the Chase, scrambling to come up with new war paint before next week’s race at Bristol.

It is my nature to solve the world’s most pressing problems, and to do so before the sun goes over the yard arm signaling cocktail hour, so I’ll offer my suggestion. Why not use the No. 31 car to promote the wildly hyped and popular Apple iPhone? Why? Well, it turns out the world’s most coveted cell phone only operates on the AT&T network, and since it’s a device and not a carrier, I think it would fly under NASCAR’s radar. And given the price of the damn things it would seem that our friends in the Silicon Valley could afford to pony up.

Michigan in November?

The Michigan race was the fourth event to be affected this year due to inclement weather. Given the nature of NASCAR racing, which is held outdoors, there’s always going to be a chance that rain will postpone an event. That’s why I can’t understand why NASCAR doesn’t have at least one off-week scheduled somewhere in the 10-race stretch that makes up the Chase to allow for a race to be rescheduled without needing to extend the season. The Michigan race was slated for this afternoon, and the forecast for Monday looks just as grim.

With the Cup stars slated to arrive Thursday at Bristol for the big goings-on of the redneck high holy days in Thunder Valley, the unsavory chance of Michigan running the week after the scheduled season finale at Homestead is being bandied about. That would, in turn, cause the Chase itself to start at Dover in September with the results of the second NHIS race deciding which 12 drivers make the Chase. The folks at ESPN and Richmond International Raceway have got to be less than thrilled with that contingency plan. Hopefully they’ll get Michigan in this week.

Modernized Traditions?… No Thank You

It’s still a couple weeks off, but those of you who know me know I won’t be covering the race at California on Labor Day weekend. For those who might not understand why, I can only remind you that I remain a hidebound traditionalist whose interest in the sport dates back to the era of those funny looking Plymouth Superbirds that I admire so much, even if some folks mock me for loving them. Here’s how I see it – the Labor Day weekend show is supposed to be at Darlington. It’s supposed to be a 500-mile race run in the sweltering heat of a late summer South Carolina afternoon and it’s supposed to be called “The Southern 500,” not the “Some soft drink that makes kids fat” 500. Yes, the ritual can be a bit uncomfortable for the drivers and even the fans in the stands, but then the Southern 500 was a defining event that separated the wheat from the chaff on both sides of the catchfence. The best fans watched the best drivers run the best race of the season at the circuit’s best track, and legends were born.

Even the LA Chamber of Commerce is going to claim that the “modernized tradition” (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) of the Labor Day race at Fontana has struck a receptive chord with the fans. The powers-that-be claim that the reason Darlington lost its coveted traditional date is the fact some seats went unsold, yet Fontana is struggling to sell seats for both their Cup events. Television ratings for the California races haven’t exactly sent the suits in the network boardrooms dancing either. You can hype the hell out of a race, but most fans with a few gray hairs realize that California is likely to produce a processional parade that will try the patience of even the most laid-back fan.

So will my quixotic one man campaign restore the Southern 500 to its rightful place on the schedule? Even I’m not foolish enough to think so, but if enough of you don’t attend or watch the race and don’t buy Sony products (that electronics firm is title sponsor of this year’s farce) then maybe, just maybe, someday the powers-that-be might take notice.

Does Someone Need a Timeout?

Based on Dale Junior’s comments this week, maybe Dr. Phil ought to arrange a little sit down with Teresa and Junior? This is one family that’s gone from dysfunctional to out-and-out hostile. On a related note, it seems extremely unlikely NASCAR’s most marketable driver will make the Chase this season; you have to wonder if there’s a correlation between the above items.

Why is Kevin Harvick is making such a big deal about his run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya at Watkins Glen? It would appear that Harvick’s selective memory doesn’t extend back to the Montreal Busch Series race when, in his own fit of temper, he wrecked his own teammate and triggered a field decimating late-race wreck. Mr. Kettle, meet Mr. Pot.

In Remembrance

Unfortunately, racing is always going to be a dangerous sport and, at its worst, it can cost young drivers their lives. That fact was driven home by last week’s tragedy at the Thompson Speedway in Connecticut during a modified event. John Blewett III was racing his younger brother Jimmy for the lead after a late restart when it all went horribly wrong in the first turn. John Blewett passed away as his brother watched helplessly by his side. There’s no need to assign blame for the wreck. This is the dark side of auto racing and while the sport is infinitely safer than it once was, it is still at every track, every weekend waiting there in the wings. My most sincere condolences go out to the Blewett family and their friends.

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