I’m actually writing this column not on Sunday but on Saturday night, Groundhog Day 2008. I am told by reliable sources who must remain anonymous because they are not authorized to discuss the situation that some sort of football game is to be played tomorrow evening to decide the NFL championship. The Super Bowl is only of interest to me because its arrival marks the passing of the torch from football to stock car racing. Of course, the torch is not passed as gracefully in the fall, where the start of regular season NFL games coincides with the start of our sham of a playoff system – the Chase.
Arriving at Daytona this week, all drivers are on equal footing. It doesn’t matter if you are Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, John Andretti or Robby Gordon; right now, every driver and every team are equal in the points standings, each one with zero points on the board to start.
That means if there’s a single driver out there who isn’t optimistic about his chances this season, he doesn’t belong behind the wheel of a racecar. For teams that enjoyed great success last year – particularly those in Rick Hendrick’s organization – there is no reason to believe that this year will bring anything different. If you look at stats alone, they are definitely sitting in the catbird’s seat. But then again, it was only a few years ago that Jack Roush’s Fords seemed to dominate on the circuit, with all five drivers qualified for the 2005 Chase. Last year was a lean year for Roush and his Fords; however, that organization has a lot of talent behind the wheel, over pit wall and back at the shop. They have a lot of pride in what they do; but that’s the thing about being King of the Mountain. You give all the other teams a goal to shoot at, and historically one team or another has always risen to that challenge.
For teams that didn’t enjoy a good season in 2008, a multitude of changes have been made. Whether it’s a fresh crew chief, a different driver, or a new lineup of cars, at this time of the season it’s easy to be optimistic this year will be better than the last. Speak to any driver entered in this year’s Daytona 500, and he’ll tell you that his team is vastly improved over last year’s effort, that they have a great shot at winning races and making the season-ending Chase.
Sadly, from outside the garage area longtime fans know the reality of this situation. Some dreams are going to be shattered. In the biggest event of the year, some driver and team will suffer a big wreck or mechanical failure in the first few laps of the Daytona 500. But even at that, there’s no need to send up the white flag just yet. Tony Stewart started a championship season with a DNF at Daytona; there’s always the next race, and for the first 10 races of the season, the points will fluctuate wildly before they start to settle back down. In the end, the cream always rises to the top… and the sediment falls to the bottom.
That’s when things start getting ugly. Drivers, crew chiefs and crew members are released, almost always because of a “mutually agreed parting of the ways.” Of course, the reality behind those situations tends to be a lot uglier than that. Egos are bruised, feelings are hurt and unkind words are exchanged. Blame is assigned – unfairly in many cases – and struggling organizations begin to fall apart, the optimism of February a distant speck in the rearview mirror. Excuses are often made, but amidst the high profile pressure of Cup racing today, excuses don’t matter – results do. By late summer, some teams that began the year with wildly optimistic hopes are throwing in the towel and starting to “work on next year;” when once again, they will arrive at Daytona full of hope… if they arrive at all.
The end result is that this is a cruel sport; years of hard work can be undone by a few mediocre seasons. You don’t think so? Maybe you need to go have a chat with Larry McClure. His team won back to back Daytona 500s a little over a decade ago with Sterling Marlin. But this year, the shop is closed.
Still, February arrives with the same optimism for the winter-weary fans. And that stupid rodent in western Pennsylvania predicted six more weeks of winter this weekend. Let’s face it, last year was not a stellar year to watch Cup races. But maybe this year will be better – like the old days. Maybe we’ll be treated to a thrilling Daytona 500 (as we were last year) followed by a string of instant classic races throughout the season (which we didn’t see last year). Maybe the teams will figure out these new cars after all, and we’ll see some more side-by-side racing as a result. Maybe more races will be decided on the track and not in the control tower. Maybe this year’s race broadcasts will be better – or at least less irritating. And maybe, just maybe, one team will not dominate the series to the point that they win half the races. Of course, the fans’ optimism tends to get dampened down come late spring as well. By May, irritation might once again give way to fury; maybe it’s going to be another monotonous season of stock car racing with even more fans heading for the exits… as evidenced by empty seats at the track and declining TV ratings.
But maybe not. Maybe the best season of stock car racing ever lies before us. Weary of ice storms, cold temperatures and endless hours in the back of my garage, I am willing to give 2008 a chance. Maybe my hopes will be dashed again, and I’ll get cynical and mean like I have the last few years. Or maybe this is the year that my romance with stock car racing will be rekindled into the all consuming passion it once was. Maybe this is the year. It could happen. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping here on Groundhog Day 2008.
So let the games start
You better run you little wild heart apart
You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line
A stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away
To the price you pay
But girl, before the end of the day
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
(lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, The Price You Pay)