More than just the Easter Bunny occupied the NASCAR fans’ attention this weekend. Coinciding with the break in the Cup schedule was the beginning of the fastest-growing tournament-style sporting event to hit America each year; and as a result, race fan’s minds were busy being filled with basketballs, not Goodyears, this holiday season. With the 65-team NCAA Tournament getting underway, America’s productivity screeched to a halt as the first two rounds played out upon a national stage. Office pools, not office memos, become the order of business on a Thursday; and even for the most dedicated racing fan, Friday night became as much about what 12-seed was going to break through as to who’s in the best position to win the Nationwide Series race the following day.
Yes, this college basketball tournament has been gaining popularity on pace with NASCAR over the past decade; and as such, men and women that wouldn’t even know how to dribble a basketball have become enamored with programs that come from schools they can’t even locate on a map. Belmont, American, Cal State Fullerton; unknowns just days earlier, they spent their games puncturing the heart of our sporting consciousness, producing 15 minutes of fame while facing off against bigger, stronger and faster opponents.
In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize through those small schools why and how this event has become so popular; in a country in which anything is possible, we thrive on rooting for the underdog. Hopes and dreams lies within places like Siena, Davidson and Western Kentucky (all of whom won their first-round matchups on the weekend) – not just for them, but for all of us. While these are places we may have never even heard of, their story of resilience in face of bigger, stronger adversaries is something we relate to our everyday life, as run-ins with bosses, significant others and even finances threaten to beat us down.
But life is a constant battle to overcome these obstacles; and with the NCAA’s unique tournament format, the path for any team is never easy. Americans like to view their lives through a prism of perseverance; as these tiny colleges rise up to beat the mega-school Goliaths, we enjoy the small battles in which they come out on top, despite knowing the chances of them winning the war are slim.
But how does this concept relate to NASCAR? Well, while enjoying the flurry of upsets that sent home traditional powers like Georgetown, Duke and Connecticut in the college realm, I couldn’t help but notice the attention these upsets bring to their sport. It’s a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time; and as I sat there thinking about it, I figured out why.
It’s because that feeling is bordering extinction within the sport I cover.
When you think about the last time a true underdog won in NASCAR, the short answer is, it’s been a while. If you define the “underdog” in our sport as a single-car team, you’d have to travel back in time to 2003 to find the last win for such a program; that’s when Ricky Craven narrowly edged out Kurt Busch at Darlington in Cal Wells’s No. 32 Tide Pontiac. If you take the “driver/owner” route, you’ll need to go back even farther; Ricky Rudd won Martinsville on September 27th, 1998 in his self-owned No. 10 Ford.
10 years later, that team’s long been disbanded, along with several other small-time organizations that couldn’t keep up in this age of consolidated money and power. Larry McClure, Junie Donlavey, Travis Carter, the Mellings; they’re owners whose names are dotted on the landscape of the past, with cars collecting rust in shops no longer meant for the big time. There will be no 16-seed coming out to race under their banner anytime soon; the 1-seed has already routed them off the court, with the blessing of the NASCAR officials overseeing the madness.
Instead, we’re left each week with four and five-car mega-team conglomerations, a bunch of Ohio States built on the precipice of dozens of former campuses. Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated; each of them bring intriguing stories to the table, but what they don’t bring is a lack of money and equipment at their disposal. Nothing against these teams; they give it all week in, week out, earning their victories through blood, sweat and tears. That doesn’t mean the racing they do on the track – or even the racing itself – isn’t exciting; but when victory lane is inhabited by the favorites week after week, there’s a sense of unpredictability that dies on the vine. Even when a Casey Mears wins out of the Hendrick stable, the feeling is a bit different than, say, if an independent team owner like Robby Gordon pulls an upset with a single-car operation on life support just months earlier.
And even in the face of the Car of Tomorrow, increased parity has stopped short of even the thought such an improbable win is on the horizon. To date, single-car operations have but a lone top 10 to their credit in five races; and with several without a guaranteed starting spot, most are more concerned about survival than success. That’s a problem, for as any good Cinderella knows, to pull off a miracle you must first make it to the dance. However, the more costs skyrocket and the big teams take control, the more exclusive the dance becomes to attend; black-tie affairs don’t contain much time for fairy-tale endings.
That cold reality proves a shortcoming in the world of public perfection. It’s a problem if a sport that bills itself on the fact that anyone can win fails to take steps towards leveling the playing field – and the resources of the Cup Series “1, 2 and 3 seeds” of Roush, Gibbs and Hendrick. But as Western Kentucky and Davidson continue to dominate the headlines this week, I wonder – perhaps hope a little too much – if NASCAR is noticing the degree of importance to which those surprising wins have influenced the sport of college basketball was good. It’s a case in which Cinderella was spotted, and fans anxiously anticipated a public and dramatic fitting of the infamous glass slipper.