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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Fans’ Reactions to Junior, Jeff, Jimmie & Jack Not What You Might Expect

It may be only five races into the NASCAR season, but there have certainly been a lot of things to think about: Toyota’s surge from backmarker to contender to winner; last year’s absolute domination of Hendrick Motorsports turning into not even being a serious contender to win in ’08; the Car of Tomorrow; Robby Gordon‘s overturned penalty; Carl Edwards‘s uncontested penalty; and Jack Roush’s accusation of Toyota stealing a “proprietary part,” to name a few. The list is long and interesting.

What is even more interesting is the fans’ reactions to each of these stories.

I don’t get the extreme dislike of Toyota, but many fans want to run the manufacturer out of town on a rail in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s Western. Now, I will admit that I never understood the allegiance that many fans have to a manufacturer that supersedes their allegiance to a driver. To me, the drivers, well, drive the sport, and I could care less if they are driving a Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Dodge or a 1968 VW Beetle. To me, Toyota is just another car maker – one that supplies many jobs to American workers at that. The dislike in some cases borders on xenophobia, which was definitely not one of the basic principles that America was founded on. As a country that was built by immigrants, often literally, it’s suddenly not OK to accept a foreign company who manufactures much of their product in America while many American companies outsource to China or other countries? It’s just, no pun intended, a foreign concept to me.

There have been two opposing sets of opinion on the Hendrick question, as well, and that’s been an interesting story to follow from that perspective. On one hand, Junior Nation is celebrating Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s success as the top HMS driver so far this season. In the other corner, fans of Jeff Gordon and/or Jimmie Johnson are malcontents, wondering aloud if the best resources are being funneled to the Most Popular Driver instead of the best drivers at HMS.

It’s been interesting to follow because neither side is entirely right or entirely wrong. Junior is a talented driver, with 17 points-paying wins at NASCAR’s top level despite being saddled with what was, at least for the last three years or so, equipment that couldn’t match the best teams’ stuff prove that. He’s the best restrictor-plate driver on the track today, bar none. He has never struck me as arrogant or demanding, and despite the accusations that he would walk in and demand things from his three teammates, has shown no sign of that. Is he getting good stuff? Absolutely. It behooves Hendrick to give it to him, because like it or not, many, many fans want to see him run up front and fork over a lot of money on merchandise when he does. He is tough on his own crew, because he wants excellence on the track. But is he the most talented driver at HMS? Well, no.

On the other hand, Casey Mears, Gordon and Johnson are not suffering because Junior waltzed in and stole their toys. Both the No. 24 and 48 teams will admit they lost ground during the Chase working on the now-obsolete Monte Carlos because that was necessary to win the championship that Johnson ultimately brought home. Mears has suffered some incredible bad luck, including a crash during the Daytona 500 – a race which he could have won otherwise, and being the victim of NASCAR’s overzealous attempt to start the race on a still-wet track in California. Johnson had his best career run going at Bristol before blowing a tire. Johnson got setup advice for that race, and Atlanta, from Earnhardt Jr., and both races showed a marked improvement for his team over a horrendous Las Vegas at Atlanta and over all his previous starts at Bristol. So both sides of this argument strike out.

The Car of Today has its advantages and disadvantages. All in all, some races are good and others are snoozefests. We had that with the old car too. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with it. The fan reactions to its looks are where I’m lost. It’s surely no uglier than the offset, distorted old car, which looked like it was being seen through a fun-house mirror most of the time. Sure, the splitter is a little funny looking, but so was the monstrous valance on the old car. The wing? Well, street cars (stock cars if you will) have wings these days. Unless you’re in the market for a (very) used Monte Carlo, you’re not going to find a car on a dealer’s lot today with a spoiler, but a lot of them have wings. I do understand the reaction to the car on the level that it is a huge change, and probably too sudden. NASCAR might have done more for the teams, in the long run, by phasing it in on their original three-year schedule instead of two. But the hatred of its mere existence? Not worth the effort… it’s not going away.

I’m also a little confused on people’s reaction to the two major penalties handed down this year. Or at least one of them. The fact that many fans disagreed with Robby Gordon’s penalty for running an unapproved nose, despite the fact that the only difference was the placement of stickers, is not really a surprise. Most fans love an underdog, and owner/driver Gordon is just that. I agree with the fans who stood up for Gordon, because in this case it was like sending a guy up for 10 years for stealing a pack of gum. Savvy fans also realized that there is a huge difference between an infraction that gives a competitive advantage and one that does not.

Which is why I am surprised by fan reaction to the penalty levied on Edwards. Many fans seemed to be of the opinion that the infraction (leaving the cover off the oil reservoir in order to change air flow, adding at least 30 pounds of downforce to the car) was really no big deal. Still others rallied against the penalty, equal to penalties handed out last year for CoT-specific infractions, because it wasn’t a CoT issue, just a performance issue. Meanwhile, fans overlooked the larger picture here that this was a performance-enhancing tweak used during competition, something that none of last year’s rule-breakers did. To me, cheating during a race is far worse than trying to slide something through inspection and hope it’s approved. Is Cousin Carl really above cheating? Is any team?

Finally, so far, fans have seemed reluctant to buy into Jack Roush’s tale of a stolen part-even those fans who would like nothing better than to see Toyota thrown under the bus. Why? Remember the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf? I think many fans see Roush as a grown-up version of him-he has a long history of accusations against teams who are bettering his own-he accused Jeff Gordon’s then-crew chief, Ray Evernham, of soaking tires to soften them in the late 1990s when only Gordon could deny Roush’s Mark Martin of a championship. Scuttlebutt also questions whether Roush had a role in the story that Richard Childress’s cars had tires with pinholes in them to bleed air and affect air pressure during a race. Neither allegation was ever proven. So to many fans, Roush is once again trying to bring down someone because they are winning at the expense of his teams. It sure seems suspiciously like sour grapes based on what I have heard so far, so I’m not at all surprised by the public opinion on this one.

All in all, it’s been an exciting season, and the fans have a lot to say about all the goings on in the sport these days. While some of it comes as a surprise to me based on history and the knowledge of racing that so many fans do have, other reactions are no surprise at all. Fan debate is good for NASCAR, and it gives fans something to discuss around the water cooler, so a little discrepancy doesn’t hurt a thing. It just makes race season that much more interesting.

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