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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: 1 to Go, Boys, & What a Ride It Has Been

With the white flag in the air on the 2008 NASCAR season, I can safely say there have been some surprises. Looking back over the season that was, as well as ahead to what likely will be when the checkers fly at Homestead, there have been 35 races won and lost, changes of the guard at the top, veterans stepping quietly out of the spotlight while peach-fuzzed fresh faces climb tentatively in, and a constant, thrumming undercurrent of discontent with the new car, the schedule, the drivers and the quality of a once-great sport in decline. It’s been quite a ride.

With that, I’m going to look back at each month of the 2008 NASCAR season, at the stories I touched on and what has changed – or not – since.

In February, when winter only begrudgingly begins to loosen its hold while a season of promise awakens, I spoke of eliminating the Budweiser Shootout; how the underdogs shone in the Gatorade Duels; how change is both necessary and evil; and a heartfelt thank you to the unsung heroes who are the safety workers. I still wonder if the Shootout is better left in the past. It takes up a week that could be better spent and the format is boring. It could be made better, as I commented on in August. But if it can’t, it’s sometimes best to go out with a shout instead of a whimper. I’ll always love an underdog, and while Kenny Wallace and John Andretti’s best splash in the Cup Series came at Daytona, it was still fun to watch. Looking back on the changes in NASCAR this year, from the CoT to driver changes to new sponsors, many have been positive – but NASCAR would do well to note this caveat: some things don’t need to be changed, and things rarely need to be changed just for the sake of change. It’s a slippery slope, and NASCAR stands on the precipice. Finally, the safety workers still get a silent thank you each week and should from every fan – you hold our heroes’ lives in your hands and you take good care of them.

In March, spring comes flamboyantly to North Carolina, and I wrote about how fans’ reactions to cheating differ depending on the offender; how a car that isn’t quite legal following a win should have that win forever marked in the record books; the subtle ways that sponsor obligations can hurt a driver’s image; and the confusing reactions of race fans to some of the year’s headlines. I do wonder why when one team has a part or piece out of place, they are “cheating” but another “made a mistake.” At this level, mechanics don’t make many mistakes, especially mistakes that enhance the performance of a racecar – and if that performance is enhanced during a race and results in a win, an asterisk should accompany that win in the history books, at least until NASCAR does the right thing and strips wins from cars that fail post-race inspection for something other than a part failure. Fans’ reactions to these issues and more always puzzle me. Put two different drivers or teams in identical situations, and the same fan will make excuses for one and toss the other in the fire, and that fan will be passionate about a molehill and apathetic about a mountain. As for the sponsors, they might, in an era of decline, take a hard look at what they want from drivers and sometimes choose a meet and greet with race fans over a session with a few VIPs. In the end, it might get them further in an economy where fans already feel alienated.

In April, everything is so green that it assaults the senses, and I commented on Karma; what is, after all is said and done, still right in NASCAR; the perception of boring racing that television perpetuates; and the need of a crew chief change for NASCAR’s most popular driver. There are things right in NASCAR – speed really IS beautiful, and the engines make a music that makes your chest swell almost to bursting. It would be a boon to NASCAR and the television stations to show the best racing action and not the same few drivers. I still wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can contend for a title without a different crew chief. And Karma… well, Karma bites.

May is early summer and early Silly Season. I wrote on NASCAR’s inconsistency; why Casey Mears deserves better; and a stunning reminder at Rockingham that Ken Schrader can still drive a racecar better than most human beings. One thing that is consistent in NASCAR is that the sanctioning body is never consistent. I’ll always wish that was different, and I think someday, NASCAR will, too. As for Mears, maybe a change, after all, will bring what he deserves. And NASCAR will sorely miss Schrader when he steps away to race somewhere where time and circumstance have not yet passed him by. The fans will miss him most of all. By May, the points race looked to be between Kyle Busch and maybe, if he got lucky, Carl Edwards. Nobody else looked like they had what it took to make any kind of run at these two, and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and his team were barely recognizable as the same team that won it all two years running. Fans either loved or hated Busch, and the effect of his dominance was polarizing and electrifying.

In June, school’s out, and I discussed, my fear for the future of Petty Enterprises under the oversight of Boston Ventures; and explored some myths about the new car. I’m afraid I may have been right about the Pettys and their savior being their ultimate demise, as Boston Ventures seems to care little about the rich history they have been entrusted with for the future. And, unlike many, I don’t hate the new car – I see its promise, if only NASCAR would realize that a few tweaks by the teams and a better tire could make a world of difference. If only…

July is hot and sultry and I recounted my unlikely stint as a pit-crew member; NASCAR’s oversight in leaving several drivers off of their series’ Most Popular Driver ballots; and the most talented and most marketable drivers in NASCAR. You know what? Those sign boards are heavy! Those drivers were added to their respective pools within days as fans complained – I wonder if I helped. NASCAR has some unbelievable talent-and sometimes marketability is just as important. At the midpoint of the season, I never saw Johnson coming – the race was Busch’s to lose, and that looked as likely as Satan starting a snowball fight.

August is the dog days, and the first hints of trouble for Busch began to whisper in the wings. I wrote about that; and about what owners expect from their drivers; and about the 2009 schedule. By the end of the month, Busch’s complete dominance was a thing of the past, as both Edwards and Johnson roared onto the scene as contenders. It was far from over, but it looked to get good. I still firmly believe that only Darlington belongs on the schedule for Labor Day weekend, and I hate the thought of Talladega and a race that is little more than a giant crapshoot so close to the end of the Chase. How unfortunate if one bonehead move ruins someone else’s title dreams altogether.

Summer is at least unofficially over in September, but the Chase is just heating up. I wrote about how I will never be a fan of that Chase, some great NASCAR books, and NASCAR’s inconsistency. At least someone was consistent? It’s still funny to me how both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series have great championship battles going on – without a contrived, fake playoff system – and that the Cup battle would be much closer without the Chase. Like I said, change for the sake of change… Perhaps the most shocking storyline was the reversal of fortune for the No. 18 team, who stumbled in the first two Chase races and never recovered. Greg Biffle charged to the forefront, and Edwards and Johnson lurked.

October hints at fall in the Carolinas and I talked about lean times for NASCAR and its fans, the enigma that is Edwards, and the things that make a champion. All the while, the championship picture was taking shape. Jeff Burton took a turn contending for the top spot, and Edwards rode the intermediate tracks like a tidal wave only to get taken out by one at Talladega. By month’s end, Johnson was making his bid to become the first driver in three decades to win three consecutive championships – a feat that looked like a pipe dream in the spring.

And now it’s November, and the world prepares for winter dormancy as the finish line is in sight. I’ve written on shortening the schedule, but the real story is yet to be written. Johnson will now almost certainly take home his third consecutive championship, joining his boyhood hero Cale Yarborough as the only drivers in history to have such a stranglehold on the top of their sport. Only Edwards has a chance, albeit slim, of changing that – Busch has never quite been able to find the magic that made the first half of the season a love-hate affair for the ages. The team that has been the best at overcoming obstacles overcame them all, but that’s a story I still have to write.