“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
It has been, very much, a winter of discontent for NASCAR.
With money scarce, extensive layoffs have cast a grim pallor across an industry already suffering the ramifications of the global economic crisis. Big brand names have left the sport – some, like AT&T, due to the category exclusivity deals put in place by the governing body itself – and fresh corporate cash infusions are scarcer than Michael Waltrip victories. For a sport that is quite literally fueled by sponsorship dollars, the recession has hit hard – mighty hard.
The problems helped cause a second Silly Season which has bordered on the absurd. Who would have predicted when Elliott Sadler signed a two-year extension to pilot the No. 19 car back in May he would spend his offseason – immediately prior to his wedding, no less – invoking last-ditch legal measures to save his ride? In more profitable times, the nine-year veteran would have simply cut his losses and sought a seat elsewhere. But the harsh reality of this offseason’s ratio of seats available to drivers looking – not to mention the fine late-season form of AJ Allmendinger in the No. 10 GEM car late in the year – put the actions of the amiable Virginian into stark context.
Of course, GEM is now RPM as part of the merger-mania which dominated the offseason news – changing the landscape of the sport irrevocably. This winter’s marriage of convenience between Ganassi and DEI came about, ostensibly, for both teams to survive, while GEM’s “merger” with Petty Enterprises was just a polite way of saying “gobbled up.” Sure, the brand name remains above the door to the shop, but that’s nothing other than a no brainer piece of branding. With Ray Evernham well and truly out of the picture, it’s the Gillett family who are – no pun intended – firmly in the driver’s seat.
One glimmer of optimism, however, was the welcome news that the Wood Brothers didn’t fold, convincing Bill Elliott out of his planned retirement and back behind the wheel one last time for a partial schedule of 12 races. With sponsorship from Motorcraft for nine of the dozen, further races might be added to the schedule; but for now, the fact that an historic old team has survived to fight another day is positive enough in this bleak winter.
Overall, though, you get my point. It’s not been pretty since we wrapped things up at Homestead in mid-November; so, a return to green-flag action can’t come soon enough for our beleaguered sport. You know things are bad when even the relentless optimist himself – Darrell Waltrip – is concerned. On a broadcast of Preseason Thunder DW was overheard, in an unguarded moment he thought was off camera, talking about his worries for the post-Daytona drop off in field sizes. Yet despite all the doom and gloom and the ritual spleen venting on websites and message boards – the length and breadth of the NASCAR internet universe – there is still much to look forward to in 2009. Hope does spring eternal; and I, for one, can’t wait.
Storylines abound at every level. Can Mark Martin make one last improbable charge for the championship that has eluded him for the better part of three decades? Will Jimmie Johnson do what no one has ever done before and win an unprecedented fourth straight title with his own unique brand of metronomic Chase efficiency? Can Jeff Gordon turn around what was, by his own very high standards, a hugely disappointing season (his first winless year since his rookie season in 1993) and finally grab a fifth crown?
Will the inimitable and incomparable Kyle Busch join his brother to become just the second pair of siblings after Terry and Bobby Labonte to win NASCAR Cup titles? Could Carl Edwards shed the bridesmaid tag – appropriately enough, given he got hitched this offseason – to win his first crown and Jack Roush’s third championship? Might Dale Earnhardt Jr. delight his legion of adoring fans and finish top of the pile when the checkers flies at Homestead? And let’s be fair here; if that were to happen, many of NASCAR’s problems would be solved overnight on the back of the champion’s merchandise sales alone.
Is there going to be a new name in the 2009 Chase field? Will this be the year when the likes of David Ragan, Brian Vickers and Juan Pablo Montoya, to name but three, show that they belong in the elite class of drivers? Could Bobby Labonte put it all together and get back to the top of the heap? Which of the 12 drivers who made it in 2008 will miss out on a coveted spot in 2009? Could Tony Stewart wheel his way into the Chase in his first year as owner/driver? And if Tony can, it stands to reason Ryan Newman will have the horsepower to make it as well.
And then there are other… less serious… concerns.
Which pair of drivers will have a ridiculous, unnecessary, but deeply amusing public spat? What’s the over/under on Smoke appearing in the NASCAR hauler in the first month of the season? Will we see a worse victory lane celebration than Kurt Busch’s infamous snow angel two years ago at Bristol? Who will give the best command? (It’ll be hard to top actor Brendan Fraser’s effort at Chicagoland this past July, though). How many races will it be before someone calls Joey Logano overrated – my money is on Kevin Harvick, by the way. And if the 18-year-old phenom does prove the second coming of Casey Atwood, at what stage does his moniker revert from Sliced Bread to Burnt Toast? Will any driver embarrass himself in a commercial more than Kasey Kahne’s pink heart firesuit and dancing? (The signs on this one, by the way, are optimistic after the driver of the No. 9 Bud Chevy, err, Dodge revealed no new ads have been shot this offseason). And while we’re talking TV, will NASCAR Wives – TLC’s planned “reality” show featuring Delana Harvick, amongst others – ever air?
So, on the eve of NASCAR’s 61st season – the start of a seventh decade – there are still plenty of reasons to look on the bright side of life. For the teams, the slate is wiped clean, every driver has zero points, and the story of the year ahead is just waiting to be written. Even Jamie McMurray is super optimistic, saying on Preseason Thunder that anything but a Chase berth would be a big disappointment. Heck, I’m even looking forward to seeing Digger on FOX; and I never, ever, thought I’d find myself saying that. The long winter is on the way out, and it’s time for some racin’.
Let’s get those engines started, gentlemen.