Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Of Rodents, Late Sunday Afternoons, NASCAR Cabbages & Kings

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things – of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. – Lewis Carroll

Daytona Speedweeks has reached its less than satisfactory conclusion, and the real racing season now starts this weekend out in California. Now, the standard railbird pundits, this writer included, will tell you that the one thing you can tell about the upcoming season after Daytona is that you really can’t tell anything about the upcoming season ahead after Daytona.

That speedway is a beast all unto its own; heck, even the July race at Daytona is a markedly different animal in itself. Only the Brickyard 400 at Indy generates a lower steak to sizzle ratio than the 500, and let’s face it – this year’s Great American Race wouldn’t be added to many folks’ top-10 lists even if rain hadn’t forced a premature conclusion to the event.

Monday morning, my email inbox was flooded to the point I’ve given up on even making a dent in the mail. I’m not surprised the largest volume of email was generated by the controversial wreck Dale Earnhardt Jr. set off on lap 125 in which nearly a quarter of the field wound up wrecked.

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The second most commented upon topic was FOX’s abhorrent and abortive coverage of the race, with that annoying little rodent Digger seemingly emblematic of everything the fans despised about Sunday’s race coverage. Those two topics easily outweighed every other one my readers had on their minds, including Matt Kenseth’s first win in over a year in the series’ biggest race – and the first ever Daytona 500 victory for Jack Roush after all his years in the sport. That’s too bad.

But since you’re all still talking about the big wreck, let’s go tackle that one first. I’ve read Earnhardt’s sometimes tart defense of his actions that triggered the crash, and I am both unimpressed and certainly unswayed in my opinion. Earnhardt let his temper get the better of him and drove on smelling like a rose while a lot of other drivers paid for his foolish decision-making.

I’ve watched Earnhardt race at Talladega and Daytona just as I watched his dad at those two tracks. Both of them are legends at fitting a car through a hole that isn’t quite wide enough for it to be possible, able to do so without even nicking the paint on the sides of their cars in the process. Even on Sunday, Junior came charging up the middle more than once in a line where angels fear to tread without incident.

But two crucial and unforced pit road errors took a highly competitive car and a skilled driver and dropped them back into the pack. That left Earnhardt clearly furious, driving with his id and ego on the restart and not his brain. Some fault has to go to Tony Eury Jr. here as well. When the NASCAR official pointed out the right front tire of the No. 88 car was “out of bounds” (on the white line) work on the car should never have been allowed to begin.

Yes, the No. 88 bunch would have lost some track position pushing the car backwards, but they wouldn’t have lost that lap the subsequent penalty cost them. When Junior returned to the track, it was clear he was enraged, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach something ugly was about to happen. Sure enough, it did not long afterwards. My guess is that’s why Earnhardt has never won a Cup championship, and at this point, may never do so.

Those of you who have been following the sport awhile have watched Earnhardt’s Hendrick teammates overcome adversity, whether it was getting spun out, an untimely flat tire or a blown pit stop. Throughout his career, Jeff Gordon has taken bad days and bad-handling cars that dropped him to the rear of the pack and had his detractors delighted – only to emerge with a win or a solid top five at the end of the day to leave them deflated instead.

And as for the man who’s the three-time defending champion, one need only look back at Jimmie Johnson finishing second at Atlanta last fall on a day that originally looked like it might throw the title fight wide open.

So, what’s the difference with Earnhardt? In Johnson and Gordon’s case, there was a crew chief on the other end of the radio who knew how to pull in the reins on their drivers’ temper and reassure him everything was going to be fine. Even on the rare occasions when Gordon or Johnson seem demonically possessed, their crew chiefs have been able to extract the vital information they need to make the car better. But Eury seems cowed by his famous cousin and more than once has looked like he wanted to run and hide from the Wrath of Junior.

That’s a problem, because Rick Hendrick has made a substantial investment in Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR right now really needs Junior to run well, win races, contend for championships, and not make a horse’s ass of himself. His legion of fans want and deserve to see Junior run better because a famous last name is only going to take you so far… just ask Kyle Petty.

It occurs to me that former Gordon/Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham has recently divested himself of his Dodge team and is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the outfit. Evernham and Hendrick remain close friends, and recently a rumor popped up linking the two for a possible reunion down the road. I’m thinking that at the very least, maybe Hendrick needs to offer Evernham a spot atop Junior’s pit box while he still can.

It’s not my intention here to disparage Gordon’s talents, but Ray Evernham had a lot to do with his early success. When the duo started out together, Gordon was a rookie. He was occasionally ill-tempered and even despondent; but there was always that calm voice at the other end of the radio, a second set of eyes that saw the race developing from another perspective and opportunities where Gordon only saw challenges.

Evernham might just be the man who could stand up to Junior and convince him to bring his “A” game back to the races each week, leaving his ego in the motorhome while getting him to think rather than react on the track. After all, Evernham brings a lot to the table. He can tell Earnhardt, “I’ve sat at the head table in New York. I’d like to go back. Do you want to come with me?”

That brings us to FOX’s coverage of the 51st Daytona 500, a disaster that makes the Battle of Little Big Horn look like a Smurfs picnic. A lot of folks took exception to the fact that the race itself didn’t start until 3:40 p.m. ET. They correctly point out that if FOX had begun the race earlier in the day, and rain was in the forecast, fans might have seen the entire 500-mile event. All day long, the boys in the booth were urging fans to tune in for all the action of the final 20 laps.

But we never got to see them, did we? Instead, we got to see animated gophers showing us their butt, drivers dancing about like they’d been given a dose of bad brown acid at a Dead concert, countless tributes to ol’ DW as if he was the only driver ever to have won the Daytona 500 (did you notice FOX was a little light on highlights of the first Daytona 500 they broadcast?), a barrage of wreck footage and the usual tsunami of stupidity from the Hollywood Hotel – where egos check in but information can never leave.

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The pre-race show was 90 wasted minutes that at best could be described as pathetic and more realistically might be called unconscionable. Somewhere out there, there might be someone who enjoyed it – but they haven’t written to me or posted on any of the message boards I’ve visited.

The lightning rod of the prattle-fest for fans was the new animated Digger and Friends animated segment, which FOX has threatened will be a weekly part of their broadcasts. Animation during a sportscast? That’s certainly innovative – or, I should say, it is an innovative way to try to sell overpriced plush toys, t-shirts and comic books without adding anything or worth to a race broadcast. To then prolong the agony by adding a musical interlude celebrating said rodent was just too much.

I offer this as proof positive that if FOX has enough time to run the Digger segments, their pre-race show is by definition way too long. I still have my old tapes of races from the glory days of ESPN in the ’80s and early ’90s. A quick, concise pre-race show bought the viewers up to speed on the sports news and developments that week, and offered a few quick segments that gave some insights into who the drivers were as people away from the track. They’d cover the latest controversy, then say the prayer, sing the song, fire the engines, and go racing.

And it worked, minus all the gimmicks, egos, noise and the music videos. Back then, broadcasters realized they were there to report on the show. They weren’t the show itself.

No, I’m not looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. I do remember the Buffet Benny and Hat of the Week segments; but they were short and painless, and they were never allowed to intrude into the race coverage itself. To give an example, I don’t really give a fiddler’s fig which pit reporter’s voice I am listening to. Take down that graphic and let us see what lap the race is on, so we can figure out how long it is to the next set of green-flag stops.

It’s time for FOX to start treating race fans with respect – and to stop trying to convert them to the Cult of Personality that holds DW its high priest. If the money and time devoted to Digger were spent on a piece showing what teams had merged, what drivers had new seats, and why instead of that rodent stupidity, maybe fans wouldn’t have had to constantly check their programs to see who was driving which car.

Things don’t appear to be getting better near-term, either. Next week’s California race is unlikely to take the green flag until 6:15 or so next Sunday. By then, the sun will be down here on the east coast, where the TV ratings seem to indicate most stock car racing fans still live. And the working class people I know, myself included, tend to turn in early Sunday nights to get ready for another long week of work ahead.

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Any weather delays (or given the race is in California, a possible earthquake, mudslide, wildfire or plague of locusts) could easily push the conclusion of the race past midnight here in the east – the very thing NASCAR said they were trying to avoid when they pulled the plug on the Daytona 500 after 20 minutes of rain Sunday. (You do recall the California race that wasn’t called until 2 a.m. ET last year, right? Consistency… well, that’s a topic for another column.)

The interesting thing to me is that FOX has chosen to push next Sunday’s race into a time slot where it will compete live against the Oscars, another bloated show celebrating egos – but one that tends to pull in pretty good ratings nonetheless.

It’s high time to make a declaration. We, the people, hereby hold this truth self-evident; no stock car race, with the exception of a Saturday night event, should end after 4 p.m. ET on a Sunday. There should be enough time left after the race to get a few more chores done, maybe take the scoot for a blast, wash the car, fire up the grill and sit down to dinner with the family before sunset. Yeah, I’ve heard the argument that the networks and NASCAR are trying to appeal to west coast fans.

Oddly enough, a lot of my left coast friends always enjoyed the fact the races started earlier in the day, leaving them several hours of daylight in the afternoon to enjoy other pursuits after the event. Here on the east coast, it was always traditional for fans to attend Sunday services, then hurry home to catch the start of the race. One of the key selling points of the new network package was supposed to be that fans would always know which channel to tune to in order to catch NASCAR each week (that didn’t work out too well for the second two-thirds of the season).

Now, fans know what channel the race is on – they just don’t know when. And, in increasing numbers, they also don’t seem to know why they should bother.

How can that be good for the sport?

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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