NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Ramblin’ Man on Junior, Digger & Qualifying

Here are some brief thoughts on a variety of NASCAR topics while waiting for fickle spring to make its long overdue arrival…

Qualifying When the Rain is Flying – The record books will show that Jeff Gordon earned the pole at Martinsville this weekend. But he did so without having to turn a lap in anger, instead relying solely on his points lead when arriving at the track to get the spot. With rain washing out the chance to qualify, some folks will say that Gordon earned the pole based on his performance this season to date. In all honesty, Gordon hasn’t qualified outside the top 10 at Martinsville since 2002, and he’s won four pole positions in that period – so it’s likely the No. 24 car would have been starting at or near the front anyway.

Starting up front at Martinsville is a huge advantage, but the ability to pick a pit stall first is an even bigger one on its notoriously treacherous pit road. Thus, Gordon was handed a two-fer advantage on a track where he’s already a favorite.

Now, it wasn’t that long ago that the reigning (no pun intended) Cup champion got to select his pit stall first at every race. That didn’t guarantee Dale Earnhardt seven titles – but it didn’t hurt him any, either. Earnhardt was a notably lackadaisical qualifier whose average starting spot in his final three full seasons was around 24th. Earlier this decade, NASCAR finally decided to take that advantage away from reigning Cup champions to the general approval of those in the garage area.

Much like the State of the Union address, FOX television’s primetime lineup, and the presence of your uncouth uncle who starts drinking at 10 in the morning at family gatherings and hasn’t been able to hold a job for more than a month, rain at race tracks has been, is, and always will be one of those unpleasant, unfortunate, but unavoidable circumstances we must endure. As long as races are held outdoors, it’s going to rain during race weekends. (Though sometimes during seasons like last year’s weather-plagued schedule, it seemed the Higher Power was getting in on the act to hand down his views on the unholy abomination that is the Car of Sorrow.)

I know Gordon didn’t make it rain, and Gordon couldn’t stop it from raining. But I’d like to see a different set of rules devised for use in the event of inclement weather. First and foremost, if there’s a window of opportunity for additional track time, I’d like to see qualifying rescheduled prior to the race itself. If they have to run it Saturday morning prior to the Nationwide or Truck Series event, that’s fine. With a dreary and damp Saturday at Martinsville, that wouldn’t have worked this weekend, though.

Another idea is to use practice speeds from the last session that was run on a race weekend to set the field. A rainy forecast for the qualifying spot would certainly spice up those practice sessions. If the weather is so bad there’s no on-track activity prior to the race, I’d suggest NASCAR go to a random draw to set the race lineup and pit-road selection. That would be equally fair to all drivers and might add a little excitement to the early stages of the race. A random draw is already used to select the qualifying order of the Top-35 teams, which often gives an advantage to drivers who run during climactic conditions more favorable to speed during those sessions.

A demented part of me wants to suggest that NASCAR actually invert the field if qualifying is rained out, with the points leader starting dead last. That would make for some excitement for the first hundred laps or so of a race and give the backmarkers and their sponsors some much needed airtime. My guess is the cream would still rise to the top, but there’d be some bent fenders and frayed tempers as things sorted themselves out.

Heck, I’d be open to having the drivers run their qualifying laps using a video game console in the press box in the event of rain. For if history has taught us nothing else, we’ve learned that if there’s anything more dangerous than a toddler with a loaded assault rifle it’s FOX or SPEED having to fill air time during a rain delay.

Ratings and Racing – Nielsen ratings for this season’s races are down significantly… to a point all the usual “top rated sports event of the weekend” spin can’t hide the bleeding. I’m not a TV guy, but it seems obvious to me whether you’re talking primetime sitcoms, late night talk shows, reality shows, stick and ball sport broadcasts, or racing, ratings are a reflection of how people feel about the “product” being presented to them on the TV screen. If they like the product, they watch it. If they don’t, they channel surf away.

Obviously, some percentage of race fans don’t like the product that is being presented to them this year – they’re not watching. Still, there’s a valid question to be asked as to what exactly those folks voting “no” with their remotes don’t like. Is it the racing itself – an increasingly homogenized and bland form of motorsport with the new cars and venues, less green-flag passes for the lead, less displays of genuine human emotion from the drivers and some venues that have provided less than stellar racing to date replacing longtime fan favorites like Darlington and Rockingham? Or is it the gimmicky, rodent-infested, ego-driven pabulum that FOX tries force-feeding fans?

The answer seems obvious: it is a combination of the two. For better or worse, a whole lot more fans will see racing on TV than will watch it from the stands, and even the best network with a stellar broadcast team can’t make a boring race fun to watch. Likewise, even the greatest race the sport can produce is doomed if the TV coverage is poor and even downright annoying. The cold, hard truth is that both NASCAR and its “broadcast partners” aren’t in this game to please the fans. They’re in it to make money… and lower TV ratings mean all entities make less money. It behooves NASCAR, FOX and ABC/ESPN to take a long, hard look at what they’re doing wrong and make some rapid corrections – even if they’re painful up front. Both sides of the equation need to work together. A good start would be to dump the Hollywood Hotel and Digger, start races at one o’clock ET and get rid of Fontana, New Hampshire and Joliet.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Media – Even though I am little-league media, I realize that the media needs Earnhardt Jr. more than Earnhardt Jr. needs the media. That having been said, Earnhardt Jr. does need us to keep his sponsors happy, and the coverage he receives is all out of whack to what he’s accomplished as of late.

Junior went on record recently telling the media to back off his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and the jungle drumbeat that Eury has to go if Earnhardt Jr. is ever going to win more than an occasional race. Earnhardt even cowboyed up a bit and said if anyone has to be blamed for his recent lack of success at Hendrick, he’ll gladly take the blame himself. (Larry McReynolds never got that sort of backing from Junior’s old man when they hit a slump. Ponder that for a minute to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.) Certainly, Earnhardt Jr. is a lot closer to the situation than anyone in the media. But with that closeness there lies a danger – he can’t see the forest for the trees.

HENDERSON: FOR JUNIOR, DOES FUN TRUMP ALL?

When Earnhardt Jr. failed to live up to the hype at DEI, everyone was ready to pile on Teresa Earnhardt as an absentee owner who was destroying the team that was her husband’s legacy by refusing to spend the money to give the No. 8 team the tools it needed to win races and contend for titles. While tactfully defending his stepmother, Junior acknowledged he wanted more control at DEI, which at least implies there were things he wanted to change within the organization. When he didn’t get a stake in ownership, Earnhardt moved on to what was perceived as greener pastures at HMS. On paper, he’s right: Rick Hendrick’s organization has won oodles of titles and over 100 races in its 25-year tenure.

Yet somehow, the problems that plagued Junior at DEI continue at HMS. It’s kind of hard to blame Teresa Earnhardt for that. Rabid Earnhardt Jr. fans are already blaming Rick Hendrick for Junior’s lack of success, claiming that Gordon and Johnson get all the good stuff while Junior gets junk.

I don’t buy it. Like Kyle Busch might say, “Negatory, Night-Rider.” At least in the current climate, Hendrick’s decision to replace Busch with Earnhardt might seem like the most foolhardy deal since the French signed off on the Louisiana Purchase.

Nobody is saying Eury Jr. is a bad guy. I don’t know the man, so I’m not going to shovel dirt into his grave while he tries to dig himself out. Given another driver, he might be an outstanding crew chief. But sometimes, the chemistry just doesn’t work between a good driver and a good crew chief. What he brings to the table as a broadcaster is a matter of opinion, but McReynolds was a brilliant crew chief in his day. He enjoyed a ton of success with many different drivers, and his pairing with Davey Allison was pure magic. Richard Childress saw hiring McReynolds away from Robert Yates Racing to call the shots for the No. 3 team as a strategic move to help his old buddy Earnhardt Sr. out of a slump. Now, no sane man can doubt the elder Earnhardt’s talents as a racecar driver. McReynolds did, in fact, play a key role in finally getting Dale that elusive Daytona 500 victory and, for that weekend at least, all was sweetness and light. But the honeymoon didn’t last very long, and eventually Childress had to move McReynolds over to the No. 31 team at Earnhardt’s behest.

When a driver-crew chief combination isn’t working, there’s some who will say that given a little time, the pair still might gel. Eventually, though, changes have to be made – even if it’s temporary – to eliminate that issue as the source of the problem. In the Earnhardt-Eury relationship, there’s no doubt who’s the alpha dog. Sometimes, a crew chief needs to have the gumption to tell his driver to quit bellyaching and tell him what the car is doing so he can make improvements on the next stop. Sometimes, a driver is going to want changes that a good crew chief knows won’t work, and that crew chief is going to have to convince his driver to trust him. But when you hear Earnhardt tell Eury, “I’m pitting this time by whether you want me to or not…” that suggests theirs is a lopsided relationship that’s going nowhere.

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