NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Carl Long’s Last Words, Driver of the Decade & GM’s Rough Road Ahead?

Did You Notice? That at the end of a provocative, fantastic interview by ESPN’s Marty Smith, Carl Long took a swipe at NASCAR worth expanding on. In case you hadn’t heard, Long lost his appeal of an oversized engine penalty on Tuesday, meaning not only is he stuck with a 12-race suspension from the Cup Series, but his crew chief remains responsible for a record $200,000 fine. If the duo doesn’t pay it (Long refuses to let his head wrench, Charles Swing, fall on the sword on his own), they won’t be racing in NASCAR as of February 2010. The fine leaves Swing without a license and Long’s team in irrecoverable financial difficulty.

The decision amounted to a brow-raising move from the NSCRC, especially considering the difficulties small teams are having even staying in business to begin with. But when Smith asked Long about the future of blue-collar, independent organizations like him, he got bluntly honest:

“They want somebody to come and start four teams,” Long theorized. “Or, maybe they’re just trying to weasel all of us out so they can franchise. I don’t know. I’m not a part of their kings of the round table.”

Ah, the “F” word. Not much has been written about franchising over the last 12 to 18 months, even though it’s been a hot topic since mid-2007 and continues to be heavily rumored throughout the Sprint Cup garage. And interestingly enough, from the very first time I’ve heard the franchising rumor, the key date NASCAR was targeting for making that move was at the end of the 2009 season.

Guess what year we’re in right now.

Of course, the merits of franchising have been hotly debated. For years, NASCAR has been the type of sport where any Joe Schmo with a dollar, a dream and a driving background can get out on the track and make a name for himself. I think that’s why fans identify so strongly with Long’s story, because they feel like he’s one of them. For so long, that’s how NASCAR built its popularity, with people in the stands able to relate to men coming from their own blue-collar, hard-working roots.

But with franchising, that dream dies on the vine. Instead, the sport is taking a big risk in hoping the common fan continues to identify with the super-teams led by Childress, Gibbs, Penske and others who would buy into a system making them the equivalent of owners in the major stick ‘n’ ball sports – with guaranteed participation in the starting lineup. It’d be a collection of multi-car giants not unlike the system in Formula 1, where millions in engineering, research and personnel make the difference in who finishes of front just as much as the talent of the driver behind the wheel. Blue-collar underdogs would be replaced by white-collar privilege, million-dollar machines backing big-money drivers who’d always have all the tools they needed to be successful.

It’s a touch of irony, the concept of franchising, isn’t it? NASCAR, the sport’s world’s underdog story, would cleanse itself of any concept of underdog. To me, it’s the equivalent to competitive suicide; but more than ever, it looks inevitable. For if the powers that be wanted to implement such a system, there’s no better opportunity than right now. At the moment, the top-33 cars in the owner points are owned by just 11 men, with two of those programs “satellite” operations of super-owners Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush. In theory, at least two of those teams are planning to add another car for 2010 (Gibbs and Stewart-Haas), bringing the number of full-time cars owned by those 11 people to 36 (Scott Speed needs to be included here, as his Team Red Bull Toyota sits outside the Top 35 in owner points).

That number’s just seven short of the 43 currently needed to fill the field each week. But who says NASCAR needs to stick with that number? If they could get 40 cars or even 38, that’d be plenty to set up a franchising system exclusive to the country club of owners we currently have. And for all the sport’s talk about parity, the CoT, and the rough economy leading to opportunities for others to launch into this business, 2009 has been an unmitigated disaster for any owner fielding less than two cars. None of the single-car operations are fully funded for all 36 events, and the dozen owners that started the season hoping to run full-time have been dwindled to less than half that amount. Those that remain are merely filling out the field, starting and parking for cash while giving NASCAR the opportunity to play good cop and franchise in order to “save the system from these freeloaders.”

Again, there’s no definitive word from anyone that franchising is on the horizon… yet. But Long has a very serious, provocative point; the way NASCAR’s setting up its method of doing business, the only way a new owner is going to be successful right now is to come in and start four teams. And if you’re a small-time guy looking to get your feet wet, why in the hell would you even attempt it if you knew one mistake could lead to a fine like this one? Of course, if NASCAR is heading in that direction it makes it easy to snuff out any and all underdogs and draw a clear delineation between who’s awarded a “franchise” and who is not.

And as we’ve all just discovered, it’s readily apparent Carl Long falls on the wrong side of that line.

In the meantime, for those interested in protesting the decision, there’s a petition circulating. 50,000 signatures is the goal… last I checked, it already had almost 1,000 and the penalty is just hours old.

Did You Notice? Who’s the winningest driver of the decade? Jimmie Johnson’s under-the-radar pursuit for four straight championships got me thinking about that on Monday, as his second win of the season had me wondering where the three-time champ stood overall on that list.

Well, turns out in a bit of a surprise it’s not Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart that’s leads in that category… it’s Johnson himself.

Check it out:

NASCAR Cup Series Wins Since 2000
1) Jimmie Johnson – 42
2) Jeff Gordon – 33
3) Tony Stewart – 30
4) Kurt Busch – 19
5) Matt Kenseth -18
5) Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 18
7) Carl Edwards – 16
8) Kyle Busch – 15
9) Greg Biffle – 14
10) Ryan Newman – 13

Those stats tell us a couple of things. I think if there’s any doubt as to whether Johnson has surpassed Gordon as the No. 1 driver at Hendrick Motorsports, that list all but erases it. In a head-to-head breakdown, Johnson beats Gordon in wins, championships (three to one), and average points finish (2.5 to 5.2) this decade, leaving little for Gordon to fire back with as to who’s actually been the better driver. And when you look at the hard numbers in the win column – 42 to 33 – to me, that’s not even close. In fact, Johnson has at least twice as many wins as everyone else except for Gordon and Stewart, making it even more amazing that the most dominant driver of the decade continues to be a shell of a marketing tool compared to the other two.

Another interesting comparison is the Busch brothers, both young and old. Yes, Kyle Busch has exploded onto the Sprint Cup scene as of late. But just because he’s a brasher, bolder version of his older brother doesn’t mean he’s that much better. Not only does Kurt Busch have more wins than “Shrub,” he’s also got that 2004 Chase for the Championship trophy sitting on his mantle. And had Kurt chosen to stay with Roush Fenway Racing rather than drive the last four seasons in Penske equipment – admittedly a small step down – his victory total might be bumped up to 20 or 25. Yes, it’s true the younger brother will inevitably pass the old, but it’s not inconceivable to predict that Kurt will win another championship before his far more inconsistent brother wins his first.

And then… there’s the matter of one Earnhardt Jr. With 18 series wins, only four drivers have won more this decade than the beleaguered wheelman of the No. 88. It’s one of those brow-raising stat lines that show Earnhardt once did more than cling on to his famous name. In fact, as little as five years ago, he challenged for the season championship, won the Daytona 500, and rose to an almost God-like level in popularity. You may not like the fact NASCAR continues to kow-tow to Junior as its most marketable tool; but lists like this one remind you why they at least have a reason to try.

However, this note both starts and ends with the man who always wins on the race track but not with the hearts of the fans. With Johnson creating a dominating lead in this category, it’s hard to argue with an assessment that labels him the driver of the decade by a long-shot – which makes it the biggest shame of all that he continues to draw only lukewarm interest. Successes like these should be a good thing, not a bad thing for any sport; instead, Johnson’s been lumped with the type of growth and progress hardcore fans love to hate.

And at this point, that’s never going to change.

Did You Notice? For fans wondering about why Dover attendance was declining, I’ve got another iron to throw onto the fire: Security. For years, the track has had a reputation of having some of the most stingy, argumentative parking attendants with cops and others so bent on enforcing the rules they’ll go out of their way to make fan’s lives a living hell.

Let me share my own personal common sense experience as an example. On Sunday morning, I needed to get through the back entrance of the speedway in order to access the parking lot for the media. Considering the logjam that is Dover traffic – cars often sit for hours to get into the front entrance – fans that access the back roads to enter the speedway from behind the track often do themselves a huge favor. They’ll either park inside the speedway or in a lot adjacent to the track, paying a small fee but saving them a huge headache once the Cup race is over.

For me, I’ve always gone over the bridge and parked behind the speedway, as the media lot is always right next to the track. But as I prepared to make my turn, much to my chagrin… that back entrance was closed. I stopped and tried to talk to the police, who rudely told me I’d have to go around the front entrance of the speedway in order to access my lot. While they were doing so, cops were pulling cones out of the way for other, track-related vehicles to cross the bridge and get to where they needed to go. It would have been easy for me to make my turn – but the cops stood their ground.

In the end, I and several others in the same boat were left with only two options. We could A) Pay for parking and walk the mile to the track or B) Turn around and go to the front entrance, where the wait to enter and get to the lot would be between an hour to an hour and a half. Since B wasn’t a viable option – after all, there’s a job to do and you can’t waste time – I was forced to pay for parking and walk.

Now, that’s not a big deal – heck, I needed the exercise – but it’s the principle of the thing that bothered me. The traffic flow made no sense, as you’re forcing all the cars to siphon through just one small entrance when you’ve got several different ways to enter the speedway. That causes fans to be further inconvenienced; and no matter how good or bad the racing is, if you wait in line for hours to simply park your car you’re not going to go back to Dover, are you?

If anyone else had some horrific experiences from Dover, please share them below. I hear from fans a lot, and the more you get those comments out in public the more the track is likely to listen up and make the changes they need. Because after all, if you don’t pay, then those mighty CEOs can’t play… and judging by the crowd this weekend, there’s plenty of folks who have simply had enough.

Did You Notice? In the wake of GM’s bankruptcy filing – in which the manufacturer reaffirmed its support of NASCAR – we heard the same types of comments from Dodge, almost to a T. Rewind to the end of April, and you get the following statement from Chrysler’s Director of Brand Marketing:

“NASCAR is a strategic part of our marketing plan and the Dodge brand. We plan to continue our Dodge sponsorship and relationship into the foreseeable future.”

Now, two months later we hear a federal court is both restricting the amount of money Chrysler can use to market, as well as team owners complaining they’re no longer being paid support money due from the manufacturer for about the last two months.

So with that pattern already established, tell me, please… why would GM be any different? How is it going to avoid this same type of scenario? Especially with the government – directing their attention towards more modern, fuel-efficient cars that are exactly the opposite of what NASCAR represents – owning 60% of the company?

Houston, Houston, Houston! We’ve got some serious, serious problems… and not even Danica Patrick and double-file restarts can solve them.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower.

Don’t forget about Tom Bowles and Matt Taliaferro’s Athlon/Frontstretch Podcast, sponsored this season by Wrigley’s! You can always listen to us on iTunes for FREE! Search for our weekly show under “Athlon.”

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