Did You Notice? That in light of everything that’s happened over the past week, there’s a large army of media, fans, garage members, etc. looking to tar and feather Jeremy Mayfield before all the evidence has even been collected?
I had a hard-nosed debate with Dennis Michelsen of RaceTalkRadio.com Monday night about this issue, one I’m still steaming about because I felt I didn’t do a very good job of proving my point. In case you missed it, Dennis was trying to force me to admit that by continuing to believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, I would have to agree that NASCAR not only tainted a urine sample, but bribed Mayfield’s stepmother into signing an affidavit in which she lied about seeing her stepson take methamphetamines. He did a great job proving his point, and it’s true: The latest set of evidence makes even attempting to validate the man’s claims of innocence the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest.
But if I was thinking on my feet during that hearty discussion, the first two words that should have come out of my mouth were “Tim Richmond.” One of the sport’s up-and-coming superstars in the mid-1980s, it looked like Richmond was destined for stardom after winning six times in a Rick Hendrick ride in the 1986 season. But after a mysterious illness forced him to miss much of 1987, Richmond’s ability to race was seriously called into question.
While Richmond still hoped to continue his career, what happened next is more than enough to sicken your stomach. As our own Matt McLaughlin has so passionately explained many times, NASCAR bent over backwards to lie, cheat, and force that man out of the sport any way they could due to an illness they didn’t understand – one that later turned out to be AIDS. After claiming the driver failed a drug test prior to the 1988 Busch Clash, Richmond was banned indefinitely from the sport without specifics on what happened.
Well, two years after his 1990 death, we found out the ugly details behind what should have been a civil lawsuit. Dr. Forest Tennant, the man who administered the tests, was fired by NASCAR over allegedly tainting the results in 1988. Turns out, you see, that the substance Mr. Richmond tested positive for was nothing more than an over-the-counter cold remedy; but in their fear of the disease and Richmond returning to the track, the sport worked to do everything in its power to assure the “health risk” was first quarantined… then properly removed. Whether it was legal or not didn’t really matter, because the bottom line was the sport wasn’t really worried about getting caught. After all, they never had before… so why now?
All of this madness brings us back to the present day. What Mayfield is accusing the sport of is some pretty hefty stuff, I agree. If you buy his side of the argument, you have to believe in conspiracy theories and a pretty crazy stepmother that would ignore family ties in favor of blatant lies that would stab her stepson square in the back. But the bottom line in this case is that NASCAR has been down this road once before. And once a precedent has been set… you can’t just dismiss a similar story when one pops up 20 years later. So many have said how outrageous Mayfield’s side of the story has become. Yet how many times have we seen power go to someone’s head to the point they start to break the law without even worrying about the consequences? Because after years of getting away with murder, they’re taught to believe there’s no situation in which they’ll ever get caught…
Now, let me make this clear… I’m not saying Mayfield is innocent, but I’m sure as hell not about to abandon this story and proclaim he’s guilty, either. What we need right now is more information. We need the drug tests Jeremy claimed to have taken to all come in and show a bunch of negative results as he claims. We need this “video” of the documentary Mayfield’s shooting proving what happened in and around the days he took those tests. We, as reporters, need to speak to more than Mr. Mayfield’s stepmother, finding friends and relatives who either corroborate or deny her stories of Mayfield meth use. Then, and only then, can we begin to lean in one direction or the other.
Of course, modern-day America needs to give us that chance to investigate, too. In this Twitter/Facebook society, people want answers as to someone’s immediate innocence or guilt. But the story’s not that simple, the ending not pre-written. The biggest thing this case needs right now is time to unfold – and reporters continuing to throw their own opinions and bias aside in favor of finding the true answers.
I’m hoping that’ll happen in the coming weeks; but with the op-eds I’ve seen so far, one wonders if Mayfield will be burned at the stake long before then. If that’s the case, I just hope that each and every one of those writers realizes the consequences of their actions. Because if they’re not… they’ve put the final nails in the coffin on a reputation this man may never get back even if he does turn out to be innocent.
Did You Notice? Elliott Sadler needs to get over the Daytona 500? I was thinking this over when reading up on one of the driver’s favorite pastimes: golf. Most of us were captivated Sunday by Tom Watson’s near-miracle at the British Open, where the 59-year-old nearly turned back the clock in coming one hole and one shot from winning another major. But with the trophy firmly within his grasp, Watson missed an eight-foot par putt, and in an instant his impression changed from nervous anticipation to the pain experienced by a runner-up who still had to go through the motions. Sure, there was a four-hole playoff left – Watson had fallen into a tie for the lead – but the great ones already know when they’ve lost.
With that type of devastation revealed to the general public, you’d think Watson would be salivating over coming so close for weeks. Instead, he walked into the media center and said, “This isn’t a funeral, you know.” This week, he’ll rebound by playing the Senior British Open before picking his career right back up where he left it – the Champions Tour.
The next day, I read an article about Sadler in NASCAR Illustrated and felt he really could learn some things from Watson’s day. In the feature (fabulous article, by the way, written by Jared Turner) one of the first things Sadler describes is his continual pain on missing out on the trophy for this year’s Great American Race. As I’m sure you’re all aware, Sadler led 24 straight laps before being passed by Matt Kenseth mere seconds before the final caution flag of the day for rain. Minutes later, the race was red-flagged and, just like Watson, Sadler had to go through the motions in waiting for another chance he knew had already slipped through his grasp. A short time later, Matt Kenseth was declared the winner, breaking apart a miracle moment which could have seen Sadler go from getting kicked off his race team in January to sitting in Daytona’s victory lane with the same car.
Man, what a wonderful story that would have been for a guy with such a kind, caring personality that you can’t help but wish him the best. But five months and two weeks later, it’s time for Sadler to man up and finally accept that not all wishes always come true. On the track, he’s never been the same, failing to score another top-five finish while leading just 11 laps in the last 18 races. Sitting 23rd in the Sprint Cup standings, he’s on track to miss the Chase for a fifth straight year, the potent potential of a young superstar turned into the uncertain future of a veteran who many think has already been given far too many chances.
Heading into Indianapolis, this weekend could be critical for Sadler. It’s the first time his No. 19 car has been given the new R6P8 Dodge engine, the same powerplant that’s turned teammate Kasey Kahne from regular dude to rocket ship in just eight weeks. There’s no better place for Sadler to get a little extra boost, as he finished fourth last year with a car that led five laps on the day. Indy’s also the place where he came close to winning his other big race, winning the pole in 2005 and leading 39 laps before a flat tire sent him tumbling backwards to 32nd.
With future sponsorship for Richard Petty Motorsports hanging in the balance, there’s concern as to whether 2010 will bring enough room at the inn for a man still winless since moving over from Yates in 2006. It’s now or never for Sadler to prove his worth to the organization… and to do that, he needs to stop grieving over the past.
Because the thing that differentiates Watson and Sadler is, at 34, the latter could have plenty more chances to win the races he so desperately covets.
Did You Notice? Juan Pablo Montoya could be the first driver to make the Chase without a top-five finish? Considering how much the man has improved behind the wheel of a stock car, you’d think that consistency would have netted him at least one run of fifth place or better. But through 19 events, the best run for Montoya has been sixth – twice – at Michigan and Infineon.
Considering how many fans complain about drivers who qualify for the Chase without a win, imagine the uproar if Montoya does it without even a top five under his belt (in case you’re wondering, the record for the fewest top fives for a Chaser throughout the course of a season is four – set by Mayfield in 2005 and matched by Kevin Harvick two years later). But, believe it or not, drivers have finished as high as seventh in points during the modern era doing just that. Buddy Arrington and James Hylton share that record since the modern-era points system was installed in 1975. In Hylton’s case, he collected a total of 11 top-10 finishes – none of which were higher than seventh – in winding up 1,524 points behind Cale Yarborough for the championship.
Of course, in Montoya’s case, he could go winless with well over a dozen top 10 finishes come Chase time yet when the points get reset in September, he’ll be a mere 40 or 50 behind the leader heading into the 10-race playoff.
Fair? Hardly. But that’s what you get under this system.
Did You Notice? A legend who just can’t sit and let his record stand for itself? A trio of former 1990s superstars these days find themselves in very different situations heading to Indianapolis. There’s 50-year-old Mark Martin, enjoying a career renaissance behind the wheel of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Then, there’s Bill Elliott, at 53 and driving with every ounce of effort he’s got in trying to get the single-car Wood Brothers team back on track before he fully retires. It hasn’t been glamorous, with no top-10 finishes in 46 starts with the team. But without him… everyone agrees the No. 21 car and equipment would have stood a good chance of being sold at auction this offseason.
So, we’ve got two drivers with admirable intentions to stay active… and one devolving into questionable motives. Since “retiring” in 2006, Terry Labonte’s been lured into a handful of substitute roles for teams in need of some serious help. In 2007, he spent a three-race stint behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip’s faltering No. 55 simply to assure the car would make the field as well as give an all-important evaluation as to how things were going (at the time, Michael had gone through an awful stretch of failing to qualify in 12 of 13 races). Then, the following year he filled in for Kyle Petty during his six-race stint as broadcaster for TNT, collecting two top-20 finishes before returning to drive the car in a handful of events later in the year.
Those runs, while virtually guaranteed to be in uncompetitive rides, were understandable given the circumstances surrounding how Labonte was helping the program. But now, his latest stint behind the wheel is bound to raise some eyebrows. Taking on a five-race deal with John Carter’s No. 08 team, Labonte will take the unsponsored Toyota to the track at Indy guaranteed to make the field due to that coveted past champion’s provisional. Yet while Carter’s been around a long time, you wonder why Labonte, at 52, would make a comeback with a car that’s going to struggle simply to keep up with the lead pack. Nothing against the team itself, but single-car outfits are far from front-running operations in Cup these days; and unlike Elliott and the Woods, Carter doesn’t have the money, history or infrastructure within the program to be a viable contender.
Yes, I’m sure hunting and fishing out on the lake can get boring for even the best of us after awhile. But for a man who’s won two Cup titles and has nothing left to prove, why tarnish your rep simply to do little more than collect a paycheck? Because, let’s face it, money has to be part of the processing behind his return. Back in February, Labonte took the usually start-and-park No. 66 Prism Motorsports car, drove it around the back of the pack at Daytona in a one-race deal, and collected a cool $273,963 for 24th place. Not bad for a Sunday drive; and considering Indy offers one of the biggest purses on the Sprint Cup circuit, if not the biggest, it’s hard not to make that type of correlation.
Don’t get me wrong; as we saw with Watson above, it’s nice to see veterans give it one more shot to relive their former glory if they’ve got the chance. But when it’s clear that the circumstances won’t dictate success… isn’t Labonte putting his image at risk? Picking and choosing races in which to collect some cash isn’t exactly the way I would want to go out….
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