They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the case of the Sprint Cup that’s certainly how I felt this past Sunday, as for the fourth and final time this season, NASCAR’s top echelon took a well-deserved weekend off from the relentless slog that is the Cup schedule. With 24 races in the books – precisely two-thirds of the full season for those so mathematically inclined – and a 12-week, 12-race swing ahead of us, there will be precious little time for reflection in the next couple of months; for by the time we next pause for collective breath, the champion will have been decided and the Top 35 set headed into 2010.
How it’s all going to play out, only the good Lord knows (although don’t discount that evil genius himself Chad Knaus having some kind of inside track here). But before we get down to the serious business, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what we’ve seen so far in the 61st NASCAR season. The conventional wisdom would tell you that 2009 has been a terrible year – an “Annus Horribilis,” if you’ll forgive me for stealing a line from Queen Elizabeth II of England, who used the phrase to describe 1992 when both of her sons (Charles and Andrew) got divorced and her second home, Windsor Castle, caught fire in a freak accident. This “wisdom” is backed up by a simple read through some of the many comments left under the articles here on Frontstretch, plus those voiced elsewhere in the NASCAR universe.
The prevailing sentiment, then, would be that 2009 has been little short of a disaster for NASCAR, with stultifying racing brought on by the 3,400-pound beast of a car that is the CoT; a complete dearth of passing; double-digit drops in TV viewership, and swathes of empty seats at venues that once sold out time and time again. Much of this is hard to argue against, and I’m certainly not going to write flowery prose trying to gloss over these issues (I’m not that stupid, despite what some of you have suggested in my previous articles.) But my question of the week remains, and that is… has this season really been that bad? I would argue that despite the avalanche of frustration-filled criticism, 2009 has been far from a disaster.
Let’s start with the race winners because after all, for those not named “Juan Points-Racing Pablo Montoya,” it’s all about winning. Think about it: When you’ve not seen a race, is your first question ever anything other than, “Who won?” Well this season, we’ve seen three debutants in victory lane after none in the entire 2008 season: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and David Reutimann step forward and take a bow. Now, you could argue that all three wins were somewhat tainted (Keselowski sending Cousin Carl into the catchfence at Talladega, Joey and the Reut winning courtesy of the weather) but to me, that’s irrelevant. Just look at the joy, unconfined, of Keselowski in particular in victory lane in Alabama. Or, what the race victory meant to Reutimann and the good folks at Michael Waltrip Racing. Would Martin Truex Jr. have been so keen to slip into the seat of the NAPA Camry had Reutimann not taken the rain-affected win at Charlotte? And then finally, we have Logano’s similarly-weather afflicted victory at Loudon. I’m pretty sure that by the time Sliced Bread starts racking up wins by the bunch, no one’s going to keep harping on about his first race checkers at the Cup level coming courtesy of precipitation.
But it’s not just the novice winners. We’ve also had Denny Hamlin winning a hugely emotional one at Pocono – where it seemed his will to win in the wake of tragedy was just that bit stronger than everyone else. Plus, we’ve had Jeff Gordon breaking a long 0-fer streak at Texas and Matt Kenseth going back-to-back in the first two races of the season. Then, there’s Tony Stewart’s first points-paying victory in the first Pocono race, not to mention Kasey Kahne’s unexpected (and brilliant) win at Sonoma. As I’ve said before, if the race ends with the King in victory lane drinking a huge glass of claret, something good is happening. And I’ve not even mentioned the man I affectionately call the Raisin, Mr. Mark Martin; for him, each of his four victories is a cause for celebration with reasons not restricted to age.
I guess my point here is that we’ve seen some great stories in victory lane; and like I said at the outset of this point, it’s all about winning still, right?
Another big criticism we’ve heard a lot this year is that the middle parts of a number of races could be used as a placebo for sleeping pills. Now, it’s hard to dispute this point, but I have a question to those who watched a lot more racing than I have… when, pray tell, were the middle parts of races ever super exciting? My argument would be that it’s never been the case, but working on the “things were better in the old days” train of thought, there are those who will no doubt suggest otherwise. The honest, unfettered truth is that there will always be an element of procession to the middle couple hundred miles, as teams and drivers not named Kyle Busch work out what they’ve got and how to improve on that. The simple fact, too, is that not every race can be a classic. I don’t care what season you want to quote me, but even in the “best” year from the halcyon days I can pretty much bet a good third of the schedule ended up with races that were, shall we say, less than interesting.
Critics will also point to the reduced crowds, especially at certain venues as a sign the sport’s on a slide. But the reality is NASCAR still draws monstrously huge crowds each week. Are the numbers down? Sure. But how many people have a ton of disposable income right now? If it comes down to a choice between going to a race and paying the bills or the mortgage – well, I know what will win out time and again. As for the TV numbers, these are touted like some kind of harbinger of impending doom. To me, I’d say this is not so much a product of disenfranchised fans giving up the sport. Let’s be fair: NASCAR picked up a lot of Johnny-come-lately types following the death of Dale Earnhardt, and it was natural that this balance would be redressed. Plus, just for the record, the ratings were up (year on year) at both Michigan and Bristol, and that says something, does it not?
Yes, crowds are down, TV numbers are down, but not by significant amounts. If this trend continues over the next few years, crowds continue to thin out and TV numbers continue to ebb away, then yeah, we’ve got problems. I would posit, however, that this is not about the lack of quality racing – rather a reality of the world we’re living in. How many fans, for example, have picked up extra work at the weekend and therefore cannot watch the races? And quite frankly, how many fans time shift and watch the race later. To the best of my knowledge, that isn’t reflected in the overall numbers. Agreed, the indicators are trending downward, but the numbers aren’t in free fall just yet.
Perhaps the biggest boon this season came from an event few thought would ever happen: The Town Hall meeting between NASCAR, the drivers, crew chiefs and owners. The first upshot of what, by all accounts, was a productive and fruitful session has been the double-file restarts. Ignoring the annoying “shoot-out style” moniker the TV execs have to use, there can be no doubt the double-file procedure has vastly livened up racing. If you watched the denouement of either the second Pocono race or the race at Chicagoland and you still didn’t think that was exciting, maybe it’s time you started watching a different sport. I hear croquet can be fabulous in the summer… anyways, double-file restarts are fantastic for the sport and they’ve made a massive difference this season – especially at the end of races.
More importantly, the meetings may very well be the catalyst for future changes. Yes, NASCAR says they won’t tweak the car, but don’t bet against a quiet announcement in the dead cold of winter on tweaks for 2010. That’s just the NASCAR way in regard to something controversial. Change was needed, and the meetings and the quick implementation of the double-file restarts were the sign, hopefully, of more positive news to come.
One quick point on the CoT, too, since I bashed it earlier. Ricky Craven, who in my opinion is an absolute must-read columnist, wrote a fascinating piece last week on the purity of the CoT. Craven argues that the CoT (warts and all aside) brings purity to the sport through the severity of the rules and templates. In short, you can’t get away with cheating, and the cars are much more equal than ever before. Craven also points to the fact that the best three drivers in the last 10 years are atop the standings, supporting the notion that the real drivers rise to the top. At the very least, it’s a thought-provoking piece whichever side of the argument you fall. And it definitely made me view the season differently.
Finally, as my brilliant wife loves to remind me, “it’s all about the story” and in the case of NASCAR this year, we’ve had a plethora of tasty storylines. We’ve had “WWWJ” (What’s wrong with Junior), the resurgence of Martin (he hasn’t won this many races in a decade); the unexpected excellence of Stewart-Haas Racing; sustained growth for MWR; a return to form (of sorts) from Kurt Busch and Kahne; the mystifying lack of success at RCR… and that’s barely scratching the surface. In short, there’s barely been a week when there hasn’t been water-cooler material (and no, I’m definitively not talking about Jeremy Mayfield here). I’m talking about on-track action – both success and failure. Now before you take me to task, I’m not blind to the fact that NASCAR has problems. Sure it does, and many need fixing sooner rather than later.
That said, though, from my very humble point, this season really hasn’t been that bad at all. Yeah, we’ve had some stinkers but we’ve also had some classic races as well and enough intrigue and interest to keep fans hooked. Plus, we’ve still got the best part of the season to go and maybe, just maybe, the best story of all – a Mark Martin Sprint Cup crown.