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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: NASCAR 10 Years Down the Road

This long holiday weekend, I was doing some research for a book I’ll probably never write. As this season draws towards its conclusion, I found myself studying the results from the 1999 Atlanta season finale, run on November 21st almost 10 years ago.

If you’re in your 20s or even 30s, a decade seems like a long period of time. As you get older, the decades seem to go by like years once did. My two daily drivers are over a decade old and still seem like new cars to me (though the GMC is flirting with 200,000 miles.) The pair of jeans I’m wearing as I write this is over a decade old, too, washed countless times to near white in color; the indigo blue is long since gone, but it’s still my favorite pair nonetheless. My coffee pot, microwave and dirt bike are all over a decade old yet serving me well. Tonight at dinner, I was listening to music, some of which was recorded over four decades ago, but still seems fresh to me. Nah, a decade ain’t that long…

But it’s been a decade of cataclysmic change in NASCAR racing. Of the 43 drivers who started that race on a nice November afternoon back in 1999, only seven are currently still competing full-time on the Cup tour with proper funding – Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart (a rookie in 1999), Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon. Matt Kenseth ran five Cup races in 1999, and Atlanta wasn’t one of them, while Atlanta was Junior’s fifth and final start of the 1999 Cup season. Bobby Labonte still has a ride; however, his future is up in the air for 2010. Former series champions Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte still make occasional starts in the Cup series… but that’s it.

Joe Nemechek has joined the ranks of start-and-park drivers, while John Andretti hangs on with an underfunded team. Jeremy Mayfield is trying to salvage his professional career fighting NASCAR allegations that he abuses drugs. (By the way, we haven’t seen the end of that one, my little pretties. Oh no, keep your hands inside the car… this is going to be a dark ride.)

Rusty Wallace, Wally Dallenbach Jr., Dale Jarrett and Jimmy Spencer have successfully made the jump from racers to broadcasters. Darrell Waltrip, who failed to qualify for that Atlanta race, is also a race broadcaster of sorts. Ken Schrader does some ARCA broadcasts.

Todd Bodine and Mike Skinner continue to race successfully, but in the Truck Series. Unfortunately, three drivers who ran that afternoon in Atlanta have passed away. Racing accidents took the inestimable Dale Earnhardt and Kenny Irwin from us, while cancer claimed Bobby Hamilton Sr. after a valiant fight. Jerry Nadeau, Ricky Craven and Steve Park had their careers in the big leagues curtailed by injuries suffered in racing incidents. Ernie Irvan had been forced to retire during the 1999 season due to lingering effects of his horrific practice wreck at Michigan in 1994 while battling Earnhardt for a title. Some might add Geoffrey Bodine to that list after his horrific Truck Series wreck at Daytona the following year. Remember, a decade ago no tracks had SAFER barriers, and the carnage caused by cars slapping into unyielding concrete carrying triple-digit speeds was considered acceptable. At least a few things have improved over the last decade….

Other once-familiar names like Ricky Rudd, Chad Little, Ward Burton, Kyle Petty, Dave Marcis and Brett Bodine have fallen by the wayside. Bodine is now NASCAR’s pace car driver and was active in developing the Car of Tomorrow. My guess is that Brett wanted to see new safety features incorporated in the car after his brother’s fearsome Daytona wreck, but as a former single-car team owner, he must have known the new cars were going to put such teams out of business.

Speaking of which, a lot of teams that competed in that 1999 race have fallen by the wayside, too. In addition to Bodine’s, others include cars owned by Michael Kranefuss, Andy Petree, Tim Beverly, Junie Donlavey, Cale Yarborough and Travis Carter. Simply put, the era of single-car teams is over. Even back in 1999, Jack Roush had four teams (three of which finished in the top six at Atlanta) and Joe Gibbs had just expanded to two teams to give Stewart a seat. Rick Hendrick had three teams, and Earnhardt was still fussing about RCR expanding to two cars.

Some companies that backed various teams back in 1999 are still primary sponsors in our sport, like Mobil 1, Lowe’s (then with RCR and Skinner), Caterpillar, Pennzoil, Miller Lite, Bud, Home Depot, M&M’s, DuPont and Kellogg’s which now splits sponsorship on Martin’s car with CARQUEST Auto Parts. What’s worrisome is the amount of Fortune 500 companies that used to be NASCAR primary sponsors which have been either priced out of the game or found stock car racing a poor fit with their marketing efforts. They include Coors Light, Interstate Batteries, Ford Quality Care/Credit, Valvoline, GM Goodwrench, John Deere, Tide, Kodak, Citgo, Skoal, McDonald’s, BellSouth and Kodiak. (Coors was acquired by Miller, so one could argue that they are still in the sport, though no longer promoting the brand on a car.)

Of course, the biggest name missing from the list of 1999 sponsors is Winston (which also backed Spencer, who drove Travis Carter’s car.) Since the cell phone company folks took over from Winston, a major partner in NASCAR’s Cup Series rise to fame, their hands-off “we let NASCAR make that sort of call… we just want to give you brain cancer” marketing approach has allowed things to slowly head downhill. In contrast, Winston was an active partner in the sport and a leading advocate for the fans. Nextel/Sprint just seems to be, ahem, phoning it in, waiting to see who will acquire them to staunch the bleeding.

The tracks on the schedule have undergone some changes, too. Rockingham had two dates on the 1999 Cup schedule, while Darlington also had two. Now, the loss of the Southern 500 at Darlington still embitters fans come every September, while the Cup Series has been absent from Rockingham’s 1-mile oval for over five years.

At Atlanta that year and for most races that season, broadcasts were still handled by ABC/ESPN, though some events were shown on TNN, TBS, CBS or NBC. Fox was still two years away from their onslaught of aural terror that would further embitter many fans when they outbid ESPN for the rights to broadcast the series. Now, ESPN is back, but not in the form longtime fans recall them in their prime. We invited Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett into our living rooms back in 1999. They amused us, they informed us, they respected the sport, and they were welcome houseguests… cherished friends who made us want to tune in again next week. 10 years later, Ned Jarrett has retired, Benny Parsons has passed on, and somehow, Little Digger hasn’t filled that gap. While Dale Jarrett is giving it a yeoman’s effort, he still hasn’t filled the big shoes Ned left behind at ESPN.

Back in ’99, Dale Jarrett was officially crowned that year’s Winston Cup champion in a bit of a rout. Leading the points for much of the season, he’d actually clinched the title the previous week at Homestead, though the official balloons, floats, fireworks, and dog and pony show were thrown at Atlanta. The final margin of victory had Jarrett leading Bobby Labonte by 201 points in second. Jarrett had won four races to Labonte’s five, but had been more consistent throughout the year to earn the trophy. Gordon, who finished sixth in that year’s points, had actually won seven races, and some of his fans were perturbed that Gordon’s seven wins and 21 top 10s in 34 races (offset by seven DNFs that year) had left him so low in the standings. That was perhaps the seeds sown that led to the unholy harvest of the Chase; but that hasn’t worked to fix the problem, either.

Looking down those standings, five of the drivers who finished in the top 10 in points in 1999 are still full-time competitors at the Cup level – but none of the drivers who finished 11th through 20th still compete full-time in the Bigs.

Dale Jarrett earned a little over $3.5 million in purse money for winning the 1999 title. This year Juan Pablo Montoya, who is eighth in the points and hasn’t won a single race, has already earned more than that with 11 races left to run. Earnhardt Jr., 21st in the standings and averaging a 21st-place finish in 25 starts, is flirting with the $3 million mark. Points leader Stewart is approaching $4.25 million in purse money, which ought to keep him in Whoppers and Plavix for awhile. Kenseth earned $1.5 million just for winning the Daytona 500. There’s a reason those race tickets and hot dogs are so expensive at the track these days when the Big Show is in town.

Besides Jarrett’s title, perhaps the other big story in NASCAR racing was rookie Stewart, who had won three-points paying Cup races to break a record Davey Allison had set in his rookie season. Coincidentally, Stewart was driving the No. 20 Home Depot car at the time. So far, driving the same car for the same team, Joey Logano has only managed to if not steal, at least shoplift a win at New Hampshire. But that’s OK. Stewart didn’t score his final two victories in 1999 until the last three races of the season – taking the checkers at Phoenix and Homestead.

So while 1999 might not have been the best season of stock car racing, it was still pretty good, and certainly better than the season we’ve endured so far to date. Fans were vastly relieved because after a one-year experiment, NASCAR had dropped their “five and five” rules package that had been intended to provide better racing and increase parity between the manufacturers. As a result, 1998 might have been the worst season in stock car racing history, even if 2009 is giving it a run for its money. But if only NASCAR would toss the Car of Tomorrow into the scrapheap of history beside the “five and five” rules, things could be good again in Oh-Ten.

And yeah, I was already making a living beating dead horses back in 1999. I wrote several columns that season noting how much better the racing was back in 1989… one of my favorite seasons in stock car racing. Yes, as you get older the decades get shorter. I’m fortunate to have those memories of 1989 and 1992 to keep me warm as a cold, low, dreary, rain mass settles in here over Chester County.