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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Liquor’s Love Affair Turned Divorce, Throwing Caution to the Wind & Finding Earnhardt

Did You Notice? NASCAR is so quick to throw a caution for “debris,” yet so hesitant when there’s actual danger on the racetrack? The first Chase race came packaged with its share of debris yellows, a total of three cautions that threatened to change the outcome of the race. Yet during the last lap, when AJ Allmendinger’s car was stalled in the middle of the front straightaway, NASCAR held off until the cars were coming off turn 4 to throw the yellow flag – a situation that left a number of drivers themselves scratching their heads.

“I was surprised by that,” said Jeff Gordon, who never actually heard anyone call out the caution until he was right on top of Allmendinger heading to the start/finish line. “All I knew is my spotter was saying there’s a car in the middle or stopped down low on the front straightaway.”

It was a far cry from the first 299 laps, when NASCAR used debris cautions at will just like other points during the year to ensure an exciting finish. When the yellow came out with 23 laps to go for debris, it was almost laughable how many radios immediately crackled with comments about the way the sport was trying to manipulate the outcome. And when you have half the field openly questioning the way you’re officiating a race… chances are there’s a major problem.

Of course, the sport responds to those allegations by crying “Safety!” every single time, pointing to situations like Kasey Kahne’s Dover wreck in 2004 where holding back the yellow caused a serious incident. OK, fine, we’ll ignore the numbers we tabulated a few weeks ago as to how we got through the 1990s fine without any debris cautions. But if the sport’s so concerned about safety, why did they wait until the very last second to go yellow on the last lap with a situation eerily reminiscent to one that forced the current rules in the first place?

Yes, that’s right; it was at this very same track in September 2003 where Dale Jarrett was so helpless on the frontstretch that the old rule of racing back to the start/finish line under yellow was abolished. When a number of lapped cars just missed hitting Jarrett at full speed, NASCAR was forced to act and put in place the Lucky Dog rules we see today. You thought we’d never come close to another incident after that; and then, we were suddenly mere seconds from one on Sunday.

“We waited as long as we could so we could complete the race, but when the No. 44 didn’t move in time we had to display the yellow between turns 3 and 4,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said in defense of the move to ESPN’s David Newton Tuesday. “We were able to let the guys race it out as much as possible while keeping everyone safe.”

OK, fine, everyone can appreciate the willingness to try and let the drivers fight it out. After all, no one likes to see a race end under yellow. But by the time leader Mark Martin hit the end of the backstretch, it was painfully obvious he was going to win unless there was a major slip-up in turn 3. You call the caution then, there’s a good 10-15 seconds for everyone to react and slow up in time if the spotters can get through to their drivers. I think that’s another side problem here, that the antiquated way of yellow lights on the right side of the track combined with the radio isn’t enough if you want to even dare to cut it that close on the last lap.

“I don’t know how we can have a better way to relay a caution to the drivers,” Johnson said on Sunday. “I know in some forms of racing, they have little lights inside the car that flash yellow when the caution comes out.

“That would have worked really good in this case, because there is such a short distance from where we were to where the problem was. I saw the caution and checked up myself.”

I agree with Johnson that NASCAR has to ramp up its technology if they’re going to hesitate to throw the yellow – because we came way too close to an absolute disaster. But before they decide on that, they need to come up with a clear policy on when and where to throw the yellow in the first place, because right now, it’s pretty hypocritical.

One last note before moving on… there was a poll on this site on Monday that wondered whether the caution should have been thrown for debris. 78% said it was done to set up an exciting finish, a pretty high number with a reasonable sample size. I maintain the same position I’ve always had on that type of stuff… you can find a reason to throw a debris caution anytime for anything. So if it’s in the last 50 laps of a race, you better prove to me convincingly that all 43 drivers are in imminent danger – with a piece of metal guaranteed to cut down a tire in the groove – to throw that yellow flag.

Did You Notice? That sometimes we’re at fault for causing some of the problems we see in the sport today? By we, I mean us media, and I think it’s important to note that we’re often as imperfect as the sport and drivers we cover.

This whole issue came up during this whole controversy regarding team orders the past few weeks. Believe me, I’m as petrified as anybody else over someone pulling over, giving a teammate an five extra points on the last lap at Homestead in order to win them the championship. Good God, if that ever happens, we’ll long for the days we had a 22% drop in ratings under this playoff system. But at the same time, I notice whenever two teammates are running side-by-side, announcers and writers start complaining or wondering why.

Huh? Here’s a news flash: NASCAR is a team sport focused on INDIVIDUAL cars. As soon as the green flag falls, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Ron Hornaday and Kevin Harvick in the Truck Series, etc. are no longer connected. Those two drivers, in theory, are battling to finish in front of someone else. So why even bring up a question or concern about two teammates running side-by-side, even if sometimes that battle does cause them to lose time to others on the racetrack? The way I was brought up on racing, you have no friends out on the track, only people you’re trying to pass cleanly for the win.

Certainly, if we stop questioning why teammates are being so aggressive towards one another that won’t automatically stop team orders – far from it. But maybe if we embraced the simple joy of side-by-side racing, no matter who it is, there would be less of a focus on this “let’s everyone help each other and be nice because we’re on the same team” philosophy which is threatening to wreck our sport over the long-term.

Does anyone remember Neil Bonnett and Darrell Waltrip when they were on Junior Johnson’s team in the 1980s? They didn’t play nice with each other, not one bit. The two competed hard against one another to bring out the best in both of them, and that’s the way it should be.

Did You Notice? The significance of liquor companies leaving NASCAR? Stop and think for a minute… what’s the one business that hasn’t been affected by the economy? I’ll give you a clue: it rhymes with deer and kicker.

Did you figure it out? If you didn’t, then you’re either a better man than I am for living a life alcohol-free, or you need to get down to your local bar ASAP. Of course beer and liquor sales are holding up just fine! Jack Daniel’s, which just pulled out of sponsoring the No. 07 of Casey Mears, actually reported a 39% earnings-per-share increase for stockholders for the first quarter fiscal year 2010. Jim Beam, owned by Fortune Brands, doesn’t have quite as rosy an outlook, but still saw its parent company post a higher-than-expected profit in the second quarter of 2009.

Anyways, you see the point I’m making here: These aren’t car manufacturers filing Chapter 11. So why are these companies leaving? Simple: they no longer view NASCAR as a main course to achieving their marketing objective. With a decline in popularity, most notably amongst the current 18-49 demographic these companies are trying so badly to connect to their brands of alcohol for life, $20 million to sponsor a team is no longer worth it to them to stay in this sport.

It’s the latest sign this sport is both becoming too expensive and failing to resonate with the current generation. Most importantly… despite all the changes Brian France has thrown out these last few years, the sport to the younger generation is becoming – gulp – stale.

I know, that sounds hard to believe with all the transformations of the last few years, right? But with the conservative points-racing surrounding making the Chase in the first place combined with the same drivers and teams running up front the last few years (look no further than the series champion) it’s been difficult to change that perception. And no one has seen that firsthand more than Jim Beam, who has watched the backing of its single-car owner fall short against the increasing wealth and resources of the multi-car teams to the point it’s difficult for driver Robby Gordon to even score a top 20.

Now as the deepening sponsor crisis continues, let me remind us all that the top teams have six, seven, eight companies rotating on the car as primary sponsors. Why not cut the overall cost of competing so those companies could then attach themselves to other drivers and teams? That would be too easy… but no, the top owners need to continually drive up the cost of competition in the face of an uncertain economic future. That makes perfect sense for them… but how about for everyone else?

Did You Notice? I’ve been long-winded this week (alright alright, every week I know… gotta work on that) so here’s a couple of quick hits on some other topics before I go.

  • Lost in the Allmendinger wreck was the fact Marcos Ambrose was involved not once but twice in what seemed to be a bit of a feud. Add in David Reutimann’s tryst with both Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with Michael Waltrip just barreling into a wreck on the backstretch and the Chasers have their answer as to which team you don’t want to be racing around the next 10 weeks.
  • Speaking of Junior, did anybody even notice he was even running in the top 10 for the first half of the race? It’s amazing how strong this mystical Chase is that it can even cause the sport’s Most Popular Driver to disappear from view. And people wonder why the popularity is down at this point in the season….
  • One thing that’s going to stir things up though is when Juan Pablo Montoya turns his car into a bulldozer and runs right over a Chaser. And after watching him Sunday, know it’s not a matter of if, but when.
  • I should probably dedicate this column to David Newton, because I’m hearing his GoDaddy.com theory regarding Danica Patrick is going to be right on the money. I’m talking about the whole Martin keeping his seat warm for her, by the way, not the crazy Brad Keselowski coming back in 2012. Doesn’t he know Keselowski will be back to replace Jeff Gordon instead?
  • What if Martin outlasts Gordon at HMS, though? It’s definitely possible, as Gordon is rumored to be retiring as early as the end of 2010… now I want odds on that from Vegas a good five years back.
  • Get well, Clint Pittman. Let’s never forget how dangerous it is to do any type of work on pit road.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)