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Did You Notice? NASCAR’s Burning to the Ground & Why The Truck Series Stays Sound

Did You Notice? The out-and-out rebellion going on in every aspect of NASCAR right now? It started from the drop of the green on Sunday, when the drivers’ single-file Talladega parade for most of the race was the closest thing to a driver protest I’ve seen in 20 years of following this sport. Then, in the past 48 hours, virtually every television show, newspaper commentary, internet article and fan email and comment (to me and others) have tilted overwhelmingly negative towards a race that smelt and looked like a farce. Let’s put it this way: If NASCAR were a piñata, we’d be at the point where just one more hit makes it break into a million pieces; and frankly, if it wasn’t for a handful of SPEED shows trying to stem the tide (in what some say is a forced preaching of the NASCAR company line) that fatal whack could have already happened.

Just like every other major racing writer out there, I’ve gotten my share of fan emails, complaints, comments about Sunday in which so many have sworn off the sport for good. It’s something that should have me all up in arms, ready to carry the torch for a majority of those who feel that change is needed.

Perhaps, that time will come. But right now, you want to know how I feel?

Sad. Just really, really sad.

So much has been written about the atrocity that was Talladega this weekend, so I don’t want to rehash the same views from the same columnists all over again. You witnessed it firsthand, you’ve sifted through the aftermath (if you still care), and by now you’ve clearly taken a side. But no matter who you believe, what you think went wrong, or how you want things fixed, there’s one undeniable point we can all agree on: NASCAR is officially in decline.

And it sucks.

I know every sport has its peaks and valleys, but that statement is especially hard to take for so many that watched it rise. I know for me, there was a point from 1993 through about 2005 that Sundays were unquestioned, dedicated NASCAR time. If it was absolutely impossible to be in front of the television, the race would be taped and I’d watch it the second I got home. Nothing to me was more exciting then the last 10 laps at Bristol with Dale Earnhardt battling Terry Labonte, Ernie Irvan’s flat tire giving Jeff Gordon his dramatic first win at the Brickyard, or even Jeremy Mayfield knocking the Intimidator out of the way to win Pocono in 2000 (yes, believe it or not even the Triangle had great races then, too). I would root for my favorite driver, but even if he got knocked out early I’d be riveted to the television until long after the checkered flag had fallen. As so many of you know, NASCAR wasn’t just a sport – it was a way of life.

That’s not to say we haven’t had some agonizing lows during that time, too. Still just a fan, I remember mourning with so many millions of others when a driver I hated (but still respected) died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. For the next few days, it was like I lost a family member as my family itself wondered in amazement how someone could become so attached to what, in theory, is just cars driving around in circles. But if anything, I was more loyal to NASCAR than ever before, crying tears of pain at Rockingham the following weekend, then of joy in seeing Steve Park in victory lane and then Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s replacement, at Atlanta two weeks later in just his third career Cup start. Looking back, that Sunday was one of the best races we’ve had all decade, if not the best. As it always had, the sport hit a major pothole… only to bounce back better than ever.

And once the growth seemed like it would never stop, my love for it grew to where NASCAR became like a drug. Those who have it bad know exactly what I mean; no matter what was going on in your life, races could be a three-hour respite where you were guaranteed to enjoy yourself no matter what. Sure, I followed the stick ‘n’ ball sports, but it was almost like those that followed the NFL, NBA and MLB were missing a type of unquestioned loyalty our fan base had more than any other. We didn’t just follow our driver – we would take a bullet for him. Sponsors weren’t just glorified; associating one like Tide with a driver like Ricky Rudd would automatically generate millions in revenue. People wouldn’t care whether they liked a sponsor or not; if their driver partnered up, the house would need to have that product. No ifs, ands, or buts about it….

It was an experience unlike any other, and I when I started working for SI and doing television at the track in 2006 it was like a dream come true. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, and I remember for the first six months I was like a kid in a candy store. Was that really Elliott I just interviewed? Did Richard Petty just walk by me in the garage area? With so many people either out of work or hating their jobs, I felt so blessed to have a career path I not only wanted for years, but one that seemed set for a lifetime.

Three years later, I’m not so sure anymore. Fondness replaced by both fear and fright, I watch so many aspects of a sport I love fall apart both behind the scenes and right in front of my eyes. It’s like looking at a beautiful mountain that was steps outside your house for years, then watching it burn to the ground right in front of you while ashes fall on your head. And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing you can do about it. Yes, journalism, if done correctly, has the power to effect change. But in the end, our power in this genre can only go so far as we’re not political commentators; instead, we write about the entertaining competition of cars racing around in circles. And if those in charge of those cars don’t see the need for change – ignoring the rising calls of everyone from the tire changer in the garage area to the fan who pays $40 for a nosebleed seat in Daytona that’s not walking away for good – there’s nothing anyone can do but watch the fire spread.

Through it all, I yearn for a simpler time, when the sky was the limit instead of falling on our heads. Remember when …

  • The top-five finishers were from five different teams?
  • You can tell by just looking at the cars which ones were Ford, Chevy and Dodge?
  • When a team fell two laps down, they had to earn it back the hard way – by passing the leader – instead of using a Lucky Dog or a wave around rule to get back in contention as if nothing ever went wrong?
  • Cars could pass each other on the track, not just on pit road?
  • A team could go all 36 races with just one sponsor, instead of using seven to make it through just half that schedule?
  • Double-file restarts and fake debris weren’t needed to manufacture excitement to a product that already had it?

One of the quotes that stuck in my head beyond the Talladega mayhem Sunday was Ryan Newman’s honest longing for the good old days.

“We’re supposed to be racing,” he said. “I think we lost a little bit of that luster.”

He’s not the only one who believes that.

Did You Notice? While the Cup and Nationwide series brace for massive layoffs at the end of 2009 (again), the Truck Series is quietly rebuilding itself? Richard Childress Racing is now expected to field not one but two trucks in 2010, joining Turner Motorsports and fully-sponsored DGM Racing fielding competitive entries in the coming season. With just one full-time team expected to go away (Roush Fenway Racing), odds look good they’ll begin to fight back against a litany of start-and-parkers that, at times, have taken up to 12 spots on the 36-truck grid.

Add in a record rating for Talladega (1.34, 999,000 households) and it’s clear NASCAR’s “third-tier” division is actually the only one that keeps growing. What makes the Trucks so appealing to fans where Cup and Nationwide are starting to fail?

The answers, as we’ve discussed here before, are simple:

  • A rules package where the competition can actually pass each other on the racetrack, not in the pits.
  • A smaller, compact schedule with more short tracks included.
  • Drivers of all ages battling against each other competitively. Old stalwarts Mike Skinner and Ron Hornaday are going up against “young guns” Colin Braun and Brian Scott each week, with a few “in betweeners” like Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton mixed in.
  • Not enough full-time Cup drivers infiltrating the series to knock the veterans out of the top five every week… but just enough to both pique fans’ interest and give them something to hate (i.e. – Kyle Busch).
  • Despite Hornaday’s dominance this year, no one team is looked at as having a definitive technical advantage over anyone else. Looking at the Talladega field, no more than two trucks from any one car owner were entered, and just one (Braun) was from the Cup Series powerhouse quintet of Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Roger Penske. That leaves the gap between rich and poor small enough that on any given day, any truck planning to run the distance can finish in the top 10 if they play their cards right.

There’s a lot the sport can learn from watching the Camping World Truck Series continue to grow.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we go…

  • What a great move to put Brad Keselowski in the No. 12 Dodge before the season is up. It’s not like Penske was going anywhere with David Stremme, so why finish out the year when their 2010 full-timer is already available? If I were that team, I’d also bring a full-time crew chief candidate on board before Sunday and pull a three-race trial to see if they’d be a good fit for 2010.
  • Lance McGrew as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief next year? Seriously? Look, like I’ve said plenty of times before, Lance is a great guy and everything… but this partnership isn’t working now. If I were a Junior fan heading into 2010, I’d be trying to talk myself off a ledge. This team needs to have its head wrench on a short leash, with a replacement in mind should Junior struggle in the first 3-4 races. Whether it’s his fault or not, if you’re keeping the driver you can’t just let confidence erode to the levels it has at the end of this season. And I don’t think this move is one that’s going to wind up giving the No. 88 a solid start.
  • We’ve rehashed purses in this space plenty of times, but this one absolutely takes the cake. Bobby Labonte got underfunded TRG Motorsports’ first top-10 finish on Sunday at ‘Dega, while Paul Menard crashed hard in the first 15 laps and wound up 42nd. But check out the cash each driver got for their trouble:

Labonte: $90,300
Menard: $103,031

Menard’s 42nd-place payday was actually 19th-best out of the 43 cars that competed. I don’t care how you explain it, it’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense and has to be corrected. What incentive does a small-time team have to go the distance when they don’t get rewarded when they do finish well?

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!)

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