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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Championship Collusion, Poor Media Manners & Salvaging 2009

Did You Notice? That during Jimmie Johnson’s marathon “Fix It” job inside the Cup garage Sunday, it was not just his own team but crew members from one of his main championship rivals helping out? Mechanics from both Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 and, yes, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 were among Hendrick’s King’s Horses and Hendrick’s King’s Men who helped put Humpty Dumpty Johnson’s car together again.

Now Earnhardt’s crew helping out is one thing… but Gordon’s? The same guy who actually stands to gain in the standings if Johnson’s car was deemed unfixable? That’s a really hard concept for me to stomach. Sure, it’s not the first time other teams have chipped in to help a championship rival at a crucial moment. In the final race of 1973, Benny Parsons’s car crashed on lap 11, limping to the garage a mangled heap of sheetmetal with a title hanging in the balance. What transpired afterwards was an incredible outpouring of support, as team members from other organizations came around and helped in whatever way they could to ensure Parsons’s No. 72 made it back on track. In the end, he toughed it out for enough laps to jump from a 43rd place finish to 28th, assuring him the title over Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

But I’m sure you can realize the differences between then and now. Despite the overwhelming support that day, no one from Junior Johnson’s (Yarborough) or Petty’s team came to help Parsons fix their car. After all, why would you help someone when it would cost you the championship yourself? Certainly, there’s a philosophy that you don’t want to win based on someone else’s misfortune. But that type of stuff happens in sports all the time! A few years back, my alma mater, Colgate, played Delaware for the Division I-AA championship. On the first series, our star quarterback injured himself and was all but knocked out of the game. Did Delaware take out their star quarterback to make things fair?

Of course not. We went on to lose 40-0… and no one was blaming Delaware for capitalizing on someone else’s misfortune (although I’m sure we were calling them plenty of names on the way out). The beauty of sports is good ol’ fashioned competition, and there would be no such thing as bad luck if someone else didn’t wind up benefiting from it.

So that’s why using any member of Gordon’s crew rubbed me the wrong way… and then some. Even if it was just the catch can man, it’s an element of favoritism one team shouldn’t have over another. And to add insult to injury, let’s not forget how badly Gordon struggled on the race track all day long. When your car is dropping like a rock, wouldn’t you want your car chief by your side instead of busy consulting on how to put your biggest rival’s car back together from scratch?

I’ve been worried for years that team orders are one day going to take center stage in the battle for the championship. And that’s why I’m sure for people who aren’t Hendrick fans, it’s very hard to get amped up for a championship battle between three cars that all depend on the same organization to put them together. If Johnson’s in trouble at Homestead, what happens then? What script will HMS write?

After running 13th, Gordon referred to Sunday’s race as a missed opportunity. But after the way things played out behind the scenes, you wonder if it’s one he was simply choreographed not to have.

Did You Notice? Some questions from my media brethren that made me blush this week? I’ve gotten several comments from readers complaining about some columnists “packing it in” with the ’09 title Chase turning into a Johnson runaway. I think that was at the heart of Ramsey Poston’s comments last week, too. I have too many friends, too many connections from a life in TV to make my thoughts on the matter public as it’ll be tinged with too much bias. But one thing I will say that sticks with me always with anything I do in NASCAR – be it TV, writing, or on-air work – is the willingness to focus on all 43 drivers, all 43 stories over the course of a race instead of just one.

In my experience as a fan for 20 years, eight of which with a driver long faded from title contention, my top priority when watching was always to see how my particular driver was doing. Sure, maybe you want to know every once in a while how the championship Chase is shaking out, but if you’re a Clint Bowyer fan for example you’re always looking to know how his race is going, where he is on the track, and what news items happened during the week that impacted his team directly.

So too often lately with the media in general, I think we’ve been losing this basic concept based on the Chase overtaking our lives – and Texas was a perfect example of that. Once Johnson wrecked on lap 3, yes, that allowed for two, maybe three drivers to get back in the title race depending on how Mark Martin, Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya did. But with everyone else at least 279 points behind Johnson with three races left, there was no way anyone else could work their way back into title contention. Remember the record for the largest deficit overcome to win a championship? Alan Kulwicki was 278 points behind with six races to go in 1992 before coming back and squeaking by Bill Elliott to take the title. So what in the world would make anyone think guys like Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, etc. could make that deficit up in three?

Yet to the media and questioners assembled, the word “championship” just couldn’t get out of their minds. Now I wasn’t present for these interviews this weekend, so all I can go through is the post-race transcripts. But why in the world would you ask Carl Edwards or Hamlin if they’re upset about Jimmie wrecking? Here’s an actual question posed to Edwards….

“Is it frustrating to not be able to make up ground on Jimmie when he’s having problems?”

Now, Mr. Edwards is the epitomy of positivity, one of the most optimistic people I know. But at 437 points behind after Talladega, he was well aware his bid for the championship this season was over. Done. He’s just thinking about winning races and building momentum for next year. What the heck does catching Johnson have to do with that?

Bottom line, the only people that should be concerned with Johnson are Martin, Gordon and Montoya (who blew his shot by wrecking himself later in the day). That’s it. So what do you ask the other guys? How a bad run effects their momentum for 2010, the track conditions, what things they experimented with… anything but questions about the freaking championship.

We just need to be careful not to forget that in the midst of the playoffs, an actual race breaks out each week. That’s what so many of the fans are looking to see… and that should be at least a small part of what we analyze.

Did You Notice? I better practice what I preach, considering I started this column with a championship note. So I wanted to point out a few teams that have picked it up during the playoffs you might not have recognized. They’re sitting on the margins, simply trying to build momentum for a Chase bid in 2010. But as we’ve seen so many times before, making the right changes now can pay dividends later and can lead to a strong start come Daytona in February. So here’s a quick look at who’s stepped up:

Jeff Burton: Has four straight top-15 finishes for the first time since April and early May. Considering this is a driver who had 15 straight top-15 finishes to start 2008, it looks like he’s headed back in the right direction for what could be a critical year for him in 2010. Honorable mentions go to the entire RCR organization, which has collected 10 of its 35 top-10 finishes this season in just the last eight weeks.

Matt Kenseth: More top-five finishes by a non-Chaser than any other driver out there (three). If only Roush had the next generation chassis ready to use in August, this team might have made the Chase after all. But it’s crew chief Drew Blickensderfer breathing the biggest sigh of relief, because this late season surge is probably enough for him to keep his job.

Bobby Labonte: Scored the first ever top-10 finish for fledgling TRG Motorsports as part of a sudden late season surge to stay relevant again. Add in a 13th place at Martinsville in his final start for Hall of Fame Racing, and you realize what adrenaline can do for a champ desperate to secure a ride for 2010.

Joey Logano: Yeah, he won at New Hampshire in June, but this past month is the best we’ve seen him run all year. Two top fives in the last four weeks – coming after the worst crash of his career at Dover – remind us the Chase will have a new driver looking to break out come 2010.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before I take off for the week…

  • Hamlin has now hit the wall twice in the last three November Texas races. Each time, it cost him a shot at a possible victory, although in a touch of irony Hamlin’s nursing of the FedEx Toyota got him better fuel mileage and a second-place finish on Sunday. But Hamlin still has yet to win a race in his career at any track 1.5-2 miles in length, which make up five of the 10 Chase races for the championship. Mistakes like that are the reason why… and he’s got to get them corrected.
  • The four-driver audition for Phoenix Racing’s seat in 2010 tells me two things: Number one, how desperate is the free agent pool this year that the only quality ride they’re going after is a single-car team that isn’t even assured Hendrick Motorsports support in 2010? And number two, there’s no guarantee this car is even going to go the distance for all 36 races in 2010. Which means… drivers are fighting over the right to start-and-park for a handful of events. Yuck.
  • Seeing the ratings for the Texas race Sunday, one number popped out at me. NASCAR scored just a 1.6 share for males 18-49 during the final half-hour of the broadcast, dead last in the time slot compared to FOX, NBC and CBS. NASCAR is looking to bring in a new generation of fans and draw them into the sport… yet the very demographic they need is the one that’s lagging. Will Danica Patrick help fix that? Possibly. But I think there’s a bigger problem here.

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!)