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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What We Really Can Look Forward To in 2010

The late David Poole was a fan of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, making him the only motorsports writer that I can think of who held a favorable opinion of NASCAR’s playoff and who didn’t work for NASCAR.com or ESPN. (There may be a few others. I just can’t think of any.) Like the NASCAR and ESPN guys, however, I found his arguments for it to be rather weak – unusually so, given the strength of most of his diatribes – and I had learned secondhand that on his radio show he was pressed and finally admitted that he needed something to write about at the end of the season.

Well, I think we can put that particular advantage of the Chase to bed, with Jimmie Johnson now in the do-or-die situation of having to best the start-and-parkers in the 2009 NASCAR season finale at Homestead. I’ve got nothing for that.

Most sports would still love to have NASCAR’s attendance and ratings, but the current trend is very much downward. 2009 saw one team crush and dominate the field, and in the worst case scenario for NASCAR, that team’s one underperforming driver happened to be the sport’s unabashed golden boy, whose fortunes, it sometimes seems, are in sync with those of the sport itself.

I had no Big Mac (as in McLaughlin)-sized beef with the racing in 2009, at least no more so than with any previous season that featured a) the Chase, b) the current preponderance of 1.5/2-mile speedways, or c) both a and b. But that said, there were few standout moments this season. Worse, there were quite a few that stood out in a bad way. The Great American Race was shortened and the winner was declared over the loudspeaker instead of at the finish line. Both of the Talladega races had ugly and frightening finishes following 490 miles of freight trains. The most dynamic and polarizing driver failed to make the playoffs. The favorite son suffered the worst season of his career with every possible advantage a driver could ask for.

Most of all, fans of every driver not under the umbrella of Hendrick Motorsports at some point saw their hero and his team finally fall short, ultimately squashed by the mighty Hendrick behemoth. And even at that, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon fans are watching their own heroes fall just shy yet again to the reigning and seemingly invincible King of Them All, Johnson.

Add it all up and the sum is that both NASCAR and most of its fans have had a depressing season in 2009.

So it is with a rare positive eye towards this sport’s future that I am actually going to find some things that remaining fans can look forward to next season. It’s not my style, I know. And truth be told, this isn’t easy: the Chase will still keep NASCAR a step ahead of college football as the sport with truly the dumbest method of determining a champion, and we still have the cookie-cutter tracks and the Winged Snowplow.

But here’s what The Official Columnist of NASCAR declares some Things To Be Happy About in 2010:

1) Races will start when God meant them to.

I am convinced that God created high noon before the advent of the clock so that armies would know when to report for battle and racecar drivers would know when to start their engines. Granted, races will be starting at 1:00 and not noon, but it’s certainly better than this year’s inexplicable, all over the map starting times.

I don’t know how much this makes a difference to any of you, but as an east coast columnist who is more or less required to watch races, it’s huge to me. It was profoundly annoying to arrange dinner and other household necessities around a race that started late in the afternoon and in some cases didn’t end until late in the evening. Having guests or visiting people for dinner was out on such days, unless I was willing to be rude to guests or hosts that weren’t interested in racing.

And in some cases, late start times ruined races. The 2009 Daytona 500 was the worst I’ve ever witnessed and it was entirely because of the starting time. Look, if the race is in Phoenix or Fontana, knock yourself out. But starting an east coast race at 4:30 on a Sunday is ridiculous.

It was baffling that NASCAR needed a Fan Council to explain this. But whatever works. I can relax and eat dinner after races now without getting indigestion.

2) Johnson’s and Hendrick’s domination can’t last forever.

Well, it shouldn’t, in light of what generally happens. Yes, this team gets ahead of the curve with every change NASCAR implements. So in theory, so long as NASCAR stops meddling, some of the other teams will start catching up. The problem is that we can’t seem to count on NASCAR to leave the sport alone, ever. They may decide to remove the wing mid-season.

But Richard Childress Racing has shown improvement of late, with Jeff Burton finishing a strong second at Phoenix. Joe Gibbs is a step away from being right there, having won eight races this season. Kurt Busch was in the thick of the title hunt not very long ago, and who knows, with Brad Keselowski taking over the 12, Penske might be making a statement of their own in 2010. Juan Pablo Montoya had a better year than anyone expected and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again.

The one team I’m not so optimistic about resurging is Roush Fenway. They’ve had to give up a car and they’re still not allowed to test. They should be better next year, but I doubt they will be the Red Sox to the Hendrick Yankees anytime soon, not after NASCAR has crippled them trying to end what is now their entirely non-existent dominance. One can only hope Jack will overcome it and we’ll start seeing backflips again.

3) Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will likely have better years.

These are the two most colorful drivers in NASCAR – whatever your opinions of them, they make for interesting racing talk. And neither of them have been much of a factor in 2009 story lines.

I believe Kyle Busch will have a better year in 2010 for several reasons. The first is that the biggest part of his failure to make the Chase this year was misfortune at restrictor-plate races and in some other venues, and I don’t see that happening a second time. Second, not making the Chase has probably humbled him to the point where he learns how costly giving in to his rage can be, such as with his cylinder destruction at Chicagoland.

Lastly, he has a new and capable crew chief on the box. Dave Rogers knows a little bit about setting up a racecar, as we’ve seen with the Nationwide No. 20. Steve Addington may deserve credit for some of the success of the No. 18, but he wasn’t much help to Bobby Labonte or JJ Yeley. I don’t know how Rogers will handle Busch’s combustible temperament, but sometimes just having a new guy around helps.

Regarding Junior, it’s a simple matter of he can’t do much worse. I don’t see him missing his pit box next season as many times as he did this year, which was one of the most costly problems he had. Junior’s also had some bad luck of his own, almost every time he has a raceable car it seems. He does have to get his head in the game, no question. But he’s a better driver than where he is in the standings.

4) The car will get better.

I know few people will agree with me on this. But it will. Look, when the CoT was introduced, I agreed with everyone that the handling of it was just ugly and sometimes it still is. And yes, it’s still too easy to pull away in clean air and for the moment has put too much emphasis on track position. It still needs plenty of work. This I will not argue.

But after a couple of years the cars don’t seem to slide around as much as they initially did, which means either the teams are getting better at adjusting it or Goodyear is finally producing a better tire, and I imagine that it’s both. If we saw a markedly improved event at Indianapolis in 2009 as opposed to 2008, I have to think it can happen at other venues too. We’ll see.

5) We still have Dover and Martinsville for the moment.

The cookie-cutters, as I and many others keep pointing out, are the places that produce the follow-the-leader, clean-air-dependent racing that is driving so many away from the sport.

The cookie-cutter racetrack trend sometimes seems sadly unstoppable, and conventional wisdom says that Martinsville especially is next on the chopping block to be replaced by a track whose main distinction is a nearby casino. But we once thought all of the baseball stadiums would someday have artificial turf too. I would hope that NASCAR takes steps to reverse this trend, but at the moment I don’t see it happening.

I love Martinsville, and to see it lose a race to Kansas or Vegas would be a travesty indeed. But at the same time, it’s more likely to happen if no one watches and no one attends. I completely understand if you don’t think NASCAR is worth your time or cash these days. I’ve shared the sentiment ever since the Chase robbed Gordon of at least one title. But if you watch or go to just two races next year, make them Martinsville and Dover events. They are still worth the traffic.

So there you go, all you NASCAR folks who complain about the press complaining: five solid reasons to remain a NASCAR fan next year. Should all of these turn out to be reality in 2010, we may have a more exciting season, and it may even offset the smell of an artificially contrived points battle. Well, ok, no disinfectant is strong enough to stamp out that stink. But for once I’m not here to complain today.

NASCAR will still have its current problems next season and the downward trend will probably continue, because the main issues still aren’t being addressed. I don’t believe NASCAR is going to wither away, but I also don’t believe that its current malaise has bottomed out yet. But at least something has been finally corrected for next year with start times. We can have a little hope.

Now if someone dares take my advice and builds a new type of racetrack, like this design here, and we made championship battles real, the sport may have a future to look forward to again.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I got to thinking about the 1992 title race reading Matt McLaughlin’s column yesterday. The Chase has effectively ensured that we will never again see a 1992-style battle. No one can get as far behind as Alan Kulwicki was in that short a time, because chances are if they do they didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. It’s too bad, because there is nothing like seeing a seemingly insurmountable lead suddenly start to evaporate as one driver slowly catches fire and moves up the ladder – as we might have seen with Tony Stewart’s lead this year. It used to be that you saw it develop over six or seven weeks and it gave you a reason to not dare miss it, like a pennant race in baseball before the stupid wild card. This way there is nothing to see. NASCAR takes care of the excitement for you, in a Mafia-style way.
  • Chase aside, you all know that Jimmie needs to finish 25th this weekend to win his fourth straight title. But that is only if Martin wins the race and leads the most laps, something he’s done just twice this season. If Jimmie has a finish like he did at Texas (37th), Martin still needs to finish fourth and lead a lap to win. Martin’s best hope is a fragile engine early in the No. 48, before Joe Nemechek and his ilk start feeling that “vibration.”
  • Recently someone in a free Seattle newspaper trashed NASCAR fans in response to locally-flavored Starbucks moving into the realm of racing sponsorship. I’m not bothering linking to it because this jerk doesn’t deserve any more attention, but suffice it to say that he stereotyped you good folk as NASCAR fans are always stereotyped. So gutless and ignorant. Those Seattle free newspaper columnists are all the same.
  • And following the end of the Ford 400 at Homestead, I will be joining in with the good man Vince Bonfigli on his radio show “Garage Talk Live” on WNJC 1360 AM in the Philadelphia area. The show airs Monday night at 8:00 p.m. You can listen live on the station’s website. Feel free to call in and join us as we celebrate a few weeks off.

And have a great Thanksgiving everyone.

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