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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Where, Oh Where Has the Underdog Gone?

I thought it was the racing. There’s always something when the love affair is going south. So, I thought it was the racing. After all, that’s what everyone is saying, isn’t it? That the quality of racing just isn’t as good as it used to be. Whether it’s the cars or the tracks, it’s just not as fun anymore, right? It had to be the racing.

Except, it’s not the racing.

Or at least not exactly. If you take drivers, numbers and the car style away, you’re left with just racing, and it’s really not that much worse than I remember it being a decade ago. But the new car, you say – the new car has ruined racing, because nobody can pass and the leader just drives away. But wait, I say. The old car had a terrible aero push at some tracks – drivers might catch a guy, but passing was difficult at best at some venues, and I remember a lot of races with margins of victory well over five seconds in that car. I remember races with three or four lead changes. I remember wishing they would just fix these cars so these guys could pass. And whether the diehard CoT haters want to acknowledge it or not, there have been some very good races with this car at tracks that produce that type of racing. Cookie cutters race like cookie cutters raced 10 years ago. There were races in the not-too-distant past where fewer than five drivers finished on the lead lap, and that wasn’t a rare occurrence, either.

So, it’s the Chase, you say – the Chase has changed the way teams race – stroke to get in, race for points but without taking risks and cruise at Homestead to protect a lead. But wait, I say. Points racing isn’t new either. Under the “old” modern-era points system, championships were won on points racing-racing for consistency over wins was certainly going on. Winning involves risk, and points racing involves less risk. Guys won titles before on settling for top fives and 10s. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s not new, either. Back in the day, racers could cherry-pick their best tracks and win a championship that way. Not good at Talladega? Race Wednesday at a short track instead. Again, they worked within the system they had. The Chase is an ill-conceived gimmick, but it’s not the reason it’s not as much fun either.

Well, then, it must be the drivers. Jimmie Johnson is boring, Kyle Busch is a whiney brat and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a no-talent SOB (just ask Tony Stewart). And I say-now you’re onto something. It is the drivers, but not because of their personalities or their commercial images. It’s not because one is boring, one whines, and another drives like your grandmother. It’s because, in a day when the sport supposedly has more parity than ever, there’s no place for the underdog in this game anymore.

On paper, wins this season have been meted out over 14 different drivers. That’s a good number. A decade ago, the 1999 season saw just 12 different winners. Yet when I look at the races in the late ’90s, I don’t remember ever feeling like many fans today seem to feel – like a driver not with one of the top teams could never win a race. Back then, there was at least the illusion that there was a chance.

Here’s what I mean. Of the 14 winners in 2009, three (Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon) drive for Hendrick Motorsports. Three others drive for Joe Gibbs (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano). Two more (Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray) enjoy the benefits of driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Kurt Busch races for Penske racing, a second-tier team that’s hardly an underdog. Both Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart race for teams who were heavily supplied by Hendrick. Kasey Kahne also runs for a second-tier team, Richard Petty Motorsports, but that team is hardly underfunded and Kahne should be expected to win a couple. That leaves Brian Vickers and David Reutimann as the only two winners not driving for teams you expect to see in victory lane. Throw in that Vickers’s Team Red Bull cars are heavily factory backed from Toyota’s deep pockets and that Reutimann’s win came due more to luck than anything (a rainstorm sealed his victory), and there aren’t many compelling stories to be had.

1999, on the other hand, did have a couple of surprises and a couple of near-misses. In a season where there were several races with little excitement in the racing itself, there were races that were compelling for other reasons. Robert Yates Racing was the powerhouse team in 1999, winning the championship with driver Dale Jarrett. And among the race winners were some stories – real, compelling stories that made you want to watch next week, just to see what would happen. John Andretti won for Petty Enterprises, a team in the twilight of a storied history as long as NASCAR’s own. It would be the team’s last time basking in the glow of victory.

And then there came a pair of first wins as summer turned to fall. Promising rookie Stewart got his first win in Richmond, but it should, by rights, have come sooner. Stewart had had nearly a full-lap lead at Loudon but was a few laps short on fuel. They probably had time to pit for a splash of gas and keep the lead, but opted for the gamble and ran dry. Next in line was Andretti, but he ran out as well. That opened the door for Jeff Burton to win his third straight summer race at Loudon, but it was almost perpetual underdog Kenny Wallace taking the checkers, finishing short of Burton as Burton finished on fumes. Sure, in the end, the powerhouse team prevailed, but for a while you thought it would be, could be the rookie, the King’s man, the younger brother of the champion who never really had a chance to prove himself. It could have been.

Joe Nemechek also won his first Cup race in 1999 racing for owner Felix Sabates – Sabates’s last win as a full owner, as it turns out. Another compelling almost-win came in Darlington at the Southern 500, where Jeff Burton beat older brother Ward to the line, but not without protest on Ward’s part in the form of racing his brother as hard as a man can race and still stay clean. Ward drove for second-tier Bill Davis Racing, Jeff for top-rated Roush.

Years ago, you could believe in miracles. There was, if not a concrete reality, the illusion that this week, anything could happen. A driver could win a first race, and a veteran could win his last. It could happen, you could see it, feel it. Today… that feeling is gone. It stirs every once in a while – during Vickers’s win or hard-luck Elliott Sadler losing the Daytona 500 by 30 seconds of dry weather, but mostly, sleeping underdogs just lie-dormant, perhaps dreaming of better times, days when there was at least the illusion of impending glory-smoke and mirrors, perhaps, but it at least felt real.

Races today are too predictable, not because of the new car or even the racing itself. That’s pretty much the same – some good ones, some terrible ones, a few point strokers and some plain mediocrity. But there’s no real hope anymore – no illusion that this week’s winner might just be Andretti or Wallace or Ken Schrader. It might have been owner-driver Ricky Rudd or underfunded Ricky Craven.

No, those days are past. Now, if the winner doesn’t come from one of the Big Three, he’ll come from close by, or from a heavily-funded factory team. He won’t come from the independent ranks, or those of the underfunded. The underdog is gone in NASCAR. And at least from where I sit, that may be the biggest loss of the 21st-century era, and NASCAR’s biggest problem. I don’t want the love affair to end. I want to think it can be good again. I miss the illusion.

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