NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009: The Year That Wuz, Part I

The ponderous, clanking, larger than life beast that was the 2009 NASCAR season finally stumbled across the finish line at Homestead, completing its nine month marathon. By that point, it was smoking badly, listing to port and shedding parts like a leper on a trampoline; but somehow it did complete the marathon. Some folks tuned in to see Jimmie Johnson claim his fourth consecutive title, some tuned in to see the unseemly abomination come to an end out of habit, and some percentage of former fans simply no longer tuned in after enduring a sometimes trying season. Whether objects in the rearview mirror are actually larger than they appear or not, it’s time to take a look back at the NASCAR season that was. Keep your hands inside the car, please; this is a dark ride.

The Top Stories

Hendrick Motorsports Domination: For the first time in series history, a single team had drivers finish 1-2-3 in the points. Not even Carl Keikhaefer, who was fishing for guppies with dynamite back in the ’50s, managed that feat. Johnson claimed his unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title. Mark Martin finished second in the standings for the fifth time in his career and claimed five race victories along the way. Jeff Gordon returned to victory lane after being shut out in 2008 and finished third in the standings. In fact if one allows that the relationship between Rick Hendrick’s organization and the newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing teams is a bit chummier than even Kentucky marital law allows, five drivers for one organization grabbed up spots in the Chase. The big three at HMS claimed 13 of 36 race victories and combined for 70 top-10 finishers out of a possible 108 such results for those three drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored five additional top-10 results, and part-time HMS pilot Brad Keselowski added another. Whether one team dominating the sport is good for NASCAR or not, devotees of the history and heritage of the sport have to admit, joyously or grudgingly, that those are some pretty impressive feats of strength.

Fan Apathy: While those three HMS drivers were posting all those impressive stats, it seemed less and less fans were watching them do so. Attendance at most tracks was down, and in some cases the size of the crowds were downright embarrassing. TV ratings declined significantly. NASCAR racing does not exist in a vacuum. The same economy that caused such havoc across this great country in ’09 took its toll on race ticket sales. So did the price of gasoline. (It’s not still $4 a gallon, but it sure ain’t cheap.) Fans who lost their jobs or feared losing their jobs had to decide between expensive race weekends or paying the mortgage, the car payment and the grocery bill. It’s tough out there, no denying it. But that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop in NASCAR’s TV ratings. A majority of races, at least in the Cup Series, are now shown on broadcast TV. Even fans who canceled their cable TV plans should have been able to tune in, but a lot of them chose not to.

There are a variety of reasons folks have put forward to explain those bad TV numbers. Some blame fans’ distaste for the Chase points format. Other blame the increasingly bland racing and drivers that fans don’t find as savory as spicier racing and drivers back in the day. Many blame the Car of Tomorrow and the dearth of passing. Some want to blame later race starting times. Still others claim it’s the quality of the NASCAR TV broadcasts themselves which does indeed, at times, seem to test the limits of the Geneva Convention’s protocol on torture. I’m not sure what the problem is. But here’s two thoughts on the issue. Recall the First Rule of Holes; when you find yourself in one, stop digging. Secondly no great problem has ever been solved by assigning blame. Fixing problems takes two steps; admitting there is a problem and working hard to correct it. Nobody at NASCAR headquarters seems ready to take even the first step.

More and more of the fans the sport has left tell me they tune in for the first 30 laps to see which driver is going to dominate that day’s race, then don’t watch again until the final 10 laps to see how much that cat wins by.

Amazingly, during NASCAR’s meteoric growth in the ’80s (and for the record meteors fall down not up) there was even talk that someday NASCAR TV ratings would eclipse those of the NFL. Let’s just say right now nobody at NFL headquarters is hiding under their covers in their corporate pajamas waiting for for the NASCAR steamroller to level the joint.

Side-by-Side Restarts: There was at least a glimmer of hope here that NASCAR is listening to its increasingly disenchanted fanbase. The concept of starting the lead-lap cars side by side in their running order rather than restarting a race with lapped cars in the preferred inside groove, with lead-lap cars to their outside proved popular at the Winston… err whatever it’s called these days. With surprising haste, NASCAR quickly adopted that restart formula for points-paying races as well starting at New Hampshire. As such the first 5-10 laps after a restart tend to feature some of the most intense racing of the afternoon or evening as drivers jockey to make up positions gathering their rosebuds as they may, rather than trying to circumvent lapped cars in the racing groove. All too often, that sets off a series or wrecks and more restarts, but the concept of side-by-side restarts is no more bogus than throwing debris cautions for a hot-dog wrapper late in a race to bunch the fields back up. Combine the two, and I have two words for you: “Talla” “Dega. Oh, yes, we’ll get to that gentle readers. I have a lot of ground to cover here.

NASCAR’s Drug Policy: NASCAR officials warned participants that their new drug policy was going to be thorough and draconian. It was all that and then some. The first name driver to run afoul of the policy was Jeremy Mayfield and the resultant cat fight has dominated the headlines this year the way few race finishes have. NASCAR said their tests revealed Mayfield was using methamphetamine aka, crank or meth. Mayfield passionately protested that the drug test yielded a false positive caused by a combination of an allergy medication (whose maker occasionally sponsors the No. 99 car) and a prescription drug a doctor gave him to treat Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. As such he flat out refused to begin the NASCAR mandated process that would have allowed him to eventually be allowed to return to driving so he could start-and-park his car for big paychecks.

Game on.

NASCAR said no such false positive was possible. An accredited drug testing center proved it was. Mayfield tried thumbing his nose at NASCAR by showing up in the infield at Charlotte. NASCAR tossed him out. NASCAR tried making Mayfield submit to another random drug treatment test. Mayfield said he got lost on the way to that test so he went to another testing facility and passed the test. NASCAR obtained a statement from Mayfield’s stepmom, a woman who admittedly would need years in charm school to reach trailer trash status, who said she witnessed Mayfield snorting crank on race day more than once. Mayfield responded by claiming his stepmother was not only a liar but that she had killed his estranged father. Lawsuits were filed, counter-lawsuits were filed and injunctions and accusations filled the air like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. It might be years before this is all settled in court but meanwhile it’s playing out in the media. Oh, well. At least it gave fans something to talk about.

Jimmie Johnson’s Five Steps to a Title

Step One: After a slow start to the season including a 31st-place finish at the Daytona 500, Johnson serves up notice that he plans to defend his title and gun for a fourth straight with a convincing win at Martinsville in the fifth race of the season.

Step Two: At the Brickyard 400 Johnson serves notice that the sleeping giant is wide awake beating Martin to the line by .400 seconds in one of the sport’s most prestigious and best paying races. Johnson first and Martin second? A preview of things to come. The No. 48 team is seen leaving Indy whistling “See you in September.” Their goal during the regular season is just to make the Chase. It’s worked before.

Step Three: Dover, Fontana and Charlotte, fall 2009 – With the Chase on Johnson wins three of four races early in the title hunt. The pay window has opened and the No. 48 team is muscling their way to the head of the line for the check with the big numbers on it as their adversaries find a variety of ways to falter.

Step Four: Johnson’s early wreck at Texas leads some to believe that the title chase is back open especially TV commentators desperate to revive moribund ratings. Johnson’s Chevy is well and truly used up after the wreck and by all rights should have been pushed to the nearest pond and submerged. Instead the No. 48 team does what amounts to a complete front-clip job and returns their boy to the fray in record time. If three wins in four races hadn’t demoralized his competition the calm way the No. 48 team returned a thoroughly used-up racecar to battle that quickly probably served notice the rest of them were running for second. You can’t touch this….

Step Five: Any of those Pollyanna optimists who still had their hopes set there’d be a legitimate title fight at Homestead have their heads stoved in with Johnson’s dominating win at Phoenix. The No. 48 car led a mere 238 laps of a possible 312. I believe the rest of the time Johnson was in the pits using dental floss to appear pretty in the photos of his coronation. It’s so hard to floss with those full face helmets on, you know. Game, set, match, Johnson. Homestead was just a matter of waiting for the inevitable.

Best Races of 2009

Martinsville (spring): It was if Johnson and Denny Hamlin actually wanted to win the race not just score maximum points to make the Chase. On lap 455 Hamlin made a daring pass for the lead that would have made Junior Johnson proud. With 11 laps to go Johnson forced the issue and the Nos. 48 and 11 car were completely sideways, fenders askew and tires smoking. Johnson went on to win the race and the huddled masses let out a mighty cheer. God bless ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay.

Darlington (Mother’s Day Eve): OK, by Darlington’s history this isn’t going to be considered one of the great ones. But by 2009’s standard it was a classic. Martin was determined to pass teammate Johnson on the final restart. Whether Johnson was testicles to the wall trying to keep Martin from passing him or just trying to gobble up points to make the Chase is open to debate. But for one brief moment in time it was 1989 again. Hmmmm. The seasons best two races were held at its two oldest tracks? Am I sensing a pattern here?

Worst Race of 2009

Talladega (fall): Shortly before the race NASCAR officials told the drivers they weren’t going to tolerate any bump drafting in the corners. Apparently some drivers had asked NASCAR to clamp down on the practice. What resulted was not only the worst race of the year, but perhaps the most fatally flawed human endeavor since the McGovern presidential campaign. For a majority of the event drivers circled the track in a single file parade keeping a respectful distance from one another. In the end it was still the same old Talladega with potentially fatal wrecks, drivers on their roofs and the unseemliness of several competitors running out of gas. Simply put it was about as horrid an event as NASCAR could have staged and they’ve thrown some real stinkers in their time. Brutal, awful, utterly without redeeming social value, you choose your adjective. How bad was this race? Even the TV announcers threw aside their cheerleading pom-poms and said it sucked hind-teat. Brian France responded by saying the TV crew needed to be more positive, not with any ideas how to fix the mess that was Talladega this year. My guess is that as a result in 2010 we’ll have a lot more positive coverage of a pair of truly awful races. Anyone else remember way back in 1988 when restrictor plates were added to the Talladega and Daytona races as a “temporary” fix until NASCAR could come up with a fix for the insane speeds at the two tracks? Two decades later someone needs to be flogged with desert thorns then hung upside down in a vat of boiling battery acid for allowing this insanity to continue. Oh, did I mention I don’t think much of plate racing?

I Know It’s Only Wreck and Roll, But I Loathe It

When ESPN cues up the highlight reels for the 2009 Cup season it’s likely to be laden with wreck footage. Here’s three surefire clips.

Talladega (spring): Well OK, last year NASCAR sent a clear message to the drivers. Regan Smith was deprived a win he richly deserved last year at Talladega for yielding enough room to Tony Stewart trying to pass him to avoid a wreck. This year Keselowski wasn’t about to make the same mistake when Carl Edwards tried to pass him coming to the finish line. Keselowski (who some nicknamed “Cause-A-Wreck-Ski) chop-blocked Edwards Ford and sent him sailing into the catchfence off Ryan Newman’s Chevrolet. A 3,600-pound stock car carrying over 180 mph came so close to entering the stands that it still makes me sick to the stomach to recall it. It would be a massive understatement to say that wouldn’t have turned out well. As it was seven fans were injured by flying debris including a young lady whose jaw was badly broken and is still recovering from her injuries. Racing is racing. Competitors accept a certain degree of risk they can be killed or seriously injured in a wreck, To send a fan who arrived in their daily driver home in a Bambulance or a hearse is simply not acceptable. If you thought the finish of the spring Talladega race was cool I invite you to go taunt a local gang member to the degree he punches you in the jaw and shatters it. How cool does that feel?

Dover is well known for day ending contact into the inside wall and heavy impacts into cars sideways across the track but not so much for sideways barrel rolls. Still Joey Logano managed to flip his Toyota side over side seven times with a possible half-gainer on lap 30 at Dover in September. While uninjured Logano was clearly shaken after the tumble. Yeah, these new cars are safer once in a wreck but their top heavy center of gravity seems to make them more prone to tumble.

Talladega in the fall certainly ranks among the worst races of 2009, if not the worst race. It was so bad even the TV commentators were noting just how bad the lack of action was. But things came to a full boil in the final laps. First potential race winners began running out of gas and coasting to the pits muttering less than polite things on their radios. On lap 183 Newman made contact with his teammate Stewart and after hard impact with the outside wall ends up landing on the hood of Kevin Harvick.’s car. Coming to the white flag Martin also landed on his roof. NASCAR drivers are almost unanimous in saying this was the stupidest excuse of a race ever held. Brian France claims it was just typical Talladega. Of course his oversize butt wasn’t in a racecar in those final 10 laps.

Quotes of the Year

Gordon wins this one after running out of gas in the final laps at Talladega in the fall, then returns to the track only to have the No. 24 car wiped out in a wreck: “I guess I’m kind of glad we ran out when we did, because we were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car.” An usually gregarious Gordon went to add “I look forward to the day when I can watch this on TV instead of being inside of it.”

More insight from Talladega from Newman, who ended the race upside down on the hood of the No. 29 car: “I wish NASCAR would do something. It was a boring race for the fans. That’s not something anybody wants to see – at least I hope not. If they do, go home because you don’t belong here. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other. I guess they (NASCAR) don’t think much of us anymore.”

But for the most succinct account of racing at Talladega, we got to Edwards, whose car almost ended up in the grandstands at Talladega this spring: I guess we’ll race like this until we kill somebody. and then we’ll change it.”

Finally, Earnhardt Jr. weighed in on the Car of Tomorrow after the Atlanta spring race, saying, “This is one Hell of an excuse for a racecar.”

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