NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM 2Nite: Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

If it’s true that no job applicant ever seems more qualified for a job than they do on their resume, I guess it’s also true no racing season ever seems more hopeful than it does the day before it opens. Let’s face it, 2009 isn’t topping many people’s lists of “Greatest Cup Seasons Ever,” so good riddance to bad rubbish. If cynics have a hard time believing things will be much better this season, the rest of us can only counter “Well it can’t be much worse, can it?”

I think late last season, I shared my unsavory secret that despite 50 years sojourn the sometimes rocky roads here on this grand blue marble we call home I remain an optimist, cynicism aside. I truly want this season to be better. In fact, I want it to be a classic, if for no other reason that I am a lazy aging hippie and it’s a hell of a lot easier to write something interesting about good races than poor ones. It’s also a little unsettling to be sitting here in the office banging away at the keyboard in late September realizing a large part of the NASCAR fanbase has already given up the season, is ready to accept yet another Jimmie Johnson title and has moved onto football. Everything I know about football can be written on the head of a pin with a magic marker. If I had to support myself writing about football, I’d be dumpster diving behind Burger King for Thanksgiving dinner. For better or worse, I’ve devoted four decades to the nature and nuances of NASCAR racing, and over the years it has provided me with some great joy and excitement.

There’s some reasons to believe things will get better this year. I was a big proponent of standardized earlier start times for races, and this year we’ll have them. NASCAR is finally admitting the Car of Sorrow just isn’t going to hunt, making the positive change towards the traditional rear blade spoilers and away from those ridiculous wings that look like they were pirated off a tech school kid’s lowered Civic. (I just wish they’d leave the cowcatcher front ends to antique locomotives as well.)

I’m eager to see how the Mustangs and Challengers fare in the Nationwide Series and if maybe Chevy can be shamed into letting the Camaros play in that sandbox as well. The new Mustangs and Challengers are the kind of vehicles that get car guys grinning all goofy and sends our hearts racing the way a Fusion never could. Ford’s new racing boss sounds deadly serious when he says he plans to return the Blue Oval brand to its former glory and with the roll Ford Motor Company is on right now, who’s willing to bet against them? No, I’m not hoping that Roush dominates the season the way Hendrick has the last few, but it would be nice to see a new champion this year. (Oh, and for the record, I hereby forewarn Toyota enthusiasts I have literally dozens of pages of stuck accelerator pedal jokes ready every time a Toyota pilot so much as scrapes the wall.)

Of course, there’s some stuff I’m worried about this year as well. With all the talk of second race dates for Las Vegas and Kansas and perhaps one added to Kentucky for 2011, tiny little Martinsville once again seems to be in the crosshairs. I’m powerless to stop such a sacrilege, so in the meantime I mean to savor every moment of racing at Martinsville, one of the circuit’s finest tracks and the last true link to stock car racing’s heritage. FOX is also going to be back, and I haven’t heard last rites pronounced on Little Digger, so I’m resigned to the fact that between that cartoon vermin and Darrell Waltrip’s “Boogity-boogity-boogity” crap I will spend the first half hour of every race broadcast grinding my teeth to calcium powder.

The Chase is still in place despite fan apathy and even anger directed towards it. There seems to be a lot of teams planning to start-and-park this season, and that galls me. In fact, by the time the Nationwide Series heads west after Daytona, my guess is in some races you’ll see half the field parked by lap 25. Finally, there’s an ominous amount of primary sponsors whose contracts with notable teams terminate at the end of 2010. If ratings don’t improve this year, there’s a lot of big name teams that are going to be facing some tough times next year.

But we’ll worry about next year next year. The start of another season of racing is upon us. Throw a six-pack in the icebox, tear open a big bag of Cheezy-Poofs and let’s see what happens. In what seems like a minor miracle, it does appear that after being humbled by ratings and ticket sales last year, NASCAR is finally listening to the unwashed masses, their fans. Since they’re listening, speak politely, remember to say “thank you” occasionally and give ’em a chance to get this rolling again. And then, if they screw up again like they have been the last few years, you could always boycott the bastards. Stop watching, stop going to races. The only area that seems to still feel pain in the largely indifferent bastard monster that NASCAR has become during the Brian France era is the wallet. Hit ’em where it hurts.

But let’s hope drastic measures aren’t called for. Maybe this year, there will be more side by side passing and a few races decided by a drag race out of the fourth corner on the final lap between two or more cars. Maybe there will be some genuine rivalries again, with drivers speaking their minds straight up and unsanitized by sponsor concerns and PR people. Maybe NASCAR actually will let the drivers police themselves and knock the crap out of each other on the track, occasionally seeking vengeance when they feel truly wronged. This is stock car racing, not lawn tennis. If fenders aren’t rubbing, tires aren’t smoking and tempers aren’t fraying, then our sport actually is just cars driving around in circles like the critics claim.

Maybe this year we’ll have a legitimate title fight again. Maybe there will be more parity and less of the parody of parity that the Car of Sorrow has provided. Maybe more of you will be walking to your car after a race or flipping off the TV on Sunday afternoon feeling good, feeling you were glad you bought a ticket or devoted four hours of your free time to the sport rather than feeling cheated and annoyed. Yeah, maybe not. Maybe even probably not. But as the transporters roll into Daytona to start another season, hope springs eternal, even here in the icy tundra of the Northeast where springtime still feels a long way away.

As it stands written in the Book of Bruce:

So let the games start, you better run your little heart apart, you can run through all the night and all the day, but just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign, that counts the men fallen away to the price you pay… but, little girl, before the end of the day, I’m going to tear it down and throw it away!

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