NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: Rainy Days & Mondays

Editor’s Note: With the Cup race rained out Sunday, Matt did a shortened version of his “recap” column for today.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

With all due respect to the incomparable Smokey Robinson (my second favorite “Smoky” next to Smokey Yunick) one of those things that’s sadder than the Tears of a Clown is rain at a racetrack. It’s tough on the drivers, who are mentally pumped up to compete only to wind up deflated. It’s tough on team owners, who must find overnight lodging for crew members to stay an extra day or fly some folks home and back again early Monday a.m. It’s terrible for the network that broadcasts the race, in terms of financial givebacks to those corporations that bought commercial time, and for their final TV ratings, which are already on the ropes crying for their mommies. It’s tough for even minor league media folks like me who have set-in-granite commitments that will prevent me from seeing the Martinsville race, an event I love like cold beer and Harley Davidsons, live. So what follows below is the usual pre-race stuff I prepare for my columns prior to the green flag and during the rain delays. But I like to keep in mind that rain-delayed races are toughest on the fans, especially those who bought tickets for the race. It’s bad enough for those who are going to miss the race on TV because they have to work Monday, but pity the poor folks that planned to attend the race live and can’t come back Monday due to life commitments. They’re out the not insubstantial money they laid out for tickets, lodging, meals, and other ancillary expenses and they won’t get to enjoy a single green flag lap of racing. They’ll fight their way home down rain-soaked highways, get home late and wake up tired on Monday morning facing a long workweek and substantial economic loss with the hopes their DVRs and VCRs will at least allow them to catch a glimpse of the action they hoped to see live. To those fans, I feel your pain. I’ve been in your (sodden) shoes having spent my hard-earned money to buy tickets, too. So no, it doesn’t get much sadder than rain at the track on race day.

Fans of other forms of motorsports, those open-wheel types, shared our pain on Sunday when their event at St. Petersburg was rained out as well. To quote our old buddies from the Electric Light Orchestra, “It’s raining all over the world.”

Denny Hamlin is scheduled to have surgery for a torn ACL on Monday. Officially, the reason he’s electing to have surgery now rather than at the end of the season as originally planned is fear of long-term damage. Unofficially, the decision would seem an admission that the pain and lack of motion in the leg are part of the reason Hamlin and the No. 11 team are off to such a slow start after being considered preseason favorites to unseat the No. 48 for the title. Hamlin injured himself playing basketball prior to the season. That’s ironic in that many stick-and-ball sport players’ (including NBA stars) sign contracts that forbid them from engaging in high-risk behaviors like pickup games, riding motorcycles or (ironically enough) driving racecars. So perhaps this is a lesson for Hamlin to stick to what he’s good at. And for the love of God, please keep him away from Frisbees during recovery….

One man’s famine is another man’s feast. Sponsorship issues at the end of last season forced Richard Childress to release Casey Mears and close down his fourth team. Prior to driving for RCR, Mears, the scion of one of racing’s most famous families, drove for Rick Hendrick and Chip Ganassi as well. Obviously, some pretty savvy team owners think Mears has talent. Unfortunately, in the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” atmosphere of the Cup garage area, Mears’s win in the 2007 Charlotte (yeah, we don’t have to call it Lowe’s anymore!) 600 didn’t earn him a competitive seat. He’s been struggling to make races with a shoestring team, going just 1-for-6 after a Friday DNQ driving the No. 90 Chevy. But Hamlin apparently gave Mears a nod as the driver he’d like to stand by for relief should he not be able to drive a complete race after the surgery. If Mears does, in fact, relieve Hamlin in some races and he runs well, which he’s fully capable of doing, it might just salvage his career.

Most of Saturday’s Truck Series race was the epitome of “old-school.” We got to see rooting and gouging, tires smoking, three-wide racing and doors and fenders flapping in the wind. Unfortunately, the end of the race left a bad taste in my mouth. Kevin Harvick has been on a roll in the Truck Series, winning his last time out at Atlanta, while his driver/employee Ron Hornaday was off to a terrible start this year with wrecks in the first two races. That meant Hornaday needed to finish a race and score some points to get back in the title chase, where he’s a perpetual threat. So at one point in the race Harvick let Hornaday pass him to take the lead and rack up five points in the process. But the biggest offense came on the final restart, where Harvick was leading and Hornaday was second. It seemed a shootout between two of the series’ most talented drivers was in the wings, but it wasn’t to be. Against all logic the leader, Harvick, selected the outside line for the side-by-side restart. It seemed he was handing the advantage to Hornaday. As it turned out, the move was staged. On the restart Hornaday, one of the best restarters in the business, dutifully gave way to his Boss and blocked for Harvick while he drove off to an uncontested win. Team orders helped ruin Formula 1 racing, and make no mistake, such shenanigans are going to ruin NASCAR racing as well. I was so disgusted, I’ve decided not to watch the Nashville race next week. Life’s too short to watch scripted races… screw it, let’s ride.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. The only thing more dangerous than a toddler with a fully-loaded assault rifle is the FOX TV crew with a rain delay to endure. Then again, given the length of this column hours prior to any possible start of the race, I might be on that short list as well.

Do you think viewers at home got the word the race was rain-delayed before the fans in the stands, who were still sitting there patiently waiting in a soaking rain when FOX bailed? If you’ve been at this game awhile, when you saw the massive team toolboxes being pushed to the transporters during Harvick’s interview you knew it was over for the day.

Related to the above, Hornaday got into Johnny Sauter’s contending truck during the race, sending Sauter spinning and out of contention. After the event, Mr. Sauter wished to discuss the issue with Mr. Hornaday, and there was a confrontation on pit road. I think the two drivers and NASCAR handled the situation perfectly. Hornaday and Sauter clearly had a heated and probably profane conversation after the race, while a NASCAR official stood just in the wings allowing them to talk but not allowing fists to fly or pit crews to riot. Sauter also chose to discuss the issue without resorting to underhanded tricks, like spinning his rival’s truck on pit lane and putting others in danger. When NASCAR said they were going to let the drivers take the gloves off, I think this is what they had in mind – not Carl Edwards‘s 190-mph payback on Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. SPEED also wisely chose to watch the event from a distance, without thrusting a microphone into the mess allowing kids watching the race to hear some pretty blue language. Well played by all parties involved!

Also related to the truck race, I’m sure he’s a swell guy but I sure hope Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan isn’t so successful I have to type his name too frequently. That’s not a name… that looks like an industrial accident at an alphabet soup factory. Remember the good old days when drivers had names like Petty, Allison, Johnson, Elliott, Wallace, Gordon and the like? To any up and coming driver, consider a last name change to something less than eight letters if you want the media to discuss you. Hell, I’m still struggling with Keso… er, Keselowski. (Speaking of Bad Brad, another note to up and coming drivers trying to make the “bigs,” appearance is unfortunately important. I think part of Keselowski’s publicity problem is he looks like a mule eating briars when he smiles.)

Forbes magazine recently disclosed that last year Dale Earnhardt Jr., with earnings of $30 million, was the top compensated NASCAR driver of 2009, several million dollars ahead of four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. What? Hold the phone, here. This is the driver who finished 25th in the points and failed to win a single event? $30 million for accomplishing basically nothing? Nice work if you can find it. I’m officially changing my name to Matt Earnhardt in hopes I’ll be the top compensated media member in the sport.

Given the high price of tickets and offers of “charter membership,” one has to wonder if NASCAR is more concerned with opening the “Hall of Fame” or reaping another “Haul of Cash.” I’m still seething over the first class of five inducted into the Hall. While Petty, Earnhardt and Junior Johnson were no-brainers, not including Cale Yarborough or David Pearson in favor of Bills France Junior and Senior is insane. Bill France Jr. in the Hall of Fame? That’s like Idi Amin being inducted into the Ugandan Hall of Fame in the first class.

Kudos to Edwards for giving a shout-out to less appreciated drivers Ricky Craven and Bobby Hamilton as two of the drivers who helped him figure out how to get around Martinsville.

As April 15th bears down on us like a Category 5 financial hurricane and the U.S. government scrambles to raise every dime in taxes they can to cover the mushrooming federal deficit, you have to wonder if some IRS agent at home was making careful notes to check Kyle Busch’s return for all those gambling winnings in $100 increments discussed during the rain delay next year.

Am I the only one who thinks Martinsville and its fans used to be treated to much better weather back when it was the eighth race of the season rather than the sixth prior to 2005?

Talk about lucky? Robby Gordon arrived at Martinsville in a tense situation having to make the field on speed, having fallen out of the Top 35 in points. Fortunately (for him anyway) qualifying was rained out and Gordon made the field without having to drive a lap in anger. Longtime readers know I’m not a charter member of Gordon’s fan club, but at least he’s trying to make every race and run every lap unlike the start and park teams.

Well this is going to get ugly! The SFI, which administers safety standards for safety equipment like seatbelts, is officially accusing racing safety guru Bill Simpson (who has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives at racetracks with his forward thinking innovations) and his Impact Racing corporation of using counterfeit “SFI Approved” labels on his products. As of April 27th, all Impact Racing products will be “decertified” and thus no longer legal for use in competition anywhere from Talladega to most local bullrings. My take? I’m not buying the SFI argument until all the evidence is in. I’ve met Bill Simpson. I’ve talked to him face-to-face and via email as the whole HANS device/Hutchens device debate moved forward. This is a guy who knew the old-school drivers personally, and he cared deeply about protecting them not as customers but as friends. But Simpson’s once unsullied reputation as a safety innovator took a hard turn for the worse when NASCAR tossed him under the bus with their bogus argument that a broken Simpson seatbelt led to the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001. No, it wasn’t the lack of SAFER barriers, the HANS device or the insane sort of plate racing Earnhardt so despised that killed Earnhardt. It was a broken seatbelt, despite a medic’s contention that he used a razor to cut that belt to help free Earnhardt’s inert body from the wreckage of his final ride. The accusations contained in NASCAR’s fatally flawed and self-serving report on the death of Earnhardt resulted in Simpson receiving death threats and losing control of the company that still bears his name. If I owned a Toyota (and you’re more likely to hear I married Heather Locklear at long last) I’d want Impact Racing belts in my car for when it lunged out of control. Bill Simpson didn’t kill Earnhardt. NASCAR did, and to repeat what I wrote that night, they still have blood on their hands.

The Cup series takes a weekend off to observe the most solemn and joyous date on the Christian calendar, Easter, celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Jewish brethren will also be celebrating Passover and we wish them peace. Racing resumes in two weeks’ time at Phoenix.

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