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MPM 2Nite: 14 Weeks

Welcome back, gentle readers. After a brief vacation, I’m back in the saddle again. I hope you all had a spiritual and joyous Easter or Passover, as I did. What did I do? (For the benefit of those of you who care – and despite many of you that don’t give a damn – bear with me.)

I was blessed to go on an extended motorcycle ride with my good friend and brother-in-law Kenny and my eldest nephew Shane, a young man who has crawled through Hell and back after battling substance abuse, fighting for his life and his ability to walk again after a terrible crotch rocket wreck less than two years ago. Shane, now clean and sober for an extended period of time, has apparently given up on the lay-down style bikes in favor of his new (to him, anyway) 2002 Sportster. It might be an old-school Harley, solid-mounted engine, buckhorn bars and all, and at 6’4″, he might look like a monkey trying to hump a football on the thing, even with extended controls. But to ride with him at or near the speed limit on an 80-degree Sunday down the back roads of Chester County under clear blue skies in light traffic along with his dad, my dear buddy (and the most recent of my family members to kick nicotine addiction) was a sheer joy I will not soon forget.

I’ll savor every second of that ride as long as I live, even if it wasn’t a conventional Easter celebration.

If only every Sunday Kenny, Shane and I could repeat that ride. But for me, it’s time to get back to bidness. After two weekends off interspersed amidst the first six races, the Cup schedule now features 14 consecutive weeks of competition. The next time there’s a week off is July 17, the weekend between Joliet and the Brickyard 400.

I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters… that’s ridiculous.

The NFL’s entire regular season – the Holy Grail NASCAR is said to be chasing – is 17 weeks long, and that includes a bye week. That 17-week stretch will determine the playoff contenders and this year’s pretenders. If it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it can be argued that the wealth of dates on the Cup schedule in the next 14 weeks makes each individual race less significant – especially if you consider only the last 10 races (way too many) will determine a champion.

A more manageable and arguably exciting Cup schedule might extend as long as 26 weeks, with an occasional weekend off for fans to visit with families, do a little boating or riding during the sweet, sweet, summertime… or just recharge their batteries anticipating the next race.

This 14-week schedule will be grueling for the teams. They will globetrot the country, traveling from Charlotte to Phoenix this weekend and the road course in San Francisco on June 20, out to Michigan and Joliet in the heartland, up north to Dover, Pocono and New Hampshire, and back to the heartland of the sport in Charlotte for the homestand and Darlington. Unfortunately, in the brave new world of NASCAR, only one of these 13 races (Richmond, May 1st), will be contested on a short track, the sort of circuit that was once the meat and potatoes of the sport. You know, the sort of place that produced that thrilling finish at Martinsville a couple weeks back.

The upcoming schedule will surely throw some curveballs at the teams, too. Chase contenders (and I loathe the very term) will have to deal with the road course at Sonoma. (And I’m sensing a weekend off June 20th, because, to be completely politically incorrect as I am wont to do, watching Cup cars race on road courses is like watching The Fat Chicks Ice Capades.)

The trickiest race of the upcoming stretch is likely Talladega, where the new (old?) style blade spoilers will replace the wings, and general mayhem may ensue as NASCAR makes mid-weekend adjustments to the rules to try and control speeds. As such, I dread the unholy circus that will be Talladega. After all, the last big experiment with aerodynamics at a plate track, the 2001 Daytona 500 and its taxicab strips, caused the death of Dale Earnhardt. (Blood on your hands, you bastards, need I repeat myself yet again? Who are you going to let die this April in pursuit of better ratings?) We’ll have to pray for better weather (across the Rio Grande-o, across that lonesome river…) to keep the circuit’s longest race, the World 600, from becoming a 24-hour event.

We’ll have to put up with the silliness that has become the All-Star Race since Humpy Wheeler signed off as General Manager at Charlotte. We’ll have to endure the likely mundanity of Joliet and New Hampshire that will try a good fan’s soul unless fuel mileage or bad weather intervene. We’ll have to sit through what will likely be another snoozer at Michigan, since points expediency and fuel-mileage racing have replaced the teams’ need to score a big one in the birthplace of the American auto industry.

Yeah, I can’t say I’m truly looking forward to any of the upcoming 14 races other than Richmond and Darlington – and that might be why interest in NASCAR racing starts out tepid and dies out all together before the start of the All-Singing, All-Dancing Chase.

For some drivers, the following 14 weeks are crucial if they want to be considered a legitimate, if not mathematical, championship contender. Jeff Gordon hasn’t won a points-paying race since Texas nearly a year ago. Prior to that, he hadn’t won since the fall Charlotte event in 2007. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a Cup race since Michigan in 2008 and he’s won just three Cup events since 2005, a half-decade ago, despite now having some of the best equipment on the grid.

Former Cup champion and Roush flag-bearer Matt Kenseth hasn’t won a race since Fontana last year. His rotundness, Tony Stewart, hasn’t won a race since Kansas last fall and he’s scored just one top-five finish since… that’s one Whopper of a slump.

Ryan Newman hasn’t won a race since the 2008 Daytona 500 over two years ago. Even America’s least favorite boy-bitch, Kyle Busch, hasn’t won a Cup event since the Bristol night race in August of last year. Yeah, with Jimmie Johnson winning almost half of this year’s races, wins are hard to come by, and I sense that if he wins many more, even hardcore race fans are going to need new Duracell AAA batteries for their remotes after switching off Cup events when they’re halfway over. Unfortunately, about the only thing that seems to stand between Johnson and more wins is alien abduction.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when I loved this part of the season, as the Cup teams got settled in and the legitimate title contenders began showing muscle as the rust of the offseason wore off their brake rotors. I used to debate endlessly with friends which driver was the favorite at each weekend’s event, who was living up to expectations, who was exceeding them, and who was falling short. Pooling our information, expectations, and favoritism, we’d debate who would be Winston Cup champion that year. Countless mugs of beer were consumed, cross words were exchanged and wagers were made. If you were a diehard Earnhardt fan like many of my buddies were, the thought that the punk in the No. 24 car would win (another) championship was both infuriating and nauseating.

Yeah, racing was a passion for us back then. Now, it’s more like a high speed version of Dancing With the Stars. (Or in this case, Dancing With the Cars.) It’s so contrived and phony with this Chase mess we’re still enduring that it just doesn’t matter as much anymore. The lure of Route 23 between 322 and Valley Forge Park is getting so alluring, I’ll probably be taping some races and working even later on Sundays to get the job done.

Here’s the deal: 14 races is a long time to hold the fans’ interest. It’s like a local diner. If people think your prices are too high and dinner is usually soggy mashed potatoes and mystery meat purloined from high school cafeterias, they’re not going to keep showing up every week. (Witness all those empty seats in the grandstands this year.) Even if every five or six weeks, you serve them up a fantastic meal like Martinsville’s race, you’re going to lose your clientele. And eventually, your diner is going to wind up shuttered, with grass growing in the parking lot and a fading “commercial real estate for sale” sign out front.

This is a crucial season in Cup history. Somehow, we’re going to need to improve the ratio of classics to clunkers if NASCAR is to maintain or somehow grow its fan base. People are not going to continue to spend their hard-earned dollars or devote four hours of a sunny summer Sunday to watch an experiment in progress… and you can’t count on Carl Edwards to put someone on their lid to give us something to talk about. Quick, who won that Atlanta race, and how did they do it? A lot of you don’t even remember, do you? And that was just over a month ago – not 14 weeks. (For the record, Kurt Busch won by prevailing over Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya on a final restart which was a lot more sizzle than steak.)

Stay tuned if you’re of the mind to. But please keep your hands inside the car because, given recent history, these 14 weeks will likely be a dark ride. And 14 weeks from now, I’ll be here to follow up on this column. We’ll have plenty to talk about here besides the rising tide I am certain, for better or worse.

From that mid-July perspective, I’m sure I’ll have some predictions as to my take on the future of NASCAR racing, the networks’ involvement with it, and my own future in the sport. Me and my buddies had one hell of a ride on Easter Sunday. I’m beginning to think I like riding a whole hell of a lot better than stock car racing.

14 weeks, huh? We shall see what we shall see.

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