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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Ugly Johnson Jeers, Picking Apart Purses & Short Fields?

Did You Notice? The crowd cheering like crazy the second Jimmie Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet came to a stop in turn 3? After a savage wreck, Johnson was left to endure his first DNF at an unrestricted track since the Coca-Cola 600 in 2008, when AJ Allmendinger’s failing brakes left him using the No. 48 like a dart on a bulls-eye entering the turn.

Now, I don’t have a problem with fans booing a guy they don’t like, but everything changes when a driver’s health is in question. Seeing that wreck live, I can say unequivocally it was the hardest hit I’ve seen someone take in person at Darlington since the repaving. Remember, this track is the same one where Steve Park suffered a serious head injury under caution, a reminder that crashes can happen anytime, anywhere. With an average speed approaching 200 mph entering the turns, the Lady in Black is also carrying some serious speed, and ‘Dinger’s hit on Johnson was directly in the driver’s side door. Considering all the safety advances, you’d like to think someone’s going to emerge from that unscathed, but the ugly truth is you never know.

So what if Johnson hadn’t walked away? What if he was sitting there hurt? What the fans would have been doing – albeit in the heat of the moment – was cheering someone’s injury or death. If you were in that group, stop and think about it for a minute. Imagine if it was your son in that car, or nephew, or best friend; how would you feel to have 60,000 people celebrating the moment that killed him?

Look, I understand the zealous hatred for Johnson after winning four championships and establishing himself as the man to beat for a fifth. It’s natural to have good vs. evil relationships in sports, but there need to be moments where we stop and realize it’s all just a big game. In the end, people are putting their lives at stake in part for our entertainment, and when something serious happens on the racetrack we need to break out of the moment, take a step into the real world and recognize someone’s health should never take a back seat to the joy of seeing someone register a DNF.

Now, once Johnson climbs out of the car unscathed, then yes, by all means cheer away for his misfortune. But the way it was done at Darlington was a little too early for my taste.

P.S. – For all the Johnson supporters complaining about Allmendinger never taking his car to the garage, shame on you as well. If every driver just parked it behind the wall at the sheer hint of a problem, we’d have about 10-15 more DNFs every week. A team and driver’s job is to try and get the best finish possible under the circumstances, and if the ‘Dinger felt there were enough brakes to go the distance it’s the risk you take when every position and every point is meaningful over a 36-race season. To simply “give up” and pull in when there was some semblance of brakes left would have been the wrong thing to do. Not only that, but when the rotors did break off, ‘Dinger did the right thing, pulling to the inside of the backstretch in a move to spin himself out away from the rest of the competition. He just was carrying too much speed for it to work out the way he intended.

Did You Notice? NASCAR’s 10% purse cut hasn’t been as bad as it might seem? I’ve talked with several smaller teams hurting over the cutbacks NASCAR announced at the last minute, claiming they had worked that money into their budget and now had to go out and replace it. But a quick look at the current Nationwide season shows funding isn’t down as much as expected.

Through the first 10 events, the sport’s paid out a total of $14,437,094, a difference of $520,043 less than last season. That translates into a decline of just 3.4%, with some events (Bristol, Richmond) actually paying out more money than they did the previous year.

Of course, a smaller amount of bleeding doesn’t mean the wound has completely healed. When you consider the cost of doing business went up by at least the typical 3% inflation, independent car owners are still getting a good deal less cash to operate a business that’s gotten more expensive. And there’s still a negligible difference between say, 25th and 43rd place, giving little incentive for teams to stop the start-and-park phenomenon. Darlington was the latest example, where Stanton Barrett won $14,200 for 14th place – only $1,312 more than 43rd-place finisher Dennis Setzer, who parked his car after 11 laps for K-Automotive. That disparty (or lack thereof) just has to change, even if it means paying the last-place finisher next to nothing so there can be more separation. Now that this sport is run like a business, pride isn’t the sole motivation all the time, and a few extra dollar signs might help people get a little more racy heading down to the checkered flag.

Speaking of start-and-parks…

Did You Notice? The dreaded start-and-park phenomenon is growing in the Cup Series once again? Last week’s race saw a season-high seven cars out of 46 there with no intention of running the distance: Whitney Motorsports (No. 46) and Braun Racing (No. 32) are the two newest additions, the former due to financial concerns and the latter to make a little extra cash for their Nationwide Series team.

What’s more gut-wrenching is the number of cars dropping that have attempted every race. Gone is the No. 90, now cutting back to a limited schedule, as they don’t believe in the S&P concept and don’t have the funding to compete. That leaves just 44 full-time cars, five of which (Nos. 55, 66, 87, 09, 46) are now expected to park almost every week. And that’s not including a few financially strapped programs, like the No. 36 of Tommy Baldwin Racing, the No. 7 of Robby Gordon Motorsports (remember, they only have sponsorship through May) and the No. 26 of Latitude 43 Motorsports that are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Add in the uncertain future of Richard Petty Motorsports’ four cars, and we’ve got a sport that seems destined to lose at least two, if not more of its full-time teams by July.

That puts the dependency on part-time, start-and-park efforts to fill the fields. But will those cars keep coming to the racetrack with NASCAR’s new teardown rule on the last-place finisher? The sport hasn’t had itself a field of less than 43 cars since the New Hampshire season finale in November, 2001; however, I do think races like Pocono and Michigan (where the Nationwide cars are elsewhere, taking the No. 32 out of the equation) might cause that to happen under the right set of circumstances.

Even if we don’t have that problem, again what worries me is the lack of expansion of ownership in the sport. At the end of the year, we’re looking at uncertain futures for RPM’s four-car operation, EGR (looking for a sponsor for the No. 1 car), and perhaps Penske’s No. 77. Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 is also for sale; but in the meantime, none of the “new owners” NASCAR claimed would materialize in the wake of the economic decline have gained a foothold in the sport. New investors mean new money, and without it, you’ve got to wonder where the injection of cash to keep some of these cars afloat is going to come from.

When’s the last time a new primary sponsor entered the sport full-time? How about an owner? No single-car operation is running inside the top 30 right now, You’ve got to wonder if their lack of success is scaring off anyone new to try their hand at NASCAR’s top level.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we take off:

  • Details are forthcoming, but I’ve been told Kyle Busch’s dispute with a subcontractor has been resolved. “Not a lot of fun,” was his comment to a source, but an end to those issues means he can get back to the main focus of owning and managing two-truck Kyle Busch Motorsports. In case you missed it, one subcontractor had filed a lien against KBM shop construction being managed by L.B. Builders earlier this month, claiming they were owed $60,000. Keep in mind that the contractor handles these issues, not Busch himself, but L.B.’s response to these debts was to claim Busch’s investment company owes them $3 million, causing the holdup in payments. Whatever the chain of command, it’s something that needed to be nipped in the bud as soon as it went public; and lo and behold, it got immediately taken care of. Busch resolving an outside distraction while choosing not to run for a Nationwide championship? Maybe the “new Kyle” is here after all.
  • Through 11 races in 2009, Mark Martin had two wins and led 215 laps. This year? No wins, no top-three finishes, and only 42 laps led. You wonder whether it’s short-term pain for long-term gain to fully integrate the Nos. 5/88 shop better, or whether it’s just the wrong mix of chemistry altogether….
  • So James Buescher is out at Phoenix Racing, huh? My lone comment: it’s hard to sell a race team when you’re turning every car in the fleet into a junkyard. By the way, did they say Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas employee and Hendrick satellite driver, is taking over the seat of the No. 1? Didn’t Rick Hendrick need some extra equipment for a guy he signed named Kasey Kahne awhile back? Hmm.
  • A quick breakdown of teams in the Chase as they stand: Hendrick Motorsports – 4, Roush Fenway Racing – 3, Richard Childress Racing – 2, Joe Gibbs Racing – 2, Penske Racing – 1. Five teams, 12 spots. Among those on the outside looking in: Michael Waltrip Racing, Team Red Bull, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Stewart-Haas (biggest surprise).
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