Did You Notice? That in today’s world of sports, giving athletes the benefit of the doubt is suddenly a thing of the past? Instead, steroids, cheating scandals and bad calls have turned us into a nation full of doubters, cornered into a defensive stance of guilty until proven innocent for our own emotional protection.
As proof, look no further than a blue and yellow number 3, 1980s vintage Wrangler on the side wrangling its way to victory lane Friday night. In the final drive with his daddy’s number on the side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove like the restrictor-plate master of old, leading the final 33 laps of the race in holding off challenges from Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and a handful of other Cup veterans. It was a made-for-TV moment, NASCAR’s best-case scenario in which their Most Popular Driver took home a trophy for the first time in two years – and doing it with a classic new car design to boot, hopefully tearing at the heartstrings of everyone who sat there nostalgic on the couch.
“It’s hard for me,” he said post-race, the magnitude of the moment clearly weighing on him. “It’s a balancing act between you and the public and myself and my own feelings [to run the No. 3].”
“I always loved the scheme. I just love the car. I wanted to race it once, and I did… I don’t ever want to do it again. And I’ll never change my mind, ever.”
Ten years ago, those quotes would be the clincher, dramatic realism capturing thousands of new fans almost instantaneously. But now? What you get is a slew of emails and comments that infer Earnhardt’s virtually reading from a script, the final act of a race too good to be true in which everyone was seemingly holding back for a forced coronation of NASCAR’s favorite son.
It’s a sad state of affairs, really, but not the only one. Lance Armstrong challenges for the lead at the Tour De France this week, but all we can talk about is whether he was doping the whole time. In both cases, fans have been barraged with negativity from all sides, a slew of criticism and questioning that makes the word “fix” impossible to block out of your head. There’s Earnhardt’s 2001 victory in the No. 8 at Daytona, five months after his father’s death where not only did he pass with ease, but legend says the car was never properly examined during post-race inspection. Then there’s Earnhardt’s first race in the No. 3 car after his father’s death, another Daytona domination in which he led 59 of 120 laps in February, 2002. During a time of great despair – where his slump has reached career-worst proportions along with NASCAR – securing the victory could be looked at as a convenient step one, a brilliant strategy to try and salvage the sport’s popularity before it’s too late.
When you put it like that, it’s so easy to buy into this notion of fixing a finish. But aren’t sports as much mental as they are physical? Isn’t it fair to say Earnhardt and Armstrong have emotional boosts during these special events, inward confidence from attempting something that’s really important to them? Could their competition also be awed by what’s it stake, losing their focus just enough on the letdown of somebody else instead of buying into their own strategy to walk away with the first-place trophy?
You see, not every storybook ending we see is courtesy of a little extra horsepower in either your system or your stock car. It’s just that a decade filled with too many bad eggs in all sports have made us willing to throw the whole batch away now, fighting off an emotional investment that comes attached with the risk of getting burnt.
It’s just a phase, I hope, but one that needs to turn around for this sport to be fully on the upswing again. When we grow up, we learn a sad lesson that most of what we’re taught to believe in as kids – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny – aren’t real. At some point, though, the optimists within us have to start believing the occasional fairy tale really does come true.
Did You Notice? How sometimes stats on paper are nothing more than just that? At NASCAR’s halfway point, a handful of numbers have been trumpeted to showcase how the racing has “never been more competitive.” Here’s one that stuck out the most to me: an average of 43 green-flag passes for the lead all along the track, the highest through 18 races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.
If you read that, you’d think the racing is the equivalent of a July 4th fireworks show on crack every week. Far from it. Of course, that number doesn’t take into account how the pass was accomplished. Was it the type of move that made the 1992 Winston an instant classic? Or are they more like the one at the 8:39 mark of this clip, Denny Hamlin blowing by Sam Hornish Jr. to grab the lead late in the race at Pocono?
Other than the restrictor-plate event, what we’ve typically seen is more of the “quick ‘n’ easy” version, the one that happens so fast that if you blink, you just might miss why you watch the darn three-hour thing. And there’s a big difference between a one-turn, keep 10 feet apart and get it over with pass versus a sparks-flying, fender-banging, wondering if both cars are going to make it through the corner type. It’s those passionate side-by-side battles that were a weekly highlight of the NASCAR scene in the 1990s, the pre-Loop Data stats we’ll never know about – because we weren’t keeping track of them back then. But even if we had, say, 20 green-flag passes on-track in those classic races, most of those events were guaranteed to have at least one or two that left you talking at the office that Monday.
I’m reminded here of a quote I read about in Sports Illustrated’s midseason report (July 5th) that included a five-driver roundtable on the state of the sport. It’s a simple, direct philosophy on how these men are trained to think, courtesy Greg Biffle: “We’ve all figured out that we don’t get paid until the end.”
So if the finish is what you’re focusing on, of course those early passes at the start aren’t going to be ones that put the driver at risk – and when they happen between teammates, it’s the equivalent to making a pass on your local highway. Does your heart beat when you pass that Mazda that pulls over from the left lane, 10 feet apart from you while going about 15 mph slower just so you could get by? If it does, then I’d go see your doctor. I’m worried about your health. Patience is a virtue, but not in this sport, and philosophies need to change in order for that number to become as meaningful as we’d all like to think.
Moving on, we have 31 drivers this season who have scored at least one top-10 finish. Sounds great, right? But let’s break that number down a little bit. When you take the road course at Infineon and the two “lottery” races away – Daytona and Talladega – that number falls to 26. Of that lower number, they come from just eight different chassis and engine combinations, all of which are familiar faces: Penske, Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, etc. So in one sense, we do have parity… with the same people and the same faces we see up front all the time.
Beyond that, this year has just seven different winners who come from just six teams: Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi, Penske and Childress. If you take out those plate races, once again the number drops to just four: Hendrick, Gibbs and then three big ones eked out by Kurt Busch (Penske) and Ryan Newman (SHR). There are no new first-timers in either the driver or owner category, with the Gibbs/Hendrick combo combining to win 67% of the first 18 races with Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin. Again, it’s a case of the same faces in the same places, with Johnson still looked at as a dominant force, albeit a slightly more vulnerable one.
Now, the numbers aren’t all bad – how much would you have bet Kevin Harvick wouldn’t be leading the points, let alone still aligned with Childress at the halfway point? – but they’re not the type that has me hyping this racing as the best we’ve ever had. Have we bottomed out from the low point of 2009? From a competitive standpoint, absolutely; I do believe things are on the right track. You just don’t go from an F to an A in a heartbeat, and that’s the problem NASCAR faces right now: I’d have a hard time arguing for a better grade than a B- so far, at a time where fans are demanding nothing less than an A+ after years of frustration.
Did You Notice? That two weeks after Jack Roush claimed Todd Parrott had trouble getting Matt Kenseth’s car through tech at Infineon, the reassigned crew chief has now been picked up by the No. 19 of Richard Petty Motorsports? Not only does it show how connected the Roush and RPM organizations are, but how must you feel if you’re Elliott Sadler? Yeah, I know the two worked together during their time together with the real Robert Yates Racing (you know, before Doug “bought” it and suddenly Roush runneth over). But let’s not forget this is years later, and the last time we saw Mr. Parrott, he wasn’t exactly being complimented.
“We were a little slow in the garage area,” Jack Roush said of Parrott’s swan song with the No. 17 on that road course. “I don’t fault the guys for that, but the direction and the plan may not have been as well-defined or understood.”
In English, that means he wasn’t getting the job done. But never fear! Keeping him on the roster, the Roush/RPM conglomerate has found the perfect pairing: black sheep with black sheep. Man, if I’m Sadler, I would have to see the writing on the wall by now.
Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we go:
- Could ESPN roll in an announcement on Johnson’s baby name tomorrow night with LeBron? Good way to kill two birds with one stone (and congrats to Jimmie, while we’re at it). On a serious note, make fun of the hype all you want but the bottom line is it’s getting the NBA both free publicity and a popularity boost. When’s the last time we had an hour announcement on a leading cable network for a Silly Season move Anyone? Anyone? I guess pink slips don’t really get people circling ‘round the TV these days.
- Among the drivers still searching for more sponsorship next season: Tony Stewart, Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and yes, Jeff Gordon. That’s an A-list group of names, including up to hypothetically seven men who could make the Chase. Sure, they’re negotiating with companies, but it’s an issue to keep an eye as the industry struggles to remain economically viable.
- The new NASCAR Licensing agreement for merchandising, announced Wednesday, joins together 11 total teams that have signed on board. In a perfect world, those 11 owners, running four cars apiece, would be able to fill a 44-car grid under a franchising system. Sure, some of them don’t even have Cup cars yet, but you wonder how this could be testing the waters for more “new ideas” down the road.