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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Reut Gone Wild, NASCAR Legacies & Saving the Summer

Did You Notice? How much has been made of David Reutimann’s upset win at Chicagoland Saturday night? From television to the tiniest column on the web, I can’t get away from it. Entire columns and segments of shows are now being devoted to whether he’ll make the Chase, as if the man has turned into some sort of potential superstar overnight.

Um… huh? Since when did LeBron James turn pasty, white and 40? I will say Reutimann is one of the nicest, most genuine people to walk the NASCAR garage. Talent-wise, he’s been underrated in both performance and potential for years. But let’s not get carried away here by one little victory, as impressive as it may be. Last time I checked, viewership at Chicagoland was down by over 200,000 people.

Come regain perspective for a minute. This shocking upset – as lovable as Reutimann is in that insular garage world – isn’t big enough to make fans outside it suddenly pay attention and turn on the TV.

It’s all part of the problem when a sport goes downhill; every positive moment gets immediately overblown. I’m happy for the guy, sure, but I’m not going to write he’s a title contender. I think even Reutimann himself, more of a Steve Urkel type (his nickname is “Beak”), will tell you he’s far from being NASCAR’s future star. On the marketing front, Jimmie Johnson would run circles around the guy, and that’s saying something. If the No. 00 went out now and won three or four races in a row, you can’t sit here and tell me he’ll ignite a media frenzy – especially with the sport’s biggest sponsor shill as his puppeteer.

For me, the bigger victory was one seemingly swept under the rug. In just his 12th Camping World Truck Series start, Austin Dillon destroyed the field at Iowa, leading 187 of 205 laps to score the win as a rookie. Driving that No. 3 carries with it heightened expectations, along with an automatic fan base forever connected through the ghost of the Intimidator. After telling me this week he’s choosing to stick around the series another year in 2011, running full-time with the goal of winning a title, we suddenly might have a case of driver development done the right way.

Unfortunately, that means he’s probably two, maybe three years from making an impact in Sprint Cup. Does that mean Reutimann has the greater upward potential here? I still don’t think so. Instead, I’d put my eggs inside the basket of the guy who’s backed by a legendary car owner and what the girls say are Kasey Kahne-style looks.

Wouldn’t you?

Did You Notice? Speaking of Dillon, the next wave of potential success stories in NASCAR have a familiar “legacy” ring to it? Dillon, of course, is Richard Childress’s grandson, and his brother Ty Dillon won the pole and ran second in his ARCA debut. Ryan Truex, reigning K&N East Series champion, is making his first Nationwide start this weekend but also doubles as Martin’s brother. Just yesterday, Dale Sr.’s grandson Jeffrey Earnhardt announced a partnership with Rick Ware Racing for Gateway, slipping behind the wheel of the No. 6 Chevrolet for Friday night’s Truck race.

Dillon was asked on Monday whether he thinks he’d have the same favorable circumstances without the famous Childress connection, one of those “duh” questions he deftly turned into a politically correct response.

“I think there’s always a shot of making it to the top,” he said. “I have a good opportunity and I’ve tried to take as much advantage of it as I can.”

I beg to differ, although you certainly can’t blame Dillon for the current state of the sport. Sponsorship-wise, legacies are easy sells because of the connections already in place, and honestly they’re nothing new. From the Flocks to the Bodines, families have always tried to tackle this sport together; and with a win under Dillon’s belt, it’s not like he’s taking that seat away from somebody who’s more deserving.

It’s just now, the environment is so tough that the famous last name seemingly provides one of only three ways for talented drivers to achieve upward mobility. The others: have a rich dad (Brian Scott, John Wes Townley, Justin Lofton or James Buescher – in this case, father-in-law) or be a marketing genius (Kevin Conway, Jennifer Jo Cobb). Pure talent alone doesn’t get you anywhere, even if you’re finishing inside the top 10. Only Justin Allgaier survives as an exception to that rule… and that’s after years of running ARCA with a family-owned operation.

NASCAR has tried to buck the trend; in a way, their Drive For Diversity program, whose selections are talent-based, is a good start. But the second those drivers achieve success, they’re looking for money to keep them going to the next level. And right now, that money is reserved for those who already have it – or know how to partner with it. There’s no room for others.

Did You Notice? That during one of the slowest sports months on the calendar, NASCAR takes a step back with a week off? Considering NFL training camps are just weeks away from taking center stage, it’s a crucial time for them to steal some thunder. Instead, they go on vacation, then travel to Indy – in recent years more sizzle than steak, followed by Pocono and Watkins Glen before the NFL preseason starts up on August 8th. Of course, this all comes after NASCAR played their “ace card” during another slow sports weekend last Saturday with… Chicagoland?

Considering the radical realignment of the schedule I think is coming soon, now would be a good time to address those concerns. If you admit NASCAR is entering a rebuilding mode, one way in which you showcase your product is waving the white flag, acknowledging you’re behind the NFL, NBA, etc. and putting your best foot forward during times where fans won’t be distracted by something else. You know what I’d do? Take the Bristol night race and have it swap dates with Chicagoland, giving the sport a guaranteed chance to shine in July without a single conflict. While we’re at it, why not do a whole “short-track summer” swing by putting Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond all in a row?

I’d also give tracks with the best competition some love. Gone would be second dates at sleep-inducing ovals like Phoenix and Fontana, replaced with a second Darlington and a race out at Iowa. I’m realistic in that Rockingham and North Wilkesboro will never return, but let’s work with what we have to create the best product possible while working on these cars so it’s easier to pass, beating and banging in the process without cutting down a tire or losing ten miles an hour down the straightaway.

It’s easier said than done, a “back to basics” routine that could also include dropping the Chase and going back to the point system that wasn’t perfect, but worked pretty darn good. I find it very intriguing Darlington doesn’t have its schedule renewal forms yet. Could NASCAR maybe, just maybe, be thinking of putting the 500-mile race on Labor Day weekend again next year? Hope springs eternal.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before I take off…

  • So Dario Franchitti says Danica Patrick is making a mistake by trying to drive in both IndyCar and Cup. Really? I hadn’t noticed anything wrong.
  • I’ve never seen more of a television commotion over nothing. Rusty Wallace calls Kyle Busch a dumbass? Isn’t that what 80% of the fanbase says just about every week in the stands? It’s not like Rusty mouthed off after Kyle said, “I like kittens, bunnies and little baby seals.” The guy was publicly calling out fans for booing him! Rusty should have kept his mouth shut, sure, but he’s apologized now, leaving the whole thing wildly overblown. Call me when a reporter smokes pot or something… oh wait….
  • Last year, I looked at what Bill Elliott was doing with the Wood Brothers and felt great about the direction everyone was headed. Now? I just feel sad. Funny how quickly things can change.
  • Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell have 30 Cup starts this season and 30 DNFs. Sickening.
  • So IndyCar’s announcing a new chassis today, one that has innovation and creativity as its central focus. I’m hoping someone from NASCAR’s there taking notes.
  • A few years from now, Mark Martin may look back on this season and say he lost a shot at a championship because of two people: his Most Popular Teammate who needed a little extra help, and his More Marketable Replacement whose hiring has caused more distractions then when he retired the first or second time. But when he and Benny Ertel cry reporting foul, as much as I feel for them, I’m also reminded of how many times he’s changed his mind in public. How many times did Martin do an about face with his future a few years back? I’m just sayin’.
  • 17 years ago yesterday, we lost one of the sport’s rising stars in Davey Allison. Just 12 years old then, I remember crying like a baby through an ESPN tribute, then weeping again during the Garth Brooks one after the CBS race at Talladega two weeks later. No question, if he was still here Dale Earnhardt would not have seven championships, and Allison would probably have two or three. Matt McLaughlin’s column still gives me chills whenever I read it, a beautiful summary of a man whose life met a tragic end far too soon.

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