NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: NASCAR’s Methods From Yesteryear Don’t Work in Today’s Environment

I swore I wouldn’t get fining-mad over this, and honestly I haven’t (actually, as time has gone on, it’s become comforting in a weird way), but I can’t understand how a sportscaster on the local news — the local news in cradle of the South, by gawd in Nashville, Tennessee — struggles with delivering a promo and then running through the highlights of a NASCAR race.

Nevermind, a NASCAR race at some little track known as Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’ve thought about this before,” he began, as I rolled my eyes. Yeah, sure you have, bud. “Of all the sports, what do you think is probably the hottest one on a day when it gets in the high 90s? [Awkward pause.] How about NASCAR? You got all those hot cars, you have to get in the pits [I’m not sure what “getting in the pits” has to do with heat], and the drivers in there… he’s got a, um, the, um, ahh flame retardant suit on there, you know [it’s called a firesuit, Guy Smiley]. But anyway, we’re going to talk about the race a little bit. This was a wild one, Flint [yes, that’s the other anchor’s name. Honest to God. It’s Flint Adams].”

Totally lost. And that was just the promo. I’m not going to walk you through the teleprompter-driven drivel that, to his credit, was a bit better, considering someone else wrote it for him. Still, he rushed through it to get to the latest Vince Young news, which really wasn’t news at all, because training camp hasn’t started and Young hasn’t done anything stupid lately, like getting into a fight in the back room of a strip club.

I don’t know… maybe I shouldn’t let the ignorance bug me. After all, I felt NASCAR was considered a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon on the fringe by those in the more mainstream set that were “forced” to report on it — even seven or eight years ago, when suddenly it became what the Olympics are every four years: the newest fad that even my little sister gets interested in.

Maybe that’s what makes the sport special; for those that follow, it’s ours. It’s unique, and the fact that most people don’t “get it” and, quite frankly, don’t care creates a special community.

So keep trying, local FOX News guy. And by the way, it’s pronounced “Roo-ti-men,” not “Roy-ti-man.” But that’s OK; those that really care already know that. And the fact we laugh together about it is what bonds us.

So, needless to say, we’ve got some ground to cover this week, and my Managing Editor might flip if this column goes for 5,000 words. With that in mind, let’s tackle the issues. If you didn’t make it in this week, keep trying!

Q: Matt, your colleague, Matt McLaughlin, refers to Indy as “all sizzle, no steak.” I hate to admit this, but for once I’m with him on that one. I love the tradition of the Brickyard and the notoriety it brings NASCAR, but besides that what separates Indy from California? Strung out parades where clean air is king. That’s not my idea of an exciting race. I’ll take ORP on Friday and Saturday night, thanks.

Congrats to McMurray, who won on strategy. That was the one exciting part of the race, but sitting through two hours to get there was painful. As were the commercials. — Jeff Lyons, Balch Springs, Texas

A: And see, I thoroughly enjoyed the race. Indianapolis pits man-vs.-machine-vs.-track as well as any venue on the circuit. Is it intense, side-by-side, beatin’ and bangin’? No, but for the event it stages (and the 400-mile distance), I appreciated the true test of a race it presents. If nothing else, that’s what Indy should provide.

I’ll give you that O’Reilly Raceway Park hosted some truly great short-track racing — and if those of you reading this aren’t watching the Saturday shows, you should — but the Brickyard had a little of everything, from early drama, a sort-it-out middle stage and an ending filled with strategy and emotion.

By the way, yes, McMurray won on a two-tire stop, but it wasn’t that he out-strategized the field. His team simply made the right call. And he was a legit top-three car all day, anyway. At Indy, more than any other track, you have to be spot on in every aspect of your game. The No. 1 was. Winner, winner fried fish dinner.

Q: With Marcos Ambrose out at MWR and Bobby Labonte in, is Ambrose a natural for the No. 9? And what have you heard of sponsorship with him? I view the move as a lateral one. Any reasons he made the decision that haven’t been revealed? Thanks, Matt! — Kelley McNally

A: Word on the street is he’s in the No. 9, but nothing’s official. Haven’t heard anything on sponsorship. I’d agree on the lateral move part, although it could end up being a step down (assuming he’s in the No. 9), depending on RPM’s future. Therefore, I’d say this had to do with money, and if his past relationship with Ford is any indication, it might be ponying up some cash to entice him.

Maybe Ambrose is the first step in RPM’s renaissance. Bring back the ‘Dinger and Menard’s money, throw in Ambrose and the team looks… well, still kinda middle-of-the-road.

Q: Matt, why do you think Bobby Labonte was chosen for the No. 47 team, and will he get in the car before the season is over? Is he viewed as past his prime? The championship was a decade ago. Is this about his past champion’s provisional? I’m shocked MWR didn’t move Trevor Bayne into that seat. Peyton R.

A: I don’t think Bayne is ready for Cup yet, Peyton. Remember, MWR pulled that stunt with a young Michael McDowell a couple of years ago, and the results just weren’t good from the start. Bayne looks like a great talent, don’t get me wrong; but he needs some seasoning yet. Besides, Brad Daugherty and the Geschickter’s had a say in this, too.

As for BLab, I think we’ve all wondered how he’d perform in decent equipment, and now we’ll find out. I don’t think his hiring was about Past Champion’s Provisionals, though. The No. 47 is well inside the Top-35 cutoff and they make plenty of speed. This was about the goods, not the goodies.

At least we know this much: Labonte won’t get in the car until next season. Marcos will finish the year out there.

Q: So NASCAR first goes back on their word by penalizing Brad Keselowski & Carl Edwards, and now they are fining drivers when they don’t like what they said. Boys, have at it? How about Boys, get back in line. — Disappointed in N.C.

A: Well, let’s get one thing straight: NASCAR won’t fine drivers just because it disagrees with what they say. The drivers that crossed the line made comments that called into question the legitimacy of the sport. Agree with that driver or not, it’s hard to blame the sanctioning body — a sanctioning body that is owned and operated as a private enterprise — for getting his attention in some way. I’m just not in favor of the way it chose to do it.

NASCAR went so far in the preseason as to show the teams video of comments made in the past that highlighted remarks which hurt the product. The position was that speaking your mind is one thing – attacking the product so that it becomes bad for business is something else.

Ol’ DW had a great quote posted on Twitter two nights ago: “You don’t have to work for me, but please don’t work against me.” I believe that sums up this episode better than any other opinion I’ve heard — at least one side of it. After all, when business is good, those very drivers’ livelihood is all the better. You know, a goose ‘n’ gander thing.

Now, am I disappointed that it’s come to this? Of course. I want drivers to speak freely just as much as you.

Am I disappointed that NASCAR is handling these penalties in a different manner than any others incurred during a race weekend? You bet. It seems the sanctioning body will never learn that being anything less than forthright will come back to haunt it. The double-secret, CIA-type method it employs only adds to fans’ frustration.

Is NASCAR reversing stance on this issue? Yes. In 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya was fined $10,000 after flipping the bird during a Nationwide Series practice session. At the time, NASCAR said that its policy prohibits obscene language and gestures, but that it has no rule against criticizing its officiating. Guess that’s changed, huh?

Fast forward to 2010 and a different NASCAR. It’s a sport witnessing sagging ratings and attendance, a series that has to sell itself harder than ever to win the entertainment dollar of Joe and Jane Fan. When its legitimacy is called into question on a seemingly weekly basis by a swarming media and on message boards by fans across the internet, the last thing it needs are its lifeblood — the drivers — fanning the flames of conspiracy and calling into question its credibility. However, the way to handle those drivers is not by secretly penalizing them. After its “Have at it, boys” edict, that only makes the sanctioning body appear as if it’s talking out of both sides of its mouth. Hypocrisy, my friends.

Which brings us to the most paramount point that most are missing: NASCAR didn’t take points. A points penalty would deter drivers from speaking their minds.

Case closed. End of story.

Money? Hell, do you really think these multi-millionaires are going to keep the safety on when they’re hot ‘n’ bothered after climbing out of a steaming racecar they’ve sat in for four hours? If the only penalty Ryan Newman or Denny Hamlin has coming to him for lighting up the sanctioning body is a few Gs, I think they’ll gladly write the check. And maybe throw in a tip.

Besides, the NFL is fining its players for excessive celebrations after touchdowns, when props like popcorn buckets, Sharpies, and cell phones are used in a “choreographed” manner. At least Carl is still allowed to do backflips and Tony can climb fences if he so chooses. NASCAR isn’t the “No Fun League” yet.

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