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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Sweet, Sweet Emotion

In a sport that’s become so homogenized it makes Romper Room look risqué, Sunday’s Cup race from Texas was notable in that three drivers in particular showed some genuine, if not entirely polite, displays of emotion. Yeah, yeah, Denny Hamlin won the race and took over the points lead with just two races left in the season. That’s notable to established fans of the sport and we’ve chatted about it a bit in the on-line forums where our decimated numbers still gather around the electronic hearth to chat about our long time passion. Within the ranks of the devoted, Hamlin’s win has elicited a lot of emotion. Some are still hoping Jimmie Johnson wins his record setting fifth consecutive title. Others worry that the swap of the No. 48 and No. 24 pit crews is a sign the good ship JJ LLC is heading for the same fate the Edmund Fitzgerald many years ago today as this is written. (Not published.)

Others are dearly hoping Hamlin will beat the No. 48 bunch confident a new champion can only help rekindle interest in the sport. A lot of us agree that it was heartening to see a driver like Hamlin competing for a title go B2TW to make a last-lap pass to garner maximum points with a win rather than cruise to a top-five finish. And the diehards still seem to be hoping through outrageous fortune to Hamlin and Johnson over the next couple weeks Kevin Harvick can still pull off a title. After all, how appropriate would it be for RCR’s lead driver to arrive at Daytona next February on the tenth anniversary of the passing of Dale Earnhardt with the re-badged No. 3 team once again the reigning champions?

But that sort of intrigue, debate and such is reserved for the still engaged fans of the sport. For former fans (and according to a rating about a million of them who watched last year’s Texas Chase race failed to tune in this year) casual fans and neophytes to the sport of stock car racing two storylines jumped off the page in this week’s sport’s section. Oops, I’m sorry, practically nobody reads newspapers anymore. But if you watched SportsCenter or logged onto YouTube this week to catch Texas race highlights there were two videos you surely saw. The first was Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton having a physical altercation after a wreck. The second was Kyle Busch getting held two laps for flipping a NASCAR official the bird following a pit-road speeding penalty. Yet, the fans reacted to those two different incidents in very different manners.

OK, let’s admit it. The “fight” between Gordon and Burton was lame, nothing like the full on, knockdown, fists clenched, blood-drawn brawl between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough after the 1979 Daytona 500. Gordon still needs to figure this whole “fight” scenario out. As I see it, if you want to get in somebody’s face you don’t give them a two-handed shove to push them away from you. You grab hold of their uniform and pull them in closer while using the other hand to make a fist and hit them to make a point. The two Jeff’s are wee little lads by the standard of stock car racing and I doubt either would have been dehabilitated by a genuine fistfight. TV ratings might have been rehabilitated but I doubt either party would have suffered permanent damage.

Still it was heartening to see Gordon spend all that time striding across and down the track to make his point. Burton and Gordon have a few things in common. Despite lackluster seasons by their own lofty standards and long winless streaks both drivers made the Chase, but have seen their championship hopes hit the crapper since the title bout began. Both of them have been racing week in and week out through NASCAR’s insanely grueling and lengthy season and tempers are frayed as a result. I can tell you by this point of the season even most media members are frustrated, tired and cranky. I can’t imagine how much worse it is for the drivers who are under pressure every week to win and haven’t been able to do so. If Gordon and Burton aren’t exactly ready to launch their first retirement tour in their minds both men must know they are closer to the end of their careers than they are to the start. When you’re 21 and fail to win a title it’s a lot easier to be philosophical about it and confidentially proclaim “next year.”

There are also decided differences between the two Jeffs. Gordon has accomplished some remarkable things over his career. He’s already won four titles and tasted the champagne (or milk) at the head table in New York. There was a time when it seemed fate had to intervene for anyone but Gordon to win. Now it seems he needs a Bon Jovi sized miracle to ever win a Cup race again, now that he’s snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory so many times. In the interim his younger protégé Jimmie Johnson has claimed four titles and 12 race wins since Gordon last visited victory lane. If Burton is one of the younger members of the old guard that used to race Earnhardt and Bill Elliott in their primes, Gordon is one of the older members of the new guard who never raced a full season against Richard Petty.

For Burton, he’s accomplished some remarkable things during his career as well. Certainly he is one of the most respected drivers in the garage area both because of his hard but clean racing style and his ability to articulate intelligently his opinions on all matters concerning the sport. He came up through the ranks the old-fashioned way racing for lesser competitive teams to get a foot in the door before moving into the sport’s top echelon. But were his career to end tomorrow there will always be a footnote attached to his statistics. Burton will be mentioned as “the best driver” never to win a championship alongside the likes of Mark Martin, Fred Lorenzen and Junior Johnson. Despite 21 Cup series wins (six in 1999 alone), 27 Busch series wins and a Truck Series victory, Burton has never finished higher than third in the points.

So there you have it, the perfect storm. Two drivers who have endured long frustrating seasons, long winless droughts and a long afternoon with bad handling cars at Texas, watching another chance for victory ebb away, and all of a sudden these two drivers in not such great moods are trying to occupy the same piece of real estate to the considerable detriment of both. I’m not sure I completely buy Burton’s “the sun got in my eyes as I was trying to pull alongside him to apologize” explanation, but given this is Jeff Burton we’re discussing, I will give him a reasonable amount of doubt.

Wrecking racecars isn’t pleasant. I’m sure both drivers were sore and aching the next day. It didn’t look like that hard a hit on TV, but television disguises just how violent things get when a car hits the wall (SAFER barriers… not soft walls) while traveling at three miles per minute. I’ve hit 180 mph in the driver’s seat only once in my life and I do recall thinking in the back of my mind, “Gosh and golly, I really hope I don’t run into anything right now. That wouldn’t be good.” (Of course there was nothing but denim between my ass and fiberglass in a late model ZR1 Vette at the time.) It was a day-ending wreck for both (Burton did return briefly but in a car so beat up they had to spray paint a number on the driver’s side door) and both were thoroughly irritated as a result. Neither declined comment or waited for their PR lady to tell them what to say. There was no, “I just don’t understand what he did” or “Gosh, I hate that that happened” statements.

For an all too rare moment two Cup drivers got in each other’s faces and had a frank exchange of views while the crowd roared. I’d have liked to see the NASCAR officials wait until things actually got violent before stepping in, but in the future I’d remind Mr. Burton and Mr. Gordon something I learned during my brief and spectacularly unsuccessful racing career in a glorified cow pasture. Leave your helmet on until after the post-wreck discussion if you don’t have good dental insurance.

Busch’s single-finger salute to the NASCAR official has drawn almost as much ire as the “epic” Burton/Gordon battle has drawn hosannas. It’s tough understanding why as a dispassionate observer. But there’s a lot of key differences especially taken in the light of Busch’s continuously boorish, obscene, profane and childish behavior since he arrived in the sport. In saying that I mean to take nothing away from the remarkable things Busch has accomplished already during his racing career, but by and large fans are tired of Busch displaying his ass and then trying to say the next day, that chocolatey thing in the center was a rose he was trying to toss to the fans when he farted. In fact I think it’s time for the “Wild Thing” nickname to be discarded and “The Chocolate Rose” to be painted above the driver’s side door of the No. 18 car. Maybe it’s time for a confectionery company that markets primarily to (fat) kids to step aside and let Charmin bathroom tissue sponsor Busch even if “charming” isn’t among the first dozen adjectives that anyone who has ever had the misfortune to encounter young Master Busch in one of his moods would ascribe to him.

Like Gordon and Burton, Busch was having a rough time of it at Texas despite a very quick car. Certainly he felt he’d been spun out and he had in fact done a remarkable job keeping the car out of the wall during that spin just as other drivers back there in the pack did a remarkable job to avoid the No. 18 car once it all went catawampus. Hooray, a glove save and a beauty! Busch ducked into the pits for new tires with a whole lot of laps left to make up for the miscue. We’ve all seen Busch rally back from worse deficits than that to win races.

Busch’s first mistake was excusable. After his crew changed two tires he attempted to stay on the lead lap by beating the pace car. Apparently he pushed the envelope just a little too hard trying to stay on the lead lap and got nailed for speeding leaving the pits. Lights in his tachometer surely indicated to Busch that he’d pushed too hard. By his own admission Busch later admitted he might have been speeding but “just a little” and “not on purpose.” Well Busch has been a part of this sport long enough to realize that since NASCAR went to electronic speed monitoring on pit road to end the complaints of trigger happy prejudiced officials with stopwatches in the tower it doesn’t matter if you’re half a mile per hour over the limit or 50 mph over the limit you’re going to be penalized.

I may not agree with that, but I understand it and I’m just a dumb scribe. Advised of his penalty Busch returned to form like a dog returns to its vomit and launched into a profanity-laced tirade over the radio. Convinced to return to the pits by his crew chief Busch then made the now infamous single finger salute to a NASCAR official sent to enforce the one lap penalty. That in turn cost Busch, and more importantly the No. 18 team that had worked all week, and in fact all season, to provide their driver with exceptional equipment, two laps in an additional penalty. Despite Busch’s protests his First Amendment rights were being infringed upon, the middle finger salute remains a hot button issue here in the States. A baseball player can get tossed from the game for a similar gesture towards an umpire. The same gesture has cost NFL players up to $250,000 in fines. And these guys are frustrated, want to win the game and are caught up in the heat of the moment.

I got my big lesson in First Amendment rights when I flipped off a driver who almost ran me over taking a right turn on red and a cop who decided he didn’t like my field jacket, the diamond in my left ear and my long hair beat the tar out of me in addition to writing me a $150 ticket for “disorderly conduct.” I took the case to court and the judge doubled the fine when I repeated the gesture to put it into evidence.

What Busch did at that moment was to deny the team members who work for his benefit a chance at a win and the bonus moneys that JGR pays to those crew members for wins, top-five finishes and top-10 results. His crew chief clearly was at his wits end with his volatile young driver in asking him to calm the hell down before they were parked for the day. In fact given the way Busch has continuously castigated his crew over the radio all season long I wouldn’t be surprised if a day is coming Busch enter the pit and finds nobody left to go over the wall to service his car. If I worked for that crew I’d have packed up and gone home early on Sunday.

Yes, genuine emotion still has a place in this sponsor driven sport and its been sadly lacking for years. But when continuously the only emotion you can demonstrate is childishness, petulance and a lack of class maybe it’s time that you sit down and reconsider whether the sport needs you more than you need the sport.

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