The very popular Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption on the Mothership of sports coverage, ESPN, both hit on the same topic during their programs on Tuesday afternoon: Is NASCAR fixing the Daytona 500 so that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. can win the race on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death?
While it was good to see that these predominantly stick and ball programs that generally give NASCAR air time about four times a year were actually talking about the most popular form of motorsports in America, it was a shame to listen to them seriously discuss the possibility that the sanctioning body would actually orchestrate the outcome of an event for the sake of good press. NASCAR can use just about any publicity at this point in their existence, but this might very well be the one piece of attention that they could do without.
While there is always a fringe element in society that feels like some sort of “Big Brother” oversees all aspects of everything that takes place in the public arena and decides the outcomes well in advance, most people would feel that the racing on the track is a legitimate contest between teams that are competing with the same rules being judged by an impartial officiating body. There would certainly be some advantage to NASCAR orchestrating the outcome of the 500 to have Earnhardt, Jr. take the win, but over the last four to five years it would seem as though there would have been far greater benefits to have him win several races, be in contention for championships and win a title. It’s been 10 years since the sport lost its most iconic figure, and it felt like everyone was starting to move on from it, but this weekend and the corresponding press that is coming from the anniversary is about to drag it all back to the depths of that horrible weekend.
As tempting as it might be for NASCAR to think about doing something to assist Earnhardt in his efforts this weekend, there are three predominant facts that prevent them from seriously considering it. First of all, there are 48 other competitors involved in the running of this event, and they’re not going to stand by and let one car have an unfair advantage without speaking up. The inspection process before and after a Cup race is a pretty public affair and most any crew members can at least observe from a distance when a car is checked over. If the inspectors were ignoring something or letting a variance outside of the tolerances slip by, someone would see it and speak up immediately.
With the flood of media around a race weekend, especially during the Daytona 500, there would be plenty of outlets that would gladly make public any hints of irregularity in the inspection process. To think that the 500 or so people in the garage area who directly work in the race cars would all stand by and watch a fix occur without anyone speaking up about it is ludicrous, not to mention Earnhardt Jr. himself has too much integrity to allow it to happen. As much as he wants to snap out of the slump that he’s been mired in the last few years, he certainly wants to do it on a level playing field.
The second factor that would prevent NASCAR from putting the fix in is the incredible hit their credibility would take if the ruse was discovered. The sanctioning body has been fighting a perception for years that they don’t always enforce the rules equally across the board, and fans always voice the opinion that some of the teams are punished less harshly than others when violations occur. The officials presiding over the sport cannot afford the black eye they would receive if they deliberately bent the rules to give a single car an advantage over the rest of the field on a race weekend, especially during the biggest race of the season.
The third and possibly biggest reason they would not set up a race for one driver to win is the loyalty of the fan base. It is no secret that the NASCAR fan base has been shrinking over the last few years. While the bosses in Daytona made a concerted effort to court the casual fans, feeling it would greatly increase the total fan base, they alienated many of the hard core fans who have stopped following the sport. The casual fans stuck around for a while but have since begun moving on to other pursuits and the hard core fans have not returned. If the big wigs tried to put the fix in and it was found out, they’d lose what is left of their hard core fan base and probably drive away many of the casual fans who are still sticking around. Too many fans grumble that the racing has already become an event rather than a sport and feel that it more greatly resembles the WWE than a legitimate sport. If the car of the winning driver in the Daytona 500 was found to be intentionally allowed to compete when it was not legal it would destroy any of the loyalty that is left among the fan base.
The most disturbing thing about the Around the Horn broadcast on Tuesday was the insinuation by the mainstream media types who were babbling on the show that they had spoken to longtime NASCAR media members who felt that Earnhardt, Jr. was allowed to qualify with an illegal car. The thought was that there were no points involved and the story would be a feel good for everyone involved. NASCAR has been hammering the media about being negative in their coverage of the sport. This has to be one of the most negative things that could possibly be reported by anyone who is tasked with disseminating information to the race fans and, unless someone had concrete evidence that it really was the case, they should stay mum about their thoughts.
Racing is a great sport and Cup racing is one of the best forms of racing there is. The events that have been put on by NASCAR over the last few years have been some of the most competitive events put on anywhere involving motor vehicles. Hopefully the sanctioning body will realize that the fans of the sport want to see a legitimate contest on a level playing field rather than a feel good story. Let’s also hope that, should Dale Earnhardt, Jr. actually win the Daytona 500, he is afforded the respect a champion deserves and not the scrutiny of a doubting media who would seriously think that the sanctioning body would stoop so low as to fix the biggest race of the year.
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