NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Choosing Your Battles

Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember and commemorate, but not if you were racing at the front at Charlotte or Indianapolis. If you were in the lead with one lap to go, the holiday weekend was one to forget – even though doing so will be difficult to do. Just when life looked good, fate stepped in with a swift kick to the teeth.

The irony of both falling-from-victory cars being sponsored by the National Guard has been addressed by several of my colleagues, as has the controversy (spurred on by hundreds of thousands of #88 fans) over NASCAR’s assumed failure to throw a yellow after the final restart at the 600. With all machines under way and no debris to avoid, staying green was an obvious choice, even though the decision cost Dale Jr. an almost certain (and much anticipated) victory. If positive energy could have willed Junior across the line first, it would have happened. The disappointment of Junior Nation, once the #88 ran dry near the end of the backstretch, served as a reminder of the fickle nature of automobile racing; no matter what the name, nor how lengthy the losing streak, if it’s not your time to win, it ain’t gonna happen.

Running out of fuel at the end of a long race that revolved around fuel mileage and the need to manage your resources was one thing; slapping the wall in the final turn of the final lap while enjoying a four-second lead was another. I’m not going to try and second-guess JR Hildebrand’s logic when he decided to pass Charlie Kimball as the pair headed into the last turn. Needless to say (but allow me to, anyway), his decision to pass on the outside – in the mysterious and slippery land of marbles – led to the eventual outcome. While Hildebrand, who was on his way to becoming the eighth rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 (joining such drivers as Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000, and Helio Castroneves in 2001), scraped along the outside wall, Dan Wheldon took the checkered flag and found himself drinking milk in Indiana for the second time. Wheldon has been “Mr. Runner-up” the last two years at the 500, and his underfunded team may not see action the rest of the season, but no matter; the stars shined upon Weldon as he passed Hildebrand for the win….or were those just a shower of sparks from Hildebrand’s wrecked car?

The Memorial Day saga of Dale Junior was another story. As could be expected, conspiracy theory reigned supreme as frustrated fans and bloggers (who are often one and the same) took NASCAR to task for not bringing out the yellow. Such an action, as explained/theorized by Tom Sorensen recently, would have likely made things worse for Junior and company. The caution would have meant a restart, and a restart might have pushed the #88 backward by erasing the team’s lead; David Ragan’s #6 Roush-Fenway Ford, for example, had just pitted for fuel and four fresh tires, which would have given him a solid advantage on a restart with just a couple of laps remaining.

By the race staying green, all the #88 needed to do was make it to the finish line. The monkey would be off Junior’s back once and for all; the birds would sing, the sun would shine, and children would dance in the streets with garlands of flowers in their hair. NASCAR would bask in the glow of renewed national popularity as the remainder of 2011’s Cup races would sell out. The sold out schedule would push television ratings into the stratosphere and loyal sponsors would earn massive profits. Those massive profits would flow into the accounts of struggling teams, turning the “start-and-park” strategy into ancient history. All would be right with the world, but alas; thou dost dream too much, for this didith not happen…

Junior ran dry and Kevin Harvick reaped the benefits, all but guaranteeing the #29 team of a spot in this year’s chase. Ragan’s #6 UPS Ford finished second, capping off what has been a successful late-May at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For the #88 team – and their many fans – it was yet another round of “What if…”

Anticipation, and the frustration that often follows, are both necessary and natural. A team with the depth and resources of the #88 Chevrolet will eventually, as logic dictates, return to victory lane. Being near the front puts the law of averages on your side – top-tens will lead to top-fives, and top-fives will lead to an occasional win. A win by Dale Jr. would be a great tonic for his fans, and a shot in the arm for NASCAR’s ever-so-slowly rising return to national popularity, but no one in the arena of stock car racing would benefit more than Junior and his team. A trip to the winners’ circle (and there’s more mile-and-a-half tracks just ahead) would cure the ills around the #88 shop. The 2011 season has been good, but there have been so many chances for the year to be great.

Experience is a good teacher, as lessons learned through failure ultimately build a base of practical knowledge. As Yankee legend Yogi Berra as famously said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Learning boils down to making conscious choices that result in the achievement of a particular goal. Some choices can be larger-than-life and glaringly obvious, like JR Hildebrand’s attempt at an outside pass on the 4th-turn of the final lap of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Other choices are less apparent. As in, what did Dale Jr. have to do – specifically – in order to conserve fuel near the end of the 600? Was Steve Letarte calling out specific RPMs to run so as to make it to the finish? Was Junior altering his line around the track? Was he thinking conservative thoughts? Was it all-of-the-above?

That’s the reason why your math teacher in middle school assigned you all of those practice problems for homework. That’s the reason why your piano teacher chastised you for not practicing as much as you should have. That’s the reason why crew chiefs keep extensive notes, and that’s why drivers and pit crews screen tapes of previous races; you’d better know what you did and why your choices didn’t work if you hope to avoid making the same mistake twice. In the words of philosopher and poet George Santayana (1863-1952): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Dale Jr. has been getting closer to the front and more consistent, so the lessons he and his team learned in the Coca-Cola 600 last Sunday will be filed away for use again another day. As for no-longer-an-Indy-500-rookie JR Hildebrand, he’ll think twice before trying to pass a slower car on the outside. I guarantee it.

Despite her 10th-place run at Indy on Sunday, it appears as though Danica Patrick is on her way (surprise!) to NASCAR full-time in 2012. Where Danica goes, so go the sponsorship dollars. Her 4th-place finish at Las Vegas earlier this season, no matter if was lucky or not, exhibited promise. Give her more time with the folks at JR Motorsports, allowing both parties to develop stronger lines of communication so as to benefit from the necessary give-and-take of knowledge and feedback, and wins could follow along quickly.

A Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing would be doubly beneficial to Patrick’s future success because she’d then be driving for an owner who’s steeped in open-wheel know-how. Many of Danica’s NASCAR struggles have stemmed from a lack of shared vocabulary. Patrick’s knowledge base involves a quite different (yet similar in intended meaning) technical language. Put her in a stock car owned by a veteran open-wheeler like Tony Stewart, who can interpret Danica’s observations and suggestions, and her Sprint Cup learning curve could become very small. Stewart-Haas Racing also has room for another Cup effort, which would benefit from the sponsorship Danica Patrick brings to the deal. Even if corporate backing from Go Daddy up-and-goes at some point in the future, there should be plenty of interested parties with plenty of money.

My personal issue, however, with Go Daddy as Danica Patrick’s primary sponsor is that the business seems more-than-okay with exploiting her physical attributes over-and-above her innate driving ability. A feature story published in the May 31st, 2010 issue of The New Yorker explored Danica’s initial foray into NASCAR and highlighted her willingness (motivated, in large part, by the wishes of her then-IndyCar owner, Bobby Rahal) to capitalize on her good looks, believing “in the power of publicity to attract sponsors, whose money is the oxygen of racing.”

Such an approach is fine and entirely up to the individual at the center of the deal, but how does such a “business” arrangement (provocative photos printed in FHM (the April, 2003 issue) of a scantily-clad Patrick posing suggestively with a 1957 Chevrolet) affect the driver’s credibility with other women in racing who believe that Danica’s overall success has helped to shatter the glass ceiling of professional motorsports? Can viable sponsorship (prompted by attention generated from a photo spread) justify the woman being objectified by the gaze of a camera? How does sponsorship from a “boys-will-be-boys” company like Go Daddy play with the approximately 40% of women who make up NASCAR’s fan base?

I spent time on the road with Brett Bodine Racing back during the team’s Hooters era (2002-2003). Sponsorship from the restaurant chain enabled Brett to keep his team going when times grew tough and other, more “traditional” sponsors moved on to other marketing investments. For all the attention the #11 BBR Ford Taurus received (Brett did personal appearances on Friday evenings at nearby outlets, and waitresses/hostesses representing the chain were sent to the racetrack each Sunday to sell souvenirs and meet with fans), it came at the expense of women – many of whom worked at Hooters to pay for college – whose presence in that sphere was based solely on their physical appearance. An even more bothersome side to this story was the look on the faces of the women who stood by, either in boredom or in disgust, as their husbands/boyfriends queued up to “meet n’ greet” a real live Hooters’ Girl. Money to race is money to appreciate, but is there not an ethical and/or moral price to pay? Perhaps the same could be said for the women who worked at Hooters as a way to sponsor their university educations? Is there some meaningful, lesson-laden moral to this free-market economy fable? As long as all parties involved are scrambling to score a desperately-needed buck, I’m thinking not. Everyone is looking to grab the brass ring that’ll improve their lot in life, no matter if it’s a lucrative corporate sponsor or a life free from student loan debt. For NASCAR, that “brass ring” might just be Danica Patrick.

When Danica Patrick moves full-time to NASCAR, she’ll bring her marketing machine along with her. We’ve already seen a jump in television ratings whenever she drives a race for JR Motorsports, and her personal “brand” will simply increase in size and scope once she becomes a regular fixture at Nationwide (and Cup) events across the schedule. As such, maybe we’re making too much out of this “she’s a girl” issue.
Should we avoid identifying Danica Patrick, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and JR Hildebrand, and Dan Wheldon by their respective genders, and – instead – focus our attention on their common professions? Back in 2005, after Patrick’s rookie success in that year’s running of the Indianapolis 500, she was asked by a reporter if her 4th-place finish made some kind of special “point” about the role of women in racing. According to the article about Patrick by Peter J. Boyer in The New Yorker, Danica responded by saying “’I made a hell of a point for anybody, are you kidding me?’”

Should we simply smile, wink, nod, ignore the harsh realities, and merely accept what it takes to commit to running a full NASCAR schedule? Should we choose our battles more judiciously and strive for accomplishments on the speedway, rather than making decisions that might affect the logos on the side of the car and the balance in the team’s account? Are such decisions reduced to being little more than odd bedfellows, since success and sponsorship go hand-in-hand? As long as competitive decisions are made by the professionals most qualified to make them, who are we to question or doubt the logic behind the thought processes at work? One thing’s for sure: the choices we make result in the consequences we take.

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