Home / Brett Poirier / Racing to the Point: NASCAR’s One-Sided Tug of War
(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. @2014)

Racing to the Point: NASCAR’s One-Sided Tug of War

There’s been a tug of war going on for the last decade or so between lifelong NASCAR fans and NASCAR executives. The battle? For the sport’s soul.

Lifelong fans started tugging on the rope to keep tradition and to not fix what wasn’t broken. NASCAR executives have been fighting to appeal to a broader audience by making changes aimed at luring in the average sports fan.

It’s been a one-sided fight that has been tough to watch for lifelong fans. The tradition has been stripped away, the championship system changed multiple times and the races littered with mysterious debris cautions, wave-arounds and green-white-checkered finishes that play havoc on the outcome.

NASCAR executives have all of the power, so with every change, more lifelong fans give up, stop pulling the rope and fall face down in the mud. For those of us left standing and pulling against the powers that be, we’re locked in a losing battle. The sport doesn’t look anything like it did in 2003.

A three-lap sprint at the conclusion of a one-race playoff determined the champion of this year’s 36-race, nine-month-long season.

There’s never been anything like it. It was riveting, edge-of-your-seat stuff watching Ryan Newman try to get around Kevin Harvick on the final restart. It was that Game 7 moment for which NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was hoping.

It also was completely manufactured to boost television ratings and appeal to the Attention Deficit Disorder generation.

“Look, guys, this championship came down to the last lap,” the executives say. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Well, championships tend to do that when you eliminate the points from the first 35 races. Watching Harvick and Newman battle for the title in the final laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway was great, of course, as long as you didn’t think about how they got there or what they were actually fighting for too much.

Make sure you don’t think about what a championship means, either. It used to go to the guy who did the best over 36 races. Then, it was the best over 10 races and now it’s the best out of one race. So why do we have all of these other races? I guess it’s to figure out which 16 of the eligible 28 teams will make the Chase. Thrilling.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
The final race of the Chase was exciting. But was it really what the fans needed? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Nobody seemed to care about any of that on Sunday. The media labeled Harvick as a worthy champion because he was among the best to never win a title, and praised the new system for providing both excitement and a worthy champion. It didn’t seem to matter that it was one bold Ryan Newman move away from being a disaster. As Tom Bowles wrote on Monday, Newman would’ve had the fewest top-5 finishes of any champion since 1949. Why is everyone praising a system that allowed Newman to be there in the first place by resetting points throughout the Chase?

“Reset” may be the word that best describes the last decade of NASCAR racing. Mysterious cautions and green-white-checkered finishes reset the field when the leader is too far ahead or when the casual sports fan is falling asleep. Wave-arounds reset the cars fighting for the win. The Chase resets all of the points for the playoffs to put everybody on even ground, even though they shouldn’t be, and resets at the end of each Chase round do it again and again to make sure nobody can establish any kind of points advantage.

That way, it all comes down to Game 7 — I mean, race 36.

Racing is just too boring otherwise, right? Lifelong fans, people who watched every week whether the series was at Bristol or Pocono, didn’t used to think so. I’m not talking about the people who tune in for wrecks at Talladega and Daytona, but about people who just loved to watch cars race.

Here’s what NASCAR executives have failed to realize in their quest to win the average fan: There are two types of people, people that like to watch cars go in circles and ones that don’t. It’s really that simple.

The fights and gimmicks might lure the average sports fan in. But what’s going to happen when the gimmick wears off for them, all while the amount of manipulation grows too great for the actual racing fan?

We’re going to find that out soon.

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About Brett Poirier

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Brett starts his fourth year with the Frontstretch in 2014, writing the popular Racing To The Point commentary on Tuesdays. An award-winning Connecticut Sportswriter and Editor, Brett resides in the Constitution State while working towards his dream of getting involved in racing full-time.

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55 comments

  1. Avatar

    We’ve been saying these things for years. Remember the flak Matt got with his comments a long time ago? NASCAR has been doing dumb things for a long time (watch the 91 Daytona 500 for the new pit rules) but the Bills changed things that didn’t work. There is no way Brian’s ego will ever let him get rid of the chase and admit he was wrong and his toadies won’t tell him either. There will be tweaks announced and they won’t help.

    I sure would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the drivers’ meeting and heard what was said to the 39 outcasts.

  2. Avatar

    I’m not a football fan. I can’t imagine any scenario that would make me a football fan. Why in the name of Pete does Brain Fart think he can make people into something they are not? Is he God? Or is he just stupid?

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      he isn’t stupid, he knows how to make $ for the France family and he is most certainly not a god. He does, however, believe that everyone else and especially those who don’t agree with him are stupid.

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    Speaking of things that are hyped up. Did anyone notice that there was a lot less talk of Danica during the chase .

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    At this point they need to just leave the formal alone, with maybe only something to guarantee you must win a race to win the Championship. No championship format will ever be perfect. It’s been pointed out that there have been some “suspect” champions under the classic system (e.g. Terry Labonte 1996, Kenseth 2003, Dale Sr. in 1993) where other teams won many more races and were generally faster through the year. The biggest problem with that format was a couple of bad races could put you behind the point leader and no matter how good you did, you needed the leader to screw up to catch them. Sometimes the bigger problem in my eyes is how points are allocated through the finishing order v. the Championship format. At least with this format, I know it will be interesting to watch till the end. Other than my driver not winning, I really liked what I saw this year.

  5. Avatar

    Tim S, yes, I think you are right about the fan base and Gordon, although his name still gets more than a few people angry, has a pretty darn big base. If the Gordon fans, including myself, walk away when he retires, I believe you are correct, there isn’t a big enough group coming in to replace them.

    And people like Moody and others are not really helping NASCAR’s long term health by the way they are mistreating the fans who disagree with the NASCAR point of view.

    It’s no different than buying any product. If the product and the customer service doesn’t make me happy, I don’t buy it again. One happy customer tells a few people, unhappy customers tell everyone!

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      And for every one of us that voices their opinion, there are countless other people who silently voiced their displeasure by simply not watching or going to the track any more. These are the people who went to Bristol twice a year for generations and have now made the Bristol waiting list a thing of the past, by not renewing their tickets. Is the Chase the only reason? No, but it’s quite high on the list. Take the Bristol night race, once the crown jewel of the summer time. Now it is no different than Michigan week before or Fontana/Atlanta the week after. No one wants the stigma of being the guy or gal that ruined the Chase chances of the driver in 18th place in the standings (well, the standings before the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 20th reset). Heck, this year, the Bristol night race was bumped down the dial in CHARLOTTE for an out of market NFL preseason game on the ABC affiliate.
      How many races are there 12 cars on the lead lap at halfway and by the time there is 20 to go, there nearly 30 cars on the lead lap? Heck, Hamlin was so out to lunch at Phoenix that he was lapped, got the Lucky Dog, and was lapped again. Thanks to the sequence of debris caution, caution for a slow car (where NASCAR left a brake rotor on the track), debris caution, caution because of restart contact, he finally got back on the lead lap. Logano also got a Lucky Dog in this sequence. How many times in the first few Chase races were Larson or McMurray leading the race when debris all of a sudden appeared? It got to be so bad the joke was the cautions were for “Non-Chaser leading the race”.
      We were told Richmond was going to be so wild we could hardly stand it. A drunk climbing the fence was the only excitement in the worst short track race possibly ever. The next “elimination” race at Dover was the same, minus drunk guy climbing the fence.
      Finally, any fan not on the NASCAR dole had to shake their heads when the 11 and 31 were in the Top 5 just about all day Sunday, when most weeks they were at best, 8th-15th place cars.

      • Avatar

        LOL, rg72, you are right about that. I didn’t bother to watch Homestead – I knew we wouldn’t actually see the race and honestly I had no interest. I had the computer on with the scanner from raceview. I could hear what Gordon & his team were saying and that is all I cared about for the day.

        We were fortunate enough to go to Bristol before the chase and before the track was reconfigured. We had a blast, now, I wouldn’t bother wasting my time and $.

        We are also done with Dover – I was so bored watching that race and my favorite won it! We used to drive to Richmond, too. I would probably have enjoyed watching the drunk on the fence. We’ve met some fairly memorable drunks at that track.

        I used to watch every minute of NASCAR coverage, well that ended about 5 or so years ago, now depending on the weather, I may tune in for more of it, but I am always doing other house or yard work, it doesn’t deserve or get my undivided attention.

        I made a comment after Phoenix to a couple of the lead tweeters (orange cone and the alex hayden) about NASCAR using the debris cautions to manipulate the races. They both told me that I was completely wrong about that, NASCAR would NEVER blatantly manipulate a race and oh by the way, the only reason you’re saying anything is because “your guy didn’t make it in”. Of course the FACT that the debris and phantom cautions have been discussed for years and the drivers even used to comment about it – before NASCAR fined Hamlin to shut them all up.

  6. Avatar

    I do wonder where we would be if Dale had lived.

  7. Avatar

    I just saw that the overnight ratings for Homestead came out (2.9). The rating for the Homestead race in 2003 was 4.5. I’m sure you remember that race, you know when the world was near an end because the champion won one race and had clinched the championship the week before.
    I’m sure the explanation is that NASCAR Nation was so riveted by the Chase finale that they went out in droves to sports bars (like in the incessant ESPN commercials) and therefore the ratings undercounted all these people.

  8. Avatar

    Great column and I agree. I think NASCAR will see this as well, a few years down the road when the hype wears off…either that, or they’ll have to change the format again to keep making it “exciting”.

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      I expect the drivers to race very different next season in this format now that they have a year under their belts and the aggressiveness will come down. Some drivers have already stated that they wouldn’t have gambled so much in some races had they had it to do over again. Gordon is a prime example at Texas. Had he backed off and let Kes go by protecting a good finish rather than going for the win, he makes the finale on points. I don’t expect drivers to make that same mistake in the future

  9. Avatar

    just read Tom Bowles Athlon article and this is a quote from it. “There were many still unsatisfied because of NASCAR’s new playoff format. However, the ratings over the last two races, combined with energetic interest and a sold-out crowd the last two events (Phoenix and Homestead) will create a perception difficult to break. I’ve got news for you, longtime traditionalists: this playoff isn’t going away.”

    Since I am one of the unsatisfied fans, I guess my only real choice is to decide whether or not to stick with a sport that no longer meets MY needs or simply go away.

    Brainless has been trying to get the attention of the casual fan since 2004. He managed it again this year with the instant gratification crapshoot format but is having the attention for 2 or 3 races worth throwing away those fans who actually watch the rest of the races. Based on the various articles on Jayski trumpeting how wonderful it all is, you’d certainly think so.

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      Amen Gina, I was shocked too when I saw the Jayski headlines, I didn’t bother to read all but one. Dave Moody should be ashamed of himself…and he was knocking long time fans, the arrogance and the puckering coming from Mr. Moody was very telling and pathetic. Yup, I will not waiver in my beliefs regarding this matter.

      • Avatar

        Yeah Moody is so puffed up with his indignation and what appears to be downright hate for anyone who doesn’t agree to NASCAR and their point of view that it takes a person’s breath away.

        Interesting isn’t it that apparently not all fans have drunk the NASCAR kool aid?

        Well guess what? I no longer subscribe to sirius radio because PAYING to listen to that sort of behavior turned me off. If it was free, I’d change the channel, when I was paying for it, I had to ask myself if it had value and the answer was no so I didn’t renew.

        Maybe Moody will change his tune when it is only the casual fans who are there to tune in.

  10. Avatar

    Possibly the best article that captures so many fans’ disconnect with what Brian has done to a beloved sport.

  11. Avatar

    Well stated Brett. Glad to see a writer who doesn’t drink the Kool Aid. The tragic part of the sport is the first
    26 races. Sure, a win will get you in, but positions 2 to 43 are points racing. Something needs to be done
    to make the first 26 more exciting. We watch “in spite of, not because of”.

  12. Avatar

    ..And it bothers me greatly that this man does not even seem to like this sport, all his reference’s regarding this sport are put in other sports terms….the terms of stick and ball sports. How sad for stock car racing. He won’t keep the sports own identity. Talk about a lack of respect.

  13. Avatar

    I’m proud to be one of the “relative handful of people who chirp in to say they agree with you.”

    • Avatar

      I also agree! I mourn for the throwing away of a good sport by changing comparison from apples to apples to guava, to oranges, to tomatoes, to artichokes….

  14. Avatar

    Well said, Brett. I agree with you and appreciate that you aren’t one of the ones like many of the Nascar paid media who insist that the fans who don’t like the system are just too stupid to get it. I get it, I don’t like it but I’ll probably stick around as long as Gordon is still racing, even though as you pointed out, watching the majority of the races is pretty much pointless since they are all just seeding tournaments.

  15. Avatar

    B***h all you will, but there is no system that won’t/can’t produce some less than desirable outcomes. You can reward consistency, but at the expense of winning, or you can reward winning, but we can end up with results where someone wins the championship with a handful of wins and a bunch of DNFs.

    The same holds true for the races themselves, there’s no system that pleases every body. You dislike the GWC, but I’m not sure there are many who prefer to see the winner take the checkered flag running the last ten laps under caution – how exciting is that?. You don’t like the peace-arounds, but many others don’t like to see lap down drivers getting in the way.

    What’s sad is the way you all but declare your view to be the view that matters, and all who think otherwise are ruining the sport. You speak for yourself and, maybe, the relative handful of people who chirp in to say they agree with you. Rather than insulting those with differing views, it would be better if you all got together and figured out some combination that would work for most of the fans.

    • Avatar

      …well Tom it worked well for a very long time and many, many fans enjoyed it. We are not the minority the paid pundits would have you believe. Now its change, change, change, for the sake of change and not really about the sport, it seems it is about everything else. Nothing is perfect as you say, such as life..but I know one thing, this isn’t the way to go. Glad you are thrilled with the manufactured excitement and the one race champ. You are just
      the person Castle Daytona wants. Glad you can help them out.

    • Avatar

      Tom, it isn’t a handful of people who don’t like it. This sport has a core fan base that spans many, many decades. When you alienate them, where do you think the future lies?

    • Avatar

      The same thing in your last point, Tom, can be said about those who blindly accept every pronouncement from NASCAR as the proper decision, simply because it came from them. As if it’s the job of every writer and fan to treat Daytona as a secular Vatican, with the France family as the heads of the Holy See. We must not question. We must simply accept, and extoll the virtues. Just because most of the media never step outside the corporate lines doesn’t mean that there are no issues.

    • Avatar

      Tom,
      One of the biggest misconceptions about the wave arounds is that it was a common occurrence and that drivers could insure themselves of being ahead of the lead lap cars just by not pitting. It never was that way. Drivers in front of the lead cars happened about once every 5 races when a caution came out during green flag pit stops. When you went down a lap you stayed down a lap regardless of whether you pitted or not. Therefore it was very important to be good during the first 3/4 of the race. The wave arounds went from being an anomaly to being an entitlement program.
      I am all for the wave arounds when they are applied like they were prior to the wave around rule. I am so tired of people trying to imply that cars at the tail end of the lead lap were that prevalent of an issue. The truth is that NASCAR wants it that way to manufacture excitement and keep more fans watching. Obviously fans of certain have a higher probability of sticking around and watching if they know there is a better chance of them getting their lap back. The problem is that it isn’t fair to the guy that showed up in a good car and spent the first 200 laps putting all those dregs down a lap.
      I’m done.

    • Avatar

      Funny the old point system helped build a bunch of new (albeit rather vanilla) tracks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the several years, tracks can’t take seats out or throw tarps over them quickly enough.

    • Avatar

      Sorry Tom, but the reality is that many people, myself included, view this championship as essentially worthless. Serious fans have been making suggestions for years, primarily about changing the points system to really make winning generate a significant advantage over the rest of the field, but nothing has happened. So I hope you enjoy watching every week under the new format. I’ll spend the day doing something else and maybe watching the highlights on the 11 o’clock news. Ya pays your money, ya takes your choice. All those empty seats are not a result of a bad economy but of a rather screwed up perception of what constitutes a motorsports championship.

  16. Avatar

    That about sums it up. Agree 100% with your observations.

  17. Avatar

    You said it all.

  18. Avatar

    What bothers me the most is that all of the major network commentators, whether its Ricky Craven of ESPN or FOX1’s Race Hub crew preach over and over that this Chase format is the greatest creation since God created man. I have yet to hear a voice of dissent. The printed press is much more balanced. The network personalities have all drunk NASCAR’s cool aide. I supposed if they ever did recognize a view of dissent that it would quickly be labeled as “inferior”. I can understand that its probably in the contract that the networks can “Only” promote the NASCAR way and nothing else.

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      ..they sold their souls. What is interesting is the people who are buying this nonsense from fans to the media have a smear campaign going that there is something wrong with you because you cannot wrap your head around the “playoff” format and you don’t need or want the shiny objects and flashy productions, you want good racing and everything else will talk care of itself. It is a marvel and sad thing to watch…nasty style of business going around in the world today, accepted and without value by the sheep.

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        yeah, I’ve been on the receiving end of more than some of that, especially on twitter. Seems to me that it is a poor way to try and keep your fan base by insulting them and trying to run them off.

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          but then again, I am not the fan that NASCAR wants to keep.

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            Gina, they think they don’t want you. Until you and the other Gordon fans leave after his retirement, and they can actually watch the sales/ratings/revenue drop in real time. In years past, fans with your views would walk away and be replaced by a more coveted demographic. Now, no one is waiting for your spot, and they’ll see that when you leave.

          • Avatar

            It brings up an interesting point. What will happen to the fan base when popular drivers like Gordon, Jr, Stewart, Harvick retire? I’m guessing fans of these drivers became fans well before this Chase crap started. Will those fans still watch the sport or will Nascar take a huge hit in ratings and attendance? We’ll know the answer soon enough.

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      How many times do we see/hear the following scenario:

      1. Host asks panelists’s opinion on topic.
      2. Ex-driver/crew chief #1 makes thoroughly positive statement, uses phrase “grow the sport” at least once
      3. Ex driver/crew chief #2 agrees completely, states that the competition is better than it has ever been
      4. Other media member/team owner/stakeholder opines that those who do not agree don’t understand good racing
      5. Ex-driver/crew chief #1 interrupts with a statement about how the racing in days of old really wasn’t very good
      6. Host closes the loop by saying that the only negative is that the change wasn’t made earlier.

      Adjust template for number and profession of participants, length of segment, and subject of discussion (rule change, season/race result, state of the sport, etc.).

      Presto, TV/media template in 6 steps or less.

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        You must have NASCAR on Sirius, ,,,,, God bless you, I couldn’t even stand it during the introductory offer including free pom poms and official Danica autographed “wave around flag.”

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          Captain, I’m laughing out loud at that one, sir. No, I don’t have it now, but I thought it would be fun to get, remembering my days as a younger man when I would listen to every second of fuzzy, fragmented NASCAR radio I could find. Just a few segments of it on someone else’s new-car-bonus free trial, however, told me that it’s not something I could handle without resorting to physical violence against the receiver.

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            Ha, good point, Tim S and those receivers are not cheap! The day I realized I was shouting at the Sirius receiver while on my way in to work and that my bp was probably through the roof was the day I decided to not renew my subscription.

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        Right on Tim…makes me wanna go slap one of them…..:)

  19. Avatar

    Good points and especially good to see that someone in the media understands them. Yet, than anything it seems Nascar is becoming a sport/business just for the participants. That if some people want to show up, well fine, just be sure to spend some money. Otherwise it a vehicle for rich owners and drivers negotiating deals with companies to support their hobbies.

    But what do I ow.

  20. Avatar

    ..and you are correct that it worked out for Nascar to have Harvick win it, it would be quiet a different story had Newman pulled it off. Now sadly they are crowing no doubt thinking they got a winning formula, which is so far from the truth it is sad.

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      ha, yeah, one of the comments from Braiinless was it was like a bases loaded home run in the 7th inning. Of course when you reset the points to zero every 3 races, it becomes obvious. Since many of the counterarguments are about a wild card winning a football game, well how many blow out scores have we seen in superbowls? Maybe the NFL should reset the score every quarter to keep that from happening. Ha, I can hear the screams now.

      And NASCAR, even though they won’t admit it, is very lucky that Newman didn’t pull off the win. I think the fan response would be much different.

      I’m trying to decide if it is worth my effort to continue with the one-sided tug of war, as Brett terms it, or if I should just BE the casual fan that BZF wants? Hope springs eternal so as long as Gordon is out there and competitive, I will probably not be able to step completely away from it, but it is very tempting.

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        GinaV24… I was an ardent NASCAR fan for 25 -30 years, the last several I have become one of those casual fans and honestly my life in general is better. Less nagging from the wife about getting stuff done, more time to spend with others, etc. I used to almost schedule my life around watching the races on Sundays and hoping during the NFL season the Packer’s were in blowouts so I did not need to channel surf as much between the game and the race.

        I have found over the past 8 years or so to be watching more other things than the race on Sundays. The main reason is the races seem to be more “fixed” or “manufactured” versus just allowing them to be. I actually do not mind some of the changes in procedure. The wave around is not a bad change, the lead lap car restarts are not a bad thing, the free pass? not so much a fan of since it is or has been part of the manufacturedness of the races now. oh no Gordon, Earnhardt, top chevy driver is a lap down, or going a lapdown “caution”. Again might be perception but how many times over the years has the caution waved for unfound debris, or debris so far off the racing surface it seems silly to have a caution. I understand safety but come on be realistic as well.

        • Avatar

          LOL, well, I get a lot more done on the weekends now, too, since I no longer have enough interest in NASCAR to spend most of it watching tv.

          I know what you mean about the manufactured cautions and things to “save” a specific driver. That has been my observation as well. However when I pointed that out on twitter (for instance the debris caution that put Hamlin & Logano back on the lead lap at Phoenix), you’d have thought I had p*ssed in someone’s beer. I was castigated by many – all of them denying that it “ever” happens or could possibly be “blatant” like that. I am, of course, just imagining these things. I think not, since I am not the only fan commenting on them. As Kb noted, there is a distinct campaign by the NASCAR tweeters/radio whatevers/ who insist that any fan not in agreement with NASCAR is delusional and should be stoned or better yet, go away.

          You know the phrase, be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

          I’m a long time Gordon fan and have said that I’ll follow the sport until he retires, but I am not sure that I am going to be able to stick with that resolution. I know that NASCAR wants to grow the sport, but if they really and truly alienate what is left of the diehard fan base, I can’t see where the casual fans will be enough to sustain it. But what do I know? Apparently I am just a stupid fan.

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        If Newman won the championship (but not the race) you better believe there would be some infraction found after the fact to knock him back in the points. I wish he did win the Cup but no a race so it would just prove that winning is more meaningless now that it ever has been!

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      Its funny how all those cautions kept coming out when Hamlin or Newman were in the lead. Coincidence? Or Nascar manipulation.

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    ..Well Brett thank you for what us fans have been saying, and I am hard pressed to understand the logic of people who disagree with the points you made in your column.