Editor’s Note: A legend returns. Please join our happy Frontstretch family in welcoming back Matt McLaughlin for a Mark Martin-like “limited schedule” of columns! This one runs on Tuesday but you never know when he might pop up.
Somewhere on the seedy side of Daytona, where the streets have no names, where vermin, two legged and four, drink cheap whiskey, toss dice and tell bawdy limericks, there is a faint mechanical grinding sound that’s growing a little louder by the minute. Seagulls roosting on power lines take to the air with shrill calls of alarm. A few puffs of smoke from a deteriorating warehouse you wouldn’t want to enter without a SWAT team to back you up catch the attention of the fireman scrubbing his clean machine at the corner of Penny Lane and Abbey Road.
Come along, gentle readers, come along. Let’s peer carefully inside and see the cause of the cacophony and concern. A well-worn sign with graffiti covering the face of a demonic clown is advertising the circus is coming to town for the 46th straight year. Peer inside as the very displeasing sneezing and wheezing noises increase, but keep your hands inside the car, ladies and gents, because this is a dark ride. The clanking, grinding, and scraping grow deafening. The smoke is getting thicker. The dancing flames of a dumpster fire illuminate the rear of the warehouse and in the flickering light, you can see a weary battered old calliope groaning into motion. A lightning bolt flashes across the pewter gray skies down here on Desolation Row, fully illuminating the interior of the warehouse if only for a moment. The horses have ominous red eyes, their hair looks like the blue crackling light of downed power lines and on most of their flanks, the paint has been worn through or rubbed away completely in places. The Satanic tarnished and rusted pipe organ blasts out Taylor Swift music and other horrid noises almost as bad. The brass rings are tarnished. Yep, the merry-go-round that is the 2015 NASCAR season is grinding to life. Saddle up those wooden horses, cowgirls, if you dare. But don’t fall, don’t you dare fall, my pretties. The circus is back in town.
Yep, all the multimillion dollar car auctions and that big football game are over. It’s time for the Daytona 500 and all the ancillary events leading up to it to muscle their way into the spotlight. For many casual fans, the Great American Race might be the only NASCAR-sanctioned race they watch this year, hoping to see all the big pileups the ghouls at some ad agency put together at NASCAR’s bequest to promote the event.
This weekend’s preliminaries: the ARCA race, Whatever they’re calling the event that was once the Busch Clash, and something alleged to have been qualifying all benefited from meteorological menace outside of NASCAR’s control. At least on the right side of the country, a frigid blast of cold air has invaded and has this area in its grips like a terrier worrying the rat in its jaws. Near hurricane force winds stir up freshly fallen snow and stir it into near whiteout conditions from the front yards to the interstates. The type of wind chills that send your testicles springing up to your kidneys, slamming your sphincter closed like a steel rosebud for days are duly enumerated, reported, and classified by the giggling jackasses who call themselves meteorologists from Augusta to Atlanta and all points in between. Winter-weary Bostonians are either hiding beneath their covers in their union suits or trying to tunnel their way through 90 inches of snow to the nearest travel agency for a ticket anywhere but there. It’s the same sort of climatic catastrophe that made the 1979 Daytona 500 a ratings hit, introducing the sport of stock car racing to areas outside the fertile soil of the Southeast (at least on the small screen.)
With limited entertainment options, viewers doubtlessly were drawn to FOX TV this weekend. Perhaps a good number of them are former fans who’ve abandoned the sport over the past decade, taking a quick glimpse to see if they’ve been missing anything or to hear the siren sound of engines turning 8500 RPM once again. Come on back, folks. There’s plenty of empty seats on this merry-go-round; Brian France and the minions and morons on his staff have seen to that. Come on back, my friends. Maybe it will be better this year. Maybe it will be 1992 again. Richard Petty announced 1992 would be the final season of his illustrious career and the magic began. Jeff Gordon (whose first Cup start was in the Atlanta finale of 1992, the King’s last run), one of the greatest stock car racers of his generation, has announced he’s gathering up his jacks and headed back to the Ponderosa after 2015. Can lightning strike twice? Gordon’s winning the pole for next week’s 500 doubtlessly has the most rabid of conspiracy theorists headed out into the snow with soapboxes on sleds to proclaim Gordon got an over-sized restrictor plate. I’m going to temper myself for now and admit sometimes good things just happen. From even the vilest pile of cow plop, a mushroom might spring.
Jimmie Johnson is on the outside pole as he prepares to reclaim his position at the king of the hill after a somewhat lackluster go of it in 2014, a season I will admit I tuned into only infrequently. Yes, it is possible to beat NASCAR addiction given a few printed articles about the races on the back pages of the sports section and a few YouTube videos late season to try to figure out why one driver chose to give another a good punch in the yap. After a thorough review of those incidents, I have decided A) modern NASCAR drivers fight like girls, B) Even at 77, Bobby Allison could ride in and kick most of their asses right up into the cheap seats.
But this year, my plans are to tune into most of the races, perhaps even all of them before riding season returns. That’ll depend on the quality of the racing I see over the first few weeks. Last year, I had other things to do on Sunday. This year, I don’t. It’s pretty damning praise that I’ve decided to give the sport I once loved like life itself another chance.
I watched all three events this weekend because even looking out the window here at Eyesore Acres sucked out my will to live and sent alarm bells ringing like those in the mind of a tiny rabbit taking a wary glance outside of his warren and catching the scent of a coyote nearby.
The ARCA race was a bit of a letdown. It’s been awhile since ARCA put on a great show at Daytona. In the old days, this event was a lopsided financial battle between the Haves and Have-Nots. Nowadays, it seems there’s a battle between drivers who have talent and those who have not. There were an awful lot of cars running out there without the plumage of sponsorship decals. Now that Daytona is over, I’m told just about anyone who can bring some good sponsorship dollars to a team and knows how to drive a stick shift can land a ride. Everyone still needs to knock the rust off after the offseason, including the flagman who somehow managed to drop the “move over” flag onto the track drawing a caution.
The “Whoever it Is Presents the Whatever it Was” non-points race on Saturday night can’t be faulted for a lack of action. About half the field was swept up in violent wrecks and even most of the cars that finished the race were pretty torn up as well, or perhaps, as Kevin Harvick said, they were showing some character. Even Jimmie Johnson made a rare unforced error, driving into the side of a car that had been stopped long enough to count to “7-Mississippi.” My guess is that the race unfolded exactly as Brian France hoped it was going to. There were a lot of wrecks and a bit of a bad-tempered bumping match between Harvick and Joey Logano after the race. That’s apparently what the Grand Pumbah of NASCAR has decided will draw in all those new, younger fans he’s been desperately courting now that the long-time gray haired ones who supported the sport for decades have by and large gone, packed up their rocks and rolled. Note to my BFF Brian: these kids seem to like scary-looking men in gym shorts kicking the bejesus out of one another. No, I’m not suggesting that as the method to determine next year’s pole winner at Daytona….
I have to admit to all those frostbitten conspiracy theorists still trying to tell us Gordon got a gift from NASCAR that a few things didn’t pass the sniff test during the race. The No. 88 team and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. elected to go with no tires earlier in the event. The strategy didn’t work, then Junior overheated, leaving him desperately in need of a caution to re-rack the table. The yellow that flew was completely legitimate, but then NASCAR flew a red flag and in marked contrast to six decades of officiating allowed the teams to work on their cars. Earnhardt was able to get four fresh tires, negating the advantage of other drivers and teams who’d taken fresh rubber earlier. Apparently, Brian’s playbook to return NASCAR to its former popularity is twofold. A) Have a lot of wrecks and fighting, B) Junior must win more often.
I thought I didn’t understand the new qualifying procedures used at Daytona because of my hiatus last year, but it quickly became apparent most of the drivers active in the sport didn’t understand it either. Nor, it would seem did they much care for it. Their criticism came with varying degrees of tact, ranging from rolled eyes to Clint Bowyer‘s honest but hilarious rant about the whole mess….
We’ll have to see if that earns him a trip to NASCAR’s official truck and made to sing several rounds of Kumbaya. I’m not sure if this new system, one that has drivers sitting motionless on pit road for most of the session or even flying in reverse like a fat chick trying to get a prime parking space outside of Dunkin’ Donuts works. I’d suggest NASCAR hire Rube Goldberg and lace his Red Bull with LSD to come up with a qualifying procedure for Daytona that makes sense.
It’s a special time of the year in stock car racing as we all try to memorize the new war paint, numbers and crew chiefs for the drivers. Teams arrived at Daytona with their new, carefully crafted play pretties they built over the winter, painted in bright colors without a speck of dust on them. Yeah, after this weekend a lot of teams have their sweet dreams and flying machines laying in battered pieces around the garage — particularly the No. 14 team.
But as the season proper begins, to start all the drivers will say with certainty that they will make the Chase. All the team owners are certain their drivers will contend for the championship. If I were a team owner and my driver came to Daytona and said, “If we’re lucky, I might be able to finish somewhere between 15th and 20th in points” I’d fire him. If my team owner said, “I’m guessing it’s going to be a fairly lackluster season, but we’ll do the best we can” I’d pack up my helmet and start looking for a new ride. Over the grueling nine months that lay ahead, most of those drivers will see their hopes and dreams of February crushed, broken and shattered. Tears will be shed, contracts will be voided, grotesque strings of profanity will be uttered, fists will fly and fingers will be pointed. But at the start of the season, at least everyone still has a chance. Drivers walk toward their cars with a spring in their step, not with the weary resigned shuffle of a death row inmate taking his final walk (as most of them will by October.)
But, yeah, I watched every minute of it and admittedly enjoyed it or I enjoyed most of it anyway. It’s February and it’s time for stock car racing. Old habits die hard. It was great to hear those roaring engines again, the shriek of spinning rear tires as drivers exited the pits, and the grinding of sheet metal as two drivers vied for the same bit of real estate. Yeah, I’ll watch next Sunday’s race too even though it’s a plate race and I’ll probably eat more Tums than popcorn as a result.
Will this season surprise us and be one of the best in the sport’s history? The answer is cloudy; try again later. But it could be. Even in the depths of winter’s cruel February, hope springs eternal. Let the green flag fly. In the immortal words of the late and lamented Smokey Yunick, “All right, you sons of a bitches, let’s have us a race.”
He’s back!… occasionally.