I have a face I can not show,
I make the rules up as I go,
Try and love me if you can,
Are you strong enough to be a fan….
(With all due apologies to Ms. Sheryl Crow)
I don’t know what’s more amazing to me. Is it the fact NASCAR once again decided to orchestrate a race rather than officiate it, or is the fact there’s so few race fans who give a damn that NASCAR did so when it played out right in front of them either on TV or in the grandstands. (Let me add the official company line here, “the sold out grandstands.” Yes, in fact Fontana has finally eliminated enough seats that they’ve reached a stasis point where they can at least claim that they’ve sold out a race rather than having to resort, as previous track management did, to claiming all the fans were underneath the grandstands shopping to explain gaping blocks of empty seats.)
Of course, NASCAR and the tracks no longer release attendance data, estimates or wishful thinking simply because they decided they don’t have to. And they’d probably prefer you just forget that the stated reason for stripping a historic date from Darlington and moving it to California was because Darlington wasn’t selling enough tickets. Take a quick jolt of the Kool-Aid and let’s all just forget that in that era Darlington was selling more tickets than Fontana is now. Just another bit of “Newspeak” courtesy of our buddies down there in Daytona Beach with their Orwellian bank of cameras monitoring pit road.
Pity NASCAR and the folks at FOX still trying to beat the drum that this is perhaps the greatest most exciting season of stock car racing ever despite a plethora of runaways posing as racing leaving fans napping on these somnolent Sundays as winter fades to spring. So Kevin Harvick is running away with races at will? Just listen to NASCAR and FOX. Folks, you are watching HISTORY in the making. Harvick is in a palm-drenching battle with Richard Petty for top honors in the coveted and historic battle to see if the driver of the No. 4 car can eclipse the King’s 40-year-old mark for top-two finishes… um, er, top-two finishes at the end of one season and the beginning of the next. Some statistician earned him or herself a steak dinner for that one, because in nearly 50 years of following stock car racing I had never heard anyone discussing consecutive top-two finishes. I’ve never seen such a number printed in the annals of the sport.
Yet, if somehow Harvick were to finish third at Martinsville next week, I bet that same statistician has already researched which driver previously set the mark for top-three finishes at the end of one season and the start of the next. So, sure, Harvick might have been cruising to winning events with a three- or four-second gap over second place, but gosh-dern it Earl, this is like watching Pete Rose try to break Joe DiMaggio’s record for consecutive hits back in nineteen hundred and seventy-eight, ain’t it? We may not live long enough to see another driver challenge the King’s record for top twos, and being able to watch this bit of history fold out before our eyes makes me durn proud to be an American.
Yet despite the white-knuckled historical battle playing out, somehow the ratings for the Phoenix race were down and down significantly. How on earth did that happen? That left FOX in the awkward position of having to somehow claim the racing isn’t boring. In a fit of hyperbole Sunday DW claimed (and check the tape if you think I’m kidding) that the racecars running out there at Fontana were closer to their street counterparts than they’ve been in a very long time. Yes, that despite the Fusion or Camry your local dealers are offering at low-low-low financing are still in fact front-wheel drive and neither has a 6.2 inch spoiler on the back included even on the options list. The corporate line all week leading up to Fontana was the well worn track surface was going to provide for outstanding multi-groove racing reminiscent of, well, Darlington, the same track that sacrificed a date for Roger Penske’s multi-purpose boondoggle in the brown-fields.
Yep, that played out just as planned. There was no runaway at Fontana, no one car leading by gaps so large the TV cameras struggled to show the second place runner in the same shot as the leader. This was different. This time there were two cars making a mockery of the race with six-second gaps back to third place. Oh, the racing was frantic and four- and five-wide on the restarts, but that’s the nature of stock car racing today. About the only time the drivers can pass is when a caution bunches up the field nose to tail and for those next few precious laps progress towards the front is possible. Stock car races have often been won not on the track but in the pits, and I accept that. It just seems when teams are forced into contrarian pit strategies, two tires rather than four, four tires rather than two, or fuel only not in hopes of winning a race but rather in hopes of scoring a top 12 rather than a top 15 (can we get some statistician on figuring out which driver has scored the most consecutive top-15 finishes, please?)
In fact, yesterday it was Paul Wolfe’s high risk, no guts no glory decision to go with four tires during the caution period caused by the mysterious disappearing debris that won the race. I’ll take nothing from Brad Keselowski, who drove his heart out to (as he admits freely himself) steal a win. I just wish that’s what I was focused on after the race as FOX suddenly shifted gears and admitted that most of the race wasn’t quite up to par, but boy-howdy did that finish make up for it. Sure, if you don’t mind tuning in for an hour of pre-race antics and three hours (oops, don’t want to exaggerate here; two hours, 58 minutes and 18 seconds) to see if there just might be something worth watching in the final 90 seconds. Other than that life and death battle for the top-two statistic, which ought to have you on the edge or your seat anyway. (I’m a sure a lot of fans were in fact at the edge of their seats at the two-hour mark, on the edge of their seats on their way to their feet and out the front door to find something better to do with their time.)
But as the race came to it’s unexpected conclusion I for one wasn’t reveling in the No. 2 car’s “out of nowhere” win. What I was thinking was” damn did NASCAR hose Kurt Busch to keep him out of victory circle.” Yes, I know I’ve earned a reputation for being a bit of a conspiracy theorist. (Prior to that plethora of late-race cautions, I was wondering if Harvick was going to roll over and let teammate Busch win to get him into the Chase since Harvick has already locked himself into the championship hunt… and trying to find team audio online to prove it.) Instead, it seemed that Harvick, whose car had been notably quicker up front with clean air on the nose, gave one more concerted effort to get by Busch but as the late Benny Parsons might have said, “He done gone and licked all the red off his candy.” When the determined drive came up short, Harvick seemed prepared to serve as wing man for his teammate and there’s no faulting him for that.
That left NASCAR with a bit of a problem, in fact a bit of a PR nightmare, to call a spade a spade. Busch is the sport’s problem child. While he is, in fact, an ex-champion, what the general public and even casual fans know the elder Busch brother for best is he’s the guy that was accused of an act of domestic violence against his former girlfriend that led NASCAR to suspend him. He’s the guy who sat in a court of law and accused his ex of being a government-trained assassin. (My eldest sister who couldn’t give a flip about the sport that has been a lifetime obsession for her older brother caught that much of the story on the world news and called to ask me if Busch was, in fact, insane.)
Almost as awkward as their decision to suspend Busch when he hadn’t been charged with anything criminal yet was NASCAR’s decision to un-suspend him when it was announced he wouldn’t be. And when the excrement was still airborne from that call, they went ahead and changed the rules to state that Busch and the No. 41 team would be eligible for the Chase if they met the standard requirements. If you think that whole unsavory mess between Busch and Driscoll is over and swept under the rug now, you must have missed Driscoll’s piece in USA Today last week. It would appear that we’re now going to watch a potential palimony suit play out in the papers rather than in court, leading one to wonder if Busch will claim that Driscoll earned a black velvet painting of a tiger in repose hanging over their fireplace for a particularly choice assassination.
What NASCAR doesn’t need right now is for Busch to win a race even while the public seems by and large split into two camps; those who can’t understand why he was suspended in the first place and those who can’t understand why he’s out there racing at all and how despite the rules it was decided that he was chase-eligible. Worse yet, a victory yesterday would have all but locked Busch into the Chase, meaning the debate would continue clear through to Homestead.
With Busch in control of the race the caution flag flew on lap 199. NASCAR’s Richard Buck, who seems to have assumed Mike Helton’s previous role of Department of Outright Fabrication and Fact Bender in Chief, was absolutely adamant that there was in fact not only a bit of debris out there somewhere, but that debris was in fact metallic. He can say this despite the fact by his own admission another car hit the alleged debris prior to NASCAR’s crews being able to locate it. So it’s simple right? If that bit of debris was in fact dangerous enough to call for a caution, whichever car hit it would have been badly damaged and limping to the pits with fluid and smoke bellowing from the undercarriage. Well, umm, that didn’t happen, did it? OK, wait, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got a brand new lie. That mysterious bit of debris wound up in a tire of Greg Biffle’s No. 16 car, causing his final lap spin. (Nod, nod, wink, wink, move along folks, nothing to see here.)
Busch was one again able to assert himself on the subsequent restart but he’d barely made it up front again when the yellow hanky was sent dangling in the wind again. This time at least the cause for the caution was more legitimate and at least visible. The TV panel of Kyle Larson’s Chevy was sent aflight and it needed to be cleared. Or did it? We’ll get to that.
Once again on the restart, Busch took the lead, but this time Keselowski, on four fresh tires, was coming and coming hard. Busch still held the advantage going into turn 1 as Biffle’s car went spinning and ended up motionless right beyond the start finish line. So a caution flag flew again, right? The caution flag that would have cemented the win for Busch and ended the race under caution? In fact, that caution didn’t fly. Yes, it made for a better ending to the race (and most of you know I’m not a huge fan of Kurt Busch, so my opinion isn’t based on who was in the cars but where they were at the time).
Now, I’d have to check the replay here, but I am pretty sure the No. 16 car still had a TV panel attached to the back of it, and it was a TV panel that drew the previous caution. In this case the “debris” was pretty easy to spot. It was about 10 feet long and had a big number 16 painted on the sides of it. Kind of hard to miss that one, you know? As per our friend Mr. Buck, in what seems to me a self-contradictory statement, contained in one sentence “Safety is No. 1; we always make our best effort to let it race back” So which is it? Is Safety No. 1, as we saw on the final lap at the Daytona 500 which ended under caution, or do “we” (in this case NASCAR) always make our best effort to let it race back? Kind of an easy call to make, I guess if your butt is seated in a tower not in that of a racecar.
Buck went on to say (watch carefully kids, his fingers never leave his hands) that the other 42 cars still racing often in three- and four-wide packs with red mist in the drivers eyes, were over a mile away. Let me break out the calculator here because I suck at math. Let’s see, at 180 mph (and they were going faster than that) a stock car will travel a mile in 20 seconds. Wow, not quite the margin that those who “always” put safety as their top priority would have liked. Buck went on to point out that NASCAR had two officials in the flag-stand almost directly over the stricken No. 16 car and they could in fact see it. Bravo for those two intrepid eagle eyes. Not only could they see the car, they were able to deduce that the car was going to be able to get out of the way, not leave any jagged debris on the track because we seldom see wrecked race cars do that, and there weren’t even going to be any fluid spewed by wrecked No. 16 car because again, what are the odds something like that could happen? And jeez, even if there were a few gallons of oil on the track, there was no chance that was going to trigger a wreck as the pack raced towards the checkers.
A long time ago someone taught me that on any given Sunday, at any given racetrack, in any corner of that track, there is going to be debris. It’s the nature of the beast and the maelstrom of air really fast loud cars kick up in their wake during a race. So if you choose to throw a caution for debris it’s always legitimate. Get down there and dig and you’ll find some slob’s empty sandwich wrapper laying eight feet outside the racing groove. The problem isn’t debris, it’s the consistency with which debris cautions are thrown. Just last week at Phoenix NASCAR threw a debris caution for what was clearly an empty water bottle. (Now how do you suppose that got there?) And according to Buck NASCAR would never, ever, ever (and we can trust them given their track record, right?) try to manipulate the outcome of a race.
Which brings to mind a recent runaway tire that ended up in the tri-oval grass in the midst of a cycle of pit stops. NASCAR chose not to throw the caution until that sequence of stops had played out to avoid altering the outcome of the race. Well Jezum crow, Cousin Petey, was that stationary tire a hazard or not and, if so, how was it any less hazardous for a dozen laps prior to the caution flying? And while the topic is open how do we square this year’s Daytona 500 ending under caution (safety first) with the 2010 running of the Great American Race when Harvick got the win after NASCAR decided not to let the race end under caution while Mark Martin was leading, even though there was a huge pig pile of a wreck right there on the frontstretch and the 17th-place finisher (Clint Bowyer) crossed the line upside down and on fire?
And while I’m venting, what’s with the spate of red-flagged races lately? Hey, I’m all for giving the fans the show they paid to see, but what is the criteria for what’s deserving of a red flag (once only used if the track was completely blocked or there was a very serious injury) and what doesn’t (the fact some drivers might run out of gas running under the yellow). Make the call now before it’s a hot-button topic next week. Nobody is looking for perfection from the tower, just some sign of consistency and even their most stalwart supporters have to admit that NASCAR’s track record on such matters is consistently inconsistent.
OK , so there’s my rant. You could have seen that one coming from a mile away like a locomotive pulling tank cars ablaze. But this is the part that really disturbs me. 10 years ago, a race finish like Sunday’s would have had everyone up in arms. However reluctant they might have been to do so the broadcasting network would have been forced to address the issue and the drivers who’d missed at least a shot at the win because of such a call would have had some mighty caustic comments on the race’s outcome. Instead, Matt Kenseth, who had an unexpected shot at the win, was told a debris caution had come out and the best he could come up with was, “Yeah, I figured that was coming.”
When those questionable cautions put a seemingly sure win at risk, Kurt Busch might have said “WWE” over the radio, but by after the race, Busch might have been clearly fuming, but his anger management counselor apparently had the leash on when Busch smiled and said he’d just been “out-muscled” there at the end. If calls as questionable as the ones made at Fontana Sunday had been made in a truly legitimate sport, the controversy would dominate the news.
Yes, judgment calls always have to be made. Was that wide receiver’s foot out of bounds or just inside? Was he forced out of bounds or was he headed in that direction anyway? But even if it was an NFL game with no championship implications between the two sorriest teams in the league, the talking heads would be bright red in the face as they analyzed replay footage in ultra-slow motion trying to decide if the referee’s call was correct. That’s just not the case in NASCAR anymore. As such I can only agree with Busch, this is the WWE, not a legitimate sport any longer. You’ll recall that the WWE was once a ratings giant, entertainment posing as a sport loosely based on wrestling. The bad guy might have been beating the snot out of a crowd favorite and the fans would pretend to be enraged into a blood lust, but Deus Ex Machina – the good guy would pound his nemesis over the head with a folding chair, then take a staple gun to his scrotum in clear violation of the so-called rules and everyone just accepted it. That’s what they’d tuned in to see anyway.
Sure, some fans have taken to the various social media outlets to express their frustration and even rage at how the end of yesterday’s race played out. A lot of them are saying stuff like they’re so angry they’re never going to watch another NASCAR race again. But I’ve been around this sport long enough I know just about all of them will be back next week. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’re all so conditioned to knocking into that pole in hopes of a treat that we keep banging into it even after the treats have long since ceased.
Even the media have by and large shrugged their shoulders, noted there were some inexplicable goings on there at the end and then moved on. Nobody’s surprised, nobody’s angry, except folks like me and the cadre of readers who still tune in to my occasional columns. I fully expect in the comments section below some folks will be singing hallelujahs but most will be questioning why I’ve got my tits in a wringer again when this is what we’ve come to expect. If you don’t like it, leave.
Once again, I’ll be labeled a conspiracy theorist (though I have in fact resisted the urge to rename Fontana “Ruby Ridge Speedway” to this point) and a “hater” a term once used to good effect by partisans of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart by now forever usurped by one long-coiffed (and very scary) performer out of Nashville. I accept my role as a (hopefully) occasionally amusing curmudgeon still beating the drum of legitimacy. But as a long overdue shift in the weather brings warmer temperatures and melts away all that snow once again, a nice ride on the Harley is sounding better than three hours wasted just to see when that last debris caution flies and stirs things up for a few minutes.
NASCAR will get along just fine without me. They did so while I was away and I know they will do so again if I leave. I’m not the issue here. The issue is all the former fans (as evidenced by declining ratings and reduced ticket sales) who never announced their intentions to leave, but went ahead and did so and haven’t come back since. If I missed the memo and NASCAR has gone on record as saying that they’re now marketing entertainment posing as a sport and everyone has accepted those terms, just let me know. There’s a lot of blue highways left unexplored in Chester, Lancaster and Berks counties and I have miles to go before I sleep.