Did You Notice? There’s rarely any rhyme or reason to plate racing? Only three top-10 finishers from last July’s Coke Zero 400 went back-to-back in February’s Daytona 500: Denny Hamlin, Casey Mears and Clint Bowyer. Of those three, only Hamlin has had a successful season, clinching a Chase bid early in the year at Martinsville. Mears has yet to finish inside the top 10 outside of Daytona while Bowyer, paired with struggling Michael Waltrip Racing, has been a second class citizen on the Cup circuit until the last month.
That does not bode well for our point leaders, as Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are among those who, in theory, will have the Russian Roulette bullets turning their way. Does that open the door for an upset, like last July’s surprise victory by Aric Almirola?
The answer is a little bit of yes and no. This plate package, while favorable to the underdogs, doesn’t give them enough “oomph” to get up front. 189 laps in this year’s Daytona 500 were led by just four drivers, each of whom have top-tier equipment: Logano, Johnson, Earnhardt and pole sitter Jeff Gordon. The only underdogs to lead – Mears, Michael Annett and JJ Yeley – each did so for a lap under caution. NASCAR’s new restrictor-plate qualifying system, eliminating the group drafting format, should also keep the underfunded cars buried deep in the field to start.
That said, Mears in particular has been impressive on plate tracks in recent years. He has nothing to lose going for broke; his team will not make it in the Chase otherwise. Ditto for David Gilliland, whose 11th-place finish in February was a season best. Those two would be the ones I’d predict to surprise but expect an uphill battle; it would take the picture perfect scenario to make Victory Lane happen for either.
Did You Notice? NASCAR’s stance against the Confederate flag? Daytona Speedway is offering a “flag exchange” this weekend for anyone who owns one prior to the race; Confederate flags are still allowed but frowned upon as the sport looks to ban them from all upcoming events. Shortly after coming out in support of removing them from statehouse grounds, NASCAR CEO Brian France made clear the sport would “distance” itself from the symbol in the coming weeks.
“We’re working on how far we can go,” France told the Associated Press. “We are going to be as aggressive as we can to dissociate ourselves with that flag.”
If only the sport were as aggressive with changing its rules, tire compounds, qualifying… but I digress. The flag has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. Motivated by racism, that incident resulted in nine deaths and a 10th person seriously hurt as the shooter, Dylann Roof, used the flag itself as a symbol of his hatred.
NASCAR felt compelled to act in this wave of national outrage. Here’s the problem; the flag has not been a catalyst for incidents of racism at their own tracks. Why does it matter? The flag is easily identifiable for anyone who covers the sport, atop up to 1 in 4 campers in the infield at some events. Stock car racing, contracting back from a national phenomenon these days, still has many of its roots entrenched in the Deep South; and trust me, much of the Deep South still loves its Confederate flag.
How will these campers, spending in some cases thousands of dollars to attend NASCAR races, feel when they can’t unveil the flag they’ve used for years? Should they know better? Or will they rebel, claiming the sport is infringing on their belief system? Sometimes, it’s as simple as a cooler restriction that gets fans fed up and keeping them from attending races. With the competition “bleh” this season, will this move turn more fans away than they’ll make?
I’m torn on this decision. NASCAR, once a symbol for racism, saw Hall of Famer Wendell Scott endure tremendous hardship; he was its only successful African-American driver for decades. A sport that once openly supported segregationist George Wallace in presidential elections also suffered through the Mauricia Grant official scandal seven years ago. Grant, who filed a lawsuit against NASCAR alleging harassment and racist behavior, eventually settled out of court; the damage, including a claim co-workers wanted to kidnap her with KKK hoods, was extensive. For a sport pushing diversity, they would do well to keep distancing themselves from past behavior. Banning the flag puts them in position to champion a “new line of thinking.”
Where I worry, though, is stock car racing assuming the position of moral judge, jury and executioner. There will absolutely, like it or not, be some short-term pain in the form of lost fans angry NASCAR is trying to impinge on their traditions. I can honestly tell you, covering over 150 races, I’ve never seen the Confederate flag cause an incident in the garage or in the infield. Black owner Brad Daugherty spoke out this week, claiming the symbol “made his skin crawl” and that carries significant weight; however, most who criticize the flag now never raised it as a problem previously. Remember the NRA 500? You wonder if NASCAR stayed out of the fray, refusing to take a political stance, this push to remove the flag from races would have faded. Or, maybe Congress would have enacted a law, banning the symbol from certain events and the sanctioning body could have let legal backing take its course. Politics and sports, when blended together, never seem to end well….
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off….
- FOX started its NASCAR season with three straight ratings increases. They ended it with five straight declines, most of which were 15 percent or more as the majority of coverage was shifted to FOX Sports 1. How far has the NASCAR audience fallen? Consider Sonoma, whose 2.4 rating Sunday brought in 3,614,000 viewers. A decade ago, the same event brought in a 5.7 rating, nearly triple the audience as FOX set a record for the California road course. Those numbers are impossible to ignore. You’d have to think putting Gordon in the booth won’t be the only change we’ll see from the network over the offseason… right? Money talks.
- NBC has done its part to heavily market NASCAR at every turn. Sunday night’s start time will bring in a new primetime audience. What does it all mean? Expect a lot of novice explanations of racing lingo along with a more conservative set of camera shots that cover the action. Hardcore fans, cover your ears now for when they give an explanation of “loose” and “tight…”