A funny thing happened Saturday night at Kentucky (a bunch of not-so-funny things happened at Kentucky leading up to the race, but we’ll get to that.) Saturday, in the midst of a NASCAR event, a stock car race broke out. Was it a perfect stock car race? Not hardly. Was it a decent stock car race? It certainly had its moments. While I’m not ready to join the Hosanna chorus dubbing it the best race of the year, by any measure it was the best Cup race ever held at Kentucky. (The best of five races and perhaps the first that wasn’t an exercise in tedium but then again, that’s sort of like telling your buddy who breeds Newfoundlands, that your pet is the biggest Pug dog you’ve ever seen.)
I know some of you DVR the races and fast forward to the last 10 laps or so since that’s usually the only interesting part of the races these days. If you did, doubtless you were less than impressed watching Kyle Busch drive to an uncontested win ahead of Joey Logano. But if you still haven’t erased the race, go back to around 20 laps to go and you’ll catch a rather spirited battle as those two drivers swapped the lead back and forth several times, with the dreaded aero push that usually conspires to prevent such shenanigans at least kept on a tight leash rather than being allowed to run amok.
There were a lot of crossed fingers going into Saturday night’s race after another rainy week of weather threw the event schedule into a Cuisinart. And some factors within the race perhaps kept the race from realizing its full potential. They include:
- As noted above the weather didn’t cooperate which eliminated planned testing sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. Thus, the teams really never got a feel for how the “new” cars were going to behave in traffic. If you want to cite a primary victim of that lack of testing, look no further than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who remains very popular except with the one member of the distaff set that runs Cup races. With the 2015 rules package the teams have gone to downsized brakes on the intermediate tracks. Why? Well the drivers were pretty much just holding their feet to the floor and taking four lefts a lap like trained monkeys performing a not-so-amusing trick. The only time they ever really needed brakes on the mile-and-a-half tracks was to enter the pits and to avoid running into the back of Ms. Patrick as they lapped her, again and again. (“Lapped” as in passed her. Get your filthy mind out of the gutter!) Reducing the size and weight of the braking system reduces un-spring weight and inertial resistance in a racecar, and Cup crew chiefs don’t miss a trick in areas where even a few grams can be more valuable than importables into Miami in the ’80s. But with the new rules package, drivers actually need to slow down entering a corner, and the No. 88 team was apparently caught unawares. Though, given some more testing in packs, they might have figured it out. Of course, Junior didn’t help his cause any by forgetting to turn on the brake-cooling blowers at the beginning of the race either, but then as popular as he is you’d think they’d assign someone to lean in the car and do it for him prior to the race. So in the end, nobody really got a chance to practice their night moves, or perhaps the race would have been even better.
- A big piece of the puzzle was missing Saturday night. Goodyear didn’t have time to prepare softer compound tires that were supposed to be part and parcel of the new rules package. So maybe they’ll have the new tires ready for Darlington? There was nothing wrong with the tires that Goodyear bought to Kentucky. If I recall, only Denny Hamlin had a tire issue, so it wasn’t a big problem. But that tire and the new car were like donning plaid camper shorts and a tuxedo jacket. So hopefully there are still better things to come.
- Brad Keselowski clearly had one of the fastest cars on the track. It was only multiple problems on pit road that kept him making an attempt to at least keep Busch honest there at the end of the race. You’ll have this. The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong.
- You might not have seen it, but once again the Chase played an unfortunate part in the outcome of the race. Debate it all you will, but Logano knows he’s solidly in the Chase, and has been since after the first race of the year… sigh. Unless he does something silly like break his leg. Busch on the other hand needs every point he can, because he has after all already broken his leg. Had Logano needed a win to make the Chase, my guess is that he’d have pedaled a little harder in the closing laps.
Despite the challenges, the Kentucky race was pretty decent, and there’s hope for still better things in the future once everyone gets a few races with the reduced-downforce package under their belts. That’s a positive. But now, gentle readers, we need to have a glance at from whence the new rules came. Largely you have yourselves to thank. Yep, you right there reading this on company time. And you, and you, and you… but not that guy over there in the corner, because I’m still pissed off about his smirking reaction to the Danica Patrick comment.
Let’s face it, there’s been a bit of an upheaval in the NASCAR fan base. A large percentage of the fans are no longer willing to grovel and ask “Please, sir, may I have some more” as they spoon away at the watery gruel that is current NASCAR races as they did for decades. They’ve complained loud and long and newer social media have given them a voice. And of course, we need to pay tribute to those folks who said they were done with the sport after a particularly bad series of races. Yeah, I know some of you folks who said you were leaving still peek in now again, but I’m not here to taunt you. To do so would be Utter foolishness. There are in fact a whole lot of empty seats at the track, TV ratings have been in the crapper, and sponsors who pay millions to have their logos splashed on the cars just aren’t feeling the love anymore. So apparently a lot of folks who did, in fact, used to sit in those seats, watch their TVs on Sundays, and buy those NASCAR blessed corn-dogs have in fact left the building.
No, I haven’t dropped acid. I’m not here to suggest that NASCAR actually listened to their fans. You’d have to be a preposter-foon to believe that, Prudence. But the drivers have been getting the message. I think there’s a general consensus among the drivers that they rather like their private jets, luxury motor coaches, fine homes and exotic cars. It beats working for a living, anyway. And the drivers were the first to sense that the beach was shifting beneath their castles in the sand.
I’m genuinely sorry. I have to share another hard truth here. Your favorite driver doesn’t even know your name. You could walk away from the sport tomorrow and he won’t even pause to give a polite wave. Not even if you’re in his fan club, wear his t-shirt to church services and spend the money on one of his limited edition die-cast cars rather than getting mom flowers on Mother’s Day. Carl Edwards isn’t going to call you up at home, ask what you thought of the race, how you’d like to see things improved and thank you for buying a ticket. Tony Stewart isn’t going to stop by your place and ask if you’d like to take his Ferrari for a spin around the block. Junior isn’t going to invite you over to grill some steaks and toss back a few cold ones with him. He wouldn’t even give you half his deviled ham sandwich and a cup of water. Clint Bowyer will slap you silly if you try to play with his flamethrower. But the drivers seem to have heard you anyway.
What’s upsetting the apple-cart right now is the sponsors. You might have noted that Thursday night’s truck race didn’t have a title sponsor and boy was NASCAR pissed. Heck, if I’d had the money, in return for all that “shut up and race” nonsense, you’d have been watching the “Hey, NASCAR, Shut Up and Listen” 200. But NASCAR is pretty content in general. They get most of their money from the TV folks and they’ve got that locked in, even as they search for a new series sponsor to replace the cellphone bandits. It’s the drivers who are feeling the pinch. They need sponsors to be able to have a ride with a competitive race team and to fund their lifestyles. And sponsors are getting harder to find in an era where you go into the boardroom hat in hand and admit, “Yeah, the TV ratings are way down, and there’s a lot of empty seats at the track, but I still think a $10-12 million marketing program with my team is a wonderful idea. Who do I see about picking up the check? I’ll drop some t-shirts off later.” It’s tough to sell tickets to a sinking ship. So the drivers formed their council and told NASCAR, “hey the status quo is no good and we need to make some changes here to make the racing better. These fans are really upset right now.” (I didn’t mean to make anyone feel bad. I’m sure your favorite driver actually thinks the world of you and keeps your picture bedside at his home.)
So apparently the Grumble-fish, those who have declared loud and long that the racing is subpar, notched a victory. The Sock-puppets will tell you that NASCAR was in fact ready to make these changes anyway because they are in fact swell guys that care for nothing more than the fans’ happiness. The want you to be happy more than they want millions and millions (and millions and millions) of dollars. ‘Cause that’s just how they are. So shut up and leave them alone now, you discontent ungrateful pack of hyenas. But the fight isn’t over. We’ll keep high hopes for Indy and Michigan with the high-drag package, and of course we’ll count the days until the Southern 500 returns to its spiritual home with the low-downforce rules. But as of right now we’re packing up the circus and heading to New Hampshire, one of the problem child tracks on the schedule, for a race that I predict will (let’s see… what will the editors let me get away with…) perform fellatio on a donkey. Nope? OK, how about “I predict will be a real Tijuana donkey show”? Good seats are still available!
Which brings us to number five, my friends. I want you to remember the number five. Write it down somewhere. But why, Uncle Matt, why should I remember the number five? I mean it’s a very nice number and all, somewhat larger than four but not quite so large as six, it’s prime, and some folks think it’s lucky. But I have so many numbers to remember these days, and my favorite is actually 42 (thanks for the fishes) so what the hell are you rambling on about this time, you crazy old coot?
Five is how many more points Erik Jones could have scored if he’d won Thursday night’s truck race instead of Matt Crafton. Crafton, who took the checkered flag (er, no wait a minute… he never did. The checkered flag was never displayed. Maybe some prankster stitched a Confederate Flag on it). OK, so Crafton who is listed as the race winner, got 47 points, 43 for finishing first, a three-point bonus for winning and a point for leading a lap. Jones got 44 points, 42 for finishing second and two for leading the most laps. Now if in the final five laps (the ones that were never run) had Jones bypassed Crafton (and let’s give a shout to Ryan Blaney, too, who was right there mixing it up in what looked like a very exciting finish shaping up) Jones would have gotten 48 points and Crafton would have gotten 43. This of course is conjecture, because any of the three could have won the race, or the three of them might have wrecked and had a terrible points night. But we’ll never know now, will we? As the standings show right now, Crafton leads the points.
Second-place Tyler Reddick is 20 behind and Jones is 29 points back. Deduct our friend the five from 29 and you have 24 points. Five lousy points. How much difference could five lousy points make when a champion is crowned at the end of the season? Ask Edwards (he’s holding on line two to see what you thought of the race Saturday). Ask Bill Elliott. Remember 1992? I sure do. Fondly, I might add.
But the race was allowed to end five laps early after Ben Kennedy’s frightening crash. (Let me add the standard, “glad he’s all right.” In the future, you can assume that I’m always happy that all the drivers are OK after a race. If I’m not, I promise to tell you that.) In the course of that accident, a portion of the catchfence was torn down. NASCAR decided, (at around 10:00 local time I might add) it just wasn’t worth it to fix the fence to let the race continue five more laps. So, OK, there weren’t a whole lot of fans in the stands. It might have been the sorriest crowd ever at a NASCAR race. It was like the guys at the gate wandered off and a few people stopped by to see what all the noise was about on their way out to gig frogs. And yes, the TV ratings were probably already going to be horrific. They probably got a late-race bump when soccer fans tuned in to see their game. But what do you expect on a Thursday night, right? Well, the upcoming Eldora race is going to be held on a weeknight too, and my guess is it will end up being one of the top-five rated truck races this season. So NASCAR did what was expeditious but not what’s right. Show me the page in the rulebook that says you end a race early if factors conspire to make it run too late. Like they did at Daytona. A frickin’ week ago.
One of my colleagues says that it took the track crew 3.5 hours to make the repairs. But the head of the joint said they could have made them a lot faster if they had to. Of course, when he said that he was trying to assure folks who might potentially come to the NXS or Cup races they could fix things faster if the need arose. So we’re working on mysteries without any clues as to how the race might have turned out or how late it would have ended. (Oddly enough a rebroadcast of the race was scheduled later in the evening on FOX Sports 2.) But I do know if I’d laid out my hard-earned cash to go that race and I wasn’t allowed to see it play out, this Grumble-fish would have been at the turnstile demanding my money back. As it is, I feel cheated for having invested my time watching a race that never ended. Someone at NASCAR ought to send me a case of Red Bull. You can just have Stewart deliver it. He’s coming by to let me take his Ferrari for a spin around the block anyway. But keep the number five in mind, my friends. Cause if Jones loses that title by five points or fewer, you can be fairly certain my head will explode.