Did You Notice? Another Sprint Cup year is in the books? A season chock full of criticism and controversy at times ended on a high note; television ratings for the Chase finale at Homestead were the highest we’ve seen in 10 years. Kyle Busch became a controversial champion to some (considering he missed 11 races earlier this season) but a new face on top and a heartwarming comeback from February Daytona injuries helped calm the critics.
There’s been many difficult moments for NASCAR this season; this site has written about plenty of them. But as the year comes to a close I think it’s important to spend a moment accentuating the positives. Who wants to be a Negative Nancy during the holidays? So, as we shift into the offseason and finish digesting Thanksgiving Turkey over in these parts here’s some stuff to take from 2015 that won’t leave you swearing at the television.
– For getting to watch Jeff Gordon‘s career from beginning to end. I’ll write on Gordon more in-depth next week but he’s the first Hall of Fame driver for whom I’ve witnessed… everything. I was just 11 when Gordon stepped onto the NASCAR scene, part of the season-ending Atlanta race of 1992 that was “King” Richard Petty‘s last and contained a six-man, edge-of-your-seat battle for the championship under the old system. It was a defining race for many fans of my generation and even though Gordon crashed that day, failing to finish the soft-spoken analysis of Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett made it clear to everyone watching this kid was going to be something.
I grew up with Gordon, graduating high school just after he’d reached the peak of his NASCAR career in only his mid-20s. By age 27, he had won three titles, tied a modern-era record with 13 victories in 1998 and sparked a friendly rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr. that was key to the sport’s growth. But he also sparked a lot of boos. Boy, were there boos. The new fans he attracted were matched by an anti-Gordon sentiment as he learned a hard lesson: people hate the dynasty.
Gordon didn’t deserve it; he was a good man on and off the track. Before I covered the sport professionally, starting in the mid-2000s I was never a fan but I also respected his success and the way he carried himself. Gordon’s own personal transitions, including the loss of star crew chief Ray Evernham and a divorce from first wife Brooke Sealy had turned the tide of fan opinion by then. But I think fans really went all sentimental on Gordon once the Chase came into play and it was clear the four-time champ became the biggest victim within the new format. Now, more than ever it’s hard to compare the “old way” to NASCAR’s playoffs because teams prepare all season for races 27 through 36. However, back in the early years of the Chase it was crystal clear Gordon would have won the title without it in ’07; he’d likely have done the same in ’04. That one decision by an eager Brian France wound up supplanting Gordon as the premier driver at Hendrick Motorsports and putting hand-selected teammate Jimmie Johnson in his place. Fans could relate to that; a mental shift from despised dominator to respected elder statesman was inevitable.
Looking back, even though Gordon never won another title after 2001 his resume is one of the best we’ve ever seen. 93 victories trail only David Pearson and Petty. He holds the record for Brickyard 400 victories, captured the Daytona 500 three times and brought the sport as much crossover appeal, if not more so than Earnhardt. Much of 2015 saw Gordon celebrated, not booed at the tracks and his Martinsville victory this fall, arguably the season’s best race was rightfully applauded. You can’t appreciate the sport without respecting the career of a man like Gordon and watching him succeed on the way out, nearly pulling a “John Elway” and taking home a title was great to see.
– For Eldora. Each and every year. Eldora reminds us where the sport came from, connects one of its smaller divisions (Trucks) to its roots and provides a forum for young drivers to jump on the landscape in an era where money, not talent talks. This year, Christopher Bell and Bobby Pierce were both noticed and may owe their NASCAR careers down the road to this event. The only shame, one I think will be corrected in 2016 is that the sport can’t attract more teams and drivers to this midweek delight before a weekend at Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400.
While we’re on the topic I’m thankful for a Truck Series whose title was decided in the best way possible; hard-nosed, dare I say quintessential, racing. Matt Crafton suffered from some bad luck, then came charging back and put young Erik Jones on the ropes. The driver responded with a win at Texas, then a dominating performance at Phoenix that caused a desperation wreck by Crafton in a last-ditch effort to take the title. Once that failed, you knew how the final chapter would turn out but the competition was impressive and it was… shall we say… “natural” in how it unfolded. No wonder why the Truck Series as a whole still has stable ratings and appears to have an increase in both ownership and car count next season. The purses need to be improved (especially considering NASCAR’s TV money) but that’s a start.
– For NASCAR listening. Clearly, there have been decisions this year that have been “head scratchers.” For me, they include the “high drag” package at Michigan (after it failed already), taking too long to alter a wacky qualifying system at plate tracks and the way Joey Logano–Matt Kenseth was handled. At the same time, more than ever a direct statement like that attacking the way this sport does business is handled not with panic but open arms. The sanctioning body has humbled itself, listening intently to owners, drivers, fans, and even the media that covers the sport on suggestions surrounding how to improve the racing product.
One of those ideas will come to fruition in 2016: NASCAR’s new low-downforce rules package which many hope will increase competition that came to a screeching halt on intermediate tracks. There are other ideas still in the works, from franchising to long-term scheduling adjustments that are designed with the future health of the sport in mind. NASCAR is working hand-in-hand with some of the key people that will be involved in those decisions, getting feedback from the fan base in the process and taking its time to try and do them right. Whatever the reasoning behind it, you’ve got to give them credit for trying and being more directly engaged with all who care about the sport’s future.
– For Martinsville. There’s no season so bad it can’t be fixed by 500 laps of racing there. Even Bristol fell victim to the new rules package at times, but that paperclip excels at making cars come to life.
– For Cinderella stories that still exist. We saw one in Martin Truex Jr. who came to the precipice of the first single-car championship since Earnhardt for Richard Childress Racing in 1995. Franchising or no, for this sport to be viable long-term potential new owners need to see an ability to succeed with this sport at an affordable price. They need to be able to enter with one team, not four and feel like there’s still a shot at making the Chase with the right alliance and right sponsorship. Truex’s story provides that hope.
Runner-up: John Hunter Nemechek‘s victory in the Truck Series despite limited sponsorship support.
– For a championship that was decided by a victory, captured by a driver in Busch that worked his ass off. We can debate NASCAR’s rules all we want but Busch played by them, won five times in 25 starts and ended the final race finishing in first place. In some ways, you can’t ask for more and Busch’s drive to maturity is a feel-good story after years of losing titles by shooting himself in the foot. Now, about that pesky waiver… oh right, I said I’d stay positive. Moving on :).
– Lastly, this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for the wonderful staff of writers and editors at Frontstretch who performed at the highest level I’ve seen this year. Many have stood by this site for years, for better or for worse; all of them went above and beyond at the beginning of the year when I took personal leave. I couldn’t ask for more from them and appreciate all of you as well; our fan base grew this year during an at-times trying season for the sport. We appreciate your readership and thanks for fueling the passion that leaves us at our best!