With the Christmas revelry over with and the new year dutifully noted on checks to the home heating oil folks the winter doldrums have set in for those of us in subgenus Gearheadus Maximus. The usual offseason salves are playing their course. The Detroit Auto show was pretty much a bust other than one shapely Buick concept car that’s about as likely to be produced as I am to win a Pulitzer. (It’s tough to accept it’s been almost 30 years since Buick produced a lust worthy car, the turbo Regal Series.) The Kissimmee and Arizona collector car auctions are starting up and folks my age will once again get weepy-eyed watching the same cars we wheeled down Thunder Road and paid a couple grand for now commanding six-digit prices. Of course the reason those old, cherry muscle cars are so rare these days is because we routinely blew them up or wrecked them back then. Last autumn, the owner of a Boss 302 I owned in college tracked me down in an attempt to learn about the car’s history. (I was the car’s second owner.) He probably wishes he hadn’t after I filled in him on how the friend I sold that Mustang to wrecked it a week later and blew the original engine shortly after Frankenstein-style repairs were done with junkyard parts at a glorified chop shop off of Lancaster Pike. Apparently, my old Boss had the ultra-rare “Christine” option because the new owner was told it’s got 18,000 less miles on it then when I sold it and was marketed as “all-original sheetmetal,” a survivor that had never seen bad weather. (Fair enough. I drove it in the snow routinely as my daily driver but like most Fords of that era the car was blind.)
Presumably, the annual Paris-Dakar rally is taking place though it’s not the same a hemisphere removed from both Paris and Dakar and it’s not on TV anymore due to terror concerns. Networks were terrified that no one was watching the event because the front runners were from Eastern Europe; they had names that looked like the alphabet tried driving in Charlotte during a snow flurry, placed behind the wheel of vehicles not imported into the U.S. During the off week between the conference title games and the Stupid Bowl, cars driven in anger return to the track with the Rolex 24 Hour sports car event. This year’s big story is the return of the Ford GT to battle the other big buck exotics in class in preparation for a return to Le Mans, where the cars ancestor the GT40 ruled the roost in the mid-1960s. (No, GT40s weren’t available for two grand while I was in high school.) It bothers me the new GT is powered by a six-cylinder though I guess it’s a sign of the times. That six cylinder engine puts out more power than the old 427 Ford engine but sixes are for chicks and guys in the school band. Sadly, the fastest car available in 0-60 MPH sprints plugs in rather than burning dino juice but to me, a supercharger is always going to be a GMC 6-71 not a recharging station where you go to burn your Tesla to the ground at ludicrous speed.
This year’s Daytona 500 isn’t until February 21st, which strikes me as a week later than usual. As the great, clunking, oil-belching beast that is NASCAR racing awakens from its long winter nap (badly hung over, showing some battle scars and muttering “we crowned who champion?” as it reaches for a half-full Budweiser on the night table) the official merriment began with the media tour. I’m sure it was a good idea once upon a time but I’ll sit it out. I’m better suited to magical mystery tours than farcical media tours. Given the advent of this internet thing, which appears likely to stick around, the same info is available in real time without having to stay in a Holiday Inn and endure early morning wakeup calls. (I’m told you can set your cell phone to wake you up rather than counting on the front desk. I can’t and I have no interest in learning to do so.) As such, I will surrender my ability to ask probing questions to the benefit of all concerned…I tend to be a bit cranky before noon. Someone else will have to ask the usual inane questions. Is Kasey Kahne going to win a race this year? How do you like your chances this year, Jack? As if someone is going to reply, “Kasey? I doubt it, he’s taken a few too many blows to the head” or “I think we’ll suck again this year but we have to go through the motions prior to the midseason fire sale.” Here’s a hint. In the rosy dawn of a new season every driver and team thinks they’ll have a good year and most likely make the playoffs. It’ll likely be late April or early May before drivers and crew chiefs have to be separated with fire hoses as they swing Crescent wrenches at each other’s heads after a lackluster start to the season. This leads to what the press releases term “a mutually-agreed upon parting of ways.”
The Cup season gets started with the race formerly known as the Busch Clash. It was originally a sprint race, open only to drivers who won a pole the previous season but I think now drivers only need have a pulse to compete. (Or, for Canadian drivers, the ability to solve an easy math problem so it’s a contest of skill, not chance.) The new format is said to be more TV friendly though ratings haven’t borne that out. Qualifying at the plate tracks might be the most singularly boring such sessions of the year and the results really only matter to the two fastest drivers anyway. The rest of the field will be set in the Twin Qualifiers, now run on Thursday night under the lights in recognition most fans work Thursday afternoons. Unlike the days of yore only a few teams will miss the race so it’s hardly nail-biting stuff, especially given the nature of plate racing. Some drivers who qualify near the front will drop to the back to avoid the big wrecks until the last ten laps anyway. Thus, teams battle for 150 miles for the chance to pick a good pit stall for the 500. They used to say if one qualifier race was boring the other would likely be action-packed. Nowadays, if one qualifier is boring the other will likely be worse. (Real quick… who won the 2015 qualifying races? Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. My guess is most of you had forgotten.)
Even once we make it to the Daytona 500 it’s tough to say that the Cup season has started. The plate engines are only run at Daytona and Talladega so the aero package used for those four races is also unique. I’m not sure if the multiple green-white-checkered rule is in effect for the 500 either. It wasn’t at Talladega last fall and you’ll recall the resultant merriment that caused. After Daytona, the circuit heads off to four races at the intermediate (well, Phoenix is a one-mile track) shallowly-banked ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule. That’s when we’ll finally get some clue as to who has what this year. How irrelevant is a 500 victory as an indicator of season-long success? Only five drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the title during the same year. Richard Petty did so four times (1964, ’71, ’74 and ’79) while Johnson is the only active driver to have done so, (2006 and ’13). Jeff Gordon is the only other driver to manage the feat since 1979.
After Easter break, the series visits three short tracks in four weeks (tell your significant other you’ll clean the gutters out April 9th during Texas) for some “real” racing. After that, the next stop at a bull ring isn’t until the late August Bristol Night Race. Sigh.
Yes, the schedule could use a good overhaul if NASCAR’s network “partners” would be kind enough to acquiesce, but there’s still stories worth following this year. (To be frank, any break from the sheer moronity of the political discourse of late can only be healthy). Yes, there’s the new aero package which the drivers were championing; now that they’ve been kind enough to allow NASCAR to say it was their idea all along it goes into effect this year. I’m genuinely hopeful that the package will lead to significantly better racing as it did at Kentucky and Darlington last year. If I didn’t think there’s a good chance that will happen, I’d have traded this keyboard for a beach chair. Do I think every race is going to be an instant classic? No, I don’t think that’s realistic especially given the teams have to sort the new package out. My guess is one or two teams will figure it out faster than the others and as such might dominate early in the season. But secrets don’t stay secret long in the garage area in this era and some very talented people are going to be burning the midnight oil (which hopefully will be dropping in price like the real thing) to catch up. My guess is the racing gets notably better by early summer. NASCAR really needs a significantly better ratio of classics to clunkers to arrest the mass exodus from the sport. This package could be the best “one more last chance” the sport has as we know it.
The powers that be know that reality despite all their purple prose about the health of the sport and its long-term prospects. The Race Team Alliance, that group of team owners, is keenly aware of the status quo and seems to be circling the wagons at least for the short haul. It will be interesting to see if they get the franchising (oops, sorry, “medallion”) system off the ground. The latest I’ve heard is they’re going for 36 guaranteed starting spots in reduced 40-car fields. The fact NASCAR will talk with them is a sign of the new reality. All the stakeholders are getting nervous about getting their slice of rapidly diminishing pie. Over the decades, I’ve learned the very rich are in fact very different from you and me. The rich get richer and the poor get socked with a bigger cable bill to watch races on Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN.
Only Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing had really good years last year. Hendrick Motorsports and their affiliate teams did very well, too though perhaps they failed to meet preseason expectations with the notable exception of Kevin Harvick. Two big name teams really need a dramatic turnaround in 2016. Jack Roush’s teams failed to win a single race for the first time since 1996. The defections of Carl Edwards and before him Matt Kenseth to “the dark side” proved to be problematic. Roush has a lot of talented drivers in the pipeline but they’ve got to be eyeing the exits nervously after the 2015 Cup season. As for the once proud Richard Childress Racing organization, they need to decide if they want to remain a competitive race team or become Pop Pop’s Toy Shop for his grandkids to play in.
Then there’s the case of three-time champion Tony Stewart. Fans hopes he will fare a bit better in this his retirement season than he did last few years. (Stewart has finished 29th, 25th and 28th in the standings since the end of 2012.) It might not be realistic to expect Stewart to run neck-and-neck with teammate/employee Harvick but perhaps he can run stronger than Danica Patrick this year. Stewart kicked off his retirement tour early through a confrontation with a drunk in the stands at the Chili Bowl. On a brighter note, nobody is going to care what Stewart does in his spare time next year. Among his stated goals for 2016 Stewart has said he wants to win the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, two prizes that have eluded him to date. Don’t bet the ranch on Tony winning either of those events.
It’s hard to say last year the Fords were at a disadvantage. Joey Logano won the most races of anyone at the wheel of a Fusion. This year, Ford has a redesigned race car (no sense in even calling them stock cars anymore, is there?) Truth be told I think Ford has let its talent pool be fished out too far and has all their eggs in just two primary baskets. What I hope we won’t see is weekly rules changes to the new aero rules like we did in the 1980s and ’90s as NASCAR tries for “parity” among the makes. In the brave new world of auto sales, with ever smaller, boosted engines, driver “aids” (Let’s call em what they are, self-driving cars for the criminally incompetent cell phone addicts) and hybrids it’s an open question how much longer NASCAR racing will remain relevant to the automakers. Yep, I drive a Chevy just like Junior. Only I need to plug mine in at night, I can sit in the back seat toking a bone while it drives me to the 7-11, and GM isn’t even going to be building any cars much less the SS in Australia after this year. Look for some totally pointless gesture on NASCAR’s part like a rule cars must enter and leave pit road on battery power by the end of the decade. Yeah, like Bobby once sang the times are a-changing. The recent passing of David Bowie and Glenn Frey drove home the point for those of my generation. Even the Boss is out touring highlighting songs from The River, an album released while I was in college. But some relics of the past, racing fast loud cars for instance, are never going to be politically correct.
Along the same lines it’ll be interesting to see who NASCAR signs as title sponsor for the Cup Series starting next year. They must not be beating down the door because the phone company types were willing to take an early exit if a replacement could be found. Truth is, the phone company has been a disaster for NASCAR racing. Winston took a much more hands-on approach to their investment and growing the sport. The phone company took a hands-off approach, letting Brian France navigate the good ship NASCAR. Now that he’s run it into the rocky shoals they’re heading for the lifeboats. And soccer. That’s going to leave a bruise. Soccer? What’s going on? Perhaps there’s a clue in a comment Brian France made in this week’s State of the Sport address concerning the Chase. “Fans, partners and the industry,” he said. “Have embraced the new Chase format like nothing we’ve seen in the sport’s history.” I can’t speak for the industry or the partners but most fans I know have embraced the new Chase format like a cactus covered in flesh-eating maggots.
But in the end it doesn’t matter which corporate entity becomes title sponsor. It doesn’t matter which automaker wins the most races. Even the convoluted and terminally problematic method of crowning a Cup champion more fans loathe than like isn’t the key issue. What it comes down to is simple: it’s the racing, stupid. What we need to see is a return to the sort of competition that made NASCAR appointment TV on Sunday afternoons. NASCAR racing the last few years, hell, one could argue the last decade has turned once rabid fans into casual fans and casual fans into non-fans. The beating and banging, fenders crumpling and tires smoking, win-at-all-costs style of racing isn’t always pretty but it puts butts in the seats and glues eyes to TVs. NASCAR has mortgaged their future on the patience, good will and loyalty of their remaining hardcore fans and that debt is overdue. It’s time they pay up.
So let the games start,
You better run your little hearts apart,
You can run through all the nights
And all the days,
But just across the county line,
A stranger passing through put up a sign,
That counts the men fallen away,
To the price you pay…