Thursday, most fans of the sport were delighted to hear that three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart had recovered well enough from a back injury suffered in an OHV accident that he could resume racing again. NASCAR welcomed him back with the now near-obligatory waiver of the requirement to run every race to potentially make the Chase. You’ll recall reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch was granted a similar exemption last year after missing the opening phase of the season after being injured in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona. Like Busch, Stewart will have to win a race and enter the top 30 in points to be Chase eligible. (Busch didn’t just win one race after he returned. He won a bunch of them.) That may be a taller order for Stewart, who finished just 24th in the standings last year despite running every race. Stewart also failed to win a race last year, and he’s been in a winless drought since the June race at Dover in 2013. The optimist in me says Stewart will do fine in the new lower downforce cars having raced a considerable amount of time in short wheelbase sprint cars on dirt tracks. And having Stewart back racing again might very well be beneficial to the sport. Stewart has legions of fans and some pundits have opined that this year’s lackluster attendance and TV ratings are largely due to Jeff Gordon’s retirement and Stewart being MIA, which have contributed to a decline of interest in the sport. For all you Stewart fans, feel free to head back to the track. Trust me, you’ll find plenty of room in the stands even for those of you with most “robust constitutions.” (Not to go off on a tangent, but it seems to me that an awful lot of Tony Stewart fans are fat, perhaps because Stewart is one of the few remaining unapologetically fat race drivers.)
But on the same day Stewart announced he was returning to the track, NASCAR gave him a rather unique “Welcome back, Champ” gift in the form of a $35,000 fine. Supposedly Stewart earned the fine for his less-than-positive thoughts on NASCAR’s new policy of not policing the old lug nut rules on pit road as part of the “Big Brother” pit road monitoring system. (Apparently Big Brother can’t see the left-hand side of the cars.) Stewart went on to postulate that someone, in his opinion, is going to get hurt as a result. I don’t happen to agree with Stewart on that issue, though I am foursquare in supporting his right to voice his opinion. I feel it’s up to the teams to police themselves when it comes to tightening lug nuts and the consequences of screwing things up are to their detriment and to the detriment of their driver, as we have seen numerous times over this season’s races. I feel getting the NASCAR officials who used to go over the wall to monitor crew member’s right side efforts out of harm’s way will likely prevent more incidents than it potentially might cause. Over the decades, I’ve seen numerous NASCAR pit road officials struck by cars and not always accidentally. Tragically back in the day some of those incidents resulted in fatalities.
It seems to me that Stewart, who not only drives a race car but co-owns four teams, is in a unique position to change things if he feels that strongly about the issue. He can simply order his employees that they must tighten all five lug nuts on all four wheels every pit stop. But I am sure that no team owner wants to be the first to make such an edict because they are surrendering a potential competitive advantage, especially late in the race. My guess is if you were to poll pit crew members, drivers, and team owners all of them would support a return to the rule requiring all lug nuts to be tightened but as I’ve said no one wants to go first. Even those few tenths of a second lost can cost many spots exiting pit roads and over the last half-decade or so as many races have been decided in the pits as they have out on the track.
What has me particularly confused (and to be honest that isn’t hard to do), is I read the comments that Stewart made leading up to the fine and if anything I thought his comments were more politically correct than is typical for him. In fact he said NASCAR has a positive record on safety measures (and you’ll recall Stewart was vocal in his opposition to the HANS device when NASCAR started requiring all drivers to wear one) “but added in this one particular area, they are totally dropping the ball and I feel like really made a grossly bad decision on this.” OK. Stewart is not alone in that opinion. Was it the fact he used the word “crap” during his spiel. NASCAR has a very low tolerance for profanity in general as evidenced most notably in 2004 when they fined Dale Earnhardt, Jr. $10,000 and 25 points for his use of another euphemism for manure in Winner’s Circle at Talladega.
The alleged violation is said to fall under section 12 of NASCAR”s rulebook (which fans still can’t get a copy of, allegedly because it contains “trade secrets”) governing driver conduct more specifically Section 12.8.1 forbidding actions that include disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership with a fine somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000. To be frank, I’d be shocked if Brian France could either spell or define “disparaging.” I’ve always been uncomfortable with that language as a bit too Orwellian for my tastes, but then I’m one of those bookish types that actually read Orwell without having it assigned to me by a high school English teacher. I can understand how NASCAR might react poorly to a driver saying that races are fixed (or that they’re crap for that matter) but citing a single instance where a driver feels NASCAR has made an error hardly seems like a verbal body slam. As I’m writing this NASCAR hasn’t pointed out what exactly got them so riled up which seems counterintuitive. Levying a fine should serve as an example to the other competitors that a certain conduct is not acceptable. $35 G is a pretty hefty fine, more than those pit crew members got fined for brawling at Charlotte post-race in 2014 or other drivers and teams have been penalized for post-race inspection rules infractions that gave those drivers and teams an unfair advantage.
And it would seem I’m not alone in thinking Stewart’s fine is ridiculous (no, they can’t fine me). The NASCAR driver’s council has announced they don’t agree with the penalty either and they plan to pay Stewart’s fine for him. (For the record Stewart is a member of that driver’s council so he’ll have to pony up some of the money.) And there I was ready to spearhead an effort to get fans to contribute pennies to pay Stewart’s fine under the banner, “A Penny For Your Thoughts.” But NASCAR drivers have more hundred dollar bills than most of us have pennies so that works too.
I’m left to think that perhaps NASCAR is perhaps a bit overly sensitive right now in that they are trying to land a new series sponsor (an entitlement that involves hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars) to replace the cell-phone company Sprint. I’m sure most of you keep your homes nice and tidy, but if it you had it up for sale right now, you’d likely be doing some fluffing and buffing prior to viewings. And to torture the analogy to its limits, a strong case can be made NASCAR doesn’t have their house in order right now. Sure, attendance and ratings are down and we’re re-thinking exactly when we’ll be more popular than the NFL but what the heck, just sign right here and hand over a mammoth check.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but being an old curmudgeon, I don’t put much stock in coincidences. It seemed odd to me this week that some NASCAR writers (I won’t name names but one on ESPN and another on this very site) chose this week to basically call race fans out on the carpet. These writers, and I’ll shed my last drop of blood to defend any writer’s freedom to express their thoughts as they see fit, said in a lot more words than this that fans need to keep their expectations realistic, and start attending races and watching NASCAR on TV again. Fans, they say, need to be more positive and quit whining so much. Obviously I’ve made a career out of whining a bunch at times. And I’ve been at this game a long time. To enjoy any success at it, NASCAR writers need to learn to think like a fan and not to tell fans what to think. As I see it, I don’t go to your place of work and do your job for you so I have forfeited my right to tell you how to spend your hard-earned dollars. If you didn’t go to Bristol during an admittedly beautiful climatic weekend because you blanche at or simply can’t afford a crummy $300 dollars a night with a four night minimum motel room trust me I understand. If you simply don’t care for the new style of racing at Bristol well that’s your right. Yes, yes, I get it. Bristol holds a lot of fans and even with those vast gaping sections of empty seats there were a bunch of folks on hand so the demise of NASCAR isn’t imminent. Inevitable perhaps, but not imminent. And my least favorite argument about some fans (and former fans) and their low opinion of today’s NASCAR is that they are unrealistic in their expectations considering the quality of today’s racing. “The good old days actually weren’t so good” they tell us. I liken it to a local tavern that over time became a popular hangout. Then new ownership redoes the place, gets rid of some favorites off the menu and raises the prices. All of a sudden there’s empty barstools even at Happy Hour. The new owner’s best strategy isn’t a marketing campaign that states “Aw, this place was never much fun to hang out anyway. You’re remembering the old bar in rose-tinted recollections.” If anything that’s just going to piss off more old-timers. The proper solution is to return the joint to “how it used to be” and return to the things that people liked about the old place. Go ahead and try a “What’s seven lousy bucks for a beer and nobody has actually ever died eating stuff off our vegan menu” but I doubt it will work out very well. Over the years I’ve lost some of my favorite hangouts, most regrettably the Sawmill and Eagle Tavern, to new owners who thought they knew better what the customers actually wanted than the customers.
Could it be some writers are feeling a little pressure to lighten the mood up a little whilst NASCAR courts a new sponsor? Over the course of my career (and it frightens me sometimes that I’ve been doing this for twenty years now off and on but mostly on) I’ve been asked or told to tone it down more than once. “Try to be more positive”, “whoa, you can’t say that”, “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say….” Etc. Somehow it seems lost on some folks that the “Mc” at the beginning of my last name indicates that I’m of Hibernian descent. Most notably that occurred way back in February of 2001. Not long afterwards I had a terse little meeting behind the NASCAR trailer with a bigwig concerning why I’d no longer be getting credentials. When that failed to shut me NASCAR’s sister organization bought the website I wrote for I wound up getting fired. Well to paraphrase Springsteen “I’m still here. They’re all gone.” I find that amusing. If I’ve spent more time in these five decades doing anything than watching stock car races it’s been all the time I’ve spent under the hoods of a wide variety of old cars, trucks and motorcycles. (OK, so motorcycles don’t actually have hoods but stick with me.) I’ve figured out along the way that a battery needs a positive and negative post to work correctly. Just don’t mix the two up. Did I mention I’ve spent some time with a fire extinguisher under the hood of old cars too?
Curiously enough I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in years about the sport’s short-term future. I do think the new low downforce cars combined with grippier tires that wear out faster is going to make for better racing down the line perhaps even in the second half of this season. It’s not happening every week right now and it won’t help at every track but then this is all new. The crew chiefs, teams and drivers are all pretty good about figuring out new challenges which is why, I suppose, they can afford to pay a $35,000 fine for a flippant remark. But until I see a positive change week in and week out I’m not going to be cribbing notes from “Pollyanna’s Guide to Advanced English Composition.” Fans by and large still hate the Chase though it’s been tweaked more than once. It needs to go. Stock cars need to be more stock, a rather scary proposition in that in this era of hybrids and best-selling crossovers (which I strongly feel should be able to use parking spots according to perceived vehicular identity) cars just aren’t cars as much anymore much less stock cars. (But hey, we still have Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers just like back when the earth was still cooling not warming.) If NASCAR types felt a little uneasy looking at all those empty seats at Bristol perhaps it behooves them to appeal to local Chambers of Commerce to put some pressure on hostelries and eateries to stop strangling the goose that lays the golden eggs. Likewise it would seem that based on the laws of supply and demand that when demand goes down to the point that there’s a surplus prices should fall and that applies to race tickets too. And, perhaps most importantly, NASCAR needs to sit down with their beloved “TV partners” and insist some elements of the broadcast team stop acting like jabbering jackasses trying out on comedy night at the local improv and start acting like sports journalists there to report on an event not be the event. If NASCAR really fined folks for “conduct detrimental to the sport” the Brothers Waltrip would be in the hock for billions.
So I guess we go forward as usual from here on out. I’ll write about what I’m thinking when it comes to the sport. And you’re free as always to agree or disagree with me with whatever level of hosannas or vehemence you choose to do so. Either way, I’m fine with that.
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