Did You Notice? … By Wednesday, no one seems to care who triumphed on the greatest weekend in racing? That the biggest story from both the Indianapolis 500 and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 had nothing to do with who won?
It’s not just that both races suffered through ratings declines (both were down 13 percent). Other sideshow-like moments detracted from feel-good victories that would otherwise be dominating the headlines.
In NASCAR, you had the Kyle Busch mic drop. Busch finished second, but in 12 seconds, one short question from ESPN’s Bob Pockrass made him the center of attention heading to Dover International Speedway.
The next three days have felt like Psychology 101 over a Busch personality we’ve studied like a master’s thesis for years. “Is this the new or old Kyle?” “Is he a sore loser or a much-needed boost to a sport full of vanilla and political correctness?” “Are these temper tantrums hurting the team and part of the reason Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling this season?”
Even Brad Keselowski got in the act, exchanging a Twitter back-and-forth with Toyota’s Andy Graves. The end result is three days of talking about what happened off the track instead of what happened on it, a trend that speaks as much to NASCAR’s problems and it does Busch’s overall star power and popularity. Not only that… but this story is old.
How many times can we study the intricacies of Busch’s psyche? Sure, he provides plenty of opportunities, but if that’s the only bulletpoint coming out of 600 miles of Charlotte, that’s a sad state of affairs.
Sure, the racing wasn’t that great Sunday, like it’s been on most intermediates this season. But did you see what pulled into Victory Lane? It’s only the most iconic, famous number in the history of NASCAR besides the Petty Blue No. 43 and Wood Brothers No. 21. The No. 3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time champion, finally got over the hump four years after Austin Dillon brought it back into prominence.
Dillon, who made his first playoff appearance in 2016, joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as a first-time winner this season. Both men are fan friendly, in their late 20s and have attachments to people casual sports fan might know on the street. (For Dillon, it’s replacing Earnhardt; for Stenhouse, it’s famous racing girlfriend Danica Patrick.) Most importantly, it’s a fresh face that could be introduced to a racing world in transition to a new generation of stars. That’s a positive vibe worth covering.
Sure, Dillon didn’t show up front until the final two laps, a fuel mileage gamble gone right through solid strategy at Richard Childress Racing. (They now have two of their drivers, Dillon and Ryan Newman, sitting in playoff position through their thinking on the pit box). But on a Sunday night at Charlotte where much of the racing was muted, having a surprise like that could have put the focus on racing rather than someone else’s ruffled feathers. You still have to put yourself in position to win these types of long races, and Dillon did that.
Instead, we’ve got the Keselowski-Busch feud, which is a rivalry that’s good for the sport. But this latest chapter didn’t even spark from on-track contact! There’s also little reason to worry about a driver like Busch, who just won three out of the last five races he entered. Let’s review. Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway? Win. Cup race at Kansas? Fifth. Then it’s a weekend sweep at Charlotte (Trucks and the All-Star Race), followed by Sunday’s runner-up finish.
Yes, Charlotte is a track where Busch has never won a points-paying Cup race. The frustration of running second is understandable considering he came so close to a crown jewel. But why spend so much time on it? It’s not like the veteran is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs a la Dale Earnhardt Jr.; in fact, he scored 16 more points than Dillon in that race under the ridiculous new points system. We’ll see him gunning for the title come September, I’m sure of it.
But social media and fans, instead gravitated to letting Busch have his moment. What that became was a missed opportunity to recognize Dillon’s accomplishment and put a positive spin on what otherwise became another dull 600.
Indy, on the other hand, delivered another exciting 500 for open wheel with a hold-your-breath-and-thank-God moment when Scott Dixon went careening airborne into the SAFER Barrier. There was healthy competition throughout, punctuated by a thrilling ending between three-time winner Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato.
No doubt, longtime fans were thinking of Sato’s near miss in the closing laps, a pass for the win in the 2012 Indy 500 devolving into a last-lap wreck. This time, Sato was able to close the deal and become the first Japanese winner of open-wheel’s biggest race in America.
That should have been the story. Instead, it was a racist tweet from Terry Frei that took center stage, one for which the now-former Denver Post writer has apologized.
Frei followed up with a Twitter apology, explaining the reasons why he was focused on a war that ended 72 years ago, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. With 140 characters, a lifetime of award-winning work in Colorado and in national sportswriting was wiped out.
In an instant, the race itself took second stage to a larger, political debate about what Frei said, how it should be handled and how many people should be offended.
Lost was the years of hard work Sato put in to get to the pinnacle of his career. He’s the first 40-year-old Indy 500 winner since Eddie Cheever Jr. in 1998 and has a fun-loving, distinct personality that’s made him a darling of the IndyCar paddock. His Japanese heritage gives the sport a diverse, international flavor, and gives it added world momentum in the wake of Fernando Alonso ditching Formula 1 in favor of a phenomenal rookie performance in the 500.
But the story of Sato has also been lost in the shuffle. Don’t believe me? Just Google Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600. What comes up first in both cases? Stories about Frei and Kyle Busch’s comments in his post-race presser. The actual racing has been overshadowed by off-track controversy.
Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with the sport right now in general. Isn’t the best way to sell your product to have people focused on the product itself? Lost in all this talk about both marquee events this year was the actual racing.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Here’s what Dillon’s win does do: puts the pressure on a lot of big names who still haven’t won. Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne are three big ones on the outside of the playoffs looking in that may need a victory to get in. And for super sophomores like Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, winless seasons to date mean a playoff bid is no guarantee. Remember the slump Elliott got in last summer? A similar version this year would likely knock him out of contention.
- Martin Truex Jr. didn’t win Charlotte Sunday night. But gosh, the way this team runs on intermediates the past two years he’s got to be the title favorite in a playoff that still focuses on 1.5-milers, right?
- Jimmie Johnson has 10 career victories at Dover in 30 starts. That’s a victory one out of every three times out. But in his last three starts there? He doesn’t even have a top-five finish. Sounds like this champion is due.
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