How do you define summer? Meteorologically speaking, summer begins June 21st and ends September 22nd. For younger folks, “summer” is that magical period when school is closed from sometime in May or June until early September. For beachgoers, airlines, and yes, stock car racing fans, summer tends to be defined as the period starting on Memorial Day weekend and ending on Labor Day weekend.
In my mind, I’ve always divided the Cup season into three parts. You have the “Opening Stretch” from the Daytona 500 until Kansas. (This year, at least.) Then, you have the “Endless Summer” (though, in fact, it only feels that way sometimes.) And of course you have the “Stretch Drive” to end the season. This year, that starts at Richmond and runs through the end of the playoffs at Homestead. (Next year, Indy moves to the first post-Labor Day slot when Richmond becomes a playoff race.)
During that Opening Stretch, the drivers began sorting themselves out as far as which drivers and teams assert themselves as potential title contenders. Every year, there will be some teams that show surprising strength and others that fail to live up to admittedly lofty expectations. To date this season, the Chip Ganassi teams, particularly the No. 42 outfit with driver Kyle Larson (The Other White Kyle?) are showing great improvement. Larson is in fact leading the points as this is being written Saturday night before the Dover race. While not quite as dramatic, the Roush Fenway organization is also showing signs of life. While it’s hard to consider Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s Talladega victory as a milestone (as we’ve seen time and time again, anyone can win at a plate track) it is a sign of progress. Trevor Bayne and Stenhouse are both within the top 20 in points right now. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking the Stewart-Haas team was going to need a mulligan this year as they transitioned from Chevys to Ford but they’ve hit the ground firing on all eight cylinders with the obvious exception of the distaff member of the organization.
On the other hand, as this is written, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization has yet to win a points paying Cup race. By this point last year those four drivers had combined to win seven events. Of course two of those wins were scored by Carl Edwards who stunned the world by retiring prior to this season. Still it’s only over the last couple weeks the JGR brigade has shown any real strength. (And a decided lack of class in one instance. I’ll get to that, Campers. Who do you suppose Boy Bummer is?) And it can’t be that the Toyotas are at a disadvantage as the JGR sister car of Martin Truex, Jr. has been running very, very well. As many times as folks have written that Rick Hendrick’s outfits best days are behind them it’s still a fool’s bet. Jimmie Johnson won at Dover on Sunday. Previously Johnson won back to back races at Texas and Bristol and came about a medicine dropper’s worth of fuel from winning at Charlotte. The four HMS teams have combined to score just 10 top 5 finishes (of a possible 52) this year to date with the New Kid in Town, Chase Elliott, contributing four of them. Johnson’s three wins are his only top 5 finishes to date. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is retiring at the end of the season. Kasey Kahne may be whether he intends to or not after two major sponsors indicated they won’t be back in 2018. Yep, it looks like HMS is going to be going through a rebuilding period which is going to be a shock for some younger fans.When a team is winning constantly it seems that they’ll never lose again. And when a team is losing constantly and rookies are replacing proven veteran winners it seems that team will never win again. They will. And they will. I’ve seen this process repeat itself so many times over the five decades I’ve been a fan it’s got a comfortable familiarity to it. Heck, I could go on and write a melancholy poem about the process but I’m not feeling particularly poetic this evening as I monitor what’s going on in England. So screw that crap. Perhaps I’ll manage a haiku in the coming weeks.
During the summer stretch, the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Some stars will rise in the firmament while other drivers will see their hopes dashed. The process is no longer as dramatic as it traditionally was what with this “Chaseoff” process. It seems a driver can score a single win then string together some top 10 finishes in the playoffs and have a one in four shot chance at the title at Homestead. Yep, it’s ridiculous. No, bitching about it some more isn’t going to change it, at least not in the short term. NASCAR officials claim that by and large the “stakeholders” in the sport love stage racing and the playoff concept. I guess those “stakeholders” are easily amused. Or a bunch of imbeciles.
Also during the summer stretch, NASCAR will run both the road courses on the schedule. (Again, that will change next year.) There will be one plate race. This year there’s just one short track in the summer mix. (The Bristol Night race.) The circuit will hit Pocono and Michigan twice. The race the networks and NASCAR will try to make the biggest hullaballoo about will be the Brickyard 400 which likely will once again be the worst race of the summer. The Summer Stretch comes to a close at the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend just as God and Cale Yarborough intended it to be. Personally speaking the Southern 500 is the one race I look forward to the most every season. Geographically the summer races are far flung; from New Hampshire to Sonoma, from Michigan to Daytona Beach. The summer stretch is actually a better more diverse slate of races than the Playoffs feature right now.
Who knows what the summer will hold? I’ll go on record as guessing that attendance will continue to be down markedly over even a few years ago. For one thing we’ve got some truly ridiculous starting times ahead. For the life of me I cannot understand the 3 PM start time at Pocono next weekend and in July. (Remember that’s a start time in TV parlance. The races themselves will likely not begin until at least 3:20.) NASCAR freely admits these later start times were adopted at the request of the presenting networks, the fans preferences be damned. That seems particularly unwise at a track where both Cup dates (and their Indycar date) were rain-delayed to Monday last year. (And the second of those races also ended prematurely due to fog if I recall.)
Secondly, as hinted above the convoluted method of crowning a champion, the Playoffs or whatever, diminishes the worth of the summer races this season. Teams that are already locked in (or virtually locked in) to the post-season can use those races to experiment with new setups with an eye towards the final ten races of the year. For some drivers it won’t be worth the risk of getting injured, especially have their bell rung, pushing their cars to the edge especially as they watch Aric Almirola watching from the sidelines this summer. That deprives the fans of seeing some of their favorite drivers going all out for wins. If NASCAR wants to argue that the playoff gimmick makes the final ten races of the season more exciting, they must admit than at least by comparison the first 26 races have to be considered less exciting.
Concerning those upcoming summer races the only certainty is the uncertainty that lays ahead. Stay tuned….or don’t. Go to picnic one Sunday or something. Your kin miss you, but I doubt you’ll miss much action at racetracks like New Hampshire or Indianapolis.
Boy Bummer Let’s face it, Kyle Busch is a polarizing driver. Many people, myself included, don’t care for the narcissistic basket-case. Other folks will jump all over me for daring to question their boy in the No. 18 car. If Kurlish Kyle were to wrench the head off a Make-A-Wish kid and spit down the hole, they’d want him awarded a medal for ending the tyke’s suffering. And yes, there have been other polarizing jerks in the sport before, one of whom is now in the FOX broadcast booth. Before you Kyle-kins write to tell me to shut up I ask you to please enclose a brief explanation of how Kyle Busch’s actions were justified during the Texas truck race held back in November of 2011. I still haven’t heard a valid excuse for that night. As I see it, that should have been Kyle’s last ride in any NASCAR series.
But while admitting he can be just a teensy-weensy bit ornery sometimes, Busch came up with a novel excuse this weekend that stunned even me and I don’t stun easily after all these years. It’s not Kyle’s fault. It’s God’s fault. Reasons young Master Busch; “If there’s anyone to blame it’s probably the guy upstairs.” Since I doubt Busch lives on the first floor of a duplex all I can reckon is he was talking about God. I’m not sure if Kyle worships the same Deity of Joe Gibbs’ “God wants you to be rich!” gospel but I’ll have to admit this notion of a God that purposely makes some people jerks is a new one on me. As further evidence of his stunning claim Busch went on to imply is son often misbehaves and thus “ I can see where it comes from. It’s genetic.” Boy Howdy! In one ill-considered statement Busch basically says his son is a brat and says his parents are jerks too. If God makes some people ornery He must make some people victims too. I genuinely feel for whoever becomes Busch’s son’s first grade teacher.
Once again, Busch tried hiding behind the excuse that he only acts like a jerk when he loses and that’s because he wants to win so badly. (Something Busch hasn’t done in a Cup car since late last July at Indianapolis almost a year ago for the record.) In reality from kids in quarter-midgets to young drivers in budget Late Models I’ve never met a race car driver who particularly liked losing. Those rare drivers who manage to climb up to the ranks of the Cup circuit did so because of continued success at the lower levels and none of them were probably philosophic about losing. They all hate to lose. They just are mature enough to realize that’s a part of racing and a lot more gracious in how they handle it. Pretty clearly Kyle Larson wasn’t delighted to finish second at Dover this weekend after dominating most of the race. Had that final caution not fell he’d likely have won driving away. But somehow he managed to take care of his media duties (which are in fact part of the job as stated in the NASCAR rulebook) without making an ass of himself. I can respect a driver who says something in a post-race interview along the lines of “I probably shouldn’t be talking right now. I’ll just get myself in trouble. I want to see the video, have a cold drink or several of them and cool off a bit before I go on record. Let me get back to ya’ll.”
Brad Keselowski called Busch out on that “I hate losing more than anyone” excuse this weekend claiming (figuratively I hope) that attitude makes him physically sick. Unsurprisingly the Busch brigade piled on Kesolowski on various twitter accounts which would in an odd sort of way is ironic. Here we have folks saying that Kyle Busch has every right to speak his mind (a bunch of them once again misinterpreting the meaning of Constitutional freedom of speech) but adding that Keselowski has no such right. And of course neither do I. “You have the right to remain silent. If you choose to speak anything you say must be supportive of Kyle Busch.” I think that’s the mindset. Wait until the Busch-backers and Earnhardt Nation get into it someday. Junior was a bit more diplomatic in his comments about Busch’s misconduct but did admit he was stunned by it sometimes to the point he’ll laugh out loud. Here’s a hint, Kyle. They’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you. For the record your often not gracious in victory either. And somewhere Ron Hornaday is laughing his ass off.
But there is hope. Busch went on to claim that he’s “a personable person” who all the people close to him love unconditionally (Modesty is another of Kyle’s great attributes.) That’s why his sponsors haven’t dumped him. Yet. A little advice, young man. If he’s already misbehaving, work on raising your son rather than raising Hell awhile. Maybe that way he won’t end up 21 in prison doing life without parole.
Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
This week’s Dover win moved Jimmie Johnson into a tie as far as overall wins in the Cup Series. Both drivers have won 83 Cup races, a notable feat and as such congratulations to Johnson.
But now, we move towards a point of contention that I’ve been hoping would flare up for a decade. Whose achievement will Johnson equal if he wins another Cup race? Some records (including those on NASCAR.com last time I checked) list Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip as both having 84 wins in the Cup series. Actually Allison has 85, one more than Waltrip, who has always been loath to admit as much. For those who doubt me, here’s a link to the list of Allison’s 85 wins on Racingreference.com
So, when Johnson does win his next Cup race and you hear that he matched both Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip’s career Cup victory totals that’s only half true. Johnson will have to win two more times to match Allison’s career total. (Hopefully, when this occurs it will be during a race broadcast on NBC because old DW will never admit he ended up a win short of Allison’s total. Those two drivers absolutely hated each other.)
Oh, and when they tell you Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip both won 84 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races throw a yellow on that one too. Neither one of them ever even competed in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race. That makes sense in that the company and the product it produces weren’t even in existence yet when they retired….
Hope you enjoyed the (relatively) early start time on Sunday. The next time a race this season is scheduled to start at the traditional “oneish” on Sunday is at Martinsville, October 29. Sigh.
And since I won’t be writing again before then (barring any earth-shattering news) take a minute today (Tuesday) to recall the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. On this date, the fate of democracy and freedom hung tenuously in the balance. Through the courage, bloodshed and determination of the Greatest Generation (both the U.S. Military, our Allies and American citizens making great sacrifices on the homefront) the road to Berlin and the end of tyranny began.