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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: And In The End….

The circle of life continues. The weekend of the 2017 Daytona 500 was bitterly cold and windy in these parts. As NASCAR ran the penultimate races of this season, cold weather returned to the area with a vengeance, triggering a nasty cold / flu epidemic even in our remote little hamlet on the hill. Optimists (and certain members of the mainstream media on NASCAR’s payroll) will say it was a good season and realists and pessimists will say it was not, but one thing is inarguable.

After next week. the 2017 NASCAR season will be over.

Here are some brief thoughts on the year while waiting for the Nyquil to leave me comatose….

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire

Tony Stewart crashed the none-too-surprising announcement that Aric Almirola will be taking over the No. 10 car with the processed pig parts people as sponsor. But unexpectedly, he stole the event’s thunder, stating that he’s considering returning to NASCAR racing next year running an NXS car but only on road courses.

NASCAR drivers have learned to heel at NASCAR’s voice to avoid saying anything unpleasant about the sport but Stewart has gnawed through his leash and is free to speak his mind. He noted he has no interest in returning to the Cup series on ovals because he feels the dreaded aero-push has ruined the sport. In Stewart’s opinion (which I’ll echo) nowadays in the age of aerodynamics the driver/car equation is tilted way too far towards the equipment and away from the jockey. You don’t have to believe me, but how about a multi-time NASCAR Cup champion?

Gone, Daddy, Gone

There was another unexpected twist to the SHR announcements. The major print, internet and broadcast media typically completely ignores NASCAR headlines, especially once the football season starts. But some of them must have dug through the slush pile of PR announcements and they came up with a unique take on the Almirola announcement.

“Some guy” is replacing Danica Patrick, the only female Cup driver currently in the series. Oh, those damn rednecks with their confederate memorials and misogynic attitudes that make Harvey Weinstein look like Mother Teresa.

Perhaps had those outlets done a bare minimum of research, they might have noted that Ms. Patrick, as difficult as her yoga poses might be, has started 188 Cup races. Not only has she never won one of those races, she has yet to post a top-5 finish and has just seven top-ten results. Any male driver with those stats likely would have been shown the door rather unceremoniously long ago.

Is there someday going to be a female Cup driver who battles for wins and titles? I truly think there will be as long as NASCAR is still around (which is a 50-50 proposition under current management). Recall it’s only been about a generation, perhaps a generation and a half, since aspiring to be a race car driver was even a possibility for girls growing into women. Little Jimmy raced legend cars and Little Susie took horseback lessons. Until Little Susie showed up in her own legends car and kicked some major ass.

A driver like Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt the Original is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. There might have been another driver as talented but he never made the cut because he wasn’t well spoken, sponsor-friendly or even housebroken. Here’s how the equation works.

Talent + Opportunity = Results.

In Ms. Patrick’s case, the talent end of the equation was lacking, She had opportunity in that she had Go Daddy sponsorship in her pocket which made her an attractive option to a quality team lacking sponsorship dollars. But minus talent the opportunity did not produce results. There have doubtless been other female race car drivers who had the talent but not the opportunity.

Meanwhile the announcement didn’t go as planned and may have backfired. Perhaps someone should have pointed out that Almirola is of Cuban heritage and comes from a military family?

But she’s somewhere out there, NASCAR’s next legitimate female star. Watch for her at your local short track and don’t call her, “hun”. Yep, one day it’s going to happen perhaps when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planet and love will rule the stars in the Age of Aquariums.

Year, Make, and Model

Heading into the three series finales at Homestead next weekend the four drivers running for the truck title will pilot two Toyotas, a Ford and a Chevy. All four drivers competing for the NXS title will be at the wheel of Chevrolets. In the Cup series two Fords will join two Toyotas battling for the title at Homestead. Chevy won’t have a dog in the fight, a once unthinkable scenario. Feel free to add those numbers up. After a recent column, I’m not allowed to play with math anymore.

Darts Without Feathers

Not too many years ago there was a big hullaballoo about “start and sark” drivers in NASCAR’s top series. A start and parker would make the field only because there wasn’t a sufficient amount of entries to send anyone home after qualifying. They’d start the race at the rear of the field, run a few laps and then park the car for the day. The money they collected for being in the race was greater than what it cost to run especially because they didn’t have to pay for tires, gas or, in some instances, even a pit crew. NASCAR allowed the shenanigans to continue because at least at that time they had to give their presenting network partners (AKA the TV folks) a portion of the money back if there wasn’t a full field for the event. And that’s about the time a “full field” was reduced from 43 cars to 40.

One would almost wish that some of the back-markers in the three touring series would have the courtesy to park nowadays rather than just getting in the way. How many times this year has a driver seemingly been set on cruise control on his way to a win when someone running four or five laps off the pace spins out or blows up bringing out a caution flag that severely rearranges the finishing order. In fact it seems NASCAR almost welcomes those cautions and are too quick to throw them in some instances. A driver you’ve never heard of scrapes the wall but continues and the yellow flag flies. NASCAR’s argument is that there might be debris on the track as a result of that Harvey Wallbanger incident. Yeah well, there might be a hurricane in Wyoming someday too but I doubt too many cowboys are digging storm shelters yet.

NASCAR was widely criticized for its old habit of throwing highly questionable debris cautions late in races to spice up the end of an otherwise mundane race. It seems nowadays with these rank amateur drivers and the yellows at the end of stages (OK, actually green and white flag but the effect is the same) they don’t have to anymore.

Some fans as of late are even postulating that NASCAR is in radio contact with those back-markers asking them scrape the wall or clutch the engine at appropriate times. Oh, no, that just couldn’t be. I know NASCAR and they’re as honest as me, and I’m as honest as any man can be. Yeah, OK, just another awkward attempt to work some Grateful Dead lyrics into a column. Truthfully these is no conduct so vile, duplicitous or craven that I think is beneath current NASCAR management but my guess is if it was really going on they’d do it poorly enough radio intercepts would have been overheard by now and made public.

Why does it matter? In Saturday’s NXS race Brennan Poole started the day with a legitimate shot at being one of the four drivers headed to Homestead with a chance at the title. He entered the event above the cut line and was enjoying a steady if unspectacular run. That’s until he encountered someone named Caesar Bacarella at the wheel of one of three entries fielded by BJ McLeod this weekend. Poole’s car was too badly damaged to continue while Bacarella went on to finish 30th ten laps off the pace. Other drivers were not very generous in their assessment of his driving abilities. Yes, a kid has to learn to walk before he can run. But you don’t try to teach him to walk in the fast lane of the expressway.

Emotional Rescue

Some snide pundits are already saying that despite 40 cars competing at Homestead next week NBC viewers will only see four of them: the four drivers still in title contention. How on earth did you folks get so damned cynical? Anyone with a lick of sense knows that it will actually be five drivers shown, not four, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. makes what will likely be his last start in the Cup series.

I like Junior. He’s a straight shooter which is all too rare in the sport today. I wish him well next Sunday and with the rest of his life. But it’s already gotten rather heavy handed in the stretch drive of the season. I was glad to see Matt Kenseth get some well-deserved props on Sunday but to do so he had to go out and win the race. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Earnhardt will not win next week’s race. Earnhardt has a single top-5 finish and eight top-10 results this year. For comparison’s sake his teammate Chase Elliott has finished second five times and in the top 5 a total of eleven times.

The sad fact is fans of the other 35 drivers competing next week will likely never hear a word about their boys (or girl) even if that driver is enjoying a strong top 5 run. If it’s irritating to the fans it’s infuriating to the sponsors of those teams not competing for a title in a sport where sponsorship dollars are already tough to come by. We’ll most likely miss a pass for the lead while some NBC pundit waxes on eloquently on how Junior has made earth a better planet to call home for everyone. Even Syrian refugees in mud huts love Earnhardt.

In an attempt to help you out, gentle readers, I’ve come up with a plan. Just print and fill out the form below and take it to your pharmacy:

Dear Mr./Ms. Pharmacist,

Please provide (Fill in your name here) with 20 doses of Prozac 40 mg prior to this Friday. This patient is a fan of racing not one particular driver so they won’t be able to enjoy the last race of the season due to network ineptitude. Complications could involve teeth ground to powder, exploding veins in one’s temple, advanced Tourette’s Syndrome, speaking in tongues,  and sudden onset narcolepsy.

Thanks in Advance

Dr. Feelgood

See, This is Why You Can’t Have Nice Things

During yesterday’s victory lane celebration, something funny happened to Matt Kenseth. When he went to hoist the trophy he broke the trophy off its base. You don’t see that every weekend and my guess is the final trophy in Kenseth’s case will be held together with JB Weld. The last time I can remember a trophy being damaged was when Kyle Busch chose to shatter a Sam Bass designed guitar in a lame attempt to channel Pete Townsend.

A Miss is as Good as a Mile and a Half

Four drivers are eligible for the title in next weekend’s season finale. Before anyone lauds what a competitive season it’s been, recall that the current NASCAR points system makes it so no other outcome is possible anymore. The final four include Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

With Denny Hamlin having failed to make the cut Busch rides into south Florida as the sports self-proclaimed bad guy. Truex is probably this year’s deserving champion and the sentimental favorite. Busch and Truex have an edge as they pilot Camrys and the mile and a half tracks have been all but Toyota playgrounds this year. Harvick did beat Truex at Texas showing he could upset the favorite even on a mike and a half track. Like Keselowski and Busch, Harvick also has won a title previously so he’s well aware of the pressures that lay ahead. I won’t call Keselowski an upset finalis,t but the two Penske drivers in NASCAR certainly ran better in the first half of the season than as of late. I’m not sure Keselowski earned a title opportunity as much as Denny Hamlin threw one away.

The big shocker after tallying the points at Phoenix is not only did seven- time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson miss the cut, he finished dead last in the round of 8 and ran like a three-legged lamb at Phoenix before finally putting his mount out of its agony and slamming the wall late. In fact none of the four Rick Hendrick-owned teams are eligible to compete for a title. I’m guessing here but it seems the new aero package was kryptonite to Johnson and the No. 48 team this year. HMS had three long-term drivers in 2017; Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, and one relative newcomer, Chase Elliott. It would seem what he lacked in experience Elliott made up for in youthful enthusiasm. The other three drivers knew how the old cars handled and raced and wanted those new cars to drive like the old ones. The Nos. 48, 5 and 88 teams employed long term strategies that worked under the old race format but no longer work with stage racing. Elliott is still new to the sport and he accepts the way the new cars handle as normal. He doesn’t try to make a mule run like a quarter-horse. The team is still relatively fresh as well and seemed to adapt to stage racing better than their three sister outfits. So is Johnson done, over the hill and ready for retirement. Hell no. You’ll recall that Dale Earnhardt the Original won Cup titles in 1990 and 1991. He then finished an uncharacteristically poor 12th in 1992. In 1993 and 94 Earnhardt won the Cup championships again.

Boys Having At It

Any highlight reel of this season is certainly going to include film of Denny Hamlin spinning out Chase Elliott at Martinsville. Sunday’s race provided the sequel to “Drivers Gone Wild Part II” in some folks’ minds.

I don’t agree with that assessment. Hamlin’s move at Martinsville wasn’t a classic “bump and run” or “boot and scoot”. It was more of a “park and dart.” Elliott had put a bumper to Brad Keselowski earlier but made the move surgically enough that Keselowski was able to continue on. There’s a big difference between taking a position from another driver and ending his race. Hamlin was initially defiant, defending what he’d done, but when he learned how unpopular the move was he quickly changed tacks, saying how much he regretted what happened and how he’d never done anything like that before. It’s when those apologizing drivers use the “want to be good example for kids” line that my BS meter quickly swings hard right. If Hamlin thought the awkward apology was going to appease Elliott, he’s living in a fairy tale.

So let’s assume that Hamlin knew Elliott wasn’t going to be sending out his Christmas packages FedEx this year and had a bone to pick with him. It would seem that Hamlin became an excitable boy when Elliott started nudging him in the rear bumper. One needs to keep in mind what situation both drivers were facing. Hamlin didn’t need to win the race though of course a win would have clinched his spot at Homestead. Elliott had only one chance to advance (mainly due to getting wrecked at Martinsville) and that was to win the race. Hamlin was competing with Brad Keselowski for that final spot and the No. 2 Ford was having a rough day of it and was never really up to full speed. Having accumulated bonus stage points in the first two segments Hamlin was sitting pretty. To sum up, Elliott had to win. Denny had to beat Keselowski even as Keselowski began saying over the radio he thought his engine was blowing up.

So the bumping got a bit more aggressive and Elliott made his way by. Hamlin was still racing. He’d only lost that one spot in the incident but he slowed further as a fender rub into a tire was sending up ominous smoke signals. At that point Hamlin and the No. 11 team had two options. They could pit and fix the issue or try riding it out at the risk of blowing a tire and winding up with a DNF. They chose the latter and we all know what happened. That decision, not Chase Elliott, took Hamlin out of the race.

One Final Thought

Based on the cheering when Elliott took the lead (and when Hamlin wrecked) I think we now know who will be heir apparent to the Most Popular Driver award once Earnhardt Jr. retires.

 

About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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9 comments

  1. Young Blaney is very aggressive on social media. He’s got his own very popular podcast show that’s highly rated. Don’t count him out just yet.

  2. I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts on the declining attendance in the top 3 tiers of NASCAR as NASCAR seems to totally ignore this issue. Maybe in your year end column?.

  3. While I don’t like having the media or NASCAR jam any driver down our throats as “the next big thing”, at least Elliott has shown he has a chance of living up to that hype. The last driver that was hyped to that degree by the media and NASCAR only has one pole in 5 years to show for it.

  4. I am feeling kinda sorry for this year’s Champion already. It sucks to win a championship and have to play second fiddle to a driver who is not only uncompetitive, but has the personality of a dead aardvark. Sunday will be all Junior – Junior crying before the race, Junior crying during the race, Junior crying after the race. Junior passing Cole Whitt, Junior sensing a vibration, Junior getting the Lucky Dog, and Junior finishing 17th as the adoring fans commit mass suicide over his departure from the sport. Thank goodness for a famous daddy and a rich sugar daddy in the person of Rick Hendrick.

    BTW, Al Torney, YOU don’t get to define charisma. It’s not about personality or even accomplishment. The people define it for better or worse. Thus you have Dale Earnhardt, Jr., JFK, and Adolf Hitler. And now, Chase Elliott.

  5. The media and NASCAR are hell bent on Chase being the fan favorite. He’s about as charismatic as a ardvark. Thank god for a famous daddy and a ride in a famous car.

    This was a real good read. I think you summed the sport up real well. It’s always nice to have someone share my views.
    Thanks.

  6. “Talent + Opportunity = Results.”

    You might also need a good car. Getting your start in the 00 might not yield the results needed for a long career but it would have been interesting if Johnson had started out in, say, the 23. And he’d have had to be ready for Brian’s signal.

    There was something fishy about living through the Age of Aquariums.

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