NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Beside the Rising Tide: It’s Summertime and the Living is Easy

It’s summertime and the living is easy,
The fish are a jumping and the cotton is high….

Yep, there’s no doubt about it, it’s summertime here in the northeast. Although absent any local cotton fields, I can’t attest to the state of this year’s crop and the fish, in fact, seem to have gone missing in the local creeks. Either that or they’ve gone into hiding to mock me as I cast a baited hook. The temperatures crest 90 degrees routinely and some afternoons, you break a sweat even contemplating a brief walk to the mailbox.

No, I’m not attributing the weather outside to global warming. It’s summertime. It’s supposed to be hot and I prefer even the stickiest, hottest afternoons to blizzards rolling in at dawn during the winter. One of these days, I might just have to pack up my things and move to Florida or Arizona, but not today because it’s too damned hot out. Yep, hot, sticky afternoons, violent pop-up evening thunderstorms, the return of ice cream trucks and the thunder of large V-twin motorcycles at dawn — it’s all a part of the natural cycle of things.

Also as regular as the turning of pages on the calendar, NASCAR tends to go into the summer doldrums this time of year. It gets tough to come up with much to write about concerning the sport as stock car racing just rides out the string heading into those damned, ill-considered playoffs.

Well before Jay used the nickname for his webpage, this time of year in racing earned the nickname “Silly Season.” I believe Mike Joy was the first race broadcaster to use the term routinely to describe the time of year when there wasn’t much going on so speculation began as to who was driving what for whom next year.

“Silly Season” was originally a term the British press used for this time of year. With the government all but shut down, both the governing and the governed away on holiday, the English press was forced to use conjecture, rumor, innuendo and outright fabrications to fill bylines and sell papers. (You remember newspapers, don’t you?) Of course, after last week, the British press has had no lack of actual news to report and opinions to register thanks to old Mr. 45 paying them a bombastic visit.

I don’t write about politics so I won’t go there. Within the scope of NASCAR there are a few “stories” this year though per usual they are based on speculation, rumor and flat-out guessing. Perhaps most notably, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has yet to land (or at least announce) sponsorship for the No. 48 team next year.

Though Lowe’s has been Johnson’s sponsor for his entire Cup career (and one would guess they’ve profited handsomely from the association) it would seem that with the graying of the NASCAR fan base, they’re seeing fewer and fewer NASCAR fans who do home improvement. Instead, there’s more graying fans who’ll even pay the neighbor kid to cut the lawn because it’s become too much of a bother. Add on a rear deck? Not in this lifetime. Though my brother-in-law does have a buddy who used to be a carpenter; he does side jobs cheap if you’ll just lay out half the cost of the addition in cash before he starts. What could go wrong there?

More than likely Johnson will, in fact, find sponsorship. But it’s equally likely it will be financial backing from a variety of firms for various numbers of races. Such is the state of sponsor-team relationships in contemporary NASCAR. For instance, this week it was announced Mountain Dew will sponsor Chase Elliott for four races next year and four more in 2020. Yep, the soda-pop folks will back Elliott, who has never won a Cup race, foregoing the chance to back seven-time champion Johnson. (And if you listen closely, you might just hear the soulful slide guitar parts of “The New Kid in Town” blasting from Johnson’s stately manor home. Sorry, Batman, Robin’s got this. The dry cleaner lost your cape.)

It would greatly enhance the No. 48 team’s prospects of landing some financial backing if… I don’t know… maybe they won a race. Or qualified better than 27th. Or averaged better than a 15.6 finish. Since it’s Silly Season, I’ll throw this question out there. Are the new Hendrick Motorsports Camaros really that far off the pace? Or has Johnson taken one too many blows to the head over his career to return to form?

There’s also some speculation about what’s going on with the No. 78 team. Martin Truex Jr. and the team haven’t inked a deal for next year yet. However, given their high level of success this season as Truex defends his title, my guess is that they will soon. Bass Pro Shops stuck with the team through some pretty lean (dare I say, “gaunt?”) times and I don’t see them handing over their stub to an E-ticket ride.

You’ll note while it was once commonplace, few sponsors use their drivers in TV ad campaigns anymore. However, primary sponsor 5-hour Energy just shot a bunch of commercials with Truex. It’s not his fault they suck.

2018 is also the last year of the No. 78 team’s deal with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. Might another manufacturer try to court them away? (I think at this time it’s important to start a completely unfounded and baseless rumor Dodge might return to Cup racing, signing on Truex and the No. 78 team. Let me reiterate that’s not going to happen though I’d love to see it. And it makes for an interesting story.)

Matt Kenseth, meanwhile will have to decide whether the swamp he’s waded back into at Roush Fenway Racing is worth an endless battling of alligators with little hope the swamp will be drained anytime soon. A lot of drivers given a similar choice might just decide retirement was a pretty sweet deal after all.

And as the endless summer drags on, a lot of folks are keeping a careful eye on Kyle Busch, waiting for him to detonate yet again. Will Reverend Joe be able to keep his mercurial driver on a tight leash when something goes wrong? Or will Busch launch into his near annual outburst of outright contemptible behavior, forcing Mars Candies to do the usual and pull sponsorship for three weeks allowing Interstate Batteries to step in until the heat dies down again? Look out, look out, it’s the Candyman.…

As for the races that lay ahead, it’s hard to generate too much enthusiasm for many of them. This week, the circuit heads off for New Hampshire. Perhaps you’ll see me there selling T-shirts that read “We gave up North Wilkesboro for this mess?” out of a pop-up trailer.

The NASCAR traveling medicine show then heads off to Pocono, a track many fans are less than fond of though as one of my two “hometown” tracks, I grade it on a curve. And hey, if this year’s race is less than compelling, at least it will be over 20% faster, right? Just as long as the race isn’t rain or fog delayed again, that is. (Right now, our region is in the midst of a bit of a drought. I’m counting on a NASCAR race weekend at Pocono to fix that.)

Watkins Glen is the exact opposite of Pocono. Many of you look forward to it a lot more than me. But I don’t think many of us are looking forward to Michigan the following weekend.

As summertime begins wrapping up, and all the deeply-tanned nubile lifeguards head back to start another semester of college, NASCAR celebrates two of its great remaining races. Bristol might not be what it used to be but it’s still a hell of a lot better than most tracks have ever been. The Bristol night race has been termed “redneck high holy days” and not without reason. If you’ve never been to a Bristol night race, you owe it to yourself to go at least once. And unlike years past, you can actually get a ticket with about as much difficulty as you can get a Slurpee. The final off weekend of the season occurs the week after Bristol.

If Bristol has a rival as the best night in NASCAR, it’s the “finally back where it belongs” Southern 500 throwback weekend. Again, I may be just a touch opinionated at times, but I feel Darlington is the best racetrack on the circuit. If you feel otherwise, you’re stupid and I hate you. (Well, that may be a bit harsh. I strongly disagree with you and there ain’t no sense debating it because you’re wrong.)

All good things must come to an end after a two-week (OK, three if you count the off weekend) stretch of great races. This year, the Cup types head off to Indianapolis for what is typically one of the most loathsomely bad races of the year. Now the regular season finale, the Brickyard will also help set the final slate for that thing that used to be called “the Chase”. They will hype the hell out of this race but it’s unlikely more than one contender will make (and obviously more than one competitor will miss) the playoffs based solely on Indy.

Yes, someone could win for the first time this season (or even in their career). But looking toward the bottom of the ladder, there’s currently (this is written prior to Kentucky) 73 points between 14th place Chase Elliott and 17th place Paul Menard. The maximum (everyday, not playoff) points swing in a race is 59. That’s based on a driver who wins the race and one who finishes dead last in a 40-car field. (Editor’s Note: Alex Bowman is currently the final playoff spot, in 15th). 

With the playoffs set and the mainstream media largely ignoring the unseemly spectacle, the Cup circuit heads off to Las Vegas, the ultimate triumph of hype over substance. Oh, and that weekend, the NFL season kicks off in full force, consigning NASCAR back to an asterisk on the last page of the sport’s section, below all the ads for strip clubs and doctors who dispense pain pills like the Easter Bunny hands out candy. By the time the circuit reaches Richmond the next weekend, the winner would probably have to set his head ablaze to be pictured above the fold line on the front of the sports page of a major newspaper.

Then, as Monty Python once heralded, “and now for something completely different.” The Cup drivers will face off on the so-called “Roval” at Charlotte for the first time. I’ll keep a good thought for both the track and the drivers. It seems unreasonable, after all, to constantly demand changes be made to the schedule to make the season more exciting (as I’m doing here) then try to shout down someone’s idea of how to do exactly that. But I will register my concern here after testing at the new circuit last week. I swore I saw Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat hastily rearranging the tire barriers at times.

The Formula One circuit takes a much more civilized approach to the summer doldrums. They basically take the month of August off to allow fans to enjoy their “holidays”. Perhaps some F1 scribe will forget there’s no racing and write a column that states either A) Lewis Hamilton grabbed the pole and cruised to an easy win, or B) Hamilton and/or Mercedes did something so monumentally stupid that he didn’t win. But then, there’s actually a compelling points battle for the top spot in F1 absent any gimmicky playoffs or golden tickets. So what do I know?

IndyCar types have quite a full schedule ahead of them this summer. And that’s understandable because they’ve made a well-considered decision to put out fires and call in their dogs before the NFL once again stomps all competitors in the American mindset. If only NASCAR would consider doing the same.

Last Friday was the 25th anniversary of the death of Davey Allison, a rather somber occasion if you were a race fan back then. It got me to thinking about where I was that weekend (at Pocono naturally, with the usual suspects just about all of whom I could pick up the phone and call right now. We’re such a bunch of mutts there’s no demand to be admitted to the group.)

Yep, 25 years ago I recall both NASCAR and life (not that the two weren’t already inextricably linked, at least in my case) seemed a whole lot more fun and exciting during the summertime. I was just making my first furtive stabs at writing about stock car racing for a local paper because nobody else wanted to do it. At least it got me garage passes even if the pay didn’t cover the gas back and forth to the track.

Yeah, summer seemed better back then even if there wasn’t normally much going on. I lived in a small town back then (I now live in a smaller town about 20 minutes from that one) and things tended to get pretty quiet after sunset. On Friday night, you could go cruise High Street in Pottstown (hoping you didn’t get an open container or equipment citation) and on Saturday hit the local dirt track in Grandview.

But on weeknights, it was the sort of town they pretty much rolled up the sidewalks at sunset. Or they would have if there were, in fact, any sidewalks. Or streetlights other than the one stoplight in town. I’m thinking maybe they set up some bleachers at the local Getty filling station so you could sit down and watch customers air up their tires Monday through Thursday night but my recollections might be suspect there. If they did, you’d have wanted to get there early for good seats.

One of the reasons I recall so clearly there were no sidewalks or streetlights is the young lady I was seeing back then (the names have been changed to protect the no longer so innocent) really liked going for walks in the evening after work. I was already 30 something but she was not quite 21 so going to the bars, at least local ones, wasn’t an option. I was fine with our walks. It was, after all, a cheap date and rebuilding an old El Camino kept me flirting with poverty on the best weeks. It was a good chance for us to talk and straighten out minor issues before they became arguments.

Problem was, she really liked walking and after a long day at the parts house, I really liked sitting on the couch. And drinking beer. Those damn walks were typically longer than a cold beer would last. But yes, there was a certain charm to walking along the river listening to the cicadas and bullfrogs and watching the fireflies. Or counting stars by candlelight, I suppose.

But Sundays, I never went walking. If I had a motorcycle at the time (and she hated those things, which is eventually why we stopped going for walks together. It’s not politically correct to say so but I’ve been told that a good motorcycle will get you through times of no girlfriend easier than a good girlfriend will get you through times of no motorcycle. It’s probably why I ended up single, but I digress.) I’d ride in the morning then beat it home to watch the stock car races on TV starting at 1. Yes, races used to start at 1 p.m. I liked that.

If I could run into 1993 era Matt (after he asked me, “Dude, what the hell happened to your hair?” and “are those my boots you’re wearing?”), he’d be amazed to learn that I’ve been writing about NASCAR racing pretty much since he/I stopped going for those walks along the river. And if he was buying, maybe we’d saddle up a pair of stools at the Tavern and watch that Sunday’s race. My guess is the first thing he’d ask is, “Where’s Earnhardt? Did he retire?”

After that, likely he’d be polite enough not to talk during the race. But during commercials, he’d likely note, “Wow. This really isn’t a very good race, is it? Why’s everyone just cruising around? What, are the bodies of those cars made of bone china now? Why ain’t they beating and banging on each other?”

Then, after the race perhaps we’d compare notes about whether it’s just the summer doldrums or if, in fact, the Boys of Summer are gone.

Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,
A little voice inside my head said
Don’t look back, you can never look back.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Avatar
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.

11 comments

  1. Avatar

    i thought larry, moe, curley and shemp were out at charlotte adjusting the roval!

    i can’t believe davey has been gone 25 yrs.!

    with as hot and humid it’s been in ga this year, and since about march, i ‘d gladly funnel some up your way. but of course we know it will rain when they’re at pocono or the humidity will be so high the fog will settle into the valley.

    how about going out on a limb and saying a toyota will win at new hampshire and also pocono?

    have to see if the 48 gets more competitive now that knaus has signed a contract til 2020…maybe negotiations took up most of his time.

  2. Avatar

    Technically we didn’t lose North Wilkesboro. It was taken from us by a greedy scalawag named Bruton Smith. It’s simply not possible to have good racing on tracks greater than 1.3 miles (see Matt, I can learn) with the caveat being the track is optimized for stock cars. NH does not meet the 2nd criterion.

  3. Avatar

    MARS last pulled sponsorship from the #18 for the end of the season in 2011. That’s nearly SEVEN years by my calculation, Matt. I know you are ever hopeful of seeing a Kyle Busch “detonation,” but you really are in the summer doldrums if you believe it’s a regular occurrence. Oh, that people’s champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tried to goad Kyle into one last weekend, but unless Stenhouse actually destroys Kyle’s car (again), the Candy Man will continue to ride in an alternate zip code with the other members of the Big Three and ignore the little pests that show up annually in the heat and humidity. Just like your column tends to show up every Tuesday whether or not you have anything to say.

  4. Avatar

    that’s it “big three” when i first heard that i thought we were back in the 80’s with ford, chevy and chrysler/dodge.

    everything has to have a tag line now.

  5. Avatar

    There is talk about Truex’s contract being up this year. He will probably be back but if not he is replaceable ,Cole Pearn on the other hand is not. I am sure Barney V has that in mind as well as there is Christopher Bell in the Toyota chute waiting for his turn

    • Avatar

      JGR will probably hold Bell another year since he is making a lot of rookie mistakes in NXS. And when he moves up, he will bring Jason Ratcliffe with him as crew chief. Denny or Suarez will be on the bubble next year. After HMS poached William Byron, Joe Gibbs won’t let another one get away.

  6. Avatar

    Gotta “Ditto” your comments about Darlington being the best track on the schedule and Indy being basically a turd in punchbowl. As for the roval, I’m really afraid this experiment is going to be a catastrophe of the 2008 Indy Tire Debacle proportions. Those infield roads at Charlotte were clearly intended for drunken wagon races under the stars (but I can attest to the fact that it’s impossible to steer a grocery buggy from inside it).

    • Avatar

      I agree. Darlington is a great track ! But with this aero package, a retro painted turd is still a turd. I have to laugh because Nascar thinks they really hit on something.

  7. Avatar

    I loved the rambling, meandering nature of this article but dammit, now I have the summer doldrums from reading it.
    Amazing how the filter of time makes our memories of the past seem better than they probably were. What we really lament when we look back is out youth.