BRIAN FRANCE NEWS
Some of you will be surprised that I didn’t write an acerbic column this week discussing Brian France’s arrest for both a DWI and drug possession in Sag Harbor, N.Y. over the weekend. While my personal disdain for France remains high, frustration from what I’ve termed his “reign of terror” since taking over the helm of NASCAR in 2003, I also need to be fair if my opinion is to be taken seriously. I am still gathering facts and information and to rush a column on a serious issue to make a deadline strikes me as grandstanding, piling on and a cheap shot. Obviously with a sport that revolves around fast, loud cars, the CEO of the sport being busted for DUI and narcotic violations is an incredibly awkward development. If nothing else, what the incredibly poor decision-making France was guilty of this weekend calls into serious question some of the decisions he’s made while at the helm of NASCAR.
Currently, this nation is in the grips of a growing opioid crisis. Substance abuse is an equal opportunity issue, affecting the rich and poor, the young and old, high-profile celebrities and the kid down the street in your suburban neighborhood you used to pay to cut the lawn. In almost every instance, a substance abuse issue requires a stint in rehab. I am waiting to see if France (with the advice of the people who love him) chooses a legitimate facility to deal with a legitimate problem. Or, will he land in one of those glorified country club rehabs the wealthy will sometimes agree to spend some time at to satisfy a court order. In the substance abuse industry, recidivism isn’t just a possibility, it’s a probability.
One question I’m waiting to have answered is what exactly was France doing on Long Island and why was he at the wheel of a car? Why didn’t the people who cared about him make sure he wasn’t going to end up in this mess? Frankly, France isn’t hurting for money. It would seem calling an Uber would have been a wiser and safer call. Uber a little too low rent? NYC has more livery services willing to provide a limousine than Charlotte’s got bait and ammo stores. Next time, right?
Here’s a hint. Sometimes there isn’t a next time. I’ve spent considerable time on Long Island this summer and it doesn’t seem to matter what time, night or day, the Long Island Expressway and the Southern State Parkway are always packed. They’re dicey to the point you’d swear the state of New York requires certification a driver’s license applicant be criminally insane and half blind.
On a serious note, with a DUI even once is too much. I lost a friend who was like a younger brother to me through most of my adolescence and early adulthood to a single vehicle, late-night wreck about a mile from the apartment we shared. You don’t forget hearing the sirens as you fell asleep that night.
You don’t forget the phone call you receive early in the morning, the day of the 1989 Daytona 500 by coincidence, letting you know your friend is gone. You don’t forget watching them close the coffin and realizing you’re never going to see that face again. You don’t forget being one of the six guys who carry that coffin to a waiting grave. You don’t forget holding his mom and his sisters. You don’t forget still waiting for him to come walking in, laughing that insane laugh of his and telling you it’ll all be all right. Because it’s never going to be all right again. Not the way it was supposed to be. Not when your best friend is reduced to a picture, held by a magnet on the refrigerator door.
So, in closing, for now I sincerely hope France gets the help he needs. Too many families and groups of friends are forced to go through what we went through in the winter of 1989.
MAIN COLUMN: How the Mighty Have Fallen
Sunday afternoon’s (Aug. 5) Watkins Glen race featured an extremely popular first-time winner (Chase Elliott, just in case you’ve been living in a cave this week). Naturally, that’s notable and laudable but what struck me as also of note is that the win, while the 250th Cup victory (spread amongst 17 drivers) for Rick Hendrick’s organization was also their first in 36 races. Given the talent and success of the team’s drivers it was once notable when one of their drivers didn’t win a race. Along the way, HMS has managed 12 Cup championships and they were once the undisputed King of the Hill in NASCAR’s top division. In 2007, four HMS drivers combined to win 18 of that year’s 36 Cup races.
I suppose it’s the nature of sports broadcasting that the presenting networks are going to focus on the teams and players who are winning. In NASCAR racing right now, that’s the so-called “Big Three,” a term I’m finding more and more fans take umbrage with. (Sorry. Mr. Churchill.) I’ve never been a bandwagon jumper. I’ve hated the “Big Three” term since about the 50th time I heard it, which is to say about halfway through the first NBC race broadcast of the season.
But with all the focus on Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. some once high-profile drivers have seemingly faded off into the background as bit players in a rapidly evolving Cup racing circuit.
I never thought I would write these words (especially not seven or eight years ago) but no Hendrick Motorsports driver had visited Victory Lane after a Cup event since July 23, 2017 when Kasey Kahne won at Indy. Elliott’s win ended a 36-race drought for HMS, a once unthinkable turn of events. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson hasn’t flirted with a win since that race in Indy, finishing third at Dover last autumn and third again at Bristol this spring. Those are his only two top-five finishes in that 36-race stretch. Throughout his brilliant Cup career, Johnson has won, on average, one in every seven Cup races he competes in.
Johnson’s HMS teammate Chase Elliott had actually come closer to winning than Johnson since that previous HMS win at Indy last year. Elliott had finished second five times in that period. Perhaps even more surprisingly this year, Elliott has led more laps than Johnson this season, 108 compared to 15. Prior to his breakthrough win, Elliott had celebrated and endured a total of eight runner-up results before the fine folks at the Dawsonville Pool Hall got to crank the siren up for the scion of the Elliott clan.
Coincidentally, his father Bill Elliott, a driver so popular they had to rename the Most Popular Driver award after him, also finished second eight times before winning a Cup race. In yet another coincidence, Awesome Bill’s first Cup victory also took place on a road course, the 1983 season finale race at Riverside. In another anomaly, Bill Elliott’s only career win in what was then the Busch Series came at Watkins Glen in 1993.
William Byron entered the Cup Series this year with what, in retrospect, can only be described as unrealistically high expectations on the part of observers. Having won seven races in the Truck Series in 2016 there was little doubt the kid could drive. Last year, he won four times in the XFINITY Series en route to a championship. Competing with that big No. 24 on the side of his HMS Chevy it was invariable comparisons would be made between Byron and the Original Boy Wonder, Jeff Gordon.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Byron is still looking for his first career Cup top-five result with a best finish of sixth a couple weeks ago at Pocono. He has led 53 laps to date this year, though; that’s more than Johnson and not by a small margin.
The challenge awaiting Alex Bowman, who took over the wheel of the No. 88 car was no less daunting. In 103 Cup starts to date Bowman has managed two top-five results, a third at Pocono a couple weeks back and a fifth at Bristol in April. Far and away his best Cup result to date was scored at Phoenix in 2016 when Bowman led 196 laps. To date in 2018, Bowman is averaging a 15.2 finish this year. That’s better than Byron’s 19.4 but it’s still not the sort of stat that gets your picture on a gum card. Oddly enough, Kasey Kahne’s average finish last year was 19.4.
To those for whom much is granted, much will be expected. It was decided given the caliber of cars he was racing and the team he was racing with 19.4 wasn’t an acceptable finishing average. Kahne was told he wouldn’t be back with HMS in 2018 shortly after he won the Brickyard 400.
And so it goes.
For comparison’s sake, Johnson’s average 2018 Cup finish is 16th and Elliott’s is 13th. So the concern isn’t just that HMS isn’t winning races any longer. It’s that they’re rarely running well enough to be considered even a darkhorse contender for the hardware prior to Sundays.
HMS isn’t the only once perennial title-contending team that has fallen upon hard times. In 2005, Roush Fenway Racing scored six wins with Greg Biffle, four with Carl Edwards, three with then-reigning champion Kurt Busch and a single win for both Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin, part of their legacy of 137 total Cup wins.
Roush Fenway Racing won two Cup events in 2017, both with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the wheel and both on the plate tracks. Their last team Cup win prior to that was Carl Edwards’ victory at Sonoma in 2014. The last time a Roush team car scored an oval track win in a non-plate event was when Edwards won at Bristol early in the 2014 season.
It seems obvious one of the reasons Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are winning so many races is that other teams that traditionally win aren’t doing so this season. In 2014, Roger Penske’s two Cup drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano combined to capture 11 races. In 2015 and 2016, they won seven times. In 2017, the Captain’s team won four Cup races. To date this year, Logano has the team’s sole victory and that was at a plate track in Talladega, not a good indicator of season-long performance.
With 14 races left to run this season, obviously the No. 2 and No. 22 teams (or even the No. 12 team) could add to that total but it doesn’t seem likely they’ll combine to take seven wins much less eleven this year. Whatever the rest of the season holds for Penske’s bunch it seems clear they’ve fallen from the flagship team for Ford to second in the hierarchy to Stewart-Haas Racing. Failure to rebuild and improve could land Penske’s organization in the same straits as HMS.
When it comes to the battle to remain King of the Hill in Cup racing, you’re aiming at a moving target. If you set your sights on matching the current top dogs they will have invariably have moved forward yet again by the time you meet your goal. Resting on your laurels is a sure way to join the ranks of the back-markers and the battle to improve cubic dollars is more essential than cubic inches.
Nor can racetracks allow themselves to stagnate. I was interested to read this week that Martinsville track president Clay Campbell was interested in moving at least one of the track’s two dates to a nighttime race. According to Campbell, such a move would involve “many moving parts.” That apparently refers to NASCAR and the TV networks, both of whom would have to sign off on such a move. Campbell noted that he wasn’t in control so the earliest such a move could be made is 2020.
I’m of mixed feelings on having a Martinsville race run under the lights. But my feeling is if Campbell is of the opinion that it would be a good move the other “shareholders” with a vested interest in the decision should sign off immediately. Perhaps more so than any other track principal Campbell has moved heaven and earth to ensure fans who attend races at the track have a great experience. When the fans got upset about the traditional Jesse Jones red hot dogs being replaced by another vendor’s weinies Campbell bought back the fan favorite.
Campbell is just following in the footsteps of his grandfather H. Clay Earles, who backed Bill France Sr. during the infancy of NASCAR racing. Earles took a position that what was good for NASCAR was good for Martinsville and vice versa. For the first six years, Martinsville was on the NASCAR Cup schedule (way back when it was still called Grand National racing) as a dirt track.
Earles saw stock car races as family affairs. Mom, Dad and the kids would plan a trip to the stock car race on Sunday afternoon to offer a welcome respite from the ordinary in the rural south of the time. But as it turned out “Mom” wasn’t so fond of showing up to a race in her Sunday best only to leave the track looking like she’d been belly-flopping in a mud puddle. Paving the track allowed the Southern ladies who attended a race at Martinsville to leave for home without having to rush their white dresses to the washing machine or having the interior of the family Edsel wagon look like it had run the Baja 500.
Even paving a half-mile oval wasn’t cheap by the standards of the 1950s and some folks, particularly some drivers, felt paving the track “ruined” Martinsville. But over 69 years, things have worked out pretty well at Martinsville, which remains near the top of most fans’ lists of favorite NASCAR tracks. Given their track record and their decades of loyalty to NASCAR my gut tells me whatever the Campbell/Earles family thinks ought to be done promptly and without any debate. NBC, much less FOX wasn’t even in existence when NASCAR started running races. If you want to look at the ratio of balls to strikes for Campbell and Brian France it’s clear who has a better vision of NASCAR racing going forward.
Perhaps lost in the fireworks of Elliott’s upset win at the Glen is the fact the entire race took just two hours and 13 minutes, green flag to checkered flag. That’s the shortest race of this season other than Michigan, which is officially listed as just over two hours. But that’s because rain intervened and ended the festivities at lap 133.
Oddly enough, the second-shortest race that ran to full distance this season was at Sonoma at two hours and 38 minutes followed by Fontana at two hours and 42 minutes. In all, 10 of this season’s 22 points races have been run in under three hours. Three hours is a reasonable time frame for a race especially given the decreased attention spans of younger millennial fans. Obviously, the World 600 which lasted four hours and 23 minutes this year is never going to meet a three-hour timeframe.
But if NASCAR were to start races at 1 p.m. ET, again, a race that runs in three hours (and thus is over by 4 p.m. ET) has an added advantage in that it means the end of the race won’t be up against the start of the NFL late games that weekend. In most markets, there’s still enough daylight left for a three-hour race that starts at four and ends at seven. That means the races wouldn’t be up against the early NFL games though that might be a pretty ambitious strategy given the nature of auto racing which can run long for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s notable that your typical NFL game is scheduled for TV purposes at three hours. Given the NFL’s TV ratings which dwarf NASCAR’s this time change might be an instance where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I suppose it’s just human nature. Chase Elliott is already one of the sport’s Most Popular Drivers despite the fact he hadn’t won a Cup race prior to Sunday. Some fans, by nature, cheer on the underdogs. They developed almost a Wyle E. Coyote attitude each time Elliott flirted with a win only to have an anvil drop inexplicably out of the clear desert sky to foil his chances once again. Now, fans want to know when I expect Elliott to win again. If I recall correctly, when Elliott won his first NXS race at Texas in 2014 he went ahead and won the next weekend at Darlington as well.
Going strictly by statistics, not superstition, Elliott would have to be considered a favorite this weekend at Michigan. He finished second there in both races in the Irish Hills in 2016 and again in the spring of 2017. In five Cup starts at Michigan, Elliott is averaging a 4.6 finish.
But given that Watkins Glen is a road course, Elliott should be expected to contend again on the Charlotte ROVAL course this fall as well, right? Let me blunt about it. That ROVAL thing is no more a road course than my driveway is a drag strip.
Casino mogul Bill Harrah once decided to build a platypus of a custom car. He took a Jeep Grand Wagoneer and a Ferrari Daytona, two special vehicles that were each quite good at doing what they were designed to do. That is, until Harrah swapped the Daytona’s 12-cylinder engine and five speed manual gearbox into what he called “the Jerrari.” The ungainly looking hybrid was no longer any good at much of anything but Harrah apparently found the experiment amusing enough he had a second one built.
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