Last week, someone (Bill B) asked in the comments section below my column if that particular column about Pocono had run a week late. Uh, no Bill, that one was fresh off the grille. (And yes, the crash at Pocono that ended Bobby Allison’s career was in 1988, not ’89 as I stated. My apologies.) I can understand your confusion, though. It’s simply a fact of life this time of year for a NASCAR writer. Absent any breaking news that grabs the headlines (in short supply that week), it’s sometimes difficult to come up with a cohesive column, but there’s a deadline to be met. After 25 or so years of writing about the sport, I have come to accept that:
- A) Not every column is going to be a classic.
- B) Sometimes writing can be a joy, but other times it’s like yanking teeth with a rusty pair of vice-grips.
Plan B for the Summer Stretch is comparable to making a stew. You may not have enough meat, vegetables, nor mystery food stuffs you find stuffed in the back corner of the fridge to make a meal, but if you combine it all in a crockpot, add a thick beef gravy and spice the hell out of it, you can make a meal. Such is the case this week, so I hope you’ll find at least a few palatable nuggets below.
The Comeback Kid
Those who were able to stay awake late Friday night saw an unexpected winner take the trophy, a $50,000 bonus check and the black hat at the conclusion of the Texas truck race. Greg Biffle (the 2000 Truck Series champion and runner up in the series points in 1999) won the event, edging Matt Crafton by a little less than a second. Biffle is 49 years of age while Crafton is (as of today, happy birthday) 43. Score one for the old guys. Third-place Tyler Ankrum is 18. I have t-shirts older than that.
Biffle’s last victory in the Truck Series prior to Friday took place on Oct. 26, 2001, at Phoenix, 6,434 days prior to Friday. I’m told that’s a gap of 416 races, though I haven’t counted them personally.
How different was the Truck Series, NASCAR in general and this grand blue marble we all live on back in October of 2001? Very. Friday night, Biffle drove a Toyota to victory. Toyota didn’t start racing in the Cup series until 2007, and a Camry didn’t visit victory lane in NASCAR’s top division until some guy named Kyle Busch won at Atlanta on March 9, 2008, at the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Toyota. That explains part of Busch’s popularity problem. Some older fans not only recall that date in March unkindly, they also recall Dec. 7, 1941.
Back when Biffle (and ‘The Biff’ was one of the first nicknames I decided as a writer I was never going to use — too weird for a kid who grew up reading Hardy Boys’ books) won at Phoenix in 2001, driving for Jack Roush. In that era, the Roush Ford teams were powerhouses, regularly competing for race wins and championships in all three of NASCAR’s top three national touring series.
RFR has fallen upon some hard times of late. Roush’s teams haven’t managed a Cup win since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Firecracker 400 in Daytona back in 2017. Over the years, Roush’s stable of drivers has won 137 Cup races, 138 events in what is now the Xfinity Series and 50 Truck Series events. Over the course of those seasons, Roush scored Cup titles in 2003 (Matt Kenseth) and 2004 (Kurt Busch). Roush-led teams (always in Fords) also claimed what were then called Busch Series titles in 2002 (Biffle), 2007 (Carl Edwards), 2011 and 2012 (Stenhouse), and 2015 (Chris Buescher). In 2000, Biffle won the Truck Series title in a Roush-prepared Ford F150.
Over the years, Roush lost some high profile and immensely talented drivers, including Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Edwards and Kenseth. While it’s conjecture, not a matter of record, it’s said that Roush never paid his drivers as well as other high profile teams, and when sponsorship dollars started drying up a decade ago, Roush was the only team owner who wouldn’t budge on his pricing since he knew well what it cost to field a competitive team in NASCAR at any level.
What else was going on the world back on and around Oct. 26, 2001? If you were alive back then, doubtless you recall that that autumn the United States was still reeling from the barbaric terrorist attack of 9-11. Bloodied and bruised, the nation was getting back to its feet with a steely resolve and a sense of unity that is incomprehensible today.
On TV, you were probably watching Friends, Seinfeld and Will and Grace, or if you weren’t, you were hearing about all the major plot points around the water cooler the next day.
The Apprentice was still three years in the future. If you’d heard of Donald Trump in 2001, it was likely because he was playing a real life game of Monopoly opening and closing casinos in Atlantic City. I’ll admit, I never saw one of the 192 episodes of The Apprentice ,but that’s because I’ve found that when it comes to greed, people tend to act badly, and when it comes to greed and there are TV cameras focused on the contestants, they tend to act horribly. I’m not a fan of reality TV — or reality or TV, for that matter.
The top-grossing movie of 2001 was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The top-selling vehicles in the US in 2001 were the Ford F series pickup, the Chevy Silverado pickup and the Ford Explorer. The Accord and Camry had taken over fourth and fifth on the list, displacing the Taurus down to sixth.
YouTube didn’t come into being until 2005. Apple debuted iTunes in 2001 and canceled the service last week, as it turns out. Facebook (first called FaceMash) debuted in 2004, 15 years ago. A frightening amount of people seem to spend that many hours a day on the platform.
Hey Kids, Let’s Put on a Show
The ARCA series staged a race at Michigan Friday evening. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a race. Things started out poorly with a short car count of just 18 vehicles. As recently as Charlotte a couple weeks back, there were 25 entrants for that race (well, 24 perhaps because the No. 09 car didn’t start the race despite qualifying 19th). Perhaps it has something to do with most NASCAR teams being based in the Charlotte area and thus they only had to haul their race vehicles and equipment across town, not cross-country.
Only 18 ARCA entrants made the haul up to Pocono Raceway for that weekend’s race. Another 18 cars showed up at Michigan, and let’s just say some of them weren’t fielded by very competitive teams. I use the Matt Factor to determine when a race has become boring. If there’s more than a two-second gap between first and second or more than a 10-second gap between the leader and the 10th-place runner, that race fails the smell test. On Friday night, there was often a gap of six to eight seconds between leader Michael Self and second place Ty Majeski for long stretches of the race. Only three cars finished on the lead lap Friday, and only two others finished a single lap down. Tenth-place finisher CJ McLaughlin (no relation I am aware of, as my branch of the family tree tends to eschew colder climates) was listed as eight laps down at the end of the farce … er, race.
True enough, there was an unexpected finish. Majeski was trying to stretch out his fuel mileage and his tank ran dry coming out of the fourth corner on the final lap, allowing Self to win while Majeski coasted across the finish line dead stick in second. I’ve gotta admit, I’ve never been a big fan of fuel mileage races. When gearheads get together, they tend to speak of their cars’ quarter-mile times and top ends, not the sort of MPG they get.
And some of the teams it seemed went ahead and phoned it in for the Michigan ARCA race. At least two entries were slowed by spark plug wires found to be loose during the race. Seriously? That’s car guy 101. Back when I was drag racing, my friends and I were a bunch of long-haired kids drinking beer in my parents’ garage. We never showed up at the strip with spark plug wires that weren’t properly secured, and we were racing for pot metal trophies you could fit in a parka pocket.
At least things didn’t go as awkwardly as they would have been this coming weekend for the scheduled race at Thompson, CT in the K&N East series (the old Busch North Series). With only nine cars slated to appear, the promoters went ahead and cancelled the event.
There are some big changes ahead for the ARCA Series, the K&N East and the K&N West schedules coming in 2020. What we now know as ARCA (which NASCAR purchased to bring under its umbrella) will be known as the ARCA Elite Racing Series. It will have approximately a 20-race schedule, with about half of those races on short tracks and the rest on the big ovals (one mile or more in length), often as companion events to NASCAR’s top three touring series.
The K&N East and K&N West Series will have separate schedules with six to eight events each. ARCA drivers will be eligible to compete in the K&N races, and K&N series drivers can compete in ARCA races, as long as they meet the minimum age of 18 to run on the speedways. Drivers only need be 15 to compete on the K&N short tracks.
The final 10 races of the ARCA Elite Racing Series will be run on “premiere short tracks.” Again, the specific ones haven’t been decided yet. Those final 10 races will be called “The Stock Car Invitational,” a pretty optimistic term given the struggles these series have to field a satisfactory car count right now. Do you have a pulse? Cool, you’re invited. Drivers who compete in a minimum number of East series or West series races will be eligible to compete in the Stock Car Invitational.
Changes will have to be made so the K&N East and K&N West cars are competitive with the ARCA Elite Series cars. Likely, those changes will involve the engines, but they could involve changes to the chassis, bodies, weights etc. as well.
Given the uncertainty as to next year’s schedule and rules, I’m not surprised that some team owners are hesitant to dump a lot of money into their current fleet of cars or to lay out cash to replace wrecked or worn out cars that meet the current rules package.
Is this any way to run a professional racing series? Sure, if you’re the Little Rascals.
The Summer Doldrums
NASCAR has already released its 2020 Cup schedule, and except for a few key changes, it looks much like this year’s, which in fact looks like it has for years now. The big talking points are next year’s Pocono doubleheader weekend and two consecutive weekends off at the end of July and the start of August to accommodate NBC’s Olympics coverage. Also of note is the Brickyard 400 moves from early September this year to July 5 next year. It’s hot in Indiana in September. It’s hotter there in July.
The new date for the Brickyard will shift the second Daytona Cup race, traditionally known as the Firecracker 400, to Aug. 29. I’m not sure what they’ll call the race (other than officially it will be named for some corporate sponsor), though perhaps the Hurricane Season 400 would be appropriate. Whatever name it goes by, that race at Daytona in 2020 will be the final “regular season” event before the postseason commences at Darlington with the Southern 500. The Southern 500 at Darlington has resumed its traditional Labor Day weekend date. That tradition started in 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural Cup season, though it spent some years wandering the country and calendar like a displaced orphan in wartime.
NASCAR’s hands were basically tied when it came to making next year’s schedule. Under contracts with the race tracks and their owners, they were unable to delete any dates from the schedule, and any significant changes to race dates had to be approved by those track owners. Those agreements end next year, so NASCAR will have sufficiently more leeway to add or delete tracks from the schedule or shift dates around, perhaps even to a couple weeknights on an experimental basis.
Hopefully, NASCAR will use that newfound freedom to make some significant changes. First and foremost, I hope they choose to make the schedule shorter. The NASCAR circus really needs to have packed up its wagons and rolled by the time the NFL season starts. You don’t wrassle a 500-pound gorilla and expect to walk away with a banana.
Shortening the schedule would seem to invite also shortening the playoffs. I’ve been consistent in wishing out loud that the playoffs would just be consigned to the scrapheap of bad ideas, but a move to shortening it to just four or five races would be a good first step toward that goal.
Equally important would be spicing up what in most years has become the Summer Doldrums of the NASCAR season, a stretch of races that most fans don’t consider “Must-See TV” as evidenced by the TV ratings.
Meteorological summer doesn’t start until June 16, but a lot of folks consider “summer” that three-month stretch from Memorial Day weekend ’til Labor Day weekend.
This “summer’s” slate of races started off as usual with the World 600, and I’m fine with that. It’s a tradition, and as such I’d vote for keeping it the full 600 miles, not shortening it to 600 kilometers as some have suggested. That race was followed by Pocono (a race not well received by the fans) before rolling into Michigan this weekend. In interest of full disclosure, I am writing this Sunday evening after the race was postponed due to weather.
The weeks ahead include Sonoma, Chicago, the Firecracker 400, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Pocono (again), Watkins Glen, Michigan (again), the Bristol Night Race and the Southern 500. Of those events, the only ones I am eagerly anticipating are that Bristol Night Race, and of course, the Southern 500. Chicago, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Pocono and Michigan don’t top many fans’ favorites list.
A note about the two road course races. For years I wasn’t a fan of road course racing on the NASCAR schedule. I enjoy road racing and loved the old SCCA Trans Am and B/Production races. But those two series featured cars well suited to road racing and drivers who were skilled at the craft. For many years, teams simply bought a short course car to the road races, and some of the drivers were incredibly inept at racing on circuits with left and right turns (Tim Richmond, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin being notable exceptions). Some years, NASCAR had to pair the road course races with more desirable events to get a TV network to cover them with a deal like, “if we give you broadcast rights to Darlington you have to cover Watkins Glen too.” Covering a road course is a lot more complicated and challenging then most oval races and takes a lot more cameras. Some of the road course broadcasts were pretty terrible as a result.
Over the years, a lot of the drivers have gotten better at road racing, the teams have gotten better building cars for those events and the networks have gotten better at covering them. As such, a growing percentage of fans now embrace the road course races as a welcome change of pace on the schedule, and I understand and accept that.
Plate races like Daytona still leave me cold, however. It’s contrived excitement and too dangerous both for the drivers and the fans in the grandstands as I see it. NASCAR spent a lot of effort as their marketing mavens attempted to make the Brickyard 400 at Indy into a crown jewel event, but in reality the racing there is generally lousy and the tire debacle of 2008 at Indy probably should have been the death knell of the race. It certainly has killed ticket sales ever since. As a stock car racing fan, I still see the Brickyard as praying in somebody else’s church.
Let me hasten to add that are always exceptions to expectations. A lot of fans really disliked Kansas when it was added to the schedule, and the racing there wasn’t very good much of the time. Then out of nowhere in October of 2004, they put on an outstanding event. Joe Nemechek beat Ricky Rudd by .081 seconds for the win, and the 90,000 or so on fans on hand went nuts. Neither Nemechek nor Rudd were even in the top 20 in points that day. It just goes to show you never can tell. But if I’m gambling on buying tickets with my hard earned funds, I’ll likely lay my money down at the ticket counter of a track that traditionally hosts exciting races rather than gambling on a miracle like the one that October afternoon.
I’d love to see NASCAR overhaul its slate of summer races to include three or four short track events, possibly even at venues where the Cup Series doesn’t currently compete. Perhaps even an event run on the dirt would be a worthwhile experiment. A couple races run on weeknights would also open up a few “off” weekends for fans who’d like to explore the myriad of options other than racing during the sweet, sweet, summertime. NASCAR, it’s your night move.