Exactly nine months after it left port with the Daytona 500, the 2019 Cup season came to its end with a very displeasing sneezing and wheezing as the calliope crashed to the ground — trailing smoke, clanking loudly, a bit rusted in some places and busted in others. As I watched the screen fade to black, I scratched the stubble on my chin distractedly and muttered to myself, “Hey, well at least that’s over.” That’s a somewhat less enthusiastic reaction than I’ve had in other years but I suppose what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Lately, I have to wonder if watching races even knowing they’ll likely be poor is a form of self-abuse that makes me older, not stronger. Time invariably will pass. The dude running second likely will not.
Like Alice deciding to see what lay beneath the rabbit hole’s edge, NASCAR found itself in a couple strange and unexpected situations this weekend. On Friday night, Matt Crafton claimed the Truck Series title. For perhaps the second time in the history of legitimate sport, a titlist claimed the honor without winning a single event. Nada. That’s not to question the legitimacy of Crafton’s title. The rules were set prior to the season. All the teams knew them. Score one for a fellow old guy. Polish that Blue Oval to a fine luster. It’s not the title that is illegitimate; it’s the process of determining the champion. It’s not as if no one considered such a scenario possible. The other championship awarded to a competitor who never won an event was Austin Dillon’s NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2013. After a miserable, cold and wet first camping trip in the Poconos, I learned to heed my dad’s well-interned but seldom taken advice: “Plan ahead or stay behind.” To make things that much more awkward, Saturday’s race winner Austin Hill led 56 laps of the event. Crafton led 44 laps all season.
NASCAR officials professed to be well pleased with the quality of racing in their three series this season with just a few caveats. Others were less enthralled with the goings on. Give Kyle Busch this much: He’s honest when he offers an opinion, and often quite loudly as well. Busch has said repeatedly (dare I say ad nauseam) that the packages (different aero and horsepower setups for various tracks) have been a disaster and the racing has been of very poor quality because nobody can pass. And guess who won the title for winning with the lousy new rules and packages. This was right in Busch’s wheelhouse. He also won the first race featuring NASCAR’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Car of Tomorrow. He said it “sucked.” A few years later everybody agreed the “Car of Horror” had to go.
Not everyone shares our new champion’s dim view of the quality of the Cup racing in 2019. In fact, NASCAR President Steve Phelps went so far as to say, “Our competition right now in [sic] the intermediate tracks and the superspeedways, I believe is the best racing we’ve ever seen.” Red flag! Who is “we” and how long have you been watching? I mean are you counting the first Phoenix race, either Dover race, the first Pocono race, the second Texas race or Fontana as among the best races you have ever seen? In all cases, substantially less than half your customers approved of them.
Who is Steve Phelps, some of you are asking? (Though less of you than who would be asking who is Matt McLaughlin if he wrote an article about me.) He’s the guy who used to be Brian France and before him used to be Mike Helton, you know the dynamic duo that basically gutted the sport of stock car racing and left its flattened carcass on the side of A1A as road kill. France has become a bit of an embarrassment to his family. I’m told Helton just wanders around in small circles (as small as his girth allows) muttering, “It’s a curse worse than the cure” and “We will not react for the sake of reacting.” Those were Helton’s reasons for delaying the implementation of SAFER barriers and the HANS device in 2000. And we all remember what happened early in 2001.
Phelps is the new guy whose voice more attentive fans will commit to memory. Like Pavlov’s pups at that sound, we will wince, grimace, subtly roll our eyes and sigh. Honestly, the guy has only been on the job a year and some things in the sport have improved. It was my intention to be a good guy and be nice. I mean, when am I not? Yep. Even sitting here alone in my office I couldn’t keep a straight face typing that.
To his credit, Phelps admitted that the racing at the short tracks and road courses this year has been somewhat lacking in competitiveness. They intend to fix that as a priority. Phelps also recognizes that a preponderance of fans would like to see more short tracks added to the schedule. So he went ahead and did so. Without moving a tablespoon worth’s of dirt or applying for a single permit, promising no Great Wanged Spotted Owls will be displaced. How? Up until this weekend, NASCAR ran Cup races on three short tracks: Martinsville, Richmond and Bristol. But presto-chango Mr. Derango, any track a mile or less in length is now a “short track,” at least semantically speaking. So New Hampshire, Dover and Phoenix are short tracks and we’ll have five new short track races on the schedule. Hey, that race a couple weeks back at Phoenix didn’t do anything for you? Just wait until next year when it’s a short track. Problem solved. Hey, can’t you at least move a date to Iowa, which meets the more traditional definition of a “short track” next year? You tell me, preferably with a straight face, how Dover, where the pole speed flirts with 170 mph, is a short track. (No it’s not Bristol on steroids. The pole speed this fall as Bristol was a scooch under 130.) This is why I’ve gotten cynical. You always want to give the new guy a chance, but that right there has me throwing back my head like Roger Daltry ready to holler, “We won’t get fooled again!” Yep, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Another area of improvement Phelps wanted to cite was TV ratings. He says NASCAR’s TV ratings are up 4% this season while TV ratings for sports overall are down 9%. Alright. But those ratings are still down about a third to a half over five years ago, aren’t they? I mean is this a case of Jim Morrison lamenting, “I been down so very damned long, that it feels like up to me?”
What’s become clear is that for NASCAR in 2020, racing is going to be in a holding pattern. There will be a new car … in 2021. There will be new lower-profile tires on those new cars … in 2021. The schedule is going to undergo a major overhaul … in 2021. (Which they say will be unveiled by April 1 of next year, which I do in fact find encouraging.) There are going to be new sorts of engines … in 2021. (To his credit, Phelps did note the plan is to have the new engine sound substantially like the current breed of engines, not a bunch of buzzes and beeps from an all-electric powered racecar or the sound of four bullfrogs in a blender whine of V6s.) On the down side, “substantially” is a loosely defined term. Mr. Phelps, head down to your Ford dealer. Have them fire up a Shelby GT350 with the Voodoo flat-plane engine and run it to redline in all gears. That’s what a race car sounds like. Like that, only cranked to 11. Everything is going to be brand spanking new and better … in 2021. Meanwhile the house is burning down around us.
Phelps teased that the new engine design is going to potentially lure a new manufacturer into the fold. If that new carmaker is Dodge, I’m all for it. If it’s Honda or Hyundai well, thanks but no thanks. Phelps also said NASCAR is trying to make it easier, practically plug and play, for a new car manufacturer to get into the sport. IXNAY, bro. I know you’re busy (or you will be busy … in 2021), but take a field trip and go see the new film Ford v Ferrari. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s supposed to be hard work. Letting someone smack a set of decals on a spec car isn’t the way. Who’s going to make a movie about that in 50 years?
To repeat, 2021 isn’t fast enough. NASCAR is suffering from arterial bleeding, not a shaving nick. This calls for radical surgery. Another given is that the current season at nine months is far too long. Hand me that scalpel, Mr. Welby. From here on out, every track that currently hosts two races a year will only have one going forward with the exceptions of Martinsville, Dover and Richmond. (The ones that were already short tracks on Saturday afternoon and remained short tracks Sunday, not the faked ones.) Yep, all of them. Daytona. Talladega. Charlotte. Texas. Phoenix. One race a year. Most of those tracks struggle to sell tickets. Cut supply in half and watch demand go up. Item number two: Well, you’ve already asked Goodyear to develop new lower-profile tires. Ring ’em up and let them know we want those new tires to be bias-ply, not radial. We want them to squirm a bit when a driver puts the whip to them, and if he ends up in the wall for his impudence, so it goes. We want tires that give up a second of lap time in five laps and three seconds over the course of a fuel run. More mechanical grip, less aero grip, better racing.
It’s been an ongoing debate between some readers and me, but somehow we have to get a handle on how long each individual race runs. Over in F1, I believe the races last two hours. And trust me they pay a lot more money for race tickets than we do, especially since they have to pay in currencies that takes a wheelbarrow full of the stuff to get a Coke and a Slim Jim or other budget pork product. Perhaps two hours is too short a race for your hard-earned dollars. How about two and a half hours? I mean, for TV viewers at home they turn on the race at 1 p.m., they say the prayer, they sing the song, they show the starting lineup then drop the green. Call it the “ESPN Classic” format. The winner wins. Presumably he (or she) is well pleased and is interviewed just once, not three times. There’s a few short interviews with other contenders and perhaps one or two parties who might be feeling aggrieved about something and a response from those that might have aggrieved them. Kyle Busch can hop out of his car and say how the new shorter races suck. And it’s 3:30 p.m. We’re out of here. No need to tell us what we just saw because in fact we just saw it, didn’t we?
TV is a large part of the problem with NASCAR, actually. Sometimes if you ask someone if they saw the race they’ll say, “No. I watched it on TV.” Like it or not, you don’t watch a race on TV. You watch what portion of the race the network decides to show you. In almost every instance, fans who attended a race live will have a higher opinion of the race than those who watched on TV. (As long as you let the live attendees get themselves free of post-race traffic before interviewing them, at least.)
It feels like piling on since so many people have commented on it but Sunday’s Homestead broadcast on NBC was so bad it was literally infuriating at times. Yes, the sole focus of the race was the Championship Four. But it went beyond that. As they often do, the TV folks had decided on stories they were going to cover … scratch that, beat to death during the broadcast. A race is a rapidly-evolving situation that can turn on a dime. Pre-scripted stories don’t work. When it gets so bad you never even get a glimpse of Chase Elliott during the race, shoot off the “man overboard” rockets. And there were in fact 35 other drivers out there in addition to the Fab 4 and Boy Popular. Not all of them have a lot of fans but all of them have some fans. And not even getting through a full scroll of the running order before cutting away is just disgraceful.
Let’s see. Kyle Busch doesn’t feel that some people recognize his first title as legitimate because he missed the early part of the season. Denny Hamlin may have thrown away a previous title because of his nerves. Kevin Harvick is driving the only non-JGR car of the four. Martin Truex Jr. is a remarkably nice young man. (Well, not so young anymore but still quite nice.) Lather, rinse, repeat.
The post-race activities were over the top as well. NBC had a script they wished to stick to but inconveniently the new champion seemed intent not to stick with the script. “Over here, Kyle. Pick this up Kyle. Answer this. No, that’s wrong. This is the right answer. Stop looking so smug. Be happier, damn it. Think you can stroll across that swimming pool to show you are in fact the anointed? Hey, kid, do something cute! Your dad is bombing out here.”
Yes, there is a Rowdy Nation but let’s get real. There’s also a goodly number of fans who wouldn’t shed a tear watching Busch dumpster diving behind a Burger King for Thanksgiving dinner. Those fans might have liked a chance to glance at the final standings beyond the top five as well.
Improved TV broadcasts would almost certainly do more — and do it quicker — to improve the opinions of many fans when it comes to the quality of the racing than anything else that could be tried … before 2021.
Here’s a hint. All I know about crystal balls is if I had a pair, I wouldn’t ride a horse bareback. Ten minutes before a race starts, none of us know how the event is going to play out — not the high-priced network “talent,” not even us stupid damn fans at home. So how about this: Talk only when you have something interesting to say that nobody is paying for you to say. (Yes, they are changing four Goodyear tires. What were their alternatives when it comes to choosing a tire brand?) How is the race going to play out? We’ll find out together, won’t we? ‘Cause we’re all TV pals. No preconceived storylines heading into the broadcast. If an announcer isn’t quick enough to think on his or her feet, demote them down to some sport like baseball where something of consequence only happens about every 15 minutes.
At the end of the season, I’d like to take a moment to thank all my readers who followed along on this year’s Matti-cal Mystery Tour. I wish you a pleasant, festive and reflective Thanksgiving and all the joy and wonder that Christmas or whatever winter holiday you celebrate offers. See ya back here in February, Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, same Matt time, same Matt channel. Apparently Bryan Keith got a new contract. I got an apple …
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end …