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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: The Best of Everything

Welcome loyal readers to the last regularly scheduled 2020 function for Club 61; to whit, my last weekly column for 2020. In honor of the momentousness of the occasion, I have decided not to submit this week’s effort in crayon. Club 61 isn’t a place. It’s a statistical anomaly that a bunch of my longest term and most loyal readers are 61 years of age, just as I am. Of course there’s a raging pandemic right now doing its best to see a bunch of you younger folks don’t reach that milestone. 

Looking back on 2020, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone calling it “the same old, same old” or recalling it very fondly. What started out at rain-soaked Daytona International Speedway on stormy Sunday afternoon dragged over into Monday night and featured what visually at least appeared to be the worst wreck I’d seen in a Cup race in a decade. Ryan Newman was very lucky, I’d go as far as to say blessed, to escape that wreck with only minor injuries.  

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas the following week, followed by Alex Bowman the next week at Fontana, then Logano again at Phoenix. (As we returned to Arizona this weekend, I almost felt Bobby Ewing was going to climb out of the shower and let us all know this entire year was a figment of our imaginations. If only that had been the case!)

On his walk to the press box after the race, Logano allegedly tripped over an old steamer trunk. Unsure what it contained, he asked his older and wiser competitor Jimmie Johnson what was inside. “Well, Joseph, it appears that’s somewhere around 30,000 properly filled out mail-in ballots for the Republican candidate in this year’s November election. Just push them in that closet over there. I doubt anyone will miss them.” 

The circuit was then scheduled to head to Atlanta for a Saint Patrick’s Day weekend event. But as the trucks were pulling onto the property at AMS, something unexpected happened. The drivers of those great big rigs were told thanks to a tiny little virus they should haul ass out of there. Thanks to COVID-19, NASCAR was taking an extended time-out. What in blue-blooded tarnation are you talking about man-child? There are no time-outs in NASCAR, unless you count stage breaks.

As it turned out, there was about to be an extended break from stock car racing, at least the sort of stock car racing that bends up sheet metal rather than re-arranging pixels digitally. Real life stock car racing returned at Darlington on May 17, and there was much rejoicing. Kevin Harvick won the event. In fact the experiment went so well they returned to Darlington just three days later for another Cup race, won in this case by Denny Hamlin. Yep, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Those were the only two names you needed to know for much of this year’s NASCAR schedule. In order for Hamlin to win that race, his teammate Kyle Busch had to wreck Chase Elliott out of the way. Elliott, it should be noted, remains popular. Busch? Well not so much. Not at all, to be honest. 

From the fifth race of the season, when the season restarted at Darlington, to the 29th race of the year (Bristol in September), Harvick won nine races and Hamlin won five. We haven’t seen stats like that since the era of Petty and Pearson. Hamlin managed an additional five second-place finishes in that stretch. Three of those second-place finishes were to Harvick. It got so ridiculous when the circuit hit Pocono for the doubleheader weekend (which was ridiculous enough on its own terms) that Harvick and Hamlin finished 1-2 in both races, with Harvick ringing the bell Saturday and Hamlin scoring the win Sunday. Yet one of those two drivers failed to reach NASCAR’s playoff final. Did anyone hear it rained a bit at Texas in late October? 

My nomination for “surprise winner” of the year goes to Cole Custer at Kentucky. He only led five laps, but he led the ones they write the big checks for. Custer will never get his chance to defend that win, as NASCAR dropped the event from next year’s schedule. NASCAR also announced they were done with Chicagoland, which leaves me with a steamer trunk full of unused Blues Brothers jokes. And leaves the ISC with an unused joke of a racetrack. 

One of the casualties of NASCAR’s unintended spring season break was at least a one-year delay in the introduction of the “new” cars with their lower-profile tires and larger-diameter wheels, composite bodies and higher grade on-board electronics. The new cars are now scheduled to be introduced no later than 2022. Likely this will be the last generation NASCAR “stock car” prior to the introduction of hybrid-powered cars you plug in as well as gas up. That’s important, because someday when your grandkids go to the Smithsonian to see the car that won the very last NASCAR race, that’ll be what it looks like. Quiet race cars.

Love and kisses to Mother Nature, but I just can’t abide quiet race cars. Onion rings bought at the track aren’t a healthy eating choice but what are you going to do, brown-bag celery stalks and bean sprouts? 

How weird a year was it in Cup racing? Seven-time Cup champion Johnson was disqualified after having apparently finished second at the World 600 at Charlotte. Recall that for years, Charlotte Motor Speedway was known as Lowe’s, matching his sponsor for the salad days of his career. That was one of just five (eventually) top-five finishes Johnson managed during his entire retirement season. He averaged a 17th-place finish over the course of the season. They don’t usually print gum cards for you for that sort of stat. (Johnson also missed the Brickyard 400 after testing positive for COVID-19. Ouch.) 

While Johnson’s disqualification might have been the highest-profile example, there were a whole lot of questionable incidents that seemed curiouser and curiouser. After a 2019 season that saw Joe Gibbs Racing’s Busch take the title and his JGR teammates claim two additional spots in the top four, there were some bumps in the road for JGR this year over and above Busch winning just one race. (Busch won five Cup races last year and eight in 2018.) It’s notable that between the four JGR teams, there were 18 instances where one of the four cars had to start shotgun on the field for failing pre-race tech twice. The No. 11 team suffered six such penalties, the No. 18 team four, the No. 20 team four and the No. 19 team four (the most notable of which was Truex’s rear spoiler at Texas, which also resulted in NASCSR seizing the spoiler and issuing a $35,000 fine). The penalty also dropped Truex from 31 points out of the title lead to 51 points in arrears, effectively eliminating him from title contention. In most instances, the penalties seemed to focus on subtle issues related to rear suspension settings outside of regulations. Long-term fans may recall rear camber issues alleged to have been involved with Harry Gant’s Mister September four-race winning streak in September of 1991 and Bill Elliott’s “Elliott Express” four-win streak early in the 1992 season. 

Aiding JGR’s fortunes after being sent to the back of the pack all those weekends were competition cautions early in most of this year’s races that let them regroup, advance and adjust as the situation warranted. 

NASCAR’s times facing severe challenges that in fact threatened its existence (and I think we can safely include 2020 on that list) have given rise to some notable cheating scandals in the days of yore. The Ford/Chrysler factory boycott years of 1964 and ’65 yielded Junior Johnson’s infamous “Yellow Banana” ’65 Galaxie, perhaps the most illegal car ever allowed to compete in a NASCAR race. As the car factories left the sport in the early ’70s and Winston began to take over, the use of illegal nitrous oxide horsepower adding systems was rampant. No less a driver than AJ Foyt got nailed running one in Daytona 500 qualifying. 

The relative lack of success with the JGR teams (with the notable exception of the No. 11) might just be because NASCAR stumbled across some of their chicanery in the inspection barn. You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in. 

With Chase Elliott having clinched this year’s title Sunday, the driver voted “Most Popular Driver” is also the sport’s champion. That doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The last time the twin honor occurred was in 1988 when Chase’s dad Bill was so honored. Some media outlets have reported in fact that it was the only other time a driver was champ and most popular driver. That’s not the case. Lee Petty managed the trick in 1954. Not many of you will recall Rex White or his 1960 season (or 1960 for that matter), but White was champion and most popular driver. Richard Petty was a very popular guy and took both honors in 1964, 1974 and 1975. Bobby Allison earned the dual honor in 1983. And that’s it to date. 

With no apparent irony intended, NASCAR president Steve Phelps summed up this year’s Cup season by saying, “I would suggest that this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.” As an aside Mr. Phelps, you might note there’s a whole lot of that going around right now. 

So in closing to my fellow members of Club 61,

Wherever you are tonight,
I wish you the best of everything, in the world 
And I hope you find whatever you are looking for, 
Yeah and it’s all over before you know it, 
It all goes by so fast, 
And the bad nights take forever,
And the good nights don’t ever seem to last 

   – Tom Petty 

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26 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: The Best of Everything”

  1. I am sorry but I don’t get the media orders of CHASE being “NASCARS MOST POPULAR DRIVER!” It seems saying WILLIAM CLYDE’s nickname is now TRADEMARKED to say “THE MOST POPULAR DRIVER” and hell to pay to the media cheerleader that does not give him that INTRO! TIS HIS RIGHT!!!!!!!! LOL.

    Why is he perceived as the most popular? Because of that sponsor that has you call in and “vote” every year for a publicity gimmick? ? Or is because some old farts are at that blah, blah, blah diner, pool hall or whatever the fluck it is that when Bill won “THE SIREN WENT OFF”. Good lord, how many I know are sick of hearing that BS! Really, what is it? Chase is treated like royalty, Ralph Jr. the same way! I can seen the BS with hard core Dale Sr. fans, so I cut them some slack…Crazy at it is! But this guy Chase? Nope, do not believe it. Same BS with the FEMALE driver. And no I am not comparing skills, so back off!

    NASCAR is happy as a clam! They couldn’t get this done with LITTLE RALPH, They made ever consideration to make it happen with LITTLE CLYDE! NASCAR lives in the past, and unjustly so in so many instances! And NO I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THE “FLAG”. SO shut up! The stage has been set for Yimmie’s exist and CLYDE being the PREMIERE driver going into next season. OMG.

    NASCAR!!!!!!!!! SMH!

    • So sorry “Ford fan”, maybe if yall can tune that little Ford Fiesta up for 2021 you mite be a little happier! Or,…u CLd pray Hendrick starts a “Ford” team, but that wld be more less u “dreamin” & droolin” all over self so,..better luck next year. And ps… Kind of agree with the other guy, I think u missed a couple doses of pro-zac! Best regards, E.P.

    • I can guarantee you 2 things; as a native north Georgian, I know you would definitely get your ass kicked anywhere around Dawsonville with your silly attitude, and Chase Elliot “carries himself” like a man should, but you wouldn’t know anything about that. BTW- not particularly a fan of any of them. Don’t go to the dawsonville poolroom- just good advise.

  2. This year was one big asterisk for the entire world. Having the most popular driver (as voted on by fans… who cares) also win the championship was bound to happen some time so why not during the year where there was no normal. While I am not one of those that think Chase is now instantly the favorite for the next 20 years by virtue of winning the championship this year, I do think he will win at least one more at some point in his young career.

    Have a good off season Matt. Hopefully, with promise of a vaccine in the near future (funny how that didn’t get announced until after Nov 3rd), we will all still be here and things will be back to normal (whatever that is) next year.

    • You don’t like voting? In the Awesome Bill days, detractors pointed to sales of Dale Sr.’s merchandise as proof of his popularity. Now Chase wins both the vote and the merchandise sales, as well as the loudest fan response when he wins – or even makes a pass on the track.

      • I vote for things that matter, not for something as silly as most popular driver. As I said, who cares. As a rule I don’t buy any merchandise any more. There are about 6 drivers I view favorably, 6 drivers that I view unfavorably and the vast majority of the field I really don’t care about either way. Nor do I get much joy or anger which ever driver wins or loses. Regardless I found being a serious fan of any one driver was not worth it given the crapshoot nature of the sport now days. Wave arounds, double file restarts, GWCs, the chase/playoffs, etc., all lessen the chance that the best driver/car wins on any given weekend or the championship. A driver shows up, kicks ass for the entire race and then there are a bunch of cautions. Not worth caring if it often comes down to circumstances. My anger over my driver getting a win taken away from him didn’t outweigh the anger I felt when my driver deserved to win and had it taken away. I enjoy watching the racing and the strategies and may have strong opinions on the events and outcome but, deep down, I really don’t care who wins.

        • That next to last sentence should have read:
          My anger over my driver getting a win taken away from him when he deserved to win far outweighed any joy I felt when my driver backed into a win that someone else deserved.

          • Fortunately, I still enjoy the races even when my favorite (or second favorite) driver doesn’t win. I’ve also been fortunate to see both my favorite drivers win 14 races and 2 championships over the last 2 seasons. I would regret losing the excitement and yes, even the disappointment, that comes from cheering for them. In general, sports are not really that important, but provide a nice distraction from those things that are actually important and I don’t look forward to the day I say “I don’t care.”

            And to nip your next (possible) response in the bud, I am no bandwagon jumper, as I have been an Elliott fan for over 30 years and a Busch fan for almost 15.

          • Actually, not caring isn’t all that bad. I still enjoy the sport and watch every race. I don’t spend a $1000 a year on diecasts (I have a ton of them) and merchandise. I also can watch with a level of objectivity that most of you can’t (although none of us can be totally unbiased and I am no different).

            Not sure why you would think I would suggest you are a bandwagon jumper. Wow, 30 years… you were rooting for Chase before he was conceived…. that’s commitment.
            :)

          • I was careful to note that I have been an “Elliott fan” for 30 years, including the last 15 watching Chase move up through the ranks. I first met Bill and Cindy in November. 1995, about a week before Chase was born. So I guess I met him that day too. And I don’t spend a dime in die casts, although I have a grand total of about 5 tee-shirts over all that time. My favorites are “Everything is Great” and “Fueled by Haters.”

  3. chase did what jr couldn’t do. na$car so wanted jr to be the father/son championship pair because they still rake in big dollars at the mention of the earnhardt name, before chase and bill. maybe chase just wanted to succeed more than jr did. jr never has been known for his work ethic, mr sleep late and party into the wee hours. as long as you have fans that remember bill’s days in the sport, chase will be most popular driver….just as jr was when his father died up until he retired.

    this has been one crazy year. one i’m ready to see over.

    sunday’s race was ultimate vanilla day.

    have a good off season all……happy thanksgiving, merry christmas and happy new year.

  4. Matt,
    Another good column from “Club 61”. A nice recap of the 2020 season. Bill B. – I agree – Pfizer comes out with this announcement right after the election?! Who are the dems that hold a lot of Pfizer stock? Which campaign did Pfizer contribute to?
    Back to racing – BEAUTIFUL weather up here in the Boston area over the weekend. Took the Cuda out for a run. Got the Caravan washed and waxed for the winter, cleaned up the yard. I missed the race! Oh well.
    To all the Frontstretch staff and readers – Thank you all for your efforts. Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, Happy 2021. Stay safe and healthy.

  5. Matt, you couldn’t resist another dig at Busch, could you? The fact is that for the last 2 years, Kyle has finished 2nd to Chase in MPD voting and merchandise sales. I’d say that makes him pretty popular. It’s also important to the sport to have both of them around stirring up emotions. And while I love Chase, I also respect Kyle and cheer for both of them.

    As for COVID, it’s far more likely that the under-61’ers will survive this pandemic than the older folks. Just saying.

  6. Matt, Thanks for all the history you bring to your stories. I am a big fan. Have a great winter, and we will hear from you again.
    O ya ,I am 60 years old, so I feel right at home at club 61.

  7. Since Matt always likes to end his columns with favorite song lyrics, I’ll add my own:

    “We are the champions, my friends
    And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
    We are the champions, we are the champions
    No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions of the world

    I’ve taken my bows and my curtain calls
    You brought me fame and fortune
    And everything that goes with it, I thank you all

    But it’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise
    I consider it a challenge before
    The whole human race and I ain’t gonna lose
    And we mean to go on, and on, and on and on.”

    Everybody can say “We Will Rock You,” but very few can say “We Are the Champions.”

    • Yep… YOU are the champion alright.
      What an accomplishment.
      You really cheered him on.
      Way to go!
      Good job!
      I’m sure it took a lot of effort and perseverance.
      Don’t get rid of that recliner, I think they might want it down in Charlotte.

      Another good reason I am glad I don’t have a driver that I cheer for, I don’t make a fool of myself by vicariously taking some sense of accomplishment and credit for sitting on my ass and watching 36 races. (Don’t worry though, I’ve found other ways to make a fool of myself).

      • Bill B, stop defending yourself by attacking me. I meant Chase and his team could sing the song. I didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. I am NOT the Champion. You made a fool of yourself simply by your comment.

        Go join Matt McLaughlin in his endless personal pity party that life has passed him by. The only reason this column exists is to appeal to people who live in the past. Maybe Springsteen’s “Glory Days” should be YOUR theme song.

        • In reading a lot of the activity in the last few days you seem to be defending yourself against a lot of comments. Talk about making a fool of oneself.
          My you have a humongous ego.

          • No, I think I’m just a minority among readers of Frontstretch, in that I’m not living in the past or wanting to go back to it. The writers at FS who dare to favor a slightly more up-to-date view of sport are either ignored or insulted by you and your pals. I’m honored to be among that group as well. So, I’m neither a fool nor do I have a humongous ego. I am just offering a counterpoint to the stale thinking that so sadly often comes with old age and bitterness and prejudice. And Matt is the perfect spokesman for that group.

            I think it says a lot more about your ego and foolishness that you are actually keeping score here. Pathetic.

          • BTW, Bill, there’s a psychological term for your need to read and comment on sites that coincide with your own beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias and it’s a disordered way of thinking. Perhaps it would be wise to expand your horizons a bit – unless, of course, that would threaten your ego.

            Just a tip.

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