We can talk about how Travis Kvapil’s situation reflects an ongoing problem NASCAR has – the difficulty of teams finding sponsorship in tough economic times. There is certainly truth to that. Drivers less worthy than Kvapil are on the track in Sprint Cup races every week, because they’re more marketable, better looking, or have an easier name to spell, and so sponsors gravitate to them. Yes, that’s troubling, but as long as companies fund racecars, you’re going to have this.
In last week’s Happy Hour, I discussed baseball’s ballpark boom and how the place responsible for it all, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, changed the formula for modern ballparks – from antiseptic concrete bowls to eye-catching and distinctive structures with natural grass. I suggested that NASCAR could learn from this, with most of the NASCAR schedule littered with tracks that are all too similar to one another. With that in mind, here is what defines Happy Hour Motor Speedway I. Feel free to chew me out if something doesn’t work, or add any ideas of your own.
One of the bigger beefs longtime fans of NASCAR have today is the unimaginative size, shape, and location of too many of the current venues. Like the cookie-cutters that once dominated baseball, NASCAR’s schedule today is dominated by garden-variety tracks with no standout features. Little distinguishes Kansas Speedway from Chicagoland, Homestead, Las Vegas or Texas, especially when watching on television. Some newer tracks are to be applauded for the things that do improve the fan experience (like seats instead of benches), but they are clearly built with the same intention as the concrete doughnuts in baseball were – to attract as many fans as possible and to expend no energy on design or quirky originality.
To say that Dale Earnhardt’s untimely death struck the motorsports world like a sledgehammer blow to the head would be an understatement. NASCAR Nation was badly shaken in the wake of the Intimidator’s passing. Despite Dale’s departure from this Earth in a way that one could have seen happening – the proverbial “he died doing what he loved” – it still put us all into a state of incredulous shock. It seemed so wrong. Earnhardt was happier than he had ever been, looking forward to another season of racing. He was supposed to retire comfortably, run his new team until reaching a ripe old age, and see his son follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t supposed to be over so suddenly before his 50th birthday.
Sometimes I feel for the FOX Sports people, even if it’s difficult to muster sympathy for them while sitting through infuriatingly bad broadcasts of racing. The artists and animators who created Digger are only trying to entertain, trying to add to the NASCAR broadcast, and some of the backlash has been nothing short of vicious. One of the nicer comments suggested a “Digger as main course” barbecue. But the sentiment is understandable. The cartoon rodent is one more of the countless distractions that flood a typical NASCAR broadcast these days.
As is all in a week’s work for the Official Columnist of NASCAR, I watched, I listened, and I read what people had to say about the Daytona 380. Here, then, is what is left and needs to be said… or probably more correctly, what was said that needs to be repeated. There’s a lot here, gang, but please bear with me… I think it’s all worthwhile. Get yourself some coffee, print this and take it to the can while the boss isn’t watching… it’s Friday.
Few drivers in NASCAR history are as calm and measured when the cameras are on as Jimmie Johnson is. So Lowe’s, of course, couldn’t be happier with him, and you can’t blame them, especially given the headaches their biggest competitor had with their outspoken driver once. But Jimmie’s demeanor may also be part of NASCAR’s ratings problem.
When people hear “The Man In Black” they think of one or both of two men – Johnny Cash, iconic country singer and wearer of ubiquitous black leather outfits, or Dale Earnhardt, iconic driver of the black racecar with the trademark white number 3 on the side. Both are no longer with us and the world is lesser for it. Cash and Earnhardt both relished the “man in black” role. Dark clothing or a dark car. Black like the night. In Johnny Cash’s case, black like much of his life, even if much of the blackness was self-inflicted by his own admission. In Earnhardt’s case, black like Darth Vader – and to be feared just as much on the racetrack.
When the question “what is the biggest news story of 2008” came up, plenty of things came to mind in the short time provided for answers. Easily, Jimmie Johnson’s third straight title was the winner, but there were other memorable moments, including: the mess at the Brickyard; the meteoric rise and fall of Kyle Busch; a winless season for Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth; and Johnny Benson and Clint Bowyer winning titles in the lesser series. However, after our chat I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing). Memory is short, and we tend to forget things at an astonishing rate. Most of us couldn’t remember what we wore two days ago, unless we had set clothes for each day of the week. With that in mind, there are some memorable moments in the 2008 season that we’ll have most certainly forgotten by 2013.
In 35 races so far this season, we’ve seen the sport’s matinee idol perform well, but not spectacularly in his first season with a top team. We’ve seen an amazing stretch of races where a champion who scored the most points last season went winless. We’ve seen a cocky young superstar explode for eight wins, dominating the circuit until hundreds of points were given to other drivers to bring the field even with him, which was followed by his team’s prompt and sudden collapse. We’ve seen the picture of cool and focused once again hit the switch when the playoffs started, to close in on a certain third straight title for only the second time in the sport’s history.
I’m not going to dwell on the irony that the title race would actually be closer without the Chase right now, although it is significant. As is often said, the rules are what they are and I’ve expounded plenty on what might have been. What I am questioning, though, is how a playoff format whose main goal was “more excitement” – a format that punishes performing drivers and teams unfairly and yet is justified in the name of “more excitement,” a format that has forsaken what had been a perfectly acceptable system for determining a NASCAR champion for “more excitement” – has produced, in four out of five years of its existence, some of the dullest title runs in recent memory?
In the press conference announcing the coming Camping World sponsorship of the truck series, every NASCAR fan’s favorite CEO commented on the future with a shaky economy dominating the headlines. Incidentally, while I wouldn’t often be mistaken as a member in any kind of a standing of the Brian France Fan Club, he probably does deserve credit for nailing down sponsorship for the Truck Series. This is a series that looked to be skating on thin ice with Craftsman bailing and advertising budgets being cut, but since they at least haven’t tainted their points system, the series is a winner with a lot of fans. France announced that there were no plans to change the field sizes in races, which is good news, if for no other reason than it is a sign that NASCAR isn’t panicking. Not that it would be a terrible thing to reduce the fields… at least then everyone would have their own pit stall at Dover…but if we still have 43 and only 41 make the entry list, it will likely still be worth everyone’s while.