All the recent bickering over the ins-and-outs and thereabouts of the NASCAR Sprint Cup rulebook has led to some very interesting discussions amongst racing fans. The discourse, as you might expect has revolved around the confirmed innocence / implied guilt of Chad Knaus and his teammates / minions at Hendrick Motorsports. Much of this situation revolves around questions of ethics and the consequences of choice; did Knaus and company shape the C-pillars according to procedure “as usual” on their Lowe’s Chevrolet for Daytona? If not, and rules were broken, was the violation worth the cost if the team was busted by NASCAR inspectors? Was bending / breaking the rules necessary for Jimmie Johnson’s success at Daytona? When does creativity become cheating?
Many NASCAR fans spent Tuesday on pins-and-needles; after all, focusing on work was difficult considering what was going down at the sanctioning body’s Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. Rick Hendrick, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 Lowe’s race team were appealing their Speedweeks 2012 penalty for being caught with improperly shaped C-pillars on the Chevrolet they planned to run in the Daytona 500. Here it was – three weeks after the 500 and almost a month after the violation itself – and fans anxiously awaited the verdict of the National Stock Car Racing Commission.
As the appeals hearing occurred that day, not only did NASCAR Nation know what was happening, but it knew exactly what went on as the events took place. As soon as the commission’s decision to uphold NASCAR’s penalty was announced, race fans knew it.
My, but how the times have changed…
Now that the 2012 Sprint Cup season is off-and-running – away from the hysteria of Speedweeks and heading west for events at Phoenix and Las Vegas – NASCAR Nation can finally get down to some important business: Namely, what effect will “Pillargate” have on the competitive fortunes of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports, and the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet? Will the team’s unique interpretation of the rulebook and their innovative use of sheet metal reduce “Five Time” to little more than a wild card shot for this year’s championship? Once a team has been tagged by NASCAR officials for engaging in “actions” deemed “detrimental to stock car racing”, has not the rest of their season been reduced to being watched with intense suspicion from all angles? In a word: you bet!
It would be a glaring understatement to say that Speedweeks 2012 was one of the most unusual we’ve ever seen. Despite the excitement of the Budweiser Shootout (what feels like eons ago), the qualifying races, and the darkhorse winners we crowned in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events, the kickoff to the 2012 NASCAR season had a surreal vibe. Maybe it was the rain of last weekend – an ongoing dousing that pushed the Daytona 500 to its first-ever rainout in 54 years. Maybe it was the running of “The Great American Race” itself on Monday evening, when the sport seemed poised to show its stuff, capable of attracting unheralded numbers of curious new fans during primetime. Maybe it was the fact that Danica Patrick was getting her first real, points-paying chance to strap in, climb up on the wheel, and have at it in NASCAR’s premier division. There were so many compelling stories to follow – so many drivers and so many teams with so much to prove. Such is always the case when Speedweeks roll around come February.
The afterglow of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has shined on what we’ve seen for 2012 thus far. Last November’s tie-breaking battle for the title gave way to this year’s exciting Budweiser Shootout, the introduction of the 2013 entry from the Ford Motor Company, the advent of electronic fuel injection, and Danica Patrick’s arrival to the Cup Series. It all adds up to a hopeful promise of what should be another successful year for NASCAR. Consider that television ratings for last weekend’s running of the Budweiser Shootout were up over those for last year’s broadcast; the appeal of NASCAR remains strong thanks to exciting competition and compelling storylines. At the moment, the sport of stock car racing – and the Sprint Cup Series, in particular – is riding on the coattails of 2011’s “once-in-a-lifetime” calendar of achievements.
Much of the talk surrounding this weekend’s finale at Homestead has been about the consistency of Carl Edwards. His position atop-o’-the-points (albeit by only three) has come about because of his steady march through the 2011 schedule. The fact that Edwards won only once this year (at Las Vegas back in March), yet has been at-or-near the points lead for most of the season speaks volumes about the No. 99 team, the skill of Carl Edwards, and the consistency they’ve exhibited. Other drivers and teams have shown evidence of consistency both before and during the Chase (the efforts of Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, and A.J. Allmendinger come to mind, in addition to the postseason dominance of Tony Stewart) but it’s been the heavy foot, steady hand, and clear head of Carl Edwards that puts us where we are today.
The line between aggressiveness and recklessness is a fine one – a razor’s edge that separates acting bravely from lashing out boorishly. Staying on one side of the line versus the other is a matter of judgment, a decision made in little more than a heartbeat that can change the tenor of a race, a championship, history, or even life itself. It’s far easier to be boorish than to be brave, even when the consequences could result in injury or worse. Making the call between an act of bravery and an act of boorishness is a matter of personal responsibility. Recognizing that personal responsibility is just that – personal – is an important part of the decision-making process, and that means rising above the emotion of the moment to do what’s best as an example of your responsibility.
I fear for the future of NASCAR. Say what you will about the Chase format, the new points system, the loss of sponsorships, and the shutting down of teams – my greatest fear is that the sport will see a loss in fan interest across a very viable and very important demographic: the 18-to-25-year old “college” audience. Today’s college-aged, academically-involved population is hard to please. Grabbing their attention is tough, and keeping it for more than fifteen minutes is even tougher. The overall 18-to-25-year old demographic is a fickle bunch – regardless of gender – and a demanding sort of self-centered consumer.
Sunday’s race at Talladega was like something out of a Disney Channel primetime movie. This year’s fall Cup event resembled a bad high school homecoming dance; Tony was partnered with Ryan, but then he pushed Ryan away and hooked up with Joey, while Trevor asked Jeff to dance only to dump him at the last minute to go with Matt. Denny Hamlin, on the other hand, spent most of the day all alone, watching the cool kids have fun without him (as Hamlin put it: “The best I can describe it is we were stuck without a date to the prom, so I was just hitting on everyone’s mom.”). And then there was Regan Smith, whose afternoon ended with something by Wham! – a little number that had him climbing the walls and walking away in visible frustration. The only things missing were special guest appearances by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hutchens.
People like to use clichés – those timeless adages that correspond to attitudes or beliefs deemed necessary for shared understanding and stability. Clichés like “Every cloud has a silver lining” or “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life” sound like they should be stitched onto a wall-hanging, and quite often they are (in my childhood home, there was one handed down from my grandparents that read “Work out your own salvation.” It still hangs there for all to consider).
Danica Patrick is a brand. So is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. What about Greg Biffle or Marcos Ambrose or Kyle Busch? Do they qualify as “brands?” Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse is a brand, and so is Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet is a brand, as well. The No. 24 DuPont Chevy has been considered a brand, but can the No. 24 AARP “Drive to End Hunger” Chevy be considered one, too? During last Friday’s press conference at Kansas – when it was announced that Clint Bowyer had been named to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 – it seemed as though everything in-and-around the deal was deemed to be “a brand.” Bowyer was called a brand, and so was MWR. 5-Hour Energy, the company backing from 20 to as many as 24 races for Bowyer and his No. 15 Toyota, was referred to as a brand, as was Toyota itself. By the time Clint Bowyer’s press conference ended, reporters had heard the word “brand” more than they did the word “NASCAR.” Come to think if it… NASCAR is a brand, too. So what gives? What’s the big deal regarding this notion of what (or who?) is a brand?
It’s good to be the king, or so it is said. While many cite the spate of competitive racing we’ve seen thus far in 2011, it is important to recognize that the entire point structure in NASCAR has been revised/re-interpreted/re-invented in order to create close competition between teams. When Brian France announced the “Chase for the Championship” format back in 2004, it seemed clear that NASCAR was trying to steal attention (and viewers) away from formidable fan favorites like college and professional football. Something else, however, was perfectly clear: the idea that NASCAR could control overall competition (and fan interest) by manipulating the nature of the points system that had been in effect, in one form or another, since 1975.