With the change last year to the Official Beer of NASCAR, the Pole Award for each race was no longer sponsored by the most popular brand – sold by Anheuser-Busch. Since that change took place, NASCAR didn’t want to tie the qualification for the Budweiser Shootout to drivers winning Coors Pole awards. With that sponsorship conflict in mind, it is completely understandable that they’d change the basic qualifications to make the race. But the one piece of the process that should have been retained – no matter what – was giving any previous winner of the event a slot in the field, provided they attempted to run a race the previous year. Without this provision, several former champions – and fan favorites – were left out of this year’s lineup.
It has been, very much, a winter of discontent for NASCAR. With money scarce, extensive layoffs have cast a grim pallor across an industry already suffering the ramifications of the global economic crisis. Big brand names have left the sport – some, like AT&T, due to the category exclusivity deals put in place by the governing body itself – and fresh corporate cash infusions are scarcer than Michael Waltrip victories. For a sport that is quite literally fueled by sponsorship dollars, the recession has hit hard – mighty hard.
There was not much for Bill Elliott or his struggling No. 21 Wood Brothers team to gloat about in 2008. The team fell outside the Top 35 in points last season and could never break the threshold this season.
For so many millions of us, favorite athletes become so much more. Role models for our kids, our communities, ourselves; they’re put on a pedestal of success we can only wish to achieve. Through them, we choose to live our wildest dreams, placed in a fantasy world in which a larger-than-life persona can show us the joys of perfection. Every once in a while, we get lucky in love, and the dream never dies. Our idols leave the sport we love at the top of their game, and we’re allowed to remember the end just the way we want it – like a fairy tale. But more often, the bubble bursts and we find out the truth – that these drivers we worship are human, too, unable to fend off the inevitability of age and time. And that makes it so much harder when you see their careers come crashing down.
At one time, Bill Elliott was so well liked he won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award a record 16 times; the honor will actually be named after him when he finally hangs it up for good. But in the past five years, he’s fallen under the radar screen, scaling back and going part-time in rides that haven’t been as competitive as he would have liked. Elliott’s best run this season came Sunday at Martinsville, placing 16th in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and his last top 10 was at Indianapolis way back in the summer of 2004. Prior to the TUMS QuikPak 500, Mike Neff of Frontstretch sat down (technically stood in the hauler) with Elliott to discuss the challenges of driving for a single-car team, his past success, and what the future holds following his retirement.
Jimmie Johnson got an excellent jump on that final green-white-checkered restart and kept Dale Earnhardt Jr. off his rear bumper.
Did You Notice? How much rainouts are unfairly affecting qualifying these days? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much excitement from potential Sprint Cup debuts ruined by something as simple as the weather. Scott Speed, Brad Keselowski and Bryan Clauson were all coming off exceptional test sessions where they clearly showed the speed to qualify for the 500-mile race at Lowe’s. But the rookies were all shut out of the starting lineup because NASCAR chose to set the field on 2008 owner points; and since they all were driving part-time machines, none of the three came close to making the cut.
Today’s Question: Heading to Richmond, we know that at least four of the 12 drivers in this year’s Chase will have entered the playoffs not having won a race yet. Should a win be a requirement to be eligible to win the championship, or would it be unfair to cut off winless drivers who haven’t yet earned their stripes in Victory Lane?
Mercifully, the Pepsi 500 at California’s Auto Club Speedway has come to a close. A race that has supplanted the beloved Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway over Labor Day weekend was the highlight of yet another exercise in futility at a track that has been criticized in recent years for poor attendance, poor racing, and generating all of the anticipation and excitement of a root canal. In that regard, it did not disappoint again. Sunday evening was Jimmie Johnson’s night to hang one on the field, mimicking his dominance of the Brickyard 400, driving the same car to victory while leading 228 of 250 laps to earn his third win of the season. He did so while brushing off tepid challenges from Greg Biffle and the two Red Bull entries of Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger. This in front of a crowd of approximately 70,000 people — about 40 minutes from one of the largest cities and metropolitan areas on the planet. Yawn.
I don’t know if it’s the passing of the years or the consuming of beers, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different it is to be a NASCAR fan than it was decades ago when I first became interested in the sport. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, personal obligations forced me to miss most of the Nationwide race from Watkins Glen. But once I finished up doing what needed doing, I wanted to find out who had won the race — and if the carnage that marked the opening laps had continued all afternoon.