Articles By Athlon Sports
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Bryan Davis Keith
Moments after taking his record sixth ARCA Series victory at Daytona International Speedway, race winner Bobby Gerhart walked all but unmolested from Victory Lane while a throng of reporters — the likes of which even Dale Earnhardt Jr. seldom sees — swarmed around the evening’s sixth-place finisher.
After all, Danica Patrick had just made her stock car racing debut.
The following week, IndyCar’s hottest driver stepped up to the NASCAR level at Daytona, a week ahead of schedule. Prior to the green flag dropping, ESPN’s pre-race coverage was dripping with images of fans buying No. 7 merchandise from a bright green GoDaddy.com hauler. On pit road, there wasn’t even room to walk. The crowd was so thick that Mike Boeschinger, crew chief for Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team, reminded his crew during the pace laps to “realize we’re going to have the Danica masses (on pit road), so remember to be professional dealing with them as we work.”
Danica-mania had come to stock car racing.
Danica-mania had come to NASCAR.
Following the conclusion of the 2010 season, there is little question that Patrick’s first foray into NASCAR had every bit as big of an impact off the track as anyone expected. Souvenir sales were sky high; she outsold both champion Jimmie Johnson and bad boy Kyle Busch in her first NASCAR month. Her debut in ARCA competition at Daytona resulted in the single highest-rated series event SPEED Channel had ever broadcast, even exceeding the numbers surrounding Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2006 stock car debut. NASCAR’s Nationwide Series opener followed suit with final numbers so powerful they set an all-time series record, beating roughly half of this year’s Sprint Cup Chase events in the Nielsen Ratings. And GoDaddy.com’s exposure during Nationwide Series telecasts throughout the season rivaled even that generated by Mark Martin’s GoDaddy.com entry at the Sprint Cup level.
From a marketing and branding standpoint, 2010 was a certain success. But as for on-track performance, for Patrick’s development and ability to transition from open-wheel to stock cars, both fans and critics alike were left with as many questions as answers in what could easily be described as a roller coaster of a rookie season.
There were some definite high points. Patrick was running solidly in the top 15 with less than 10 laps to go in Fontana’s fall race before late-race contact with James Buescher sent her machine hard into the backstretch wall, relegating what would have been at worst a career-first lead lap result to a 30th-place finish. And there was a season-finale performance at Homestead that was by far Patrick’s best showing in NASCAR, a top-5 qualifying effort parlayed into a 19th-place result, on the lead lap with a car that improved throughout the day.
But the low points seemed to dominate a year in which speed proved elusive. For all the hype and TV coverage that Patrick’s Daytona debut in a Nationwide car produced, the No. 7 was about as uncompetitive as a JR Motorsports entry had ever been in a restrictor plate race, with Danica nearly losing the draft, battling the underfunded rides of Danny Efland and Josh Wise before falling victim to the “big one” scarcely halfway through the event. Then, there was a nasty wreck at Las Vegas between Patrick and Michael McDowell’s already damaged racecar. McDowell took responsibility for the incident, though it’s also worth noting that he had committed to running the bottom line, protocol for damaged cars making laps off the pace, while Danica jammed him down from the top. Regardless of fault, the incident was avoidable, and the resulting crash cost her over 100 laps of valuable seat time.
And then, there was Dover in September. Despite turning over 100 laps and scoring a top-10 finish in the K&N Pro Series East race at the same track the day prior, Patrick’s inexperience as a stock car driver was never more evident than on the banks of the Monster Mile. The Saturday morning during qualifying, Patrick timed in 42nd of the 48 cars that showed up, proceeding after her slow lap to throw a tantrum over the radio ... because she couldn’t find her way to the garage entrance. Despite numerous instructions from crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Patrick eventually parked her car on pit road, where it sat until the JR Motorsports crew came to direct her.
The race itself didn’t go any better. Already three laps down by lap 71, Patrick cut a right front tire and pounded the Turn 4 wall, limping to a 35th-place finish in perhaps her worst performance of a 2010 season that included three DNFs in 13 starts.
Speaking before the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Patrick noted: “It’s been an up and down year. It’s been a character-building year, a humbling year. I did know coming into this season that it was going to be the hardest year I have ever had.
“Still, nothing can really prepare you for the hardest year you have ever had. It sucks at times. It’s still challenging. But I’ve learned a lot.”
Patrick’s “educational” analysis is not without merit. It took her five races to finally crack the top 25 in a NASCAR event, a feat she accomplished in four of her last five starts. Comparing her first five starts to her last five, Patrick’s average finishing position improved by eight spots, from 31.2 to 23.2. Even more important, Patrick made dramatic progress at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana upon her return visit in the fall (ACS was the one track that Patrick made two Nationwide Series starts on). Whereas in February, she finished three laps down while at times running laps 10 miles an hour off the leader’s pace, September’s event saw the No. 7 car a fixture on the lead lap and a top-15 car for most of the day.
Patrick’s performance that fall Saturday also caught a big-time eye, that of Mark Martin. A Cup veteran with ties to JR Motorsports through the Hendrick Motorsports camp, Martin went a long way to further Patrick’s education throughout the back half of 2010. After she wrecked out of the Dover race, Martin visited Patrick in her hauler while the No. 7 team worked on the damaged car, chatting for nearly an hour about setups, use of practice time and other elements of stock car racing that Patrick is still trying to familiarize herself with.
A few weeks later, following Patrick’s performance at Fontana, Martin spent two hours shaking down her Nationwide CoT machine in a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October.
“Something that has stuck with me since he said it to me was that the front end of the car should do what you ask it to do,” said Patrick. “I thought it was a fantasy in my mind, that it would do what I wanted it to do. He said that that should be the point it gets to.”
The time Martin spent aiding Patrick was invaluable; her four best finishes in 2010 all came after Martin assisted her with the Charlotte test.
With the continuing support of JR Motorsports, Eury Jr., and drivers the caliber of Martin, Patrick is in a situation in terms of equipment and surroundings that tops even those of big-name, open-wheel converts Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. during their transitions. In terms of equipment and personnel, all the pieces are in place for driver No. 7 to handle one of the most difficult learning curves in all of motorsports.
There’s no overstating how tough the jump from open wheel to stock cars really is. It’s a challenge that has chewed up and spit out drivers far more accomplished than Patrick, be they three-time Indy Racing League champion Dario Franchitti or 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneueve. The two most notable open-wheel converts in recent memory would be Montoya and Hornish, who have found homes in the Sprint Cup ranks the last few seasons but enjoyed limited success. The Colombian has just two victories, while Hornish couldn’t even score two top 10s last season and is likely on the outside looking in for 2011.
How do Patrick’s first race starts compare? The evidence is inconclusive. Her results, as unspectacular as they may have been on paper, were in fact better than those of Hornish. Her average finish was stronger, a 28.0 compared to Hornish’s 32.8 in his first 11 Nationwide starts. She had just as many lead lap finishes, and just as many top 20s in that span. And for as often as she found trouble on the track in 2010, Patrick had half the DNFs of Hornish.
Based on the duo’s respective IndyCar résumés, those results should never have been that close. Patrick has only won once in IRL competition, while Hornish is both an Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IRL champion. And yet, when it comes to stock cars, after one year Patrick is, statistically at least, further along than Hornish was at that point in his career.
On the other hand, Patrick’s results don’t come close to stacking up to those of Montoya, also an Indianapolis 500 winner and perhaps the most successful open-wheel convert to stock cars since Tony Stewart. Montoya, who made only four Nationwide starts in his debut stock car season before jumping to Cup full-time in 2007, remains the model that the next wave of open-wheel converts, including Patrick, will need to follow.
In speaking to the driver herself, there’s no shortage of confidence that results will come. Addressing home state media at Gateway International Raceway in October, Patrick said of her progression: “I know that I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. That’s important, and I feel more comfortable in my car for sure. I feel a little more under control. I feel like it’s coming slower at me than it did in the very beginning.”
With Patrick committed only to the first four races of the 2011 Nationwide Series, and planning to run a maximum total of 14, the jury remains out on whether Danica the driver will be able to make the jump from a back marker to a top-15 fixture next year. What also remains to be seen is whether the impact that GoDaddy’s fastest girl had on the Nationwide Series in 2010 is in fact the “good thing” for NASCAR that sanctioning body CEO Brian France proclaimed in November 2009, well before Patrick ever took the green flag for a stock car race.
There’s no doubt in terms of TV viewership that Patrick helped NASCAR’s second-tier series. The large ratings boost ESPN received televising her debut at Daytona was instrumental in the networks’ Nationwide Series ratings ending 2010 with an increase over the season prior, even as the Sprint Cup Series saw its ratings continue to flounder despite the drama of a three-way battle for the title heading into the season’s final race. Ticket sales also saw an uptick. New Hampshire Motor Speedway reported its Nationwide Series demand went up 30 percent after confirming that Patrick would be competing at the racetrack.
Her part-time campaign led to a full-time entry that the Nationwide Series field desperately needed as well. To ensure that her No. 7 car would remain in the top 30 in owner points — and locked into the field as a result — JR Motorsports decided at Bristol in March to run the car full-time, sponsored or not. And if Travis Pastrana and Brian Deegan are any indication, NASCAR, for all its current attendance and ratings trouble, is still proving an attractive market for motorsports’ biggest names.
The other side of the coin, though, surfaced even before the 2010 Nationwide Series took its first green flag. Addressing the media at Daytona, ESPN’s Vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg was questioned as to how his network planned to balance coverage of Danica’s debut with that of the 42 other story lines that would take to the racetrack. His response: “It’s our strong belief there will be people that turn on Saturday’s Nationwide telecast that perhaps don’t watch a lot of Nationwide races or NASCAR at all, because of the interest in her. We want to serve that curiosity.”
If the ratings were any indication, it was mission accomplished for ESPN, and for Patrick as well. But as for the other competitors, it was harder to find a positive to the massive influx of Danica-maniacs who tuned in. Because, frankly, the exposure wasn’t necessarily there, regardless of what the ratings said.
“The only thing I will say is that TV has been doing a horrible job,” said Kyle Busch of the media frenzy that saw Patrick dominate airtime throughout Speedweeks. “They’ve been covering her way too much.
“If you’re going to have all this attention drawn on the series, let’s put it towards all the people. If you’ve got all these people watching TV that want to hear about Danica, well, take advantage of that and show the less-funded teams, the underprivileged that want to have funding so they can race the rest of the year.”
Robert Richardson Jr. echoed those sentiments when questioned that weekend about his family-owned team’s experience regarding TV coverage, noting that the narrow window the networks offered is “why half of us don’t have sponsorship.”
To be fair to ESPN, the overwhelming focus on Patrick’s first few races subsided as the season progressed. But the question as to whether the decision to promote nothing but Danica-mania will actually have a lasting impact on the Nationwide Series remains to be seen. After all, just as 13 races provided an incomplete grade for Patrick’s NASCAR experiment, 13 telecasts may well be too small a sample size to determine just what kind of impact her rookie year actually had on NASCAR’s minor leagues.
No matter how many questions surround Patrick as she prepares for her second year as a stock car driver, one thing is for certain: Every high and low will be painstakingly broadcast in front of millions.
“Everybody has to face a learning curve,” summarized fellow NASCAR female racer Jennifer Jo Cobb. “Danica has to face hers, unfortunately, in front of the world with a big spotlight on her.”
That spotlight is not going anywhere for 2011.
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
For the better part of half a decade, critics have beaten up NASCAR like prizefighters boxing for the heavyweight belt of Who Killed The Fastest Growing Sport In America. The stories of sorrow may change, but the punch-throwing theme remains the same: An uppercut of negativity surrounding declining attendance and decreasing revenue, the sanctioning body going from unparalleled growth to an open-heart wound for seemingly everyone but itself to see.
Now, after a tumultuous 2010, even the sport’s top officials can’t hide behind a torrent of ugly statistics. Television ratings, trailing off since the last contract began in 2007, entered a freefall that peaked during the playoffs when five of the 10 Chase races had fewer viewers than Danica Patrick’s debut in the Nationwide Series last February. Even the Homestead finale, in which three men entered neck-and-neck for the championship, was down eight percent from the 2009 numbers, the capper to a year that began with the lowest Daytona 500 rating since 1991. Apathy wasn’t just limited to couch potatoes; the France-controlled International Speedway Corporation, owning over half the Cup schedule and tracks, saw an 18.7 percent drop in ticket revenue in the third quarter of last season alone.
You hear the stats, look at a list of teams laying people off and you’d think NASCAR was on its deathbed. That’s somewhat deceiving. Like with any business, there are peaks and valleys, but keep in mind that there are still some very good things happening in the sport. Sponsorship deals remain in the $20-$30 million range for top teams, and a national television contract for all 36 races is in place through the end of 2014.
Clearly, though, valleys can only last for so long before panic sets in. A reversal of fortune is needed in 2011 more than ever, with anxious executives from sponsors to manufacturers looking for positive signs upon which to build. But can it be fixed? How much do they need to? And why did it get to this point, just five years after a ratings peak had the NFL looking over its shoulder for the first time in a generation?
Finding that answer means going beyond the political correctness of Daytona Beach, peeking outside the box at the sport’s once-boisterous middle class. After all, those in the best position to advocate for change are the ones whose blood, sweat and tears of the past have been most directly affected by failure in the present.
Four stories. Four chapters that weave together to identify clues on problems, solutions, and whether successes will strike NASCAR once again.
From single-car powerhouse to praying for sponsorship
Twenty-seven years ago, good friends Tim Morgan and Larry McClure came to the Cup Series for what would be an unthinkable purpose today: They needed a hobby.
“When Morgan-McClure began, Tim and I just did it just to have fun,” says McClure, whose No. 4 car started off slowly, not running full-time until 1988. “We were doing it small-scale, weren’t even looking at (the sport) nationally and what it was doing.”
The 1990s changed all that. An upset winner in the 1991 Daytona 500 with Ernie Irvan, the duo won the Great American Race twice more, in ’94 and ’95 with Sterling Marlin. Marlin peaked at third in the standings in ’95, and suddenly, this “fun” outfit had become a force in NASCAR.
“It took our hats off,” says McClure. “We thought, man, we had arrived in the biggest sport, and we don’t see an end to it. We just thought it was going to continue to grow.”
It did. Just not for them. Beginning in the late 1990s, multi-car teams, which had always been around to challenge Morgan-McClure Motorsports, suddenly began to emerge as powerhouses.
“When there were two-car teams like Junior Johnson did (in the 1980s), there was tremendous competition within them,” explains McClure. “There were these big egos. They didn’t want to share information.
“So the foot came down, and the manufacturers got more involved. All of a sudden, (multi-car teams shared) a lot of information. They started trying to make the cars exactly equal, the engines exactly equal.”
That philosophy shift took its toll. By 1998, Roush Racing had five cars, while three-car Hendrick Motorsports captured four straight championships with Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. That was also the last year Morgan-McClure finished in the top 10 in points, with expansion plans falling short as a hardworking single-car shoestring gradually saw economic disadvantages and manufacturer preferences outweigh its effort.
“Around 2001, 2002 the money was killing us,” adds McClure. “It all was about money. Then, they let Toyota in, and their money separated the teams even further, made it even more of a corporate, three-team, four-team entourage.”
“What you have now is you’ve got two or three teams and, maybe, you have a two-car team that’s really just an extension of somebody’s four-car team,” Morgan says. “So if you have 10 cars out there that are affiliated, do you think as a fan it’s reasonable to assume that those cars are going to compete with each other as aggressively?”
Still, despite a lack of regulation — NASCAR didn’t step in with a four-car limit per owner until 2009 — both men refuse to place blame.
“They played the game by the rules that were there,” says Morgan. “And we played the game by the old rules. We don’t feel like, even today, they did a better job racing than we did. We feel like they did a better job marketing than we did. And we should have woken up to that earlier.”
Oversleeping proved costly. Losing Kodak to one of the multi-car giants (Penske Racing) in 2004, the advent of the Chase, and some new qualifying rules created an environment that crippled a team that never found replacement funding.
“During that Chase period, if you’re working hard to get a sponsor and you’re a team that shouldn’t finish 15th and you finish 15th, you’re not even mentioned (in the press),” Morgan explains. “(The Chase) takes away from the overall effectiveness of the sponsorship of anybody outside that group. They’ve basically just become ghosts during that period. They’re not even noticed. That’s a bigger issue than (officials) realize.”
“We’ve got to have the last-place car just like we have the first-place car,” adds McClure. “I think that’s the thing we’ve forgotten about — the whole field is important in NASCAR.”
That’s where even the top 35 “locked in” rule can be crippling, creating inequality within a 43-car field composed of those coming to race and others simply trying to make the field.
“You don’t have the fastest cars necessarily racing,” adds Morgan. “That encourages mediocrity. Once you get in the points, you’re paid mostly just to sit there and coast since you don’t take chances to get out.
“The old system, if teams did so poorly they couldn’t qualify week after week, then they got in trouble with their sponsor. But it should be that way. I think the way the system was set up was very fair.”
Instead, a tornado was unleashed, the perfect storm that left MMM damaged in its wake. Once a wonderful story, Morgan and McClure now sit and wonder how they wound up on the outside looking in.
“It’s hard to (place) blame,” says Morgan. “This thing moved so fast, the corporate money came in there and NASCAR was growing at the same time. It was hard for them to control their growth and keep perspective. They worked hard, made some good decisions. But I guess maybe sometimes you gotta revamp.”
The owner pauses. He knows revamping is the only way to get the No. 4 back on track, change needed to bring a car that’s been dormant from full-time competition since the end of 2007 — even with $37 million in career prize money to his name.
Development in the unemployment line ... not on the track
J.J. Yeley’s been on both sides of the seesaw. Brought up as a Joe Gibbs Racing prospect, he made his name by taking the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevy from Bobby Labonte’s hands in 2006. It was the break of a lifetime, one the USAC Silver Crown Champion never fully realized until stepping foot on the sport’s hallowed grounds of Daytona.
“Seeing so many fans, that’s the biggest thing,” he remembers of the 150,000 in the stands. “My wife and I were completely wowed at just how friendly NASCAR was.”
That era of good feelings extended inside the garage. Overshadowed by fellow youngster Denny Hamlin, Yeley got released after just two seasons at JGR. But back then, it was a driver’s market, owners banging down doors and throwing money at any type of experience. Six career top-10 finishes? That’s six more than Yeley needed to continue full-time.
“It made me feel good there were a lot of opportunities,” he says. “I went with what I thought was going to be the best position.”
It wasn’t. Hall of Fame Racing was a struggling single-car effort, without the resources or funding to be successful. In only nine months, Yeley got booted into a shockingly different world.
“In 2008 and 2009, it really surprised everyone that money all of a sudden got really tight,” says Yeley, now 34 and backed into a corner for two-plus seasons to start-and-park or retire from stock car racing in his prime. “There was nothing available. And there really hasn’t been a whole lot available since.”
So Yeley sits on the other side of the garage, racing mostly with teams that typically run 30th or 35th on a day when they run the distance at all.
“From a sponsor that understands the sport, they know there’s a chance they may not ever get seen,” he says. “To me, TV has been the downturn because if you’re at a racetrack, there’s racing going on all over the place. It may not be for the lead, but it’s usually 10th-15th, 15th-20th, there’s five to six cars throughout just racing their tails off. But on TV, you don’t always see that.”
The timing of Yeley’s career unraveling also coincided with the economic crash. The nation’s worst recession in 70 years caused the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, unemployment rates of over 20 percent in regions close to several racetracks (Michigan, Martinsville for starters) and forced companies to roll back their advertising. For Yeley, it’s a factor that can’t be understated — fans and sponsors staying home simply because they don’t have any cash.
“You don’t have families that can afford it,” he claims. “It’s going to take awhile for those fans to afford to come back. NASCAR just has to get a little more creative with what they’re doing at the tracks because there’s not as many dollars out there being spent.”
From sold-out crowds to empty seats. What gives?
That’s where Pocono track President Brandon Igdalsky comes in. The grandson of founder Joe Mattioli, he started out collecting trash as a teen during the sport’s early growth spurt in the 1980s. Managing the track’s concession stands a decade later, one of the sport’s most powerful young business executives saw firsthand just how much the fans were overwhelming a 2.5-mile, triangular-shaped facility that’s held two spots on the Cup Series schedule since 1982.
“It was a crazy time,” he says. “When we put the new backhouses for concessions in behind the grandstands (during the late 1990s), we had to call in more beer that first year. Our beer sales almost tripled.
“For awhile there, it was almost like Field of Dreams. If you built it, they would come. Tracks didn’t have to sell tickets. They just took orders.”
The peak for the Northeast Pennsylvania facility occurred at the close of the 20th Century. A flurry of great races, punctuated by Jeremy Mayfield bumping Dale Earnhardt on the last lap to win the June 2000 event, left the facility forced to do the unthinkable — actively advertise for fans to stay away.
“In ’99, I remember my grandfather put an article in the paper telling people if you don’t have a ticket, don’t come,” he says. The fans who came empty-handed would have to wait eight hours in misery outside, as the rural area was one-way in, one-way out on race day. “We had no room.”
Ten years later, the track can only wish for the glory days. Igdalsky admits that they “came close to selling out” last in 2002-03 before the numbers began a slow but steady slide downhill. Specific figures are hard to come by — official attendance stats through NASCAR have listed 105,000 for four years, but a local paper, the Pocono Record, did an estimate based on aerial photographs and crowd-counting techniques that put that number at 48,000 last August. How do they move forward?
“None of our fans are saying ticket prices are an issue (for 2011), so we’re happy about that,” he explains, somewhat contradicting Yeley. “It’s not just a matter of putting on a race anymore. They want more bang for their buck. And rightly so. It’s a different world, a different time right now. People want the most quality for each dollar they’re spending.”
So Pocono has focused its promotional efforts on other parts of the experience — beautiful, year-round lodging facilities adjacent to the track and a 25-acre solar farm. Also, track ownership is reviewing plans to build additional entertainment nearby.
“The product at the track this year was unbelievable. It was one of the best years I remember in a long time in terms of the on-track races, the experience,” he says. “I think like in any business, there’s dips and valleys. Right now, we’re on the way back up from the dip. I definitely see things turning around.”
The sponsorship struggle
In a sport held together by Fortune 500 support, the key to sustaining any upward trend is convincing companies to keep spending money. That’s where Bob Jackson comes in. Jackson is a marketing exec whose client list has included Joe Gibbs, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Boris Said, but whose 27-year background mostly involves that elephant NASCAR wishes would go back to the zoo — the NFL. What’s the difference between the two?
“Parity,” says Jackson. “So many times, you see a team that is 4–12 in one year, then making the playoffs the next. That happens a lot.
“In NASCAR, to me, it seems like you know who’s going to be the top 10 or 12. There’s going to be cars who come in and get a top 10 every now and then, but I feel like it’s the haves and the have nots. It’s just hard to compete with the big boys if you’re an independent.”
The stats bear that out, as just 35 drivers with only 10 different chassis/engine combinations cracked the top 10 last season in Cup. Compare that to 45 drivers and around two dozen combinations from 2001, and an ugly trend leaves sponsors unwilling to take a chance at new opportunities.
“I’d like to see everybody be competitive out there. But there’s four or so big players in the NASCAR game, then everybody else,” he says. “I have to look out for what’s best for the sponsor, because they are too hard to find to put them into something that’s not going to work. Every one of them wants something that can be measured. Every one of them wants to see what their return on their investment is.
“Win on Sunday. Sell sponsors on Monday. That’s the way to do it.”
Those problems create a trickle-down effect, as young Nationwide Series drivers have struggled to stay in seats, while Cup driver infiltration takes its toll. Jackson is working hard for a number of teenage phenoms to acquire the opportunities they need. The problem is, with no owners and sponsors taking risks, there’s no money to give them the long-term chance needed for success.
“Unless you’re one of the lucky ones,” he says, “like a Joey Logano that gets handpicked by one of the top teams, how are you going to break in and really show how well you can do if your only choice is to go with an underfunded independent? It’s tough. It’s really tough.”
Jackson sighs. He can’t make a convincing argument alone.
Solutions and conclusions
Four stories, four differing perspectives. Yet these men stand together in identifying common concerns more than they would have guessed.
“Back in the day, we had personalities,” McClure says. “Everybody sounded different and talked different, acted different, came from small towns. Then, it changed to the corporate world, and it appeared to be all about money and not so much the competition.”
“‘Boys, have at it to a different level’ is what I’d push,” says Igdalsky, referring to NASCAR’s 2010 “edict” of laying off punishments for on- and off-track conduct. “Give the guys a little more freedom, and let ’em have a little bit more fun out there.”
But even the best-laid plans nowadays seemingly come down to money. The smartest, most flamboyant driver is handicapped if his car doesn’t have the parts and pieces to compete.
“Sometimes, NASCAR these days reminds me of Major League Baseball that doesn’t have a salary cap,” adds Jackson, whose answers lie in marketing parity. “It’s like the Yankees and Red Sox against the Kansas City Royals. But how do you tell a Rick Hendrick or a Jack Roush, that’s built their team up so beautifully, ‘OK, you have to cut it in half now’? You just can’t do that, can you?”
Sounds like a job for a young, up-and-coming leader, a behind-the-scenes stalwart capable of being Brian France’s right-hand man. In other sports, now’s the time when the charismatic leader emerges, saving everyone from their own excess in reestablishing structure and success before it’s too late. Yet not one of these men has a young star who comes to mind.
“I don’t know who’s going to take it to that next level,” says McClure. “But we’re going to go through a lot of changes. Bill’s (France’s) children are, certainly, super intelligent. And hopefully capable.”
Looks like they’ll need to be. There’s nowhere else to turn — more than ever France’s leadership stands out as the key to keeping all of these different problems from sinking the sport.
Otherwise, each one of these stories is destined for an unhappy ending, a parking lot of faltering dreams in a sport that once thrived on making dreams come true.
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. What’s to blame for NASCAR’s sagging television ratings and attendance?
A confluence of events. No one action could account for such a dramatic dip in interest, both at the track and on television.
The continued economic downswing certainly has hurt attendance figures, despite track operators slashing ticket prices and promoters pulling out all the stops. Three- and four-night minimums at hotels where rates are already jacked up 100 percent or more continue to keep fans away. Factor in gas or airfare as well as food and drinks and a souvenir for little Timmy, and suddenly the ticket to get in the gate is the least of the expense — particularly for the largely blue-collar diehard who can blow an entire mortgage payment on a three-day getaway to the track.
A continued refusal on the sanctioning body’s part to acknowledge the NFL’s Sunday superiority doesn’t help, either. As ol’ DW stated on the matter, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it. Since NASCAR has shown it has no qualms with shucking tradition, maybe moving away from Sunday afternoons should be considered.
Outside factors aren’t the only issue, though. During NASCAR’s ascension in the public consciousness in the early part of the decade, speedway magnates International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. built monstrous temples for the racing pilgrims, the idea being that 1.5- and 2-mile tracks would not only seat more, but also facilitate both stock cars and open wheel machines. Aerodynamics, and its effects on the fendered set, weren’t considered. What resulted was a shift from beating and banging (a major stock car draw) to aero-sensitive parades. And with the economy (and SMI’s and ISC’s portfolios) a mess, there will be no capital projects to rein in the speedways in favor of popular half- or three-quarter-mile bullrings.
At the same time, a cancerous greed grew from within the sport. The more attention NASCAR garnered, the more it wanted. With that attention came sponsorship and television dollars. Billions of them.
A new generation of driver was molded to attract the funding teams needed to outspend, and thus outperform, the competition. The sanctioning body was no different. It neutered the rough and tumble aspect of the sport — an aspect that drew so many fans initially — to bring in more corporate suits to the garage, the boardroom, and the suites.
Left was a sport that answered to corporate America. Clean. P.C. Friendly. Safe. As is so often the case, NASCAR realized only when it was too late that it had strayed down the wrong path, that it had alienated and disenfranchised its true base.
It’s trying to bring back those unique traits, but as the wise racing scribe Ed Hinton noted last season, “Greed is never retrogressive.”
2. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?
An unequivocal “no.” NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments” continues to drive talk of change to a 10-race playoff format that has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom. In fact, the only change many fans desire is a return to the classic points system — but that’s not going to happen.
Instead, France’s vision hints at an expanded Chase field with points resets throughout the 10-week run that encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle each season.
What France fails to realize is that the 12-driver Chase format, sans points resets, etc., sets the stage for a thrilling playoff drive. But just as in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, regardless of how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it.
Worse, with each tweak to the championship format — the expected change would make three in eight years — the championship (not the champion) loses a bit more legitimacy. After all, how can anyone take a title format seriously when the governing body makes multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor?
There are a few modifications that would be welcome, such as a bonus for the “regular season” champion or more points awarded for race wins. But what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. Great racing trumps a hokey plea for ratings every time.
And speaking of a revamped schedule …
3. What became of Brian France’s promised “impactful changes” to the schedule?
When Brian France suggested last July that the 2011 schedule would “have some pretty impactful changes ... that I think will be good for NASCAR fans,” the prayers of many were thought to be answered. The lumbering 36-race slate of dates was a logistical nightmare that needed some streamlining and common sense injected to re-energize and captivate a fan base that had seemed to tire of the oversaturation of cookie cutter tracks and stale Chase venues.
Instead, NASCAR gave the fans more of the same. The “impactful changes” France spoke of ultimately manifested themselves in an additional race date for Kansas Speedway at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway getting a date to the detriment of Atlanta, while Chicagoland Speedway was awarded the Chase’s first date. No radical realignment to freshen things up and, specifically, to give the Chase its much-needed facelift.
Auto Club Speedway was mercifully put out of its two-date misery so ISC could bring more people to its new casino just outside of the Kansas Speedway track, essentially trading one cookie cutter for another. And make no mistake; Kansas does not present thrilling enough racing to earn a second date without the casino. SMI CEO Bruton Smith bought Kentucky for one reason: to host a Cup date. As a result, a struggling Atlanta lost one stop.
Perhaps the most disappointing decision of all was to award Chicago the first Chase date. This move was made, again, not on the merits of the racing, but to maximize a slumping track’s earnings potential. Imagine kicking off the Chase with the Bristol Night Race. Imagine the hype, the attention, the crossover appeal! Instead, a track with no unique characteristics whatsoever, one that is basically a clone of the aforementioned Kansas Speedway, will host what should be one of the sport’s most important and visible dates.
The common theme this answer shares with most others in this feature is that NASCAR’s final verdict wasn’t made in the best interest of the fans or in the spirit of competitiveness. It was made with the France family’s bank account in mind. Fair enough, you may say — after all, they own the sport. True, but at what point do the short-term objectives cancel out any potential long-term gains?
4. Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up?
Last June, after the worst start of his 12-year career, pit strategy and perfect timing left Stewart with a third-place finish at Pocono. Pumped after just his second top-5 in 14 races, Smoke came to the podium steaming, his usual swagger reminiscent of childhood idol A.J. Foyt.
“I’ve seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today,” he said. “So for anybody that’s looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking, ’cause I can promise I’m going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks. I know you love that.”
But in a year when “Boys, have at it” dominated the headlines, the 39-year-old Stewart packed no punch while others traded barbs in public. Instead, on a return trip to Pocono in August, he served as NASCAR’s protector by lying to reporters about his knowledge of a $50,000 secret fine for driver Ryan Newman, then wagging his finger at the media for negativity.
“Between everyone in this room (media center) and in the garage we have all done our part to try to break this sport down over the last four-five years. When you finally tell someone that the racing is bad enough, long enough, you’re going to convince people that it really is,” he said. “The facts show that the racing is better than it’s ever been. Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included, and we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Looks like making a living is the most important issue for Stewart at the moment, money enough to muzzle his mouth for the time being. Let’s be honest: 2005 Tony would have looked at those comments, searched for 2010 Tony and punched him in the face.
5. Will ESPN bail on NASCAR’s television package?
It was a horrible year for NASCAR on ABC/ESPN, both in the Nielsen ratings and behind the camera. Only one of 17 races had a ratings increase (Bristol, August); average viewership was down by more than a million; and its supposed “crown jewel,” the Chase, had its numbers tank a whopping 21.3 percent over the 10-race playoff. In the middle of it all, longtime producer Neil Goldberg was discharged in October over a “peeping tom” arrest that went national and embarrassed the network.
Clearly, all is not roses at the Worldwide Leader In Sports, which holds the biggest chunk of NASCAR’s behemoth eight-year television contract worth $560 million annually. With sources claiming private unhappiness, budgets deep in the red and the sport’s unwillingness to give a discount (Why should it? The networks were the ones stupid enough to sign it) all eyes now focus on ESPN’s bid for the Olympics. If it wins it, the rights fee could be $500 million per two-year event, a gargantuan price that necessitates budget cuts elsewhere. And with their racing leader on the sidelines for good, losses in the millions on a contract halfway over and no end to the ratings disaster in sight, guess who could be first in line to take the fall?
Can TV just break a contract like that, you ask? It’s as simple as not showing up. Already, they’ve thrown nine of the 10 Chase races to cable, expanding post-race programming on SportsCenter to show the sanctioning body that, “Hey, we hyped this racing thing on Sundays more than ever before – and it’s still not working.” The next step, it seems, would be to give up and let someone else take the reins … likely for a much cheaper price tag.
6. What could NASCAR possibly have to gain by “secretly” fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman after Hamlin’s comments via Twitter concerning late-race debris cautions (among other things) and Newman’s damning assessment of plate racing at Daytona and Talladega?
To understand this, you must understand the antiquated line of thinking that pervades the sport’s leadership.
NASCAR wants controversy. It craves headlines. Since its January 2010 “Boys, have at it” edict, it has actually encouraged personality and outspokenness among its competitors. Unless, of course, that controversy and outspokenness are directed at the sanctioning body itself.
So when Hamlin admitted to being “secretly” fined $50,000 by NASCAR, the absurd rationale of the brass in Daytona was revealed. After all, how can a fine of this magnitude be levied in such a covert manner without the garage area — a place where rumors run rampant and some media members share a borderline unprofessional chumminess with the competitors — knowing about it.
Hamlin crossed the line in late July, insinuating that debris cautions were being thrown late in races to improve the show — basically stating that NASCAR was attempting to engineer exciting finishes.
Newman’s sin may have been more noble, but was viewed with no less consternation after a Talladega crash.
“No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business — nor can we,” NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, said. “It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport.”
Fair enough. You don’t work for me, but please don’t work against me, right? NASCAR is a sport that has to sell itself harder than ever to win the entertainment dollar of Joe and Jane Fan. When its legitimacy is called into question by a swarming media and on message boards by fans across the internet, the last thing it needs are its drivers fanning the flames of conspiracy and calling its credibility into question.
However, the way to handle those drivers is not by secretly penalizing them. The NFL, NBA or MLB may drop the hammer on its participants’ criticisms, but the crime and punishment are outlined in minute detail so players’ unions, ownership groups and fans are assured said punishment fits the crime. Not so, in this family-owned sport. No checks and balances — not without a players’ union. And nothing short of franchising will bring that into existence.
It’s situations such as these, when the sport’s benevolence could rule the day, reassuring its skeptics that any credibility issues can be put to rest, that NASCAR finds its long lost consistency. The problem is, the only consistency displayed is a relapse into an outmoded iron-fisted rule: “Boys, have at it on the track, but don’t you dare cross the line off it.”
7. How will NASCAR’s 20 percent cut in Nationwide Series purse money affect the series in 2011?
When word came down last August that the Nationwide Series would see a 20 percent cut in purse money this season, jaws dropped. The series, along with the Cup and Truck circuits, suffered from a 10 percent purse reduction prior to 2010, stretching an already thin margin for the lifeblood of the two junior series: the low-budget, independent teams.
Those shoestring-budget teams that fill NASCAR’s fields in the Nationwide and Truck series often depend on purse money to pay the bills, a far cry from the Cup juggernauts that keep the lights on via sponsor dollars, not race earnings.
The reductions have been made with track operators in mind. An extended economic downturn has given way to sparse attendance figures and less corporate sponsorship backing for the facilities. Therefore, NASCAR took the step to slash the purses tracks must pay, while still charging the same sanctioning fee — the money tracks must pay the sanctioning body to host its events. In refusing to accept any less itself, NASCAR has made the decision to hit the teams where it hurts: in the wallet.
What is expected to follow are less-than-full fields in the Nationwide Series, a development that’s been anticipated for some time, but may become a reality as the season’s erratic travel schedule combines with a substantially lighter payday to discourage the small teams — the backbone of the junior circuit — from making a go at a full-time effort.
8. Did Mike Ford’s trash talk kill Denny Hamlin’s chances of winning the championship?
For eight weeks, Denny Hamlin’s Chase plan worked to a tee. After staying within striking distance through the playoffs’ first half, he’d turned it on with two wins in three races to take the point lead over Jimmie Johnson at Texas, seemingly stealing all the momentum while doing nothing on- or off-track to wake the sleeping giant. The No. 48 was a team in disarray, with crew chief Chad Knaus swapping out pit crews in the middle of that same race while Johnson appeared resigned to the fact someone may have gotten the better of him. Everything seemed to be leaning the No. 11’s way … and then Hamlin’s crew chief spoke up.
“I think it was kind of a desperation move,” said Mike Ford of the No. 48’s crew swap, words that would come back to haunt him. “Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
Clearly, those words lit a fire under Knaus and Co., who used mental toughness to outlast a faster No. 11 car at Phoenix before throwing a knockout punch in the season finale. That left Hamlin at odds with Ford, a poor fuel mileage decision combined with knowing how much those words cost them.
“I didn’t appreciate the way that they said that,” said Chad Knaus two weeks later. “I wanted to make sure that this championship is not about that decision that was made in Texas.”
Did Ford play with fire and lose? Yep, and don’t think Hamlin doesn’t know it. If a terrible start to the 2011 season ensues, leading to divorce, look back to these moments as the ones that broke them up.
9. How can Whitney Motorsports cheat twice and get 50-point penalties each time while Clint Bowyer’s team does so once, gets 150 points, four-race crew and car chief suspensions and is essentially knocked out of the Chase?
OK, so let’s get this one straight: NASCAR needs a laser, three geeks from Revenge of the Nerds and 48 hours of nitpicking at the R&D Center to figure out if Clint Bowyer’s car is out of tolerance. Whitney Motorsports, a small, single-car outfit whose hobbies include start-and-parking, has not one but two instances discovered at the track. First, parts of the engine were found illegal at New Hampshire in September – the same weekend Bowyer was penalized. Then, at Talladega one month later, lower A-arms were discovered with buckshot inside, an old Junior Johnson trick to realign the weight inside the car. Surely, if Bowyer got such hefty consequences, and Carl Long was docked 200 points/$200,000 with an oversized engine in ’09, poor Whitney would find itself setting the wrong kind of records, right?
To understand why Whitney gets off the hook, look no further than this year’s car count. Only 30 fully funded teams are left; the back half of the garage is so poor that even operations set up to start-and-park as a business are closing up shop. Getting to 43 cars each week, even with field-fillers, is going to be a difficult task at places like Phoenix and California, putting the sport in jeopardy of losing precious TV money. That means that imposing a $500,000 fine for cheating and killing off a team like Whitney, whose small operation was even putting two cars out there at times to close 2010, could cheat NASCAR out of millions over the long-term.
So the little guy escapes, a rarity in this sport, while Bowyer gets the equivalent of a guilty verdict for murder. And the rest of us? We sit and wonder when the hypocrisy will finally stop.
10. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggles again this season, will he ask out of his contract a year early?
It doesn’t appear likely. Earnhardt and Hendrick casually mentioned that contract extension talks — Earnhardt is currently signed through 2012 — were in the near future just one week after the personnel shakeup at HMS that aligned Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte in the new “48/88” shop. While that may be true, it may also be posturing, putting any sponsor’s apprehensions at ease while the company regroups and rolls out a new product in 2011. Any sponsorship negotiations attached to the Earnhardt name take a much more decided effort and additional diligence due to the asking price. Could the pair’s hinting at an early extension actually be step one in luring AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard back? Possibly.
Also, Earnhardt knows the resources currently behind him are unmatched. Hendrick Motorsports is the unquestioned powerhouse in the sport with 10 Cup titles in its trophy case and an all-star lineup that will only get bolstered in 2012 when Kasey Kahne comes on board (and that’s not to mention the relationship with Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing operation). Really, it won’t get any better for Junior. Or Hendrick.
Despite three subpar seasons at HMS, Earnhardt brings in over $30 million per year in sponsorship revenue alone. Factor in merchandise sales (of which Hendrick gets a cut) plus over $14 million in winnings over the last three years, and the numbers say Earnhardt — win or lose on the track — is raking in just as much money for Hendrick as his new shopmate.
Still, does a blues jeans and t-shirt Earnhardt fit in a starched white-collar world at Hendrick Motorsports? Maybe, maybe not. And for the time being, he’ll remain where he’s at through at least 2012.
11. Does NASCAR need to change its officiating style?
Like NASCAR, stick ’n’ ball sports aren’t immune to controversial calls. So why do stock car officials wind up with the worst rap? Simple: visual aides. NFL challenges, MLB instant replay and NBA shot clocks can help tell us whether a decision is right or wrong, leading to endless and exciting debates at the office the next day.
How can we do that with, say, a season finale in which Kevin Harvick was busted for speeding, then accused Jimmie Johnson of sneaking by without so much as a warning? No media member or fan gets a look at pit road times, and all we see is a bunch of cars charging real slowly on the screen towards pit out. NASCAR refuses to publicly release those times, just like it won’t adequately explain a rules violation from Clint Bowyer that contains a top line that would make any politician proud.
Behold, Section 20-3: “The car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis does not meet the NASCAR-approved specifications.”
What specifications? What tolerances? What in the world does that mean? You’d have to go through 16 pages to find out, in a rulebook not every Joe Schmo on the street can access. Considering NASCAR’s inauspicious history with penalty calls – just look at some of these other questions in the book for proof – it’s no surprise that this breeds suspicion in a transparent world where WikiLeaks, Facebook and Deadspin feed the public’s desire to know.
For generations, that’s how the France family has run NASCAR, a family-owned dictatorship with more secrets than Nixon and Watergate. But that needs to stop, pronto, if the sport wants to stop the bleeding of angry fans and nose-diving attendance. It’s time to drop the act, open the books and work to ensure that fans can believe in the legitimacy of officials’ calls.
12. Is Kyle Busch good for NASCAR?
He’s cocky, oftentimes immature, seemingly on an emotional roller coaster in the car, wins a lot and plays it up for the crowd in the process. What’s not to like?
Actually, for many fans there is a lot not to like. Busch’s post-race scowls and short answers in defeat and goading bows and mock tears in victory provide the ammo, and NASCAR fans are all too happy to fire the gun. However, fans — particularly in auto racing — often love to hate a driver more than they love to cheer on their favorite. And nothing spurs those feelings more than when a driver is good … and tells you so.
Busch has been compared to Dale Earnhardt on the track, but goes about his business much more like Darrell Waltrip in his early days. The fans loved to hate Waltrip too, as his brash personality, fast talking and once-in-a-generation talent burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s. While Earnhardt was more subdued than Waltrip in his early years on the circuit, he was more vicious on the track, never afraid to bully his way to the front.
The one thing both drivers had in common — besides a fierce rivalry — was the polarizing effect they had on the fanbase. As each became more successful, the sport garnered more publicity. It was a wild growth NASCAR experienced in the ’80s and ’90s — one that can be attributed to personality as much as horsepower.
So the answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” NASCAR has historically been a more entertaining sport when a heel is around to stir the pot. Just enjoy it while it lasts, because the “bad boys” don’t stay that way forever.
13. Should Mark Martin have let anyone know he was retiring?
Like any good businessman, Rick Hendrick is always looking ahead to stay on top; it’s why he’s won 10 championships as one of the sport’s most successful owners. But as the conductor on the sport’s fastest train, the second you leave his forward-thinking mind you’re in danger, changed from a first-class passenger to a stowaway inside the railway line once built for your success.
Just ask Mark Martin. Ever since the moment the 51-year-old announced that he would retire after 2011, here’s what his “supportive” car owner has done:
• Combine resources with the No. 5 and No. 88 during the ’09 offseason, including moving Martin’s top-notch engineer, Chris Heroy, over to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.
• Sign Kasey Kahne a year early to replace Martin. Only one problem existed: Hendrick had no ride for Kahne in ’11 before those plans went public. As deal after deal for Kahne fell through, media questions mounted about whether Martin would depart a year early, an ugly distraction that had him snippy with the media last summer and ultimately struggling enough on-track to miss the Chase.
• Hendrick made major moves in December 2010 to fix three of his ailing four teams. Where did Martin land? With the worst chassis (former No. 88) and worst-performing crew chief, Lance McGrew, a man with one career Cup victory to his credit. Heroy and Martin are reunited … but is it too late?
Some say this man’s cried wolf too many times, this being the third full-time “retirement tour” he’s had in six years. But that doesn’t make this arrangement fair.
Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Amanda Brahler
Will she or won’t she? That has been the question surrounding Danica Patrick and her possible jump from open-wheeled machines to stock cars ever since the pint-sized spark plug broke onto the auto racing scene in America. After five seasons in the IndyCar Series and only one race win, the question loomed larger than ever, as speculation swirled last summer that her jump to NASCAR was imminent after she was spotted visiting Tony Stewart’s race shop in North Carolina.
The discussions continued as the heat of the summer turned into a winter chill. Despite the constant buzz and “breaking news” from ESPN that a deal was done, nothing materialized and news became stagnant, with nothing more than speculation repeatedly eating up the headlines, placed right next to year-in-review wrap-up pieces.
With build-up surrounding a national appearance on Good Morning America at the end of November, and while the NASCAR media was on its way to Las Vegas and the awards ceremony, some thought an announcement was forthcoming. However, when all was said and done, Patrick had no NASCAR endeavors to announce.
Hey, if nothing else, she knows how to get people’s attention.
The 27-year-old’s “big” GMA announcement that caused a whirlwind of press after months of speculation turned out to be nothing more than a two-year extension with an additional third year as an option with car owner Michael Andretti and the Andretti Autosport team in the IndyCar Series. That, however, didn’t eliminate the possibility of her moving to stocks, as long as the races she ran fell on off-IndyCar weekends. Patrick’s priority, she said, was to win the Indy 500. But with three more possible opportunities aligned, it became clear that she was free to focus on other things, such as expanding her “brand” across the sometimes-blurred lines of the racing business.
In tandem with her new contract, Patrick announced primary sponsorship from GoDaddy.com. Ironically, GoDaddy is the same company that sponsored Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team. The branding moved from JRM to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team on the Cup level, and driver Mark Martin for a 20-race deal in 2010. In fact, after her contract details were disclosed, her website was updated, and early visitors were greeted with a picture of Patrick that, oddly enough, featured her wearing what appeared to be a JR Motorsports uniform with Chevrolet and Nationwide Series logos. The image was promptly taken down and replaced with a photo in a GoDaddy-green IRL suit, but its posting was far from unnoticed, and the question evolved from ‘Will she or won’t she?’ to ‘When will she?’
“I’ve made no mystery that I’m curious about NASCAR and I would like to do it,” Patrick said in a media teleconference shortly after her IndyCar announcement. “As a driver, if I had the chance to be able to run in both series and try it and challenge myself, I would like to do that.”
Though the discussions between the two parties were never denied — and oddly, were more open than any other worst-kept secret in recent years — it seemed strange that the monumental announcement continued to be put off. What exactly was the point of all of the buildup? Did they expect fans to become more interested or did they want to prove Danica’s appeal to the media and in turn, pull in more sponsorship interest? Or was this simply a matter of two parties not being able to get on the same page? Some reports stated that Danica was looking for a six-figure sum per race, a number unheard of in Nationwide competition.
And so it came to pass on Dec. 8, that Patrick announced a two-year deal to drive a partial schedule — believed to be in the 12-to-15-race range — for JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rick Hendrick, Kelley Earnhardt and Tony Eury Jr. Of course, she will be sponsored by GoDaddy.com and will bring her familiar No. 7 along with her, replacing the No. 5.
“It’s been a long time coming, but the stars finally aligned for me with GoDaddy and JRM,” Patrick said just before making her announcement. “I have always said I love to drive, and if I could make it work to race in both IndyCar and NASCAR — with the right sponsor, like GoDaddy.com and the right team, like JRM — then I’d love to drive in NASCAR.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Patrick and Earnhardt are set to team up. The two share the same burden within their respective racing divisions: being tagged as over-hyped fan favorites who lack statistical support to back up all of the sponsorship dollars and fuss. Fans may adore them and sponsors may be able to use them to sell product, but the bottom line is that neither is a regular visitor to Victory Lane and neither has been able to earn the moniker of champion at the highest level. They’ve also both seemingly mastered the art of effortlessly playing the media like a fiddle, feeding the inquisitive types just enough to continually eat up column space, but not enough to break a story wide open.
Earnhardt, while openly embracing Patrick and what she could bring to not only his team, but the sport as a whole, has gone on the record as saying that despite his involvement with the team, his general manager and sister, Kelley, is the one responsible for putting the deal together.
“She’s going to drive stock cars for somebody someday, (and) I think it’s exciting,” Earnhardt said. “She would be great for our sport. She wants to see what’s up.”
But then when the announcement finally came, it was still a bunch of nothing, because everything announced had long been expected. The meat — “How many races? When? Where?” — was left out.
The bottom line is that she is, in fact, racing for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series. So what does Patrick’s transition to stock car racing actually mean? What will her presence and performance bring to the competition within the Nationwide Series garage?
More of the same, to be honest. Patrick’s addition would simply continue a trend, albeit a bit changed, but the overall tone would continue to cast a shadow on the younger and less prominent teams, drivers and talent within the Nationwide garage.
Take her expected teammate, Kelly Bires. Bires was said to be manning the No. 88 JRM machine, which would mark his first full season in a realistically competitive car. In his early 20s, Bires, like many other younger drivers, has been overshadowed in his previous three seasons thanks to the Sprint Cup Series drivers who run either partial or complete seasons. In his debut year in Nationwide competition, Bires ran for a Nationwide-only team, JTG-Daugherty Racing, before being forced into free agency after the team could not secure funding the following season. In 2009, he ran part-time for a handful of teams, including Kevin Harvick, Inc., and Braun Racing. For younger drivers like Bires, that trend will continue — only the focus shifts from “the Cup drivers” to “the girl.”
More disturbing is the revelation made by Earnhardt Jr. that the familiar No. 88 Nationwide team may have to resort to a partial season, as funding is in short supply even for an owner named Earnhardt. Could the focus of importing a commodity like Patrick be hindering JR Motorsports’ other entry? It’s likely, though not clear.
In all fairness to Patrick, her expectations — beyond the speculated salary — seem to be realistic: “In all of the talks over the summer, (and) in meeting with people, there was a lot of emphasis on learning, so I’d be very prepared to start small and grow and really learn the cars.”
The suggestions more than likely stem from drivers like Stewart who have made the competitive transition from open wheelers to stocks and could easily serve in a mentoring role to Patrick. Stewart won the Indy Racing League championship in 1997 before making his move over to NASCAR. He did it gradually, running a part-time effort in what was then the Busch Series while still running Indy cars. Once he made the transition full bore, he made it look easy, having compiled two Sprint Cup Series titles and nearly 40 race wins.
Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti have also made the move, albeit with less success. But they are different than Danica. All have won the Indy 500, something she still has on her to-do list. Hornish Jr. and Franchitti have also won championships. The closest she’s come was a fifth-place showing in the point standings last year, a year that, while consistent, boasted zero wins.
But the qualities Danica has that her predecessors lacked — at least at her level — are marketing pull and fan appeal. Despite her lack of on-track success, she’s a sponsor’s dream: young, attractive and relatable. But she’s also a standout for the mere fact that she is a female, and at an elite level in the racing world, that’s a unique quality. Despite diversity’s gains in auto racing, thanks to her own effort and that of NHRA legend John Force’s daughter, Ashley, the fact remains that female drivers are few and far between in the upper echelons of motorsports.
Patrick uses her qualities — that marketability and those looks — to cross over from mediocre driver to calendar-girl pinup sensation. She’s often traded her firesuit for a swimsuit and made a hefty chunk of change in doing so. You can’t blame her for following the saying that if you’ve got it, flaunt it, because that is what has made her the brand that is “Danica.” She knows the whirlwind of interest around her and what she’s able to bring to the table. That recognition is why a move to NASCAR makes sense. No, she may not challenge for race wins, and she will certainly tear up a car or 10 as she learns her way in the heavier, full-bodied machines, but she brings sponsors and throngs of fans — or possibly throngs of curious onlookers.
Not only do teams want her for that reason, but NASCAR’s sanctioning body does as well. After years of trying to establish a diversity program, the sport lags decades behind its contemporaries, and Patrick would unquestionably be its biggest land yet. And if nothing else, the one-woman marketing machine that is Danica would bring with her something NASCAR desperately needs right now: dollars and viewers.
“She has a lot of talent,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said last November at the season-ending Ford 400. “She will be good for NASCAR. How well she will perform is like any other driver that comes through the front door and sits in the car — you never know until they do it. She probably doesn’t know (either). We’ll see what the future brings, but she’s certainly very welcome in NASCAR. I’ve told her that directly and I know others have, too.”
Though many females have tried before, none has remained in the series long. Shawna Robinson, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Erin Crocker are just three who have recently worked their way up to at least score a shot at the big time. All three have fizzled out, though, the victims of less-than-ideal marketing personas.
Patrick however, has graced the pages of men’s magazines in provocative poses and appeared in numerous television commercials, promoting a variety of products for corporate America. She has selling power. And with the endorsements come followers. People want to see her in front of a camera and on a race track. Some, because she’s pretty; some, to see her fail; others to see her succeed. But in the end, the bottom line is the same: They want to see her.
This desire by the all-powerful consumer is what lures sponsors toward the phenomenon and away from those possibly more talented Nationwide Series regulars and Cup-invaders alike. It’s an ugly cycle that has plagued the series since the new millennium — marketing over talent — and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
With Patrick, it will continue, only on a new and heretofore never explored plateau.
That alone causes debate about the health of the series once known as a place to prove a driver’s worth or jumpstart his or her career. But another, more fundamental question has arisen: Can dainty Danica muscle a heavy stock car? After years of steering a downforce-laden, ultra-sensitive 1,300-pound IndyCar, will she find the 3,400-pound beasts that drive like bulldozers to be too much for her physically? The answer lies in the females who have come before her: A long period of adjustment will be required, but her grace period will no doubt be longer than any female’s in the past. Her on-track rope with other drivers may not be, though.
The feisty temperament that has become her calling card will not go over well with the good ol’ boys. There will be no stomping down pit road in front of a packed grandstand to confront another driver’s pit crew or foul-mouthed banter with another driver in the garage. Actually, there may be, but there are also fenders on these cars — fenders that allow drivers to send a message or teach one another a lesson the hard way should they see fit.
With that in mind, a move to a Hendrick-supported team would be the perfect setting for Patrick to learn the mindset of the sport. HMS is an operation that does not tolerate anything less than an exemplary on- and off-track image. You do it the right way — the Hendrick way — or you’re shown the door. Temper-tantrums and signs of disrespect may fly in other shops, but not on Papa Joe Boulevard.
Patrick tested a JR Motorsports-prepared car on Dec. 13 at Walt Disney World Speedway, familiarizing herself with the foreign feel of a stock car. The test was low key, so much so in fact, that the racing media wasn’t even aware of it until it hit Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Facebook page.
“It’s come up in the past to run NASCAR, and I never really was … my heart wasn’t there,” Danica says. “I didn’t want to at all. I wasn’t really curious.
“I’ve always thought that the most important thing for me in my career is that I go with my gut and I go with what I want and not worry about the rest. And so now my curiosity is there and I’d like to just try it, and I’d like to see how I get on with the cars. I just think the racing looks fun.”
Whether or not she actually has fun adjusting to the rigorous schedule, the heavier cars and tough competition that is far from gentlemanly, she more than likely won’t mind cashing the checks that come along with it. The marketing machine that is Danica Patrick is coming to NASCAR.
Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Should NASCAR “Jimmie-proof” the Chase by rotating the venues that host the events?
Good luck trying to “Jimmie-proof” anything these days. Many observers cite Johnson’s success in the Chase as a product of visiting tracks that he favors. It’s true that Johnson’s record at the 10 tracks involved in the Chase is sterling — his 18 Chase wins are proof of that.
What these observers fail to understand, though, is the reason Johnson excels at these specific tracks: Crew chief Chad Knaus’ strategy.
Knaus’ yearlong game plan is to work toward the season-ending Chase, and he does so by using the 26-race regular season as an extended test session of sorts. Particular emphasis is placed on collecting data that translates to their Chase setups.
If NASCAR used a rotating Chase format (an idea wholeheartedly supported here), Knaus would simply change the team’s focus and apply the notes to the re-designed playoffs.
After all, for a driver as versatile as Johnson, why do you think he’s never won at a track like Bristol? Answer: Bristol’s notes don’t translate to a Chase track, so while the Bristol night race is a biggie, it doesn’t play into their “big prize” quest, and that’s what Knaus has his eye on.
2. Should Lance McGrew have been retained as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief?
In a word, no. Just check out the numbers alone: In 24 races with McGrew, Junior scored only two top-10 finishes, as compared to three in a dozen races with former chief Tony Eury Jr. Let’s take that one step further: In his last dozen races with McGrew, Junior ran no better than 11th, posting an average finish of 26.7 while his three teammates raced to a 1-2-3 finish in the Chase.
Through it all, the same old problems remained for the No. 88 during races — the car started off strong but was taken out of contention due to adjustments.
But what’s more troubling is the stuff you can’t measure on a stats sheet: A driver’s mental confidence, and Earnhardt’s has fallen to zero. “I’m about to the end of my rope,” he said in October. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for anything involving the status quo — and he didn’t stop there.
“If I told you that I wanted to be with Lance next year,” he added, “I wouldn’t be telling you that out of my knowledge of expertise and talent. I’d be telling you because it’s fun hanging out with him.” Uh-oh. The “fun” factor sticks out to us, as it’s the “buddy-buddy” connection with Eury Jr. that left the duo stuck together for far longer than they should have been.
We know what you’re thinking — if McGrew’s not the answer, who is? Well, Junior’s best years were with Tony Eury Sr. at the helm, an older, fiery personality who wasn’t his best buddy off the track but knew how to push Junior’s buttons on it. A bossy, overbearing personality like Chad Knaus would be a perfect fit, so why won’t Hendrick go out and find one?
3. What’s to come in the sordid tale of Jeremy Mayfield?
The answer may begin to play itself out in September, the earliest Mayfield’s suit against NASCAR could go to trial. Mayfield, who failed a random drug test at Richmond last May, continues to plead his innocence in the matter, claiming that a mixture of the prescription drug Adderal and Claritin-D showed up as a false positive for methamphetamines.
Mayfield took another test at NASCAR’s request after a bizarre series of events that ultimately led to another positive result. Mayfield also produced negative drug-test results through an independent lab and claimed that NASCAR was using his case as a warning to others on the circuit as to how it would handle such offenses.
NASCAR’s drug policy is more of an outline, not citing what substances (prescription or otherwise) are banned, causing drivers to demand that a list be made available to them after Mayfield’s first failed test — the fear being that an over-the-counter medication such as Claritin-D (a NASCAR sponsor) could trigger a false positive. NASCAR CEO Brian France countered that there was a list that drivers could ask to see, although with ever-evolving performance-enhancing drugs, the list would never be absolute.
NASCAR, of course, prefers to keep its dirty laundry in the hamper, and other than the Mauricia Grant sexual and racial discrimination suit that was settled out of court last year, this has the potential to be the most damaging case against it. NASCAR is a privately owned business that doesn’t have to open its books to anyone — unless the courts demand to see certain personal and business information in a hearing, making that information available to the public.
In short, this case going to trial is a nightmare scenario for NASCAR — not because it’s afraid of losing to Mayfield, but because the public would get a look behind the curtain. And all indications are that Mayfield will fight this to the bitter end.
4. Will Danica Patrick succeed in NASCAR?
The answer to this question lies in the hands of Mrs. Patrick herself. However, one wonders if her entry strategy is the optimal one. Patrick is to run approximately 12 races in the Nationwide Series this season and an undetermined amount the year after. According to Juan Pablo Montoya (and who better to weigh in?), that isn’t the way to approach this challenge.
“Danica, I think she’s got the talent and everything but I don’t think she knows what she’s getting into,” Montoya said last June, when rumors of her impending jump began to spring up. “They’re so different to drive. … It’s not the same feeling. I wouldn’t be doing both cars, to be honest with you. That’s my advice.”
Jumping back and forth between a nimble IndyCar rocket and a sluggish NASCAR tank won’t do the muscle memory any favors. Familiarizing other drivers with your driving style — and theirs to yours — is an important and often overlooked component that will take an even longer period of time with her planned schedule.
The rule of thumb says it takes a driver three full years to acclimate totally with the Cup cars. Given that Patrick will have only two part-time seasons under her belt — we’ll say 30 races — by the time Mark Martin’s contract is up in Rick Hendrick’s Cup stable, it most certainly will not be enough on-the-job training to make an immediate impact in Cup.
Of course, marketability is the name of the game these days, so even if the results aren’t there, the dollars to keep her in the seat will be. Guess it’s dependent on how one views success, huh?
5. Can Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne succeed as “lame duck” drivers with teams that are trying to build for the future?
Yes — to a point. Virtually every driver involved in a high-profile ride switch has won a race before officially departing; it’s a final burst of adrenaline that doubles as a “send-off” party, validating their years of success as a “family.” Sometimes, as in the case of Tony Stewart in 2008 and Kyle Busch in ’07, there’s enough of these short-term momentum boosts to propel a driver into the Chase.
But to find Victory Lane on any given day is one thing; to achieve the focus and consistency to win a championship is all but impossible. Anyone who’s gone through a divorce knows what we’re talking about. Even in the most amicable breakup, bad days are inevitable that make you take your “eyes off the prize” and lead to mistakes you wouldn’t normally make. Considering the perfection required with the Chase system, then, it’s no surprise that the best any “lame duck” driver has finished under this format is fifth place. That honor belongs to Kyle Busch, and he still wound up 430 points behind champ Jimmie Johnson after a horrid start left him out of title contention early.
The fact that Kahne and Harvick are on teams that sent only one of eight eligible drivers into the Chase last season doesn’t help their cause, either. A few wins apiece isn’t out of the question, but simply a berth in the playoffs would be a monumental achievement while both spend the year dreaming of better days ahead in 2011.
6. Was NASCAR too harsh in penalizing Carl Long for an “oversized” engine at the All-Star Race?
Too harsh? Yeah, you might say that.
Independent owner/driver Carl Long brought a car to the Sprint Showdown — the “wild card” qualifying event for the All-Star Race — during All-Star festivities in Charlotte last May. Long had no shot at transferring into the big show, because the used engine’s horsepower reading taken from a dynamometer one week prior had showed it down about 50 horsepower from a standard mount.
When NASCAR inspected the engine before the race, inspectors found the cubic-inch displacement to be 358.17. The maximum allowed is 358. The sanctioning body not only disallowed his entry, but it also went about making an example of Long, leveling a record 200 owner- and championship-points penalty, a 12-race suspension and a $200,000 fine for his crew chief, Charles Swing.
For an independent owner/driver on a tight budget, that was all she wrote for Carl.
While it’s true that rules must govern a body, how can an entity like NASCAR, which has a long and storied history of operating within the “gray area” in matters of rules enforcement, suddenly go so “black and white” on a guy like Long? And what’s more, how can NASCAR penalize a driver so severely when the event in question was an exhibition race?
Long said it best himself when he told ESPN that, “Big Bill and Bill Jr. ruled the sport like a father — at the end of the day they took care of their family. These guys don’t care. They don’t have any heart. Basically, it seems like they don’t care about the sport, they just want to make a dollar.”
Unfortunately, that sure looks like a pretty accurate appraisal of the sport’s sanctioning body right now, doesn’t it?
7. Will Tony Stewart — or any other driver, for that matter — win a championship by getting engines and chassis supplied by a Chase competitor?
For our answer, let’s turn to none other than Rick Hendrick:
“It’s good to see all of our guys, the teams we support with motors and cars run well,” he said once Stewart took the points lead back in May.
“We’re proud of that. But at the end of the day, when it gets down to the Chase, we want to win with these guys.”
That quote speaks volumes about how Hendrick support shifts internally during the playoffs. Let’s make a comparison to another sport for a second: If the Carolina Panthers loan information to the Atlanta Falcons all year to help them both make the postseason, do you think they’re going to keep working together when they’re playing against each other on the field?! The answer is no, because only one team gets a chance to move on to win the Super Bowl.
That’s exactly what’s happening here. During the regular season, Hendrick and SHR aren’t rivals to a certain degree, because if they perform to the best of their ability, all six cars could make a 12-car Chase. But once those playoffs begin, only one team stands alone as the champion, and it’s in each owner’s best interest to win that trophy for himself.
How’s that old saying go? “Second place is the first loser,” and Hendrick, despite all their teamwork, hasn’t forgotten it. They have the control to keep SHR a level below them, and there’s no reason to think that didn’t happen during a 10-race playoff where both Stewart and Ryan Newman mysteriously fell off down the stretch — at tracks where they had run well in the spring. So until they build equipment of their own, that’s how it’ll always be — good, but never good enough compared to the hand that feeds them.
8. After what happened during last fall’s race at Talladega, are drivers ready to take a united stand to force an end to restrictor plate racing after 22 years?
Let’s put it this way: It’s the closest to “yes” we’ve ever come. For the first time, rumblings of a Driver’s Union are underway after NASCAR endured the equivalent of an on-track protest — 43 men racing single-file to prove a point for most of the race’s 500 miles.
And once the end of the race turned into typical Talladega — bad bumps, big wrecks and a whole lot of near-death escapes — there was a noticeable change in tone from defeatism to defiance as the smoke cleared. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., the restrictor plate king, took a few shots at NASCAR, saying, “I don’t think anybody wants to be out there and involved in what happens at the end. Dodging cars, seeing people flip upside down. Obviously, there is something else that needs to be thought about.”
That’s a big step from even last April, when Carl Edwards’ flip left him resigned to the dangers of plate racing going forward (“We’ll race like this until we kill somebody, and then we’ll change it.”) and had him waving the white flag of surrender before even registering a complaint.
What’s NASCAR’s reaction to all the rhetoric? Zilch, as absolutely no changes are expected heading into the Daytona 500 in February. That’s left more than a few drivers dissatisfied behind the scenes, although a showdown isn’t expected until the next time the circuit visits Talladega in April.
All it will take is one serious injury from this safety-conscious group to lead to rumblings of a formal driver protest for the first time since — you guessed it — Talladega back in 1969.
9. Has a fuel-injected engine’s time finally come to NASCAR?
Name a major racing series on the planet that does not use a fuel-injected engine. Still thinking? That’s because basically every one does. Formula-1, IndyCar, NHRA, Grand Am, American Le Mans — all are series that run fuel-injected engines, in some cases for decades.
The lone remaining holdout (excluding the Big Foot and Grave Digger crowd) is NASCAR. And while the tried-and-true Holly has worked well since the sport’s inception, at some point progress is good. So is some semblance of what stock car racing originally was: Street machines put to the track.
To clarify how antiquated NASCAR’s engine specs are, one need look no further than 2004, when Toyota entered the Truck Series. Not having an engine that employed a pushrod, rocker arm or carburetor, the automaker was forced to develop one specifically for competition in NASCAR.
Foresight by the sanctioning body is a necessity here, and luckily it appears fuel injection may be introduced in 2011. For if the current state of the American auto industry does not improve drastically, what other manufacturers would be willing to go the route of Toyota and develop outdated “technology” for use in the series?
American auto racing in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s helped advance technology in the production of cars through the ingenuity of the mechanics who yearned to build a better mousetrap. Having an engine in today’s NASCAR that was readily identifiable to street cars would only help in returning to that goal — and would make the sport healthier at the same time.
10. Should the 2009 Daytona 500 have been called due to rain?
Absolutely. According to the rulebook, any race that makes it one lap past halfway is scored as an official event. Yet the same fans preaching consistency through ditching the Chase for the old points format — in which every race is weighted the same — want special rules that put the Daytona 500 on a pedestal.
Sorry, folks, but you can’t have it both ways. It’s rare for Mother Nature to interfere with the Great American Race to the degree it did that fateful Sunday, as it’s only the fourth time in 51 years that rain caused an early ending. And doesn’t impending weather add to the overall drama of the race? One could argue that it caused drivers to run more aggressively, held captive through the unpredictability of an uncertain ending. Once the downpour finally came, Matt Kenseth won fair and square under the rules, armed with the “racing luck” that’s given several 500 winners an unlikely trophy through the years (remember Derrike Cope in 1990?). Isn’t getting the right break at the right time just part of the sport?
Many have argued that the Super Bowl doesn’t end during the fourth quarter, but at the same time, hasn’t the philosophy of molding NASCAR after the NFL gotten it in trouble to begin with? If anything, anger from fans should be directed towards the late start time of well past 3:00 pm EST, which shortened the window to restart the race if bad weather intervened. Considering the change back to a 1:00 start time for 2010, that problem is now corrected — which means there’s nothing more to discuss.
11. Why did NASCAR take the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin to its R&D Center after the Dover Chase race and after each event thereafter?
The word from NASCAR was that the Johnson and Martin cars’ rear tolerances were very close to exceeding center line specs, and came dangerously close to failing post-race inspection. The two also finished first and second in the race, respectively, and sat atop the point standings. The cars were then taken back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for further inspection but were not penalized in any way.
Some claim NASCAR was showing leniency to the two title contenders, not wanting the sport’s dominant team, Hendrick Motorsports, to be exposed for cheating during the playoffs.
Others said it was a case of NASCAR picking on Hendrick — after all, why confiscate the cars (every week) and make a fuss when the cars were legal?
The truth is, both opinions hold merit. NASCAR doesn’t want one team stinking up the show. When one does, the sanctioning body has traditionally gone to great lengths to drive home the message that, ‘We’re keeping a close eye on you — and one misstep is all it will take for us to lower the boom.’
At the same time, NASCAR used the situation to send a message to the entire garage area that it will be holding everyone to the new hard-and-fast CoT specs — even when the rules involve thousandths-of-an-inch infractions.
The end result was that Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson, crew chiefs of the two cars, pushed the envelope but did not break any rules. And that’s exactly what championship-caliber crew chiefs are supposed to do.
12. Did the Denny Hamlin vs. Brad Keselowski rivalry-turned-wreckage at Homestead get handled consistently by NASCAR?
Before we begin, let’s make it clear that any ol’-fashioned, blood-boiling rivalry between drivers is good for the sport. The problem here isn’t with Keselowski and Hamlin mixing it up on the racetrack; it’s with NASCAR, whose inconsistent penalties leave us scratching our heads every time.
It all came to a head at Homestead, where after a week of publicly claiming he’d spin Keselowski out, Hamlin followed through during the Nationwide race. After his love tap sent the No. 88 wrecking, NASCAR’s response was to park Hamlin a lap for rough driving.
Over the course of a 200-mile race, that worked out to a slap on the wrist, as the No. 11 car was not only allowed to get its lap back through the Lucky Dog rule but also charged all the way to a fifth-place finish — seven spots better than Keselowski’s 12th.
If that’s the message NASCAR wants to send, fine; but don’t go changing your tune the next day. For when Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart tangled the following day, Montoya got a two-lap penalty for a similar incident. Add in a five-lap penalty for Jason Leffler after turning Steve Wallace back in February, and you can see some ugly inconsistency shaping up here. How can Hamlin’s penalty be less than all the rest, especially when he spent the week telling the world what he’d do? With the sport hoping to run a looser ship next season, they need to set some basic standards so drivers know what to expect once they misbehave. And if you give out a penalty only to give drivers a free pass late in the race, what type of message is that sending?
13. How can the Chase be legit if a driver with the most wins in the regular season (Kyle Busch) isn’t guaranteed a slot?
The question raises a valid argument, but ignores what the point system has been focused on since 1975: consistency.
Even in Formula-1, where wins carry much heavier weight in the system, four wins in 17 races won’t be enough to win the title if there aren’t a bunch of seconds, thirds, fourths, etc., to back them up.
So yes, Kyle had as many wins (four) as anyone else (tied with Mark Martin) by the time the checkers flew at Richmond. But he also struggled through four finishes of 33rd or worse, leaving others with just enough wiggle room to scoot by in an exceptional year for parity in the sport. It’s also notable that the No. 18 never got going during the Chase, scoring only four top-10 finishes in the final 10 races — a total that would have left them seventh, well out of title contention if they had made the cut.
Busch’s “checkers or wreckers” year may have been fun for the fans, but let’s put it this way: If you failed half the projects you started at work every week, do you think you’d find yourself winning Employee of the Month?
Changing the Chase yet again — rewarding the team with the most wins during the regular season with an automatic berth — also allows for the possibility of part-timers to make the playoffs. Back in 1973, David Pearson had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history, winning 11 times in 18 starts. But since he failed to show up a dozen times, Benny Parsons won the season championship based on his performance over all 30.
Winning a title should be a full-time job, not a part-time hobby, and the system’s designed to reward those who bring it each and every week.
You knew it was going to happen sooner or later. An NFL season couldn't go by without a little Brett Favre drama, could it?
With the Bears floundering under the services of Caleb Hanie, and going 0-2 since Jay Cutler went down with a broken thumb, Chicago is desperately in need of a serviceable quarterback.
And now they might have one who's interested. According to Adam Schefter, Brett Favre would listen if the Chicago Bears made a pitch for him to come out of retirement. According to Schefter's Twitter page:
"A source familiar with a certain QB in Mississippi told ESPNChicago.com that that QB would listen if the Bears made a pitch."
And here comes the circus. The Bears are dying for a quarterback. In his Monday press conference, head coach Lovie Smith said that Caleb Hanie was their quarterback. Which, is not what Bears fans want to hear.
So with news that Brett Favre would listen to the Bears if they made an offer, what are the chances that this will happen, or that it's even a smart move.
But could Brett Favre come in and learn Mike Martz's system in time to get the Bears back into the playoff hunt? Do the Bears want the drama and soap opera that seems to follow Favre around everywhere he goes.
Also, the Bears aren't known for throwing around dollars. The Vikings lured Brett there with giant piles of money. The Bears still haven't paid their MVP-caliber running back Matt Forte. What kind of message would it send to a team if they gave Favre a giant contract to come in and play a few games this season.
And on top of it, what happens if the Bears sign Favre, he does lead them to the playoff promise land, and Jay Cutler comes back from his thumb injury. That's a quarterback controversy that would get ugly, even if Favre was one of Cutler's heroes.
And to add even more the drama, the Green Bay Packers play the Chicago Bears in week 16 on Christmas Day. The Packers could be undefeated at that time and playing a Favre-led Bears team. The Internet would completely explode if that occurred.
Let's see where this plays out, but Chicago fans must be torn at the thought of having their arch nemesis don a Bears jersey. But at the end of the day, Caleb Hanie isn't the answer, so pick your poison. A hated Favre who might get you to the playoffs, or do you throw in the towel and let Hanie lose the next four games?
Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize NASCAR’s marketing plan for next year. Hint: She’ll be decked out in day-glow green.
But stock car’s obsession with an IndyCar convert runs far deeper than pure advertising of her status as the most accomplished female driver in America. Indeed, Danica Patrick’s recent commitment to a part-time Nationwide Series schedule presents the perfect cover-up for a sport with a dark and dirty secret when it comes to its 2010 rookie class … There’s no one else.
Looking at the Cup Series this year, that’s the unpleasant reality. At the start of the calendar year, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year competition appears destined to be won by some lucky fan on eBay, with no drivers eligible to participate in the program for the first time since 1992. After a decade during which men like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick burst onto the scene to set a new standard for freshmen, NASCAR starts the 2010s with no one even remotely positioned to challenge them.
How has a driver pipeline once rich with talent suddenly frozen up? On the surface, the answer comes down to cold, hard cash. Without it, you can’t so much as sign up for an entry fee within NASCAR’s top three series, and the sport’s unproven talent has been forced to adapt to the worst national recession since the 1930s.
“Certainly, it’s a cause for concern when you don’t have anybody signed up for Rookie of the Year,” says veteran Jeff Burton. “But the larger problem is the economic issue. I think if the economy was going strong, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Or would we? For as desperate times call for desperate measures, others claim a new method of survival has popped up, capable of weathering the sport’s tough times and keeping talented drivers on their feet for some time to come. It’s a strategy that comes complete with the beauty of a sponsorship pitch and the slickness of an off-track persona — erasing the meaning of on-track success in the form of pure dollars and cents.
“We are a marketing tool,” says up-and-coming NASCAR star Paulie Harraka, the 2009 Camping World West Rookie of the Year who claims a need to hawk products over performance. “At the end of the day, if people didn’t think they could build brand awareness and potentially bring business through sponsoring our race team, they wouldn’t sponsor us. And you can never lose sight of that, because that’s what we’re all about.”
So as the sport evolves, a whole group of drivers has come equipped with the knowledge that a fifth-place finish proves nothing for your owner — if they don’t have a smiling face in the boardroom to back it up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Joe Gibbs — whose Nationwide driver Brad Coleman brought a $150,000-per-race sponsor for eight races, according to sources — or a small team like Rensi-Hamilton Racing, whose driver Eric McClure went without a top-10 finish last season but remains in the seat through the support of handpicked sponsor Hefty Trash Bags. These days, to be on the grid, a treasure chest of dollar bills is worth as much, if not more, than a place in Victory Lane.
“It’s just all about money,” says Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements. “It sucks. It’s just not like football or basketball, where if you’re good enough you’re going to make it.
“Unless you bring a big sponsor, you’re not going to get a good ride anymore.”
Yet this much we know: Even during an era of declining ratings and fan attendance, racing across America still exists. Every Saturday night, hundreds of drivers at local short tracks across the country start their engines, still praying maximum effort is all that’s needed to accomplish their dreams. So with talent still readily available, how can the sport squeeze out some new blood, bringing us a new wave of talent back from the sidelines and into our living rooms? Three major hurdles need to be cleared: fixing the Nationwide Series, changing the cost of doing business, and taking the sport’s diversity program to the next level.
Nationwide’s lack of developing “major leaguers”
Back in 2005, NASCAR’s second-tier division — then known as the Busch Series — was in its heyday. Martin Truex Jr. won the championship, his second straight, leading to an exodus of four of the top five drivers in the series standings as they graduated to Cup. That fab foursome — also composed of Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson and Denny Hamlin — has since combined for seven Chase appearances, nearly a dozen race wins and over $50 million in earnings. It seemed like the sport’s “AAA” level was alive and well as the “go-to” division to grab future talent.
But perhaps the most important note from that year is the driver who quietly snuck inside the Fab Four juggernaut. Carl Edwards, by then a full-time Cup competitor, finished third in Busch points despite missing a race, able to conquer the logistics of running both series without a problem. Suddenly, sponsors now paying $15 million to support top-level superstars were forced to stop and take notice. For one-third of the price, they could back a man like Edwards in a lower series, maximizing the value of their investment in a trip to Victory Lane and a shot at a season championship.
In a sport that loves to copycat, it didn’t take long for the movement to catch fire. The next year, Kevin Harvick led an onslaught of Cup veterans attempting a full season schedule, winning the title while his brethren combined for 33 wins in 35 races. It’s been that way ever since, the last three championships won by Cup regulars in landslide fashion while upwards of 20 “Cupwhackers” can be found inside the 43-car field on any given Saturday.
That leaves plenty of up-and-comers watching their spot on the grid go by the wayside. ARCA veteran Clements is one of those struggling talents. Filling in on occasion for Nationwide driver Kyle Busch the last two years, he’d qualify the car during standalone events while Busch practiced in Cup out-of-state. But Gibbs never picked him up for a full-time ride, leaving the 25-year-old driver running an independent team on a shoestring budget. Buying four sets of scuffed tires per race, he posted his best Nationwide result in 2009 at California, finishing 12th at a race in which he’d have wound up in the top 5 if seven of the Cup regulars finishing in front of him weren’t allowed to run.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to get in a good car, race the whole weekend,” he says, struggling to compete against drivers with more experience and millions more at their disposal. “I’m always stuck just racing an alright style car, in one of those ‘don’t crash in qualifying, but don’t run 100 percent because I don’t want you to tear it up’ type deals.
“It’s not the same.”
Nineteen-year-old Marc Davis is another teenage sensation who’s been on both sides of the fence. While Joe Gibbs Racing — which parted ways with him as a development driver at the end of 2008 — has won 34 of the last 70 Nationwide races, Davis himself is left as an independent driver/owner trying simply to run a limited schedule with a handful of dedicated sponsors. But even when he has the cash, father Harry says it’s difficult for drivers like his son to establish themselves when Cup drivers get busy stealing the spotlight.
“Kyle Busch has every right to run that series,” he says of the 2009 Nationwide Series champion. “But is a developing driver going to make a name for himself if at every level, you got Cup drivers running the race?”
As you’d expect, not everyone agrees with that perspective. Others remind us that Cup drivers interloping in other divisions are nothing new — it’s just that now, their presence makes sponsorship for others nearly impossible in the current economic climate. Richard Childress Racing is a classic example, using a combination of young talent to fill their Nationwide rides in the past — successfully training drivers like Bowyer and Harvick to move up in-house to Cup. But this year, the best they could do was a part-time schedule for 22-year-old Stephen Leicht, with no sponsors willing to bite on him for 2010 despite six top-10 finishes in nine starts.
“The thing is, even if Leicht would have gone out and won a race, I’m not sure he would have been in any different a situation,” says Burton, who shared the ride with him and Bowyer. “The dollars just aren’t there for everybody.”
Well … not everybody. Facing a lack of sponsorship on the Nationwide side, RCR was forced to pair up with one of those “marketing opportunists”; next year, they’ll run sophomore John Wes Townley, who went without a top-15 finish in his rookie season — but does have the permanent backing of his family’s company, Zaxby’s fast food restaurants.
“In today’s economy, the sponsors are in control. You’ve got your premier drivers, and then the rest of the guys,” admits vice president of competition Mike Dillon. “And I’m not saying the (young guys) aren’t talented … it’s just a harder sell (to potential sponsors).”
It’s notable the series has still churned out a smaller trickle of success stories, with Brad Keselowski picked up by Penske Racing in 2010 after challenging for the title against Bowyer, Edwards and Busch the past two seasons. Joey Logano was also mildly successful in half-a-season driving only Nationwide, undergoing an accelerated learning curve before being tabbed to replace Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Cup car for 2009. Logano went on to win Rookie of the Year in Cup one season after winning a race — Kentucky — against a handful of Cup-level competitors in Nationwide.
“It’s just a matter of getting a chance,” adds Hendrick development driver Landon Cassill, noting both drivers had solid financial sponsorship in place. “Having a team have faith in you. Logano developed well, and he kind of set a standard. I hope for some of these teams that there’s young drivers that can do it.”
Yet Cassill, only 20, is the brightest star in a long list of drivers who went the other direction. The 2008 Nationwide Rookie of the Year, he made only one start in 2009, leading a crop of five sophomores who went from promising futures to lacking a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three series. Instead, he’s spent the year testing and diligently courting funding through his “partner,” Hendrick Motorsports, while their money goes to already proven stars.
“You can sit and pout all you want about there being no money, no sponsors (for the young guys),” he says. “But when it comes down to it, if you really want to do this, you just gotta work hard. And that’s what I’ve tried to do this year. Hopefully, that all pays off so I can race.”
That’s easier said than done, considering the price tag for a top-tier ride in what’s supposed to be a minor league division.
“The No. 11 car, CJM Racing, said they need $6 million to run next year,” claims an anonymous source of a team that was one of the few Nationwide-only teams that competed with Cup regulars in 2009. “Obviously, if I had $6 million, I can go to that team. It’s that easy … you just need money.”
Is there a quick fix to increase the young talent competing in the series? Some of the Cup car owners, like Jack Roush, have made a recent commitment to running new drivers with or without sponsorship, like rookies Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Their success may prove crucial in turning the tide; if sponsors recognize Cup drivers can be beaten, then they’ll head to whoever’s sitting in Victory Lane. Another way is to prevent Cup regulars from running for the Nationwide championship, a topic hotly debated for years.
“I don’t think making drivers ineligible to win a championship helps drivers in any form or fashion,” argues Burton. “I think the ability to compete is what helps, and the opportunity to show that you can compete with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch is what puts you in Cup.”
“NASCAR could have said, ‘Let’s limit the number of Cup racers that can run in the Nationwide Series,’ but they didn’t do that,” says Davis. “I guess they’re happy with the status quo, because (what they have now) is a free-market system where any driver who’s eligible to drive in any series he wants to drive in.
“But it’s like sending Michael Jordan to play in a high school basketball game. How are you going to recruit somebody if those guys in the All-Star Classic are competing against Olympic athletes?”
Car owners, where are you?
Adding to the problem for young drivers is how current economic conditions have ravaged the ownership ranks in NASCAR’s top three series. In the past, smaller teams like Junie Donlavey’s No. 90 were crucial in developing new drivers on the Cup circuit. Young rookies could utilize the seat time to score a top 15, or perhaps an occasional top 10 to get them noticed by a high-profile owner. On occasion, a miracle still happens. Brad Keselowski was the latest example, his shocking Talladega upset with the single-car No. 09 of Phoenix Racing helping secure his future.
But Keselowski came armed with Hendrick support. Without help from the multi-car giants the underdogs are all going under. Owners like Donlavey are long gone; as in Sprint Cup alone, the top 30 drivers in 2009 points fielded equipment built from only nine race shops. Now, the poor single-car teams aren’t just competing against two cars; in some cases it’s six or seven, as mergers and equipment alliances have blurred the lines between friend and enemy. Most important, pooled resources mean extra cash that leave those outside the “inner circle” incapable of challenging the sport’s elite.
Insiders point to motor packages as a large part of the problem, with multi-car teams in top series leasing to underdogs for as much as $100,000 a full race — in Nationwide. Considering last place in those races can pay as little as $13,000, it’s easy to see why the “have-nots” are forced to make difficult business decisions.
“Because you’ve designed a racing program that accommodates four or five owners to whatever level they want to be accommodated at, everybody’s forced to play at that level,” says Davis. “So they’ve eliminated most of the competition by just outpricing them and just out-technology-ing those guys.”
That forces some teams to make difficult business decisions to survive, as start-and-parking, the practice of pulling the car in the garage before the first pit stop to save cash, became the norm and not the exception for the back of the garage this year. In some instances, nearly a third of Truck Series fields would do it, while even six one-car teams on the Cup level scored DNFs in over 50 percent of their starts.
It’s a hotly debated practice, with the hope that as the economy picks up, drivers will be rewarded for their loyalty to teams trying to build a foundation for the future. Right now, that’s their only shot, as most multi-car teams are backed up against NASCAR’s new “four-team” limit. And since most drivers in those situations are signed to long-term deals, openings for replacements aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.
“If you look at what Tommy Baldwin is trying to do,” Burton claims, taking a look at one of the single-car teams who start-and-parked in 2009, “he’s going to turn eyes (by making races). So the fact that we have a real upper-tier team, and then we have a pretty large step, in some cases that presents an opportunity to turn some heads.”
But will the drivers eventually reap the rewards? In the very situation Burton mentions, Michael McDowell spent half the season starting and parking for Baldwin’s No. 36. The sophomore driver made races and did what he was asked for 2010, but when permanent sponsorship was secured, he found himself on the outside looking in while veteran Mike Bliss got the ride.
Diversifying the driver lineup
As the sport recognizes the struggles for young talent within the top three series, they haven’t just sat on their hands. NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program, which selects successful women and minority drivers based on talent and places them with teams capable of launching their success, is undergoing changes designed to make success more consistent in an era when it’s increasingly elusive.
While it’s taken time for the program to take root, success is now coming for D4D with several drivers in the lower ranks of Camping World East and West. With Harraka winning rookie honors in CWW, the program is likely to welcome RCR development driver Ryan Gifford, who earned three top-5 finishes in just four starts in CWE, into its ranks for 2010.
In the past, that’s where the success would stop, a long list of drivers unable to take the next step into one of the sport’s top three series. But according to managing director of public affairs Marcus Jadotte, new initiatives should push drivers in the program over the hump sooner than you’d think.
“We are transitioning from a model that effectively outsourced individual driver development programs to an academy-style program,” he says. “A training program. All the drivers are going to be working together for both on- and off-track development.”
That’s a major change pushed forward with the hiring of former DEI exec Max Siegel, NASCAR’s newest diversity player who realized outsourcing left drivers unbalanced. Instead, he’s formed Revolution Racing with the former assets of Andy Santerre Motorsports, giving drivers and teams a central hub for equipment and funding while leveling the playing field for each driver to have an equal chance at success.
Siegel, who spent years marketing for Dale Earnhardt Jr., understands a modern need to tap every potential market for financial support. That’s why his future direction includes a reality show on BET for 2010 chronicling each driver’s struggles to reach the top — another avenue for sponsors to buy into the value of each driver as everyone tries to balance talent with that all-important marketability.
“As a kid from just outside New York City, I am unique,” says Harraka, whose D4D resume doesn’t just include 13 race wins at NASCAR’s lower levels — he’s also a sophomore at Duke University majoring in organizational behavior. “That provides a unique set of assets for a sponsor to leverage. And it works out well.”
For Gifford, it’s all about the off-track training, with the help he gets through both RCR and his expected assistance through the diversity program making his on-track success attractive to potential sponsors.
“For those 43 spots, they’re just looking for somebody that a company can be really well represented,” says the 20-year-old, who’s looking to be the first African-American to win at NASCAR’s top three levels since Wendell Scott in 1964. “$20-$30 million dollars to pay for some racing, they want somebody that’s going to be able to say their name every interview, and look good, and do the right things.”
“What we’re trying to do is create an environment where the driver’s talent will take them as far as their talent will take them,” Siegel says, stressing the importance of a well-rounded athlete. “Revolution Racing would like to play a major role in growing the fan base, developing drivers and contributing to the NASCAR ownership community.”
Yet with so many obstacles to overcome for young talent, the future remains somewhat uncertain. The key going forward, it seems, is for capping spending to be matched with patience from both car owners and the sponsors that support them — something that’s been lost in an era of “win at all costs.”
“I feel like some kids were kind of rushed into it and not really ready,” Gifford says, giving himself a timetable of three to five years before he thinks he could be successful on the Cup level. “It’s tough when you don’t have the seat time.”
But can the current crop of leaders remember that both frugality and patience are virtues? For in NASCAR’s current system, a complex web of private contractors and clouded leadership makes it difficult to pinpoint a catalyst for major change.
“It comes down to who’s going to take the lead,” says Davis. “Is it going to be the owners, is it going to be the drivers, or is it going to be NASCAR?
“The teams don’t want to take the lead because it’s pay as you go. NASCAR (hasn’t) taken the lead because I guess they’re happy with the status quo. Until you fix the business model where independent businesspeople want to come to your product and invest in the racing, you can’t really bring in new blood to the sport because the business model just isn’t there. It just isn’t.”
So while debate over a solution continues, we’re left with Danica as a short-term fix. She’ll enter 2010 an exception to the rule, her slate of marketing dollars and new breed of fans crucial to injecting new life into the sport. Yet with a grand total of zero stock car starts on her résumé, isn’t her success or failure more of a crapshoot than a development driver with a solid track record in a lower series?
We’re about to find out, as she joins the ranks of several other open-wheelers pulled in the face of weakening development from within the NASCAR ranks. Meanwhile, for hundreds more who won’t get to take that step, they watch in vain while another opportunity slips away.
“I’d like to race full-time, and I know I can do it,” says Clements, a familiar echo of so many sitting on the sidelines come Speedweeks. “I just have to be given a shot.”
But will he ever get it?
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Who’s to blame for the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard debacle? NASCAR, Goodyear, the teams … or a combination of all three?
The 2008 Allstate 400 at The Brickyard was, quite possibly, the biggest sham of a race ever staged by NASCAR. With tires that basically turned to dust after 12-to-15 laps on Indianapolis’ diamond-ground surface that failed to hold rubber (which increases grip), the event evolved into a series of heat races that were interrupted every 10-to-12 laps for competition cautions so teams could change tires.
In this case, blame has to be placed collectively, on all involved. Goodyear must bring a tire that is suitable for race conditions (or step aside and allow a provider that can to do so), the teams must reduce the radical camber settings being used to help the ill-handling school bus known as the Car of Tomorrow to turn, and at the end of the day, it’s NASCAR’s job, as the organization running the show on a day-to-day and race-to-race basis, to ensure that follies like this do not occur. After all, the buck stops with the sanctioning body.
Instead of an apology issued post-race from NASCAR to the fans for having to sit through the worst race of all time at the most storied track in existence, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, had the gall to say that, while there may have been some mistakes made, the “good fans” should realize that NASCAR usually gets it right: “Well, you know, if they’re good fans, they know that occasionally something like this will go on. You’d like to think that all of our races have something for somebody, right? (But) not everybody’s driver wins. Not everybody’s pit crew has the best stops. And not every race is a barn-burner. But the fact of the matter is we’ve got 43 teams that are competing at the same time. It’s OK. If you’re a good fan, (and) you don’t get what you want, it’s OK to be disappointed. You know, we can be disappointed right along with you.
“You know, we’re here to put on the best races we can, and we do a damn good job of it most of the time. Everybody inside of these walls works real hard to do that, all the competitors, all of our partners — Goodyear, the manufacturers — all of our officials do the best we can.”
Turning a blind eye to the problem and telling the fans, “Tough. Deal with it,” is the type of arrogance and impudence that turns people away. Pemberton and the sanctioning body finally issued an apology — two days later — after public outcry was such that it had no other choice.
Of course, fans who attended deserved a refund, but neither NASCAR nor the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would ever consider that.
2. Did NASCAR make the correct call following the fall Talladega race involving Tony Stewart and Regan Smith?
An unequivocal “no.” If NASCAR tells the drivers in the driver’s meeting — and this from NASCAR Director of Events David Hoots in the Talladega sit-down — that, “If you race below the yellow line and in the judgment of NASCAR you advance your position, you will be black-flagged,” then why hasn’t NASCAR consistently enforced the rule in the past? Moreover, why has it verbally contradicted itself on the matter?
Kyle Busch made a pass below the yellow line in last spring’s Talladega race, Johnny Benson made one coming to the checkers at Daytona in 2007, and — the most cited — Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a below-the-line pass with five to go at Talladega in 2003. All are instances of drivers advancing their position by going out of bounds in an event’s waning laps — and all are instances of a NASCAR no-call.
Moreover, NASCAR has always held fast that if a driver is forced below the yellow line, the pass may be allowed. It has also been widely accepted (even stated so by three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson) that on the final lap, anything goes. However, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications, Jim Hunter, stated that the control tower did not feel Smith was forced down, even though Stewart, in Victory Lane, admitted to doing so.
“You’re darn right I did. I’ve lost Daytona 500s, I’ve lost races here at Talladega because somebody blocked. That’s the name of the game. There’s always been people blocking.
“Trust me, I’ve got no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out.”
It worked out for Stewart, but Rookie of the Year Regan Smith was robbed of a win, and he likely lost his ride because of it.
3. Should the February California race have even started with a wet track and a clear-weathered Monday on the horizon?
As if racing at this two-mile snoozer isn’t bad enough, NASCAR ensured that one of its struggling tracks reached embarrassment status after failing to swallow the natural effects of Mother Nature. As rain kept falling on a Sunday, the powers that be simply freaked out due to the prospects of a Manic Monday. Scared of postponing an event 3,000 miles away from most teams’ home base in North Carolina — only to have to turn around and have a second West Coast race at Las Vegas the very next week — the sanctioning body simply lost all sense of reality. As a result, it was willing to inconvenience fans, ignore the weather radar, and — worst of all — put safety aside to run the start of a race when water was clearly leaking out from the track surface. The carnage that ensued — nearly half-a-dozen cars were destroyed in 40-odd laps of racing — was all due to the slick spots (known as “weepers”) that never fully dried.
After being forced to run both races on Monday anyway, NASCAR learned a long, hard lesson about the difficulties of scheduling West Coast races back-to-back. So, what did they do for 2009? Set things up exactly the same way.
4. Will “start and park” entries make their reappearance in the Cup fields this year?
As the economy worsens, many are concerned about short fields affecting the Cup Series in 2009. But what’s more likely to happen is an uglier phenomenon — the emergence of “start and park” teams whose only purpose of existence is to ride around for a few laps and collect a check.
This practice already thrives in the Nationwide Series, where at some races nearly a quarter of the starting field packs it in before the first pit stop. And as more unsponsored teams catch on to the idea of potential profit, you can expect that number to increase.
Of course, no one attends a race to see cars go at half speed and park it, but what’s disturbing is that NASCAR is failing to address the issue while letting prominent broadcasters like Phil Parsons own some of the start and park teams themselves.
It’s gotten to the point that they’re better off with 30-car fields that run to the finish, and that’s why it’s time to solve the problem and hold purse money for any car that voluntarily fails to finish at least half a race’s scheduled distance.
It’s a subjective policy that’ll be hard to enforce, but at this point, can we really afford to let these owners try to police themselves?
5. Is it a conflict of interest for a broadcaster to double as an owner?
NASCAR has had conflicts for decades involving television and on-track ties: One of the most famous calls in motorsports is Dale Jarrett’s father Ned calling the final lap of his 1993 Daytona 500 win. But family love is endearing; cheering for a car or a specific make because of a business association, and not a person, is an altogether different experience.
How is it possible to remain unbiased in the broadcast booth when the organization you’re pouring millions into is going for the lead on the racetrack? Or, if you’ve got a team struggling for that much-needed TV time, how can you keep your frustration silent during the 15 seconds that the car actually appears on screen?
You’d be a heartless soul not to have those natural reactions; and that would be fine if they weren’t in front of a national audience. Instead, as a broadcaster, you create a disparity between your coverage of those cars and the other 40 you’re supposed to praise and criticize equally, driving viewers nuts. Yet with the addition of Brad Daugherty into the Toyota-Michael Waltrip Racing fold in 2009, nearly a half-dozen announcers on FOX, SPEED and ESPN are deeply involved with a team in one of NASCAR’s top three series.
That’s something that needs to be changed.
6. Should Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been black-flagged for his passing of the pace car under caution en route to a win at Michigan in June?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was mired in a 76-race winless streak when he found himself leading late at Michigan in a fuel-mileage duel while under caution. In an effort to conserve fuel, Junior revved the engine, shut it off and coasted. The catch: He passed the pace car on multiple occasions to keep from losing momentum. That is a NASCAR no-no.
The NASCAR rulebook states in Rule 10-4-D that, “Cars may not pass the caution vehicle unless directed to do so by a NASCAR official. Any cars illegally passing the caution vehicle or race leader will be black-flagged or repositioned at the discretion of NASCAR officials.”
“At the discretion” being the key loophole phrase for which the sanctioning body is famous (or infamous). And while it seems Earnhardt broke the rule, the win he eventually earned was allowed to stand.
This situation is a letter-of-the-law/spirit-of-the-law type of ruling. The rule is put in place to prevent cars from high-tailing it down pit road and for safety purposes. Earnhardt pushed the rule to the limit, and in the end, the spirit of the law was invoked.
It was a rather ticky-tack violation — and one that was not worthy of having a win stripped. But the larger problem lies in the fact that NASCAR continues to write rules in a manner that leaves said rules open to interpretation; a rule should be a rule with no wiggle room. Until that happens, NASCAR will continue to open itself up to criticism.
7. Does Toyota really have a horsepower advantage in the Cup Series, as some have suggested?
It has been known that NASCAR’s chassis dynometer tests — the results of which are never officially made public — have shown that Toyota does, in fact, have a slight horsepower advantage in its Sprint Cup entries. However, the advantage is not a significant one — certainly not one that turned it into a championship-winning entry (the highest-finishing Toyota team in the points standings was Denny Hamlin’s, in eighth).
And if Toyota does have an advantage, more power to it. Toyota has made a decision to throw more dollars and resources into its engine packages than the Big Three; therefore, it’s bound to have some sort of advantage. What Chevy, Ford and Dodge must do is work harder in the engine department to close the gap. This sport was founded on ingenuity and getting as much out of an engine or any other moving piece as one could, so why limit a team or a manufacturer for trying to out-do the next guy?
NASCAR already has a spec car (and some would argue spec drivers). The last thing it needs is a spec engine.
8. What happens next with the Mauricia Grant Lawsuit?
Nothing. Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled last October that the case would remain in Manhattan for trial. However, Grant and the sanctioning body settled the $225 million sexual and racial discrimination lawsuit out of court in December. NASCAR averted a further PR hit in doing so, as other men and women were expected to come forward with their own tales of discrimination as evidence.
Terms of the agreement remain confidential, and both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the details of the case or the terms of the agreement. In settling out of court, neither NASCAR nor Grant admits wrongdoing.
Going forward, NASCAR must move past its good ol’ boy ways within the garage area if it intends to be considered as a legitimate sport alongside the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Many of the specific incidents Grant listed were not only embarrassing, but also appalling — and would be so in any line of work.
The wink-wink, nudge-nudge culture has to change. This is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry the France family has created, not a 38-week bachelor party.
9. Is the lack of manufacturer identification with the common car adversely affecting the sport?
If you’re a new fan, here’s how to find out: Go to YouTube and search for a classic NASCAR clip from the 1980s or ’90s. Not only were trends like single-car teams and side-by-side racing in style, but the appearances of the cars were also stunning. Pontiacs, for example, had that special slanted nose, which looked definitively smaller than the Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobiles.
Now, take a look at a race from 2008 and try to tell the difference among the Cars of Tomorrow. Sure, technically each one has a different nose approved by the manufacturer, but how can you even notice with that ugly looking splitter jutting out across the front? Add on the erector-set-inspired rear wing, and these things look more like something from a European sports car series than something you’d see out on the street.
Here’s the problem: NASCAR’s popularity growth was based on the fact that people could dream of racing their own cars at 200 miles per hour — because they looked like what they saw on TV. Without that kinship, manufacturers have a tougher sell to make connections to their product — and fans might find it harder to make a connection to the sport. No wonder the Big Three had a private meeting with the sport demanding change — or else — last summer.
10. What was the point of NASCAR’s “Come to Jesus” Meeting at Michigan?
Brian France started and ended 2008 with the same public message: Drivers need to show more emotion. In fact, he went so far as to indicate that three-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson’s personality wasn’t compelling enough to get more fans to jump on board.
How ironic that France very neatly left out the repercussions of the sport’s midseason meeting, in which drivers were taken to the woodshed for “speaking out” against NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow. The message sent without cameras present was far less rosy: Speaking your mind is fine, as long as it doesn’t anger the powers that be.
Only two weeks earlier, at Pocono, complaints from the drivers reached their peak, when they ran to live mikes to grumble about everything from heat inside the car, to race length, to handling issues. NASCAR had heard enough from its millionaire drivers who, in the end, are supported by the working-class, blue-collar fan who buys tickets on a weekly basis — even when, at the time, gas was spiking to a mid-summer high of more than $4.00 per gallon.
However, it seems that NASCAR’s message inspired Stalin-esque fear, not creativity. How does a private smackdown encourage drivers, already fearful of losing sponsorship over something blown out of proportion, to be themselves? One Chase driver said in December that he didn’t even know where to draw the line anymore regarding what you can and can’t say.
So, if NASCAR doesn’t want more vanilla, it’s going to need to back off the ice cream tray and allow a whole lot of different flavors to be picked — whether it likes it or not. And for a series that has taken points from drivers for using four-letter words on national television, it’s far easier said than done.
11. Is NASCAR’s amended drug policy adequate in light of Truck Series driver Aaron Fike’s admission last April that he raced while under the influence of heroin?
In a word, yes. The sanctioning body amended its “reasonable suspicion/probable cause” stance to outline a long-overdue, hard and fast policy. The amended policy mandates that all drivers in NASCAR’s three national series be tested prior to the start of the 2009 season. Team owners must also verify that all licensed crew members have been tested by a certified lab prior to the start of the season. In addition, NASCAR will test its officials prior to the start of the 2009 season. Drivers, over-the-wall crew members and NASCAR officials thereafter will be subject to random tests throughout the year.
The troubling part was that it took an admission such as this by a driver to enact a policy.
It took four on-track fatalities to get some major safety initiatives enacted after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. One would have thought that someone in Daytona would realize — particularly when the sport’s drivers were pining for it — that the “drug issue” was something that should have been dealt with long before now.
Most people within the sport will tell you there is not a drug problem in NASCAR — and there most likely is not. However, some guy admitted to being geeked-up on smack while racing, which, as it turns out, is a huge problem. Some, including NASCAR, believed there was no reason to be proactive on the issue. We believe there was no reason not to be.
12. Should the sport take on a new tire manufacturer?
Absolutely. After a year filled with several horrific performances by Goodyear, now is the perfect time for someone to step in and give NASCAR’s exclusive tire provider a run for its money. Not that it’s all Goodyear’s fault; when NASCAR built the Car of Tomorrow, apparently it forgot the old adage that you can’t race a car effectively without, um, four wheels underneath.
But while the tire manufacturer was put behind the eight ball with the handling and weight changes of the new car, they haven’t done the greatest of jobs catching up — especially on intermediate tracks, where even side-by-side meccas like Atlanta have fallen prey to rubber that struggles to grip the race track (and we won’t even bring up Indianapolis again).
With the Car of Tomorrow just now entering its second full season, someone like Michelin, Hoosier or Bridgestone wouldn’t be that far behind the curve and could come in with the enthusiasm and creativity needed for improvement. Of course, one could argue that two different manufacturers pushing it to the ragged edge would create a safety issue. But isn’t the sad reality of Goodyear sitting on its butt and failing to fix things just as unsafe?
13. What did we learn from ABC’s coverage switch of the November Phoenix race to America’s Funniest Videos?
Maybe that NASCAR is still not ready for prime time — or that it’s past its prime. It’s ironic that the sanctioning body and the networks continue to push coverage of the races later and later into the day in hopes of capturing the ideal demographic just prior to prime-time programming. However, once a race actually goes into a prime-time slot — this one was moved to ESPN2 at 7:28 pm EST on a Sunday — it’s quickly transferred to a cable channel within the network’s family.
These types of details are hammered out in the multi-million dollar contracts the networks sign with the sport for broadcast rights, so NASCAR was aware of the likelihood of this happening at some point. The fact that it happened during the Chase’s penultimate event — at a point when Carl Edwards was still mathematically eligible to stage a come-from-behind championship win — made the ego-bruise all the more painful for NASCAR loyalists.
If ABC is to continue to bill itself as the “Home of the Chase for the Championship,” it should act like it is, in fact, a true home.
And America’s Funniest Videos?! Has the sport sunk so low on the nation’s radar that ABC believes yet another wiffle ball to the groin is more compelling than the playoffs of a major sports league? Answer: It evidently is, because AFV’s ratings were actually higher than the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
That, folks, hurts like a wiffle ball to the groin.
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
As Jimmie Johnson wrapped up his third straight championship in 2008, he stood alone on the precipice of a dynasty in the Chase era. As Johnson and co-owner Rick Hendrick sat at the head table at the Waldorf-Astoria last December, they provided Exhibit A in how to succeed in the sport of NASCAR this decade.
But in the face of declining TV ratings and economic uncertainty, the team’s record-setting performances haven’t been enough to sustain the sport’s growth in recent years. Coinciding with Johnson’s excellence has been a subtler, more disturbing trend towards consolidation of power in the Sprint Cup Series — one that has as much to do with who’s holding the checkbook as who’s sitting in the driver’s seat. Occurring at a time when changes — the introduction of the sport’s new car, the testing ban and a pending limit to four-car teams — are supposedly working to bring parity and increased competition, a small group of powerful men is quietly rising above and reaching a level of dominance the likes of which this sport has never seen.
A look at last year’s points standings shows that the top 13 finishers were owned by Hendrick and three other men: Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs. Their drivers accounted for 32 wins in 36 races, accumulating 261 of 360 top-10 finishes (73 percent). Composed of 15 individual teams in 2008, the group known simply as the “Big Four” put up its highest totals of the decade in an environment that’s looking more and more like their personal playground. Only two other teams won a race last season — Penske Racing and Gillett Evernham Motorsports — and both have at least three cars in their stable. Forget single-car teams winning a race: Heading into this year’s Daytona 500, no remaining organization planning to field two cars or fewer on the Sprint Cup circuit has won since Dale Jarrett won for Yates at Talladega in the fall of 2005.
The sport finds itself struggling with a shrinking middle class. There’s parity, alright, but only at the top, condensed amongst a select group of owners in position to keep collecting the financial resources they need due to consistent on-track success. Of course, that’s not to say every individual in the “Big Four” hasn’t earned his place in the sun. For Hendrick, it’s been a two-decade-plus climb to reach the pinnacle through carefully selecting not one, but two Hall of Fame drivers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. For Childress, it’s been a decade of rebuilding following the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. Gibbs is an NFL Hall of Famer turned racing genius, with exactly the type of management style to successfully corral “wild men” like Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. And then there’s Roush, whose one-car beginnings with Mark Martin in 1988 evolved into a five-team dynasty in which every one of his racers made the Chase in 2005.
“Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t what it is today 15 years ago,” says Red Bull Racing GM Jay Frye, regarding the current champs. Frye worked deals with Hendrick for chassis and engine support while helping run the middle-class MB2 Motorsports team for over a decade. “But they’ve done a great job hiring the right people. They’ve done a great job hiring the right drivers. They’ve done a great job with their sponsors. You look at the sponsors that Hendrick Motorsports has, they don’t leave. They’ve done a great job with the business-to-business aspect of the sport. That’s what it’s supposed to look like. And if you do that, you’re going to be successful. That’s great. That’s America, man.”
“There’s just a lot of adjustments you make,” adds Childress driver Kevin Harvick, whose owner is in an enviable position as the only owner to place all his drivers in the Chase two years running. “I think Richard’s been the best at it through the years as far as adjusting his business to however the environment of the sport is leaning to. You know, how it just needed to be treated at that particular moment in the ’80s, to the ’90s, to the 2000s.”
No question, these men have worked hard to adapt, landing on the top rung of Sprint Cup success for their efforts. But as the sport and the country begin to suffer from a tightening economy, to those victors go all the spoils. In a time of financial uncertainty, money appears to be funneling rapidfire from the struggling teams to the ones who’ve proved they can survive.
Take Childress’ operation, for example. Needing a sponsor to replace sudden NASCAR no-no AT&T, the car owner wasted no time last spring snagging Caterpillar as a replacement for the No. 31 Chevy driven by Jeff Burton. That came just months after announcing he’d be one of the few teams to expand next season, bringing a fourth car into his stable full-time with the backing of longtime NASCAR sponsor General Mills.
It’s the concept of “survival of the fittest” at work; but as RCR celebrates its good fortune, those marketing coups allow it to beat down opponents before even stepping foot on the race track. After being associated with Bill Davis Racing for nearly a decade, Caterpillar’s departure caused the end of the team’s Sprint Cup operation after 15 years of competition. That’s because unlike other major sports, NASCAR owners are like private contractors, with no protection from the sanctioning body should they fall into debt or lose sponsorship support. That “hands off” attitude used to allow the garage to remain the epitome of the American Dream — even today, all you need is a car, a crew and a driver with a NASCAR license to participate. But when times are tough, there is no golden parachute to save you. In a matter of days, a legendary team could wind up as broke as some of today’s retirement victims suffering from bad investment portfolios they had waited a lifetime to use.
The current plight of those longtime NASCAR operations came to a head with Childress’ swipe of General Mills. Petty Enterprises, the lone NASCAR team remaining from the sport’s inaugural season of 1949, went under after failing to find a replacement for a sponsor that had been with them since 2000. Despite a series-leading 268 wins, the two-car organization was unable to sell itself as a viable alternative to the Big Four, even after bringing in a cash infusion from midseason investor Boston Ventures. Just six months after attempting to stabilize the future of the organization, new CEO David Zucker and Co. were looking to simply salvage their investment at fire-sale prices.
“No one is patient these days,” says former NFL agent turned prospective NASCAR team owner Rick Clark, who has been trying to get into the sport for the last few years, working with several investment groups to purchase and/or start an organization in the Cup and Nationwide Series. “Everybody wants to come in and be at the A game as opposed to building it over a period of time. So, now the pressure that you see with these private equity firms, they have got to show a profit back to their investors, or it’s not a good deal. And they want to get out from under those kinds of deals (if it’s not working right away).
“The most storied and most successful race teams have been ones that have been family generated, where there’s a genuine love of the sport. Now, you’ve got an environment where there’s an expectation there’s got to be an immediate and measurable return, or it’s not successful.”
That concern immediately trickled down to the Pettys, who were unable to turn around a decade of disappointment. Even the hiring of 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte gave the team only a handful of top-5 finishes in three years on the job. With such a poor track record, there’s some question about whether NASCAR should step in and save an operation, when that displays clear favoritism. It’s that type of fallout that made CEO Brian France announce publicly in November the sport would refuse to step in to save teams just for the sake of saving them.
“They’re individual businesses,” he says of the teams in divisions all over the country that have either closed down or scaled back for 2009. “And there are literally hundreds of them that can be affected, depending on how far you would go in our national series, different teams starting up or exiting all the time. So, we’re not talking about 20 or 25 traditional sports teams where some halo credit line could be established for them. That’s not practical.”
But if NASCAR doesn’t step in, one wonders whether the biggest challenge in 2009 will become filling a 43-car field. Already, the series has seen mergers and consolidations that included Chip Ganassi and Dale Earnhardt, Inc., joining forces — dropping two full-time cars off the roster. With the Pettys’ merger and as many as a half-dozen other teams in danger of folding, only 35 or 36 full-time machines are a real possibility.
How does the Big Four fit into that scenario? Simple: Their consistent, overwhelming success has devalued other competitors to the point that sponsors are unwilling or unable to pay the price to keep them on the racetrack.
“It reminds us that this is a performance sport,” says NASCAR veteran Burton. “If you don’t have the performance then your time here — no matter who you are — can be short-lived. The sport’s hard. Once the ball starts rolling down, it’s hard to stop it. Your funding gets less, the willingness of employees becomes less — it’s hard to slow that down.”
During the sport’s last downturn — a delayed dry-up in funds following 9/11 — the series eventually bounced back due to Toyota’s entrance. But this time around, there’s no auto manufacturer waiting in the wings with the type of cash infusion needed to start even a single-car team these days — as it is, the viability of GM, Ford and Dodge are in question due to a pending bailout plan from the federal government designed to save them from bankruptcy.
That leaves a gap of perhaps tens of millions of dollars between those on top and those trying to start from scratch. And with that, there’s concern as to whether new owners can compete with them before they even get to the starting grid.
“It would be a lot harder today than it was then,” says Frye, who helped start MB2 in 1997 as a one-car operation. “Could it be done? Yes. Could you be successful? Yes. But you’d have to have a little luck involved.
“Part of the problem is recruiting talent. Well, if you’re a top crew chief, top tire changer, are you going to take the risk of going to some one-car team somewhere who’s just starting when you can be at one of these elite teams that have had a history of being around? Hendrick’s been there for 25 years; people don’t feel the risk of something going wrong there. (On the other hand), a new one-car team would obviously create some issues, I’m sure, for some people.”
Toyota was able to overcome those concerns by simply throwing extra cash at crew members in order to get them to jump ship. But for a new prospective investor or owner, that type of extra money is harder to come by in these lean economic times. And with sponsorship now approaching levels never before seen in the sport — Roush signed Aflac for Carl Edwards to the tune of $26 million over the next three years — raising the capital to even compete with the Big Four is approaching nearly impossible levels.
“There’s so many advantages to having a multi-car team as far as being able to subsidize through sponsorship,” says veteran driver Bill Elliott, who has been trying to keep the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 above water for the last two seasons. “You have a better opportunity to keep good drivers and good crew guys because you have multiple resources.”
Of course, sometimes even the resources for the “middle class” come from the very teams who are dominating above them. As teams like Hendrick’s have achieved high levels of success, they’ve also dipped into the equipment supply business, distributing engines and chassis support to a wide variety of clients — including current two-car team Stewart-Haas Racing. While a legitimate means of gaining extra cash, it’s a questionable maneuver that’s caught the eye of fans and officials who wonder whether such a move promotes fair competition.
For the record, Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs, who all deliver equipment to other owners, insist everything is created equal.
“We had 100 percent confidence that we were getting the same stuff that every one of their other cars were,” Frye says of a chassis and engine agreement that was in place for several years with MB2. “So, it was never an issue. We were proud of our relationship. Great ethics, great morals.”
“From our standpoint, it’s just two more variables of the budget that we don’t have to create for ourselves,” adds Stewart. “It just eliminates some of the human resources that we have to have at Stewart-Haas to do it ourselves.”
Just don’t tell Stewart about the uphill battle he’s facing. It’s notable that no team receiving chassis or engine support from the Big Four has made the Chase in its five years of existence.
So if the reach of the Big Four is getting out of hand, what can be done to increase parity? Two words: cutting costs. In NASCAR’s defense, it’s tried to do just that, neutralizing resources late last season by taking unprecedented steps, such as a testing ban designed to keep the bigger teams from using their extra cash to travel all over the country each week and test. NASCAR hopes the ban keeps them from developing an additional edge on the new car. For a brief time, it looked like it would work; a rumored document appeared to be circulating among the top car owners, all of whom were ready to pledge to stay at home.
That era of good feelings lasted, oh, about three weeks — until Hendrick and others discovered Rockingham Speedway was not on the “do not go” list. No longer a NASCAR-sanctioned track, the facility may become a testing haven for organizations that have the money to keep moving forward in the offseason.
“The way I look at it, we’ll be going to Rockingham every week now so as long as we can get tires,” says Gordon. “Which means it comes down to NASCAR and Goodyear to control that. We shouldn’t have fresh tires to go to Rockingham for two days when the purpose of the testing is just that, no testing. And that’s for cost as well as competition, in my opinion. That’s something that should be enforced.”
So, as the big-money teams find ways to circumvent the rule, NASCAR’s lower class tries to figure out how to survive the winter. At this point, it’s not out of the question to see only a dozen full-time car owners by the time Daytona rolls around. Is that enough to sustain the sport? For some, the answer is yes.
“Our sport is better off — it’s safer, it’s more secure, the sponsors are better represented by having a limited number of car owners that understand what it takes to be successful in this sport,” says Burton. “I don’t think that our sport is wrong because we may have 12 car owners — I don’t think 30 car owners make our sport better than having 12. I don’t see it. Now, wouldn’t it be great if a Harry Hyde-type guy can put a team together, and come out and race with Rick Hendrick? It’s a glamorous idea. But if we had 43 car owners individually run and individually operated, overall I don’t think our sport is better off for that.”
That won’t prevent men like Clark from trying to buck the consolidation trend. He’s trying to break through with a multi-faceted plan that ties in fashion and entertainment through a movie deal and his company’s own clothing line.
“Had I come in the traditional way, I would not have investor interest,” he says. “Because the pressure would have been to perform, perform, perform, and how do you compare, compare, compare to the mega-teams. But by coming in and bringing a new face to the sport and a new market segment to the sport, the investors, they see the other vertical opportunities that don’t exist with even some of the major teams that are there that we bring to the table.”
The longer only four owners and their drivers stay entrenched at the top, there’s a question as to whether the fans will accept the cars within their stables as individual teams or simply view them as four men with a bunch of expensive toys rotating who’s got the best car in their stable.
“The negative is when we start focusing on Hendrick winning rather than Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin winning,” Burton says. “But in the environment that we’re in today, (almost) all the multi-car team ownerships have individual sponsorships.
“Look at where we are. We have General Mills. We have Caterpillar. We have Sunoco. We have Jack Daniel’s. Each one of those sponsors expects Richard Childress to give that team 100 precent effort, to do the best they can. So, it isn’t like we’re going to stop the world so just the No. 07 can win races or just the No. 29 can win races. We have to build four competitive teams.”
This much we know: The Big Four have the money and resources to remain competitive for years. It’s whether the rest of the competition has the money it will need to stay in the battle. And if it doesn’t, NASCAR’s hand may be forced.
Maybe we should have taken more time to assess Joe Paterno’s legacy. But in the age of Fox News and Twitter, what we should have done does not matter.
Death compels us to reflect on life.
In the internet age, the death of any celebrity spurs us to give his or her Wikipedia page a read, to listen closely to a song, to do anything else that allows us to briefly and concisely surmise what Heavy D, or Michael Jackson, or Sidney Pollack meant to the world and whether his death was worth lingering upon.
But what happens when everything we know is not validated by death—but instead, is sullied by life? When legacy goes up in flames, we cannot simply peruse a resume and say to ourselves, “Wow, despite all her faults, Amy Winehouse was truly an incredible talent.” Witnessing a reputation disintegrate is far more complicated than regretting having not paid closer attention to Richard Pryor’s comedy.
When a man dies, his work lives. When legacy dies and man lives, we are left with impossible ruin, forced to reconcile everything we knew with everything we now know.
Such is the case in the death of Joe Paterno, the coach. Joe Paterno, the man, persists. Now nearly 85 years old, and despite his recent diagnosis with a treatable form of lung cancer, he is, by all accounts, as lucid and “spunky” as ever.
But Joe, the coach – the former Brooklynite who is the winningest coach in college football’s history; the man whose countless histories, profiles and biographies read like one of Homer’s epics; the patriarchal figure, who, for more than half a century, was not just synonymous with Penn State football, but Penn State itself—that man is gone. And he’s never coming back.
Joe Posansnki is a writer for Sports Illustrated and the official biographer of Joe Paterno. He is also, by many accounts (including my own) the best sportswriter alive. Contracted to write JoePa’s definitive history several years ago, Posansnki moved away from his family to State College, PA, for the 2011 football season. In his words:
“I came here to write about one of the giants of sports. And my wife and I both felt that the only way to tell the story, for better and worse, was to be around it every day.”
Posnanski got his wish, but in a way that he – and the public – could never have anticipated. He was able to witness firsthand the inexorable fall of one of our society’s greatest contemporary heroes. And then, afterwards, he was forced to survey his intellectual rubble, which only grew as shock, confusion and sadness all took hold, then amalgamated, spread and infected.
As Paterno’s official biographer, Posnanski had no choice but to respond to the news. And he did, eloquently – although perhaps misguidedly, in The End of Paterno, a piece published on his personal blog.
The End of Paterno reads startlingly similarly to 2009’s “Top of the World, Pa!” a 4,300 word feature Posnanski wrote in the form of a love letter to Angelo Paterno, Joe’s late father. The situations surrounding each of the two pieces, however, could not have been more different: when Top of the World was published on October 26, 2009, the Nittany Lions were 8-1 amid incessant calls for Paterno to step down. Yet, even when faced with his current bleakness, Posnanski’s writing is permeated by the emotion Paterno so persistently evokes.
Top of the World, like almost all Paterno profiles, is filled with anecdotes of the Nittany Lion’s devotion to his players, of his formative experiences and of words of wisdom from the man himself. It is written like an epigraph, as Posnanski relays a conversation Joe Paterno once had with his son Jay, now an assistant coach for the Lions:
“You’ll understand, once you have kids, that life changes. You’ll find that your happiness is defined by your least happy child. You’ll understand. Every player we have, someone—maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone—poured their life and soul into that young man. They are handing that young man off to us. They are giving us their treasure, and it’s our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world.”
Posnanski relays a stark image of a patriarchal figure. But as far as the writer is concerned, JoePa isn’t merely lending his son a guiding hand: he is showing the entire country how to live its life. We must look beyond the surface. We must keep football in its proper perspective. We must keep life in its proper, more prominent perspective.
Posnanski is almost always emotional but rarely loses his iron grip on logic. That’s why his writing is so compelling and what makes his reaction to Paterno’s downfall even more so.
The Court of Public Opinion (read: the media) wields only one of two verdicts in response to celebrity crime: not guilty or lethal injection. We decide either that domestic murder nullifies all of OJ Simpson’s achievements or that Don King, after stomping a man to death over $600, is worthy of forgiveness. The only middle ground lies in determining just how long a celebrity suffers on death row. Does fame suddenly morph into infamy? Or does it slowly become engulfed by darkness, eventually rusting enough that the original luster has become completely obscured?
Just like everyone else, Posnanski—the passionate man’s rationalist—is shaken by shocking and sudden change.
But in the End of Paterno, Posnanski has an entirely different point of view. After explicitly stating three important points (that Paterno was at least partly responsible for Sandusky’s atrocities, that he could no longer be permitted to coach the football team, and that none of that was remotely important as Sandusky’s victims), Posnanski continues, “I’m not saying I know Joe Paterno. I’m saying I know a whole lot about him,” he says. “And what I know is complicated. But, beyond complications — and I really believe this with all my heart — there’s this, and this is exclusively my opinion: Joe Paterno has lived a profoundly decent life.”
When legacy dies and man lives, we experience a ‘recoding,’ but one that happens almost immediately instead of being manifested over generations. Joe Posnanski knew everything about Joe Paterno. And then, suddenly, he didn’t.
Penn State students knew that Joe Paterno was a god. Many students knew he was the defining reason why they decided to attend the university. Then suddenly, he wasn’t.
What is Penn State without Joe Paterno, the man who boosted the university’s endowment north of $1,500,000,000? When Joe Paterno first became an assistant coach for the Nittany Lions in 1950, the school announced they expected to have an enrollment of 18,000 by 1970. Today, Penn State University Park enrolls nearly 45,000 students annually.
The largest difficulty in interpreting Joe Paterno’s legacy lies in how it was destroyed. Often, we assess a celebrity’s crime in respect to his image. In 2000, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was found guilty of obstruction of justice in a double murder. Yet today – due to his renown as one of the NFL’s most aggressive defenders and his militaristic demeanor – Lewis is so well-liked it almost seems as if the high-profile arrest, indictment and conviction ever happened.
Has anyone ever batted an eye when a rapper went on trial for firearm possession, drug use, or even murder?
But in the case of Paterno, it’s hard to imagine we have ever seen such a thorough and diametric deconstruction of a man’s image.
For 60 years, JoePa was a great football coach who also happened to be a great man. He allegedly proved these qualities were not mutually exclusive. Entrusted with the fates of thousands of young men, his true charge was not to win football games; instead he looked to help young men win at life. He was a living, breathing sports movie cliché. An impossible ideal, actualized.
So, on the surface, Posnanski’s reaction is infinitely more rational than most. He is able to draw a line in the sand, to say Yes, what Joe Paterno did was horribly and terribly wrong. But that doesn’t unmake a man. Joe made a morally criminal mistake and should be reprimanded as such. But 62 years of greatness runs parallel, not perpendicular. You should no longer be able to look at Joe Paterno without thinking of Jerry Sandusky and his victims, but that shouldn’t be all you think of.
Maybe this is how it should be, but it is not how it is – even for Posnanski.
“I don’t know anything about Paterno’s role in this,” he writes, stressing the need to sit back and wait for the details to come out. “But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong – a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill.”
Unfortunately for Posnanski and for Paterno, The Court of Public Opinion is always open. “We are in a top-you world,” he laments, “where everyone is not only trying to report something faster but is also trying to report something ANGRIER.”
In this ‘top-you’ world, individual opinion exists but becomes lost in a ‘howling.’ Even something as eloquently-written as End of Paterno, penned by a source with nearly unparalleled knowledge of the subject, is drowned out by the influence of Fox & Friends and Hardball.
‘Top-You’ is driven by a trickle-down effect. “One guy wants Joe Paterno to resign, the next wants him to be fired, the next wants him to be fired this minute, the next wants him to be fired and arrested, the next wants him to be fired, arrested and jailed, on and on, until we’ve lost sight of who actually committed the crimes here.” But as this attitude grips the public, individual voices become increasingly difficult to discern. “I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.”
Here, Posnanski digs his argument’s grave, perhaps even purposefully. He understands that it does not matter whether or not his point of view is ‘correct’ – if there could even be anything ‘correct’ in this mess. But that is not going to stop him from dreading the status quo. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the only thing that matters is the volume of your voice. As Posnanski suggests, say something loud enough and you will be heard. And listened to. Especially if you have a big enough mountain — or sound stage — to howl from.
Attempt to be rational in a room filled to capacity with anger? Never. The one will always be drowned out by the many. It doesn’t matter how righteous or wrong each side is; slander be damned, collective memory inevitably trumps individual knowledge. All Posnanski asks is that we attempt to decipher Paterno’s legacy instead of instantly incinerating it. Too bad no one can hear him.
Jesse Golomb is the lead writer and creator of TheFanManifesto. Follow him on twitter.
Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual
It was a tale of two seasons for Brad Keselowski, NASCAR’s Bad Boy in training. Following in the footsteps of fellow “evildoer” Kyle Busch, the sport’s most aggressive understudy won a Nationwide Series championship while balancing his first full-time big league commitment with Penske Racing. But that Saturday success never carried over to Sunday, as a season topped with just two 10th-place runs led to a deflating, 25th-place finish as a Cup “rookie.” In fact, most will remember 2010 not for those failures but for the flip seen ’round the world — a Carl Edwards retaliation shot at Atlanta in March that turned Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge upside down and led other drivers to proclaim that “he had it coming.”
But don’t expect those negative opinions to rattle a driver who’s the star of his own show, never afraid to say what he thinks in a world where political correctness is often a prerequisite for success.
Athlon Sports: If someone had told you at the beginning of the year you’d win a Nationwide championship but earn zero top-5 finishes in Cup what would your reaction have been?
Keselowski: Well, at least we got something out of the year. But it wasn’t enough. We’ve got to keep working.
That title was something you worked so hard to earn in two years with JR Motorsports, only to see it taken away by Cup guys. Now, in your first year running Cup full-time you’ve done the same thing to promising up-and-comers, including former teammate Justin Allgaier. Justify your run to the championship considering you’ve already moved on to the major leagues.
To me, it’s as simple as I never got bitter because I didn’t win it those two years (as the top Nationwide-only driver). I felt like we put in a great effort, but we never deserved to win it. It’s as simple as that. When I had the opportunity to win it, and to get with a great team at Penske Racing — I had a great team at JR Motorsports, don’t get me wrong — but I had an even better team this year … I felt like it was my chance to turn the tables. Since I didn’t feel bad the two years I didn’t win it, I feel good the year I did win it.
Do you feel like other drivers are losing out on opportunities because you, Carl Edwards, etc., are in the Nationwide Series?
No. And that’s the key part. Nobody seems to understand that. Let me tell you why: They’re not losing out, because if we weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there either. It’s just that simple. Without us, and without Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer before I got in, I wouldn’t have made it to the Nationwide Series. I’d still be in the Truck Series.
I spent all of my career, up until the end of 2007, in the Truck Series. And let me tell you what: It’s a hard world to make a living in — a very hard world to make a living in. It’s because of the Nationwide Series having the Cup drivers that there’s a possibility for all of the others to move up. And they can find a sponsor to compete against them … We’re not taking them away. It’s hard to explain. But there’s a place for everybody to run. There’s a place for everyone throughout the sport, whether it’s the very bottom level or towards the top. To say you took an opportunity away from someone is just not a fair statement.
You’ve made much of the fact that running the Nationwide Series establishes a foundation for future Cup success. Was that the plan all along, to take guys like Paul Wolfe and groom them for roles at the major league level?
Yeah, the plan all along was to take those star people that are on your team, whether it’s mechanics or fabricators — who knows what position. It could even be sponsors, great sponsors, and give them the opportunity to move up. That is one of the things that’s lost in that whole equation — yeah, Paul is being moved up, but so is Ruby Tuesday’s. Ruby Tuesday’s is now a sponsor on my Cup car. So, we create a foundation for success on all frontiers of our NASCAR program through the Nationwide program. Paul is the easy example, but there are so many. And it’s good to reward yourself for those fruits of labor.
Do you feel like this could be the template going forward for young drivers, in order for them to succeed at the Cup level? They stay in Nationwide even though they’re running full-time in Cup … until they get their feet wet at the top level?
Undoubtedly. There’s not a question in my mind that this is the template as the sport sits right now. I don’t see anyone breaking it.
OK, explain to someone how you can go out and dominate a race on Saturday, then run 35th in a Cup race the following day with the same organization.
That’s a great question. This sport is about teamwork and chemistry, and there are times where it’s there and there are times where it’s not. There are times when you consistently have it, and there are times where you consistently don’t. We had it on the Nationwide side for the majority of the year — not every week, but consistently I’d say we did. And on the Cup side, we consistently did not have it. Combine that with the harder level of competition that there is on the Cup side, and it was a recipe for a disastrous year.
When you came over to Roger Penske, you said, “We’ve both got to change. We can’t just be, ‘Cause we’re different, we’re going to have our natural differences. We’re going to have to work together, and it can’t be on one end. It can’t be where I change and adapt to them, and it can’t be where they adapt to me. We have to be in the middle and work together that way.’” How do you feel you’ve changed your car owner in the 12 months you’ve been a part of this program? And how has he changed you?
That’s a great question. I’ve certainly had a commitment to my team that’s grown to the point where I understand way more about the sponsorship role, the sacrifices and investments that are made from those sponsors which still somewhat exceed my understanding. But I have an appreciation for them that I didn’t have before, and a harder work ethic for my sponsors than what I’ve ever had before. That’s one of the largest ways I’ve changed, which I think is all good from that standpoint.
From the Penske standpoint, it’s allowing the driver to be a leader within the company. I didn’t feel like that was necessarily the case before, but I can tell you with recent events over just the last few weeks in November alone, that’s the way the company’s heading and why I feel so good about 2011.
When people say the word ‘Penske,’ that’s synonymous with IndyCar. You’ve talked about dabbling in open-wheel. With all the changes coming to that series, do you see an Indy 500 in your future, and if so, when?
I do. If Roger would allow me to, I would jump all over it. But only if I was capable of winning at the Cup level and only after I was capable of winning at the Cup level. I would love to run the Indy 500, but I can’t knowingly say I can make a commitment to do it until I’ve gotten to where I can win at the Cup level with some frequency. We’re not there yet, so my focus is solely on the Cup side until we can get to that level.
If there’s one thing you’re missing that’s needed to bring the speed to Cup in 2011, what would that be and why?
That’s a tough question. I think we need a complete understanding of the way the front end of our cars work. That’s what we need to find speed.
Does the new nose on the Cup cars help or hurt you?
That’s an unknown for us at this point.
Other than a few incidents with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch this year, you spent 2010 largely under the radar on the Cup side. What did you learn about the sport being able to take a step back and watch the Sunday media circus from the outside?
Not much more than what I had known before. You learn about the little quirks, and so forth. Nothing dramatic.
Probably the fact, more than anything else, that the media continues to love drama more than necessarily performance or significance. It’s kind of strange. I say that in regards to the Jeff Gordon/Jeff Burton fight at Texas, which seemed to get equal attention to Jimmie Johnson setting a record of a fifth straight championship two weeks later.
Interesting. Do you think the media’s perpetuating the Jimmie Johnson negativity then? By not giving the man what you claim is his just due?
They sure have struggled to focus on it, and give it the press it deserves. Most notable thing about Jimmie, to be quite honest, the last few years I didn’t respect what Jimmie did either, until this year. Because quite honestly, over the last few years simply taking the best team and winning with it, there’s not a lot to be said for that. The only thing you can say for that is, ‘You didn’t screw it up.’
But this year, Johnson did not have the fastest racecars, he did not have the best team, but he found a way to win the championship — the first time I’ve seen him do that in all his championships. It’s what makes it so special, and the fact the media can’t wrap their arms around that is sad. It’s damaging to the sport.
After everything you’ve been through, you’ve had incidents with Kyle, Carl, Denny Hamlin … quite a few people in the garage area. If there’s one person out there where you’re in position to gain revenge on them, who’s that going to be and why?
(Laughs) I can’t tell you that one. Sorry.
Being known as an aggressive driver, does that help or hurt your popularity? Does it cause any extra hoops to jump through getting girls?
I think it probably hurts my popularity in the short run, but in the long run I think it’ll be helpful. It’s funny, because I was looking through … NASCAR gives us some sheets on our popularity, who likes us and who doesn’t like us, and so forth based off of polling of the fans. And the area where I seem to be the least popular is within the younger female base, which is kind of quirky.
Really? Where did this sheet come from?
Well, NASCAR does some stuff with us at the end of the year, all proprietary information. But getting back to it, my popularity is best with hardcore race fans that have been in the sport, people who have been watching the sport forever.
On a personal level, how much does it matter to you that most of these guys in the garage will never be your friend, and some will never even give you the basic racetrack respect you deserve?
How much does it bother me? It only bothers me when it costs me performance on the track, and there’s a very limited amount of time where that’s true. And that will come full circle. I wouldn’t say it’s something I go home and cheer about, but I it’s not something I think about everyday, either.
I think I need to continue to grow in the garage, no doubt about that, but that doesn’t mean I feel like (the way) I came into the garage was wrong. But I could certainly grow as a person, be a more active driver and play a more active role in the garage. But the popularity inside the garage will come the most from being successful (on-track).
Looking back at all the feuds you’ve been a part of in your career, are there any you regret, and why?
I don’t regret anything. No, wait … you know what I regret? Not having faster cars.
Who’s the one guy on the Cup side you have so much respect for, you feel like you could never wreck them under any circumstances?
Well, I’d have to say my teammate, Kurt Busch. But since you probably want something juicier than that, I would say Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Are you pulling for Junior this year to turn it around?
There’s a reason they call the second year the “sophomore slump” in the Cup Series, because it seems to affect the majority of drivers out there. How do you avoid it?
Well, it could be argued that I had my sophomore slump this year (2010) depending on how you look at it. To me, if anything I’m going to come out of the gate even stronger next year with the changes we made at Penske Racing. To be honest, I feel like this is my junior year, instead of my sophomore slump. But the way to avoid it is to dig your heels and make sure you don’t become complacent.
What designates a successful season for you?
Progress. Being in contention to win races. That’s what it’s going to take.
Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
It’s Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 2009 season is almost over. Kyle Busch emerges from his motorcoach and faces the lake — perhaps “pond” is more descriptive — in the track’s infield. The interview is preceded by the kind of chitchat that typically occurs before talk gets serious. Busch observes that the lake level has been dropping slightly from year to year, pointing to drainage pipes that are about six feet above the surface of the lake. Neither he nor Monte Dutton, the interviewer, knows much about the specifics of lake levels in race-track infields. The exchange is a more inventive version of “How’s the weather?”
It doesn’t take long to get past the small talk, though. Frankness comes naturally to Kyle Busch, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Like his older brother Kurt, who won the first Chase-formatted championship in 2004, Kyle Busch is ambitious. He and everyone else in NASCAR have been figuratively playing rhythm to Jimmie Johnson’s lead guitar for four years now. The guitar Kyle would really like to destroy is the one Johnson currently plays.
Athlon Sports: Racing has innumerable generational attachments, but it’s pretty rare for two brothers to get to the top. There must be something pretty remarkable in your parents. Is there anything in particular that you learned growing up that, you think, helped you and Kurt competitively?
Kyle Busch: One of the biggest things is that we were taught that failure is not an option. That was instilled in us, meaning, in school, on the track. I got C’s in school a couple times, and Kurt got a couple C’s, and we got our ass chewed for it. My mother wanted to make sure we got a good education. When it came to racing, my dad always wanted us to work on our cars and know the pieces of our cars, so that we knew what went into building them. We were taught that, when you tear stuff up, not only is it going to be hard to fix it but it’s going to be time-consuming to fix it, it’s going to cost money to fix it. All of that applied. They also taught us to always dream big and go for our dreams. They taught us that anything was possible and let us know we could depend on them to help as far as they could take us, but the time would come when we would have to prove what we could do on our own. They took us to the second-highest level of racing in Vegas, and from there, it was up to us to find people who would give us rides.
Did you ever have to handle conflicts between a desire to race all you could and your mother’s insistence that you get the best education you could? Were there rough spots about that?
KB: Not really. The biggest thing was I was relatively a quick learner. That may not apply to life in general (laughs), but in math and stuff like that, I could get things done pretty quickly. We’d be given an assignment and then given the last 10 minutes of class to get started on it. Most of the time, I’d be done with it by the time the bell rang. I wouldn’t have much homework to take home. Sometimes I’d have to read a book and write a story, or whatnot, but it never took me that long to get homework done, so I could go out to the shop and work on race cars, stuff like that.
Having an older brother who is a championship driver obviously has pluses and minuses. You have a lot to live up to. Were there specific incidents where Kurt’s success really put a lot of pressure on you?
KB: Kurt never put any added pressure on me.
I didn’t mean overtly. I was referring just to what he’d done, that effect.
KB: A little bit, yeah. It’s always hard to try to live up to something your sibling has done. His championships, the races he’s won. I came in trying to be like him or better, and it’s harder on the younger brother when people start to expect you to do that. For me, it’s fun. It’s a challenge. I like going out there and racing for wins and do what I can on the race track. I want to kind of give my meaning to the sport. I want to win a Sprint Cup championship, ultimately, and by then, he and I could be even, I guess, but it’s hard to do in this sport with the way competition is.
When did you first tell yourself, ‘I can do this’?
KB: I don’t know, to be honest.
Was there a point, maybe in Legends cars, where you thought, you know, I’ve mastered this?
KB: You never master it. Well, maybe not until you’re Jimmie Johnson, I guess. But, to me, when I was in Legends cars, and so was Kurt, and knowing how good Kurt was … when I started getting good enough that I could race with him, or actually beat him, that’s when I first thought ‘This could be pretty cool. This could be big’ because of how far he’d made it and how good he was. You know, ‘I’m beating that guy. I might actually be able to be better than him.’ That happened in Legends cars.
Maybe this is because I played football when I was younger, but you have a quarterback’s cockiness. It’s a personality that plays great in a huddle, that offers strength in leadership. You have confidence. Outside the huddle, though, it comes across as abrasive or arrogant. It plays well within the team. When I think about this, I always think of Steve Spurrier, who was in fact a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy. He has a lot of confidence and is able to exude that to people around him. I can see that in you, and I think that attitude is often very beneficial within a team.
KB: That’s very true. There’s the confidence part where you go into the race weekend and, you know, the team guys who are with you because they see that confidence that you will go out there and try to win every weekend. They’re behind you. They’ll pull for you. They know they’re working with a winner. There are other drivers who don’t exude that, who just go into the weekend trying to make a living, I guess. The team guys are making a living. They take what they can get. But it means a lot to them when they know the driver will lay it on the line. I don’t want to go into a race with the attitude ‘We’ll just take what we can get and move on to the next one.’ We want to win, and anything less we’ll have to settle for, but it’s what we want and it’s not going to make us happy.
That goes back to your parents, I suppose. They didn’t want you to settle for second place.
KB: It’s me who’s mad about losing, but it’s not just that I’m mad because of self. It’s not just because I didn’t win. It’s because I wasn’t able to win for the team. Something happened in the race, and as a result, we didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to win. Ultimately, I want to get ‘my guys’ to Victory Lane. They’re the guys who work hard behind the scenes. I’ve got a guy on the Nationwide team. He comes in the shop at 5:30 in the morning and doesn’t go home until 8:30 at night. He’s got a wife. He’s got a family. He’s got kids and all that stuff. That guy is so focused and so driven making sure I’ve got a chance to win. I want to give that guy something to be proud of.
When something happens and you don’t win, when things don’t go your way, do you not talk to the media because you’re too emotional, or do you figure that talking will only get you in trouble?
KB: All right, you ready for this (pulls out a small sheet of paper)? You ever heard of Laurence J. Peter?
Yes. The Peter Principle.
KB: ‘Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’
What he is better known for, the Peter Principle, is that, in a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
KB: Oh, wow. Well, he wrote that. I came across that quote, and it put into words exactly what I was thinking.
To win a championship, do you have to get better at dealing with bad weeks, bad times, bad things in general?
KB: Well, when our weeks are bad, they’re real bad. You can’t have super-bad days. If you’re having a bad day, then you need to make a 10th out of it, and we’re not very good at that. I’m not very good at that, and I don’t think our team is very good at that. Maybe that’s because of me. Maybe I’m not leading it in the right direction. I’ve got some things that I’ve got to try to work on to make us better and ultimately more championship caliber.
You had a lot of success with Steve Addington as crew chief. How was the decision made to make a change to Dave Rogers?
KB: That’s something that’s Joe’s (Gibbs) and J.D.’s (Gibbs) decision. It’s their organization, and they’re among the best at knowing what’s best for the organization. I love Steve. Steve was a great asset to the team; he did a great job over the past two seasons, and unfortunately, we didn’t quite have the success we would have liked (last) year and struggled a lot. It seems like it was either feast or famine. Either we were going to win the race or finish 30th. Some of that’s my fault, but some of that is just not having the right things in the cars for me, and Joe and J.D. felt like we needed to try something new and see if we couldn’t get a more consistent basis and something that was more championship caliber.
There wasn’t ever a time when I lost faith, not in Steve. I could say that on previous experiences with other crew chiefs. In Steve’s case, I never lost faith. He was always giving 100 percent and trying his all, working his people to death. I don’t think it was Steve who didn’t give me what I needed. I don’t think it was the engineers. It was just something didn’t click. Obviously, this is a performance-based business, and we’ve got to be the best we can out there. When you’re not beating the 48 (Johnson), something has to change. The rest of these people are all staying the same and yet they’re not beating the 48, and obviously that team’s at the head of the class right now, so you have to look at yourself compared to them, week in and week out.
Did you want the change?
KB: I wouldn’t say I wanted it. When I got told about it, I gave my opinion on the side of sometimes ‘The grass is greener on the other side,’ like it was when I came over here, and sometimes it’s not. We can only hope that Dave (Rogers) will be the right fit, and can be the right fit and we can have the right tools. I’m sure the right tools are there, and as long as Dave can put those to good use, then we should be better in the future, hopefully.
Did things ever go stale? Is that a fair characterization of last season?
KB: What got stale were results. Our cars … we just never got any better. We were the dominant force the first 20 races in 2008. The last six before the Chase we weren’t as great, things fell apart in the Chase, and we never regained anything there. We seemed to lose a little bit of what other people gained as far as speed in their cars.
Would the change have been made if you had made the Chase?
KB: Good question for J.D. and Joe (Gibbs). I don’t know. As I said, it was ultimately their decision. I’m going to stick behind Steve Addington and J.D. Gibbs both. I’m going to say that Steve gave it his all and did what he could to give us the best possible cars every week. He tried as hard as he could. With J.D. and those guys, I’m going to stand behind them because it’s their organization. They decided to make a change, and hopefully this is a change for the better. They will try to make us all better and championship caliber to beat the four-time-in-a-row champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Would 2009 have been easier to accept if 2008 hadn’t been so successful?
KB: No, not at all because you look at the guys that are up front. They’re the guys you are chasing. You want to be the guy that everybody else is chasing. You want to be that guy. Ultimately, I was that guy in 2008. Everybody was chasing us, and it was our year.
Last year or any other year that I’ve been in the sport, I’ve been chasing everybody else. I don’t like to be chasing. I like to be the guy leading, so it’s hard. But sometimes you have to look back at the big picture and realize that you can do a lot more to help and rally the team than really hurting it and dragging it down.
Given that Tony Stewart is a former teammate who went on his own successfully, have you thought about team ownership in the future?
KB: You would like to say that you could do it, but you have to have the right things fall into place. Tony sort of got into the Haas team and didn’t have to bring a whole lot to it — it was already an established team. To do a start-up deal or something like that — that’s a lot of work, a lot of craziness and a lot of money. But for me, if it was the right situation, the right scenario, then sure, why not?
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Joey Logano burst onto the NASCAR scene at Dover International Speedway in May last season, only a week after turning 18, the legal age to compete in one of NASCAR’s top three series. Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the 18-year-old Logano started and finished within the top 10 in his first Nationwide Series appearance. Two weeks later, only three races into his Nationwide career, Logano became the youngest driver in series history to win a race, visiting Victory Lane at Kentucky Speedway.
But none of that was a surprise. Instant success was expected.
After living up to the hype in NASCAR’s so-called minor leagues, Logano kept his pace rolling, being named to replace two-time champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota in 2009 in the Sprint Cup Series.
Though he may have been pushed through the ranks at lightning speed, Logano says he’s ready. He credits his preparedness to his father’s devotion. And, though it’s an odd training ground compared to the fast-paced danger of racing at speeds nearing 200 miles per hour, he says his secret to success is not all of the testing miles he’s racked up, but rather simply sitting in his living room, playing video games.
Logano after all, was dubbed “Sliced Bread” by two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie during his championship-winning Camping World East season in 2007. He is the youngest champion in that series’ history at 17.
After his June win in the Nationwide ranks, his solid performances continued through the remainder of the season, though he did not return to the winner’s circle. In running 19 races in 2008, Logano notched three poles, five top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes. In the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Logano snared the pole and finished 10th, clinching the 2008 owner’s title for JGR.
It’s been a pretty fast introduction to NASCAR. Could you explain your emotions through the learning process?
It has showed me that it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, too. It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure.
At the beginning, there was so much hype around you. Were you expecting all of the media attention? And do you remember the first time you were just watching TV and a commercial or interview you had done came on?
I think it’s neat. It comes along with it. It’s cool to be watching TV and see your car on TV in a commercial. That’s neat. Nationwide put that commercial out for the Nationwide Series. We were watching a race and all of a sudden it came on. I didn’t know anything about it. I thought, “Oh, that’s nice. Isn’t that cool?” It was neat to just be watching TV like you normally would and see your face come on.
You mentioned the Nationwide commercial about your debut. With that, and a few other things such as your nickname, were you confident that you could live up to the hype or was there a side of you that was a little apprehensive about all the attention?
I honestly thought I would go out there and win the first race. That’s how I go into any race. I think that’s the attitude you have to have going into it.
How has it been getting to know your crew chief in the 20 Cup car, Greg Zipadelli, and how are you building that driver/crew chief communication despite not being able to run any races together before the 2009 season?
We do work well together. We’ve known each other for a while now. Working at the shop, testing, and all of those things. I think we’ll be good. We’re getting to know each other a lot better. I didn’t really talk to him much before all of this began.
Your sponsor, Home Depot, has generally been targeted towards the older men, with families, that do home repairs. You are in a different generation, single and leading a different lifestyle. How do you target those buyers?
It is different, but Home Depot wanted to stay with Joe Gibbs Racing and it just worked out. They were with Tony when he came on over there so it’s neat that they are doing the same thing. It builds a lot of confidence in me. We’re going to do what we can to make them happy.
Aside from the performance of Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole in 2008, rate your level of disappointment that you weren’t able to get more than one win. Do you feel like the crew chief suspensions (Jason Ratcliff and David Rogers in the Nationwide Series) in the summer set the team back a bit?
It was a little bit of both. Obviously I would have liked to have more wins than just one. I think our team is capable for sure. It’s one of those things — you lose your crew chiefs, that doesn’t help you any, being a rookie and not having the guy there to drag you through it more. It’s been different. We’ve been in position to win a few more races. Eventually if you keep being in position, you’ll get them.
What are your plans for the Nationwide Series for 2009?
I’m not sure how many Nationwide races we have scheduled. I’d like to do the whole season, but I’m doing the full deal with Cup.
There’s been a lot of talk about the “new” car. Since you are new to the Cup ranks, you don’t have any bad habits in one of the older cars. There is also a lot to be said about the racing now, that it is a lot harder to pass. What are your thoughts about the cars?
It’s kind of like that in both series. The faster racetracks these days, if you get behind somebody, you don’t get that clean air. It’s real important to get that air. It’s totally different and you go a lot faster. That’s part of it but there are a lot of people complaining about that.
After saying that you were expecting to win right away in the Nationwide car, what are your goals next season during your rookie year in Cup?
We’ll go for Rookie of the Year for sure. We’ll see what we can do from there. I don’t set a bunch of goals. I’m not that type of person. I just do the best I can every time. I don’t have a goal for the year-end points or anything. I’ll just do the best I can.
With everything going on surrounding your move to Sprint Cup competition, how do you find time to enjoy just being 18?
I do some kid things. I get some off time here and there. At the end of the season, we have more of an off-time. During the season, we only get a day or two off and we’re back on the road again. I don’t have a bunch of time, but all of my friends race too. So they know how it goes.
One of the things that’s pretty well known about you is that you seem to be a video game expert. It’s also been said that they help you learn some of the racetracks before you actually race there. How does that help you when it comes down to race time?
Obviously it’s not the same as an actual racecar, but you get the feel of what the racetrack is going to look like, the shape of the racetrack and you know where the pits are, those types of things. There are things here and there that you can relate back over. It helps for sure.
Aside from racing, what other games do you like?
I play hockey a lot. Me and my buddies play hockey quite a bit. When we play that, it usually gets pretty brutal.
You’re a gamer, but are you a gambler? It’s been said that some of your teammates are into card games, poker. Do you ever get in on that?
I don’t know how to play poker. I don’t want to give my money away!
A lot has been said about your Dad and the support he gave you through your career. You won your first race the day before Father’s Day. Kids always want to make their parents proud, so what is it like for you knowing that he’s been able to see his dream for you become a reality?
He definitely did. Certainly when I was 6 or 7 years old. He put the time and money into it. To get me to (the) Joe Gibbs Racing situation. It’s amazing really, when you think about it. All of the time and money that he put into it when he could have been doing other things. He was always helping me on my racecars. There are not many fathers out there that will do that for their sons.
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
After 200 career wins at racing’s highest level and decades as its most famous and beloved driver, NASCAR’s once and future king is a living link to the sport’s storied past and still an important voice in today’s uncertain environment. Athlon Sports Racing editor Matt Taliaferro was fortunate enough to sit down with King Richard to discuss the state of the sport he made famous, and the future of the Petty family’s relationship to it.
Your father, Lee, was in NASCAR’s first sanctioned race back in ’49, and you were there … and that’s 60 years between then and now. While there were turbulent times during the ’70s, with the manufacturer pullouts and gas shortages, have you ever seen the sport in such a precarious situation as it is today?
No, I don’t think I have. I’ve been here for 71 years. I’ve never seen the whole country as disturbed as it is right now. The financial deal really, really bleeds through the racing, because we’re in an entertainment business and we’re also in the advertising business. So, the sponsorship doesn’t come, because people are drying up on their advertising. And on the other hand, it’s going to be tough for the fan to have enough money to go to the races, so we’re getting blindsided from both sides.
How do you think the sport got to this point? Do you think it’s just competitiveness — that you’ve got to keep one-upping each other? Or was it possibly greed?
Really what happens, the sport just grew as everything else grows, and actually it took more money to make it operate. But as long as you had cash flow in the front door, it was okay. But when the economy goes upside-down, then the cash flow quits, then we’ve got to go back to ground zero and say, “Okay, how do we survive under these conditions?”
With what you’ve been through with Petty Enterprises over the last few years, do you think franchising might be the way to right the ship for the sport?
I think franchising would just give all of us a guarantee. It would give us a team. It would give what we’re trying to sell to a potential sponsor. It would give them a guarantee that you’re gonna be there. They’d be able to advertise six months or a year or two years ahead, knowing that you’re gonna be in the show, you’re gonna be doing certain things. (When) I look at Cup racing, the only thing I see to keep it from being a major, major sport is the franchising deal. Everything else we got in place. We just need the franchising in place.
We’ve determined that NASCAR is big money, it’s very corporate — and it has been for awhile. But the thing is, a lot of people feel like the sport’s kind of been neutered because of that. You know, it’s a Catch-22, because you’ve got to have big money and more technology to grow, but if you don’t grow it dies. So at this point, how does the sport go about staying true to its roots while trying to keep its mass audience appeal? Or are we past that point?
We’re in business, and this is a capitalist country, and it happens to all kinds of businesses. It happens to football teams or baseball teams or racing teams or corner grocery stores, as far as that’s concerned. So this is the system, this is the system that we work within and we can’t really control a lot of things. Things just happen and then we make the best out of them and that’s the situation we’re in now.
Okay, so let’s talk about the future now, and first and foremost, we believe NASCAR needs Richard Petty … certainly more than Richard Petty needs NASCAR. You’re the common link that’s existed between fans and the actual sport for decades, so what happens when you finally decide to hang up the old Charlie One Horse? What do you do? And who comes in as that link that carries on between the fans and the sport?
I guess you gotta look at … I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old. Been around racing, went to the very first Cup race with my dad, and been there ever since, and I guess as long as my toes are not turned up I’ll be going to the races and still be involved. So I guess my longevity is gonna figure out how long I stay around to go to the (races).
If I sort of got out of the racing mode, I’d have to change my whole lifestyle. It’s all built around what I’ve been doing for 60 years, and so I don’t see me changing a whole lot of that part of it. As history or as time goes by, then what was done in the past gets to be more minor. What’s current news today will be history 20 years down the road, and so that’s where we fit in.
We were there, we done our thing, and as time progresses we’re getting further away from the history of how NASCAR first started and more into the modern era, whatever era that was, whether it’s (the) ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s … you know, ’10s, ’20s, on out there. So we were just part of the growing, and we were here when NASCAR was growing.
We’re still here to try to bridge that gap, but when we’re not here, then the bridge to that gap will get closer to what it is today. In other words, George Washington started all this stuff, and we still talk about George Washington, but he’s not in the media conversation of what’s going on today, because we got the new breed coming in, we’ve still got some ex-presidents wandering around, they get a little publicity but, you know what I mean? Time just sort of takes care of everything. I guess I’ll put it that way.
Let’s just talk nuts-and-bolts racing now. You have 200 wins. Untouchable record. Seven titles. Seven Daytona 500s. Is it possible for one moment — a highlight — to stand out above all the others in a career like you’ve had?
You know, it’s really tough. While I’m saying that, I was so fortunate to be able to run for the 30-35 years and win races and have so many highlights, I guess. So when you’ve had as many highlights as I’ve had, it’s hard to pick one above the rest of them.
Well, how about in the general sense? Like we talked about earlier, you’ve seen more races than anybody on the planet. Is there one race that sticks out in your head, whether you were actually running in it or not, as a turning point where you thought, “You know, this is a defining moment in the sport I’m watching right now?”
(Laughs) You know, it’s really hard to say. Again, I was involved in a bunch of that stuff. I mean, like the ’76 race at Daytona where me and (David) Pearson wrecked on the last corner. You know, that’s an exciting moment for anybody that’s not even a race fan, you know what I mean? Cause it was down to the nitty-gritty, the very last shot, the last pass. … I won Daytona seven times; I probably remembered more about that race than I have any other thing that went on at Daytona.
Well, tell us about Pearson. Was he the toughest you ever raced against, or was it maybe Cale (Yarborough) or (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.), or one of those guys?
As far as the winning part of it, and trying to beat him as far as winning races over him, Pearson was the toughest. Pearson was not the toughest driver. You have to go back to Yarborough or an Allison to get just tough. You know what I mean, as far as just manhandling the wheel and doing whatever needed to be done.
But the racing finesse and stuff, I always felt like Pearson was just a little bit … it was easier for him. He didn’t have to work at it. He was just a natural.
Speaking of naturals, how impressed are you with Jimmie (Johnson) and the 48, with what they’ve done?
They’ve just got it all together. I mean, we’ve had good years and bad years. I guess everybody has. You know, Earnhardt, I look at it this way: Earnhardt and myself had won four out of five years in the Championship. (Each of us) won two, lost one, then won two more, okay? Cale won three championships, and now Jimmie comes along and wins three championships. So where does he fit into the overall scheme of things? What it does from here on is tell him where he winds up on the list, if you know what I mean. And so what they’ve accomplished has been just really unreal. Knowing the money that’s behind (their team) and the experience and the engineers and — everything they’re trying to do to win — they’ve done a phenomenal job.
What’s been really good about Jimmie’s deal is they peaked at the time they needed to peak — they peaked the last 10 races the last three years. They didn’t really peak at the beginning of the year or the middle of the year — they were just basically also-rans. They (were just) running good and had a good year going. But it was just like, if you look at last season, then you look at Kyle Busch. Kyle Busch was the deal for 26 races. He was the man. And then all of a sudden, everything that can happen that didn’t happen in those 26 races started happening to (Busch). And Jimmie just hit the 10 races without having trouble. The planets just didn’t line up for (Busch). For Jimmie, they did line up. They’ve lined up for the last three years.
And, you know, I look back at my seven championships or Earnhardt’s seven championships. If (others had) won the last 10 races, would we have won those championships or would we have won other championships, you know what I mean? But that’s the way the game’s played. Everybody knows going into the beginning of the season how it’s played, and Jimmie and his team has been able to put it together and win under the rules that we’re running under. So yeah, you’ve got to admire them for that.
Do you like the way the game’s being played these days? Do you like the Chase? Is that something you think is a boon for the sport? Or is it something that maybe was just a novelty and the luster has worn off?
Well, you know, I guess … I guess every other competitive sport, or most all of the competitive sports, have a playoff at the end of the year. And so this is basically our playoff. And, you know, football, they run 16 games to see if they make it to (the playoffs), you know what I mean?
We run 26 races just to see if we make it into the playoffs. So I think it probably brought on a little bit more excitement of really what the whole deal is. The only thing is, a lot of times, the first 26 races don’t seem as important. That’s the only thing about it that you’d rather (have). A 36-race championship (in which) every race is just as important as any of the rest of them. The first is just as important as the last. There’s different ways to look at it. I think from a PR standpoint, I think it’s been a pleasure. Let’s put it that way.
Okay, we’ve been talking about championship drivers. Is there anybody out there on the circuit today whose driving style, not necessarily his talent, but his driving style reminds you of yourself when you were behind the wheel?
(Laughs) You know, it’s really hard to say. I mean, I watched Carl Edwards and … Carl drives a car I think more like I would, from a standpoint that if a car’s not working and running low, he’ll run in the middle. If it’s not working in the middle, he’ll run high. He looks all over the racetrack.
It’s two or three of ’em that look all over the racetrack, which is what I did. I was not a one-groove racecar driver. I even wound up against the wall by the end of the race, but I’d usually start low and then as the racetrack changed, I would change. And so, there’s a lot of ’em out there that don’t change their driving style, and there’s two or three of ’em, Carl, (Matt) Kenseth, you know, they change their attitude, they change. (Greg) Biffle is good about it. They change the way they look at what they’re working at.
You mentioned a few younger guys in the sport just now. Is there a time when you, as Richard Petty, the most respected man in the business, go and put your arm around one of these up-and-coming drivers and say, “Son, listen up a minute, we need to talk. You need to straighten some things out …”
Uh, yeah, I probably done that. (Laughs) You know what I mean? I did that when I was driving, I did that after the deal, and I’ve talked to two or three of the drivers that are driving now … just offer some suggestions. I said, “You don’t have to listen to me, but think about this.”
Know what I mean? And some of them took it to heart and some of them just said, “That old man don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Let’s talk about The Richard Petty Driving Experience for just a second. I’ve never participated, but the next time it comes to Nashville I’m going to.
You need to try that. It will give you the insight that, you know, you’re sitting there and you think you know a little bit about racing, you’ve been around it, but it gives you a deal of saying, “Okay, now I understand when these guys complain about their cars or when they don’t do real good with a car or why they don’t do good.”
And, you know, you’ll go out there with a couple or three cars, and then you’ll run eight laps or whatever you run. Then, all of a sudden, you come in and you’re white-knuckled and all this stuff and you say, “You mean these guys do that with 42 other cars, running 15 to 20 mph faster than I’m running, and they do it for three or four hours?” And then it gives you a lot more respect for the guys that do the job.
Well, you guys run some really cool tracks. I mean, Atlanta, Daytona, the Brickyard, Talladega, Bristol. That’s amazing in itself. But I have to ask: How many cars have you guys torn up with those people at Darlington?
(Laughs) Well, we could pay a purse, for sure!
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Amanda Brahler
Vying for the championship that has eluded him for more than 25 years, Mark Martin returns to full-time duty with ... Hendrick Motorsports?
Statistically speaking, Mark Martin has produced numbers worthy of championships, and off the track he comes across as a champion in every sense of the word, minus the official crowning moment. He made his Sprint Cup debut in 1981 and over the years has scored 41 poles, 243 top 5s and 396 top-10 finishes, in more than 700 career starts. The Arkansas native currently sits 18th on the all-time wins list with 35 trophies to date. He also sits atop the leaderboard in the Nationwide Series for career wins with 48.
He’s won championships in two now-defunct series, the short track American Speed Association (ASA), where he first got his professional start in racing, and a record five in the International Race of Champions (IROC), which showcased drivers from various disciplines.
With the big trophy in stock car’s most illustrious division lacking from his trophy case, Martin will give it one more go, with a one-year, full-time deal lined up at Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet. He has a two-year contract in hand with 2010 expected to be a return to a scaled-back schedule, with 26 races being the target. But depending on how this season goes, that could change.
It has before.
Martin spent most of his career with car owner Jack Roush, driving a Ford under the Roush Racing umbrella, but he began his career in what was then known as the Winston Cup Series as an owner/driver in 1981. He ran the entire schedule again the next year, once again in a self-owned car.
Over the next few seasons he ran for multiple teams before joining Roush in ’88. He earned his first career win a year later at Rockingham. And so began quite a successful relationship.
After 19 years that produced four runner-up finishes and 12 consecutive finishes within the top 10 in the points standings from 1989 through 2000, Martin planned to sever his business relationship with Roush in 2006. He originally announced his departure from Roush by means of retirement, but Roush was unable to find a suitable replacement for the following season, so Martin helped out his longtime friend and returned. Despite the retirement announcement for the previous season, circumstances — and his hunger for competition — forced him to reconsider his initial decision, and he latched on with another race team.
Thinking a gradual escape would be best, he made the move to Ginn Racing, which later merged with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Out of the gate, Martin showed that he would be a contender despite running a scaled-back schedule. He finished second by .02 seconds in the Daytona 500, a race he has never won, to Kevin Harvick.
The last two seasons have been a different change of pace for Martin. He ran only 24 races in 2007 and 24 again in ’08, combining for nine top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes. He hasn’t won since 2005, when he was still under the Roush umbrella.
That is what drove Martin into his new endeavor — the desire to return to his old, competitive form.
But the Hendrick Motorsports Mark Martin is a far cry from the Roush Racing-era Mark Martin. The sport has changed. Competition has changed. Martin has changed.
Throughout his career he’s seen the devastation of tragedy and suffered personal loss. He’s driven with broken bones — ribs, wrist, the usual fractures that racers think nothing of once they climb into their racecar. Martin was once known for his heavy workout regimen, but those days are long gone. A decade ago, he had back surgery to relieve constant pain. At 50, Martin has handed over the distinction as the most physically fit driver to Carl Edwards, he of backflip and shirtless magazine cover fame.
After his consideration of retirement a few years ago, some question Martin’s comeback now, wondering whether or not he’s able to be as competitive as he once was and whether he’s realistic in thinking that he can contend for a championship this late in the game.
But Martin scoffs at the notion.
“This has been my life since 1974,” he says. “Racing has been my life. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be still participating on this level. And what it means to me to be a part of it. I sure dread the day that I won’t be able to participate anymore.
“Hendrick Motorsports has won a lot of championships and we can’t say how good it could be for us. It could be really, really good for us. Or it could be good for us, and not be good enough. That’s been the case for me in a number of tries before — where we were really good, but it wasn’t good enough that particular year.”
Martin knows all about falling short. His runner-up finishes in four championship battles have come to legendary drivers — twice to a seven-time series champion, the late Dale Earnhardt (1990 and 1994), once to two-time champ Tony Stewart (2002), and once to his new Hendrick Motorsports teammate, four-time champ Jeff Gordon (1998).
“I’m not into torturing myself,” Martin says of looking back at just how close he was to winning a title. “And I’m not into making excuses, and there’s plenty of them. I just don’t care to go there. I came to grips with not winning a championship, and to me that means that I wasn’t ever good enough. I just never was good enough. We were awfully good, but never good enough.”
His 1990 finish to Earnhardt was the closest he’s come to the title. A mere 26 points separated the two at season’s end, the fifth-closest finish in series history at the time.
Off of the track, ’98 was a trying year for Martin. His father, Julian, stepmother and sister all perished in a plane crash in Nevada. It is well known that Julian taught little Mark to drive at the age of five. Mark would sit on his father’s lap, steering the vehicle while dad operated the pedals.
Though racing with a heavy heart, he didn’t slow down. If anything, he used his father’s passing as motivation. He won seven races that season, the most he earned in a single season throughout his career, but fell short to Gordon, who won an astounding 13 races and notched 28 top 10s in 33 races.
Unable to beat them, Martin joins the Hendrick stable with three other drivers including Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, the three-time and first back-to-back-to-back title winner since Cale Yarborough, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He replaces Casey Mears in the No. 5 Chevy, who, after two years of driving for Hendrick, produced a single win, the only one of his career.
Hendrick, in his 25th anniversary as a Cup car owner, first established a relationship with Martin in 2007, when Martin piloted a Hendrick car in three Nationwide Series events. In his debut with Hendrick at Darlington, Martin finished second, and as Hendrick merged the Nationwide effort with JR Motorsports in 2008, the two visited Victory Lane together in Las Vegas.
The short introduction with the Hendrick organization also allowed crew chief Alan Gustafson to get to know the veteran driver.
Gustafson will be calling the shots for Martin this year. Together, the duo will have to overcome a slight age gap and any working obstacles it may bring. At 33, though entering his fourth year as a Sprint Cup crew chief, Gustafson has worked with Kyle Busch and Mears, who were both under the age of 30 while paired with him.
In 2005 Gustafson made his debut as crew chief along with then-rookie Busch. The duo cranked out two wins and Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. In 2006 and 2007, they made the Chase.
In 2008, Busch left Hendrick for Joe Gibbs Racing and Gustafson was paired with Mears. For whatever reason, the two struggled to hit a stride. They failed to qualify for the Chase, finished 20th in points and notched only one top 5 and six top 10s.
Gustafson is looking forward to the next step in his career. Admittedly, he still has a lot to learn, and entering the season feels that Martin may be his best shot at a championship.
“The last two years have had some changes and it’s not something that I think any of us want to go through, from Mr. Hendrick on down, but unfortunately it’s just part of the business,” Gustafson says. “I just try to learn from it the best that I can. I try to make myself a better crew chief and a better manager. I’ve learned a ton from Kyle, a lot from Casey. I’m not saying you want to keep making changes as a crew chief, but you can learn from those experiences. What we’ve gone through as a team has made us better and really appreciate the opportunity with Mark.”
Last season, three of Hendrick’s four teams made the Chase, with Mears being the lone missing driver. Earnhardt enters 2009 in his second year with the organization, having made the Chase in his first year with the team, along with crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
Though Martin will be running his first season with HMS, the difference is that Earnhardt and Eury had worked together previously. Gustafson and Martin have only a few Nationwide Series races and a couple test dates under their belts, but both believe the newness of their team will be beneficial.
“He’s everything you could ever ask for,” Gustafson says of working with Martin. “He has incredible credentials and talent. The thing about Mark that is so special is that you look at his career and he’s still motivated and determined even with everything that he’s accomplished.
“I know Mark doesn’t like to allude to it — I don’t want to try to get too far off of the reservation — but I feel like if we can accomplish that goal (of winning the championship), I don’t know how you could have a higher achievement, in my opinion. I think winning a championship with Mark Martin would be the ultimate that you can achieve. In my opinion, he is by far the best driver in this sport who hasn’t won a championship.
“Nobody else even comes close to deserving as much he does,” Gustafson continues. “If we can make that happen in a year, which is a huge order to make that happen, that would be the highlight of my career. …There is nothing that I can say that I can accomplish in my career that would mean more to me than to win a championship with Mark Martin.
“I do think it’s tough. You get one shot. Our focus is to make the Chase first, win as many races as we can and then we will worry about the championship. That’s the ultimate goal. I think we can do all of those things.”
Adds Martin: “It has so many positive effects. If you work with the same team for very long, then you find out that you can’t do it. And you’ll never do it. As soon as you figure out that you can’t, it will never happen. When you’re new together, you don’t know you can’t. And that is when you get the very best results. When you don’t know that you can’t do it.
“There is a learning curve for me and Alan to get maximum results from one another. Sometimes he may not be able to finish my sentence, and sometimes I may not be able to finish his, but the one thing that we don’t know is that we can’t do it. I think that’s a big thing.”
A lot is expected of the Martin/Gustafson union. Once the announcement of Martin’s joining Hendrick was made last July, the speculation quickly began of how far the two could go, with the majority quickly making them a shoe-in for the Chase.
Whether or not they do make that cut, one thing is certain — they will have to figure out a way to stop teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. The Chase seems to suit the three-peat duo’s numbers in the final 10-race battle for the championship.
“I do have a really good seat to see how good they are and how hard they work,” Gustafson says of Johnson and Knaus. “They accomplish amazing feats. To formulate a plan to beat them, I wish I could say there was some trick plan. It comes down to good, old-fashioned determination and hard work. We’re just going to have to be a little bit better. They’ve raised the bar.”
Martin too, is already thinking about the competition.
“To have people predicting that we might make it in the 5 car makes me feel really good. If we get in there, and anyone puts up any numbers like the 48 (Johnson) and the 99 (Carl Edwards, who finished second in points) did (last) year, it will be really hard to expect to win a championship against anyone who puts those kind of numbers up.
“I hope that Alan and I can learn enough about one another during the first 26 races to be able to race differently for the last 10. Certainly the first half of the season, he and I are going to be focusing on getting pretty good performance and trying to win a race and gathering enough points to put us in a position to be in the Chase. But, for us more than anyone else, our game will change if we make the Chase. Because we are new together, and we will be learning more together in the first 26 races than most teams.”
Fans, colleagues and media members all expected that Martin would be out of the sport by now. Not due to age or the loss of ability but because, admittedly, his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
After the passing of his father, the realization that his son was growing up with him mostly absent, Martin opted — on his own terms — for retirement, declaring that he wanted to spend more time with his wife Arlene and his youngest child, son Matt (Martin is also the father to four daughters).
It’s possible that the opportunity with Hendrick is what he’d been waiting for. A sort of “pieces falling into place” sports story you read about, but rarely witness firsthand.
Maybe Martin was simply giving up a few years ago, thinking he and Roush had exhausted every resource they had. And maybe he felt as if all other opportunities had long since passed him by.
But whatever the reason, Martin is back full-time in 2009 with one goal in mind.
“It would contradict today’s thoughts about youth and enthusiasm overcoming age and experience, which would be really cool,” Martin says when contemplating a possible championship breakthrough. “It would definitely drive the point home that sometimes dreams really do come true. Sometimes there is such a thing as a Cinderella story. I think that’s the biggest thing — that to let it go this far and then pull one out of the hat would be pretty incredible for everyone, especially myself. I think it would mean an enormous amount to Rick Hendrick as well. I think Rick would really like to see that because we’ve been around for so long.”
It may be a long shot, but the Hendrick pairing could produce a story of old-school beating new-school, a half-century old competitor besting a bunch of 20-somethings (and even one or two teenagers), but Martin says that however it turns out, his joining Hendrick completes his career.
“It’s the biggest honor of my career. I say that the trophy doesn’t make the man; the man makes the trophy. I have a lot of really, really great trophies. Some of them are made of metal, and some are made of glass, and some are just honors that were bestowed on me.
“This is the biggest trophy of my career. To be where I am in my career, to be 50 years old, and to have a chance to drive for Rick Hendrick with this kind of effort, this kind of car and this kind of equipment. To have him pursue me to do this, means more to me than anything else in my trophy case.”
An obvious case of, “I just can’t pass this up” has landed in Martin’s lap. And whether he claims that elusive Cup title with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009 or not, he’ll never have to deal with the regret of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I told Arlene when we talked about this, I’m pretty sure that the last breath I took on my deathbed would be, ‘I should have drove Rick’s car when I had the chance.’ I didn’t want to do that or regret that until the last breath I took.”
There's a few ways you can go about a sack celebration. In this day and age of football, there's everything from fake roping a calf to rolling around on the ground like a rabid dog.
Which makes San Francisco's Aldon Smith such a breath of fresh air. No dramatic scenes acted out. No screaming and yelling. Just taking down the quarterback, and then sprinting to the sideline to let the special teams come on the field and take care of their business. That's professionalism.
So it's nice to see someone pull a Barry Sanders when it comes to celebrating a good football play. If you recall, Barry Sanders, who was one of the greatest running backs of all time, never once spiked the ball when he got into the end zone. There's something classy about this. While i'm not totally against the hooting and hollering after a big play, but when you're reminded that players actually CAN just run off the field without telling everyone how great they are, it looks pretty good, too.
And at the end of the day, is much more memorable than all the waving of arms and fist pumps.
Oklahoma State might be the reason major changes take place in the BCS next year, or they may be the reason college football finally goes to a playoff system. This year, which was a very weird year, illustrates the flaws in the current college football system.
Let's look at the case for Oklahoma State versus the case for Alabama to play the LSU Tigers in the national title game. The Tigers are unquestionably deserving of their spot in the BCS title game, having gone undefeated in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
But when you look at Alabama's resume, it looks like this:
Alabama's wins over teams appearing in last week's BCS Top 25: 2
They beat the 8th ranked Arkansas and 21st ranked Penn State.
In contrast, the Oklahoma State Cowboys have wins over 5 Top 25 teams (again, these rankings are from before Saturday's games): 5
They beat 10th ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Longhorns and the Missouri Tigers.
Alabama's wins over bowl-bound teams with winning records: 3
The Crimson Tide beat Penn State on the road, the Auburn Tigers on the road and the Arkansas Razorbacks at home.
Oklahoma State's wins over bowl-bound teams with winning records: 7
The Cowboys beat Louisiana, Tulsa, Missouri, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma. A much longer list of quality wins.
Oklahoma State won their conference, while Alabama didn't even make it to their conference championship.
The description of each team's loss:
Alabama lost a low-scoring, poorly played game to LSU at home in overtime.
Oklahoma State lost on the road to a very low-ranked Iowa State team in double overtime. And it must be said, and this is something that computers can't understand, that the Oklahoma State Cowboys team had just suffered the death of two of their coaching family members in a tragic plane crash just a day before the Iowa State game. Shouldn't that count for something?
Also, the foregone conclusion that the SEC is by far the best conference is why Alabama is playing in the BCS championship game instead of Oklahoma State. But when you look at the number of quality wins, you would think that Oklahoma State would have a much better resume and deserve to play for the national title over Alabama.
Jerry Sandusky appeared on camera in a videotaped interview with the New York Times this week and did nothing to sway public opinion in his favor.
Sandusky, who claimed he is innocent of charges of child sexual abuse in the video was only slightly better than his grotesque interview with Bob Costas when he seemed to waiver when asked if he was sexually attracted to young boys.
In this interview, the first one on video, a couple major points stick out that once again call into question his honesty:
When asked about his eery response to the "are you sexually attracted to young boys?" response, he essentially says he was blindsided by the question and that he is "attracted to people" and loves being around young people and so he was surprised that the question of a sexual nature was asked.
But put yourself in his shoes. If someone had accused you of molesting young boys, you should know that that question is coming. And if you know that question is coming, if you truly are innocent, you would vehemently deny this accusation. You wouldn't attempt to parse it out and and hedge as you hem and haw the minor nuances of that question. If you really were innocent, you would stand up and yell as loudly as possible so everyone could hear you say in no uncertain terms that you are NOT a pedophile. The fact that he paused, tells you everything you need to know.
And his lame excuse that he wanted to make it clear that he couldn't believe that this question was being asked and he wanted to make it clear that he liked being around young people--just not in a sexual way--makes absolutely no sense.
The other major point that tells me Jerry Sandusky is lying is that he continued to shower with young boys and "horse around" as he calls it.
Again, put yourself in Jerry Sandusky's shoes. Even if you did nothing wrong. Even if you were a jock who grew up showering with others and you didn't think anything of showering with little boys when you were in your 50s and blowing on the stomachs of young naked kids, the moment the police were involved and accusations were being made, would you EVER shower with another young boy again?
Imagine how freaked out you would be that there was even the perception that you were a pedophile who molested young boys. You would never ever be naked around little kids ever again. You certainly wouldn't blow on their stomachs while "horsing around." You wouldn't take kids on trips where you were alone with them.
Any logical adult would do everything in your power to clear your name. And a good way to start clearing your name is to not shower naked with kids and bear hug them.
That's why this whole story, and both of Sandusky's attempts to claim his innocence don't pass muster. He's lying, or he's the stupidest person on the face of the earth.
The other point that will come out of this is that Joe Paterno, the grandfather of college football just a few months ago, did nothing to stop Sandusky. He knew about the accusations, but he never had the guts or balls or whatever you want to call it to confront his longtime and assistant coach friend about his actions with young boys.
Which means that Penn State was complicit in Sandusky's actions. They knew there was a problem, and they told Sandusky to not bring young boys onto the campus anymore. But what we learn in this video is that his keys were never taken away, either.
This is a disgusting man and it's scary what other details will still come out in this case.
Josh Freeman won't be suited up today for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Hurting with an injured shoulder all week, Freeman was a game-time decision today. That decision has been made, and it's a no-go for the Bucs second year QB.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris made it official this morning that Josh Johnson (do you have to be named Josh to play quarterback for the Bucs?) will start in his place.
This is somewhat surprising as all reports out of Tampa during the week sounded posistive for Freeman to start. On Tuesday he had made good progress and even said himself that he could have played on Wednesday. Which now seems more like talk than reality.
From a fantasy perspective this doesn't have much impace. Definitely sit Freeman, but don't expect anything out of Josh Johnson. If we learned anything from Caleb Hanie's debacle last week for the Bears, it's hard for back-ups to step in with one week notcie and put up decent fantasy numbers.
And downgrade the already low-graded Tampa players like Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow. A slight upgrade to LeGarrette Blount as the Bucs will be leaning heavily on the run today.
Look elsewhere for your fantasy quarterbacking needs this week.
Hakeem Nicks doesn't think he was concussed last week against the New Orleans Saints, and thinks he'll be in the starting lineup today in a huge game against the Packers.
On Thursday Nicks told reporters "It was a headache yesterday (Wednesday) and they made me, just because of the hit, they told me to chill."
And chill he did on Thursday, but returned to practice on Friday and looks good to go against a Packers defense that has been giving up a lot of points this year.
The Giants are essentially playing for their playoff lives today as a loss to the undefeated Packers all but closes the door on their postseason chances.
Which is why Hakeem Nicks should be a great fantasy start this week.
Not only is the Packers defense a little suspect--yes they turn the ball over a lot and score a lot of touchdowns on defense--but they also give up big chunks of yards and lots of points to opposing offenses.
And more importantly, the Packers will be scoring a TON of points against a banged-up Giants defense. Which means Eli Manning will be throwing the football all day long today witht he Giants most likely being in catch-up mode for the majority of the day.
I am so bullish on Hakeem Nicks today that I am projecting 8 catches for 120 yards and not one, but two touchdowns.
Julio Jones is expected to suit up against the Texans and make it into the starting lineup today after battling hamstring issues the last few weeks.
Jones missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday after missing the last two weeks of football, but should be playing today for the first time since November 13th.
The questions is, do you play him?
The short answer is yes. (The even shorter answer is y).
Jones has been pretty spectacular this season and there's no reason to think he'll be anythng less against a Texans defense that hasn't been that strong against the pass.
Matt Ryan will be glad to have his rookie burner back and will look to get him involved and get their rhythm back as the Falcons make their way for a playoff push.
It's a little scary that he didn't practice this week, which means there will be some rust, and probably a few timing issues. But looking at Julio's history, he managed to come into the league with limited training camp and produce right away.
And we're hoping he can do that again after missing practice for nearly a month.
Don't expect gigantic numbers out of Julio Jones today, but something along the lines of 5 catches for 65 yards and a score is probably the low end. Unless he tweaks his hammy again. Then all bets are off.
But the Falcons wouldn't be putting him out there if they thought he would injure that hamstring again. Start Julio Jones with confidence today against the Texans.
Kellen Moore, Boise State
Kellen Moore is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
The Boise State senior signal-caller is finishing off a brilliant career in which he set a new record for most wins as a starting quarterback with 48, surpassing Colt McCoy.
His season began with a bang in the Broncos’ win over Georgia at Atlanta. He was 28-of-34 passing for 261 yards and three scores in that contest.
In Boise State’s lone loss, Moore drove his troops into field goal range before a potential game-winning kick sailed wide as time expired.
Andrew Luck, Stanford
Andrew Luck is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
Widely projected as a high pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Luck spurned the NFL for another year in college, and Stanford fans certainly rejoiced. Luck didn’t disappoint the Cardinal faithful and, if anything, actually improved his NFL stock with another terrific season.
Trusted with some play-calling responsibilities, the fourth-year junior has freedom to change plays and protections. After throwing an interception that was returned for a TD against USC with just more than three minutes to play, he rallied his team for the tying score and the eventual win in overtime.
Luck led the Cardinal to an 11-1 season with the only blemish a 53-30 loss to Pac-12 North champion Oregon. For his part, Luck passed for 3,170 yards and 35 touchdowns.
He has led the Stanford Cardinal to back-to-back BCS bowls.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Has the Top 35 rule run its course?
Without question. Frankly, the rule should have never been around in the first place. It was designed at the end of 2004 to combat “field filler” operations — bare-bones Cup teams using provisionals just to start and park — and it was debatable whether such a drastic move was even needed to kill them off. There’s no doubt the rule did just that; within six months, it knocked out entire organizations looking simply to show up and collect a check each week.
But NASCAR circa 2008 is a whole different story. With 47 full-time teams now involved in the series, competition is at an all-time high. Each weekend, fully funded teams like Michael Waltrip Racing, Team Red Bull and The Wood Brothers come to the track loaded and ready to race — except that they have one hand tied behind their backs. For those outside the top 35 in points, the majority of Friday practice must be focused on qualifying, while teams with exemptions can work on race setups from the start. That creates a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: if those “outsider” teams actually make the race, they have so much less practice time that it’s nearly impossible for them to dig out of the hole they’re in. It’s an ugly merry-go-round that never stops, and for those lying squarely on the top 35 “bubble,” the importance of maintaining their position has become so high that they wind up racing conservatively rather than letting it all hang out.
NASCAR’s motives are somewhat pure. It wants to protect both the sponsors and teams putting hard-earned money into the series each week. But isn’t sports about competition, not safety nets? To its credit, the sanctioning body at least made a change this offseason that allowed the non-top 35 teams to qualify together. But what good will that do in a system where the ninth-fastest qualifying time still could get sent home, just because the team didn’t have as many points as everyone else?
The Gatorade Duel 150’s at Daytona are now simply nothing more than a glorified math problem. How fun are qualifying races to watch when three dozen cars are automatically in the field to begin with?
Here’s the ugly truth: nowadays a major sponsor will go home each week — that’s just the way it is. But it’s time to let to the driving on the track decide which of those sponsors it will be. After all, isn’t qualifying part of the competition that makes a race weekend a ‘race weekend’?
2. Will a rivalry develop between Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Originally, we would have said no — and then two incidents during the Chase got us thinking differently. Busch’s chances at a title went up in smoke courtesy of an “accidental” tap by Junior at Kansas, a boo-boo that would be 100 percent believable — if it hadn’t occurred on the middle of the back straightaway. The two wound up coming together again at Homestead, where Junior’s pit road spinout caused him to make contact with the No. 5 car. By then, title dreams for Busch were up in smoke, but that didn’t keep him from being smoking mad at Junior all over again.
Look, it’s no secret that Busch is bitter after being pushed out of a ride at Hendrick, an organization he thought he’d be in the rest of his career. It’s not all that often you see a man who finished fifth in points switching rides at the beginning of the next season, and in Kyle’s defense, he’s got reason to complain. The fact of the matter is, no amount of immaturity would have taken him out of a ride he excelled in if Mr. Popularity hadn’t been available.
But while Junior was adjusting to a brighter future, Busch got busy landing on his feet over at rival Joe Gibbs Racing, and that’s what makes this interesting. Not only is Busch out to prove he’s been wronged by the team that dumped him, but the kid might also have the equipment underneath him to make his case. In ’08 testing at Atlanta last Fall, Busch blew his old team — as well as everyone else — out of the water, posting the fastest time of anyone there in his new Toyota Camry.
That left no doubt that Busch is fired up, but will he do enough to piss off his replacement? A laid-back personality most of the time, Junior can be fiery on the radio but rarely on the racetrack; unlike his dad, he’ll say I’m sorry after a wreck instead of shaking his middle finger. Still, with the pressure to perform at Hendrick likely to cause more than a little stress next year, don’t be surprised to see a whole different Junior if he gets involved in a wreck not of his making; and right now, it’s not a question of if he’ll receive some payback from Busch. It’s a question of when.
3. What are the potential pitfalls of financial investors entering the sport?
George Gillett, Robert Kauffman and John Henry, we don’t mean to be rude. There’s nothing but respect for the millions of dollars you bring to the NASCAR table — and the all-too-gracious attitude you’ve displayed in spending what it takes to be competitive.
It’s just that, well, you’re a different breed of “car owner” than what we’re accustomed to seeing. Bud Moore, Junie Donlavey, Junior Johnson — now these were men who cared about the traditions of our sport, mostly because they lived it. Along for the ride since NASCAR’s inception, these famous entrepreneurs succeeded at racing’s top level without the seemingly unlimited funding it takes to be competitive nowadays. Most important, though, when the going got tough, they dug in their heels. Diehard racers to the core, by no means would they ever just pack up and leave, for NASCAR wasn’t just a job for them — it was part of their soul.
Where the hesitation comes in with men like Gillett, Kauffman and Henry is whether they entertain that same type of love for a sport they’re approaching as little more than part of a business. Some might argue that these men couldn’t even name 10 drivers in a 43-car field as recently as six months ago; now, all three wield enormous power over the top level of the most prestigious stock car organization in the world.
That’s not to say these men can’t be successful. But what if they bite off more than they can chew, losing more money than expected right off the bat? Will they stick around and gut out their losses, or will they simply cut and run, leaving a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams in their wake? Such a nightmare scenario of crashing and burning in NASCAR can already be condensed into two words: Bobby Ginn. In February, Ginn was the maverick owner with a five-year plan whose driver nearly stole the Daytona 500; by November, he was the maverick scam artist with a list of out-of-court settlements a mile long.
You can’t really blame people like Ray Evernham, Michael Waltrip and even Jack Roush for taking these guys on — NASCAR’s a game of who has the most money these days, and they’ve got to do what it takes to keep up.
For their sake, we just hope those checks keep coming in.
4. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back at DEI, and what happens now?
The worst thing any fan can hear from the insiders is “we may never know the truth.” In this case, though, the issues between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother Teresa look to be increasingly complex, far beyond the power struggle that has played out in the media. There’s a saying that family quarrels have a bitterness unmatched by others, and when it comes to a lifetime of differences, no one can adequately explain that story better than both parties, each giving their side. Unfortunately for the gossip hounds, Teresa has chosen to keep her mouth shut; that’s her prerogative, and until that changes all we can tell you is that this move came down to basic, irreconcilable differences in philosophy — nothing more, nothing less.
Now, DEI looks to the future, and to do so it must first come to terms with the past — and that goes beyond digesting the fact that Junior is gone. Last July, DEI ingested a sprawling operation in Ginn Racing, and as of November it was still struggling to integrate that merger into every facet of its program. Luckily for DEI, that merger came packed with one heck of a secret weapon: Mark Martin. Even at 48, Martin possesses the type of leadership skills and insight this organization needs to formulate a plan of cohesive success. Having taken youngster Regan Smith under his wing in ’07, Martin hopes to do the same type of tutoring this year with co-driver Aric Almirola.
But the individual who really could benefit from Martin’s teachings is the other Martin. Martin Truex Jr. emerged as far more than Earnhardt’s sidekick in ’07; once his buddy became a “lame duck,” Truex stepped up and took the leadership role to heart over at DEI. However, a frustrating Chase seemed to cause him to revert to the Truex of old, letting emotions get the better of him one too many times. For DEI to step it up, Truex needs to bring it down a notch — driving with his head and not with his heart. If he can learn to be patient, there’s nowhere to go with this four-car program but up — especially now that the loss of Joe Gibbs Racing has bumped it up the ladder at Chevrolet.
5. Are team orders ruining racing?
It’s on the verge of happening. Fans may remember the ugliness of 2004 at Richmond, when we believe that this all began. In a desperation move, Chip Ganassi Racing angrily demanded that James Finch’s car driven by Mike Wallace should “slow down” in order for Jamie McMurray to pass. At the time, Ganassi gave technical support to Finch’s group, and with a berth in the Chase at stake for McMurray, it figured competition be damned.
Luckily for the good of the sport, Wallace didn’t give in, but the price tag proved high, as the small-time team lost its partnership with Ganassi soon after. You’d think that ugly incident would have sounded the NASCAR alarm, but ever since that day, it seems the problem has gotten 10 times worse.
At Dover this season, a glimpse into a repulsive future was offered to all of us; at the end of the race, Casey Mears reluctantly pulled over for his teammate Kyle Busch at the request of the Hendrick organization, giving Busch five more points in the battle for the ’07 title. At the time, Busch’s car was a mangled mess, damaged in an earlier wreck; but even though Mears had four fresh tires, his shot for the win became secondary to “being a good teammate.” When that move went public, the garage reaction was even more revolting. Not only did people feel Hendrick was in the right, but they also claimed that the team was merely doing what was necessary to keep up with the Joneses. Why, just one week earlier, Greg Biffle had done the exact same thing for Roush Fenway Racing at New Hampshire — all in the name of giving Carl Edwards that three-point boost for the title.
But what’s good for the team isn’t good for competition. What’s going to happen one year when Mears is leading the final race of the season at Homestead, but Jeff Gordon’s running second and needs to take the win in order to complete his Drive For Five?
At this point, there’s virtually no doubt Mears would pull over, cutting the fan base in half with the white flag of surrender. Now, if you’re NASCAR, how do you police this? We don’t have the answer yet, but throwing up your hands and doing nothing about it — the sanctioning body’s response to this so far — is not going to help correct this problem.
6. Car of Tomorrow: Success or Failure?
NASCAR’s latest method for tightening its control over the sport came in the form of the much-heralded (and ballyhooed) Car of Tomorrow. The CoT made its debut at Bristol last season to not-so-rave reviews. Race winner Kyle Busch went so far as to say the car “sucked” in his Victory Lane interview.
The car, which was implemented to provide a safer machine to the competitors while increasing competition and saving owners money, has widely been panned by drivers, teams and fans alike.
While the first two CoT events, at Bristol and Martinsville, witnessed .064- and .065-second margins of victory — not unusual for a short track finish — the other 14 CoT races proved hard to watch.
With aerodynamic adjustments off-limits to the teams, the cars were cookie-cutter recreations of one another with no aero differences. While that may sound like a recipe for great racing — bunch the field up and the drama goes up proportionally — it instead made it hard for drivers to pass, as Matt Kenseth pointed out.
“If everybody is running the same speed, how are you gonna pass?” he asked. Good question.
Drivers, teams, officials and NASCAR understand that the car is still a work in progress and will most likely improve the financial conditions that owners now face. The racing itself will also improve a bit over time as drivers and teams continue to perfect the nuances of the piece.
In the short term, though, NASCAR must deal with a backlash from fans who accurately see a series that once rewarded ingenuity transformed into a resurrected IROC Series.
So the answer seems to be that the Car of Tomorrow Era is off to a shaky start, and that the directive from the sanctioning body will continue to be a less-than-popular one. But the car is not going away, so like it or not, this is the face of the sport, circa 2008.
7. Which driver at Roush Racing stands the greatest chance of losing his ride as the company condenses from five to four teams by 2009?
Trick question! The answer is none. In case you haven’t noticed, the two-car team that was Yates Racing has quietly transformed into a little dinner joint we like to call “Roush B.” Ever since former owner Robert Yates announced his retirement, the organization he led to the ’99 Cup championship has now deteriorated into little more than the new right arm for Jack Roush’s future R & D projects. Consider these facts:
Within 48 hours after transferring the deed to his son, Doug, the open seat in the team’s No. 88 (now No. 28) car was magically filled for 2008 — by none other than Roush Fenway Truck Series driver Travis Kvapil. Kind of funny how that worked, considering the team already seemed to have a driver in place. Kenny Wallace was busy subbing for an injured Ricky Rudd at the time; up until Yates’ retirement announcement, he appeared all but a shoe-in to get the ride the following year.
But Wallace was kicked off the ship of the future, and soon afterwards, a lot of old-time Yates employees jumped off to join him on shore. The team quickly announced a move from their shop in Mooresville, N.C. to a building right next to the main Roush Fenway facility down the road in Concord. Right away, the new neighbors figured Doug Yates would need plenty of help, so they wasted no time sending a housewarming gift — a new co-owner. Former Roush Fenway GM Max Jones pledged to work together with Yates to oversee construction of chassis delivered by — you guessed it — the Roush Fenway program next door.
No offense to Jack Roush, but how much more obvious can you make the fact that you just expanded from five cars to seven? Now, all he has to do at the end of this season is have the Yates/Jones group “purchase” one of the teams currently in his possession. Like clockwork, the cars move one building down the road and — voila! — Roush is technically down to a four-car organization, washing his hands of this whole NASCAR team limit rule.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the elder Yates was OK with letting this happen. No doubt, it’s a sad state of affairs for a team that used to run circles around Roush no more than half a dozen years ago.
8. How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fare at Hendrick Motorsports?
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his intention to leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc., last May, Rick Hendrick realized the potential of teaming his wildly successful organization — a company that boasts four Cup titles over the preceding decade — with the sport’s most recognizable, popular and marketable personality.
Although some have questioned Earnhardt’s true driving ability and where it stacks up against the greats of the sport, the 32-year-old does boast 17 career Cup wins, two Busch Series titles and three finishes of fifth or better in the Nextel Cup point standings. That’s more than many drivers — some thought to be more naturally gifted and in better equipment — can claim.
Junior left DEI to win championships, and the fact of the matter is, Hendrick Motorsports is the perfect place to go to achieve that goal. While he will have to learn to fit into the system at a company known for its white-collar approach and clean-cut, wholesome reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he finds his niche within the organization and learns to succeed working within its parameters.
How many princes can live in the same kingdom will be the larger issue with a group that includes Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But Hendrick is a leader of the highest caliber, and if anyone can make everyone play nice, it’s him.
Don’t expect Earnhardt to set the circuit ablaze this season, but he will rack up his share of wins in the next few years and should win the championship that proved unattainable at DEI.
9. Have the latest changes to the Chase format worked as expected?
It’s a mixed review of sorts. To a man, each driver liked the new way in which the playoff format was “seeded” in ’07; the extra bonus points for wins made finishes more exciting, as the extra incentive to go all out for a regular-season race trophy paid off.
But it seemed like having 12 drivers compete for the title made far too many people feel like they had a chance at the Chase, diminishing the focus on the racing at each individual event. Certain title contenders also pulled so far ahead of the 13th-place bubble that by the last month of the regular season, they spent a four-race stretch literally twiddling their thumbs. That’s a consequence of the 10-point win bonus; if a “locked-in” Chase driver doesn’t have a car that could win the race, why would he bother to take any chances? A fifth or a seventh wouldn’t really matter for Jeff Gordon in the grand scheme of things, since it wasn’t going to earn him a better playoff “seeding.”
So if the Chase still has to exist — and it looks like it’s not going anywhere — early results seem to be better with 10 drivers gunning for the title, not 12.
Check out this Richmond drama if the field had been cut by two in ’07: Clint Bowyer would have made it in by the skin of his teeth, at ninth in points by 19 over Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch. Those two would have tied for the 10th and final spot in the Chase, giving us an unlikely field of 11 contenders, with Kevin Harvick missing the boat by only five points.
Now that’s one heck of a battle for the playoffs. Instead, fans were treated to three straight hours of seeing if Brian France would simply change the rules and let longshot Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the Chase in 13th.
Such nonsense didn’t happen, and now the question is whether France has one more rule change left in him. Let’s see if he’ll use it for 2008.
10. Should Greg Biffle have been awarded the win at Kansas last season?
In one of the craziest races seen in quite some time, Greg Biffle was flagged the winner of the LifeLock 400 at Kansas Speedway last season. The event had been shortened by a lengthy rain delay and chopped from 400 miles to 315 on account of impending darkness.
After a late caution that would have taken the race into a green-white-checker finish, NASCAR decided to call the race then and there, with Biffle leading the field but running on fumes.
Coming to the checkers/yellow behind the pace car and at caution speed, Biffle’s car slowed, appearing to have run out of fuel. When Biffle dipped to the apron of the track, second- and third-place Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson cruised by, crossing the finish line ahead of Biffle.
Biffle claimed he was not out of fuel, but just conserving enough gas to do a few victory burnouts. He never did, though, as NASCAR asked his team to push the car directly to Victory Lane instead.
While Biffle and team claim otherwise, it seemed obvious that he was, in fact, out of fuel, and because he could not keep a “cautious pace” gave up his spot in the running order.
The rule book, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, states:
“…cars will be scored on the basis of their respective track position. No passing will be permitted, as long as cars maintain a reasonable speed considering the conditions that exist on the track. The determination of respective track position and a reasonable speed are judgment calls that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
Get that last part? “Reasonable speed (is a) judgment call that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
How a driver can be flagged the winner without having crossed the start/finish line first remains a mystery. Although the field was frozen with Biffle in the lead, he could not keep a cautious speed, which truly is the central point here.
The singular objective in racing of any form is to complete the full distance of the event before all other competitors. Biffle did not.
So no, Greg Biffle should not have been awarded the Kansas win, but because the guys in race control seemingly fell asleep at the wheel, his victory will stand.
11. Why did Joe Gibbs Racing defect from Chevrolet to Toyota?
Three reasons: pecking order on the GM food chain, lots of cash and foresight.
JGR, although successful to the tune of 58 wins and three Cup titles in 16 seasons in the sport, would never supplant Hendrick Motorsports as GM’s top dog. At Toyota, the Gibbs powerhouse brings the swagger and success the new manufacturer desires. In short, JGR will receive the best resources Toyota has to give.
Some of what Toyota can give may have already been delivered. Gibbs was the recipient of a reported $60-$75 million to jump the GM ship. In a sport that is strictly a business six days a week, the bottom line demanded that Gibbs make the decision.
Lastly, Joe Gibbs is a man of vision. Whether winning Super Bowls or Cup titles, he has obviously mastered the art of motivation and leadership. If Gibbs’ transition results in wins and championships, other owners — Roger Penske and Ray Evernham come to mind — will wish they had had the foresight to capitalize on Toyota’s new way of doing business.
12. Is it time for NASCAR to revamp the schedule?
This topic is one that demands a feature unto itself but can be summed up quickly enough. The simple answer is yes, NASCAR needs to shake up the logistics of the schedule to better accommodate the teams and the fans. After all, 14- and 17-race streaks could be divided up to give everyone a well-deserved break.
NASCAR’s larger problem centers around the stagnation of the Chase and its venues. A 10-race playoff stretch is much too long to hold the attention of a fanbase already weary from a 26-race regular season. Further, said events need to be rotated among all of the circuit’s venues to ensure a renewed interest in a playoff format whose legitimacy and entertainment value are questioned by many as it now stands.
The unfortunate truth, however, tells us that changing the venues and/or dates may prove to be difficult at best. With Chase-hosted tracks basing their year-long marketing programs around the fact that they host a coveted spot on tour, the call would depend in large part on the blessings of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Dover Motorsport, Inc.
Like many issues alive within the sport today, the question is easier to answer on paper than to enact as policy.
13. What tracks are in jeopardy of losing a date now that Bruton Smith owns New Hampshire International Speedway?
The obvious answer is New Hampshire itself. When Smith, the owner and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., bought the one-mile oval from Bob Bahre in November 2007 for $340 million, the assumption was that he would move New Hampshire’s September date — the event that kicks off NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship — to Las Vegas, where the billionaire could host a spectacle in a city known for spectacles.
SMI owns and operates seven race tracks that host Cup events: Atlanta, Bristol, Infineon, Las Vegas, Lowe’s, New Hampshire and Texas. Atlanta, Bristol, Texas and, currently, New Hampshire each have two dates, and Smith has made his desire for a second date in Vegas widely known.
While New Hampshire is candidate No. 1 to forfeit a date, it also makes a case for itself to retain its events because of its location. NHIS, along with Watkins Glen and Pocono, are the only tracks in the coveted Northeast market to host Cup races. Also, if Smith were to upgrade the facility, installing lights and variable banking, the quality of racing would improve as well.
Atlanta is a candidate to give up a date as the South is well-represented, and the track has difficulty selling out both races. One of its dates could go to Vegas, with the new date swapped with NHIS to accommodate the first Chase date.
What Smith plans to do with his two new dates remain a mystery, but his track record (read: North Wilkesboro) points to a track being purchased for its dates, not its specific events.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Monte Dutton
Many NASCAR insiders would prefer that the spots in the starting fields of Sprint Cup races were determined by franchises. It’s a team sport, they say, so why shouldn’t it be composed of organized teams assured of a chance to compete in every race?
“There are two or three of us who like the idea of a franchise,” understates Richard Petty. “NASCAR, basically, does not.”
It’s a complicated issue, and the central complication is the complexity in comparing auto racing to other sports. Stock-car racers are fond of calling theirs “the ultimate team sport,” though, by definition, it isn’t a team sport at all.
Two teams don’t meet and race against each other. Forty-three contestants — yes, they’re composed of drivers with teams behind them — compete on an individual basis, which is more comparable to what would otherwise be referred to as an individual sport, like golf. There’s an element of teamwork in every sport. Even golfers use clubs that are constructed for them. The team element is more relevant to NASCAR, but it isn’t definitively a team sport.
The absence of franchises undermines the market value of teams because they have no reliable right to compete in every race. NASCAR has evolved in a way that protects teams in a manner that would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago. Now, for instance, 35 spots in each race’s 43-car field are guaranteed on the basis of owner standings. During the season’s first five races, those spots are determined by the standings of the previous year, which makes it difficult for start-up teams to acquire security. This very issue greatly complicated Toyota’s entry into what is now the Sprint Cup Series in 2007.
“I believe that a franchise system — and I hate to use the word ‘franchise’ — is the right thing to do for the investment of the car owners and, primarily, the investment of the sponsors,” says Jeff Burton. “By the same token — what about, in baseball, when the Florida Marlins win the World Series and then dump everybody afterwards — there ought to be a way you can lose your franchise. You shouldn’t be able to operate with a continuing losing record. You should not be able to keep your franchise without putting a competitive team on the court.”
Or the track.
“You should not be able to do that,” Burton continues, “but I believe that we are to the point where our car owners have so much invested and our sponsors have so much invested that we’ve got to find a way to protect them. The ‘top-35 thing’ works better than the way it used to be, but in this environment, it’s not good enough.”
From NASCAR’s perspective, the current system works. It conveys a fleeting, unofficial franchise system based on recent performance. While franchising appeals to many within the sport, it’s objectionable to hard-liner fans who think every race ought to be contested between the fastest 43 cars based on qualifying speeds. The fact that qualifying mainly determines the starting order, not the composition of the field, is disturbing to purists.
The controversy even divides families. Petty, who won more races than anyone in NASCAR history, still heads up the team founded by his late father, Lee, who himself was a three-time champion. Richard is an ardent supporter of franchises. His son, still-active driver Kyle, is unsure. “I think it should be the fastest 43 cars. I have no problem with that,” says Kyle Petty. “That’s from the competition side. This is where this is a goofy sport. From an owner’s side, I should have a franchise. We’ve been here 60 years doing the same thing, beating our heads against the wall pulling from California to New York to Florida and back six times a year with some of the schedules they’ve made throughout the years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it.
“Is it a sport or a business? It’s really a business six days a week. It’s only a sport on Sunday, but it’s a business Monday through Saturday. That’s the way it works. From a business side, I’m not against the top 35 having a free ride. I’m not against a franchise, but for the quality of the show, it should be the 43 fastest cars.”
The official NASCAR position, as conveyed by spokesman Ramsey Poston, holds that the current system is an effective compromise. From another perspective, though, it has the effect of creating a makeshift franchising system in which all the value and power remains centered in the ruling body’s hands. There’s no long-term value for teams like Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers that have been instrumental in the sport’s history. And most observers don’t see any further shift toward franchising in the foreseeable future.
“The issue of franchises in NASCAR has generated quite a bit of buzz, mostly because of all the new owners and investors coming into the sport,” says Michael Smith of SportsBusiness Journal. “As people try to put two and two together to read the changing landscape of ownership in NASCAR while wondering why so many new owners are suddenly interested, many have speculated that franchises are on the horizon.
“But there’s really no reason, from NASCAR’s perspective, to believe that franchises will be issued in the near future.”
Even as NASCAR officials strain to come up with meaningful cost-cutting measures, costs associated with every aspect of the sport are escalating at a rapid rate. Teams that once constructed race cars in a somewhat modest shop are now employing hundreds. They own and maintain private jets to transport personnel to tracks all across the country. Some field teams in all three of NASCAR’s so-called “major touring series” — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck.
One of the chief recent developments is the soliciting of lucrative investors with relatively little prior knowledge or interest in the sport.
John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is now Jack Roush’s partner, hence the name Roush Fenway Racing. George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, bought into Ray Evernham’s team, making it Gillett-Evernham Motorsports. Two members of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ownership group, Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel, now own controlling interest in Hall of Fame Racing. It’s a trend that shows no sign of abating, and all this new capital makes it more and more difficult for family teams like Petty Enterprises to remain competitive.
Rob Kauffman, a London-based investor, bought half of Michael Waltrip Racing. One of Kauffman’s advisers is real-estate developer Johnny Harris, who also acquired a stake and now sits on the team’s six-member board. Harris is a member of the Carolina Panthers’ ownership group.
“John Henry is an excellent example of a strategic investor,” says Timothy Frost, whose firm, Frost Motorsports LLC, has participated in securing sponsors and investors. “These investors own companies active in a wide range of activities related to sports. They’re able to use their resources in ways — marketing, sponsorships, media exposure, souvenir and collectible sales — that benefit the race teams in areas other than just performance on the track.”
Still, the ultimate value and power remain firmly centered in NASCAR’s hands. The system as it has evolved has conveyed only fleeting, short-term value to the participants. The sport is changing rapidly, and it’s hard for longstanding teams not to be swept away in these changes.
“If you don’t have an open mind, you’ve got to be surrounded with enough people who do have open minds to help you make the transition or change you have to make,” says Bobby Labonte, who now drives for Petty Enterprises.
“It takes a while to change.”
A Forbes magazine article estimated that the average NASCAR team is valued at $120 million. Its estimate rose by 67 percent between 2006 and 2007. According to the article, 20 percent of NASCAR’s top teams were losing money, in part because Forbes judged there to be 41 in the “top teams” category. The most valuable team, by those estimates, was Roush Fenway Racing at $316 million. Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team of 2006, was valued at $297 million, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing at $173 million. The Forbes estimates were based on total sponsorship values and race-related income.
As a comparison, the average National Hockey League franchise is worth $150-200 million, according to Forbes.
Forbes’ Jack Gage writes that licensing is on the decline in NASCAR, and sponsorship rates have flattened out since 2003. Despite rising costs, the average NASCAR team still banks $12.3 million in profits, or roughly 15 percent of revenue, and estimates say that $100 million will be saved sport-wide over the next two years by switching to the Car of Tomorrow.
“What franchising would do is give team owners the security to know that they’ll be able to compete from year to year, that they’ll have a spot on the track, compared to the current model where teams are often reliant on sponsorship to keep their doors open from year to year,” says SportsBusiness Journal’s Smith.
“Many of the top owners in NASCAR have operations that take on franchise tendencies anyway, which is why there’s a deepening gap between the haves and have-nots. Hendrick, Roush Fenway, GEM (Gillett-Evernham) and now MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing), among others, all can rest assured that they’ll be around for years to come because their owners don’t rely on their NASCAR teams for income. They all have developed alternate sources of income. … Teams that rely on sponsorship for 80 percent of their revenue without any other significant streams of income are more likely to run the risk of going out of business.”
Jack Roush admits his agreement with Henry and Fenway Sports Group began partly as a response to Toyota’s entry.
“Toyota will not find that others will wither in their path as they have found in other series in which they’ve competed,” says Roush, a longtime Ford owner.
“Toyota is bringing about changes in the way we do business. They are willing to pay more for a service than sound business practices would otherwise justify.”
“NASCAR certainly understands (the Toyota) problem,” Roush adds. “I regard the Car of Tomorrow as primarily NASCAR’s initiative to limit technology as a way of controlling technology.”
Joe Gibbs took another tack. The Washington Redskins head coach, whose NASCAR operations are managed by his son J.D., switched his three-car team from Chevrolet to Toyota. Three of the sport’s big names — two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, 2006 Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — will compete in Toyotas this year, greatly enhancing the likelihood that the sport’s newest manufacturer will begin winning races this year.
That move, in turn, is a reaction by Toyota to the frustrations associated with entering the sport. Had Toyota not successfully wooed JGR away from Chevrolet, it would have begun the season with only one driver, Dave Blaney, assured of a spot in the Daytona 500 field. Now there will be at least four.
Burton, one of three Sprint Cup Series drivers competing regularly for RCR, admits the future is fraught with uncertainty.
“I’m nervous about having manufacturers, sponsors, and millions and millions of dollars put into this program for marketing reasons, without the product on the race track, and that’s going to happen to major teams and major corporations,” he says. “In the long run, I don’t think it’s good for our sport. I do believe that there is a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality in this sport that has worked for a long time.
“In today’s economy and taking into account the ultra-competitive nature of the sport, I believe there need to be some changes. I don’t believe it’s in our sport’s best interest, being that without corporate involvement, we’re nothing. We can’t even come close to running our programs on the purse (prize money). It’s not even a thought. It’s NASCAR’s charge to find a way to make that work for everybody. … The current program, locking in the top 35, is the best we’ve ever had, but it’s time to find a way to do it even better.”
To Burton, teams deserve even greater security.
“With the Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers, they know they are going to have a chance to play in every game,” he says. “They don’t know if they’re going to make the playoffs, but we need that here. I think it would protect the owners, and it would protect our sponsors and I think we have to find a way to move toward that. I think we need 43 teams that know they are going to be in the show, but, at the same time have to do things to validate that they deserve a franchise.
“We need to find a way to guarantee everybody they are going to be in the show for our sponsors and car owners. It isn’t about the drivers; it’s about the sponsors and the car owners. At the same time, if a car owner doesn’t do a certain amount of things, he could lose his franchise.”
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon owns a stake in Hendrick Motorsports, giving him a perspective derived from seeing the issue from two sides.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be franchising,” he says, echoing Burton. “I’m a big fan of making these teams hold their value. Look at our team. It basically has no value other than the people, the machines and the building space that we have.
“Somebody can go out there and basically start up a new organization. Maybe Hendrick Motorsports is a bad example because it’s an organization that has been so solid that it might have a little bit more value than some other teams out there, but other than having our sponsorship dollars and … the winnings that you get, the value that should come along with it isn’t there. Hendrick has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to get our organization where it is.
“If something catastrophic were to happen, then it wouldn’t be worth the money that’s been invested at this point.”
No reliable, specific plan has emerged to accommodate the concerns voiced by Burton, Gordon and others. The absence of a balanced plan is itself an obstacle in persuading NASCAR to move further toward a franchise system.
“When you support the sport and help build the sport, you should have something for that,” says Jimmie Johnson, the Cup champion of the past two seasons.
“We’ve all talked about franchising our sport, and I’m sure it will never happen, but this (stability for the top 35 in owner points) is the only thing that these owners have that they can count on that they can sell to their sponsor.”
The current system is a compromise in itself, of course. The official NASCAR position is that it provides a balance between the extremes of cutthroat competition and docile stability.
“There should not be a welfare system in sports,” says Kyle Petty. “When kids play baseball, and I’m going to be very politically incorrect here, they ought to keep score, and there ought to be a winner and there ought to be a loser.
“You learn from losing. Kids learn from losing. You learn sportsmanship from losing. That’s what we do out here on Sundays. There are winners and losers.
“In the business world, there’s a totally different set of rules. If I look at this as a business, there are certain things, and I’m not going to call it welfare. Call it sweat equity. We put 60 years here, and we deserve something back for those 60 years. The Wood Brothers deserve something back for their 50 years.
“For the sport to have potential to grow, it also has to be built on the back of some of those guys. Call it what you want to call it, but I do think there’s a different standard from the business side to the racing.”
Richard Petty’s career — begun working on father Lee’s car, then racing at the highest level from 1958–1992 and now with a still-active role in the family team — has spanned the sport’s entire history. In fact, Lee Petty competed in NASCAR’s very first race in 1949.
“The guys who helped build NASCAR paved the way for the guys that come in now with money,” Richard Petty says.
“When it first started, Junior (Johnson), Bud Moore, us, all these guys were racers. They didn’t have any outside business. All they wanted to do was race.
“Then, all of a sudden, there was some money in it, so people with money came in and said they were going to spend money to make money. The first thing you know, the money runs the racers out of the racing business.”
Why does NASCAR oppose the concept of franchises?
“I don’t know if they think they lose some of their authority over everybody if there were franchises. One of these days, it will probably happen,” opines Richard Petty. “I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it or not, but it will probably happen some day.
“I think the only thing in my mind that keeps NASCAR from being completely legitimate, major league, with golfing or football or baseball or whatever, is being franchised. All the other entities are basically franchised. As they are franchised, you get a lot of people’s ideas thrown in the middle of the thing.
“And in the long run it winds up better for everybody.”