Athlon asks the questions that are on everyone's mind, even if they may not like the answers
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.
The following "13 Tough Questions" feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
1. Can the ALLTEL car win the Nextel Cup?
The ALLTEL team, led by Ryan Newman, is the odds-on favorite to win the 2004 Nextel Cup. Newman and his Penske South guys proved they were the cream of the crop last year, and their prospects appear very favorable to repeat their title.
The question is not if they are capable; the question is whether they will play on a level field. Nextel enters the sport in 2004 with cars sponsored by its competitors competing to win the championship the company funds. This could present a unique set of problems. The NASCAR marketing department did a great job in replacing Winston as the long-time series sponsor and preparing Nextel for competing companies in the sport. But Winston did not face this issue.
Will the emergence of Ryan Newman, decked out in the ALLTEL colors, damage the NASCAR/Nextel program the first year out of the box?
The answer is preceded by two questions:
Could they? Can the sanctioning body keep Newman from winning the championship? That answer is a qualified yes. There are more than a couple of ways to keep a car from winning. The inspection process is the most effective way to keep a team down. Many measurements are left to discretion and judgment. If football is a game of inches, racing is a game of ounces and millimeters. The performance of a race car is directly related to how closely the rulebook is followed and how strictly the rules are enforced during inspection.
Any time penalties are handed out by judgment calls there is room to favor, or not to favor, a particular team. If this does not ring a bell, take a look at the yellow line issues involving Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. last season. The majority of participants feel that the two rulings were inconsistent. Marlin got penalized; Junior got a check. This discretion is one way to affect the outcome of a race — or a season.
Add speeding on pit road to this list. There is no way to prove whether a driver did or did not speed. When was the last time you saw a radar gun anywhere near pit road? Worse, there is no appeal process that can take place during a race to rectify a situation such as this. One or two of these incidents can change the outcome of an entire season.
But would they? Most believe NASCAR can and has adversely affected specific teams in the past. Competitors have little or no recourse in these matters. We believe it is doubtful that NASCAR would hinder the performance of the ALLTEL team to prevent Newman from winning a championship, but it does make for interesting water cooler talk. The Nextel folks knew coming in that Newman was quickly becoming the ace of NASCAR’s premier division. He can, and probably will, have a Nextel Cup on his mantle before long. This will cause some red faces if it happens in the first year, but we do not see an effort to prevent what we believe is inevitable. There were red faces at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when the Home Depot car pulled into Victory Lane last season, but embarrassment is nothing new in this sport. The bigger problem we see is that the outcome can be affected, even if it is not.
2. Should Jimmy Spencer have been suspended for punching Kurt Busch?
This is one of those things that NASCAR had to do but probably did not want to. The one-race suspension had no effect on the point standings for the car or driver. Neither would have made the top 25 and finished in the money.
There were sponsor considerations in the mix as well. Sirius sponsors races at Michigan and Watkins Glen (both owned by International Speedway Corporation). Other than that, this suspension happened because the police saw the incident and Jack Roush pushed the issue.
Add this to the well-publicized feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer and the suspension was inevitable. There have been numerous incidents in the sport involving fists, water bottles and an assortment of other objects, although none ended with suspensions. Looking back to the Kevin Harvick/Greg Biffle incident after the Busch race at Bristol in 2002, physical contact between the two was made, television cameras caught the fray and it was every bit as intentional as the Spencer slap. Oddly enough, the incident did not result in a suspension for either driver.
The bottom line is, NASCAR felt it had to put an end to the feud brewing between Spencer and Busch. That, and they knew that with the sport reaching a new base of fans, letting the incident go would not sit well with some.
Did they do the right thing? We don’t think Spencer should have been suspended while Busch only got fined, especially when you consider that bumping someone’s car while running 185 mph is much more dangerous than a punch in the face. Let them race, let them fight and see if the risk of a bloody nose is more of a deterrent for reckless driving than a simple fine.
3. Is aero ruining racing?
Hell yes! Racing is not as exciting as it used to be. Engineers have massaged the cars down to the foot-pound of downforce, causing the smallest wrinkle on the front fender to take a car out of contention. When the engineer becomes more critical than the driver, it’s not racing.
Simply put, the aerodynamics of today’s cars equalize driving talent. As recently as the mid-1990s, young drivers could not compete due to a lack of experience; now the aerodynamic equalizer allows rookies to not only compete, but also win. While new winners are good for the sport, giving up better racing is not a fair trade-off. The number of first-time winners over the last few years could be a direct correlation to the aero packages on the cars today.
There are numerous races where the best car gets caught in traffic and cannot get back to the front. Clean air, dirty air and track position are factors in every race, but today’s cars have to balance front and rear downforce. If the balance is off, the cars will not handle. If you take away front downforce the cars push; with less rear downforce the cars are too loose.
The term “taking air off the rear spoiler” is a prime example. When a trailing car reaches the back bumper of another car, the air passes over the rear spoiler and takes away rear downforce, causing the back end to want to swing out.
The aero push is the same concept. When a trailing car closes on a competitor, the air goes over the hood and decreases front downforce. The trailing car loses grip in the front and cannot advance.
The great equalizer works when the car is in clean air. With proper track position, a less experienced driver or an inferior car can win a race. As a result, track position has won or lost the majority of the races in the last two years.
New rules are on the way to lessen the impact of aerodynamics. Softer tires and less rear spoiler should “mess up” some of the aero. Thus, we should see more finishes based on driver talent and less on wind tunnel technology.
4. Was Dodge right to bump Bill Davis?
This is a tough one. In the 2003 season, two teams lost their factory support for different reasons. The Jasper Motorsports team lost support from Ford for running a Dodge in the fall Talladega race. The Jasper team was way down the list with Ford anyway and did not have much to lose.
The shocker was Dodge dropping Bill Davis for working with Toyota. We are going to side with Dodge on this one. All of the manufacturers in Nextel Cup racing have poured millions of dollars into the sport, and they must protect their investment.
Further, Dodge is the elite Truck manufacturer. For one of their own to aid and abet their biggest foe for the upcoming season was inexcusable.
Dodge, Ford, and GM are not happy that Toyota is coming into the sport. When Dodge pulled factory support for the two Davis teams, Detroit sent a message to all teams of all makes: If you want factory support, you must not do anything that helps the competition.
We question the short-term logic of Davis in jeopardizing his two Cup teams for the Craftsman Truck Series. None of the other Toyota teams for the 2004 truck season race in other series, so they have nothing to lose. Davis now faces the future without substantial support for his Nextel Cup effort.
It is reasonable to assume that Toyota will land with Bill Davis Racing when they expand into Busch and Cup racing in the future. In the meantime, the BDR Nextel car will race without factory support. The arrangement with Toyota should include some support that might carry over to the Cup side of the garage in the future.
5. Is there favoritism in NASCAR?
Over the years there have been accusations of preferential treatment for certain teams and drivers. Fans and the media have voiced various opinions, but the best place for opinions is in the garage. When asked the question, two incidents continually surface. The first is the yellow line infraction at Talladega by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
At the 2003 Daytona 500, Sterling Marlin was penalized for advancing his position by going under the yellow line. It appeared Marlin went low to avoid getting into the back of Elliott Sadler. Later in the year at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. clearly went below the yellow line to make a pass and win the race. While Marlin was penalized, officials gave a pass to NASCAR’s most popular driver and No. 1 souvenir salesman.
Another less-known incident involved Earnhardt again. In the fall Atlanta race, which was run on Monday due to a rain-out, Ricky Rudd spun into the wet front stretch infield. With the infield heavily saturated, it was clear Rudd would have to be towed out. Spotters alerted drivers of the spin, warning of the impending yellow flag. The new rules prohibiting racing back to the yellow caused several drivers to back off. Kurt Busch did not lift and passed a couple of cars coming off turn four. NASCAR had to give cars their laps back and penalized Busch for passing the cars, but the yellow flag was late coming out. The late yellow led to confusion.
Review of the incident found that Earnhardt had entered pit road just before Rudd spun. Many people in the garage felt the yellow flag was late coming out to keep Earnhardt on the lead lap.
Of course we remember Watkins Glen in 2002. With all the cars lined up for a restart with one lap to go, the drivers were warned not to jump the restart. The TV commentators heard these warnings and then discussed where the restart line was. Before they could finish, the leader, Tony Stewart, jumped the gun. The NBC guys fully expected Stewart to get the black flag in light of NASCAR’s warnings. No penalty was assessed and Stewart went on to win the championship by 38 points over Mark Martin.
We also recall a race at Martinsville where Rusty Wallace jumped a late restart, got black-flagged and lost the race. Was this favoritism? You decide. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters” should be changed to “It’s not what was done, it’s who did it that matters.”
6. Was Kevin Harvick grandstanding in the incidents with Ricky Rudd and Greg Biffle?
Yes, and here are the facts. Kevin Harvick accosted Greg Biffle after a Busch race in Bristol in 2002. During the race, Harvick made contact with Biffle and ended up in the wall and out of the race. Harvick waited on the wall of his pit box until the end of the race. When Biffle got out of his car on pit road, Harvick ran across pit road and dove over the hood of the car and grabbed Biffle around the collar.
Then this year at Richmond, Harvick jumped out of his car and started a near-riot on pit road after a late-race altercation that knocked him out of the race. There are many photographs of an angry Harvick standing on his car screaming at Ricky Rudd. This ended a great run and a top 5 finish.
Harvick had the cameras and a national TV audience for both cases. Many competitors throw him under the bus on this one. The terms “showboat” and “immature” are mentioned a great deal when talking about these incidents. On both occasions, Harvick embarrassed himself, Richard Childress and his team.
We wonder if Harvick would have approached Rudd if there were no cameras or anyone to break up a potential fight. We don’t think so. This goes back to maturity. Harvick constantly gets into trouble and almost thrives on being the bad boy.
His one-race suspension for the truck race incident at Martinsville was a wake-up call, but Harvick hit the snooze button and went on his way. Dale Earnhardt was known as The Intimidator; Harvick is trying to be an imitator — but falls short.
7. Will Jeff Gordon be a better driver now that he is single again?
There are two Jeff Gordons. One was married and shackled; the other is single and free. We wonder which one is the better race car driver. Without getting into the reasons for the divorce, we see the single Jeff definitely having more fun.
Fun has little to do with winning races, but it can change attitudes and mindset. The old Gordon was almost a recluse and rarely seen out on his own. The new and improved Gordon is loose and happy. The fact that the legal stuff and tabloid reports are over also makes life easier.
Any time that an ordeal of this nature comes to a conclusion, the person involved has to have a great feeling of relief. Now that the ball-and-chain has been removed, we should see a different person and a different race car driver. We predict that the best of Gordon as a driver has yet to be seen.
8. Has Kurt Busch learned anything about maturity after a year of embarrassments?
Kurt Busch has just completed a tough season. He started the year with strong finishes, including three wins in the first 15 races. Then a stretch of bad luck and crashes took Busch from second in the points to ninth by July. At the Michigan race in August, Busch sideswiped Jimmy Spencer’s car, trying to ruin the fenders, affect aerodynamics and possibly causing a tire rub.
It is one thing to bump, trade paint and race hard, but Busch had nothing to gain from the incident. His biggest mistake was openly discussing his intent on the radio for all to hear. When the tape surfaced, Busch looked like an idiot.
After the race, he got a slap to the face that bloodied his nose and left a shiner. Some say he deserved it, and most sided with Spencer. The idiotic statements caught on tape cost him the respect of almost every one of his competitors on the circuit. Some drivers offered to pay Spencer’s fine, and fans made Busch the target of the most boos on the circuit.
Fittingly, the sponsors sat him down for a chewing, both in private and in public. Even his teammates could not defend Busch’s immature behavior. When Busch, in the Sharpie car, won the Sharpie 500 at Bristol, the boo-birds were overwhelmingly loud. The Sharpie people were stunned by the negative response to their driver on what could have been a career-changing day. Needless to say, sponsors are not happy when their driver is seen as a liability.
After the Bristol win, Busch disappeared off the radar screen. Bad finishes and more motor problems dropped him out of the top 10.
At Martinsville, Busch blew another motor, came down pit road and spun in the oil. Once again, his immaturity took over and he lit up the car and spun again in complete disregard for his and other pit crews. NASCAR took a dim view and invited crew chief, owner and driver to the red trailer for a sit-down. Busch either did not hear the request or blew it off.
The next week in Atlanta, Busch had his NASCAR license taken. He had to go through the credential line to gain admission to the pits and garage. This was merely a slap on the wrist, but it was a huge inconvenience for Busch.
Nextel Cup racing is for adults. Other young drivers have figured out how to get along; why can’t Busch? He had the luxury of seeing Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart act up and pay the price, but it appears he did not pay attention.
Busch is a driver who did not pay his dues like his elder drivers. Most drivers in their 40s spent years driving second-rate, underfinanced equipment, while Busch started his Cup career in a winning car. There is an underlying resentment toward the young, cocky and arrogant drivers on the circuit. It is hard to justify his behavior, and it costs his team in the long run. This is the one sport where the respect of your competitors and fans can affect a career, and we are not sure Busch is mature enough to understand the basics of getting along in this sport.
9. Are ticket sales declining?
Watch a race on TV and you will quickly notice the number of commercials for tickets to upcoming races. This is a new and very necessary development. Only a few tracks sell out all of their races, and as the realignment talks continue, this issue gets more pressing.
There are several factors that have led to empty seats at tracks that used to sell out. The economic conditions can’t be blamed for everything. To determine the cause of the decline we need to identify the three types of ticket buys for Nextel Cup races.
- The race fan: Joe Six-Pack goes with his family or buddies to a race or two each season. He buys and pays for his four tickets around nine months before the race on an annual renewal.
- The local business uses tickets for employees and to entertain customers at the race in the area. Sometimes they utilize hospitality packages that include food, beverages, and more. Each local business is good for 20-100 tickets per race.
- National corporate accounts purchase hundreds of tickets at multiple tracks across the country. Most of these corporations sponsor cars and most of the time they host their customers and guests with structured at-the-track hospitality. These are the tents you see in restricted areas just outside the grandstands. The hospitality package can run as much as $350 per person, not including the gouging by the hotels.
Joe Six-Pack has economic factors to consider every year at renewal time. The economy has been unkind to some, jobs have changed, children are born and priorities change. And when a race fan elects not to renew for one season, he is more than likely to stay away in future years. Getting him back can be very difficult.
The distance from the track is another issue. Overnight accommodations are budget-killers for the average race fans. Most hotels jack up room rates and require two- or three-night minimums for a race weekend. Charging race fans $250 dollars for a room that is $49 come Monday night, can be prohibitive.
After the economic issues come the boring racing that has emerged with all the aerodynamic hocus-pocus. Many long-time fans are burned out by the lack of actual racing on the track.
The local corporate customers face the same economic factors as Joe Six-Pack, but they are also faced with redundancy. You can only entertain the same customers so many times with the same thing. Customers who are not race fans are usually good for only one or two outings. In the days of budget cuts, every dollar has to have maximum impact. To be blunt, if you are not a die-hard fan, once you have seen one race, you have seen them all.
National corporate customers who purchase hundreds of tickets are declining in number for several reasons. Tickets and hospitality packages are purchased to enhance and increase business. When business declines, these are the first cuts. Instead of purchasing 400 at a particular track, they might cut 100 from the annual ticket buy. Multiply this by dozens of customers and you get thousands of available tickets.
The arrogance and poor customer relations of the tracks have added to the decline. The cost of doing business goes up every year, with no improvement in the product. This sounds like a harsh indictment of the tracks, but if you listen to the corporate customers, they will echo these comments. The tracks are responsible for most of their own problems. The needs of corporate customers have been ignored for years while constant price increases have shrunk the numbers. When all tracks sold out there was no need for good customer service.
Poor customer service, economics and follow- the-leader racing has run off thousands of ticket buyers in the last few years. If NASCAR fixes the problems with racing on the track, people will come back. Follow the leader does not sell tickets; passing the leader will.
Race tickets used to be a sellers’ market. Not anymore.
10. Will Rusty win again?
This is a repeat question from our 2003 Racing Annual. We predicted at least one win for Rusty Wallace a year ago, but we reverse course in 2004 and predict that he will once again miss out on a visit to Victory Lane.
Wallace didn’t do much in 2003 to give us reason to believe. The Miller Lite Team had a car to win in three or four races only to self-destruct.
His is now the secondary team at Penske South, and that creates a new set of problems. In looking at the record books, Wallace has fared much better without teammates. And starting over with a new crew chief in 2004 should put the team behind to begin the year.
Wallace has led the effort to change the rules to bring the cars back to him, instead of working to catch up to the leaders. We expect Wallace to improve over last year, but this team is always capable of snatching defeat from jaws of victory.
11. What effect will Toyota have on NASCAR?
Toyota will have both good and bad effects on all divisions of NASCAR. The level of competition in the Craftsman Truck Series will be better, and that is a good thing.
Toyota plans to dominate the truck series, and that makes everyone nervous as they look ahead to the time when Toyota enters the other series. Toyota’s entrance to American stock car racing will increase the cost of doing business for all teams. The sport is already financially strapped and plagued by decreasing sponsorship, and now Daddy Warbucks is showing up to further strain the teams.
It is expected that Toyota will bring huge dollars to its teams, which will force existing manufacturers to step up to keep up. General Motors and Ford went through this when Dodge threw its money around.
It is reasonable to assume that the manufacturers will circle the wagons, and fewer teams will get full support. The losers will be the teams that get shut out.
Everyone will be watching the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and how Toyota operates in the first year. If they dominate and run the lesser teams out of business, the war will begin. Other manufacturers might cut their losses and run. In the long term, that will be a disaster.
NASCAR is known to look at short-term profit without considering long-term results. If Toyota runs teams out of business, the results might be unintended but shouldn’t be unexpected.
12. Why not use the red flag when a driver is in danger?
The racing back to the caution rule was changed last year, but we ask, why?
The yellow flag is for the safety of the driver. Racing and passing are not important compared to the safety of the drivers. So why not use the red flag when a driver is in jeopardy?
The Dale Jarrett incident at New Hampshire led to the rule change, and other crashes and incidents have caused a great deal of concern. Racing back to the line has always been a part of the sport and in most cases there is no danger. When there is danger, such as with Jarrett’s incident, use the red flag, freeze the field and no one gets a lap back. If there is a harmless spin or debris on the track, throw the yellow and race back to the line.
Looking back at the 2003 season, there were several hard crashes and fires that should have resulted in a red flag. Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were involved with fires and needed a quick exit. This type of incident needs a red flag so all competitors know that a driver is in danger. When this occurs, all cars should slow to a crawl to allow safety crews to roll.
On the other hand, if there is debris on the track, throw the yellow and race to the line. If this were the case we would not need a lucky dog or scoring disputes.
We cannot find a driver who does not agree. The red is one of seven flags; it means danger but it’s not used when there is danger to a driver. Tiger Woods uses all the clubs in his golf bag. Why doesn’t NASCAR use all their flags?
13. What will softer tires do for the sport?
At the urging of several drivers, NASCAR wants to soften the compounds for the Goodyear racing tires for the 2004 Nextel Cup season. It is no secret that racing has become a little boring in the last few years. The most critical strategy is to get and maintain track position. With today’s aerodynamics and the harder tires it is difficult to pass. Most races are won or lost on track position.
In the old days, teams could bolt on four new tires and race through the pack. With softer tires the difference in lap times between new and old tires is greater. If a car stays out on older tires while others pit, he will be a sitting duck when the green flag drops.
With the harder tire, the lap times are closer between new and old tires, making staying out on the track a solid strategy. We remember races when drivers raced through the field because they had the best tires.
Drivers and fans are starting to complain about the follow-the-leader racing. The excitement level for fans is at an all-time low, and the frustration of drivers stuck in traffic is at an all-time high. There is an increased number of wrecks in Nextel Cup racing, with part of the reason being the inability to pass due to the hard tires and aerodynamics.
Let these guys race. The show will improve, and strategy decisions will be made on racing faster, not longer.
BONUS! Is it time to throw away the plates?
Ask the drivers, and they will tell you they are ready to race and get rid of the plates. But with the current configuration of Daytona and Talladega, the plates are a must. Insurance requirements keep the cars under 200 mph. To get rid of the plates, these two tracks would have to be changed.
International Speedway Corporation owns Daytona and Talladega along with Homestead-Miami. They spent millions adding banks to Homestead without safety issues. Why can’t they spend money for the safety of drivers and fans?
The racing would be better with fewer wrecks. The slingshot pass might return and follow-the-leader racing might be a thing of the past. The overwhelming majority of the drivers do not like plate racing. It costs teams way too much money and forces racers to simply become drivers until the white flag waves. Unfortunately, though, they currently have no choice.
There are two solutions that would eliminate plate racing at these two tracks. The banks can be cut down or the seats can be moved away from the track. Both will cost money, but how much money is spent repairing and replacing torn-up race cars?
The teams and sponsors pay every day. The tracks, on the other hand, can fix the problem by spending a one-time-only lump sum.