Athlon isn't afraid to ask the tough questions facing the sport, nor are we afraid to answer them
Article originally published in 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Should Junior’s expletive have cost him 25 points and had a potentially significant effect on the Championship?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most popular driver award and uttered the most popular four-letter word in the process. When Junior had his slip of the tongue at Talladega, NASCAR lowered the boom. That boom was 25 points.
When the utterance from the gutterance occurred with just seven races remaining to decide the first NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion, Earnhardt went from 13 points ahead to 12 points behind. Naturally, this became a hot topic. If the Budweiser team lost the Cup by 25 points or less, Earnhardt’s fans would have been up in arms, and the 2004 Champion would have been listed with an asterisk.
A huge bullet was dodged when Junior faded down the stretch and finished in fifth place, 138 points off the pace.
Did NASCAR officials do the right thing? You’re #@%$ straight they did. Earlier in the season, they penalized two drivers in the Busch Series for the same offense, so NASCAR painted itself into a corner. It had no choice but to pull the trigger on the circuit’s most popular driver, no matter what ramifications it would have on the Chase for the Championship.
You have to give NASCAR credit. The easy path would have been to give Junior a pass and not make waves. Earnhardt was wrong — he is an adult and should know better. With so much at stake, you can’t do anything to jeopardize your team’s chances at a title.
NASCAR is a better sport because of the penalty. The NBA has players fighting with fans and embarrassing themselves and their sport. NASCAR, as a sport, will not tolerate the slightest offense. You can bet every driver, crew chief and owner knows to clean up that mouth. Luckily, the 25 points did not matter in the final standings. No harm, no foul language.
2. Is it time to change the way pit road speed is measured?
Ever watch the in-car telemetry during a race? Ever wonder why it is never on the screen during pit stops? Because NASCAR does not allow it. The facts are simple; the technology is available to take away any doubt as to whether a driver is speeding on pit road. Instead, NASCAR uses stopwatches to time the cars between lines painted on pit road, a system that is as antiquated as smoke signals.
During the final 10 races of the season, when every point counted, the 2004 Championship was decided on pit road by a stopwatch. Jimmie Johnson was a frontrunner at the fall Dover race until he was busted on pit road for speeding. Johnson and crew were adamant that they had not sped, but there was no proof either way. At least a state trooper will show you the radar gun. With NASCAR, you are speeding when NASCAR says you are. That type of officiating leads to doubt, and doubt leads to mistrust. With so much on the line, that is unacceptable. The Dover penalty cost Johnson a lap and well more than eight points by the end of the day.
By using the already-present transponders and in-car telemetry, NASCAR could alleviate any doubts. The fact that the technology is here and NASCAR refuses to put down the watch is the problem. So the tougher question is: Why doesn’t NASCAR use the technology? The Politically Incorrect answer is that NASCAR would lose control.
3. Who won the Darrell Waltrip/Tony Stewart feud?
It started with comments from the booth. The Fox crew, led by Darrell Waltrip, criticized Tony Stewart for his intentional punting of Andy Hillenburg in the opening laps at the Darlington spring event. Hillenburg was a field filler who was having problems meeting the minimum speed requirement. Instead of making a clean pass when he ran up on Hillenburg, Stewart wrecked him. As if the initial wreck were not scary enough, Jeff Gordon t-boned the spinning Hillenburg, leaving both cars demolished and everyone breathing a sigh of relief when both drivers walked away.
Waltrip did not like what he saw and proceeded to say so. Over the next few weeks Stewart was, as Waltrip put it, the ‘common denominator’ in a series of on-track skirmishes. The more incidents Stewart was involved in, the more DW spoke his mind.
Stewart finally got his shot to respond in a pre-race interview at Richmond, and he took personal shots at Waltrip on live television.
So did Waltrip have the right to criticize Stewart’s antics? Yes. Other pro sports commentators tell it like it is. Waltrip had the right to drop the hammer on Stewart just like Dick Vitale has the right to question an on-court incident at a college basketball game. Hundreds, if not thousands, agreed with what Waltrip said; he just happened to be the one with the microphone. Waltrip simply spoke his mind, while others skirted the issue.
Stewart’s immature method of handling the conflict reflects negatively on him, his team, his owner and his sponsor. Trying to publicly embarrass a racing icon is poor sportsmanship at best, but it follows a pattern for Stewart when he has come under fire in the past for his actions. Tony always asks for a pass when his behavior is called into question, and he jumped on DW for not giving it to him.
So who won the feud? We’ll give this one to DW, if for no other reason than Stewart handled the issue unprofessionally by taking a pot-shot at Waltrip.
4. Are farewell tours a money grab?
We are losing several drivers to retirement, and while we want to honor them, let’s do it without having to open a wallet. Last Call, Farewell Salutes and such are not much more than a way to sell more caps, T-shirts, die casts, license plates, flags, doormats and the rest.
The blitz of new paint schemes for farewell tours is a blatant attempt to make money off die cast cars. We do not begrudge anyone making a buck, but when is enough enough?
We saw Bill Elliott step down with no fuss last season. Terry Labonte appears to be going quietly and not making a big deal out of his limited schedules. Elliott and Labonte had surely noticed as the drivers of the past grabbed the loot, starting with Richard Petty’s Fan Appreciation Tour back in 1992. Petty had a die cast car made for every race of his last season. That was way over the top.
Wouldn’t it be great if drivers found a way to honor the fans in their last year? This is what Mark Martin says he will do in 2005 for his last run.
The drivers and marketers who plan and execute final seasons might want to honor the fans who have sat in the rain, spent hours in traffic, paid more each year for tickets, and gotten creamed on the room rates at every race. The true race fan spends a larger proportion of income to support the drivers than the drivers make from the toys and die cast.
We are not down on the farewell tours; we just want to see the driver say farewell to fans, friends and the faithful without trying to make a bundle. Let’s do one of these deals without financial consideration.
To answer the question, most of the final-year deals are designed with profit in mind. One day, the fans will say enough is enough and shut the wallet. Let’s consider respect, not money.
5. Who really won Talladega?
With four laps remaining in last spring’s Talladega event, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running door-to-door when a yellow flag was thrown for a Brian Vickers spin. In such an event, the leader is determined by the running order on the last scoring loop crossed.
When NASCAR finally made the decision to place Gordon in front of Earnhardt and not restart the event, the crowd showed its disapproval by littering the track with anything not bolted down.
This finish was between the two most popular drivers on the circuit and it could have been a defining moment in the points race. The race is behind us, but it raises questions for the future. What if a Championship is won or lost with an invisible scoring loop?
The 2002 Indy 500 had the same issue when a late caution flag waved as Paul Tracy and Helio Castroneves raced for the lead. ABC replayed different camera angles that highlighted the pass and the yellow light coming on. They ended all controversy with proof. The guys in the Fox network booth could have done the same at Talladega but NASCAR would not show that proof. The fact they did not fuels the doubt many fans and most participants have of NASCAR and its procedures.
Who was in front of whom at the right time at the right place? We don’t know and neither do Gordon and Earnhardt. They had to accept the decision without seeing proof.
6. Has the garage area become too open?
NASCAR has always enjoyed a unique relationship with its fans. In what other sport are fans allowed to literally rub shoulders with the athletes on game day? Although the drivers understand the importance of having such an atmosphere, the amount of fans in the garage area has gotten to the point where some of the more popular drivers can’t work. And after all, this is their job.
With the advent of the “Hot Pass” and the “Cold Pass,” NASCAR attempted to thin the mob of fans in the garage. However, many drivers still find it hard to get from point A to point B at any given time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. found a not-so-subtle way to send a message to NASCAR officials at Phoenix this past season. In an effort to demonstrate that there are too many people in the garage, Earnhardt held an impromptu autograph session at the NASCAR trailer. The resulting mass of humanity prevented NASCAR officials from getting in or out of their work area. Consider his point taken.
As much as we know this will not sit well with the fans, we believe it’s time to shut down the garage area to curious onlookers. While the experience is eye-opening, it’s also dangerous. When a 3,400-pound race car with 800 horsepower leaves a garage stall, the driver can’t easy out of the clutch; he’s got to go. With throngs of bystanders milling around, it’s only a matter of time before a fan gets hurt.
7. Powerade vs. Gatorade: What was NASCAR thinking?
When in doubt, follow the money. Those may be wise words in business, but in the world of NASCAR, money trumps logic, character and common sense. In this sport, once you follow the money you have to judge the greed.
This story begins in 2003 when Powerade — a Coca-Cola product — replaced Gatorade — a Pepsi product — as the ‘Official Sports Beverage of NASCAR.’ Gatorade lost the bidding war and looked for a counter move to stay in the sport. International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owned and operated by the same people that run NASCAR, found the solution. They sold Victory Lane at the ISC tracks to Gatorade, thus the name ‘Gatorade Victory Lane.’
The new Powerade marketing program included a large Powerade bottle to be placed on top of the winning car in Victory Lane. In essence, NASCAR found a way to keep Powerade and Gatorade as sponsors, although the two were once again fighting over the same piece of real estate. NASCAR got the Powerade money; ISC got the Gatorade money. Same pants, two pockets.
The next domino fell when the car owners and drivers had to decide whose side to take. Is it right to put a Powerade bottle on top of a car that is sponsored by Pepsi or Gatorade? Jeff Gordon was the first to act, knocking the large Powerade bottle off his Pepsi-sponsored car in Victory Lane after his spring Talladega win. Other drivers followed suit in the weeks that followed.
NASCAR finally stepped in and told the drivers not to knock any sponsor-related products off their vehicles. However, Jimmie Johnson found a way around that after his June Pocono victory, as he placed a large Lowe’s prop in front of the bottle. The resulting fine and lecture made sure that no driver would attempt to circumvent NASCAR’s sponsor rules. Or so we thought.
The week after Johnson’s transgression, Gordon won his fourth Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Instead of taking the DuPont/Pepsi Chevy to Victory Lane to have a Powerade bottle placed on the roof, Gordon stopped the car at the start/finish line where his crew joined him to celebrate, leaving dignitaries, officials and a large Powerade bottle in an empty Victory Lane.
So the question remains, does ISC or NASCAR have the right to put a competing product on a racecar? We say ‘no.’ The sponsors are paying top dollar to be associated with a certain driver. When a competing product gets more exposure than the sponsor that foots the bill, something is wrong.
As for the Brickyard incident, Gordon said he was caught up in the moment, causing his impromptu start/finish line party. While that is as believable as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, we applaud Gordon for standing up to the hypocrisy of NASCAR.
8. Was Rusty right in asking Newman to lay down at Martinsville?
Picture the pressure: A restart with just a couple of laps to go before the checkers fall on a half-mile short track. Jimmie Johnson is leading; Rusty Wallace is second and you, Rusty’s teammate, are third. Wallace relays a message to you to lay off so he can win the race. Do you do it?
This was exactly the situation Ryan Newman found himself in last October at Martinsville. The facts are interesting: Newman was in the Chase for the Championship; Wallace was not. Wallace was fast enough to win; so was Newman. This is where the definition of teammate needs some clarification.
Newman rejected the request, as any true racer would. On the restart, Wallace got a run on Johnson. The Lowe’s Chevy slammed the door forcing Wallace to try the outside. When Wallace went up there, he left a hole on the inside and Newman helped himself to a dose of second place. Wallace then tried to cut down on Newman and bounced off the ALLTEL Dodge, losing seven more positions and finishing 10th.
Should Newman have settled for third? Of course not. Wallace was wrong to ask and wrong to cut down on a car that had the inside line. A driver who expects his teammate to back off is not much of a teammate himself.
This starts to define the obligations of teammates. In Formula 1 and other forms of racing, “team orders” are prevalent, but NASCAR’s good ol’ boys are a little too set in their ways for that. Helping teammates is OK until it is showtime, and never at the expense of a win.
As mentioned before, who wants a driver who will not give everything he has to win? Going back a few years, we remember another heated race at Martinsville, this time in 1990. Hendrick teammates Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader crashed each other fighting for the lead. These guys were not helping each other, they were beating and banging in their fight to win.
9. Was NASCAR right to allow spirits companies to serve as sponsors?
After years of saying no to hard liquor, NASCAR has finally allowed the spirits companies to serve as sponsors in its touring series. Agree or disagree with the decision, it can be said that this is the biggest booze story in racing since moonshiners left the sport.
As with most issues, there are two sides to the story. On one side of the street, the sport needs sponsors. Teams struggle for funding, and new sponsorship opportunities help teams to survive and grow.
Beer has been a part of this sport since sponsorships began. Almost every Victory Lane is witness to a beer shower. For years, Winston was the title sponsor, and the results of smoking are well documented. Do car sponsorships really translate into tobacco and/or alcohol abuse?
On the other hand, there are several credible groups attacking NASCAR for the decision. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Drunk Driving and the American Medical Association are lining up to criticize NASCAR. The fact that they are vocal will draw attention to the sport in a negative light.
Most decisions are based on the best and worst consequences. In the case of distilled spirits and stock car racing, we do not see a downside. If the programs are handled correctly, it can be a positive. The Smirnoff Ice program with Matt Kenseth is the perfect example. Promoting the product while promoting responsible consumption is nothing but a positive.
Personal responsibility is the issue, not promoting a legal product.
10. Should Tony Stewart have been suspended for the Brian Vickers incident?
It seems that every year we have something to write about Tony Stewart and his anger issues from the previous season. This year is no different. So here you go: After the event at Infineon Raceway, Stewart took exception with Brian Vickers. According to Vickers, Stewart approached the car, started yelling, and hit him while he was still strapped in the car.
TV cameras and photographers missed the altercation, but word quickly spread that Stewart had a harsh penalty coming. In the previous year, Jimmy Spencer slugged Kurt Busch at Michigan and received a one-race suspension. In the interest of being consistent, Stewart would have to be benched for a week. After all, this was not Stewart’s first time in hot water for a physical confrontation.
In a press conference that week, NASCAR CEO Brian France commented on the altercation, “It is a big deal. We’re going to see how big it is here shortly. But his behavior at Sears Point (Infineon) is unacceptable. We will be dealing with that shortly. Tony has to work within the same rule structure and behavioral expectations that we have for all of our drivers. And one way or the other, we will figure that out.” He went on to say, “But we are on record, and I’ll say it today, that his behavior at Sears Point is not acceptable. And so just how severe the punishment needs to be to make a point that we are not going to accept that, and punish somebody for what they did, that’s something we are going to have to work through.”
Instead of a “severe punishment” as France promised, NASCAR went with a probation, a fine ($50,000 for a guy who earned over $7 million in winnings alone last year) and points docking (a 25-point penalty). In other words, nothing but a slap on the wrist.
While Spencer’s almost identical stunt earned him a trip to the sidelines for a week, Stewart was back to the track for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona the following weekend. Of course, Spencer wasn’t sponsored by the “Official Home Improvement Center of NASCAR.” He wasn’t one of the Coca-Cola Family of Drivers. He isn’t a former Cup Champion, and he was not in the running to win the Championship at the time.
This set a dangerous precedent that says, if your sponsor(s) bring enough money into the sport, you’re free to behave as you please both on and off the track.
11. How much longer will Junior drive for DEI?
One of the worst-kept secrets in the world of racing is the discord at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. The operation’s success has soared over the past four seasons, as has the tension behind closed doors.
This fact was brought to light before last season when Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s contract was up for renewal. Junior did not sign in a timely manner. He wanted more control of his life and was not willing to blindly sign it away. Even more evidence that trouble was brewing came when Ty Norris, executive vice president at DEI and close friend of the late Dale Earnhardt, abruptly left in a dispute over philosophical differences. Insiders will tell you he left because he lost a power struggle with Teresa Earnhardt.
The supposed rift between Dale Jr. and Teresa begs the question, “When will Junior say ‘enough’ and go elsewhere to race?” There have been several small incidents that have occurred over the last two years that have caused the divide.
If Earnhardt becomes a free agent when his contract is up after the 2006 season, he can write his own ticket. What car owner would not sell the farm to get the most popular and one of the most talented drivers on the circuit?
The follow-up question will be if DEI can survive without Junior. More important, what is the value of DEI without him? Another question is could Dale Earnhardt Jr. be the next owner of DEI? These questions will all be answered in time. The only thing we know for sure is that no driver has ever been in such a powerful position. If issues are not resolved before it is time to sign up for another tour of duty, everyone will see just how powerful he truly is.
12. Can single-car teams compete?
The quick answer is ‘no,’ single-car teams can no longer compete for a Championship. Morgan-McClure, Cal Wells, Gene Haas, the Wood Brothers, Bill Davis and BAM Motorsports have been fighting a one-fisted battle against teams with as many as five cars on the track.
All teams talk about the transfer of information — testing and swapping info is vital to success. However, the primary reason the single-car stables fall short is money. The top teams with major sponsorships are becoming profit centers. Two-car teams can be fielded for one and a half times the cost of two separately owned single cars. Sharing fabrication shops, engine programs and other components of a race team cuts the cost.
Within five years, this sport could be an exclusive country club of six- or seven-car owners. This might be the grand plan for NASCAR. The sport would be more manageable and easier to govern for the sanctioning body.
By the way, the last single-car team to win a race was the Cal Wells-owned Tide Chevy. Ricky Craven drove that car to victory at Darlington in 2002 in the closest finish since electronic timing and scoring was implemented in 1993.
13. Who are the most overrated and underrated drivers on the circuit?
3. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek was an obvious choice for this list. He has four career wins, all in equipment not known for winning. With the right team, Nemechek could win a couple of races every year.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle ruffles feathers and has been accused of over-aggressive driving, but we’re high on his abilities. With two wins to its credit last year, this team has developed into a contender.
1. Matt Kenseth
The 2003 Champion takes the No. 1 underrated spot. This driver calls for chassis adjustments that make the car better. In one race, Kenseth asked The DeWalt crew to tape up the brake duct on the right front to put more heat in the tire. He can bring a car from the back to the front at most any track because he gets the most out of his car. However, his name is rarely mentioned alongside the Gordon’s, Earnhardt’s and Busch’s of the racing world.
3. Brian Vickers
The 2003 Busch Series Champion has not adapted to the Cup cars yet. After the 25 car went to Victory Lane with Joe Nemechek behind the wheel in 2003, it was downhill with Vickers in ‘04. Vickers can qualify, but thus far has been competitive in only a few events.
2. Rusty Wallace
Wallace has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more than any other driver in the last couple of years. The addition of Ryan Newman to the Penske team and a different driving technique has left Wallace behind. His ‘Last Call’ for the ‘05 season appears to be a couple of years late.
1. Michael Waltrip
Waltrip’s 2005 season will be his next last chance. Waltrip has not won a non-plate race, and he shows few signs of breaking that skid soon. Don’t get us wrong, we love Mikey, but if he had Kenseth’s dry personality, he would have been out at DEI by now.