Part 5 in a five-day series that chronicles the issues facing NASCAR
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
by Matt Taliaferro
9. What could NASCAR possibly have to gain by “secretly” fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman after Hamlin’s comments last year 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 outspokenness is 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.”
10. Is a controversial driver like Kyle Busch good for NASCAR and its fanbase?
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.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro