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2009's 13 Tough Questions and the Politically Incorrect 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.

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.