It’s been a monstrous news week in sports, almost none of it about what happens on the field. A national anthem protest that started with the NFL enveloped virtually every sport after President Trump brought it into the political conversation.
NASCAR was revered by Trump this week for their “stance” on the anthem. While no one in Daytona Beach put out an official release until Monday, the actions until then spoke to Trump. Every crew member stood, no one kneeling at Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 while owners insinuated the price for doing so would be their jobs. “On a Greyhound bus home” is where Richard Childress said any of his employees would end up for kneeling. Richard Petty, the sport’s winningest driver in history insinuated anthem kneelers should be shipped out of the country.
By the time the sport took a stance on it, trying to stay neutral, Trump took a stance for them.
From that point on, the focus at the track has been anything but competition. Everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Childress’ own drivers have given their opinion on the subject. Friday’s press conferences felt more like journalists were covering the end of a political rally than a playoff race.
Earnhardt, who forcefully came out in support of the protests remained that way. It just wasn’t wrapped up in a nice Twitter bow with quotes from John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I have always stood for the anthem and I always will,” Earnhardt sad. “But, I am not quick to rush to judgment to somebody that will and wants to do something different.”
Others, like Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman, predictably supported their boss. Danica Patrick reminded the world it’s a free country and employers can give consequences.
“How you run your business is how you run your business,” Patrick said. “You sign a contract that says you’re an independent contractor or you sign one that says you’re an employee. You have to figure out what’s more important to you. If you think something should be done differently and you might sacrifice your job then that’s your choice. It’s your choice the other way too.
“In general, there are plenty of platforms to speak your mind. So if it comes as interference to put food on our table or doing something that you love I think that you should probably go by the rules.”
I wrote this week about how sponsorship could be influenced by the NASCAR anthem debate. It’s proven to be a highly divisive issue, split by race in a sport where race was once the ugly skeleton in the closet. A CNN poll, released Friday had 43 percent of people supporting anthem kneelers while 49 percent were against it. But 82 percent of African-Americans were on the side of the protesters, as were 56 percent of those under age 45. (Hear much about that 18-to-34-year-old millennial and Generation Z group NASCAR covets?)
With such divisive opinions, the sport is simply hoping everyone stands Sunday, Trump stops tweeting on it and the whole controversy dies down. If people don’t think you’re on their side in this debate, there’s evidence sports stops becoming entertainment and they choose to be entertained somewhere else.
But compared to the NFL, NASCAR has seen a small upside from this mess. Sunday in football, a strong list of competitive games in a blowout-level season were overshadowed by what happened off the field. In NASCAR? Their first two playoff races could not have gotten off to a worse start. At New Hampshire, winner Kyle Busch and regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. led 299 of 300 laps. The Nielsen rating was a paltry 1.3, adding to the least-watched playoff chase in the history of the sport.
But no one cares or remembers that heading into this stock car weekend. All people are talking about is who said what about the anthem protests. It gives the sport a bit of a mulligan, then to recapture attention for Sunday. The spring race at Dover was actually one of the better ones this year; a new tire compound brings hope for more passing.
A solid, action-packed 400 laps here with some drama surrounding the playoff cut from 16 to 12 might get fans paying attention again to what happens on the track. There’s a potential new baseline to re-establish what has been a difficult 2017 season to date.
We’ll see if NASCAR can seize the moment and whether Trump will interject himself again along with it.
Apache Warrior 400
Time: Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dove, Del.)
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch led the Toyota brigade at a New Hampshire race where no one else had a chance. At first, Martin Truex Jr. looked like he’d start the playoffs with two straight wins. But a mid-race wreck, the only major incident of the event, wiped out his chances.
That left Busch to stampede over the field, cruising to a nearly three-second victory over runner-up Kyle Larson. Larson was the only driver outside of Busch or Truex to even lead a lap during the race.
Who’s at the Back: Stewart-Haas Racing
SHR’s two playoff drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, were caught up in New Hampshire’s big wreck. It all started with contact between Harvick and Austin Dillon, leaving Harvick’s No. 4 Ford spinning right into the path of oncoming cars.
Busch found himself caught up in the mess and may be the biggest victim of it all. Harvick, who had a strong regular season, still has a 25-point cushion on 13th place. But Busch finds himself on the outside looking in, 17 points in arrears after three straight top-5 finishes to close out the regular season.
Perhaps this year’s Daytona 500 winner was destined to be downed by its curse? If Busch misses Sunday’s cut, it would be the 18th time in the last 20 years the winner of the Great American Race failed in a bid for the championship.
Anthem, anthem, and more anthem. See above.
Monster Energy has asked for more time to decide whether to continue as the sport’s title sponsor. The company originally had until December to trigger a two-year option that would keep the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series name intact through 2020. Later in the week, the company claimed the national anthem stance by NASCAR and those in the sport would have “no impact” on their business decision to stay involved.
Michael McDowell is still searching for a 2018 ride while his soon-to-be former car owner thinks he’d be a good crew chief instead. Leavine Family Racing head honcho Bob Leavine claimed he’d love to keep a spot for McDowell on his No. 95 team one day... behind the scenes. On the racetrack, Leavine was pleased with the results but claimed the driver failed to possess the same marketing appeal as his replacement, Kasey Kahne.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Jimmie Johnson during this year’s NASCAR playoff. The No. 48 car hasn’t led a lap, in fact, since Daytona July 4th weekend.
Lead changes at New Hampshire Sunday, the fewest for that track since it started hosting a playoff race in the fall of 2004. New Hampshire’s spot in the postseason will be replaced by Las Vegas Motor Speedway next year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Sunday marks a day of reckoning for Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson has more victories (11) and laps led (3,100) at Dover than any other driver in NASCAR history. He won there in June, also the site of his last top-5 finish in the Cup Series.
There’s an argument that Hendrick has been lacking so much speed as of late it’s impossible for Johnson to contend. But how many times has the No. 48 team been left for dead only to rise up off the mat? I’d leave him starting on your roster. Just a hunch.
Kevin Harvick, in need of a good run to solidify his round of 12 position, also has a good Dover track record. With a ninth-place finish in the spring and a win as recently as 2015 it’s a solid bet this No. 4 Ford will put itself where it needs to be to move on.
Jamie McMurray finally has a chance to reach round two for the first time under this NASCAR format. He’s got a nine-point edge on the cutline and heads to the Monster Mile with momentum. Earning three top-10 finishes in the last five Dover races, including a fifth in 2015, McMurray’s got a great chance to survive, dishing out fantasy points in the process.
Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman are in a position where only one will advance to the round of 12. So in a decision between RCR teammates, I’d pick Newman. He’s got six straight top-20 finishes at the track, including a fourth in the spring and has generally been the more consistent of the two drivers this year.
Remember Ty Dillon? The rookie, having a reasonable year, has been lost in the shuffle of outstanding performances by Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones. But Dover in the spring is where Dillon outshined almost everyone, leading 27 laps and looking at one point he would pull a major upset. A 14th-place result was disappointing but good enough to leave him on your roster for Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
Two Toyotas, once again are leading the betting lines. Martin Truex Jr. is sitting with 9/2 odds but Kyle Busch is just behind him at 5/1.
What I Think
It’s hard to bet against the Toyotas right now. But if there’s any track where Jimmie Johnson gets it right, it’s this one. Johnson passes Truex in the stretch run and reestablishes himself as a title contender.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP Inc.)