Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin's knee, and start-and-parkers

It's amazing to me how quickly the tides can turn in motorsports. Not all that long ago, Jeff Gordon was the dominant force in the NASCAR - so dominant that people hated him for it. Things certainly have changed. Now it's Gordon's protege Jimmie Johnson dominating the sport. Johnson's dominance has gone unchecked for so long that people who had once considered Gordon their sworn foe for life were cheering for him to win Monday at Texas.

Is Gordon going through that transition from the driver able to win 6-8 races a year to the driver able to win 1-2 a year the way other former champions like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt did? It's tough to say for sure, but after Earnhardt won his final championship in 1994 his victory production didn't totally stop but certainly slowed. After 15 wins from 1993 through 1995, he won another eight races before his final race at Daytona in 2001. Gordon hasn't forgotten how to win, after it was just 2007 when he racked up six wins and scored more points on the track than any other driver (although he finished second in the Chase to, who else?, Jimmie Johnson).

Gordon has been in position to win at least two races this season, but hasn't been able to close the deal. Back in the day when Gordon was winning 10 or 13 races a year and running away with the championship, his luck would have held for the final 20 or 25 laps and get him to victory lane. That certainly isn't the case now.

Color me impressed with Denny Hamlin's performance since his knee surgery. It can't be comfortable driving a racecar at high speeds with intense forces pushing and pulling on your body under the best conditions, but to do it with your knee throbbing in pain has to be miserable. I've been burned out on the news of Hamlin's surgery (the Twitter updates and non-stop coverage of the operation was almost laughable) but give credit where it's due: Hamlin definitely gutted it out on Monday and his victory was all the more impressive as a result.

Eddie Gossage may be right. I've never heard of someone calling the start-and-park phenomenon outright theft before, but he makes a very strong case for it. There are no loopholes anyone is jumping through to make it possible though. The rules regarding what happens once you make the race don't say you have to run a certain portion of the event before you're eligible for purse money, and they never have. So it was a matter of time before someone decided they could make a full-time living off qualifying for the races and then pulling off after a few laps and taking home last place money. Gossage said on Sirius NASCAR Radio the other day that this is a new phenomenon, but it's really not. Start-and-parkers have been around for a long time, but they've never been out there to make a profit. Sometimes it was an independent team who needed to pay off a few bills before they could get back to the track and really race for it, but since the purses were a small fraction of what they are now no one really said anything about it. Taking in $4,000 or so isn't such a big deal, but taking in $80,000 raises eyebrows. I wouldn't have a problem with cutting the starting field to 36 in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series if it eliminates the start-and-park phenomenon. But the economy will do that too once it turns the corner. But the sport will also need to continue to right-size itself before sponsors flock back the way they did in the 1990s. What was once a bargain at $4-5 million (and even at $10 million) is obnoxiously overpriced at $26 million. Bring the cost of competition in line to the real-world return on investment and the start-and-park teams would go away on their own because there would be 50 or more teams legitimately trying to race into the field every week.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On winning despite a bad call, the spoiler, manufacturerd rivalries, and April Fools jokes

A few random thoughts following the Martinsville NCTWS-NSCS doubleheader...

- I've read a lot of headlines in recent days that give kudos to Mike Ford for the "gutsy" call to bring Denny Hamlin down pit road with 10 laps to go in Monday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. Sure, the end result was that Hamlin won the race, but that was mainly due to luck, not due to Ford's call. In the end, no harm no foul, but I've yet to see anyone come up with the right analysis: Hamlin wins despite being called to pit road with 10 laps to go.

- The Sprint Cup cars do look a lot better with the spoiler back on the rear decklid. Too bad the rest of the car is still hideously ugly. I'm still patiently waiting for the day when the NASCAR brass come to the realization that stock car racing with cars that don't just vaguely resemble something we might see on the street but are identical to what we see on the street is what we want to see.

- Some in the media are desperate to have something interesting to write about. With the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet requiring constant information updates, some crank out words the way some kids in school just to hear themselves speak. Some of these writers constantly write about the latest "rivalry" whenever two drivers have a coming together on the track. Yes the Gordon/Kenseth incident and the Sauter/Hornaday incident added excitement and interest to the sport (just like the Edwards/Keselowski incident at Atlanta did). Now, Gordon and Kenseth have a past (Bristol and Chicago, 2006) so calling their on-track relationship a rivalry isn't too much of a stretch, even if they haven't had a cross word in the past three and a half years. The Sauter/Hornaday situation could brew into a rivalry, but as of now it was just a one-time thing. Rivalries last for years, not a matter of weeks. Richard Petty vs. Bobby Allison in the early 1970s was a rivalry. Allison vs. Darrell Waltrip in the early 1980s was a rivalry. Dale Earnhardt vs. Geoff Bodine was a rivalry. These rivalries were because they were fighting for wins and occasionally ruffling each others fenders and tempers. Denny Hamlin vs. Brad Keselowski has the makings of a rivalry, but it's still too early to tell. If they both become consistent winners, and the signs point to that happening, it will be a good thing for those writers hoping for a real on-track rivalry.

- If you think I overused the word "rivalry" in the above bullet point, well, you can only imagine how many times we've read the words "have at it boys" in the past three weeks. Some have managed to turn this off-the-cuff phrase into an official NASCAR policy! That's how crazy the regulation of the sport has become; actually letting the drivers race and take care of their own interests on the track is now referred to by some as an official policy! What would these people have done when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison knocked the fire out of each other fighting for the win at North Wilkesboro back in 1971. That was the race that they drove each other into the wall about twice a lap for the final ten laps, with Petty winning with a steady stream of smoke pouring off his tires due to body damage and Allison's radiator was punctured and fenders were literally hanging off the car. That wasn't "have at it boys," that was just racing.

- So some in the media feel burned by Texas Motor Speedway's little April Fool's Day prank. All I can say is, well, duh! All one needed to do was look at the calendar and consider the source. Sure, it was technically a day early, but you know when it's the end of March you need to be on guard for these types of things. And it's not like Eddie Gossage and staff haven't done something like this in the past. It's not like this was a typical run-of-the-mill press release either. You see these things in your inbox every day. But once in a while you see something a little odd. I suggest to some in the media not to run with everything they are sent without asking questions. I've seen some press releases in the past that made little sense, so I picked up the phone and gave the sender a ring to ask a couple questions. I think the people who got burned need to lighten up and laugh it off. Enough of the "we'll never run another story from Texas Motor Speedway" and get on with life. Maybe they should ammend that policy to "we'll never run another story from Texas Motor Speedway sent within three days of April Fool's Day."