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.

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