Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Shrub, JJC, start-and-parks, Bristol's banking, Fox, and NSSN

Kyle Busch continued his mastery of Bristol Motor Speedway with dominant wins in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races last weekend. Not bad at all, but he still has a way to go to reach Darrell Waltrip's seven-Cup-wins-in-a-row streak. His five consecutive NASCAR wins (last August's NCWTS, NNS, and NSCS wins plus this weekend's NNS and NSCS sweep) are impressive, but still a ways away from seven Cup wins in a row.

It seems the second-biggest story of the weekend is Jennifer Jo Cobb's refusal to start-and-park in the NNS race and the resultant PR sniping that has gone back and forth between her and her now former team. Now, there are apparently theft charges filed against her and her crew chief Steve Kuykendall for parts her former owner said were illegally taken and then found in a storage container Cobb had rented. Cobb started out the year with a great sixth-place run in the NCWTS race at Daytona, but that momentum has slowly drained away. She no doubt received a lot of good will from the NASCAR fans for refusing to start-and-park, but that can evaporate too unless to focus returns to her abilities and results on the track. She's struggled for a long time to find her footing in the sport, and while she still has a way to go if she ever wants to be a contender for top-tens on a routine basis, it would be a shame to see what she's worked for disappear over a dispute as silly as this one seems to have become.

-The JJC situation has raised the ire of the anti-start-and-park brigade once again. There really is no right answer for this situation. I know that there are teams that start and park that really do want to be out there racing, and they use funds raised in their S&P races to foot the bill for when they do run the full distance. But there are others that are there just to collect a paycheck. It's a shame that there aren't enough teams willing to go race than there was 10 years ago. Look at box scores for Nationwide races from 1997 and 1998 and see how many DNQs there were and tell me today's NNS is any healthier. NASCAR could eliminate the practice by reallocating some of the purse money from those back of the field positions to the middle of the field.

-The other hot topic is the lack of spectators in the grandstands at Bristol. I admit it was very surprising to see that many empty seats. There are several factors involved: gas prices, hotel prices, ticket prices, and the new racing surface at Bristol. I for one enjoy the three-wide racing at BMS, but I concede that maybe they went too far with the reconfiguration. Maybe it's time to dig up the concrete once and for all and lay down some nice grippy asphalt with banking at 34 degrees at the bottom, 35 in the middle, and 36 at the top. Maybe that will give us all what we really want - good racing mixed in with some temper-raising beating and banging.

-The attendance estimate at Bristol was laughable. When you know a place seats 160,000 and it's easily half empty, how can you justify saying there are 120,000 people there?

-I am not going to bag on the Fox Sports crew too much, but they definitely left a huge info gap on Sunday when Jeff Burton suddenly slowed on the frontstretch and cars behind him piled into one another. What caused Burton's car to slow? If all you were doing was watching TV you never knew because they never updated it. Why have four pit reporters if you aren't going to let them do their job? I continue to believe that Fox has some of the most talented and respected personalities assembled on their team, but their execution often leaves me disappointed. From Darrell Waltrip talking over play-by-play man Mike Joy to Larry McReynolds' continued butchering of the English language to Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond and their consistent buffoonery, it leaves me just shaking my head. Krista Voda, Dr. Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum continue to be the bright spots, working hard and delivering consistently informative updates whenever they are allowed to. Give us the info, keep the chuckleheaded hillbilly humor to a minimum, show us the cars on the track, and everyone will be happy.

-Farewell National Speed Sport News, we hardly knew ya.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Carl's consistency, the Gordon/Conway mess, IndyCar's grid limits, single file racing, LVMS's victory lane, Wise's ride, and Danica's first top-5

- I am an avid reader of Bob Margolis's Sledgehammer blog, particularly his weekly "Observations" on Mondays. I do have a disagreement with him this week, right off the bat: he believes no one in the Sprint Cup Series has yet shown the consistency to be pegged with the favorite label. I disagree. I believe Carl Edwards has shown that out of the gate he will be the guy to beat for the title this season. He closed 2010 with two straight wins, finished second at Daytona, won the pole at Phoenix before getting eliminated in someone else's mess while running strongly, and followed up with a win at Las Vegas. How much more consistent can he be?

-The Robby Gordon/Kevin Conway mess continues to make headlines as the two trade insults through press releases. Conway's team sent out one of the worse press releases I've ever read with sponsor innuendo and double entendres right in the very first line. I love a good play on words as much as anyone, but maybe referencing stiff competition should be left to people who don't need to play musical chairs from ride to ride as the driver drops one and then the next and then the next out of the top-35.

-It's mystifying to me why the IndyCar Series would limit its starting fields to 26 cars. The more the merrier I say, and with so many unused cars sitting on the sidelines that could certainly be dragged out before moving to new equipment in 2012, why not invite anyone and everyone? If it's a matter of keeping certain slow drivers off the track, just don't issue them a license.

-Las Vegas Motor Speedway spent millions reconfiguring the track to a multi-groove, progressively banked layout to improve competition. It's always fun to see 190 mph speeds, but there also needs to be close racing and right now the 1.5-mile tracks aren't offering much of it beyond the initial starts and restarts. Maybe that will change as the teams figure out the handling package with the new noses and other aero enhancements.

-Speaking of LVMS, no one is questioning it's claim as one of the finest facilities in all of motorsports. It's an amazing place, no doubt about it. The view from the stands is incredible and everyone who's ever been inside it will never say anything negative about the "Neon Garage." However, there is one thing that needs to be remedied: the location of victory lane. It's in the middle of the garage area where a small percentage of the paying customers can see it. Yes, the Neon Garage ticketholders can see it, but that's what, one percent of the people there? Move it out somewhere where the people in the grandstands can see it too. California Speedway made that mistake back in 2004, moving victory lane to the end of the infield suites towards turn four, and no one had any idea it was there. They soon relocated it back to where it belongs, right where everyone can see it.

-How about Josh Wise's airborne ride in the Nationwide race? Reminded me of the good old days watching Mickey Thompson stadium off-road races in the early days of ESPN! Wanna bet that launching pad is remedied by the time the IndyCar Series makes it to LVMS in October?

-Bernie Ecclestone has set a May 1 deadline for the unrest in Bahrain to be solved or the Formula 1 circuit will cancel its 2011 race. Anyone else wishing NASCAR was racing in Las Vegas this weekend so they could make a bet on the race being canceled?

-We heard the Negative Nancy's get on Jennifer Jo Cobb for playing the attrition game en route to a sixth-place finish at Daytona, and now we're hearing the same detractor's complain about Danica Patrick's fourth-place finish at LVMS. I stick with what I said, it doesn't matter how you got there only that you get there. Fourth is fourth, it's the best finish by a woman, and that's excellent for her. However, I think what we need to look with when talking about Danica isn't just results it's her development as a stock car driver. You can learn a lot more about racing a stocker back in the pack than you can by jumping out front by a mile and winning (see Steven Wallace's ARCA career for proof). She's learning, well, hopefully she is, and that's what matters at this point not where she finishes. But I am sure every top-ten she brings home is more than welcome, too.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cheering at the 500 gives a reason to put all motorsports media on the same page for unbiased NASCAR coverage

The current debate over journalistic ethics and conduct in NASCAR media centers and press boxes is long overdue. With the introduction of Citizen Journalists into the NASCAR media corps, it's time that the reset button is hit and everyone is brought onto the same page, both professional journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers alike.

As an avid news and blog reader, I believe all viewpoints of the sport should be welcome. It's a stroke of genius by NASCAR to welcome bloggers into the media corps as it broadens the coverage of the sport in a time when traditional media outlets are cutting staff and space devoted to motorsports.

But just because a blogger doesn't have the training of a traditional journo, that doesn't mean he or she shouldn't be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of the media circus. And that goes double for those broadcasting the races on Fox, TNT, and ESPN - in fact, it should be doubled or even tripled since they have the largest audience and therefore a bigger responsibility.

As part of my New Year's resolution, I've been to the gym five to six times a week trying to slim down and get in better shape. I spend long periods on cardio machines and it gives me pause to think, and I've spent some time this week thinking of this situation and then learned of the termination of Tom Bowles by Sports Illustrated for admitting that he cheered as Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500.

Bowles is a fantastic writer, which is augmented by a strong passion for the subject matter. However, he did break - even for an instant - one of the cardinal rules of sitting in the press box: no cheering. Was termination warranted? Probably not, but a warning from both the sanctioning body's media relations department and his former employer would have both been warranted.

But how is what Tom Bowles did different than what Darrell Waltrip did during the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona? Waltrip openly cheered for, and even gave his best redneck hoot, for his brother as he crossed the line to win the race. Is that appropriate?

Okay, so the next comparison then is if Waltrip can't do it, why was Ned Jarrett allowed to when Dale Jarrett won at Daytona in 1993?

What's the difference?

It's a huge difference. Jarrett did it reluctantly; remember, Ken Squier was told to lay back and Ned was told to bring him home on the last lap. Furthermore, he never used his position as a broadcaster with CBS and ESPN to get his son a ride. The younger Jarrett spent many years toiling in virtual anonymity on the North Carolina short tracks and in the Busch Series before earning a shot at the big time based on talent alone, not because his father would give his team or sponsors additional coverage if he was hired. In fact, he never went out of his way to promote any of Dale Jarrett's sponsors. Can Waltrip honestly say that? Can Larry McReynolds say it? No, neither can. They both promote their own agendas, which includes Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, Brandon McReynolds, and any other company or entity that offers them cash for an endorsement.

How many other television broadcasters have a conflict of interest? The question would be better answered if you asked which broadcasters do NOT have a conflict of interest within the garage area.

The NASCAR audience deserves unbiased coverage and commentary from broadcasters. Bloggers, who may only be covering the sport from a narrow perspective, say they're covering a certain driver, team, or manufacturer, should still adhere to the same professional standards of behavior as their professional brethren. Dress professionally, act professionally and courteously, and check your fan card at the door to the press box or media center.

Now that the gates are open, maybe NASCAR should offer some sort of Citizen Journalist orientation at each event, or at the very least send along a sheet of guidelines with each credential confirmation. It could be very simple: here is what you can do (go into the garage area, sit in on press conferences, ask questions, take pictures, etc.), here is how you should dress (business casual), here are some tips to get an interview (be polite, work with public relations reps, ask for a scheduled appointment, or join in one of the media availabilies), and here is what NOT to do (wear a driver t-shirt, cheer in the press box, interfere with a one-on-one interview, etc.).

And with that, NASCAR and its broadcast partners should set similar guidelines. No cheering for anyone. No wearing of sponsor logos on your apparel. No emceeing media or hospitality events for teams and/or drivers involved in the series you cover. No active team owners on the air (imagine Jerry Jones in the booth calling the Super Bowl!). If you have a relative on a team or on the track, check emotions at the door - and if that repeatedly proves to be a problem then you're out. The viewers at home expect - and they deserve - unbiased commentary and analysis.