Sunday, August 12, 2012

NASCAR: Are We Watching the Good Old Days?

"These are the best of times. These are the worst of times."
                                        (from A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)

Popular wisdom suggests these are  hard times for NASCAR in recent years.  Race attendance is way down. Television viewership is down. Teams, even for top level organizations, struggle to find meaningful sponsorship. An insidious cancer is growing on the sport allowing teams to basically just show up, race a few laps, call it quits, and go home with a paycheck. Can anyone imagine another sport with anything resembling “start and park?”

How bad is it?  Ask Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 champ who despite having the marketing power of such a victory can’t find a full-time ride in the Nationwide series, yes the secondary series, for venerated owner, Jack Roush. Speculation surrounds other drivers and if they will have secured rides for 2013, among them another Daytona 500 winner, Ryan Newman, again for lack of sponsorship.

These are but a few of the highlights that suggest the rapid growth and explosion in popularity NASCAR enjoyed in the 1990’s might have been illusionary. NASCAR and its top Sprint Cup Series is not the big deal it pretended to be. After obtaining a massive national TV deal which for a few years put most races on over-the-air television, disaster struck on the very first day of that deal, the 2001 Daytona 500, when the series’ most accomplished champ, Dale Earnhardt died in a final lap crash going into the final turn as his drivers Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., chased down the victory.

Was that the beginning of today’s NASCAR era? Did it start with “The Chase” format?” Maybe the C.O.T. (Car of Tomorrow) is to blame. Could it be the economic recession starting in 2007?  That NASCAR decided to ditch three of its southern mainstays, two races at Rockingham, NC and one at Darlington, SC, in part to allow for two races a year in the outskirts of Los Angeles proved an immediate failure as California was scaled back to just one race in 2011.

So how bad is it?

Could it be when history is written, might the beginning of “The Chase” era be one of the most significant of the entire sixty five year history of NASCAR?

Consider this – three active drivers today have already secured driving records that put them right in the heart of the best drivers of all time. Of the sports top 15 drivers, the only ones not in the Hall of Fame are Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart, all active drivers today.

Jeff Gordon’s victory at Watkins Glen vaulted him back into chase contention and his 86 wins are the third best of all-time putting him immediately ahead of Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, both posting 84 wins. Only David Pearson with 105 and Richard Petty are ahead of him.

Jimmie Johnson in his 8th full-time season, the heart of his career, past Rusty Wallace this season to stand in 8th on the all-time winner’s list. Next on the list will be exceeding the Intimidator himself, Dale Earnhardt. Johnson needs 18 wins to achieve that feat.

Tony Stewart with 47 wins has moved into 14th spot ahead of Buck Baker. He’s closing in on Herb Thomas with his next win at 48, and then two more wins will put him in the most exclusive company. Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson share 11th place with 50 wins. How many drivers can run off three wins in a hurry like Tony Stewart? Not long after that, he’ll join the top ten taking aim on NASCAR’s greatest dynasty, the Petty family, where he’ll bump patriarch, Lee Petty with 54 wins, then a fellow he battled in his early career, Rusty Wallace with his 55 wins.

Another measure of greatest is championships. Consider this – the mark is set by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with their seven championships. Where do Jimmie Johnson’s five CONSECUTIVE championships rate in the discussion?  By the way, he’s atop the points standings right now and has three wins for the 2012 season so far. Jeff Gordon has four championships, 4th on the championship list. Five drivers in NASCAR history have three championships. They are: David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty, and Tony Stewart.

History shines brightly on drivers who win the Daytona 500. A championship and a couple Daytona 500 wins establish a driver among the sports elites. Matt Kenseth joins the elite circle with his second Daytona 500 win, his second to go along with his 2003 Championship.

In this discussion, let’s not forget to salute living legends in the twilight of their careers. Mark Martin soldiers on in his part-time roll with Michael Waltrip Racing and has won two poles so far this year. His 40 wins put him among the best in the sports’ history. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, Bill Elliot still occasionally fires up a race car. He’s 16th on the all-time list, and with his championship and a host of other accomplishments, is one of the sports’ legends who will join them soon after he hangs it up for good. Terry Labonte occasionally races still, and has two championships, 29th on the winners list.

Are there future legends tearing up the track?  Let’s look at Kyle Busch. He’s already beaten Mark Martin for the most wins in the Nationwide series. At 27 years old, has amassed 105 wins in NASCAR’s top three series: 20 wins in Camping World Truck Racing, 51 in Nationwide, and 24 Sprint Cup wins. He’s not only number one in Nationwide but already 26th in Sprint Cup all-time wins. Soon, he’ll be knocking off some of the sport’s biggest names on the all-time list.

Three drivers stand at 19 wins, soon to hit the noteworthy 20 win threshold: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle aren’t far behind. Surely with some impressive victories behind him and now teamed up with Hendricks, Kasey Kahne could be on the threshold of becoming one of the sports’ true stars. Roger Penske’s lead driver, in the famous #2 car, Brad Keselowski, in his third season, has shown the ability to dominate races and yields no ground with his scrappy hard-hitting style.

Go back and take a snapshot of the sport at just about any point in its history, it would be difficult to find a time period with more noteworthy activity going on. Could we look back to 1992’s last race when Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliot and Davey Allison to win the championship in Richard Petty’s last and Jeff Gordon’s first race with Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, and Darrell Waltrip all on the track as perhaps the zenith of the sport?  Perhaps look back to the dawn of the TV era, the 1979 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt’s rookie year, the fight between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Darrell Waltrip all in the heat of battle.

Time will tell how today’s era will size up against landmark times like the 1992 Championship race in Atlanta or the 1979 Daytona 500. One thing’s for certain, some of the greatest achievements in the history of the sport are right before our eyes.

We struggle hard to explain what appears to be the cause of the sport’s apparent “funk.” We can only suggest one possibility. Who can quickly identify who today’s top true rivalries are?  Through out the history of NASCAR we think of battles like Dale Earnhardt and some of his rivals: Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, and Mark Martin. Through the 1980’s almost anybody who locked horns with Darrell Waltrip became an instant hot story – check with Bill Elliot, Cale Yarborough, and anyone else who encountered “Jaws.” No history of NASCAR would ever fail to mention Richard Petty versus David Pearson – perhaps the sports defining rivalry. Not that the King’s tussles with Cale Yarborough or Bobby Allison were any less intense.

Today’s competition would seem to suggest such rivalries are brewing, but for whatever reason, they seem to be little more than silly “hissy fits” or purposeful media contrivances by comparison... Even the great manufacturer’s battle: Chevy versus Ford appears muted in today’s world. Perhaps the rivals today are between owners: Rick Hendricks versus Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, or Richard Childress more so than the drivers who suit up for those organizations. These distinctions are further muddled when Tony Stewart’s operation for all practical purposes are an extension of the Hendricks empire racing their hardware just as the greatest brand name of all, Richard Petty, is racing Jack Roush gear.

Some go as far to blame part of NASCAR’s funk on the “car of tomorrow,” a much needed replacement for the race car’s fundamental design in over a quarter century when Detroit downsized from the massive beasts of the auto industry’s glory days. While the safety considerations are most welcome, that aside from some minor cosmetic touches, little more than decals, there’s nothing to differentiate Fords, Chevy’s, Dodges and Toyotas from each other. Perhaps the new 2013 car will help sole that deficiency.

With Dodge leaving the sport at the end of this season, and Penske moving to Ford, perhaps the pedigree of competition will be clearer, but what will it take for NASCAR to regain its swagger in an era of apparent malaise?

Many have opined with ways to juice up the sport. Track owner, Bruton Smith, suggested mandatory cautions acting like official timeouts in other sports to bunch up the competition and supposedly ramp up competition. That notion was quickly dismissed as contrived and arbitrary. Several races have been shortened. Dover and now Pocono have reduced from 500’s to 400’s – few would argue those moves have been beneficial.

Certainly there are distractions and factors that could be addressed for the sport’s benefit. We’ll discuss those in future columns.

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