Monday, January 20, 2020

COMMENTARY: There's Enough Larson To Go Around

Social media is in an uproar today, after Kyle Larson once again dared to mention NASCAR and the Chili Bowl in the same sentence.

The Elk Grove, California native carved out another chunk of history for himself Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, overhauling rival Christopher Bell with a testosterone-rich, high line pass that carried him all the way to Victory Lane in the country’s premier indoor midget race, the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.

The win earned Larson his first Golden Driller trophy and reversed a pattern of “close, but no cigar” Chili Bowl performances that have repeatedly denied him a shot at Victory Lane in recent years.

“It’s a pretty different range of emotions,” said Larson, who came out on the short end of a late-race, wheel-banging battle with Bell in last season’s Chili Bowl. “365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out.

“I’m sorry NASCAR. I’m sorry Daytona. But this is the biggest f’ing race I’ve ever won.”

Those comments triggered a veritable firestorm of reaction, with NASCAR fans leaping to defend their piece of the motorsports landscape against Larson’s perceived insult, while dirt track fans hooted in delight.

The debate continues at maximum volume today, with the two fan factions – dirt vs asphalt, big-time vs grassroots – lobbing digital insults at each other in a misguided attempt to prove that their form of motorsport is the best form of motorsport.

There are obviously plenty of differences between the Daytona 500 and the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

The “Great American Race” tops 100,000 in attendance each season and is watched by millions more worldwide on FOX. The Chili Bowl plays out before a somewhat cozier in-person crowd of roughly 15,000, with thousands more watching on MAV-TV.

Both events do tremendously well. And while undeniably different, the Daytona 500 and Chili Bowl Nationals share identical roots. Both showcase the very best that our sport has to offer, galvanizing legions of supportive fans to pack their respective grandstands, clad in a rainbow of apparel that pledges allegiance to their favorite driver.

That’s a good thing, my friends, regardless of where your motorsports allegiance lies. And before the rising tumult drowns out any remaining semblance of rational thought, here are a couple of points, for what they’re worth.

Kyle Larson has never won the Daytona 500. He did go to Victory Lane in an Xfinity race there – the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 in July of 2018 – but until he does, Saturday night’s Chili Bowl win should indeed rank as the “biggest f’ing race” he’s ever won.

Perhaps a Daytona 500 win – if it comes -- will change his perspective. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s fine.

The contention in some corners that Larson has short-changed his NASCAR career by giving so much time, attention and emotion to his Sprint Car and Midget program is difficult – if not impossible – to prove. Easier to determine is that with 20 NASCAR National Series wins in eight seasons, the 27-year old has experienced far more success than the vast majority of drivers his age.

“Yung Money” has been a Top-10 points finisher in four of his six NASCAR Cup Series seasons, and since going full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014, he has finished above his respective teammates (Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch) every year but one.

It is difficult to measure the success of a driver against competitors who drive different equipment; either better or worse. Has Larson won enough to rank with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano on the talent scale? That’s a matter of opinion.

But the facts show that he has been the lead horse in the draft at CGR, just about every step of the way.

Larson clearly loves driving race cars; either full-fendered or open wheeled. He demonstrated that affection by showing up for last week’s Chili Bowl preliminaries with the whites of his eyes tinted an eerie mixture of purple, red and black; the result of an end-over-end, eggbeater midget crash at a dirt track in New Zealand late last month.

He didn’t have to tape his eyes open, Ricky Rudd-style. But Larson’s dedication to the game was on full display in Tulsa last week.

The current debate over Larson’s “Sorry NASCAR” comment is like cats fighting over a favorite toy. There’s enough of Kyle to go around; enough for us all to share from Daytona to Tulsa, Watkins Glen to New South Wales.

Larson is a walking, talking throwback to a bygone era in our sport when drivers like AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney jumped from stock cars to sports cars to Sprint Cars to midgets – sometimes in the same weekend – and earned our undying respect by doing so.

It’s time to cut Larson some slack.

Let him race what he wants, and love it all.

COMMENTARY: MLB Controversy Provides A Valuable Lesson For NASCAR

Major League Baseball finds itself earlobe-deep in controversy this week, after it was revealed that the Houston Astros used technology to steal signs from opposing teams during their 2017 World Series championship season, as well as in 2018.

The controversy first came to light in November of last year, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich of The Athletic that the team had utilized a center field video camera to steal opposing teams' signs and communicate pitches to batters. Following an MLB investigation, the Astros were fined $5 million and will forfeit their first and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.

General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch were suspended by MLB for the entire 2020 season, before subsequently being fired by the Astros. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora – who helped orchestrate the sign-stealing scam while serving as bench coach for the Astros in 2017 – was also dismissed, as was newly hired New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017.

The sanctions were the most severe ever handed down to an MLB organization for in-game misconduct, and they provide a valuable lesson for other sports – like NASCAR – about the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the game.

Cheating is not unique to baseball. NASCAR has long grappled with the concept of “superior interpretation of the rules,” dating back to its moonshining roots. In the past, when faced with cheating scandals of its own, NASCAR and its fan base have often responded with little more than a wink and a shrug.

The consensus of opinion among many in this sport is that “If you’re not cheating, you’re not competing;” an attitude that has done little to aid NASCAR’s effort to be seen as a major league professional sport. In fact, NASCAR is often viewed in the stick-and-ball world as the sport where everybody cheats, and nobody cares.

The sanctioning body has taken steps recently to alter that perception. NASCAR announced a year ago that it would begin disqualifying teams found to have broken the rules, penalizing them to last place in the finishing order. Joe Gibbs Racing was the first team to feel the impact of that new attitude, when driver Erik Jones lost a fourth-place finish to a post-race Optical Scanning Station failure at Richmond Raceway in September of 2019.

The current Major League Baseball controversy provides a valuable opportunity for both NASCAR and its fans to honestly evaluate how casual observers have long viewed our game. As we look down upon MLB and the Houston Astros today – collectively shaking our heads and harrumphing in disdain – we understand at long last how the rest of the world has viewed NASCAR through its myriad rule breaking scandals.

With the benefit of a little distance, NASCAR and its fans now have a unique opportunity to see the forest, rather than just the trees. We have an opportunity to see – from a comfortable distance -- just how damaging the concept of widespread, systemic cheating can be to a sport, its teams and its players.

There is a lesson to be learned here, if we’re smart enough to learn it.

Unfortunately, the reaction of many in NASCAR Nation has been indifference.

“I don’t care about baseball,” they huff. “That has nothing to do with NASCAR.”

Well, it has everything to do with NASCAR.

Baseball’s current state of upheaval is no different than what NASCAR went through in the aftermath of the 2013 Michael Waltrip Racing “Itchy Arm” scandal, when drivers Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and others intentionally manipulated the outcome of the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway, in order to allow teammate Martin Truex, Jr., to advance to the playoffs.

Like the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, what happened in NASCAR that day was a systemic, organization-wide plot to manipulate the outcome of a major sporting event. And like the current MLB controversy, the events of September 7, 2013 cast a shadow over our sport that may never completely dissipate.

For those among us who are not NASCAR myopic -- who recognize and understand that there are other sports out there that do not involve screaming engines and squealing tires – how has your opinion of Major League Baseball changed in the last few weeks?

Has this latest controversy – combined with the still-lingering taint of the Steroid Scandal – sullied the sport in your eyes? Does the realization that cheating in Major League Baseball is widespread and largely condoned make you less of a fan? And does the knowledge that the Houston Astros (quite literally) stole the 2017 World Series title make you think less of them as an organization?

Of course it does. As it should.

And that’s why NASCAR needs to watch, listen and learn from what Major League Baseball is going through right now.

Integrity matters.

Reputation counts.

And once it’s gone, it’s difficult to regain.