Monday, July 22, 2019

Johnson Once Again Teetering On Playoff Brink

With just six races remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, there is as much attention being paid to the bottom of the championship ladder as the top.

Just 101 points separate 13th place from 21st in the regular-season standings, with no fewer than nine drivers fighting over the final four spots on the playoff grid. Kyle Larson is now ranked 13th, 31 points above the cutoff line. Hot off a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday, Erik Jones climbed to 14th in the standings, 28 points to the good. Ryan Newman helped his cause with a seventh-place finish at the Magic Mile, jumping to 15th in the standings, 21 points above the Danger Zone. Clint Bowyer (20th in New Hampshire) is now on the hot seat as the final playoff qualifier, 17 points ahead of multi-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson finished 30th Sunday -- 13 laps down -- continuing an up-and-down season that has seen him dancing on the edge of the playoff blade, virtually every week.

With just two laps remaining in the second stage of Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, Johnson was poised to claim a handful of much-needed bonus points. He was sixth on a Lap 149 restart, but ran into the back of another car as the green flag waved, creating debris that damaged the pulleys on the front of his Ally Chevrolet’s engine. Those damaged pulleys quickly spit the power steering and water pump belts, plummeting him through the field and forcing him to pit road for lengthy repairs.

“It was certainly a letdown, to say the least,” said Johnson after the race. “We had some issues with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some contact on the restart. I got into the back of the car in front of me.

“They told me that wasn’t the case, so I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. It’s just unlucky on that front. (It was) certainly the wrong time of year to have bad luck.”

Less than a month ago, after posting back-to-back Top-5 finishes at Chicagoland and Daytona, the Hendrick Motorsports driver looked ready to return to his customary championship form. Consecutive 30th-place results at Kentucky and New Hampshire have dropped him from 15th to 17th in the championship chase, however, and his involvement in the 2019 postseason is once again in doubt, to say the least.

He is currently tied with Stewart Haas Racing youngster Daniel Suarez for 17th in the regular-season standings, trailed by Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Chris Buescher; all of whom are still mathematically eligible (though highly unlikely) to make the playoffs on points.

“We’ve been trying all year,” said Johnson, the only driver to qualify for the postseason every year since NASCAR invoked its playoff-style format in 2004. “It’s not like we can magically flip a switch and all of a sudden have more. We’ve been able to run in the Top-5 and we need to get back to doing that. That’s really what it boils down to.”

Johnson last visited MENCS Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway in May of 2017 -- 
78 races ago -- and badly needs a rebound performance this weekend at Pocono Raceway 
to right his playoff ship. He is a three-time winner at The Tricky Triangle, most recently in 
June of 2013.

“(This is) certainly the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck,” he added. “The guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”

While Joey Logano and Kyle Busch continue their mano-a-mano battle for the 2019 regular season title, the next six weeks will almost certainly focus an increased amount of attention on the final few seats at the playoff dance.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

COMMENTARY: Spire Motorsports Deserves Congratulation, Not Scorn

Justin Haley won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway Sunday, cashing-in a longshot weather gamble when lightning in the vicinity of the track waved-off an impending restart after a number of contenders had just pitted for tires and fuel.

Haley’s win for the first-year Spire Motorsports team was the kind of upset that Daytona has become famous for over the years, and the type of Cinderella Story that fans and media have historically embraced. This time, however, both Haley and his team have found themselves the targets of criticism, second-guessing and name calling, even before the post-race champagne had dried.

Spire Motorsports was formed during the offseason when owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr – who own and operate Spire Sports + Entertainment, a talent management and motorsports consultant agency -- were hired by Furniture Row Racing’s Barney Visser to assist in selling his race team and its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series charter. Unable to find an interested buyer, Dickerson and Puchyr elected to take the plunge themselves, obtaining $6 million in loans to purchase Furniture Row’s charter, then contracting with Premium Motorsports to provide race cars and equipment for their freshman campaign.

Spire began the season with veteran Jamie McMurray behind the wheel in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 22nd after a late-race crash. Since then, they have fielded weekly entries for a driver list that includes Haley, Quin Houff, Garrett Smithley, DJ Kennington and Reed Sorenson. Prior to their upset at Daytona, Spire’s best finish had been an 18th by Sorenson at Talladega in late April.

In addition to their new racing endeavor, Spire Sports + Entertainment represents a number of NASCAR and IndyCar drivers, including Haley, Smithley, Kyle Larson, James HinchcliffeLandon CassillRoss Chastain, Todd Gilliland and Vinnie Miller. They also serve as consultants to teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, GMS Racing, ThorSport Racing, Larson Marks Racing, 5-hour Energy and Eneos, as well as for the Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.

Haley stunned at Daytona
That, apparently, represents a conflict of interest in the eyes of some, making Spire’s Daytona victory a “black eye for the sport” in the eyes of at least one media member.

“Conflict of interest” is nothing new in NASCAR.  Bill France, Sr, raced in many of the early events sanctioned by his National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. From 1995 through 1999, Jimmy Spencer drove cars sponsored by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., which also served as entitlement sponsor of the series at that time. Today, Kurt Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is sponsored by Monster Energy, major sponsors of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

In neither case did anyone cry “conflict of interest,” or claim those sponsorships to be injurious to the sport.

When the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove for Richard Childress Racing in the final years of his career, one of the teams he had to beat en route to Victory Lane was his own organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Jeff Gordon raced against Jimmie Johnson every week for many years, while holding an ownership stake in Johnson’s car.

No one complained about those supposed “conflicts,” or fretted that they might destroy the sport. 

NASCAR is not the only sport with conflict in its ranks. There are currently nearly 1,700 rostered players in the National Football League, with only a dozen or so major agents representing them. Does an agent who represents multiple athletes on different, competing teams present a conflict of interest?


"Black eye" for NASCAR? Far from it.
But does it have any negative impact on the athletes, the league or the game?

Absolutely not.

Before purchasing FRR’s charter during the offseason, Spire contacted all of its motorsports clients, asking for their approval to proceed. Every athlete and team gave their blessing.

If Spire’s “conflict” is okay in the eyes of their clients, it should be alright with you and me, as well.

In truth, the uproar over Haley’s Daytona victory is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, manufactured by a small handful of utterly joyless souls who apparently cannot stand to see an underdog team (or the sport) succeed. Despite the ongoing efforts of those unhappy few to convince you otherwise, Sunday’s win has not brought the sky tumbling down around NASCAR’s ears.

Saying that something “could” damage the sport is far different than proving that it is actually causing harm. And at this point, not a single shred of quantifiable evidence has been presented that Spire’s so-called “conflict of interest” has damaged the sport in any way.

Some of the same people bemoaning Spire’s dual role in the sport have chastised the team for not being competitive enough in the first 17 races of their existence. One writer described them as “a team that’s shown no interest in being competitive whatsoever,” with another accusing the organization of being nothing more than “a cash grab.”

Dickerson, Puchyr and team president Ty Norris are not disinterested in running up front. They are simply aware of (and bound by) their current competitive limitations. Like a number of other teams in the MENCS garage, they must make the best of a limited budget and non-state-of-the-art equipment, racing in the bottom half of the field while attempting to build their program for the future.

There is absolutely no indication that Dickerson and Puchyr plan to cash-in their chips at season’s end, selling their charter for a healthy profit before snickering their way out the door. If such a “get rich quick” scheme was truly viable, they would have been able to sell FRR’s charter to some deep-pocketed venture capitalist with an eye for an easy buck. That didn’t happen, leaving Dickerson and Puchyr to step up, when no one else would.

If that qualifies as a “cash grab,” so be it.

Most of us regularly execute “cash grabs” when we punch a time clock at work in exchange for a weekly paycheck. So long as Spire Motorsports remains within the rules and regulations of NASCAR, they have every right to operate their team however they see fit, and grab all the cash they can along the way.

It took Furniture Row Racing seven seasons to make its first trip to Victory Lane. It may take Spire Motorsports another seven years to return to the Winner’s Circle, but if it does, it won’t be from a lack of trying.

The men and women who make up Spire Motorsports do not deserve your scorn. They deserve your congratulations and well-wishes after a weekend that every new NASCAR team dreams of, but very few ever achieve.

Monday, July 08, 2019

COMMENTARY: What To Expect From The 2021 NASCAR Schedule, And Why

NASCAR President Steve Phelps appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week and cautioned fans not to expect “massive wholesale changes” in the 2021 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Despite stating that the sanctioning body “probably won’t go to exactly the same number of race tracks (for) the exact same number of events,” a segment of the sport’s fan base interpreted those comments them to mean that few, if any changes are likely to be made.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Some venue changes will almost certainly take place, but a dramatic, chassis-off makeover of the MENCS schedule will be difficult to accomplish, for a number of reasons.

The 600-pound gorilla of North American motorsports is the National Football League. The NFL season begins in August and hits full stride in September, October and November; just about the time that NASCAR is engrossed in its playoffs. Some believe that NASCAR would do well to end its season 30 days earlier, sidestepping the meat of the NFL schedule.

To the sport’s television partners, however, there is no better alternative programming during the NFL offseason, preseason and early season than NASCAR. NASCAR is either No. 1 or No. 2 in cable sports viewership every week, but if the racing season is shortened, the sport’s TV partners will fill those empty weekend time slots with something else. Whether it’s soccer, lacrosse, WWE, or MMA, someone is going to cash a TV check on those weekends.

It might as well be NASCAR.

Phelps: No "massive wholesale changes."
Shortening the race season will result in decreased TV revenue to teams, tracks and the sanctioning body. That income will not be easily replaced, and race teams must pay salaries and keep the lights turned on 12 months a year, whether they race 36 times annually, or only 30.

The possibility of midweek racing has also been discussed recently. A rain-delayed, 5 PM ET Monday start time at Michigan International Speedway recently produced solid television ratings and created that a limited schedule of such events might experience success similar to the NFL’s lucrative Monday Night Football franchise. While that possibility does exist – and is worth investigating -- in-person attendance on a Monday night would almost certainly prove challenging.

Mainstream networks like FOX and NBC air highly profitable primetime programs on weeknights. They are not going to bump The Voice, 9-1-1 or The Prodigal Son for a NASCAR race, even in the summer when those shows are in re-runs. Networks make a ton of money on Reality TV and sitcoms, and are unlikely to pre-empt them, even for a dose of Monday Night NASCAR.

Midweek racing will also result in increased expense for teams, unless NASCAR is willing to clear the previous and/or following weekend. It is unrealistic to expect teams to race on a Saturday night or Sunday, then again on Monday at a different track.

Let’s talk a bit about moving races.

For NASCAR, taking races from a venue in an adversarial fashion will be a challenging endeavor. Look up the name “Francis Ferko” and recall the ungodly amount of legal turmoil that ensued the last time NASCAR attempted to unilaterally move a race from one track to another. Any speedway that loses a multi-million dollar MENCS event against its wishes will almost certainly take the matter to court, alleging collusion and anti-trust. We have seen it before -- with years of negative headlines and millions of dollars in attorney’s fees -- and it would absolutely happen again.

Even without the legal roadblocks, abandoning longtime, historic facilities is a bad optic for the sport. People still talk about Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre shutting down North Wilkesboro Speedway and moving its races to other tracks; an event that occurred nearly a quarter century ago, in 1996.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and International Speedway Corporation are the two major track ownership groups in the sport. They can (and do) move races within their respective portfolios with relative ease. The remainder of the schedule belongs to the Mattioli Family (Pocono Raceway), Dover Motorsports, Inc. (Dover International Speedway) and Hulman and Co. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

For those groups to lose a race, one of two things will almost certainly have to happen.

First, SMI or ISC can purchase one of those venues and move its race(s) to other properties within their portfolio. There is historical precedent for that sort of approach. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro come immediately to mind, to name just two.

Indy, Dover or Pocono can also forge an agreement to “realign” one of itheir races to another venue, sharing the profits generated by that event.

Nostalgia is a big part of our sport. NASCAR is second only to baseball in revering and reliving “The Good Old Days,” a mentality that often results in modern-day fans longing for a return to the speedways of their youth.

Unfortunately, those failed speedways failed for a reason. Overserved markets, poor attendance, lack of infrastructure and aging facilities where attendance did not justify major capital improvements led to the demise of many former MENCS venues. If you’re hoping for your favorite old-time track to return to the NASCAR schedule, ask yourself “what has changed there since the track came off the calendar?”

In virtually every case, the answer is “nothing.” In fact, most of the tracks in question are in worse shape than they were when they fell off the schedule, making a return by NASCAR unlikely, at best. The only possible exception at present is the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, where SMI is currently undertaking a major campaign to upgrade the facility and facilitate the return of NASCAR National Series competition.

Race tracks and ownership groups like ISC and SMI are not charities. They are for-profit organizations and do not operate on emotion and nostalgia. Either a race track makes money, or it goes away. That is – quite literally – the bottom line.

For these reasons and more, it is unreasonable to expect a dozen or more tracks to be dropped from the 2021 NASCAR schedule, replaced by new (or resurrected old) facilities.

If you are expecting NASCAR to eliminate all the so-called “cookie cutter” 1.5-mile tracks from its 2021 calendar, you are destined for disappointment.

If you are hoping to see a dozen short tracks on the schedule, you are destined for disappointment.

If you are hoping to see Circuit of the Americas, VIR or your local, quarter-mile dirt track on the schedule, you are absolutely destined for disappointment.

When you were a child and your parents asked what you wanted for Christmas, you gave them a “Wish List” as long as your arm, understanding that not everything on that list would appear under the tree on Dec. 25. NASCAR’s recent promise to deliver some new goodies under the 2021 scheduling tree inspired some wonderfully optimistic wished from the sport’s fans; some of whom – unfortunately – won’t be happy unless Santa crams an entire sleigh full of gifts down the chimney.

Last week, NASCAR’s Phelps said, “We're going to listen to what the fans say.”

That seems like a pretty good place to start, but it is not as simple as “wishing will make it so.”

Monday, July 01, 2019

COMMENTARY: Bowman's Win A Testimony To Persistence

It is only fitting that Alex Bowman’s first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory came with a double dose of persistence.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver battled back after being passed for the lead by Kyle Larson with just eight laps remaining to win Sunday’s Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Bowman regained the top spot from Larson with a daring, high-line pass, then held on to win by .546-seconds to claim the first victory of his MENCS career. Joey Logano overcame early struggles to finish third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. 

Like Sunday’s win, Bowman’s career has been a study in patience and persistence. 

His first national attention came when he claimed Rookie of the Year honors on NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East in 2011, outracing highly touted, second-generation driver Chase Elliott for the honor. Two unremarkable seasons with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing Cup Series teams did little to raise his competitive stock, but he was set to race for Baldwin again in 2016 until being informed that his services would not be required, less than a month before the season-opening Daytona 500.

Bowman (88) and Larson (42)
battled hard for the win.
He spent the 2016 campaign as HMS’ simulator driver, rarely climbing behind the wheel of an actual race car until Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was sidelined with concussion symptoms at midseason. Bowman replaced NASCAR's Most Popular Driver in 10 events, splitting time with former series champion Jeff Gordon and performing as well as either Gordon or Earnhardt.

When Earnhardt was eventually forced to retire at the end of the 2017 campaign, Bowman was tabbed to replace him in Rick Hendrick's potent No. 88 Chevrolet. 

Success, however, was not immediate,

He finished 16th in last year's championship standings with just three Top-5 and 11 Top-10 finishes, slogging through a season that saw the entire Hendrick organization struggle to get a grip on Chevrolet's new Camaro ZL-1. This season began in a similar fashion, with no Top-10 finishes in Bowman's first nine starts, despite an outside-pole qualifying effort in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Bowman is a MENCS winner at last.
The tide began to turn in late April at Talladega, where Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives recorded the first of three consecutive runner-up finishes. Second-place runs at Dover and Kansas were quickly followed by a seventh at Charlotte and a 10th at Dover, serving notice that Bowman was finally ready to contend for Victory Lane.

Despite those solid showings, however, Bowman has been hounded by rumors of his potential replacement at HMS. Lately, the internet railbirds have chattered incessantly about a move by Larson from Chip Ganassi Racing to Hendrick, taking the wheel of the iconic No. 88 Chevrolet.

Team owner Rick Hendrick attempted to silence that speculation recently, saying, "Alex is having a breakout season and showing the world just how talented he is. He’s signed through next year, and will be a big part of our future.” That endorsement did little to cam the speculative storm, and last month's announcement that Nationwide Insurance will depart as sponsor at season's end pumped up the volume even further.

How ironic, then, that Bowman's win Sunday came at the expense of Larson, after the driver known as "Yung Money" wrestled the lead away from Bowman with just a handful of laps remaining.

“It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life,” said a beaming Bowman in Victory Lane. “I feel like this is validation for a lot of people that said we couldn’t do this. My guys have worked so hard and we struggled so bad last year and the beginning of this year. I had questions if Mr. Hendrick was going to let me keep doing this. All the rumor mills. But, to be here winning a race in the Cup Series means so much.

“I was tired of running second,” he admitted. “I felt like we had a car capable of winning. We got held up there for a little while. I got super frustrated with some lapped cars not helping us. They don't have to help us, but that's just kind of part of it. We lost a big lead and I got pretty frustrated, burned the right rear tire off trying to get around some lapped cars. And when Kyle got around me, I was going to tear the right side off it, try and run the fence, or get back around him.

"(I’m) glad we kept it out of the fence, and I was kind of surprised that he left the top open the way he did and left clean air up there. I guess I should have moved up there earlier. But I didn't want to run second again. I don't come from a racing family, I don't have a big resume. I went from running in the back every week to doing this, and still not really sure how that all happened, but it's been a heck of a ride. I’m just very thankful for the opportunity and thankful for getting to work with people like Greg Ives and this 88 team.”

Sunday’s race was red-flagged after just 11 laps by high winds and torrential rain that forced a 3½-hour delay that added yet another element of patience and persistence to Bowman's day. The rain even impacted his victory lap, as the 26-year old driver slid into the infield and was unable to escape.

Undaunted, he climbed atop his stranded car and thrust his arms skyward, celebrating a victory that was  well worth the wait.

NASCAR's Phelps Cautions Against Expectations of "Massive" Schedule Changes In 2021

NASCAR president Steve Phelps cautioned last week that fans expecting a complete overhaul of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2021 may have the hopes set too high.

Appearing on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Friday, Phelps said the 2021 is still a work in progress, as is the new, Gen-7 race car set to debut in 2021.

"We don't have the schedule dialed in for 2021 as it pertains (to) where we will race," Phelps said. "I think if you would look at the 2020 schedule, we moved things around. I think the fans…by and large were thrilled with the changes we made. I think there was an industry buzz.

"The drivers were excited, the teams were excited and, most importantly, the fans were excited. But we’re racing at the same racetracks (in 2020), the same number at each racetrack. We have new sanctions that we need to do for 2021 that will obviously dictate where we go.”

Phelps cautioned against expecting “massive wholesale changes,” adding, “Will we go to exactly the same number of racetracks, the exact same number of events? We probably won’t. I don’t think there are going to be massive wholesale changes. With that said, we're going to listen to what the fans say.

“This is their sport and we need to make sure that we are giving them what they want. So, (we are doing) a lot of listening, a lot of dialogue, working with our broadcast partners, working with our teams and our drivers, our OEM partners. That’s the first part of the 2021 piece.

“It's a work in progress."

Fans have expressed support for an increased number of short tracks and road course on the 2021 docket, at the expense of 1.5-mile ovals. There has also been considerable discussion about shortening the MENCS shorter overall schedule. 

The impending purchase of International Speedway Corporation by NASCAR could simplify the process of moving race dates, since privatized ownership of ISC would eliminate the need for approval by the Board of Directors. The announced $2 billion merger is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year, giving NASCAR direct operational control if ISC’s 12 MENCS venues; Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Watkins Glen International. The sanctioning body already owns Iowa Speedway, which is not currently a part of the MENCS schedule.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. is also in the midst of taking its company private. SMI owns Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Kentucky Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Dover International Raceway, Pocono Raceway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are privately owned, and there are no current plans to change the ownership of those speedways.

Monday, May 20, 2019

All-Star Saturday Night Provides Much-Needed Smiles For Bubba Wallace, RPM

Smiles have been few and far between lately for NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace, Jr.

With a season-best finish of 17th and only one Top-10 showing in his last 41 starts, the Alabama native has recently had to contend with rumors that his Richard Petty Motorsports team might fold in the near future, after being unable to attract badly needed sponsorship.

Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the smile returned to Bubba’s face.

Wallace and his underdog RPM team contended strongly for the win the opening stage of Saturday’s Monster Energy Open, only to lose a fender-banging sprint to the finish by inches to William Byron.

After a few R-rated exclamations on his in-car radio, Wallace bounced back in Stage Two of the Open, nipping Daniel Suarez on the final lap in a virtually carbon-copy finish, banging wheels as Suarez spun, giving Wallace a starting spot in his first-ever All-Star Race and unleashing a torrent of cheers from the Charlotte grandstands that rivaled anything heard for the remainder of the evening.

“Ever since I was a kid, they said I drive better when I’m pissed off,” said Wallace, in the midst of an emotional, teary embrace with fellow driver and best friend Ryan Blaney. “I was pissed off. I thought that was it (for our chances). Then the caution came out (in the second stage) and gave us the same scenario.

Wallace made his All-Star debut memorable.
“I thought, ‘I’m not giving it up this time.’ You’ve got to do what you’ve got do.”

Simply qualifying for the All-Star Race would have been enough to boost the morale at RPM. But Wallace was far from finished.

He ran toward the back of the 19-car main event in the opening two stages, but surged forward in the penultimate third segment, finishing sixth. A pit stop dropped him outside the Top-10 for the start of the final 15-lap stage, but Wallace wasted little time moving forward once the green flag flew.

He cracked the Top-10 almost immediately, then gained a handful of positions by remaining on-track while others pitted with just 12 laps remaining. He climbed as high as fourth following the final restart, but was overtaken by Joey Logano with just four laps to go.

A spirited battle with former RPM driver Aric Almirola saw Wallace take the checkered flag in fifth place; an astounding performance for a driver and team who have been hanging on by their figurative fingernails in recent weeks.

“I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” said an emotional Wallace afterward.

He acknowledged that competitive and personal challenges have made life difficult recently. But on this night, at least, the smiles were easy to come by.

“I had tons of fun tonight,” he said. “I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time. I guess since back to the race at Bristol last spring. It’s been a struggle for us. I held it wide open on the last restart and those (top four) guys drove away from me. I just said ‘Bye, bye’ and held on for fifth.

“The first thing my mom said to me after the Open was ‘You know who that was? That was God. He’s not giving up on you yet.’

“As many dark moments that I’ve had and telling myself to give up, it’s been really tough. It’s been tough to keep coming in and keep going. Tonight just shows that I’ll be back next week.

“I’m showing teeth in my smile,” Wallace said. “So that says a lot.”

Monday, May 13, 2019

COMMENTARY: Drivers, Owners Sending Mixed Messages To NASCAR

With a new 2019 rules package in play and discussion already underway to determine the guidelines for 2021’s revamped Gen-7 race car, there is considerable debate in the NASCAR garage over who should determine the direction of the sport, going forward.

Three-time Cup Series winner Kyle Busch has been a steady and outspoken critic of NASCAR’s 2019 rules package, and sounded off again after a disappointing, 10th-place finish two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway.

“The package sucks,” said Busch. “No f-ing question about it. It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

Former series champion Kevin Harvick agreed, saying on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show that the sanctioning body needs to pay closer attention to the wants, needs and desires of its drivers.

The men behind the wheel are far from united in their opinions, however. Hot off a win two weeks ago at Dover, Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott agreed that NASCAR does not always pay close attention to its athletes, before questioning whether the drivers should be heeded at all.

Busch: "Falling on deaf ears."
“I think there is a right way to bring it up,” said Elliott last week. “I’ve tried to voice my opinion at different times in those meetings that we’re supposed to voice our opinions in. And at the end of the day, I’ve come to the realization -- and maybe this will change as time goes -- that I just don’t think my opinion matters to the people who make the rules.

“Really and truly, I’m not sure that it should. Why do the owners, drivers and teams even have a voice in some of that stuff? When it comes down to it, just make the rules and be done with it.

“We’re racing. Either you like it or you don’t.”

Obviously, everyone wants to feel like their voice is heard in the workplace. But until recently, NASCAR’s Driver’s Council represented only the elite, front-running few. The Race Team Alliance is also deeply divided along economic lines, making it difficult to determine what the garage really wants.

Elliott: "Just make the rules and
be done with it."
The prominent teams – those who run up front and win races – were strongly against NASCAR’s multi-car qualifying format, and expressed their displeasure repeatedly until the sanctioning body relented and returned to single-car time trials last week. A number of midfield and back-of-the-pack drivers actually preferred NASCAR’s Group Qualifying guidelines, however, feeling that an increased emphasis on drafting gave them an opportunity to outqualify cars that were faster than theirs.

That divergence of opinion is not confined to qualifying. From wind tunnel time to rules enforcement, aerodynamic regulations to standardized air guns, NASCAR’s garage frequently speaks with a forked tongue.

Two weeks ago, a number of drivers complained bitterly about an inability to pass on the Monster Mile at Dover. And yet, winner Martin Truex, Jr. and runner-up Alex Bowman both drove from the back of the pack after sustaining post-qualifying inspection penalties. Clearly, they found a way to pass.

Busch himself came from 22nd on the starting grid to finish 10th, despite a bout with the outside wall along the way. Under those circumstances, it’s tough to take the “impossible to pass” statement without at least a small grain of salt.

If some teams can figure it out, other teams can, too.

It’s also difficult to understand how cars can be “so easy to drive that the fans could do it” – as Busch alleged just a few weeks ago – then “impossible to pass” just a week or two later, with the exact same rules package in play. Yes, every track is different and weather and temperature changes play a definite role in handling on race day. But that has been the case since the earliest days of the sport, under virtually dozens of different rules packages.

Yes, racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is difficult. It’s supposed to be tough at the uppermost level of any professional sport.

It’s undoubtedly difficult for an NFL linebacker to shadow Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in single coverage. But we don’t hear a lot of them complaining to the media about it. There are difficulties in hitting a pressure-packed three-point jumper with no time left on the clock, as well. But Stephen Curry doesn’t do much grousing about it, at least not publicly.

When’s the last time you heard an NHL goalie complain about having to face a Sidney Crosby slap shot? And for that matter, when did tough guy Cale Yarborough ever climb out of his steaming race car, grousing about it being “too hard?”

During the offseason, NASCAR’s teams asked for a “one size fits all” rules package -- with only minor variations by track -- rather than separate (and more expensive) packages for short tracks, road courses, intermediate tracks and superspeedways. NASCAR honored that wish, but now, some drivers and team owners seem to expect that singular package to have the exact same impact at Dover that it does in Kansas.

That’s wildly unreasonable, as the racing these last two weeks has surely shown.

Listening is a wonderful thing. Hearing is even better. But until NASCAR’s drivers and owners manage to send a consistent, cohesive message, the sanctioning body will be hard-pressed to chart a course that satisfies everyone’s wants and desires.

“It’s not true that we don’t listen,” said a NASCAR spokesman last week, on the condition of anonymity. “We do listen. But sometimes, we simply don’t agree.”

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

COMMENTARY: In Defense Of Darrell Waltrip

This is a tough time to be Darrell Waltrip.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer turned NASCAR On FOX analyst has been a target for naysayers and detractors throughout his storied career. But recently, the hatred has ramped-up to a level that far exceeds the limits of good taste.

Last week, unconfirmed reports surfaced that the 72-year old Waltrip is contemplating retirement at season’s end, closing out a career that has encompassed nearly half a century and has enriched our sport in ways too numerous to count.

From the day he first landed in the NASCAR garage in 1972, the Owensboro, KY native has been a rabble-rouser. He has consistently spoken his mind, straight from the heart and without a filter, calling things like he sees them with little regard for political correctness or social decorum. Virtually upon arrival, he called out the biggest stars of the day – Petty, Pearson and Allison – earning the nickname “Jaws” after getting under tough-guy Cale Yarborough’s skin just one time too many. He employed psychological warfare in an era when most competitors could not spell psychological warfare, and aroused the passions of NASCAR Nation like no one ever had before, and few (if any) have done since.

He pushed buttons – intentionally at times – and pushed this sport’s fan base to levels of passion it had never before experienced. He’s still doing that today, in his own unique and unapologetic style.

Nobody has heard more boos in his lifetime than Waltrip, and no one has embraced the heel’s role more willingly, or with more passion. Rather than cower from the catcalls, he once famously challenged his detractors to meet him in the Kmart parking lot after the race for a good old-fashioned punch out.

Who else can combine a sponsor plug with an invitation to fight?

Only DW.

Waltrip has been polarizing from Day One, and God bless him for that. In an era when people spend most of their time looking for reasons to be offended, Waltrip continues to bulldoze his way forward, stepping on toes when necessary and telling us exactly what he thinks, 100% of the time.

Based on his track record – on 40-plus years of being consistently and unfailingly himself -- what exactly do the haters expect from Waltrip today?

Do they really want a politically correct, Pollyanna Waltrip? A man devoid of opinions, who says wonderful things about everyone and never toes the line of controversy?

If that’s what you want, you’ve got the wrong guy, my friends.

Darrell is what Darrell is. He’s opinionated, outspoken and sometimes annoying; saying things that make you think (really THINK) about what’s going on in the sport of NASCAR. He compliments when compliments are due, and criticizes with equal passion. And if you don’t like it, you can take a page out of Rusty Wallace’s playbook and “go choke on that $200,000.”

Unfortunately, just as they did at the end of his competitive career, the haters and naysayers refuse to allow Waltrip to leave with the grace, dignity and respect he deserves. Social media is filled with hateful, “throw the bum out” commentary, authored by people who were still in diapers when Waltrip was laying waste to his on-track competition and raising the bar of expectation for what a NASCAR champion should be.

Many drivers walk away from the sport when their time behind the wheel is done. Waltrip never walked away, choosing instead to continue to contribute as a television analyst. His perspective is one-of-a-kind, combining the behind-the-wheel savvy of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with a “been there, done that” long view of the sport that no one else can offer.

Somewhere along the line, it became cool to be cruel.

Social media has made a cottage industry out of hurtfulness, insults and disrespect, to the point where now, even a respected institution like the Associated Press confuses character assassination with insightful commentary.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and Waltrip deserves better.

As a NASCAR Hall of Famer with three premier series championships and Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 trophies among his 84 premier series wins, Waltrip has earned the right to choose his own exit strategy. He has earned the right to say goodbye at the time of his choosing and on his terms; without being hounded out the door by a pack of rabid wolves, hungry for their Hot Take Headline and their self-serving pound of flesh.

People who criticize Waltrip's "shtick" don't understand.  DW is not playing a character on television, he is being himself. That "Boogity Boogity Boogity" enthusiasm at the start of every race is neither contrived nor created. It is Darrell, being Darrell. 

You don’t have to like Darrell Waltrip. You don’t even have to agree with Darrell Waltrip. It’s OK if he gets under your skin from time to time. As a matter of fact, it’s part of his job. 

The philosopher Aristotle once said, "There is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing, say nothing and be nothing." After spending every Sunday afternoon in our living rooms for the last 20-odd years -- delivering an unapologetic mix of opinion, commentary and analysis... doing, saying and being -- Mother Teresa would rub you the wrong way, every once in a while.

During the glory days of Monday Night Football, people disliked Howard Cosell; criticizing his shtick and bemoaning his sometimes self-possessed commentary. They lambasted Dandy Don Meredith for being unpolished and “too country;” eventually running both men out of the broadcast booth in the mid-80s.

Monday Night Football has never been the same since.  

Without Waltrip, NASCAR would long ago have been overrun by those who consider insightful Victory Lane commentary to be “thanking the boys back at the shop,” along with God, Gatorade and Goodyear. Without Waltrip, there would be no Kevin Harvick, no Brad Keselowski and no Kyle Busch; all of whom have built on his “call it like you see it” foundation to become outspoken, opinionated and insightful spokesmen for our sport.

Waltrip blazed trails and opened doors for those who came behind him – both on and off the race track – and for that, he deserves our thanks and our respect.

If DW is truly retiring at season’s end, he deserves to be embraced and applauded for his lifelong efforts to improve and add color to our sport.

The recent spate of “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry” character assassination says more about the assassins than it does about Waltrip.