Friday, November 17, 2017

COMMENTARY: Thank You, Dale

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will run his final race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Homestead Miami Speedway Sunday. A two-decade career pockmarked by a series of debilitating concussions prompted NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver to announce that he will step away from the sport at season’s end, relinquishing the seat in Rick Hendrick’s potent No. 88 Chevrolet while still blessed with physical and mental faculties necessary to live a normal, happy life after racing.

Dale, Jr. will be missed
Dale seems fine with that decision. The rest of us, however, are struggling with the idea of a NASCAR race without Junior in it.

Drivers come and go with time. They always have, and they always will. Father Time is undefeated, and Earnhardt is not the first driver to be coerced into an early retirement by injury. As safe as NASCAR has become in recent years, Dale Jr. knows better than most how cruel this game can be, and how tenuous our grip is on tomorrow.

We will most certainly miss him on the race track, where every pass generated a joyous eruption from the grandstands. Junior never equaled the on-track success enjoyed by his legendary father, but if he had been born Dale Smith, Jr. -- rather than Dale Earnhardt -- his 26 career MENCS wins would have him discussed alongside the sport’s elite. Add another 24 victories and two championships in Xfinity Series competition and you’ve got a resume that 99% of racers would be proud to call their own.

It is off the track, however, where Earnhardt will be missed most.

 Junior's Homestead throwback car
Over the years, he has gone from a reticent, painfully shy interview to one of the most insightful and candid voices in the sport. In the early days of his career, Earnhardt’s press-conference repertoire was limited to, “yup, nope” and “guess so.” Not yet able – or willing -- to step out of his father’s all-enveloping shadow, Junior struggled to find his voice, staring at the ground, sucking nervously on his lower lip and wondering aloud why reporters and fans cared about his opinion at all.

In time, however, Junior became his own man. The loss of his father, coupled with the painful and senseless demise of the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. race team taught him valuable lessons about the unfairness of life. An eventual move to the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports organization established him as a superstar in his own right; far more than just his father’s son.

In subsequent seasons, the once subdued Earnhardt slowly evolved into a Media Center favorite; a “go to guy” for reporters in search of insightful quotes and opinions on the current state of the sport.

Earnhardt always seemed to feel a sense of responsibility when dealing with the media. He told reporters once, “If you’re going to ask me a question, the least I can do is to think about my answer.”

Earnhardt was thoughtful with the media
Far more than the wins and Top-5 finishes, that’s what I will miss about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

In a testosterone-rich sport where the reaction to injury has historically been “suck it up and walk it off,” Earnhardt singlehandedly changed the tenor of the conversation. After suffering a concussion in a high-speed crash at Talladega Superspeedway, Junior’s decision to step out of the car in the midst of the 2012 playoffs changed the way professional athletes – in all sports -- look at head injuries. If it was okay for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put his health above all else, it was okay for others to do so, as well.

We will never know how many lives have been impacted – or even saved -- by his example.

With that said, however, Earnhardt is already dropping subtle hints that Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 may not be his final race, after all. Spirits soared here at Homestead earlier today, when he asked reporters whether NASCAR rules would allow him to take part in next season’s Xfinity Series finale. Whether he’s truly thinking of racing again one day, or simply yanking NASCAR Nation’s collective chain, Earnhardt proved once again that very few athletes “move the needle” as effortlessly as he.

"Quickly making up for lost time..."
Whether or not he ever straps in for another NASCAR race, Earnhardt will continue leave an indelible mark. Next season, he will move to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports, bringing his unique insight and perspective to fans around the globe. It is entirely possible that Earnhardt will prove more valuable to NASCAR as a TV analyst than he was as a driver, and his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series team has established itself as one of the premier organizations in NASCAR’s second-tier.

Junior may be retiring as a full-time driver, but he’s definitely not going away. With a loving wife and a new baby on the way, Earnhardt is finally poised to experience the joys of life, outside the race car. By his own admission, he was a bit late arriving at that particular dance. But from all indications, he and Amy are quickly making up for lost time.

We wish him the best in that, and in his continuing efforts here in NASCAR.

Thanks, Dale, for sharing yourself with us. Thanks for sharing your talent, your intensity and your competitive fire. Thanks for sharing your successes and failures, your triumphs and your tragedies. Thanks for making us a part of your family, and for becoming part of ours.

Godspeed, and thanks for the memories.

Monday, November 13, 2017

40 Random Thoughts After a Wild Weekend At Phoenix

1.     When you wreck the Most Popular Driver, you get booed and called a “dirty driver.” When the Most Popular Driver wrecks you back two weeks later, he is praised for “standing up for himself.” Do not attempt to make sense of these two statements.

2.     Most NASCAR fans are less interested in what happened than who did it.

3.     That’s because “fan” is short for “fanatic” and fanatics are generally not the most logical people on the planet.

4.     Fans root with their hearts, not their heads. And that is a wonderful thing, even though it makes them a little crazy sometimes.

5.     Hang around this sport long enough and you will hear the words, “Red flag! The wall is on fire.”

6.     Kevin Harvick is lurking like a vulture on a low branch right now. He’s not the hottest driver in NASCAR, but he might be the hottest driver on Sunday night. And that’s all it takes.

7.     Of all the drivers I expected to see shed tears in Victory Lane, Matt Kenseth was ranked 272,603rd. And it was awesome.

8.     Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., arrived in NASCAR at the same time. And it is somehow fitting that they appear set to leave together, as well.

9.     I hate the fact that Kenseth is effectively being forced out of his ride, in favor of a younger driver. And if I was Joe Gibbs, I would almost certainly make the exact same call.

10.  Complaints are a dime a dozen. Solutions are tougher to come by.

11.  All you Hendrick-haters, enjoy it while you can. Because Jimmie and Chad aren’t going to take this lying down.

12.  Father Time is undefeated.

13.  During driver introductions, the best thing to hear is cheering. The worst thing to hear is not booing, however. It is silence.

14.  Kenseth telling “Dad Jokes” in the post-race press conference? Pure gold.

15.  Those who dislike the “winner take all” championship format at Homestead Miami Speedway are too young to remember when the late Dale Earnhardt showed up at Atlanta Motorsport Speedway for the season finale wearing the champion’s leather jacket he earned two weeks earlier.

16.  Or when Jimmie Johnson showed up at Homestead Miami Speedway needing to finish 27th to clinch the title. #Exciting

17.  Trevor Bayne hit the wall so hard, it hurt ME.

18.  There are two kinds of NASCAR fans; those who say they get charged-up by the wrecks, and liars.

19.  Brad Keselowski is playing with house money this weekend at Homestead. And that should worry the competition.

20.  Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer raced their asses off Saturday in Phoenix -- with a playoff berth on the line -- and nobody got wrecked. Nicely done, boys.

21.  My guy is a saint. Your guy is a jerk. Nothing will ever change those facts, so stop expecting it.

22.  This sport needs more guys like Landon Cassill and Matt DiBenedetto. You know… goofy.

23.  “What goes around, comes around” is more than just a cliché. It is the truth, especially in a sport as volatile and testosterone-rich as stock car racing.

24.  Avoid clichés like the plague.

25.  Ryan Blaney is going to be a huge star in this sport.

26.  The same goes for Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, William Byron, Daniel Suarez and a bunch of other kids under the age of 23.

27.  In fact, I’m not sure NASCAR has ever been as flush with outstanding young talent as it is today.

28.  No offense, but remember when guys like Kevin Conway won Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series just by showing up for some of the races?

29.  Austin Cindric is an aggressive, rookie driver whose exuberance and desire to win sometimes put his fellow competitors at risk. This pisses of some of those fellow competitors, who did exactly the same thing when they were rookies.

30.  Many of those fellow competitors seem to be harboring grudges against young Mr. Cindric, which is disconcerting for anyone betting on him to win the 2017 Camping World Truck Series championship this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

31.  Is it just me, or does William Byron have that “All American Boy” thing, down-pat?

32.  If Chase Elliott wins the season-finale at Homestead, it’ll be okay with me. The kid’s due.

33.  Denny Hamlin winning would be good for a few extra storylines, as well.

34.  And while we’re at it, Brendan Gaughan parking it in Victory Lane in what is (almost certainly) his final NASCAR start would also be a bit of a heart warmer.

35.  JR Motorsports has quietly assembled an Xfinity Series dynasty. Compared to where they were five years ago, three cars in the Championship Four is an amazing achievement.

36.  Kyle Busch is getting along with everyone this season, and contending for a championship. Those two statements have something to do with each other.

37.  In sports, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn. If that were not true, Martin Truex, Jr., would be a MENCS champion by now.

38.  And Elliott Sadler would have a half-dozen Xfinity titles on his mantle.

39.  You cannot feud with your fellow drivers and win a championship at the same time.

40.  Austin Cindric, read No. 39 again.

COMMENTARY: In The New NASCAR Playoffs, Enemies Are An Unaffordable Luxury

When you’re racing for a championship, enemies are a bad thing. With every lap critical and every position vital, ill will is a luxury that no championship contender can afford.

Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott learned that lesson the hard way at Phoenix Raceway Sunday, when a recurrence of their recent feud cost Hamlin an opportunity to race in Sunday’s Championship Four event at Homestead Miami Speedway

Two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, leader Elliott spun on Hamlin’s front bumper with just a few laps remaining, slamming the Turn Three wall and costing him a guaranteed spot in the Championship Four. Payback – whether intentional or not – came Sunday at Phoenix, when Elliott muscled Hamlin out of the groove on Lap 270, then squeezed his Fed Ex Toyota into the frontstretch wall. The incident created a tire rub that sent Hamlin careening into the fence five laps later, ending both his day and his championship dream.

"We got ran into the fence by the 24," said an angry Hamlin after leading a race-high 193 laps Sunday. "We had a bad pit stop and didn’t make any adjustments. Our car got really tight and we were just battling all we could to keep our track position. We allowed our competition to get close to us."

Elliott's crash set the stage
Hamlin accused Elliott of intentionally wrecking him, saying, “It just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances. I got into him and he chose to retaliate. I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”

Hamlin’s spotter, Chris Lambert, was even more outspoken, saying, "We tried to let (Elliott) go for two laps. But he was set on staying behind us, set on accomplishing what he finally did. We moved up the track to give him the bottom and even slowed down to let him go. But he just slowed down with us, content to stay behind us.'

Elliott did not deny those charges, saying, “I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless. I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me, and that’s the way I see it."

In the hours following their Martinsville fracas, Hamlin issued an online apology to Elliott, claiming he never intended to wreck the second-generation driver. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what Hamlin meant to do.

It matters what he did.

In Elliott’s mind, the Martinsville crash was a blatant, intentional act that robbed him of a well-deserved opportunity to race for the 2017 championship. It also provided justification for a blatant, intentional act of his own; an act that robbed Hamlin of his own shot at championship glory.

The incidents in question could not have been more different. Hamlin jacked Elliott’s rear wheels off the ground with a square-on hit from behind, while Elliott door-slammed Hamlin in an instance of side-by-side contact. The end results were identical, however, with each driver losing their respective chance to be NASCAR’s 2017 Monster Energy Series champion.

Tit for tat, an eye for an eye. Everyone loses.

Hamlin paid the price Sunday
In the last two weeks, Hamlin has been roundly criticized for his perceived Martinsville malfeasance, with boos raining down during driver introductions at both Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix. Perhaps NASCAR Nation will react similarly to Elliott’s actions, perhaps not. After all, fans have never been required to be fair or consistent. We judge with our hearts rather than our heads, applying wildly different standards based primarily on who we like.

In the end, Sunday’s latest clash between Hamlin and Elliott offers nothing but a lesson. Under NASCAR’s new playoff format, every race is critical and every lap can be your last. One poor finish can ruin a season’s worth of championship preparation, and the last thing a title contender needs is a fellow competitor who feels – rightly or wrongly -- that he “owes you one.”

If we’ve learned anything in the last three weeks, it’s that the best way to navigate this emotionally charged 10-week playoff marathon is to keep your head down and your mouth shut, racing cleaning and respectfully and giving no one a reason to “settle the score” with a championship on the line.

You can be a tough guy, or you can be a champion.

But you clearly cannot be both.

Monday, November 06, 2017

COMMENTARY: Kenseth's Departure Illustrates The Harsh Reality of Professional Sports

After 18 seasons at NASCAR’s highest level and with no quality rides open for the 2018 season, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth says it’s time for some time off.

The 45-year old Wisconsin native told NBC Sports at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday that “I just don't feel (a return is) in the cards.

"I've put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville… to take some time off," he added. "I don't know if that's forever, I don't know if that's a month, I don't know if that's five months, I don't know if that's two years.”

The 2003 MENCS champion is currently 10th in points after failing to advance to the Round of Eight two weeks ago. He is winless since New Hampshire in July of last year; a span of 51 races and confirmed in July that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season, with youngster Erik Jones tabbed to fill that seat. Many observers assumed that the 38-time Cup Series winner would have no trouble finding a new ride for 2018 and beyond, but a changing economic climate and an influx of young driving talent appears set to relegate Kenseth to the sidelines, at least for now.

Unlike his 2013 move from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs, Kenseth said the decision was not entirely his own.

Kenseth: "Fighting it as long as I can."
“Moving to Joe Gibbs, everybody was like, 'Oh that must have been the hardest decision,’” he recalled. “Actually, it was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. Both ends lined up. It lined up to not stay where I was for a whole bunch of different reasons, and it lined up to go (to JGR) for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was really easy.

“This one, I've been fighting it as long as I can. I'm like, 'Man, once you're done doing this, not many of us get to do this, especially at the top level.'

“I fought it for a long time.”

The 2003 MENCS champion said he saw the writing on the wall when team owner Rick Hendrick passed him over for the open seat in the No. 5 Chevrolet, in favor of youngster William Byron.

Byron takes the 20 next season
“When Rick put William in the 5 car and I didn’t get that opportunity… that should have been my biggest clue,” he said. “That was one I thought maybe I would get… hopefully go over there and get that car running better. I felt like I could really do that, and maybe mentor some of the young drivers coming along. That (decision) should have been the cold water in my face.”

Sources close to the situation say that in addition to a glut of a glut of young, talented drivers like Byron, Kenseth’s desire to land another top-quality MENCS ride was adversely impacted by his own salary demands. As a 19-year veteran of the Monster Energy Series, a former series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Kenseth has certain justifiable expectations when it comes to compensation.

No less than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sounded the alarm recently, warning that veteran drivers will almost certainly make less money in coming years than they have in the past. Some drivers have accepted that economic reality, renegotiating their contracts and taking pay cuts. Others have not, and risk losing their seats to younger, less-expensive talents with longer potential shelf lives.

With major sponsors Farmer’s Insurance and Great Clips both announcing that they will not return to Hendrick’s No. 5 car next season, William Byron’s rookie price tag was almost certainly more palatable to HMS than that of Kenseth.

"Sometimes you can't make your own decisions,” admitted Kenseth last week. “People make them for you. That's unfortunate, because I wanted to make my own decisions. I felt like I've earned that -- to be able to go out the way other drivers who had similar careers -- to dictate when your time is up.

Headed for the NASCAR Hall Of Fame
“(But) I just came to the realization it's probably time to go do something different."

While refusing to use the word “retirement,” Kenseth said he knows that the 2017 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway – his 650th career MENCS start – could easily be his last. Like Ward Burton and Greg Biffle before him, Kenseth knows that “out of sight” in the NASCAR Garage often means “out of mind.”

Very few professional athletes get to choose their own exit strategy. For every John Elway or Ned Jarrett – champions who retired at the top of their respective games – there are dozens of Muhammad Alis and Darrell Waltrips, who stay a bit too long at the dance and are unceremoniously shown the door.

In NASCAR, the transition from “respected veteran” to “whatever happened to” trivia question can be especially swift. With only 40-odd seats in its premiere division – each dependent on tens of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship – there’s a very thin line between hot property and has-been.

“Most likely, when you're gone, you don't get the opportunity again,” admitted Kenseth last week. "The retirement word doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this sport. It’s not like the NFL where you get a pension if you retire… so there’s really no reason to talk about it.”

If Kenseth has reached the end of his competitive road, a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame most certainly awaits. In addition to his 38 career Cup Series wins, there is the circuit’s 2000 Rookie of the Year crown, 29 Xfinity Series scores and a 2004 IROC title to pad his resume.

Is it right that a driver with Kenseth’s credentials sits on the sidelines while others -- far younger and less proven -- race on?

Probably not. But it is the harsh reality of professional sports.

"I’ll just take some time off, whatever that means,” said Kenseth. “I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months. You never know what happens. Maybe something comes along that really makes you excited. (If) it feels like it’s going to be a fit, you might go do.

“I’m certainly not going to rule that out, but for now, I’m not making any plans for 2018. I just plan on having some time off.”