Thursday, September 12, 2013

NASCAR in Ruins

I've been a NASCAR fan since I was about 7 or 8 years old - 35+ years. Like many, when the Daytona 500 was first broadcast flag-to-flag in 1979, my interest exploded. Richard Petty was my guy at first, but this guy named Earnhardt burst on the scene and won 1979 Rookie of the Year. Dad was a Chevy man and Earnhardt drove a blue car. Blue's my favorite color. Dad liked Earnhardt, so I did, too. I was hooked and found myself pulling for both Petty and Earnhardt.

NASCAR champion Richard Petty at Pocono in 198...
NASCAR champion Richard Petty at Pocono in 1985. Photo taken by Ted Van Pelt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As an old school NASCAR fan, my opinion of the sport currently is that is has been on a continuous downhill slide for the last 10 years or so. The guys that built the sport, turned it into the fastest-growing spectator sport in America, worked on their own cars, made it fan-friendly, and loved the sport for what it was are gone. Now, you have these punk, spoiled brats, such as Kyle and Kurt Busch, and bullies like Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart trying to fill the shoes of former drivers. It's no contest - they can't.

The other problem I've noticed, and this is the root of the downhill slide, is that the sport's no longer about the love of racing, competition, and trying to be the best. It's about money, greed, marketing, and PR. The problems in NASCAR, and the causes of them, are mirror images of the problems within American society today.

NASCAR slipped to a new low over the weekend at Richmond. Drivers took "dives" in order to influence the outcome of the race, the last one before The Chase begins. They did so in order to influence who made The Chase. The drivers that took "dives" were all members of Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR). Want to guess whose drivers were initially help by those dives? Yep. MWR drivers. That is, until NASCAR slapped their hand. My question is who does MWR think it is? Why do they think they get to determine who makes The Chase and who doesn't?

Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer (Photo credit: AmyKay1974)
Clint Bowyer was the biggest culprit intentionally spinning his car out near the end of the race in order to force a restart, which helped his teammate, Martin Truex, Jr.. Next, part-time teammate Brian Vickers pits under green for no reason. Both of these events were meant to help Truex move up in the finishing order and make The Chase. The restart after Bowyer's spin allowed Joey Lagano to pass Jeff Gordon bumping Gordon from the top-10 in points, the last spot in The Chase determined by points, and inserted Lagano into the top-10. The margin by which Lagano made The Chase - 1 point. Not only was this finagling designed to help Truex, who squeaked into the last wild-card spot just in front of Ryan Newman, but I can't help but wonder if it wasn't another jab at Gordon by Bowyer's team. Remember my write-up from last year about "NASCAR's Phoenix Debacle"? These guys have long memories. I think there is more to this than just helping Truex. I think Bowyer's team wanted to stick it to Jeff Gordon one last time and do so in a way that would really hurt. These guys are called "professionals." I don't see anything professional about that. Seems childish.

I have been a critic of The Chase ever since it began in 2004. I do not like it for one main reason - it makes it impossible to compare drivers of today to drivers of yesterday, because it allows for "mulligans." If a driver is in the top-10 in points after 26 races, they make The Chase for the Championship. The points are then re-set shrinking the point lead the point leader has on all the other drivers to nothing. Basically, it erases each drivers' bad races during the first 26 races of the season. Earnhardt and Petty didn't get to do that. If they were several hundred points behind the leader after 26 races, they were just screwed unless the leader hit a bad slump. If Jimmie Johnson or some other driver tie or pass Petty and Earnhardt's record 7 championships in the future, there is no way to logically make the case they are better than those 2 guys.

NASCAR driver Martin Truex, Jr. in August 2007...
NASCAR driver Martin Truex, Jr. in August 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
NASCAR dealt out penalties over the Richmond scandal. All 3 MWR drivers, Bowyer, Truex, and Vickers, were "fined" / docked 50 points a piece. For Vickers, it meant nothing. He wasn't gonna make The Chase anyway. It knocked Truex out of The Chase (Ryan Newman takes his place) but did not affect Bowyer at all. He had locked in a spot weeks ago, and since he had the most points of any driver with no wins, it didn't affect his seed, either. Bowyer got off scot-free, is seeded 8th when The Chase starts this weekend, and could win the title starting only 15 points behind the leader. Unbelievable. NASCAR fans could see the very driver who had the biggest role in this mess and knocked other drivers out of The Chase walk away as "Champ." Anyone think that might generate a brou-ha-ha?

NASCAR, specifically Mike Helton and The Frances, created this mess by :
  • changing the points system and putting all the emphasis on making "The Chase," and
  • by allowing drivers and teams to break the rules time after time with little to no penalty.
I've said for years that any car that doesn't pass the required technical specifications after the race should be disqualified, even if it happens to be the race winner. Instead, NASCAR usually docks points and levies fines for violations, which amounts to no punishment and is not a deterrent. It has had no effect. Since teams know they will not be punished significantly for cheating, it has led to a team now pulling shenanigans to manipulate The Chase.

Yes, MWR crew members have been put on probation, drivers were docked points, and MWR was fined $300,000 in "penalties" for this incident. It's pocket change. NASCAR teams bring in millions of dollars in revenue per year due to their sponsorship agreements. A $300,000 fine to them is like telling a working man he has to forfeit one lunchtime Whopper this week. Furthermore, this slap on the wrist reminds me of the University of Tennessee football team suspending players who get in legal trouble for a quarter or half of one football game. What a joke. It does nothing to fix the problem or punish people for bad behavior. Bowyer should have been booted from The Chase, suspended, and ALL MWR cars parked for the remainder of the year.

NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt in his car
NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt in his car (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
NASCAR has hit the bottom of the barrel. NASCAR is in ruins. After 35+ years, I am done with the sport I once loved. This scandal is the last straw for me. No more posts here on The Sheepdog about the sport. No more type or time will be wasted on it, nor will I waste any more time watching races on TV. Unethical behavior by NASCAR teams should not be tolerated, but it has been time and time again leading to this incident. What does it teach the kids who follow the sport? Heck, I have tickets to one of the late season races this year. If I even go, it will be the very last one I attend.

I will always have fond memories of watching and cheering for The Intimidator. That will never change. He inspired me, and I learned a lot from watching him.

But .... those were the good ol' days.

Right now I'm wondering, "Can NASCAR sink any lower?" Yes. Yes, it can. Clint Bowyer could win The Sprint Cup Championship after all of this.
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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

2013 College Football Week 1 Impressions - Will the SEC Win the BCS Championship Again ?

I'm sure many of you are as glad as I am that the 2013 football season is here. One reason I'm ready is because NASCAR has laid another egg this year, but that's a sermon for another day. Maybe. At this point, I think I am about done with those guys. I'm tired of the same ol' same ol' every week - Jimmie and Kyle. Blah.

English: Logo of the Southeastern Conference (...
English: Logo of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many of the college football pundits are already prepared to present Alabama with its third straight BCS national championship. Most think its a no-brainer. Others say the champ will be either them or another team from the SEC. After all, the last seven in a row and 8 of the last 10 have gone to an SEC team. So, the SEC is by far the best football conference, right?

One of the guys in my fantasy football league even went as far as saying that "the SEC is where real football is played." That's a bit over the top, in my opinion. There are good teams all over the country. Plus, the better you get, the bigger the target is on your back. The harder others work and try to knock you off the top rung.

The Sheepdog is not quite ready to crown Alabama or any other SEC team as king in 2013 just yet. To the folks who are, I would ask did you actually watch any football over the weekend? The final score in Alabama's game with Virginia Tech was not at all reflective of how each team played. I would also argue that the other teams usually considered as part of the upper echelon of the SEC were not overly impressive, either.

For instance, consider the following :
  1. #1 Alabama beat Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome 35-10 - However, 3 of Alabama's touchdowns, accounting for 21 of their points, were from kick returns (2) and an interception that were returned for touchdowns. If you take those 21 points off the board, Alabama's margin of victory is only 14-10. With a score that close, second half play calling and strategy for each team changes, particularly in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech finds themselves with a chance to beat #1 late in the game. Anything can happen. Additionally, Virginia Tech's defense shut the Alabama offense down all day. 'Bama only had a little over 200 yards of total offense with only 96 yards rushing. 'Bama looked sluggish and Virginia Tech does not have one of the best defenses or teams in the ACC. The Tide looked vulnerable.
  2. Florida beat Toledo in The Swamp by a score of 24-6 - At first glance, the score looks like a whoopin'. However, just like with 'Bama / Virginia Tech, it's misleading. Florida was only up 17-6 late in the 3rd quarter when they intercepted a pass deep in Toledo territory and then punched it in for a easy touchdown to go up 24-6. Only then did the Gators really put Toledo away. Toledo? Really? The Gators look a little weak, too.
  3. Texas A and M beat Rice at home 52-31 - I suspect this game made Aggie fans nervous. Johnny Manziel was suspended for the first half, and the Aggies only led 28-21 at halftime. After Manziel came into the game to start the third quarter, the Aggies did stretch the lead out. However, they didn't put Rice away until about midway through the fourth quarter. In my opinion, the really sorry part of the Aggies performance on Saturday was its defense. The Aggie defense gave up 31 points to Rice. Can't help but wonder how many points LSU will hang on them when the Aggie's visit Death Valley in November. That could get ugly. 
  4. LSU beat TCU in Cowboys Stadium 37-27 - Speaking of LSU, their offense put some yardage and points on the board against TCU, but as a team they never put TCU away on Saturday. Never. TCU was in this game the entire 60 minutes. Yo LSU ... it's TCU!! What are you doing? If TCU could have forced one more opportune turnover at some point during the game, this could have quickly become the upset of the week, Probably shouldn't be making any trophies with LSU's name on them, either.
  5. South Carolina beat North Carolina at home 27-10 - Man oh man - I think the Tarheels let one get away from them in this one. I watched some of this game, and North Carolina's hurry up offense had the Gamecocks defense sucking wind badly in the first quarter. However, NC let up on the throttle, allowed SC to catch their breath, and made some mistakes allowing the Gamecocks to get it going and win the game. I think North Carolina could have done a lot more in this game. South Carolina's got some work to do on their conditioning.
  6. Georgia lost on the road in Death Valley to Clemson 38-35 - If you didn't watch this ballgame Saturday night, you missed the best one of the weekend. It was a back and forth shootout down to the wire. Georgia scored a TD late to get within a field goal and then failed to recover the onside kick. Both of these teams looked pretty good to me, although both have got some serious holes in their defenses that they better get sorted out quickly. Overall, Clemson looked a little better on both sides of the ball and the final margin should probably have been a little greater. Georgia has South Carolina coming to visit this weekend. Based upon what I saw them not do against Clemson, they're 0-2 after the Gamecocks get through with them. The 'Dawgs should probably go ahead and get a head start planning for next year. They're done.
I go through all that to say this - SEC, don't count your chickens before they hatch in 2013. Based upon what I saw out of your Big 6, Alabama, Florida, Texas A and M, LSU, South Carolina, and Georgia, in Week 1, I wouldn't count on keeping the crystal trophy this year. There's a lot of football to be played.

English: Photo of 2007 BCS Championship Trophy...
English: Photo of 2007 BCS Championship Trophy awarded to Louisiana State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, by now you're asking, "O.k. Mr. Prognosticator Sheepdog, who do you like for this year's national champion?" The simple answer is, at this point it's a toss up. It's early, but I think there's a few teams in particular to keep your eye on that are currently ranked in the top 10. There's also a few you can go ahead and write-off. For instance :
  1. Alabama - 'Bama doesn't 3-peat. In fact, they won't even win the SEC. A loss at home to LSU in November will eliminate them.
  2. Ohio State - Ohio State loses twice. Once when they travel to Michigan and again due to an upset at the hands of one of their lesser conference foes. Bye Bye Buckeyes.
  3. Oregon - Oregon lit the scoreboard up Saturday, so they've had no dropoff with Chip Kelly's departure for the NFL's Eagles. I think they may run the table. If they fall, it will be at Stanford.
  4. Stanford - The only team I see beating them might be Oregon.
  5. Clemson - Absolutely, positively do not overlook Clemson, if they can tighten up their defense, they can make a run. Their toughest games will be Florida State at home and road games at Maryland and South Carolina. If they win those and go undefeated, it will be hard to argue against them deserving a shot at the title.
  6. Louisville - Louisville's schedule is softer than my pillow. If they don't go undefeated in the regular season, they should just shut their football program down. They get hurt badly by lack of strength of schedule in the BCS rankings.
  7. LSU - The Tigers stumble and fall at Georgia but win the SEC West and play for the SEC Championship due to having the tiebreaker over 'Bama.
  8. South Carolina - Their only loss is to Clemson at home before defeating LSU for the SEC title. However, the late season loss to Clemson keeps them out of the BCS title game.
  9. Texas A and M - Sorry Aggie fans, but your boys lose to both 'Bama and LSU. So ... fuhgeddaboudit.
So, to answer the question within the title of this post - the answer is "No". The SEC will not take the crystal trophy home again this year. The only SEC team I see possibly sneaking into the mix is South Carolina. However, they will have to beat Clemson to finish out the regular season in order to do so.

I think there are four potential BCS Title contenders to watch - Oregon, Stanford, Louisville, and Clemson. I do think that 1 of the 2 teams in the national championship game will be the winner of Oregon / Stanford. The other one is Clemson or Louisville. Louisville's wussy schedule might allow them to steal a spot in the title game, but they would get smoked by Oregon or Stanford.

The question for me is, have I done any better job of prognostication here than I've done in regards to the NFL playoffs the last two years? The important thing is to for everyone to enjoy the season. I will.

And ..... Go 'Noles !!
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