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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