It's back to school and back to work for most Americans Tuesday, but the return engagement NASCAR's watching with an eagle eye looms 48 hours away: The NFL. How will a league whose Hall of Fame game preseason ratings nearly matched the Daytona 500 affect viewership heading into the Chase? A strong Sunday night show at Atlanta gives the sport much-needed momentum, but will the recent dramas and wide-open title race -- albeit still stuck with Jimmie Johnson as the favorite -- be enough to captivate America from turning on the pigskin instead?
You can bet everyone from track presidents to ISC stockholders to anxious car owners seeking sponsors are privately crossing their fingers. In stick 'n' ball sports, lasting memories come from postseason battles which shape who becomes the champions a nation never forgets. They can be enough to salvage a season in the worst of times, and at no other moment has a breathtaking title chase been needed for NASCAR in the face of not just the NFL, but college football and even the NBA and NHL starting up in just a few short weeks.
For now, though, we have one more week to ponder the playoffs while sorting out some petty regular season conflicts that need a resolution of our own. That's where we'll start, the Todd Bodine-Kyle Busch controversy in NASCAR's "AA" Truck Series making major news in a week where the Race to the Chase is all but decided. Just don't forget to make news of your own for next Tuesday: email@example.com or Twitter at NASCARBowles is the best way to make your voice heard.
Kyle is an ***.
-- Multiple emails/Tweets
Finally, somebody calls him out. It's about time.
What has fans up in arms is outright warfare being waged by Truck Series winner Todd Bodine. After being spun out by Kyle Busch on Friday in Kentucky, Bodine was strong enough to come back and win, but then disparaged his opponent in Victory Lane. When Kyle heard those criticisms, he stopped by the Winners' Circle to cause an ugly public confrontation that pushed Bodine to "tell it like it is" from his perspective. In an interview the next day, Bodine defended ripping Busch's aggressive driving style, claiming he intentionally races to spin guys out and has no respect of other peoples' equipment, a bully turning his car into a battering ram at will despite an off-track persona Bodine claims he really likes.
"I've walked through (the Sprint Cup) garage area," he said, boasting support for his ranting and raving, "And if there wasn't 10, there wasn't 50 that stopped me and said, '[What Kyle did] was wrong. What you said was right, and finally someone called him out... and what he did by going to Victory Lane was totally wrong.' That confirms to me that this garage is sick of it, too."
Does Bodine really have that much private support? Busch is clearly a love-or-hate individual, his own small rabid fan base overwhelmed by a majority that would rather see him kicked to the curb. From the moment he entered the sport, rising to prominence as a Cup Series rookie the same year his older brother's immature antics led to a two-race suspension from Roush Fenway Racing, he's been labeled a bit of a marked man battling back from first impressions that sometimes prove impossible to overcome. Armed with a don't-hold-back attitude that creates that type of fiery emotion in people, it's natural his mere presence in the sport creates passionate extremes on either side.
I think part of the problem for Busch in any of these conflicts through the years -- whether it's with Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, or Bodine -- is they've come packaged with the type of wannabe behavior modeled after a Dale Earnhardt mentality of "intimidation." Here's the problem: Earnhardt had multiple titles under his belt, a hard-working blue-collar background and near-universal respect when he started "pushing" guys around. Kyle has none of those bullet points on his resume, perceived as riding up through his younger brothers' coattails on a road to success that was magically laid out for him. You can't go and play the boss when you actually haven't been the boss, right?
I do think owning his own team at the Truck level has done Busch a world of good, his impending marriage also contributing to an overall growth in maturity this year. It's notable that despite all the angst, rivalries, and torn-up equipment Busch has ushered in through the years, one of the men staunchly standing in his corner is Mark Martin, the Dalai Lama of NASCAR's garage. If that guy says Busch is a man to be respected, he's not the type to sit there and state those words at random. So I think while Busch still has a lot of growing up to do, the current state of things within the Sprint Cup garage isn't quite so bad as Bodine's making it seem.
Bottom Line - Kyle will win more races than Todd can even dream of. He needs to get over it.
Richard, I honestly don't think it's about winning races for Todd. Let's look at the competing situations of these two: you have Busch, coming down to NASCAR's AA level for fun, beating up on other competitors while knowing he's got a major league ride sitting in his back pocket. Mr. Bodine, a full-time Truck competitor, has no such luxury even though he's well on his way to a championship. The team has competed with patchwork sponsorship all season, struggling to pay the bills while relying on purse money every week to help it maintain top-level equipment. Wrecking out and destroying a truck is a big deal for the team, Timothy Peters, and other drivers working hard to compete yet make sure the Truck ends up in one piece so they can still walk home with a paycheck. Compare that to Kyle, who can total his Truck, pay the bill, and not even worry about canceling his December vacation to Aruba.
So that's the point Bodine was trying to bring out: come play all you want, but don't make it harder for the poor people than it already is. It's already difficult enough in an environment that's slowly squeezing out all the independents making a living through succeeding in NASCAR's second-tier divisions.
Could Todd have a little bit of sour grapes over Kyle's success? A former Cup driver himself, it's certainly possible. But the guy's been down in the Truck level for nearly a decade now, winning a championship and plenty of trophies all his own. I have a hard time believing he's not comfortable with how his own career played out.
Thanks for pointing out the mystery debris caution Sunday to save Earnhardt Jr. from going a lap down. The games NASCAR plays to keep Junior in contention can impact the entire race and give the integrity of the sport a black eye. These phantom debris cautions occur regularly when Junior is going a lap down, and yesterday was another example. Only in NASCAR do I see blatant favoritism -- but Junior is so bad he can't seem to take advantage of the gifts. On a side note, I have been at many races when Junior falls a lap or more behind and a third of the fans leave the race. NASCAR has taken note and is doing their best at trying to keep Junior in the race -- and the fans in the seats -- even if it means compromising the integrity of the sport.
-- Ron, Unknown State
There was a lot of buzz about the debris caution on Lap 134, conspiracy theorists claiming "debris" was called to keep Earnhardt in contention at one of his best tracks. I'm not entirely sold on such a concept, especially considering the more important guy at the time to keep on the lead lap was Mark Martin, his playoff hopes hanging by a thread and NASCAR about to lose the "old veteran gets a title" storyline from the fall. In the end, both drivers wound up on the lead lap but never improved the handling of their race cars: the Nos. 5 and 88 finished 21st and 22nd, respectively, highlighting the back half of Hendrick Motorsports' struggles which could consume a whole other column for another day.
What gets fans all excited, though, is the fact NASCAR makes these calls and then fails to go back and show the debris on television. If everyone could see the piece of metal, like a penalty in the NFL, then you at least have the right to argue the call. One way the sport would dramatically improve in 2011 is by having a NASCAR official stationed by a "debris camera" for the networks, dutifully pointing out the debris so there's not a caution that goes by where viewers don't know what it was for. Until that happens conspiracy theories will continue to run wild.
Tom, you sort of contradict yourself, but I get it. You complain about cautions and then say: "That extended green-flag run at the start did turn things into a bit of a snoozer." NASCAR is trying to manipulate drama these days instead of just letting it happen.
-- Mark, Atlanta, Ga.
Here's the difference, Mark: I'm all right with the race going green for 150 to 200 laps as long as it naturally plays out. We still need to do more to encourage drivers to run harder earlier on instead of waiting until the last 100 or 200 miles of the race, but throwing random debris cautions to bunch them up isn't the answer. I'm not out to see half the field wrecked by double-file restarts, I'm out to see good, clean, exciting side-by-side racing that keeps fans entertained throughout. Four hours is a long investment to make, and to do it people can't be sitting there smiling for only the final 30 minutes.
Tom, good article about the upcoming talent issues for NASCAR. One thing I wanted to point out about Darlington. You said they got the locals to rally around and I'm sure that's true, but it isn't only the locals that came in to support it. My family drives from New Jersey every year for the race on Mother's Day weekend. We also went to the race in November 2004 that was colder than I ever expected for South Carolina. When it became obvious to a great many fans that NASCAR was trying to "kill" this track by taking away the Labor Day date and then scheduling it on Mother's Day weekend, fans came from everywhere the following year. That first May race, I met fans from Chicago, Florida, Alabama and other states. The guy I talked to from Chicago after the race stated, "I came because its important to me that Darlington stays on the schedule."
After NASCAR gave the Labor Day date to Fontana, I had always done my own personal boycott of the race. I didn't watch it on TV, I have better things to do with the last long weekend of the year. We did go to Atlanta last year for the race and enjoyed the experience very much, but that's not something we plan to do every year.
Also, I'm not sure why NASCAR doesn't get that the problems they face with the fans won't be solved by gimmicks like the Chase, multiple green-white-checkers, or by increasing their public relations department. They need to fix the actual racing. This IROC car may be safer but it is ugly and it still has the same problems with aero push resulting in whoever has clean air being able to drive away from the field.
-- Regina Spence, Chesterfield, Virg.
Another Regina Spence! We just had one in here a couple of weeks ago from New Jersey; good to know that name is sparking NASCAR obsessions all over the country. You guys should have a little "Regina Spence" tweetup at the track sometime...
Your comments, in theory, should have meant a bigger crowd at Atlanta now that the track is dropping from two dates to one in 2011. But paid attendance there was just 93,200, a drop of 16.2 percent from a year ago. While I've given up on figuring out that town (the Braves make the playoffs and they still don't sell out) it's slightly worrisome that on a night of perfect weather, great competition, and lower ticket prices the majority of the metropolitan area chose to stay home.
I would hope the tide begins to turn in 2011, because when it's right, AMS clearly gives us the best racing on an intermediate compared to any other 1.5-mile track on the circuit. It would be a shame to lose it, because fans don't come out to support it; but then again, what do us writers know? The highest-rated cable race of the season was Pocono, not Indianapolis or elsewhere, a track that's bashed as often as someone's former girlfriend's lover on the Jerry Springer Show.
Don't you think a lot of NASCAR's talent issues have to do with Cup drivers taking all the good seats in the Nationwide Series?
-- Craig, Winooski
Winooski. Hmm... that's either a really cool Eskimo town in Alaska, ripped straight out of page 69 of the Chronicles of Narnia or just a really bad iPhone autocorrect mistake -- don't you hate those? But you're dead on with your comments about the lack of rides for up-and-coming talent in a series that was supposed to be "AAA" baseball. I understand NASCAR wants to be different, but it's hard for others to get rides when everyone else is consistently losing to people who already have them somewhere else. I respect Mr. Keselowski's opinion from Friday, but I disagree in that the environment has become so toxic for up-and-comers to even get equipment capable of beating Cup interlopers, the cycle of driver development has all but halted. Sports evolve, and athletes are supposed to naturally get replaced; stopping that concept in the name of money is the worst possible thing the sport can do.
If you really believe teams like the Wood Brothers would be better served trying to gather racing data from a younger driver over the likes of Bill Elliott, I seriously question your racing knowledge. I may be taking this wrong, but it appears that you think Bill and Terry should be put out to pasture. Bill ran strong at Atlanta this spring even though the result was a 16th. Many times at various points in the race he was running top 5 speeds. If Bill were in a top tier car (say the No. 9) I would guarantee he would have had a win this year.
-- Wes, Rockville, Minn.
I wasn't saying Elliott should be put out to pasture, Wes, but he's already "retired" more than once. If there were other drivers out there good enough to move up to the Cup level with solid sponsorship, Awesome Bill would be sitting in Dawsonville twiddling his thumbs. He's done a great job for the Wood Brothers, but in a perfect world they'd love to return to full-time competition with the right driver and sponsor. As soon as they find one, I fully expect him to step aside. Great legends remain great because they know the right time to cut it off and walk away.
One additional idea for improving NASCAR. Make the cars the stars again. I'd love to see the Mustangs, Camaros, and Dodge Challengers back out on the track like the old Trans AM series. These cars would work on road courses and short tracks. COT is boring for the fans. Get back to win on Sunday / sell on Monday.
-- Dave Irby, Midlothian, Virg.
Dave, that's exactly what the Nationwide CoT is for. Check out this Friday night's race at Richmond, it's your last chance to get a sneak preview before they're rolled out full-time in 2011.
It's time to put a stop to start-and-parks. Why not run a B-main the day/afternoon before the Cup race? I don't like that some guys get sent home after a few qualifying laps, and that some teams aren't even trying to compete. So if we must stick with 35 guaranteed starters (which I don't like, but that's a different issue), let the remaining cars run a B-Main, like every local track does. Adjust the length so it's basically one fuel stint. It would add a little bonus before the Nationwide race the day before, or some afternoon entertainment before a Saturday night race. It would also make the start and park guys put their equipment at risk in order to make the race.
Just a thought.
-- Tobey Taylor, Houston, Tex.
Tobey, it's an interesting idea but I honestly think the start-and-parkers wouldn't compete, citing money issues. It's a good idea in theory, but just wouldn't have enough qualifiers and fully funded deals left standing to support it.
Personally, I think it's high time NASCAR got rid of this ridiculous top-35 rule and came up with a new system that would encourage new owners to get their feet wet without the ridiculous roadblocks they have set up now to simply make the race. But you're right; that's a whole other issue all together, and we're out of time for this Tuesday.
Before we go, our "out of left field" email of the week...
Arg, get rid of the Chase, and all the road courses! If you want a road racing series, go start one.
-- Alan, Victoria, British Columbia
I'd be happy too, Alan, giving a home to Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett, and several of the other road course veterans NASCAR knows and loves. Wouldn't have to be a long season -- 10 races would be enough to gauge fan interest the first year. Think Wal-Mart might have a little extra cash? They're not sponsoring Jeff Gordon anymore ...
"Just watched entourage again... When turtle is at the bar I looked up at the TV... I was leading the race at 'Dega... Crazy I caught that." - @dennyhamlin early last week after he was "featured" in the popular HBO Comedy