This weekend brings a return to one of NASCAR's most historic and exciting tracks. If you missed the rain-delayed Monday race at Martinsville this spring -- and judging by the ratings, plenty of you did -- that barnburner easily qualifies as the best finish of the season. Denny Hamlin charged from ninth to first over the final 12 laps of the race, taking the lead on a green-white-checkered finish where champions Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon nearly took each other out to cost both the victory. The resulting aftermath was filled with raw emotion, frayed tempers, and exactly the type of drama and hard racing that built the sport into the type of one-decade wonder that had the NFL looking over its shoulder.
Of course, that heart-pumping ending is one of several at the paper-clip short track in recent years, the lone remaining place on the Cup schedule that's held a race every year since the series began in 1949. Fans write every year in droves and claim if the track ever loses a date, they'll never tune into another NASCAR race again.
So why aren't they practicing what they preach? Even when Mother Nature doesn't interfere, one of the most revered tracks on the circuit sits at or near the bottom of the TV ratings chart each year. For the last three seasons, the short track has qualified as the least-watched race in the Chase, combined with attendance in recent events that has failed to fill to capacity. It's one thing if you're Michigan, where a half-filled two-mile oval still nets you 65,000 fans. But when your seating capacity is just 61,000 to begin with, just one empty seat in the hills of rural Virginia prompts the men in suits to make business decisions, not heartwarming.
It all adds up to an increasingly sad story for fans whose actions contradict their words. Five races in, the most-watched Chase event remains the much-beleaguered Auto Club Speedway, which for all its complaints of "boring" racing trailed only Talladega in postseason viewership last season. It's the type of numbers that either make you want to send Mr. Nielsen to court or raise a more intriguing question: Are a bunch of complainers causing us to miss the mark on how fans really feel?
The overwhelming amount of criticism surrounding the sport suggests we're still right in tune with what they're thinking. But for those still smarting over a wealth of negativity, if you're not watching Martinsville you're failing to indicate what changes you really want. And considering it's one of a handful of tracks on the circuit where you're all but guaranteed to get an A-level finish every time out, this is one weekend where your remote should be firmly tuned to cars going in circles, not the NFL.
On to a flurry of comments and questions this week. Per usual, email@example.com and Twitter at @NASCARBowles are the best ways to reach me.
Tom, I sent the following email to Dave Moody after hearing your debate Friday afternoon [on the Hall of Fame selections] on SIRIUS XM Radio, reading your article and his most recent blog posting.
I caught the end of your debate with Tom Bowles on Friday afternoon. I withheld any judgment until I had the opportunity to read his article. However, after reading his article and your blog posting, I am in 100 percent agreement with you. Numbers alone do not tell the story. You have to look at what the person has done not only on the track, but off the track for the betterment and support of the sport. Each of the five selected have met that criteria. How can one argue over the five selected?
I can't understand how Tom feels that the panel "whiffed" on these selections. Truly these five will be given their time in the spotlight, their accomplishments garnishing individual attention just as the selection process was designed to do. Those that he feels were slighted will surely, in time, receive the same adulation. However, Tom himself cheapens the process by insinuating in his final paragraphs that those were selected were done on "feeling alone."
Tom, you've "whiffed" on this one this time.-- Buddy Weber, Baltimore, Md.
Buddy, as I explained to Dave in a hard-fought, healthy debate, the way NASCAR has set up the selection process has changed the way each five-member class is perceived. Since the Hall of Fame wasn't constructed until 60 years into the sport's existence, there's 50, 60 people out there who deserve to be enshrined right now. But by limiting each class to five per year, the sport basically tells its voting system to take that initial class of 60 and narrow it down to a ranking system each year: Who were the sixth to 10th-best people (Class 2), 11th through 15th (Class 3 in 2012), etc. Isn't that what the Hall is all about, separating the best from the best? And isn't that the best part of sports, arguing who could be ranked above who until the bar is closing at 2 am?
Several people misinterpreted that article as me saying Bud Moore and Ned Jarrett should never be in the Hall of Fame. That couldn't be further from the truth, as personally I have Jarrett ranked in the third Class (2012) and Moore not far behind. Each of the 25 finalists on NASCAR's list will be honored eventually, but it's a matter of when that's fair to debate considering the Hall of Fame "ranking" system. My beef was that when you boil it down, I honestly believed neither one was one of the top 10 most influential people in NASCAR's history. Top 15, top 20 maybe ... but not top 10, and I found it hard to believe other people could think that way considering the statistics.
Also, keep in mind I'm not saying everyone with the voting panel used their heart and not their head. The difference between second-place Bobby Allison and fifth place Moore in the voting process (remember, NASCAR takes the top 5, not a certain percentage threshold like the Baseball Hall of Fame) was seven votes. Dale Inman, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip -- all people I could have been satisfied with in the second class -- finished sixth, seventh, and eighth, all within a similar striking distance of Moore. With 52 total members in the room, all it would take is a group of eight or 10 looking to make a point or acting out a personal grudge against one of the candidates to sway the process. It's as simple as that, a way to cheapen the voting process for the rest who did things the right way.
Dave makes mention of the fact I didn't specifically mention one voter in my column. For the record, sources on the ground tell me the group of 11 track owners combined with the eight NASCAR representatives had the least support for Yarborough and Waltrip, for whatever reasons. That makes sense to me, considering that Yarborough's "pay to play" special appearances wouldn't make me happy if I was a track owner, and Waltrip's negativity toward the sport at times in the broadcast booth isn't leaving the Frances smiling every week. I just can't name specific people if they won't go on the record because the sport doesn't release who voted for whom, similar to how college football's coaches poll used to protect its members.
Going forward, with such a small panel I think it benefits everyone involved for NASCAR to publicize those votes to the media. I understand why it doesn't happen, with fierce lobbying likely to ensue within such a small community if a finalist discovers one of their peers didn't give them support. But what have we been talking about all year concerning fans' anger over NASCAR keeping secrets instead of making decisions a matter of public record?
Your Thursday Hall of Fame article resonates like a Danica Patrick Nationwide race: all babble, no knowledge. You, and other NASCAR know-nothings, rip people for voting less obvious choices than you deem worthy and hold yourself up as an authority. How many NASCAR races have you paid admission to, and when was the first race you attended? Ned Jarrett retired after only a handful of racing years. While racing in the late '50s and early '60's, he competed against many drivers you no doubt rate above him. Of course, he won 14 percent of his career starts [against HOFers Richard and Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, and Bobby Allison] and finished in the top 10 in almost 70 percent of his starts.
Compare that to Darrell Waltrip, who is best remembered as a loud-mouthed, self-aggrandizing boor yelling 'boogity, boogity, boogity' on TV.
The voters got it right. Not electing Jarrett would be like not electing Sandy Koufax because of his short career into the HOF. Voting Waltrip in would be similar to voting a self-promoter like Jose Canseco into the baseball HOF.
As to Yarborough, that's a tough call. I support the Allison decision over Yarborough, and if it's due to Davey and Clifford passing and the grace Bobby demonstrated then and now, well so be it. Any HOF is more than numbers. Cale can wait a year.-- Ray Horcajo, Crawfordsville, Ind.
Let's go with Yarborough then, since it seems like DW and Ray don't really get along. Here's a man who won three straight titles in the modern era, a mark not equaled for 30 years, and has more victories than anyone except Waltrip, Allison, David Pearson and Richard Petty. His four Daytona 500 victories are also second to Petty, making him just one of three men to win back-to-back. Two thrilling last-lap passes over Buddy Baker, then Darrell Waltrip, helped engage a whole generation of fans in 1983 and '84. His last-lap crash in '79 with Donnie Allison would have given him a fifth 500 trophy, but the post-race fight between the two broadcasted on national television helped accelerate NASCAR's rise into the spotlight.
When compared to Jarrett, although admirable, the numbers (83 to 50, three championships to two) just don't add up. Yes, if Jarrett had extended his career he would have more victories, perhaps up there with Pearson and Petty among the all-time greats. But if I pulled the right Monopoly piece off my chicken nuggets yesterday, I'd be sitting on an island in the Caribbean right now. My point is the Hall of Fame isn't a game of what ifs, but a reward for what was.
Oh, and for the record ... I'm a 21-year fan-turned-professional writer, attended over 100 races and counting. And I'm still in my 20s...
I agree 100 percent that Cale Yarborough probably should have made this second class of the HOF, but I couldn't disagree with you more on DW. I am shocked at how little you understand the nature of this sport.
Let me suggest a little logic here that has nothing to do with statistics.
For one, if DW hadn't bought his way into the Junior Johnson car, he probable wouldn't even be considered for the next 10 HOF classes. What I am saying is if other drivers had been available and not under contract at the time, they would have accomplished just as much if not more than DW.
Men like Bobby Allison, LeeRoy Yarborough, and the great Cale Yarborough didn't have the luxury of stepping into the premier race car at the time. Like Dale Earnhardt and others, they depended on their talents to bring money and attention to their team.
So what I am basically saying is that some of the greats that you are trying to replace with DW accomplished way more with far less resources.
DW will someday make it in, but he is depending on the novice to get him in on his stat sheet. Thank God that there are still enough people voting that know that there is more than a stat sheet.-- Miller Moore, Greensboro, NC
Miller joins Ray and several others I've seen -- professionals included -- who appear to have a personal vendetta over DW. Look, between "boogity, boogity, boogity" and some clear biases toward cheering for brother Michael and certain drivers through the years, the man hasn't done himself any favors with some sections of the NASCAR community in the broadcast booth. But at the same time, Fox's production has won several awards for its coverage behind the scenes while ratings have exploded during the Waltrip era as an analyst. Some may argue that's in spite of him, but the bottom line is he's a part of that success.
One place you can't argue, Miller, is the statistics. Sure, DW may have been the right man with the right money at the right time for Junior Johnson, but we're playing that "what if" game again instead of what was. And what was for Waltrip in the '80s was pure brilliance, his three championships leading the decade to go along with a Daytona 500 victory, the capper in what would become an 84-win career. Statistically, only three men have more titles (Earnhardt, Richard Petty, and Jimmie Johnson) and no one has more victories in the modern era, from 1972 to the present when the schedule was cut down from nearly 50 races a year to anywhere between 28 and the 36 we have today. Let me restate that fact: not one person beats him in that 38-year category, the most important one in this sport aside from titles.
So how could you say Waltrip isn't in the top 10 based on those stats alone, regardless of your opinion of him outside the race track? In my opinion, the answer to that question is you can't. I think it's a real shame that some who might have been personally offended by a man who has insulted them through the years chose to make a statement with this voting process.
On to other topics...
How about starting the Chase guys at the back of the pack each race, lined up by points, and let them race to the front? Isn't that the biggest part of being a good race driver, working the traffic? Kyle Busch might be fast, but he seems to get himself in trouble around other cars. You wouldn't have drivers riding around protecting their points.-- Jeff Acome, Winchester, Va.
Sorry, Jeff, that's a little too gimmicky for my taste. People don't like the Chase because it's too much of a departure from the norm, so making the rules even crazier, providing the playoff drivers with a distinct disadvantage is apt to make things even worse. I totally feel you on Kyle Busch struggling to run around other cars, though. He just hasn't figured out yet the laws of physics on when you hit another car with your front bumper.
I would like to see the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing race stock cars.
Remember "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday?" NASCAR needs to race what the nameplates build. If it can't be bought, it can't be brought -- to the track. This would increase fan loyalty to brands and increase interest in who wins. You know, bragging rights at work on Monday when you drive up driving the winning marquee.-- Ray Mullen, Winterview, Fla.
A question we've heard many times before, but with a nice touch at the end. How awesome would it be if you made a connection with a car you've driving on the street and the one that actually won the race? Impala owners, be honest; how many of you hit the water cooler on Monday and said, "Jamie McMurray won on Saturday night in my car!"
I didn't see very many hands go up.
I guess Kyle Busch was right, there was no debris on track. Do you think they will fine him for his opinion? We didn't see anything picked up by the track crews, they just went through the motions.-- Art Capo, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Art, guess what? No one at the track saw anything serious getting picked up, either. The culprit of Saturday night's final debris caution at Charlotte was described to me as a wad of duct tape, a convenient way to bunch the field together for a finish that was going to be a natural barn-burner, anyway.
Considering Kyle's sarcastic tone after the race -- he said NASCAR threw the caution because "a mouse ran across the track or something" -- I'm sure he's a little lighter in the pocket. What I'm unsure about is when or if we'll hear about it, as ever since the secret fine incidents were revealed everyone's been tight-lipped on the subject. Turns out these fines may remain a secret after all under the right circumstances.
I'm very new to the sport and enjoy reading your columns. I'm actually trying to understand NASCAR from a fan and investment perspective.
Do you have any other recommended sources I could look to (sites, books, etc.) to learn more about the sport and what's going on?
Also, I'd be interested in your take on what's causing the weak attendance and ratings. Sounds like from your latest mailbag, it's the economy, Jimmie Johnson fatigue, Dale Jr. struggling and a host of other issues. Do any in particular stand out to you? Also, what do you think are the most important changes coming for the 2011 season?-- Adam Crocker, New York, NY
If you're new, Adam, I recommend anything and everything written by NASCAR's best historian, Greg Fielden. His guide on the history of stock car racing is a must-read for anyone looking to get up to speed on the sport. Racing-reference.info is also a great place for historical results.
NASCAR issues that stand out to me for 2011, in no particular order: ISC profitability (or lack thereof), the financial health of several tracks -- could we see one close?, will Dale Earnhardt Jr. get out of his contract at Hendrick?, when will NASCAR bring the Nationwide car to the Cup Series, a possible early renegotiation of the TV contract (due to ratings that keep declining), whether Danica Patrick jumps to stock cars after all, the lack of new owners and drivers in the sport (and how to get more people involved), and when will Johnson ever be stopped?
That's where my mind is at right now, Adam. But we're still early.
Finally, our out of left field comment for the week...
I have been fowling Carl Edwards since 2005. I did not know what NASA was until I had a chance to meet Carl.-- Name withheld
Man, who knew how powerful that AFLAC duck could be? Not only is Carl contending for wins every week, but he's helping fans learn about the space program on the side!
'Till next time...
"Really have to thank Scott Speed for allowing me to give him another butt whoopin on madden before quali. Good for the confidence. Owned." -- @AJDinger tweeting about his new friendship with his former rival at Red Bull Racing. A.J.