It was the onside kick heard 'round the world. With the New Orleans Saints' shocking decision at the start of the second half, the Super Bowl reached historic status as their risk-taking paid off with a shocking upset. It's the type of game that leaves people talking for weeks to come, and it was the most-watched TV show in history.
Why mention an onside kick to start a racing column? Because on the eve of NASCAR's Super Bowl, that outside-the-box aggression is what the sport of stock car racing desperately needs. Yes, the Bud Shootout last Saturday was good, but name one memorable moment that stands out. No, Danica Patrick's death-defying save doesn't count -- remember, she's only around for a month before she heads back to IndyCar. If that's the memory you have from the weekend, then that Shootout wasn't good enough.
As someone looking for NASCAR to reverse its downward spiral, here's hoping that in this space next week we're talking about a three-wide pass for the win, or a move on the track that we've never seen before. Those kind of things will win fans back quicker than any rule change, driver hire or ticket price reduction.
Before we begin, don't forget how to reach me with your questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Let's get this show on the road ...
How about that save from Danica in the ARCA race on Saturday? Looks like she can wheel a stock car after all. How do you think she'll do in the Nationwide race on Saturday?-- Tom Bowles, Norristown, PA
It's always fun to start a mailbag by talking to yourself, right? I'll be brief on Danica because everyone and their mother has already smothered her with mounds of press. (In fact, garage insiders were angry that Danica was followed by a mob all weekend while all other ARCA drivers were ignored, as if the race was the "Danica 200" with no one else entered). But that save in ARCA did a lot to change the perception of those who felt she can't wheel a stock car.
Based on conversations I've had after the race, the tide of popular opinion shifted instantly from "she can't do it" to "wait a second ... let's withhold judgment until after the next few races and see how she does in the Nationwide Series."
It's amazing how Danica instinctively knew the moves to make that would keep her car in one piece. But while her comeback to sixth after the spin was impressive, the Nationwide Series race is a different beast. With a dozen Cup drivers entered, she'll be hung out to dry by the big boys, although I expect teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be permanently latched on to her in the draft. But when Earnhardt goes for the win late, expect Danica to be left all alone with about a 15th-to-20th-place finish, at the back of the lead draft.
By the way, you have to feel bad for Kelly Bires, the supposed full-time replacement for Brad Keselowski over at JR Motorsports. Danica's decision to run this race took him out of a ride with the team, erasing his championship chances before the season even gets underway.
To help the owners and drivers, NASCAR should go to Sprint and Nationwide and get them to relax who they will let sponsor cars. Sprint won't let AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile (if these companies wanted to) sponsor Cup cars. Nationwide should let Allstate, Progressive or any other insurance company sponsor at the Nationwide level. This could stop the start-and-stop cars. I understand why they start and stop, but I would like to see Dave Blaney run a whole race this season.-- Dee Dee Brantley, Phoenix, Ariz.
I'll address starting and parking first, Dee. Owners will pull unsponsored cars in before the first pit stop because they don't have the money to pay for tires and running an engine the full distance. A top quality engine for 500 miles can cost you over $100,000 at the Cup level. But if you only run it, say, about 100 miles, that costs you just $20k, well within a $75k budget for last-place purse money.
There's an argument for both sides of the start-and-park debate. In a down economy, insiders claim the practice keeps teams in business and crewmen employed. Without it, we'd have less than a full field in almost every race of NASCAR's top three series. But is racking up a bunch of 43rd-place finishes really a way to woo a potential sponsor? And how about the fans? One could argue that these teams are stealing ticket money, because no one comes to a track to watch a car run slowly at the back for a handful of laps before pulling in. That's not racing. That's business, and there's an important difference.
As far as title sponsorship, it all boils down to brand exclusivity. Sprint's argument, back when AT&T was forced out of the sport, was that having other cell phone companies involved would dilute their brand awareness within NASCAR. In theory, an AT&T car could win five races in a row, getting more publicity than the words "Sprint Cup" and giving their competitor in the marketplace an advantage.
While I don't agree with the practice, it's not going to change; but there is a way around it. Right now, Verizon sponsors the No. 12 Cup car of Keselowski along with the Nationwide car of Justin Allgaier. In the Nationwide Series, the company name is on the car. In Cup, it has the same design with the words "Penske Racing" on it. Between the "AAA Series" sponsorship and ads bought within the TV broadcast, Verizon still gets bang for its buck.
After reading both articles on Carl Long, how did .17 cubic inches provide an advantage? NASCAR was just looking for something to prove a point. But $200,000? Just wondering why they picked on something as little as this.-- Jeff Siglin
Messing with the engine is the ultimate no-no. More cubic inches gives you more horsepower. Can you imagine if Jimmie Johnson had .17 cubic inches more than the rest of the field? He'd have won the title by 200 points last year. As I've said on several occasions, the punishment didn't fit the crime in Carl's case. But the rule itself is one that NASCAR couldn't ignore.
I have always wondered why qualifying doesn't matter to most Sprint Cup drivers. Sure, there are a few (Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch) that always want to grab the pole but, for the most part, most drivers just want to start. I think NASCAR should make qualifying a part of the total points package. Example: 43 drivers start the race; the pole winner gets 43 points, second starting spot gets 42, etc. all the way to one point for 43rd. This would make Fridays and Saturday's really important and more fun for fans. Right now, watching qualifying is like watching paint dry...boring! Drivers often talk about smart points racing, so adding points to qualifying would make the whole weekend count. --- Tom Young, Colorado Springs, CO
The ARCA series pays points for qualifying, Tom, and they proved to be the difference in Justin Lofton's championship bid last year. I agree that with parity in the sport today -- combined with the top 35 rules I talked about last week -- qualifying's become a bit of a joke. So, something like 50 points for the pole would spice things up.
The top 35 is really the root cause of the problem, though. Could you imagine if all 54 drivers entered for the Daytona 500 had to make it in on speed or in the 150-mile Duels on Thursday? Some say it would cost NASCAR millions if a poor Speedweeks by Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. failed to qualify them. (With the way Hendrick's running, the chances of that happening are one in a million.) But shouldn't the spoils go to the victors and not the most popular?
And finally ...
Tweet of the Week.Please. As a guy that spends a lot of time on the road, I can't count the number of times some bum comes up with a sob story of needing gas money to get to _____. Last time it happened, I turned him down as usual. He hit up the lady in the next car and then walked into the station and bought cigarettes. And even if he was out of gas, what twit goes driving without enough money to get back home? Shouldn't have left the house in the first place. I did like Kevin Harvick's sharp plug for team sponsor, Shell, which is probably what the whole tweet was about. Probably never even happened. I'm a cynic, sue me. --- Dave, Youngstown, OH
Wow. If you're ever in need of money at a gas station, don't ask Dave for cash! In case you missed last week's Tweet, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page to read about Harvick's Good Samaritan moment. And for those who believe in karma, he did win Saturday night's Bud Shootout after all ...
Tweet of the Week: "Mo Money means more competition! Cup Drivers, the BEST Nationwide drivers...ARCA is a good series, but the pool gets deeper from here on out..." @kylepetty, responding to Danica Patrick's sixth place finish in the ARCA race and subsequent announcement she'll be running the Nationwide Series on Saturday. It will be Patrick's first ever race in the equivalent of NASCAR's "AAA Baseball" division.