A Central New York visit turned disastrous Tuesday, the latest Nor'easter/blizzard/whiteout leaving me stuck in the depths of a sleepy Syracuse for an extra day. With little choice but to scramble for a hotel room in the midst of mystifying weather, I started the night a little ticked off that my schedule was interrupted, the excitement of driving home turning into the ample annoyance of "When will the white stuff ever stop?" So, while sitting and waiting for nature to take its course, I was encouraged by a friend to come down from the room to the bar for a bit. There were some former racing producers, he said, friends of his that just so happened to be stuck in the same predicament. After a long time searching just to find a bed in this town, I hesitated ... I really wanted to get on the road early the next morning. But one drink, I figured ... wouldn't be so bad, right?
Four hours later, I left the bar far less sober and more excited about NASCAR 2011 than before. The group, whose names are withheld considering the content below, happened to be legends in the field, producing and shooting races all over the country for 30 years. Some pretty lively, adventurous racing stories were shared all evening, with unprintable escapades from people like Tony Stewart, the late Tim Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, even Dale Jarrett turning the night into one to remember. I left with a bunch of new friends, a deeper appreciation for why I'm involved in this sport and optimism that no matter what happens, love for racing in this country will never die.
I bring this whole thing up because you had a handful of experts with time on their hands, getting a chance to really dig deep into some of the issues ailing the sport. But we were all on the same page with more than you think, and I'll give you two simple nuggets to chew on from the table ...
There was a lot of talk among the group, many of whom have known Stewart for decades, as to why 2010 went so badly for him. Not only were the results a disappointment (non-factor in the Chase, only two victories), but also off the track the moody Stewart was cantankerous with the press, more of a cranky old man than ever before while suddenly towing the politically correct NASCAR line in the face of "Boys, Have At It" methodology. "I think he's mad he's not a factor anymore, nor will he ever be," said one person in our group, referencing the oft-noted Stewart/Hendrick Motorsports connection. "That's got to eat at him more than people know."
All of us shared with frustration the fan reaction to Brian France's comment in November, when he reacted with public surprise to a reporter claiming people wanted the current playoff format to go. They don't want it to get tweaked, as it will be during a competition update at the NASCAR Media Tour in two short weeks ... but go altogether.
My fan and comment inbox filled up immediately after that happened, people claiming they'd had it, and if no one down in Daytona was listening to them, their viewing habits would stop the second the Chase started in September. Already, those final 10 races, with the exception of Talladega, are in the bottom tier of NASCAR's ratings, numbers off some 20-25 percent for seven of those 10. It was refreshing to hear the same response across all platforms of people within the sport, in line with what I've heard from drivers off the record, other reporters, and people in the garage. It's clear what the fans want to see: so why won't NASCAR listen?
That's the million-dollar question we couldn't answer, before another story involving a revolver took center stage. I wish I could tell you more: it's a beauty involving Richard Childress, one I look forward to asking him about down in Daytona next month. But there's only so much space, and the snow's letting up. Amazing, isn't it, how Mother Nature can change the best-laid plans, arriving as an awkward inconvenience but providing you an awesome experience when you least expect it.
Time to make your "stranded in snow" experience a little better: by getting to your questions and comments. As always,
I don't know where you're getting this anti-Harvick sentiment. Fact: Harvick scored more points this season than anyone else under the old format. Fact: He won multiple races for the first time since 2006, threatened for a championship and wound up with a contract extension and one of the sport's premier sponsors (Budweiser). I don't begrudge his success, nor do I have anything against him. The guy's witty, aggressive on-track and isn't afraid to say what he thinks in this age of political correctness. So he doesn't handle a dumb question well from time to time. Neither can most of America.
My only point in the age-old debate about the Chase is that people who claim that Harvick is the "real" champion ignore how the postseason has changed the game. Let's go outside the racing world for a minute to give an example. The Boston Celtics, long considered one of the NBA's best teams had an older roster last season and had to rest players. Because of that, they posted a .500 record for the second half of the regular season, but knew they could lay off the accelerator pedal because they were guaranteed to make the playoffs. Once the postseason started, they turned on the jets, scorched their way into the finals and nearly won it all over the L.A. Lakers.
That analogy applies to NASCAR when you talk about Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and others. Sure, Johnson and Hamlin, without the Chase, would have finished well over 250 points behind Harvick. But during last year's regular season, the playoffs became a virtual certainty for both by the middle of June. Modern NASCAR is a marathon, not a sprint, and both admit they let off the gas pedal for awhile during July and August to experiment and prepare for when the points really counted in the postseason.
Harvick, on the other hand, couldn't let up from the drop of the green flag in February. At first, he was looking to leave Richard Childress Racing and had to impress other prospective sponsors and employers. Then, when sponsor Shell/Pennzoil bolted, it was all about convincing Childress to continue their partnership and run up front every week to woo potential replacements. His No. 29 team was part of an organization that failed to make the Chase in '09 with all four cars. No matter how big the point lead in '10, they didn't have the confidence to know a bid was locked up until much later in the year.
The bottom line is we'll never know if Harvick would have won the title without the Chase -- because that wasn't the format we raced under. Different circumstances give you different results, so you can't crown him a Cup Series champ any more than you can give Jeff Gordon two more titles based on the "old" system. Sure, in '07 it looked like the No. 24 team would have had that title in a cakewalk. But their competitors were racing based on accumulating the most points for 10 races -- not 36.
One more comment on Harvick before we move on: it's true I don't like the way he talks to his crew on the radio. It's like a Bob Knight motivational style, the type of anger management gone wrong that may have worked in the '90s but not so much in '10. To take the next step, I think that has to change. Harvick needs to mellow out similar to what's happened to Tony Stewart the last couple of years. We'll see if that happens in '11 ...
Look, I don't have anything against Mears. In one sense, you have to give him credit for aligning with more "A" level teams than any other Cup driver in history. Among his employers through the years: Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, and even Joe Gibbs Racing as a sub for Denny Hamlin last year (although Mears never made it in the car during an "official" race).
But with a famous last name and top-level equipment comes the weight of impossible expectations, a single win over seven years making you wonder how he kept those jobs for that long. In '11, Mears is exactly where he should be considering those stats, running for a single-car, occasional start-and-park effort over at Germain Racing. That's not a knock: it's the reality of where his talent level has proved he should be.
I agree an ailing business has to look at remarketing itself to survive. New campaigns cost money, and it seems NASCAR is working in that direction by revamping its PR staff while pouring its resources into more marketing hires for 2011. I'm sure the other 20 percent of staff at the International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR's stepsister track ownership group, aren't so pleased to see jobs taken away from them and headed somewhere else. But it's short-term pain, long-term gain if the organization ever wants to receive that former prominence.
Video games are just one step in the direction to capture the interest of the 18-34 crowd. But you can't stop there, as in this ADD world people are attracted by the word "new." Where is the next Tiger Woods when you need him? Word came this week NASCAR's rookie program doesn't even have a sponsor anymore, Raybestos dropping out because not a single driver has signed up to run for the award in 2011. Names like Johnson, Jeff Burton, and even Hamlin may have reached their peak with the population at large. You need to bring in new faces, just like IndyCar (see: Chip Ganassi expansion, the return of Graham Rahal to a prominent ride, etc.) to keep the product fresh and moving forward.
That's where the ownership group, the four or five people in charge of the majority of NASCAR teams, have made a tragic mistake. Whether it's deliberate or accidental, their business models have served to both consolidate and eliminate the competition around them, creating an unfavorable environment for new opponents so they can share the riches among themselves every year.
But what keeps the NFL so popular among all markets? Parity. It's the thought that this year's New England Patriots can be 2-14 in '11, while a team like Carolina can bounce back in a season and make the playoffs after undergoing a catastrophe the year before. Its owners being able to bite their teeth, fighting through a disastrous year on the field and sharing their wealth knowing it's good for the league. From a fan perspective, it's unpredictability at its best, tuning in and knowing the worst team can still pull off an upset a time or two.
Instead, in NASCAR -- and even IndyCar, too -- we have the opposite: juggernauts. You've got the same owners in control of the same equipment and championship drivers, a five-time consecutive champion and no "new" tracks, drivers, quirks on the horizon. So I envy NASCAR's incoming marketing employees. Their job is being made difficult by the very people they're trying to help represent.
All right, on to this week's "out of left field" e-mail before we go:
The best part about this one is A) Obviously I have an e-mail address you can send this to. If you e-mailed me to ask ... well ... B) What does Ray Evernham have to do with your resume? You like my take on why he's going to go to Hendrick, so that makes me qualified to fix up your grammar and give you a potential job offer? I'm confused. I know the economy is picking up ... but last I checked, jobs weren't growing off my right arm.
Maybe I'm being rude by not looking at her resume. Perhaps I should send her to Tony Stewart instead?
Looks like this column has more Canadian fans than the Blue Jays. It's yet another winner from north of the border this week, as John from Toronto writes in:
"The answer to your trivia question is Earl Ross. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1974 and the only non-American driver to win a NASCAR race until Montoya won in 2007. Being Canadian and a huge NASCAR fan, I have very fond memories of Earl Ross and his short NASCAR career."
Short is right. Ross ran 21 races in 1974, winning Martinsville that fall and finishing a strong eighth in the points. But when his Carling sponsorship dried up, the top freshman lost his ride that offseason and made only two starts in Cup the next two years before retiring for good at 35.