Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Great NASCAR Qualifying Debacle and How It Just Won't Matter

Unfortunately this past weekend, most of the racing action at Auto Club Speedway had nothing to do with Martin Truex Jr.'s win on Sunday. While we saw tires wear out and four-wide scrambling on each restart, the leader was the leader was the leader.  In other words, business as usual. So, what caught our attention this week?

Qualifying drama.

On Friday the new Disco Ball in the inspection tent finally decided to drive the storyline of the sport. I have to admit I figured at some point this latest addition to the tech toys in the NASCAR garage would come into play.

Thirteen teams failed to pass inspection prior to qualifying. They ended up staying in the garage while everyone else raced for the pole position--which wasn't really a race as the No. 78 spanked the field and prepped for more excitement on Sunday.

So, what was the problem? After all, those that failed weren't a collection of teams from the bottom of the roster. The best of the best failed to get their inspection sticker with teams from Stewart/Haas, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Hendrick Motorsports starting at the back of the field on Sunday.

Well, it looks like there may have been two tricks at play here: either the team wanted to nab another smidgeon of aero advantage by playing with their rear windows (that is not a new storyline this season) or they wanted to save some money and tread on their tires. In other words, winning the pole was not at the top of their to-do list on Friday.

The very best crew chiefs, including Chad Knaus, were figuring that if they weren't going to get the pole, they might as well start at the rear of the field on brand new tires.

This wasn't about failing to understand the new body on their 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars. This was good old fashioned shenanigans.

As usual, NASCAR wasn't having it. On Saturday, the sanctioning body announced that all teams would be able to start the race on new tires, negating any advantage those that failed inspection might have garnered by sitting out qualifying.

But the problem goes deeper than teams trying to trick the system.  Qualifying is broadcast. There are fans in the stands. We expect to see the full roster on track on Qualifying Day. And 13 teams decided not to honor that part of the contract between their professional sports team and the paying public.

Hrm. NASCAR is taking the next step in trying to get the teams on board by eliminating pre-qualifying inspection at Martinsville next week and combining it with a pre-race inspection. Do or die, the entire field will at least make one appearance on Qualifying Day. We can still expect that a failure to pass inspection will result in starting the race at the back of the field, loss of practice time, etc. etc., but it will not affect the tires, fuel usage, or even miles put on the engine for qualifying.

Now, would NASCAR go so far as to prevent a car from participating in the Sunday showdown should they violate the restrictions of the dancing lights? That is a question indeed. And doubtful.  Nobody wants that to happen, except perhaps some of the media outlets as it would surely give us all something new to talk about for a week--something other than a single team dominating the season so far.

The interesting part about this whole inspection debacle is that the drama which is surely happening in board rooms and at the garage will not be aired on NASCAR RaceHub. By and large, the fans will only see the cars report for qualifying, take a couple laps, and start at the front or rear of the field on Sunday.

It's a whole lot of excitement, but without any real voice in our current media stream. It's a tug of war behind closed doors with the ingenuity of NASCAR's mechanical geniuses fighting against the corporate moguls who really need the ratings to pick up for the big race. Who is going to win?

We may never actually know. Worst of all, this latest chess game will have no discernible impact on the show for which we pay the really big bucks.

If we needed one more example how NASCAR continues to roll down the manufactured sporting arena of the WWE--this is it.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Jeff Gordon and the NASCAR Hall of Fame: Too Soon?

 Jeff Gordon: 2019 Nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Photo: Fox Sports)

Once the driver of the DuPont Chevy No. 24 scored his 77th win in the Winston Cup Series, it was a foregone conclusion that someday Jeff Gordon would be in every museum celebrating the history of NASCAR.  Well, just two years after he completed his last full-time season he has been nominated for the 2019 Class of the NASCARHall of Fame.

I don't know about anybody else out there, but it barely feels like he left the cockpit. I still see the iconic No. 24 on the track and have that instant moment of recognition before reality shatters my dreams.  Couldn't they wait a little bit longer before mothballing his career? Why is the date of eligibility just two years from retirement?

Other Major League Sports Wait Five Years

If this was football or baseball, we would still be waiting for Gordon's name to appear on the ballet. Time does allow the fans, media, and others involved in voting on the new HoF class time to digest the true importance of that person's contribution to the sport. Was it really as fabulous as we thought at the time?

Now, in Gordon's case there is absolutely no doubt that his name should be enshrined next to any of the other legends in the Hall of Fame. His 93 wins in a single car over 25 years is one of the best stat sheets that exist in all of NASCAR's history.  His career will remain a benchmark for all others to stand up against for quite some time in the future. This does make his inclusion in the 2019 nominee list less remarkable.
Jeff Gordon's 93rd Win at Martinsville 

Still...just two years.

NASCAR's Numbers Back Up the Short Time Limit

 On any given Sunday, the Cup series fields up to 40 different teams.  That's 40 drivers.  We usually bring on between two and five rookies each year. NASCAR has been racing since 1948.  So, if we average 40 names over 70 years, that is just 2,800 drivers that would be potentially eligible for the HoF over the entire lifetime of the sport.

Major League Baseball has 30 teams.  Each team has a 40-man roster. The MLB has been batting the ball since 1869. Using just those numbers, baseball can field 1,200 potential names a year for Cooperstown and multiply that list by over 100 years and the depth is mind boggling. How they only have 323 members in the Baseball Hall of Fame illustrates that they show considerable restraint in bringing a new player on board.  The NFL boasts a similar number of players with a comparable roster in their HoF.

As you can see, NASCAR has a much smaller pool of talent to pull from when building their Hall roster.

For that reason, only waiting two years before pulling out the chair for a favorite driver is a reasonable time limit. However, it doesn't change the fact that this NASCAR fan still thinks of Gordon as a current participant in our sport--not somebody to be buried with the fading racing programs and cracking rubber of long retired memorabilia.

I'm just not ready to regard the Rainbow Warriors as nothing more than history. After all, time makes the heart grow fonder, doesn't it? I'm just asking for a chance to come to terms with his change in employment status, that's all.

Harvick is Happy Again

So, with his third win in three weeks, I'd say Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team is well on their way to Homestead. Anybody want to start taking odds on how this season is going to unfold? I'm predicting more of the same in the very near future. 


Monday, March 5, 2018

9 Things We Thought About During the Pennzoil 400 in Las Vegas

Kevin Harvick Celebrates his Victory of the Pennzoil 400 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Well, the season of mile and a half racing has commenced. With its cheese grater surface, Atlanta ran more like a Darlington than the cookie-cutters we can look forward to after the rest of the West Coast swing is over. But that didn't stop Las Vegas from producing a predictable and somewhat sedate afternoon of racing.  Which left time to ponder a variety of topics along the way.

1.       Looks like Harvick has it going this year: After the emotional score in Atlanta, this week's class in driving focused on a dominant run by a team that seems to be untouched by the fleet of new rules this season.
2.       Are the lug nut guns really a huge issue? While we have seen several lug nut gun failures during pit stops this year, is it really an issue with the NASCAR provided equipment? Honestly, there have always been failures during every race.  We're just hyper focused on the problem because it's a chance to throw some mud at our favorite sanctioning body.
3.       Hey! Blaney's great run in the No. 21 last year was no fluke: Did you notice that the new No. 12 team has been running right up front with the No. 2 and No. 22? I guess that young kid just might have the chops for a championship team.
4.       Where are the Hendrick boys?  I still don't think Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 are in any kind of trouble, but it is unusual for the entire Hendrick stable to be running so far down in the listings.  We've heard of rebuilding years in other major league sports--I suspect Hendrick is using 2018 for that purpose with their fleet of rookie drivers to bring up to speed.
5.       I really do like the new FOX Sports scoring pylon: I realize that there are still some glitchy problems with the new graphic that sticks to the right hand side of your TV screen, but I love it. The old scroll just went too slow and they changed up the stats so often you couldn't follow a driver other than the Top 3.
6.       Chris Myers continues to irk me: I know that man has been providing emcee services for the Hollywood Hotel since FOX began their NASCAR coverage in 2001, but I still can't stand his stand-up comic approach to Sunday afternoons. Please make him go away.
7.       Was that a better race than New Hampshire? This year New Hampshire Motor Speedway will only be hosting one race, losing its second date to Las Vegas. It's been a blend of low ticket sales and "boring" racing that led to the corporate shuffling of race dates. But does Las Vegas provide a better afternoon of racing? Not that I can see. I guess the slot machines provide an extra reason to spend a week with your racing heroes. I guess...
8.       The odds are...I can't stand kitchy pre-race coverage:  If the only thing you can come up with to fill the hours and hours of race weekend chatter is what kind of odds the betting parlors are putting up for Sunday's race, it's time to turn in your TV production credentials.  It's time to step up your game, FOX.
9.       Heading to the land of the rising sun--one last race at the old Phoenix:  The racing surface is not going to be impacted by the major renovation, but with the Start/Finish line moving to the entrance of the dog leg, restarts are going to something crazy to see. But that's in the Fall. For now, enjoy watching one last race at this vintage venue.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The No. 3 Returns to Victory Lane to Revitalize NASCAR Nation

No. 3 Chevrolet Burnout at Daytona 500
Austin Dillon Burns it Down After Winning the Daytona 500
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 The No. 3 Won the Daytona 500!  

 Did you notice something about that statement? It's missing a driver's name.  And yet it isn't. While Austin Dillon was the driver behind the wheel when the checkered flag flew on Sunday, it is actually a legend that is still driving the sport 17 years after he died. That is why we now know that NASCAR made the right decision in refusing to retire that mythical No. 3.

When Dale Earnhardt Sr. lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500, he enjoyed the support of a legion of wildly loyal and vocal fans. In fact, NASCAR Nation was pretty well split down the middle as Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt went toe to toe week after week in an effort to prove just who had the bigger--um-- following.  

After the tragic accident, the sport swayed in shock, but we carried on. We mourned. NASCAR dusted off their focus on safety.  New tracks joined the circuit. New faces were welcomed into the garage.  But the roar of the Goodwrench No. 3 remained a palpable presence in the lingo of our sport.

After a year there was discussion over whether the car number should ever run again--after all, there would surely never be another Dale Sr.  But NASCAR stuck by their stance that they don't retire numbers, and both the Childress and Earnhardt families agreed that retiring the number wouldn't actually do any good.  

 Still, the No. 3 remained under wraps for a while longer.  Those loyal Senior fans remained true, but as time passed the loss of the Intimidator lost its brutal sting. We as fans moved on.

The Return of the No. 3 in 2009 Credit: Mark Odor/SpeedwayMedia.com
Finally, in 2009 Austin Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, brought the Black No. 3 back to life when he made his debut in the Camping World Truck Series.  Do you remember how those loyal to the memory of Dale Sr. made some noise? Nobody could drive the No. 3. Never. Why?

Once again, the tales of the Intimidator were brought back to life. NASCAR enjoyed a sense of nostalgia amidst the protests as that No. 3 truck rolled into the track in Iowa.  And so the conversation moved forward, teaching the next generation of racing fans about a driver who pushed the boundaries of right, wrong, champion, and villain all at once.

The No. 3 had become more than a number painted on a wall, or hung on a banner in the Hall of Fame. It now represented the blue collar roots of auto racing. The No. 3 continued to take laps on tracks across America, and in doing so kept Dale Sr.'s entire story fresh in our minds.

So, when Austin Dillon took his No. 3 Chevrolet and executed a bump and run on the No. 10 of Aric Almirola on Sunday afternoon only one thing came to my mind.

That is the NASCAR that racing fans came to celebrate all through the 80's and 90's when Senior and the California Kid created a phenomenon worthy of prime time television. Now, with the No. 3 sitting in Daytona USA for another year, not only will new NASCAR fans get to make some noise about how wrecking ain't racing, but their aging parents and grandparents have a chance to relive all the moments that created Sunday afternoon magic for them over the years.

The story isn't about the drivers this year.  It's about how after all the tweaks and changes to our sport, the Daytona 500 still comes down to who has the biggest bumper and the guts to use it on the last corner of the last lap.  Just as Dale Earnhardt Sr. taught us all those years ago.

The No. 3 could never be retired.  It's not done telling the story of NASCAR in America, yet.  

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sorting Through the Debris Left from NASCAR Silly Season

So, it's only 13 days until the Daytona 500.  Do you even have a clue who is driving which car this year?  Even with extremely popular young drivers enjoying a year of media-driven frenzy behind them, it's not going to be a walk through the park to find your new favorite among the starting lineup on February 18th.

Here's a quick rundown of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars that have new pilots behind the wheel this year. We'll check up with familiar faces in their regular rides as the season goes on.

  Chase Elliot and the No. 9: Elliott took his entire No. 24 team and slapped a new badge on it to honor his father, Bill Elliott. We can expect to see Chase in Victory Lane this year--finally!

 Aric Almirola and the No. 10: After performing exceptionally well in the second-tier No. 43 team (for how many years?) Aric is finally getting his shot at the big time in the car vacated by Danica Patrick over at Stewart/Haas Racing. I totally expect more out of this machine under Almirola's guidance than she ever managed.

Ryan Blaney and the No. 12: While we all really wanted the Wood Bros. No. 21 to rise out of single-team mediocrity with this rising star, the fact is that economics will always drive a winning team.  So, Blaney is heading off to Penske to flesh out the Keselowski-Logano combination.

Erik Jones and the No. 20: A bit like the Blaney story, a lack of funding prevented the stable that won the 2017 Cup to continue to field a second team with possibly the most talented driver that has risen out of the developmental series in the last three years.  Over at Roush, Erik will have his chance to shine.

Paul Menard and the No. 21:  See, Blaney didn't have a sponsor. Menard comes to the Wood Bros. team with his family's bank account funding the season--well, 22 races. Why did they leave Childress? Who knows?...Who cares?  That might be why.

William Byron and the No. 24: This is the King in the chess game that Hendrick has been working toward for the past four years. Jeff Gordon's heir apparent--no, that really was NOT Chase--is stepping into the storied number for his rookie season. The cars and crew have been rebadged from the No. 5 garage. Hold your breath. This could get exciting.

Michael McDowell and the No. 34: Front Row Motorsports is still managing to bodge together enough funding, drivers, and crew to keep filling up the field. If you are a fan, it's one more year where you can get an autograph!

Bubba Wallace and the No. 43: Honestly, this is all serendipity.  Wallace brings an energy and intensity to the track that always translates to his aggressive style behind the wheel. He will be able to maintain the momentum Almirola has been building in this car while placing his own unique personality on the team.

Alex Bowman and the No. 88: While Bowman totally earned this ride after years of scrapping and scraping, he is stepping into a machine that is larger than life. Unfortunately if he doesn't make it to Victory Lane this year, there is a good chance he could slip back into anonymity once again. Bowman lacks the off-track showmanship other young guns possess that helps to leave them in the spotlight.

Kasey Kahne and the No. 95: He's still cute (even though he is 37) And all the girls can still find him at the track, just don't expect for a miracle.  That machine is still powered by guts and determination, but not much else.

Who do you think will make the most out of their new ride in the 2018 season?

Tweet out your answer and mention me @laregna
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or Comment below.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Sitting in the Stands Lives On!

No. 24 NASCAR hauler heading home after the race
Heading Home after the Races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Are you ready for race day?  I'm certainly prepared to see our favorite teams roll into Daytona for some serious racing.

In years past you have found my thoughts on everything NASCAR over at Frontstretch.com, but this year I'm heading out on my own.  Believe me, it's all good!

Every week I'll be sharing my thoughts on the latest happenings in our favorite sport right here. I'll be sharing links on social media so you will always know when a new column appears. And just like the headline says, this blog is about us--the fans. I don't repeat what all the big sports outlets are saying, but what I as a fan think and feel. It's the good and the bad.

I'm also a huge New England racing fan, so don't be surprised to see updates on Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, Stafford Motor Speedway, and Lee USA Speedway among others.

I love hearing from you--the people who sit next to me.  While I might show some love for my favorite drivers, I won't begrudge you the right to cheer for your own guy, even if I don't like them very much.  I simply ask you to do the same.

As the season goes on and I get back in the game of keeping an eye on the racing scene 24/7, let me know what kind of info and fun you would like to see on this page and I will see what I can do.

Ready? Set? Race!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why the CTRL+ALT+DELETE Exists in Daily Life

What is it that we are actually doing when we do that monstrous Spring Cleaning?  Is it removing bacteria and dust from all surfaces? Is that the important action?  Not at all.  If that were so, in this world of germophobia, our homes would never accumulate the layers of clutter and dust that is typical in most houses.  But we do allow the clutter...

Until we have no freakin' idea where we've put anything.We know that there is the coat by the door, where we place our purses when we get home, normally a somewhat organized food storage system and a general idea of where to find clothing for the day.  But the rest of it? The bills, letters from relatives, keepsakes from short daytrips, the new collar we bought Fido, the bag full of picture hangers because we always intended on putting up that framed photo of Grandma in the hall...it's all important, just not top priority. It gets lost in the redundancy of daily life, vanishing at the bottom of so much irrelevant mental detritus.

Until we get to clean.  Sort through the debris in the horizontal filing systems, inspect the shopping bag tossed in the extra room and rediscover the collection of gifts you bought last summer at that craft show.   As each room unearths its intended purpose once again, so we manage to discover and refocus on plans, goals and actually take a moment to think about what we want to accomplish next.  Oh yes, the cupboard that needs to be reinstalled, the pile of clothes to go to the donation center and a reassessment of paint/repairs and other projects.  If we have time to clean, we have time to work on finishing thoughts, afghans, stories and visiting friends. Spring Cleaning is in fact the equivalent of a biological reboot.

I am by no means preaching that we would all benefit from a spartan life. That would be unexciting.  Boring. Predictable. However, an annual observation of that which we've collected about us is worthwhile.  Otherwise, in this day and age of 90 second attention spans, how are we ever to manage to build upon those fantastic ideas we collect over time?