Thursday, April 22, 2010

“This Isn’t The 90’s Anymore” As Fans Root for Jeff Gordon

The year is 1998. In route to his third championship, Jeff Gordon wins 13 of 33 races, after winning 10 in both 1996 and 1997. At driver introductions, a thousands-strong host of “boo’s” greets Gordon. His only consolation: Dale Earnhardt’s quote, “At least they’re making noise. It’s when they stop making noise that you know something’s wrong.”

In NASCAR, drivers that are successful are shunned, especially ones who act unlike everyone else – the articulate, young, skinny, California kid among the southern grease monkeys. If anyone tried to pick a fight, Gordon would have lost.

But Gordon did his fighting on the racetrack. By the end of 1998, he had won 42 races, putting him 14th on the all-time win list at the time. This made him the most hated man in NASCAR. Come race day, fans pleaded, “Anyone but Gordon.”

It now takes only three syllables to describe NASCAR in the 90’s: “Jeff Gordon.”

Fast forward to 2002. Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon team up and each put in a 50/50 stake in a new team, and they hire Jimmie Johnson as their driver.

Fast forward to 2010. Jimmie Johnson has 50 wins and four championships. Fans now plead, “Anyone but Jimmie… even Jeff.” Since Johnson emerged, Jeff has won only 23 times, a bit more than half of the first half of his career, but most importantly, no championships.

This season, we’ve seen the fighting Jeff more so than we’ve seen in the past few years.

We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon trying to dispel any more rumors that he’s about to retire, and wants to prove that he can still do this long enough for his yet-to-be-born son to experience his dad winning.

We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon tired of going home short.

Finally, we’ve seen a Jeff Gordon who wants to do anything take back the title of “the best” from Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon’s former crew chief, Ray Evernham, offered a few comments as to why he hasn’t been his ‘90’s self the past few years. According to Evernham, working with a driver with the caliber and records of Jeff Gordon is intimidating. Current crew chief Steve Letarte, as good as he is, has still got to be a little intimidated by Jeff Gordon.

What this means is a hesitancy to coach him. Gordon is the best; where is it Letarte’s place to coach him? Gordon should be coaching Letarte.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. The crew chief is the coach. The crew chief has the knowledge, the information, and the luxury of not having to concentrate on driving a car 180mph. This puts the crew chief in a much better position to make the types of calls a coach would make.

Fortunately, the duo is getting better. Gordon couldawouldashoulda won three or four races this year, only to be narrowly shut out each time. This has lit a fire under him I haven’t seen… ever, really.

The Jeff Gordon of the ‘90’s was a fierce competitor, don’t get me wrong. You don’t get to be the 2nd winningest driver in the modern era without being that. But the Jeff Gordon of today is quite simply mad – mad that he’s dominating but not winning, mad that the rules keep biting him, and mad that his protégé has stolen his own thunder.

Jeff Gordon is out there to prove that he is still the driver he was in the ‘90’s, and is determined to finish 2010 like it’s 1998.

Who cares if that makes him the most hated driver once again? That’s when he won the most.

-David Dubczak

Friday, April 16, 2010

A New Schedule Would Be A Good Order, Especially for Trucks

I know it seems odd; the 2010 season has barely begun, but now is time of year NASCAR starts negotiating their schedules for 2011. Every year, the story remains the same – too many tracks, not enough weekends. Storied tracks are trying not to lose dates, but NASCAR is trying to break into new markets.

In the past, NASCAR was simply able to just add dates, but, since 2001, the schedule has been at 36 races, and many think that’s already too much (I am not among them). Adding races is no longer an option.

Still, we have tracks like Kansas, which has been guaranteed a second date. Kentucky has been vying for a race for years, but NASCAR insists on not giving them that date unless the track drops a lawsuit against NASCAR (a suit filed to try and get that date). This year, that lawsuit has been dropped.

So, what is NASCAR to do? I’ve been advocating a rotational schedule for years. Here’s the gist of how it would work:

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series currently races on 22 tracks. Add Kentucky and we get 23. Add a few more venues drivers love, like Rockingham, Iowa, and perhaps Nashville, and we get 26. If each track got one race, that’s 26 races. The final ten should rotate from year to year.

Tracks that sell out would get preference. NASCAR would consider input from the fans. Localities would have to submit proposals. Maybe they would add some tracks to those 10 races that they would visit on a semi-annual basis – Iowa would be a good choice, maybe Road America.

In this economy, seating capacity probably isn’t an issue. NASCAR took a date away from Rockingham and gave it to California because (in part) California had more seats. Now, California can’t fill those 90,000 seats, and tracks with 120,000 or more seats are in the same boat.

The rotation should be about where racing is the best, where the fan experience is the best, and what the fans across the nation want, regardless of whether they live by that track or not.

Every year, this rotation might change. It could be on a three-year basis – every track that wants a second date will get it every third year.

This isn’t going to appease everyone, but neither will a traditional schedule. Not everyone can have two dates.

The Camping World Truck Series can benefit especially from a rotational schedule. The popularity of the trucks has been waning, which is unfortunate because they have some of the best racing in NASCAR.

Or has it? Their ratings on SPEED have been steadily growing, while the Nationwide and Cup ratings have been shrinking.

What makes it look like they’re losing popularity is the number of fans in attendance. When the trucks race on a standalone weekend at a track built for 120,000, the stands look exponentially more empty when only 15,000-20,000 fans show up.

Yet, the truck series needs to race at the Sprint Cup venues. This is a developmental series, after all – the drivers need experience at these tracks. They need experience at high speeds and experience drafting.

But, when the series races by itself, or not as a Sprint Cup companion event, they should not be at track built for 120,000. They should be at a track where neither the Sprint Cup Series nor Nationwide Series race. Perhaps, they could also visit some local short tracks that can attract hoards of curious locals because, let’s face it; the Truck Series isn’t going to attract RV’s from across the country for a standalone event.

South Boston. Rockingham. Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. Concord. Imagine… gasp… North Wilkesboro. Can you imagine the trucks going to North Wilkesboro – America’s toughest trucks on one of NASCAR’s most beloved former tracks?

It could happen. Let NASCAR know what you think. They’re listening to the fans this year. It could happen.

Other NASCAR Notes

I’m tremendously excited to see Kasey Kahne’s possibilites at Hendrick Motorsports. Darrell Waltrip put it best – he’s one of the most talented drivers in the sport and is in the prime of his career, but his Richard Petty Motorsports team is unable to support him, no matter the strides they’ve made this year. He can’t spend his prime years driving for a team that is defaulting on loans.

I hope his crew chief, Kenny Francis, can go with him. Kasey and Kenny have a great relationship – in the turmoil at RPM last year, Kenny and Kasey’s working relationship was about the only thing going for them. Larry McReynolds told him to grab Kenny and hold on as tight as he could.

If Kenny and Kasey get together at Hendrick, I think there’s a chance they could become the new Chad and Jimmie.

-David Dubczak

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mark Martin is NASCAR's Happiest Driver

Mark Martin is NASCAR’s happiest driver. No, he isn’t always running the best; no, he hasn’t won a championship; and no, he hasn’t won half the races this year like his teammate has. But that won’t get Mark Martin down.

When was the last time anyone saw him unhappy? It’s been an awfully long time, probably in his last few years with Roush where he admits he simply wasn’t enjoying racing anymore. But not since then.

Martin has this radiating smile, accentuated by his wrinkles developed from what must surely be a lifetime of laughter. Just look at his caricature by NASCAR comic artist Mike Smith.

But what is the effect of Mr. Martin’s perpetual happiness? It’s the way it motivates his GoDaddy team. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Martin unhappy, but it’s been longer since I’ve heard him bash a team. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that.

Week in and week out, he talks about what a pleasure it is driving for Crew Chief Alan Gustafson and how much fun it is to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.

If he wins… his talk is about how great it is working with Alan and the guys.

If he crashes… it’s still a pleasure to drive for Alan and the guys.

Laps down… can’t believe what a great crew chief Alan Gustafson is to work with.

Just barely loses… Hendrick Motorsports is such a great team and it’s so fun to drive fast cars prepared by Alan Gustafson and the GoDaddy crew.

He never talks down about his crew, never complains about how much they sucked today, and never blames his crew for a crash that is obviously his fault.

That kind if negative talk is something I’ve heard from the very best in our sport… both Busch brothers, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and all three of his Hendrick teammates – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and yes, even Jimmie Johnson on occasion.

Mark is always the first one to tell his crew “great job.” As an athletic coach myself, I know what a big deal this is… and how hard it is to be sincere. If I’m faking it, I know it and my athletes know it. I try not to fake it, but when I do, it’s obvious.

It’s also obvious that Mark Martin is never faking it.

It’s like a marriage vow he’s taken to heart, “through the best of times, through the worst of times, through sickness, and in health.”

And it shows with his crew. His crew is among the most upbeat in the garage and Alan Gustafson is one of the happiest crew chiefs on the pit box. Martin still has the energy of a 20 year old, and the humble spirit from Batesville, Arkansas is able to lift the spirits of his entire team (it certainly wasn’t that way when Kyle Busch drove for that team).

When the Kyle Petty Charity Ride rode through Batesville, Petty remarked he didn’t go through Batesville, Arkansas… he went through Mark Martin, Arkansas. The people there love him too.

Mark Martin doesn’t even have to try. He’s just that way. I’m sure, whatever positive remarks he has for the team, his team has the same toward him.

-David Dubczak
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