Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer with the company and has left the building

I had no intention of writing anything for the Observer about thiswhole business about there not being any Dale Earnhardt Jr. memorabiliawhen the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour sponsored by Lowe's Motor Speedwaywent to visit Dale Earnhardt Inc. last week.

When the whole thing came up, my reaction was, "Well, duh."

Now I see a wire story about this overblown nothingness has found itsway to the pages of thatsracin.com. So I guess I will say somethingabout it after all.

Well, duh.

In case you guys missed it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't work at DEI anymore. There is no more Budweiser No. 8 car. Budweiser is sponsoring another car, the No. 9 Dodges driven by Kasey Kahne, and Earnhardt Jr.has a new employer, Hendrick Motorsports; a new car number, No. 88, and new sponsors in AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard.

Honestly. All of that has been in the paper and everything.

Does anybody really, honestly, expect DEI to build its displays of the history of its team around a guy who took a powder and headed down thehighway?

When the 250 or so people on the media tour rolled into DEI, the good folks there served us lunch. To do that, they set up dozens of tables on the floor of the main showroom in the public area of the DEI headquarters. They also set up a stage for DEI's principle figures to stand on and another riser for television cameras to roost during theprogram.

To do all of that, they had to take out a bunch of cars that are left on display to show the team's history. DEI president Max Siegel told Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press that among them were several cars that Earnhardt Jr. had driven in Busch and Cup competition for DEI.

It doesn't really matter to me if those cars were there or not. I do know that if we'd rolled in there and walked past a half-dozen display cases full of memorabilia featuring Earnhardt Jr., there would have been those criticizing DEI for continuing to try to make hay off a driver who's no longer there.

Some people actually were surprised there was no Earnhardt Jr. souvenirs or memorabilia for sale in the gift shop. Good grief, folks, a bus load of lawyers racked up the billable hours determining every aspect of who could sell what as DEI, Earnhardt Jr. and the various sponsors all parted ways.

DEI no longer has rights to sell Earnhardt Jr.'s stuff and Budweiser doesn't want people selling No. 8 shirts and hats when it's paying to put its colors on the No. 9 now.

That's ridiculous.

The displays around DEI feature a lot of stuff relating to the man who founded the place, Dale Earnahrdt Sr. One of the rallying points for the people who still work there is that they're still trying to sustain the legacy of a seven-time champion who helped build that company to the point where it could field Cup cars and, when the time came, be strong enough to keep going in the face of Earnhardt Jr.'s departure.

Earnhardt Jr. has turned a page. He's doing what he feels he has to do to have the best shot to win races and championships. DEI, meanwhile, is trying to go forward, too.

Mark Martin and Aric Almirola will share theNo. 8 Chevrolets this year with the U.S. Army as its sponsor.

It's a new chapter for DEI, too. Yes, there's probably a little bit of hurt reflected in the fact that some of the stuff Earnhardt Jr. accomplished at DEI isn't more prominently displayed right now.

You could argue that by not showing that off DEI isn't giving proper tribute to the people who're still there who helped Earnhardt Jr. accomplish that. At the same time, maybe some of those people who didn't leave when Earnhardt Jr. chose to are staying at DEI for the expressed purpose of making new history and ringing up new accomplishments.

Maybe they'd rather not, at least right now, be reminded of what for most everyone involved was an emotional parting ofthe ways. Yes, the Busch championships and 17 Cup victories, inclulding a Daytona 500, that Earnhardt Jr. racked up are part of the history ofDEI.

Absolutely that should be part of any retelling of the company's history. But isn't it possible to understand why, with all the wounds ofthat parting still so fresh, there might be a bit of pettiness involved in how the trophies are arrayed in the cases at DEI?

Well, duh.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

NASCAR's 'back to basics' should involve significantly more than simply punching numbers on a jukebox

Just what, exactly, does it mean to “go back to basics?”

How, precisely, does NASCAR plan to change to re-connect with its core fans?

Frankly, the preseason talk about that kind of stuff is just a public relations bill of goods. Oddly, that may be all it takes to satisfy some of the sport’s fans who’ve been so vocal with their displeasure.

I was reading a column over the weekend from a guy who said NASCAR has “turned its back” on its core fans in North and South Carolina, Georgia and other fans in the Southeast. He even went so far as to invoke the name of the holy of old-time holies, North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Let me just tell you something. NASCAR ain’t going back to North Wilkesboro. Not now, not ever. That ship has sailed. Rockingham isn’t coming back, either.

NASCAR also isn’t going to abandon the car of tomorrow and bring back “stock” cars. It’s not going to abandon the rule that guarantees the top 35 in points a spot in each week’s race.

Despite all the talk about “loosening up” on letting drivers express themselves, NASCAR also isn’t going to allow people to go around having fistfights or swinging tire irons at each other. (Does anybody even have tire irons anymore? Maybe now it would be sway bars.)

The garage area isn’t a barroom and even if NASCAR tried to look the other way on physical confrontations the very fans who swear they want to see it would make such a big deal out of every such incident the teams and sponsors would immediately put the kibosh on such antics.

Does anybody really think that by putting Dale Jarrett in the booth and moving Rusty Wallace to the studio or running off Brent Musburger and Suzy Kolber, ESPN/ABC is going to “fix” everything that’s “wrong” with stock-car racing?

Certainly no speech at a news conference, by NASCAR chairman Brian France or anyone else, is going to change the economic realities of this sport.

Teams with the most resources and the most good people are always going to be better than teams that have less. Actually, that is going back to basics in one sense because it has not ever or will it ever be any other way. Money buys speed. Period.

Every era has had its dominant teams and those dominant teams were the ones who marshaled the most forces – things like money, equipment, expertise and experience – toward accomplishing that success.

From the sport’s broader perspective, the law of large numbers is going to apply as much going forward as it has in the past. It’s always going to be about selling more tickets and having more people watch on television.

That’s just how you keep score. No matter how many times anybody says it, NASCAR isn’t going to schedule a points race at a dirt track that seats 20,000 people. It’s not going to “ban” Cup drivers from racing in Nationwide races, either, because the big names sell more tickets and draw more fans to television and that’s what pumps the money into that series.

So far, the most significant change I’ve noticed in this “back to the basics” business is that Brooks & Dunn will headline the Daytona 500 prerace show.

Brooks & Dunn have actually been to Nashville once or twice in their lives, and over the past five years or so that would have automatically disqualified them for that job. Anything that keeps Kelly Clarkson away from the race track is fine with me, but punching different buttons on a juke box hardly qualifies as a new direction for a major American sports franchise.

NASCAR officials will spend a lot of time this year talking about how good the competition is. That will be the primary talking point, and to be honest the new season does shape up to have several potentially compelling storylines on the track.

If enough of those play out – if Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a big year, if Toyota emerges as a realistic challenger, if the other manufacturers eat away even somewhat at Chevrolet’s dominance (or, at least, the Hendrick Motorsports dominance), if Juan Pablo Montoya shows that a driver from South America can race with just as much fire and passion as one from South Carolina can – NASCAR could have the kind of year it’s going to need to have.

If that’s what Brian France means about going back to basics, he’s right. If the racing is compelling, if the competition is what everybody wants to talk about each Monday morning, then a lot of the other stuff people seem to get hung up on these days won’t matter nearly as much as it seems they have in recent years.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

No one was trying to make anyone mad

Final notes, thoughts and observations from the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway:

I swear I had no intention of making anybody from Ford mad Thursday afternoon at the final stop on the media tour. Too bad, because that’s not how things worked out.

Part of the story from 2007 was that Ford’s teams, especially those at Roush Fenway Racing, fell behind early in the season because they were not aggressively testing the car of tomorrow.

Jack Roush said all along that’s because he understood the purpose of a tire-leasing program that NASCAR had introduced was to keep teams from going to other tracks aside from the ones NASCAR had picked out for testing.

What I never could figure out, though, was that Roush had to know other teams were testing their cars on tires they’d either saved from earlier years or bought from somebody other than Goodyear. If he knew that, he had to know his teams might be falling behind. Why did he continue to refrain?

It’s my fault that I didn’t ask him that question before Thursday. But when the topic came back up again I did ask it. I don’t really know if Roush was mad at me for asking it – maybe I asked it so poorly that he felt like I was accusing him of not paying attention or something. He may have not been mad at all, but he sure got exercised in his reply.

“I thought that they (NASCAR) were serious,” Roush said. “I thought that they were going to stop testing. They said they were going to control the testing and we were all going to test at the same place. I figured it was a matter of time until the guillotine fell on the people who were testing the cars.

“I wasn’t going to create a scenario where they said, ‘Everybody’s doing it.’ Everybody wasn’t doing it. We weren’t doing it. …I thought it was going to be real bad for the people who were. I was wrong. I misread NASCAR.”

Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, got fired up, too.

“You hear the words and music and you want to do the right thing,” Davis said.

“We are ethical at the Ford Motor Company, we want to do the right thing. So we held hands and said, ‘This is what we should be doing, this is what we have been asked to do.’ It turns out that we misunderstood or someone changed their minds. Who knows?”

Whatever happened, after Hendrick Motorsports won the first five car of tomorrow races last year and the Ford teams weren’t giving them much of a run for it, several of the Roush drivers started wondering aloud about what was going on.

Carl Edwards said that drivers just started going into offices one day asking what they were going to do about getting beat up so badly. Before long, they’d worked up a full-blown meeting and the decision was made to start testing aggressively.

As reporters sat there Thursday listening to Roush and Davis talk, we could hear something that sounded like springs creaking. They said the seven-post shaker rig was in an adjacent building and you could tell people were working right on through our little visit.

Edsel Ford, the great-grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford, was there and he’d sternly advised reporters “Don’t underestimate our resolve.”

Davis echoed that in even stronger terms when Roush paused to take a breath.

“The past six months we’ve been really pushing it hard,” Davis said of efforts to catch up on the new car. “We’re testing everywhere we can go and we’re testing all kinds of vehicles. I feel like we’ve caught up.

“Sometimes I feel like you need to be a little bit behind and a little bit embarrassed to get your (expletive) together. That’s kind of where we are. It’s together, so look out this year.”

Wheeler weighs in

The Ford guys weren’t the only ones who had their jaws set Thursday.

Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler always gets up at the final media tour stop and says a few words. He thanks his tireless staff for the work they do on the tour, thanks reporters for coming and asks for feedback on how to make it better.

When Wheeler got up there Thursday, though, he had something else to say, too.

“Maybe nobody else has said it this week, but ticket sales are flat or down and television ratings are down,” Wheeler said. “We need to make this car of today work so we can get back to the kind of racing where we’re putting those black doughnuts on the doors and not making a felony out of it.”

Wheeler said he thought the most important thing said on the tour all week came at the first stop on Monday when NASCAR chairman Brian France said that the sport needs to get “back to basics” and work on its bonds with its long-time fans.

“I think that’s a turning point,” Wheeler said. “I am glad that was admitted and that we are talking about it.”

There's a schedule and there's a guy

Bruton Smith can be quite the motivational speaker.

At the news conference announcing the new drag strip at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Smith was asked if he can get it built in time to host the inaugural National Hot Rod Association Carolina Nationals on Sept. 11-14 as scheduled.

Smith looked down in the front row where the person who’ll be heading up the project was seated.

“Stand up,” Smith said. “This is him, so if it’s not done in time, now you will know what he looked like.”

That’s looked. As in past tense.

Have Humpy call Dumbo

Speaking of Bruton Smith, he has an idea for a prerace show that shows you just how big he thinks – or maybe how close to insanity he actually is.

I promise you I am not making this up.

“I want to train a couple of small elephants to roller skate,” he said.

“And then, I would take them up and let the jump out of an airplane with controlled parachutes to guide them down on the track. Then you’d let them roller skate around the track and give the winner a bag of peanuts.

"You’d remember that, but we haven’t done that yet. We’re working on that one. The problem is finding a trainer to train the elephants.”

Oh, so that’s the problem.

A fair representation, maybe better

The media tour’s home base this week was the Embassy Suites on Speedway Boulevard, and the people who run that place did Charlotte and Concord proud.

I don’t know how they could have done a better job of setting up the various meeting rooms and meals and hospitality suites over the week. The folks from Lowe’s Motor Speedway and the sponsors and teams and the people who set up all the audio and other logistical stuff didn’t miss a trick that I saw.

If those folks do that kind of job with every meeting or convention that comes in there, they’re representing this area in a first-class manner and they deserve at least this much praise for the job they do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Notes from Day 2 of the Sprint Media Tour

Notes, thoughts and observations from heading into the evening of Day 2 of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway:
- - -
One thing that has been driving race fans nuts over the past few years is that starting times have been all over the place.

This year’s starting times haven’t been announced – they could be sometime this week, I hear – but I have seen a tentative list and I can tell you that at a lot of Sunday races in the Eastern and Central time zones will be starting at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Several of the races held farther to the west will also start in the 1-2 p.m. range out there, meaning they’d begin at 4 or 5 back here.

I am guessing that means a 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. prerace show on TV with the race starting at 2:10 or so after national anthems and commands to fire engines. I think fans will be good with that, as long as it’s as consistent as it can be.
- - -
The biggest surprise of the week so far is that, going into Tuesday night’s dinner gathering at Joe Gibbs Racing, no pulled pork barbecue has yet been served to media tour participants. This is my 12th media tour and I will promise you that’s the longest we’ve EVER gone without that happening.
- - -
It’s no secret the National Hot Rod Association plans to hold a national event in September at a new drag strip being built near Lowe’s Motor Speedway, but there still has been no official announcement of that.
One is scheduled for Thursday, but a packet given to reporters staying at the tour’s headquarters hotel by the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau jumps the gun on that a bit.
"Coming in 2008: The Drag Strip at Concord," one page in the packet reads. "This groundbreaking new facility will be the only 4-lane drag strip in the United States and host to NHRA events as well as many other events throughout the year."
The idea of a four-lane strip has long been discussed in drag racing. It would basically be a pair of two-lane racing courses side-by-side so one could be used as the other side is being cleaned after an "oil down" or some other problem.
The oil down is the bane of a drag-racing promoter’s existence. If a car with a mechanical issue leaves oil or other fluid in the racing lane, that requires a sometimes lengthy clean-up. Such clean ups prolong the length of an event and also leave the track – and fans watching the action – idle until racing can resume.
- - -
It doesn’t really matter what kind of music you like or don’t like, the lineup announced Tuesday for the pre-race show at this year’s Daytona 500 is significant.

Monday, NASCAR chairman Brian France said the sport needs to get back to its basics. Right, wrong or indifferent, a fundamental truth to stock-car racing is that it has had long-standing ties with country music. But in recent years, a country artist had about as much chance of performing before at Daytona 500 as I did.

This year’s headliner, however, is Brooks & Dunn. That duo has won more country music awards than Ryan Newman has won poles, and they once even filmed a video featuring Dale Earnhardt pretending to play a guitar.
You may hate country music and you may hate Brooks & Dunn, but if you’re NASCAR and you’re going to tell your "core fans" that they still mean a lot to you, booking Brooks & Dunn is a good move. As Humpy Wheeler said Monday, NASCAR started providing too many violins and not enough banjos and got a little "fancy" over the past few years.

There will be other acts – Chubby Checker, Kool & the Gang and Michael McDonald – in the prerace show. None of them, however, is Kelly Clarkson or anybody who has ever been near an "American Idol" stage.
Hallelujah.
- - -
Sprint previewed its new NASCAR-themed ad campaign Tuesday morning and I’ve got to tell you, it’s out there.
The premise, basically, is that they’re going to show the "soul of NASCAR" by showing cars racing with light forming images on the cars to reflect a driver’s persona. The best way I know to describe it to you is to tell you to imagine if ESPN’s "Draft Tracker" suddenly became possessed by demons.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Media Tour observations

Notes, news and general impressions from the first afternoon of the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway:
NASCAR chairman Brian France said stock-car racing’s rich history will be a major focus this year, as the 50th Daytona 500 kicks off the 60th season. But whoever helped France prepare his remarks needs a little brush-up on that history. France said the first race in what’s now the Sprint Cup Series was in 1949 at the Charlotte fairgrounds. No. The 1949 race was at Charlotte Speedway near the city’s airport. The Southern States Fairground track wasn’t used by NASCAR’s top series until 1954.
-- Everybody in racing is out looking for talented drivers to develop into future stars. All that’s required of any diversity effort is to make sure that during that process you’re looking in places where historically you might not have looked.
I believe NASCAR wants to be a more diverse sport. But I think it’s erring on the side of letting that just take its course and not providing enough juice to jump-start the process.
It takes fuel to make anything run, and what fuels just about everything in the business of NASCAR is money. NASCAR needs to pour some fuel into this process.
Five percent of the television money paid for every Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series race should go toward providing opportunities for young drivers of all races and genders.
-- Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president for competition, said the decision to move the "go-or-go-home" cars to the end of the qualifying order instead of the beginning was made largely to give those teams every chance at having the opportunity to make a qualifying run.
If you group all the cars not guaranteed a starting spot at the beginning of qualifying, a team that had trouble in practice with a crash or blown engine might not be able to get the car ready in time to go out.
Since the purpose of grouping those cars is to have them make their qualifying runs under relatively equal conditions, letting a team wait until after the top 35 go out to get ready wouldn’t make sense, either. By having all of those cars go at the end, that allows a team that’s making repairs every chance possible to get that run in.
-- Pemberton also said there’s little to no momentum toward dropping the top 35 rule altogether or changing the number of teams guaranteed starting spots.
NASCAR President Mike Helton said that no matter how much teams might gripe, the new race car that will be used at all tracks this year is the new race car.
In other words, don’t count on seeing NASCAR put any rules in reverse anytime soon.
-- Brian France called Hendrick Motorsports "the New England Patriots on wheels." Just passing along what the man said, folks.
-- It was interesting to walk into the room for the first tour function and see the flags of all six nations represented by the 11 drivers employed in all forms of racing by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. It looked like Concord was hosting a mini-United Nations meeting.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Benny Parsons way was the right way

Benny Parsons passed away one year ago, and if you knew him you miss him. Maybe you never actually met the jovial man from the hills of North Carolina, but if you followed NASCAR for any length of time you had him in your home during his long and distinguished career as a broadcaster.

He was the definition of affable, a man who loved people in the broadest collective sense of that word. At the same time, though, Benny had an uncanny knack of making anybody who knew him feel like he cared specifically about them.

Benny always had a smile in his heart, and most of the time it made it to his face, too. He loved to talk with people, not just to them. Benny had conversations with people, and he’d sit there and look you right in the eye and make you feel like that, at least for those few moments, what you were talking about was critically important.

After his brilliant driving career in NASCAR, Benny made his living talking about a sport he loved. He wanted everybody to like racing as much as he did, and there’s absolutely no question that there are people today who’re fans of NASCAR who never would have been if they’d never heard Benny do a race.

What made Benny good at that job, aside from the fact that his genuine good nature simply flowed through the camera into living rooms all around the country, was that he also was a great listener.

Benny would walk around the garage all weekend. He’d stop and talk to drivers, crew chiefs, NASCAR officials and reporters. He’d also talk to fans and people who just wanted to say hello to ol’ B.P. He listened to them, too, and learned what they wanted to hear from their televisions on Sunday.

Benny listened to people in the television business who helped him develop his craft as a broadcaster, but never let them change him from who he really was. There was absolutely nothing phony about him whatsoever, and there aren’t many people in the world you can truthfully say that about.

Benny Parsons was a man of uncommon common decency. He couldn’t have put on airs if they’d come with handles attached.

One year after his passing, it would do us all a lot of good to see if at least once a day we could try to treat somebody – a family member, a friend or even someone we’re meeting for the first time – the way we think Benny would have treated them.

That would make the world a better place, but I am afraid it still wouldn’t make it as good as it was when we had Benny here with us.

Monday, January 14, 2008

It is certainly not the way it used to be

I keep hearing from longtime NASCAR fans lamenting about how the sport has changed so much that they’re losing interest.

I don’t doubt two things. First, I don’t doubt that the sport has changed and that it will continue to do so. Second, I don’t doubt that there are fans who feel like they’re losing interest.

What I am far less certain of, however, is whether those two things are as directly connected as the folks who I hear from seem to believe.

“Ten years ago I never missed a race,” these fans will say. “My buddies and I would go to six or eight races a year and we never missed a race on television. We didn’t watch the start and the end of the race and take a nap or run errands in the middle, either.”

Something got me thinking about that this weekend. North Carolina and N.C. State were playing a basketball game at noon on Saturday, and 10 years ago I would have built my entire day around that. But this time, it was 12:30 or so before I even remember they were playing.

I still think college basketball is a great sport, and I try very hard not to be a fuddy-duddy. But if you caught me when I wasn’t thinking about it, though, I might let it slip that I don’t think the crowds are as intense or the games are as nail-biting as they were when I was following them more closely.

If I make myself think about it, though, I realize UNC and N.C. State dislike each other less now than they did in “my day” and I know the Tar Heels and Duke haven’t had any epiphany of “d├ętente” in their rivalry.

I also understand that NCAA basketball is a bigger, more complicated sport now than it was when I was in school in the early 1980s (OK, very early since I graduated in 1981). The arenas are bigger. Television money is bigger. I read somewhere the other day that North Carolina’s basketball program is now valued at $26 billion to top a list, even though I have no idea how they figure something like that out.

That’s all happened to NASCAR, too, and for the life of me I’ve never understood how that can be considered anything but a positive.

I know plenty of fans think it’s bad when NASCAR isn’t growing, as it appears not to be right now. The third option is to say exactly where things are, and stagnation equals decline in almost every kind of business.

Change is going to happen, both in the sport and in our lives. Why don’t some fans “care” about racing as much as they once did, spend as much money and/or time following it and devote as big of a slice of their devotion to it as they once did?

Fans change too. It doesn’t really how old you are, but 10 years ago it’s far more likely that you took more “adventuresome” trips than you do now.

Think about how you felt about cars when you were 10 years younger. You might not have had enough money to buy the car you wanted, but chances are if you could have you would have had a car that seemed racier than they one you were driving.

Now, you’re probably more likely to be able to buy something closer to what you want, chances are you’ll still pass on the sports car because what you need is dependable transportation with nicer accoutrements than you once could afford.

Maybe you were still single 10 years ago and you could stay up two straight nights roaming around the infield or the campground “partying” with your buds and handing out beads to attractive women.

These days, even if you didn’t know your wife would kill you for doing that you’d be in bed for week trying to recover from stuff like that.

Maybe 10 years ago you were home on Sunday afternoons and didn’t have much better to do that sit around with a couple of your buddies watching the race all afternoon, telling lies and talking about how rich you were all going to be one day. Now, you’ve got a couple of kids and they want to go see grandma on Sunday afternoon.

As ratings have dropped recently, people who study these things say the decline is most noticeable among older viewers.

It seems like to me that’s the pressure that all sports and entertainment businesses face in our world. Even if you have loyal customers, you have to work harder and harder to keep convincing them it’s time to get off the couch or leave the house and spend money to come see a race rather than putting it in the kids’ college fund.

Isn’t that why advertisers seem so drilled in on getting the 25-year-old consumer interested in buying or consuming a product?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Think for yourself and try not to read between my lines

Who said everything was great? Not me

Goodness knows I love it when people call me “fat boy,” or make jokes about me “ruffling feathers behind the KFC.”

Every time I see that, I know that person has nothing when it comes to the actual issue at hand. It’s like politics. When all else fails, go personal.

Yes, I read the comments people leave on the blogs I write. Good and bad. And in reading the comments under the long one I wrote Monday about the six biggest myths held dear by some of NASCAR’s fans, I couldn’t help but laugh.

That blog was a little over 4,000 words. In all honesty, I was hoping they’d run one of them each day for a week or so. That way, it wouldn’t be so much to read in one sitting. I know you guys have better things to do than to read 4,000 words of my opinions in one sitting. I am not quite that arrogant.

But there they all are, in one long blog. I am happy people read as much as they did.

My point, pretty much any time I write a column or blog expressing my opinion, is to at least try to make people think about their own opinions and challenge them. It’s certainly not that I think people are “dumb” for having any opinion they might have.

Actually, the truth is I am counting on people to use the intelligence I think they have to do their own thinking and not let others to it for them.

I don’t care, ultimately, if you agree with me or not.

I really don’t. I do care, though, if you’re forming your opinions on suppositions and lies that have come to be accepted as “truth” because somebody has hollered them so loud and so long enough that people have started to believe them.

Monday morning I got an e-mail from somebody about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. It was one of those things that somebody had told him to “pass along” so everyone could know the “truth,” and I was urged to do the same.

Pretty much every word in it, of course, was pure lies. The e-mail even said “all of this has been proved to be true, you can check it out here” with a link to snopes.com.

Well, I clicked on the link and it took me to the snopes.com home page. I typed Obama’s name into the search function and the first thing that came up was something that denied virtually every line of the e-mail that had referred me to the site!

So I replied to the sender and said, “Please stop this. I don’t care who you support or despise, but it’s not right to pass along lies.”

The replay I got back was this: “I was just sending what was sent to me.” That’s what passes for analysis and examination these days, and I think that stinks.

Every one of those myths I tried to challenge are based on suppositions and assumptions that just don’t hold up when you really look at them. That’s what I tried to point out in each of them.

I never, ever said I had all of the right answers. All I tried to do was ask some meaningful, pertinent questions and challenge people to think about what they believe.

I also never said in any way that all is right with the NASCAR world.

Neither did I say that NASCAR shouldn’t worry that many of its fans who part of its core base are disgruntled, which is why many of those fans are prone to fall for such half-baked truths as the six myths to start with.

Basically, what I am saying is that the things NASCAR should be focusing on are some of the real problems that can and should be fixed – or at least worked on.

Things like: No. 6: Declining television ratings. The big problem NASCAR has there is that it’s responsible for making ratings the ultimate gauge of success and failure that it has come to be.

When the ratings news was good for NASCAR as it moved into the network television era, it’s all the networks and NASCAR wanted to talk about.

NASCAR officials will tell you that they never sent out a press release from the NASCAR public relations office trumpeting good television ratings, and technically there’s truth in that. The TV partners sent those releases out, most likely at NASCAR’s urging.

All NASCAR did was point to them every time somebody started talking about how great things were going for the sport. And you bet your sweet bippy they pointed them out to advertisers wanting to buy time on television broadcasts, too.

Now that the ratings have turned downward, NASCAR is telling you how poorly ratings actually measure the viewing audience.

Well, they can’t have it both ways.

The idea behind moving starting times all around was to push the ends of races back toward the start of prime time on Sundays, which is when the television audience is typically bigger than it is all week. It also, in theory, meant later starts in more western time zones with the idea that would increase viewership, too.

Well, it flat hasn’t worked. That might not be the cause for the decline, but it certainly hasn’t been the solution.

I think fans who clamor for regular start times – 1 p.m. Eastern for Sunday races not held in the Western U.S., for example – are right. And I think NASCAR needs to at least try that for a year or two to see if it helps.

No. 5: Doubts about officiating. I don’t believe NASCAR races are fixed. I don’t believe they can be, and if they had been somebody would have squawked about it by now. But you didn’t see that as one of my “myths,” did you?

There’s a reason. I don’t think the people making the competition calls can’t be called on having a conflict of interest. A lot of the guys in the control tower on race day also have a lot to do with doing the business of NASCAR. It’s impossible to separate the two completely, and improper not to try as hard as you can to do precisely that.

The finish of the 2007 Daytona 500 is the perfect example. If NASCAR had thrown a caution flag on the final lap when it SHOULD have (and when it WOULD have on any other lap but the final lap), there wouldn’t have been a side-by-side finish between Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin.

There would, instead, have been a huge controversy over however NASCAR called a winner based on scoring loops and video tapes. It would have been a huge mess. That still doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, though. It would have.

From a business standpoint, letting the leaders race to the line provided a heart-stopping finish that was memorable for the fans. But if the people making that call had no stake in the sport’s business, and were just calling balls and strikes, in-bounds or out-of-bounds or anything black and white like that, they would have thrown a yellow and dealt with the consequences.

Do that enough times, consistently, and eventually fans will have to say, “Well, they call it the same way every time, you have to give them that.”

Make the calls based on the rules. Not on who sells the most T-shirts, or what’s going to make the better clip for ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

No. 4: The old “wink and nod” toward cheating. There’s no use for me to plow this ground again. If you’ve ever read a word I’ve written on this topic or heard a word I’ve said on the radio, you know where I stand.

You cheat? Buh-bye.

If you bring a car to my inspection line that has an obvious effort to circumvent my rulebook on it, pack it up and get it out of here. And you go home with it, because you’re not racing.

We’ve got guys we’re sending home with legal race cars, and you want to bring your tricked-up junk into my show in their place? You have to be kidding me.

And please don’t start with me about how I am strangling “innovation.” What I am doing is making sure people play fair. Some people believe that every advancement in the chassis, the engines and the bodies on cars made in the past 30 years came from somebody “pushing the envelope.”

The really smart people are the ones who make their cars better and faster and DON’T run wind up fined and or suspended.

Send a team home for a race, deny their fans the right to see them compete and tell them why.

Watch how fast cheating dries up. I promise you that it would happen.

Heck, you don’t really even have to send the team and the car and the driver all home. Just change the rule that now makes the crew chief the responsible party for his team’s actions.

Make it the driver.

Put his butt on the line and see how many times and owner and/or a sponsor will put up with any crew chief’s shenanigans.

No. 3: It’s the economics, stupid. Should NASCAR be worried that people are being priced out of being fans? You’re danged skippy. Tickets cost too much. Hotel rooms cost too much. It costs way too much to camp at the track.

Some of those costs NASCAR or the race tracks don’t have the slightest bit of control over.

Maybe there are some people who think that Brian France has a hand in the price of a gallon of unleaded fuel or how much it costs to buy a case of beer, but I don’t.

None of that is the problem, though. They’re all symptoms of the problem.

Here’s what happens in racing, or pretty much any business, for that matter. Every so often, the business reinvents itself. Some fundamentals remain, but the model shifts and the people who figure out where that shift is going to land get there first and get in position to reap the success that comes with that format.

It’s much easier to do that when things are going well. It’s one big reason why the rich get richer. If you have things going your way, the day-to-day business stuff sort of takes care of itself and you can spend a little more time and money looking down the road.

Conversely, if you’re running around putting out fires trying to get the doors opened each day, there’s not a lot left for what the experts call “strategic thinking.”

NASCAR’s kind of in the middle of that spectrum right now, I think. Five years ago, it had its ducks pretty much in a row on the day-to-day front, but the luxury of long-term thinking got blunted by the looming change of the guard from Bill France Jr., whose health was beginning to falter, to his son, Brian.

If you want to think Brian France is the village idiot, you knock yourself out. I know better.

But it is absolutely true that he brought with him to the leadership position of stock-car racing a completely different mindset from the one his father and his grandfather had. The old way of thinking was pretty engrained at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, so deeply that the shift Brian brought with him has met with some resistance.

If and when NASCAR gets to where Brian France wants to take it from a business standpoint, will he have led it to the right place ahead of the curve in the way that leads to true success? If so, all of the other economic concerns that we get so worked up about from day to day will work themselves out nicely.

Or will it be miles off the track with little immediate hope of getting back to where it was, let alone where it needs to be? For now, frankly, that remains an open question. That’s the really significant, and scary, fact for this sport.

No. 2: The Tiger Woods Syndrome If you want to be upset by something Brian France has said recently, here’s what it ought to be.

In response to a question about millions of dollars' worth of losses in 2007 by Motorsports Authentics. In a nutshell, he said NASCAR’s merchandising business has gone hat over tea kettle because Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a bad year on the track.

What? Look, without over-explaining things here let me just ask you one question. If I told you that only one driver sold significantly more product last year than he did the year before, who do you think that would be?

Earnhardt Jr., of course.

How, then, is he personally responsible for a sea of red ink washing across the “trinkets and trash” end of the NASCAR business?

Racing needs stars that the fans embrace. The key letter in that sentence is the “s” on the end of the word star. When Tiger Woods exploded onto the scene in golf, he gave the PGA Tour an almost immeasurable boost. But right now, that pendulum has swung a bit too far. What professional golf thirsts for right now are players – even one player – who can capture that sport’s imagination to anything close to the same degree Woods does.

If your city has a PGA Tour event right now, it’s either a Tiger Woods event or it’s not a Tiger Woods event. That’s two different classes of tournaments, and you don’t want to be in the second class.

The idea that Earnhardt Jr. – or any other single competitor – has to be a success for NASCAR to succeed is a walk on very thin ice, if you ask me.

No. 1: Too much of the same. One of my myths in Monday’s blog was about how there is no lack of personalities in the sport. There are plenty of interesting people and interesting stories if some fans would stop waiting to yell “FIGHT! FIGHT!” like they’re on the kindergarten playground long enough to read them or listen to them.

In one way, complaints that NASCAR drivers are too “vanilla” are right on the money – if you equate vanilla with white.

NASCAR needs diversity. If that statement bothers you, I am sorry. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s true.

If you honestly believe white men are the only type of person on this planet who have the skill, ability and desire to win a NASCAR race, I just have to feel sorry for you. That simply doesn’t make any sense at all.

Nobody is asking for women and minority drivers to be given a single thing other than a fair opportunity to compete. But because the deck has been stacked against them for so long, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to not only open doors but to build bridges on the road from where they are to where they need to be in the sport.

The current influx of drivers from different types of racing from different parts of the world is a great step in the right direction. It’s a path the sport needs to work every to keep blazing.

Examining the six biggest NASCAR myths

What with answering e-mail, making occasional visits to one or two online NASCAR message boards and doing a radio show for four hours each weekday morning on Sirius NASCAR Radio, I spend a pretty sizable chunk of time in contact with race fans.

It has become apparent that there’s a mythology that’s developed around the sport of stock-car racing. There are certain ideas that fans have, for reasons I can’t quite figure out, come to accept as truths.

They’re certainly not truths, of course. At best, they’re debatable opinions.

At worst, they’re just outright bad conclusions drawn from jaded recollections of what has happened over the years. But if you dare to challenge these myths, you’re automatically considered a heretic or, at least, an apologist who’s on the NASCAR payroll.

Well, I dare. Over the next few days in this blog, I am going to count down what I think are the six biggest NASCAR myths. I am going to explain to you why they’re just wrong. A lot of you are going to disagree, I know. But at the very least I hope I will make you think about why you believe what you believe and at least in some way question that.

Let's start with Myth No. 6

6. Racing just isn’t like it was in the “good old days” and that is killing the sport. I could fill up a couple of pages with numbers and statistics showing that, from an actual competition standpoint, that’s just flat wrong.

There have never been more competitive teams capable of running up front and winning that there are right now in this sport.

But data won’t change anybody’s mind about this myth. It’s more about a feeling than facts. It’s the same warm and fuzzy we all get when we think back to how great things were in high school or in college. The music was better. The food was better. Television was better.

You know. The same things that used to make us so mad when our parents told us the same thing about their “good old days.”

Look, history doesn’t have reverse gear. Things change. Things evolve. If NASCAR hadn’t grown, it would have faded away. Those are the only two options.

Thirty years ago, tickets didn’t cost as much. Gas didn’t cost as much. Crowds weren’t anywhere near as big, so traffic was less of a hassle. Hotels rates might not have been as jacked up as they are these days.

But let me remind you that 30 years ago your average salary was lower than it is today. You still had to plan your budget to include races. And when you got the race track chances are you parked in a muddy field or, at best, a gravel lot.

Your seat was a splintering wooden bench and the concession stands offered cold hot dogs, lukewarm coffee and watery soft drinks. If you went to the men’s bathroom, changes are you relieved yourself in a trough or up against a wall. If you went to the women’s bathroom, chances are you couldn't find it.

When the race started, if a wreck happened on a part of the track you couldn’t see you were just out of luck. There were no television screens around the track showing you replays from 12 angles.

When you got home, you couldn’t check the DVR or look on Speed or ESPN to get a frame-by-frame review of the incident. You couldn’t go on the internet and read 20 stories about the race to see what you missed, either.

If you stayed home instead of going to the track there was certainly no guarantee you were going to see the race on television, at least not live and most likely not in its entirety. If you did get to see a race, you didn’t complain if they didn’t have those 12 replay angles because nobody used 12 cameras, total, to show a race. There was no telemetry, there were no in-car cameras. You couldn’t hear in-car audio.

I could go on and on and on and on. I won’t. The point is you can’t back up selectively. If you want the good old days, you have to take the whole package. Personally, I’m good right here where I am.

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Myth No. 5

5. NASCAR’s new fans are killing the sport for its longtime fans.

Let me just say it simply right off the bat. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a NASCAR fan for five minutes or 50 years, you have the same right to like or dislike a driver or a track or a TV announcer or who sings the national anthem or anything like that.

You can pull for open-wheel drivers or against them. You can pull for Toyota because it’s bringing new blood to NASCAR or pull against Toyota because you read about Pearl Harbor in a history book. It’s your prerogative.

That’s the joy of being a fan. If you like Elliott Sadler because of the way he talks, or think Jamie McMurray is a metrosexual dreamboat, or Carl Edwards because he has six-pack abs or Tony Stewart because he doesn’t take any grief off anybody, good for you.

Just don’t let anybody tell you that he has more of a right to be a fan than you do because he’s been around longer.

Look, at some point in every fan’s life he or she went to a track or watched a race on television for the first time. Passion for the sport may have been born when a son went with his dad for the first time, or when a group of single girls decided to go have a party in the infield one weekend.

You may have hated racing until you met and fell in love with someone who didn’t. You may know cars from top to bottom, every bolt and every rivet, or you may not even be able to put gasoline in.

It does not matter. If you want to be a fan, be a fan. But if you decide to be a fan, watch out for anybody who starts a sentence with “I’ve been going to races for...” That’s almost always followed by a lecture on why that person is more entitled to pull for a driver or love going to the track more than you.

Until somebody has a meeting and decides what the cutoff date is, I am going to consider every fan to be equal. Unless somebody tells me that all fans have to carry an ID card affirming that they became a fan before the invitation to love racing got revoked because the lot was full, I am going to consider it everybody’s right to come and go as they please.

As for the question of whether NASCAR is “catering” too much to new fans at the expense of people who’ve been around a while, I will simply ask you to consider how you’d handle it in your business.

Let’s say you sell insurance. Or you run a restaurant. Or you cut hair. Whatever. If you’re trying to get new customers to buy a life insurance policy or patronize your place of business, how do you treat them the first time you meet? Aren’t you extra nice, trying to make them feel welcome? Don’t you take a little extra time, helping them understand their options or the products you have to offer? Might you give them a free desk calendar, suggest your best dessert or offer them a discounted rate on a shampoo, hoping your kindness will be viewed as an invitation to do business again?

Or, would you treat new customers with skepticism and disdain? Let ‘em come back six or seven times to see if they’re really willing to commit to having me worry about making them feel like valued customers.

What have they done for me so far? I’ve got a good business right now, I don’t need more people coming in here and taking my attention and focus away from the people who’ve always come in here. Let them invest a little bit of their money and themselves into doing business with me, and then maybe I will care about them.

Which approach do you think would work better?

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Myth No. 4.

4. Open-wheel racers are killing stock-car racing by taking away rides.

Isn’t it amazing that a lot of the same people who say that qualifying should come down to who can go the fastest and nothing else are the same ones who don’t want to see drivers from other forms of motorsports come to NASCAR?

If you think it should be about who’s the best, shouldn’t that apply across the board? Juan Pablo Montoya has shown that he can be competitive in a stock car. Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, Scott Speed and whoever else might come this way each deserve a chance to show that, too.

Some of them are going to succeed. Some are going to fail. That happens with drivers with every other kind of background. There are some drivers with great records in sprint cars who’ve flat failed as NASCAR drivers. That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea to give them a shot.

Most of the folks who subscribe to this myth have their hearts in the right place, sort of, at least.

They believe that owners who’re turning to still-unproven – in terms of stock cars – guys from other types of racing are turning their backs on drivers who’ve paid their dues in more “traditional” types of preparing to race in NASCAR’s top series.

There are really two types of drivers who fall into the group of those who’re being left out of rides taken by drivers from open-wheel circuits.

First, there are veterans like Sterling Marlin, Tony Raines, Ward Burton and so on who are still looking for places to race in 2008. The complaint is that if Dario Franchitti weren’t coming over from the IndyCar Series there might be a place for these guys.

Well, that’s just not true. It’s possible that David Stremme would still be in the cars Franchitti will drive for Chip Ganassi this year if Franchitti had stayed where he was. But it’s far less likely that one of the older veterans would have gotten that ride, or any other big-time ride, especially those who’re 45 years old or more.

Professional sports are dominated by younger participants, and even though a Harry Gant comes along once every three or four racing generations there’s a reason for that. The average age of a NASCAR race winner is just over 33.6 years. You can look that up. I have.

If open-wheel drivers weren’t coming to NASCAR, it’s possible the veterans could add a couple more years to their careers. But is that what’s good for the sport? Isn’t it better for NASCAR to competitors at or near the top of their game instead of people who’re more or less making long-term farewell tours?

It’s more likely, though, those rides could go to younger drivers. Three years ago, THAT was the problem everybody was complaining about. Everybody had a 15-year-old or six in a driver development program and each of them was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. Some of them have made it and some more will, but some of them got washed out, too. If you’re as talented as guys like Joey Logano or Brad Coleman or Bobby Santos appear to be, somebody’s going to give you a shot.

That is, of course, unless the sport falls completely into the trap it seems to be flirting with more and more. That’s this business of giving rides in lower series not to drivers who’re talented, but to drivers whose fathers have more money (and ego) than sense or who’ve managed to find a sponsorship Sugar Daddy to bring with them to the table.

NASCAR rides should be based on a meritocracy. If it ever completely turns into an auction, that’s when people actually should be worried.

* * *

Myth No. 3.

3. The Chase for the Cup is killing the sport. I’ve said it before, but it absolutely amazes me how much some fans love the old Cup championship system now that it’s gone.

Back when I started this job in 1997, fans kept telling me how much they hated that system because it didn’t do enough to reward winning races. How could a driver who wins six races not win the championship when a driver who won just one race did?

Now, though, the old points system is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The Chase hasn’t been the rousing success that chairman Brian France and his minions hoped it would be when it was instituted in 2004. It hasn’t captured the fans’ hearts and, more to the point, it hasn’t done a whole lot to bring more attention to NASCAR in the September-November period each year when it’s competing against a lot of other sports for attention.

But there is not one scintilla of evidence that the sport would not be deeper in a slump from a television ratings or any other perspective if the Chase did not exist. The Chase is not the cause of that “lull,” there are dozens of things that have contributed to that.

But if there had been absolutely no championship drama to the final races of each of the past four NASCAR seasons, who knows how much deeper the dip the sport has suffered might be?

One complaint I keep hearing about the Chase, however, is complete hogwash. That’s this idea that because of the Chase the television networks and media focus too much on the people in the Chase at the expense of teams that don’t make it.

The simple way to defeat that notion is to use basic math. Under the Chase format as it now exists, 12 teams have a legitimate chance to win the championship with 10 races left. Never, ever, under the old system was that possible.

Under the old system, quite often it was down to three or four teams by that point and gradually got down to just two or even one with a few races to go.

As the championship became the sport’s be-all and end-all, those were the teams that got the focus as the season wound down. Now, that focus is diffused to at least 12 teams for the first few Chase races, and as the list of contenders dwindles it’s still broader than it otherwise would have been.

How much more attention did Clint Bowyer get by winning the first Chase race and staying toward the top of the standings in 2007 than he would have earned under the old championship season?

And, before you start, Jeff Gordon didn’t get jobbed out of the 2007 championship. Gordon DID NOT score the most points last season, either. Jimmie Johnson did, under the rules as they exist, and that’s why he got the big check and trophy.

I don’t care what would have happened under the old system, it’s not relevant. It’s like asking what would have happened in the Civil War if the South had access to nuclear weapons.

The New England Patriots won 16 regular-season games this year. But if they don’t win their playoff games, they’re not going to win the championship. That’s the Chase folks. Playoffs happen in every major sport except for college football and tennis.

Are you telling me the BCS mess is a better system? Please! And how’s tennis faring in the sports marketplace these days?

Don’t tell me that NASCAR can’t be compared to stick-and-ball sports. It is compared to those sports every minute of every day in terms of remaining a viable business.

You can’t “fix” what’s wrong with racing by ignoring the business aspects of keeping it alive.

NASCAR has to survive and, it hopes, flourish in the very real world that pits it against the NFL, NBA, baseball and other sports in competition for attention, coverage, television rights fees, advertising dollars and fans. The Chase is a part of NASCAR’s effort to do just that.

* * *

Myth No. 2.

2. The lack of personality among NASCAR drivers is killing the sport. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I get from fans complaining about television networks “wasting time” showing features about drivers and their wives, or their pets, or their hobbies, or their grandparents or anything else that’s not about what happens to them on the race track.

But then, in the same breath, you get this ridiculous idea that drivers in the sport are too bland or how they’re too robotic and scared to death to say anything controversial.

Let’s start with the controversy part. Look, you’re not being paranoid if everybody really is out to get you. Fans yammer about how they want drivers to show a little bit of emotion, but what happens to any driver who dares do that? Fans – and the media, in all honesty – jump on him like white on rice.

Carl Edwards blew his top for 30 seconds at teammate Matt Kenseth after the race at Martinsville last year and all of a sudden Edwards went from the nicest guy in the world to somebody who ought to be next in line for Dr. Phil after he gets through fixing up Brittney Spears.

Ask Tony Stewart how much good it has done him to show his emotions. Ask Kurt Busch. Ask Kyle Busch.

I have people telling me all of the time that NASCAR needs a “villain,” a bad guy that some fans would pull for and others would pull as passionately against. That’s fine, unless you’re that guy.

You live your life getting booed when you walk into restaurants and you’re supposed to smile and wave and act like you love it. You have people who actually stand up and cheer when you wreck, even before they know whether you’re hurt or not.

It’s crazy to ask a guy to endure all of that just for a fan’s amusement. It’s crazy to ask a guy to constantly be in a feud with NASCAR, his sponsor, his car owner and the media just to keep some kind of controversy going. Life’s too short for that.

I know just about everybody in the Cup Series and I promise you there are very few people in this sport who don’t have interesting stories to tell or thought-provoking opinions they’re willing to share. Most of them do work with their own foundations or other types of charities that distinguish them as outstanding human beings.

But that’s not enough. What some fans seem to want is for there to be a fist-fight after every race. Come on, be honest. It’s not about showing “personality,” it’s about showing your tail on national television.

Why do Brittney and Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton virtually have their own cable networks following their missteps? Americans can’t stop watching train wrecks, that’s why.

Some fans want to see somebody in NASCAR run off the tracks every week, and that’s just stupid. What’s wrong with somebody acting like an adult? What’s wrong with someone having a little sportsmanship?

Would it kill NASCAR for someone to actually say: “You know what? There may or may not be other guys in this sport who’re bending the rules, but my team and I have decided that we have too much integrity for that. We’d rather lose fair than win cheating.”

Actually, that’s precisely the kind of personality I think fans would want to get behind.

* * *

Myth No. 1

1. The top-35 rule is killing the sport’s smaller teams. The rule that guarantees the top-35 teams in car owner standings a spot in each week's starting field isn’t killing anything but time on talk shows.

Fans squawk constantly about how they want qualifying to be cut and dried. The fastest 43 cars in each week’s qualifying race on Sunday. That’s it, no provisionals and no nothing. Put it back like it used to be.

Well, it never used to be that the sport’s top teams lacked protection from missing races. Over the sport’s history, that safety net has been called several things. Sponsor exemptions, promoter’s options and provisionals have been used since the beginning of auto racing competition to make sure that the people the fans come to see are there when it’s time to race.

The biggest flaw in this myth is that putting the onus on qualifying would help teams that have less funding and fewer resources. That’s absurd.

The same teams beating their brains out on Sunday would just beat them on Friday. The reason teams aren’t in the top 35 is that their cars don’t run fast enough, and if you make it where the cars that do regularly run faster absolutely have to do that in qualifying, then those better cars are going to win that battle, too.

The last thing NASCAR needs to do to help smaller teams is make them spend more money on qualifying. They need to be spending the money they have on racing better so they can get into the top 35 and be on the other side of the equation.

If you turn qualifying into a money contest the smaller teams are just going to lose that battle, too.

The way it is now, at least those teams are competing to make races with other “go-or-go-home” cars who’re in the same boat, financially and competitively, that they’re in. If, as expected, NASCAR puts all of those cars together in the qualifying order this year it will be more fair than it has been.

If you did away with the top-35 rule, every once in a while a top-tier team would go home because a tire blew or a driver overdid it in a corner and spun out. But what purpose does that serve? Teams lower in the standings don’t get any sort of real, long-term help while the teams that are putting fans in the stands take an occasional kick in gut. How does that help the sport or its fans?

Yes, the teams who don’t make the show have sponsors and the drivers missing the show have fans, too. But if you’re going to have guaranteed spots, you have to draw lines somehow, some way.

I am not in love with 35 as the number of exemptions. I think 25 would be a great number, but I could live with 30, too.

Anyway, if you really want to help the teams with less funding and resources, limit the number of guaranteed spots any one car owner could have to three cars. A Jack Roush or a Rick Hendrick could field 10 cars if he wanted to, but only the three that are highest in owner standings would be guaranteed spots.

But the idea of not having any provisional spots to make sure that the sport’s marquee names race every week is just dumb.

I know that some of you are screaming John Force’s name at me right now. Yes, I know the legendary National Hot Rod Association funny car champion failed to qualify for a race at Las Vegas and went home.

For one thing, drag racers make multiple qualifying runs down the strip. You get more than one chance to be in the top 16 and make the eliminations. If you have a mechanical issue or if a tire goes south, you get a chance to recover from that. The way NASCAR qualifying is set up right now, it’s one shot and you’re done. When Force missed the show at Vegas his team had several chances to get the job done.

But they didn’t and Force didn’t race.

I’ve had people tell me that didn’t hurt the NHRA, and I disagree. I feel confident there were people who came to Vegas for eliminations on Sunday who went home disappointed they didn’t get to see Force race, and I just don’t see where it’s good business practice to disappoint your customers.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

NASCAR media exec on way out and more

It’s here! The official David Poole hodgepodge blog for the final weekend of what passes for a NASCAR offseason on the eve of the first testing at Daytona for a new year kind of thing:

* * *

OK, technically, it would be inaccurate to report that the No. 2 man in NASCAR’s broadcasting division is leaving to go to work for Ricky Bobby. But it is kind of, sort of true.

Dick Glover is leaving as vice president of broadcasting and new media, as of Jan. 15. Glover has been in charge of NASCAR’s Los Angeles office and, in that post, the company’s liaison with Hollywood.

One of the major “accomplishments” (note the quotation marks indicating the loose use of that term) of his tenure was getting NASCAR and stock-car racing mainstream exposure for its co-operation with the movie “Talladega Nights.” The film starred Will Ferrell playing a witless (but, of course, big-hearted) NASCAR driver named Ricky Bobby.

Glover is leaving NASCAR to become chief executive officer of something called Funny of Die Networks. It’s an online site where video content generated by celebrities like Ferrell as well as everyday users is shared.

When I checked it Friday, one of the videos posted near the top of the site showed “Kermit the Frog” pleasuring himself while supposedly watching porn on a computer. Thank goodness for the Internet, huh?

Paul Brooks, the president of the NASCAR media group who is now based in Charlotte, said Glover’s position will be filled but that the structure of what’s based where within the broadcasting operation could be re-assessed as that hire is made.

* * *

Speaking of television, for the millions of you who’ve been wondering when Jeff Gordon was going to get to substitute for Regis Philbin again we have an answer. The four-time Cup champion will be in New York on Jan. 18 to fill-in on “Live! With Regis and Kelly” for an 11th time.

* * *

Brendan Gaughan was scheduled to be in Daytona this week testing the No. 7 Fords in place of driver/owner Robby Gordon, but those plans changed in dramatic fashion on Friday when the Dakar Rally was canceled.

Gordon was to drive in the rally, but with eight stages in the endurance race scheduled to be run in or through the nation of Mauritania, recent terrorist activity and threats of more forced event organizers to call the whole thing off on the eve of its first leg.

* * *

In case you haven’t heard yet, this year’s Daytona 500 will be the 50th running of that event. ESPN Classic will get race fans geared up for that by broadcasting six memorable 500s at 2 p.m. each Monday between now and Speedweeks.

During that period, fans can go to ESPN.com and its NASCAR page to vote for their favorite one of those races. On Feb. 16, the night before this year’s 500, the top five will be counted down, starting at 10 p.m.

The six “nominated” races are:

1976 – David Pearson and Richard Petty wreck on the last lap, with Pearson inching across the finish line in a crashed car to win.

1979 – Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wreck on the final lap, allowing Petty to win and sparking the now famous fight between Yarborough and the Allisons.

1990 – Dale Earnhardt cuts a tire while leading on the final lap, handing a victory to the unlikely Derrike Cope.

1998 – After years of Daytona 500 heartbreak, Earnhardt finally gets a victory in the sport’s biggest race. 1999 – Jeff Gordon wins with a dramatic – and somewhat risky – late race pass.

2007 – Kevin Harvick edges Mark Martin in a photo finish. * * *

Derrick Finley has been hired as technical director at Petty Enterprises. Finley, 36, will oversee the full-time implementation of the new race car for Bobby Labonte’s and Kyle Petty’s teams.

* * *

AMP Energy drink, the new sponsor for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the No. 88 Chevrolets at Hendrick Motorsports, has signed on to be title sponsor for Talladeaga’s fall race. The event will be known as the AMP Energy 500.

Earnhardt Jr. will drive a No. 5 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona as well as in the season-ending race at Homestead with National Guard as the sponsor. Landon Cassill, 18, will drive that car in 19 other races. The team will be fielded by JR Motorsports, the team owned by Earnhardt Jr., in partnership with Hendrick.

* * *

Bill Elliott will drive the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford in all of the events at Daytona’s Speedweeks, but the season’s full lineup is still coming together.

Jon Wood says he’s scheduled to be in the car for races where the U.S. Air Force is the primary sponsor, beginning with Las Vegas. Marcos Ambrose is also scheduled to drive the car in 12 races.

* * *

Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield have swapped car numbers at Haas CNC Racing. Riggs will be in the No. 66 Chevrolets and Mayfield is in the No. 70. The team is working on a sponsorship deal with State Water Heaters for the 66 cars, but that has yet to be finalized.

* * *

Kasey Kahne has submitted a written plea of not guilty to the charge of misdemeanor battery stemming from his Nov. 16 incident with a security guard at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That action means an arraignment scheduled for next week now won’t be necessary.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The end of an era

I accidentally saw history Thursday afternoon.

I was in the Talbert Pointe business park in Mooresville on my way to an interview for a story that'll be in Sunday's Observer. As I came down the hill toward the corner of Talbert Point and Byers Creek roads, I saw a truck with a "cherry picker" parked at the entrance of Robert Yates Racing's former NASCAR shop.

A worker was removing, piece by piece, the sign that had marked the facility as that of the team owned by Robert Yates. By the time I'd finished my business and was leaving the park, the truck and the worker were gone. So was the sign.

The shop isn't empty. Actually, Petty Enterprises is well on its way toward moving its operations from its historic headquarters in Level Cross to occupy that building.

The cars that Yates owned are still scheduled to be around in 2008 as well. With Yates' retirement at the end of the 2007 season, he sold the teams to his son, Doug, and the new Yates Racing team will be based in a shop near the airport in Concord in the Roush Fenway Racing complex.

The Yates family and Jack Roush have been working together on engines for a while now, and Doug Yates is going to work closely with the Roush Fenway team now that he's the car owner.

His father, a man who got his first racing job in 1968 managing the air gauge department at the legendary Holman-Moody racing operation, is now 63 years old. He spent nearly 40 years chasing horsepower, working for legendary teams like Holman-Moody, Junior Johnson and DiGard. He then bought a team from Harry Ranier in 1988 and that became Robert Yates Racing. He won races with Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan, and then battled through Allison's death and critical injuries Irvan suffered in a terrible crash at Michigan.

Yates, whose fascination with engines began when he and his twin brother, Richard (the youngest of nine children) began tinkering with go-karts at their home in Charlotte, also won races with Ricky Rudd and a Winston Cup championship with Dale Jarrett. Even though he's stepped away from the sport now, he's still the absolute embodiment of the term "racer."

Yates certainly deserves to spend less time trying to make a little more power and little more time with his wife, Carolyn, enjoying the fruits of all they've worked for. But it's sad to see him go, and seeing that sign come down reminded me of that.

It also worries me, frankly, to think about where the next generation of the likes of Robert Yates will come from. Yes, Doug was there to take over and keep the family's name in racing. But not every NASCAR team owner has a son who wants to follow him into racing. It costs an incredible amount of money to field a competitive team these days, and the task of getting a start-up team off the ground looks almost impossible at times.

The future is a little frightening, to be honest. Maybe it will all work itself out over time, I guess we'll just have to see about that.

But for this one afternoon, seeing that sign come off the front of the place that Robert had been so proud of when his team first moved there reminded me that we need to appreciate the people who're around when they're around, and not wait until they're all but gone to recognize all they've done.

And not just in racing, either.