Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Busch was right to speak his mind

I expected there would be a little bit of blowback against Kyle Busch for what he said when he got out of his race-winning car Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, and we’re certainly hearing it.

Busch won the Food City 500 and then basically used victory lane as a platform to tell everybody the car of tomorrow – and this is the word he chose – "sucked."

He called the new car a "thing" about 20 different ways and said it was "terrible" and no fun to drive. Now keep in mind he did most of this as he was being interviewed as the winner just before they handed him the big trophy.

I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised when one reporter asked a NASCAR official if Busch’s use of "sucked" might draw him any kind of penalty for using bad language on television. As unpleasant as you might think that term is, it’s not a word the Federal Communications Commission has among those that can get television networks fined when someone uses them.

Every time someone says "hell" or "damn" in a postrace interview now, I get 20 or more e-mails asking me why that guy doesn’t get fined the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. did for his use of another four-letter word after a win at Talladega a couple of years ago.

You will note that I didn’t write the word Earnhardt Jr. used, and that should tell you something right there. It’s a word that, right or wrong, is considered "wrong" beyond whatever limit might be drawn on language that’s fair game in public discourse.

You might consider "hell" or "damm" or even "sucked" just as bad, but the people drawing the lines on such things don’t. When it comes to television, that line is drawn specifically by the FCC. The reason Earnhardt Jr. got penalized is that the word he used is considered obscene by the FCC and that put the network carrying that race – along with the stations that aired the broadcast – at risk of being fined. NASCAR penalized Earnhardt Jr. to stop others from putting the TV guys in that predicament again.

It’s not NASCAR’s rule that the Earnhardt Jr. word is worth a points deduction and these other words aren’t. It’s the government’s. The blowback that I expected and am hearing for Kyle Busch regards the attitude his words represent.

Some fans feel that Busch gets paid pretty well to put up with the challenges of driving whatever race car they strap him into and that he should just shut up and drive it. Others feel that, at the very least, Busch’s remarks could have been saved for later instead of being part of his initial reaction after a victory.

I reject the first reaction. Busch and the rest of the drivers in NASCAR’s top series have not only the right but the responsibility to be honest with the fans about what they believe. There’s nothing worse than a guy who’s being an obvious shill for NASCAR because he believes sucking up will help him down the road. Fans see right through that. Some drivers go too far in complaining about virtually everything NASCAR does (some of us in the media are guilty of that, too), but no driver should be expected to swallow his tongue before giving what might be considered a "negative" response.

On the other hand, maybe Busch could have tempered his initial remarks to some degree. "We still have a lot of work to do on this new car," which is one of the things Busch said, sounds a lot better than saying "this thing sucks." And maybe victory lane isn’t the place to proclaim your verdict on a car you’ve just raced for the first time.

This new car that NASCAR debuted last weekend isn’t the one these drivers are used to. Until they’ve raced it a few times, they won’t know what "good" is in terms of how this car handles. All they know now is that it almost universally was felt not to be as "good" as the old car, which is the only car most of these guys have ever raced in at this level.

But as soon as the Bristol race was over, everybody wanted drivers to "grade" the car of tomorrow project. Some guys, including the race winner, elected to do so. I think it’s awfully hard to be too critical of a guy for simply giving you an honest answer to your question, no matter how bad the question might be.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

We now venture into dangerous waters

I come today to say that NASCAR isn’t always wrong. Nor is it necessarily corrupt.

This, of course, means that I have been forced to drink the Kool-Aid. Or paid to walk over to the dark side. Or threatened to have my garage pass revoked if I don’t toe the line.

It can’t be that I am giving you an honest opinion.

Nobody’s allowed to do that these days, in a world where the truthful definition of “fair and balanced” is anything but that and where people are no longer allowed to respectfully disagree.

You’re either for us or you’re the enemy. That’s that.

But what the heck, I am stupid enough to try this anyway.

We’ll start with “debris cautions.” Late last year, after a race at Atlanta in fact, I wrote a column in which I said NASCAR is damaging its credibility by throwing caution flags for suspect reasons. I have not changed that opinion, at all, but after last Sunday’s race at Atlanta I also feel it’s important to point out that not every caution flag should automatically be considered suspect.

Just because a television broadcast doesn’t follow the safety truck around the track to show workers picking up debris, that doesn’t necessarily mean there was no debris there. I’m convinced some fans wouldn’t be satisfied unless the safety truck brought a piece of debris to the “Hollywood Hotel” so the experts there can offer their analysis of what the debris actually is.

You have to remember that NASCAR has to make decisions in real time. If something is on the track in the racing groove, officials have to decide if it constitutes a hazard. It might be a harmless piece of plastic, or it might be metal with a razor-like edge on it. If there’s any doubt, the yellow has to come out.

My main criticism of NASCAR, then and now, is the double-standard they seem to apply. In my opinion, the right thing to do is to throw the yellow when there’s any doubt that the track is unsafe for racing. But that should be done 10 laps into a race or with 10 laps to go – with no difference in how quickly the decision comes. I still maintain it was absolutely ridiculous that no yellow was thrown on the final lap of this year’s Daytona 500 until after Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin crossed the finish line.

It’s a problem for NASCAR that fans assume a late-race caution is bogus until they’re convinced otherwise. That’s the credibility issue I keep harping on, and one day I hope NASCAR realizes it’s a problem it needs to go work on.

That notwithstanding, however, it’s absurd to believe that NASCAR throws a caution with 20 laps to go in an attempt to manipulate the finish of a race in any particular way. The late-race caution at Atlanta was not an effort to hand Jimmie Johnson a victory, no matter how convinced you are that’s what happened. Sorry, but that’s just now how the sane world works.

We move on.

NASCAR got sued last Friday by AT&T, and Brian France had a pretty good line about it on “The Morning Drive” radio show on Sirius NASCAR Radio the other day. He said it’s flattering, in a way, to have companies suing for the right to stay in the sport.

The deal is that Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Chevrolets have been sponsored by Cingular. But Cingular, as a brand name, is going bye-bye. Cingular has merged with AT&T and the new company wants to put its logos on Burton’s car. NASCAR, however, says no because changing the brand would violate the terms of a grandfather clause in its agreement with Sprint Nextel.

The easy stance to take here would be to say Nextel should take a chill pill and let AT&T do what it wants to do. But how is that fair to Nextel? They’re paying $70 million a year for 10 years to be the title sponsor of Nextel Cup, and part of what they were supposed to get in that deal is exclusivity in the wireless sector.

Remember when Winston was the title sponsor? How close to a NASCAR garage did Marlboro ever get? That was being “loyal” to the title sponsor. How come Nextel doesn’t get that same “loyalty?”

Nextel allowed Cingular and Alltel to stay in the sport as long as they stayed where they were – they couldn’t move to another car or change from an associate to a primary if that had been a possibility. But one of the things Nextel was “getting” for its $70 million was the right NOT to have AT&T and Verizon and other competitors come into the sport and counter its involvement with sponsorships of their own.

I’ve got nothing in the world against Richard Childress Racing and Jeff Burton’s team – in fact, I know as many guys on Burton’s team as I do any other team in the garage. It stinks that this Cinuglar-AT&T merger puts their sponsorship deal in peril, and if there’s a way it can be worked out so everybody’s happy, that would be great.

But if can’t, I think NASCAR is right to take Nextel’s side on this one.

I hope you don’t think that makes me one of “them."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

NASCAR is right to guarantee spots

I know fans really get tired of having sportswriters tell them what’s good for them when it comes to their favorite sport, but here goes.

A lot of NASCAR fans think they would like to see the rules changed so that the fastest 43 cars make each week’s Nextel Cup race. That’s it. You go fast enough, you’re in. No provisionals, no safety net, no nothing. A strict meritocracy.

Sorry, but that really is not what you want. Not at all.

I am not saying the current rules are perfect.

Guaranteeing the top 35 in the standings a spot in each week’s race does put an extreme onus on the “have nots” who have to race their way in for the other seven or eight spots each week.

For a long time, I’ve thought that number ought to be cut back to the top 25, but I don’t think that’s the right answer, either. I know fans will hate to hear this, but 25 isn’t enough for the very reason that you need 35 to start with.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There are really two reasons you need guaranteed spots in the first place, no matter how you do that. The first one is obvious. If what happened to A.J. Allmendinger in qualifying Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway – his car started missing and he didn’t complete a lap – happens to Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart, there has to be a way for Earnhardt Jr. or Stewart to be in the race.

You can say what you want to, but NASCAR needs its biggest stars racing each weekend.
Stewart and Allmendinger should be treated equally in almost every way by NASCAR, but until Allmendinger has at least made a race or two you can’t say he brings as many people to the track as Stewart does. Stewart’s fans buy tickets and make travel plans expecting to see their guy race, and he needs to race even if something screwy happens to his car in qualifying.

You could at least partially accomplish that the “old” way, by putting the top 36 cars in the race based on speed and then assigning provisionals from the top of the points standings down.

But the top 35 guarantee makes more sense because it more likely ensures the top teams will be in the race each week even if early in a given season they’ve had bad luck and find themselves well back in the pack. Kasey Kahne, for example, is 36th in the current standings, and he needs to be racing on Sundays.

The real reason that NASCAR is right to guarantee spots for a certain number of its teams, though, has more to do with the teams and the sponsors than it does the drivers.

If an owner and a sponsor are willing to commit to racing every week, there should be some benefit in that, some advantage. It’s certainly true that some full-season teams and sponsors are being sent home now, but the only way to prevent that is to guarantee any full-time team a starting spot even if that means expanding starting fields beyond 43 cars.

I think that goes too far. The NASCAR garage shouldn’t be a closed shop, with only those willing and capable to run 36 races having any shot to compete. There has to be room for new teams, for teams with partial schedule plans to get their feet wet in the big pond.

Going to 25 exempt teams, though, goes too far I think. That comes off as another case of the rich getting richer, the haves getting more than the have nots. The top 25 teams are almost always going to be the ones with the most resources, and therefore the ones likely to get the most exposure that keeps that kind of support coming.

The real benefit of the current system falls on those teams that are 26th through 35th in the standings, I think. These are the guys who don’t get into the top 10 all that often, who don’t get the maximum television exposure. But if they go into a season knowing they’re going to make the first five races, they know they have a chance of staying in the exempt group and that makes them more appealing to sponsors.

What about new teams? Well, shouldn’t it be at least a little bit harder for somebody new to come in and take away a spot from a team that has been part of the sport? Shouldn’t there be at least some hurdle for new teams to clear?

It might be fair to argue that the current hurdle is too high to clear. Is it too easy for teams to stay in the top 35 and too hard for anybody to ever fight its way in? If more spots were available through qualifying, wouldn’t that give new teams a more equitable chance of carving out its place in the sport?

If you’re going to change anything, I’ve about decided that what you should do is guarantee the top 30 in points starting spots in the races. That allows at least 12 teams to make the race on speed. Maybe you could make that 13 by going ahead and starting 44 cars – there’s really no good reason not to fill out that last row with one more car.

But that’s as far as I am willing to go.

Friday, March 09, 2007

NASCAR's process needs inspection

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

You wouldn’t expect, for example, there to be much of an issue when it comes to how cars are inspected before a NASCAR race – at least in terms of who goes where in the inspection line.
But early in this Nextel Cup season, that has emerged as a very big deal.

At California Speedway two weeks ago, there were 51 cars attempting to make the 43-car field. That meant eight teams went home early, so qualifying was a big deal for that race.

But before practice that Friday, inspections took so long that several of the guys who needed to race their way into the field on speed didn’t have an opportunity for their cars to pass through the inspection line even once before practice began.

In a 90-minute practice session, some teams were as much as an hour late in getting on track – through absolutely no fault of their own. And that’s wrong.

NASCAR has to put itself in position to give every team entered in an event at least one chance to clear inspection before any car goes on the track. Whether that means setting up two inspection lines and adding more staff or some other option, it’s on NASCAR to have the personnel present to give everyone a fair shot.

Now if a team’s car gets kicked out of line for having something wrong, that’s different. But if I’ve got a car that’s ready for inspection at the proper time and that has everything on it that is in compliance with the rules, there’s no way I should be penalized by losing practice time because of a backlog in NASCAR’s inspection process.

Teams go through inspection in the order of their standing in the points, and some might argue that’s backward. The top 35 already have the advantage of having a guaranteed starting slot, why give them the advantage of having the best chance at getting a full practice in, too? Why not invert the field and inspect the guys at the low end of the totem pole first? Or, even, have a lottery to determine inspection order the same way they do now to select qualifying order?

Those ideas offer interesting debate topics, but the point is that it should not matter what order the cars are inspected in. There shouldn’t be any advantage, one way or another. If you go from first to last, last to first or at random, the only fair way to do it at all is to have things set up such that everybody gets a fair shot at being on the track the same amount of time for practice sessions.

As long as a team shows up on time to present its car for inspection and as long as that car is in compliance with the rules, it should never miss a minute of on-track time because NASCAR can’t get it inspected before it’s time to start practice.