So, Chase naysayers: Are you happy now?
If not, then just end your illusion of any allegiance to NASCAR. Just come clean: You’re not a NASCAR fan anymore.
Because if you didn’t find the AAA Texas 500 even the slightest bit entertaining, then you should just move on. Pass Go, collect $200 and move to your latest sport du jour or continue to long for the “glory days” that had no more glory than what was on track Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
I’m far from a NASCAR apologist, as there are times I think reading toaster oven wiring manuals is more exciting than watching a Sprint Cup race. But this season has been solid, and no race has featured more drama, excitement and over-the-top entertainment than Sunday at Texas.
Let’s start recapping the plot lines. I bet we’ll need to move to a second hand to get a complete count.
One, Denny Hamlin uses a great inside-out move on Matt Kenseth to win the race. Denny could have sat back in second and taken the safe route, knowing he still would have left Fort Worth with the points lead. But Denny did what champions are supposed to do: Drove his ass off for a victory. (It’s a shame that NASCAR doesn’t reward winning drives like this with more points, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Two, Jimmie Johnson is out of the points lead with just two races remaining. Johnson entered the race 14 points ahead in his Drive for Five, yet he left Texas 33 points behind Hamlin, in second, after finishing ninth. Kevin Harvick remains third, 59 points out of the lead, in the closest three-man race this late in the Chase since the format started in 2004.
Three, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, benched his pit crew mid-race for poor performance, orchestrating a swap with teammate Jeff Gordon’s pit crew. It was about as stinging as a public rebuke can be, but it’s not surprising considering Knaus’ Texas-sized ego. Plus even though Knaus never has met a mirror or the pronoun “I” that he didn’t like, look at the man’s record: He delivers. Johnson didn’t seem that torn up about the divorce from his pit crew after the race.
Four, smack talk by Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford. He said the mid-race Hendrick crew swap could be the tipping point toward Denny ending Jimmie’s run of four consecutive Sprint Cup titles. Brash, bold talk — you’ve got to love it.
Five, Gordon’s crew was available because Jeff Burton inexplicably took out Gordon, precipitating the Backstretch Bash. The Driver formerly known as Boy Wonder stomped toward Burton on the backstretch, gave him a strong two-handed shove and started to throw punches before being restrained by NASCAR officials.
It wasn’t exactly Cale vs. Donnie and Bobby on the backstretch at Daytona in 1979, but it was quite compelling. And because the combatants were Gordon and Burton, two of the more sage, even-tempered elder statesmen in the NASCAR garage, you know it was real.
Six, Kyle Busch was at it again. Busch was caught speeding while trying to exit pit road in time to stay on the lead lap, so NASCAR brought him to the pits for a stop-and-go penalty. While sitting in his car and serving his time, Busch flipped the Bronx Cheer to the NASCAR official standing watch in front of his hood.
Busch apologized, but punk behavior is becoming much too common from Rowdy. It’s colorful, but it’s also getting predictably old. It’s also pretty odd that an organization with such tightly woven moral fabric as Joe Gibbs Racing can put up with it. But Busch wins, and that keeps sponsors.
So, there you have it. Six reasons — on to the second hand — why the AAA Texas 500 was the Sprint Cup race of the year so far. But will it make a difference in lifting the sagging TV ratings and interest in the series down the Chase stretch run?
Marty Smith of ESPN thinks it might. Marty goes as far as saying this race could be looked upon as a turning point, much like the 1979 Daytona 500, which featured the Turn 3 fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie and Bobby Allison on live TV, launching NASCAR into the national consciousness.
I think that’s a BIG stretch by Marty.
NASCAR was a regional, niche sport in 1979. It certainly didn’t suffer from overexposure, which is one of the valid criticisms of the sport today. I don’t think there’s a soul alive today with a beating sporting heart who hasn’t either heard about NASCAR or hasn’t caught at least part of a race on TV during their lifetime, so I don’t know if the Gordon-Burton fight is going to make that much of a difference.
Another one of the criticisms of NASCAR is that it’s just too WWE. Too much staged show business. While there was nothing hokey or artificial about the Gordon-Burton scrap Sunday, those who only have a peripheral knowledge of the sport and its cast of characters probably will think the fight was just more P.T. Barnum hokum designed to put air into NASCAR’s limp sails.
Finally, all of the drama created by the intriguing things that happened on the track Sunday — Hamlin’s aggressive, inside-out move for the win and Knaus’ crew chief swap — will sail right over the heads of the non-racing fan and the so-called fan who has jumped off the NASCAR bandwagon.
Most of the new NASCAR fans during the boom jumped on the sport when it became white-hot after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Don’t fool yourself: The nationwide outpouring of grief to The Intimidator’s death catapulted NASCAR to mainstream media rock stardom more than anything else.
Those new fans never got too steeped into the intricacies of the sport. They just rode the wave of what was hot and since have left NASCAR and latched on the latest fad, such as MMA, or returned to the NFL. They’re not coming back to NASCAR because Denny Hamlin drove his attachments off or because Jeff Gordon shoved and threw a punch at Jeff Burton.
But if you have even a drop of gasoline in your veins, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is compelling as hell right now. If you’re skipping it, it’s your loss. Sure, there are reasons why some don’t pay attention. But there are more reasons why they should. Bring on Phoenix this weekend!
The Formula One points race remains tight with just one race to go, as Fernando Alonso leads Mark Webber by just eight points heading into the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this Sunday. Webber’s teammate, Sebastian Vettel, led the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday from the first corner for victory, with Webber second and Alonso third.
Red Bull clinched its first Constructors Title with the 1-2 finish, but let’s face it — only the teams give a toss about that crown. And it’s somewhat obvious that Red Bull doesn’t care too much about the drivers’ championship or at least would rather have Teutonic favored son Vettel win instead of Webber. Otherwise, as Joe Saward argues, why wouldn’t the team have “stumbled” on Vettel’s pit stop to let Webber take the win and maximum points as he tries to overhaul Alonso?
Team orders are illegal in F1, but any belief they don’t exist anymore is about as naive as believing a promise of spending cuts by an American politician. Vettel is 15 points behind Alonso, Webber eight. But Red Bull wants Vettel to win the title — that’s about as obvious as the frost between Brett Favre and coach Brad Childress in Minnesota.
Perhaps the most alarming development last weekend in Sao Paulo didn’t take place at the Interlagos circuit. The car driving 2009 World Champion Jenson Button from the circuit was held up by armed assailants. Thankfully, the car was armor-plated with bulletproof glass and wheeled by a driver with evasive police driving techniques. The driver bounced off a few cars to escape, with Button, his trainer and father unharmed.
Still, it was one of many incidents over the years at Interlagos, which is in a bad section of crime-ridden Sao Paulo. For example, Sauber engineers were robbed of their backpacks exiting the track one night last weekend. At what point does F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone consider leaving Interlagos, which is a dump of a facility, by the way, for a safer area or leaving Brazil entirely?
Don’t count on it. When interviewed on the grid Sunday by SPEED’s Will Buxton, Bernie denied the assailants had guns and instead claimed they were trying to sell a hat or get a hat autographed. Interesting universe in which Mr. E resides, no doubt.
MotoGP ended its season with an exciting Grand Prix of Valencia, won by 2010 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. Casey Stoner finished second in his last ride for Ducati, and Valentino Rossi finished third in his last dance with Yamaha. Julian Ryder gives his usual superb rundown of Race Day at Valencia at Superbike Planet.
Finally, the good news continues for injured USAC standout Shane Hmiel. He moved his legs Saturday in a Charlotte hospital for the first time since his accident in a Silver Crown car in early October at Terre Haute. Hmiel also is talking, and one of the phrases he said are the best four words you could hear: “I can do this.”
You certainly can, Shane. We’re all pulling for you and praying for you.