The hours that follow the finish of every NASCAR Cup Series event have become a curiously enticing time for me. Kind of like watching my next-door neighbor cut the grass in his tank top t-shirt throughout the hot summer months. I know it’s coming every Sunday. I know it’s going to be ugly. I know it’s going to leave a mark. Yet I can’t look away.
I always know the race is over whenever I hear him fire up his Briggs & Stratton. At that same instant, my Twitter timeline also cranks to life. When he inevitably pushes his mower over that same dry patch of gravel, the grinding racket it creates is the auditory equivalent to what I read on my timeline.
I want to tell him the same thing I want to tell the Tweeters. Dude, no matter how much you wish there to be grass right there on that spot, it’s never happening. And I want to Tweet, Dudes and Dudettes, no matter how much you wish this stuff you’re demanding to start happening in NASCAR, they aren’t happening, either.
What am I talking about? I’ll give you the most oft-heard complaints. But because I care about all you, I’m not going to merely drop harsh truths on you like rocks flying off a mower blade. I’m also gonna give you alternatives with which to ease your pain. Like the time I handed my neighbor a bottle of Solarcaine for his shoulders.
1. Sorry, but debris cautions aren’t going away
I’m not going to debate whether Race Control might occasionally see something on the racing surface at times when said foreign object might erase a brutally-large margin of victory.
Heck, there have been more than a few races I’ve covered when I’ve contemplated pulling a Jimmy Spencer and winging a glove onto the track myself. On Monday, NASCAR issued a lengthy explanation of how, why and when those cautions are thrown. Full disclosure: I worked for NASCAR’s television production division when we were in the process of designing the exhaustive video system used to provide blanket coverage of every track. Short of mounting 10,000 Go Pros to every inch of every retaining wall, there’s not a more thorough way to go about it. But anyone who thinks that this is some sort of new trend that will one day go away or that every caution thrown will come with indisputable video evidence of the troublesome trinket in Turn 1 is kidding themselves. And that includes Tony Stewart.
Alternative to embrace: Did I mention all those races I covered in the ’90s with margins of victory larger than the running time of “Batman vs. Superman?” Trust me when I say late race restarts are better.
2. Sorry, but the Chase/Playoff/Whatever you want to call the championship format, isn’t going away, either
NASCAR’s postseason was introduced in 2004. Yeah, that’s right, this is the 14th edition coming up in September. Has the format been messed with too much? Yes. But if you’re waiting for the day when NASCAR will return to a “traditional” season-long championship format, you might as well be waiting for the NFL to rename the Vince Lombardi Trophy the Rex Ryan Trophy. It ain’t happening.
Alternative to embrace: Remember all those races I had to cover with the double-digit margins of victory that were over with 20 laps to go? They were nothing compared to the points races I had to cover with triple-digit margins of victory that were over with five races to go. Instead of stressing over the fact that the Homestead finale is a toss-up, how about appreciating the fact that the race even matters. Back in the day I spent more meaningless November weekends in Atlanta than a Falcons fan.
3. Sorry, but aero-matching or pack racing or any of that is gone …
… because ultimately, it’s called parity. Level-the-field rules, sleeker cars, across-the-board engineering geniuses, nearly-indestructible equipment, and a deep, deep field of talented drivers means that fields are going to be tighter and passing will be harder. No amount of aero-tinkering is going to fix that.
Alternative to embrace: Again, please don’t make me go back to covering races with three cars on the lead lap. Why? To have five more passes?
4. Toyota isn’t going away, either
Yes, I still receive “I can’t pull for Toyota because it’s foreign” comments.
Alternative to embrace: The Camry is now the most “Made in the USA” car on the road. You ever been to Georgetown, Kentucky, or Lafayette, Indiana? Your Camry has.
5. Sorry, TV ratings and attendance are never going back to 2003
And, oh by the way, neither are sponsorship dollars. This isn’t just a NASCAR problem or even a motorsports problem. The makeup of how sports do business and how they are broadcast is changing everywhere. Trust me on this. I’m a magazine writer. So, hoping that one day a sales guy is going to come up with a plan and 120,000 fans are going to reappear at Charlotte Motor Speedway … that’s not a wise use of one’s wishes.
Alternative to embrace: Have you tried taking all the stuff that’s been devised to lure fans back to racing — race broadcasts on mobile devices, timing & scoring apps, streaming team radio communication, selective on-board camera access, satellite radio team channels, etc. — and fired them all up at once? It’s crazy immersive. For a guy like me who grew up with only the top five car numbers displayed on an old scoreboard over Turns 3 and 4, it’s mind-boggling.
6. Sorry, but qualifying is never going back to being a big-ticket item
I am a huge fan of elimination-style qualifying. Just about the time I forget that, we have single-car runs at a plate track to remind me how much I don’t miss that. But even with that, the days of 40,000 people showing up on a Thursday night or Friday afternoon to watch time trials, those are long gone.
Alternative to embrace: Give props to the racetracks who have moved qualifying and added more umph to a Saturday ticket. Let’s hope that’s a step toward two-day shows as Fridays are becoming a waste of time and money.
7. Sorry, but North Wilkesboro Speedway isn’t returning to the schedule
Hey, I loved — still love — the place, too. I’ve written numerous columns and TV pieces about it (http://www.espn.com/racing/nascar/story/_/id/12647648/twenty-years-seems-life-ago-nascar). But the people who still cling to the notion of a NASCAR national series event returning to the land of Junior Johnson might as well be hoping for the return of rotary telephones. Lost to the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia is the fact that the place was already falling apart when it hosted its final Cup race in 1996. The track itself was awesome. The dried-up toilets and the nails sticking out of the wooden grandstands were not. Not so long ago they brought late models back to North Wilkesboro and no one showed up. Down the road at Rockingham, fans did show up for the first Truck Series comeback race but failed to return for the races that followed.
Alternative to embrace: Martinsville Speedway is less than two hours north of Wilkesboro, located in the same moonshine-soaked foothills and raced on by the same moonshine-marinated NASCAR pioneers. The old bullring still hosts two Cup races and if half the people who scream to bring back North Wilkesboro would buy a ticket to Martinsville, it would easily prevent the latter from joining the former on the extinction list. And hey, the toilets and grandstands work just fine.
8. Sorry, but they’re never going to race back to the yellow flag ever again
We can all agree that the Dover backstretch caution line earlier the month was a letdown. But it also exposed how quickly fans have forgotten the days when races ending under caution were as regular as rain at Pocono. Anyone who reacted by demanding that we bring back the days of racing back to the yellow flag has also forgotten the time that old way of doing things nearly killed a helpless Dale Jarrett at New Hampshire.
Alternative to embrace: Even the worst-case scenario now — what we had at Dover — is lightyears better than what used to be the worst case. Now we remember Dale Earnhardt winning Daytona in 1998 and Richard Petty edging out Cale Yarborough for his 200th win. But at the time we were all mad because those races ended under caution. And let’s not forget why we have that caution line now … to avoid having the stupidest postrace ever, in the Talladega Chase cutoff race two years ago.
9. Sorry, but Dale Earnhardt isn’t coming back
Earnhardt is gone. Bringing him back would require an ability to turn back the hands of time that we have yet to achieve (though I think Allen Bestwick might have it solved and just hasn’t shared it with the rest of us). I get it. I miss him, too, and as a Richard Petty fan I hated him. But if he was still with us, he wouldn’t still be racing. He’d either be sitting atop a pit box doing postrace interviews or in the woods looking for deer to shoot. The day we lost him was the worst day in NASCAR history. But it was also more than a decade and half ago. Every time I hear from someone who says they no longer watch because he’s gone I always respond the same way. “That’s a shame. I don’t think he’d like to hear that.”
Alternative to embrace: A big part of the thrill of watching Earnhardt race was knowing that he was always in the hunt to rewrite NASCAR records. Thus, my disdain for him as he marched toward tying Richard Petty’s record of seven Cup titles and my booing of him from the Rockingham grandstands as he did just that. But in the end seeing history was worth being there. When I tell people about that day, it blows their minds that I was a witness. Hey, you know there’s a guy out there right now, writing stock car history nearly monthly. I’m not saying you are required to love Jimmie Johnson. But you might want to take a moment to pause and appreciate seeing him at the top of his game. One day you can tell someone you witnessed one of the all-time greats. If Dale Earnhardt was here he’d sure be appreciating it.
10. Sorry, but also on the not coming back list: Yarborough, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, or Carl Edwards (ok, maybe Edwards)
On the eve of Jeff Gordon’s would-be final Cup Series start he said to me, “It’s funny, isn’t it? I used to be the young guy who was ruining the sport. Now I’m the connection to the good old days. And all I did was get old and hang around.” It’s forgotten now, but Stewart, Edwards, Wallace and even Martin all spent time in their careers labeled as young punks. But as their careers rolled on, they became appreciated for their blue-collar backgrounds, work ethics and short-track roots. To hear many, that kind of career path has been lost to the history books. And even if they were handed some advantages (see: Dale Earnhardt Jr.) they “had so much more personality and were so much more bad ass than today’s drivers!”
Alternative to embrace: That last frequent observation is totally wrong. There is plenty of personality in the Cup garage and pounds of red clay dirt to be found under the fingernails of today’s younger generation of stars. The sanctioning body needs to do a better job of promoting it. Kyle Busch is a mechanical genius with an edge every bit as hard and a vocabulary every bit as bleep-filled as Rusty Wallace. Kyle Larson is a legit dirt stud who won a short track race one night and at Michigan International Speedway a few days later, dedicating it all to his late friend Bryan Clauson. Not a bad kind of poster boy to be. Brad Keselowski is a one-track mind racer who cut his teeth in the Midwest like Martin and takes no crap, just like Martin. And if you don’t think Ryan Blaney, who just won his first Cup race, or Bubba Darrell Wallace Jr., who just sat in Richard Petty’s ride, don’t have enough personality, you must not use any form of social media.
Or perhaps you just don’t know how to recognize fun. Because the reality is that there is plenty of fun to be had in today’s NASCAR world. You just aren’t ever going to see it if the only place you ever look is in the rearview mirror.