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NASCAR Mailbox: The Sport from an Outsider’s Perspective

NASCAR Mailbox: The Sport from an Outsider’s Perspective

The cool thing about having a fairly large staff of writers here at Frontstretch means, though we’re tied together by a passion for auto racing, we come from multiple walks of life.

I’ve been a NASCAR fan longer than probably anything else except really good burritos, but the thing about my chosen industry — the music industry — is that finding fellow NASCAR fans are few and far between. I have a co-worker who likes Jimmie Johnson, and one of our freelancers used to travel out to Pocono Raceway here and there. That’s about it. The rest goes over folks’ heads, which is understandable. You don’t get a lot of NASCAR fans in New York City, especially in my haunts in Brooklyn.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t interested parties. Maybe they’re not intrigued to the point that they’ll actually sit down and watch a race (especially because most of the races are on cable, and I don’t know a co-worker or colleague that has it), but perhaps there’s a burning question about which they’ve always wondered — for instance, why do the cars have giant numbers; you don’t seem like a redneck but I thought only rednecks watched NASCAR; why don’t they turn right; do you pronounce the “Dale” in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the same way as Pitbull says “dale”?

As such, for this week’s NASCAR Mailbox, let’s dive into the world of the uninformed outsider. Many of you write in with questions about the inner workings of the sport — and trust us, that’s good, please keep doing it — but sometimes it’s nice to take a break and look at the questions folks not in on the action have about racing.

Didn’t the guy who won the Nationwide Series championship not even win a race last year? How is that possible? Could that happen this year? -Carolyn

Ha! The classic consistency vs. victories debate.

Yes, the 2013 Nationwide Series champion, Austin Dillon, came out on top without winning a single race. It’s really the only major account of which to speak; most of the time, drivers who win the title win a few races, too. But there are occasional instances of barrenness from victory lane, even if it’s just one win total.

It’s possible because, while drivers get the most points for winning a race, the system rewards what a driver did throughout an entire season in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. Win 10 times and crash out the remaining 20? You’re not beating the guy who didn’t finish outside the top 5 all year but never won a race.

Austin Dillon hoisted the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship trophy, with nary a win. Could the same thing happen this year in the Sprint Cup Series? (Credit: Terry Renna, AP)

Austin Dillon hoisted the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship trophy, with nary a win. Could the same thing happen this year in the Sprint Cup Series? (Credit: Terry Renna, AP)

Where this question gets interesting is the Sprint Cup Series, where winning has been incentivized — but there’s still a flaw in the system with the Chase, starting this year especially. It’s all about beating the rest, and one could barely meet the cutoff point before being eliminated and suddenly blaze by everyone at the final race and win. Think of it sort of like most other sports, where one gets into the playoffs on regular season merits and then finally goes on a tear.

Then again, those sports require winning once you’re in the playoffs whereas NASCAR doesn’t, so never mind. The point is, yes, you can be considered the best without ever finishing first all year. Dillon did it last year, and he probably won’t be the last.

Isn’t NASCAR fun?

Why are there so many NASCAR family dynasty-type things? It seems like the sport with the most family ties between generations. -Chris

NASCAR certainly isn’t the only sport with family matters, but it’s a fairly correct observation — there’s a lot of dynasty-like stuff going on in the sport.

Here’s the thing that makes it more prevalent in NASCAR, which perhaps exposes one of its faults: it’s become less about your ability and more about who you know and what money you can bring to the table. In the past, drivers often made their own name by rising through the ranks and impressing on ability alone. Nowadays, that’s still the case to an extent, but money and power has taken over in some of the lower series especially.

You see drivers with names like Nemechek, Blaney and Wallace these days partially because of their family members — fathers, usually — before them. Not only are these names recognizable by fans because, hey, they really liked that Wallace fellow when he ran full time — they’re also an easier sell for sponsors or for partnerships. Wallace drove for so-and-so major team in the past? Hey, major team, how about giving my son a shot in your car? Or, hey, big-name sponsor. Remember all the good we used to do together? How about catching on with my daughter, the next big thing in NASCAR — probably even better than I ever was!

These drivers gain fans through name recognition and secure funding through the same type of recognition — assuming, of course, they’re not already bankrolled by their parents.

How it differs from other sports is simple: NASCAR is a talent-based sport like baseball or football, but your equipment is also very important, while other sports are often on more of an equal playing field. Your connections get you the top equipment, which helps you outrun the smaller-budget teams, even if you and Joe Schmo trying to claw his way out of the backwoods of Alabama technically have the same amount of talent.

In other words, if you’re an Earnhardt or a Petty, you already have a leg up on your peers. Congratulations.

When I last watched NASCAR, my favorite driver was Ward Burton, even though I had to struggle to figure out what he was saying sometimes. Is anyone in NASCAR still like that? -Alex

Funny you should mention Ward Burton, mostly in relation to the previous question.

Fortunately or unfortunately for TV viewers, depending on your viewpoint, there’s really no one in NASCAR at the moment that’s as quintessentially southern as Burton. He was a benchmark in the past as the type of good ol’ boy that the sport once had in droves, one that you couldn’t always understand due to a thick southern accent but knew one thing for sure: he could drive the wheels off a car.

Burton’s son Jeb is currently a full-time competitor in the Camping World Truck Series. While still unmistakably his father’s son, his accent is nowhere near as thick. That said, one could consider him one of the more southern-sounding drivers in the garage.

Jeb Burton is a next generation driver who's a bit of a throwback to his old man, while Darrell Wallace, Jr. is among a new breed of driver with a style and personality all his own. What does it mean for NASCAR? A host of new talent, personalities, and unique faces as it continues to rebuild a somewhat tarnished brand and image.

Jeb Burton is a next generation driver who’s a bit of a throwback to his old man, while Darrell Wallace, Jr. is among a new breed of driver with a style and personality all his own. What does it mean for NASCAR? A host of new talent, personalities, and unique faces as it continues to rebuild a somewhat tarnished brand and image.

What does that say about NASCAR nowadays? Mostly that it’s become — or at least that’s the perception by many — more watered down, personality-wise. It’s the same thing Jeff Gordon was ridiculed for in the past — he “enunciates,” as Jeff Foxworthy put it — and drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson have followed with more squeaky-clean images — though Larson is pushing the boundaries a bit as a father to be.

You get the critics who say that less of drivers like Ward Burton and more like Jimmie Johnson are what’s helped drive the sport lower in the ratings, that’s for sure. Many miss when drivers felt like guys they could find in their hometown working out of a tiny garage, grabbing a beer at the local bar afterward. That’s why Fox Sports 1′s piece on Norm Benning prior to the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora last week resonated with so many.

If your favorite back in the day was Ward for that reason, chances are this answer isn’t going to get you back into NASCAR. However, I encourage you to check out some of the sport’s lower series, from the Truck Series to some of the smaller divisions — or even your local short track. You’ll get some personalities there, that’s for sure.

About Kevin Rutherford

Kevin Rutherford
An editor for the Frontstretch since 2013, Kevin keeps our writing staff in check while penning a weekly column of his own, Going By The Numbers (Thursdays). He balances his love of cars driving in circles with a similar passion for music, as the news editor of CBS Radio's Radio.com and a former contributing editor at Billboard. A New York City transplant by way of Ohio, Kevin lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée.

4 comments

  1. Austin was second at Iowa (1*), Kentucky (2) and Charlotte (2). He dominated at Iowa and Trevor Bayne passed him at the end.
    *indicates which race it was for the track.

  2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got accused of a hick accent a few years ago. Chase Elliott and Trevor Bayne are Nationwide drivers, but both have a Southern accent, to some degree.

  3. That is, allegedly, one way to look at it: Austin Dillon finished behind all the Cup drivers on “x” number of occasion… Let’s say four… So really, he won four races! At least in his “class.”

    But that begs the question of why they’re racing together at all–why not just have a Nationwide “class” race during the Cup race? It’d be like Grand-Am or ALMS. That might make too much sense, though.

    Better idea, no Cup drivers in Nationwide. Problem solved, and Dillon would be a champion with three or four wins like it’s supposed to be.

  4. Kevin, Even longtime fans wonder how NASCAR crowns a Champion that never finishes better than sixth because he is blocked by Cup drivers in superior equipment. That is a better example of NASCAR absurdity than consistency. You know what I have in common with the last several NW Champions? None of us ever came close to winning a race.