Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Emotional Win for Denny Hamlin Overshadows Clouds of NASCAR’s Perfect Storm

There are some days that are just meant to be.

Those oh-so-rare days when you are the best, you know you’re the best, and more importantly, so does everyone else. The sort of days when everything falls into place, right at the exact time you need it.

Monday was just such a day for Denny Hamlin… and then some.

Driving with a hugely heavy heart following the death of both his beloved grandmother just a few days earlier and his tire specialist’s mother a couple weeks ago, Hamlin made the most of a great car to dominate the Pennsylvania 500, snapping a 50-race winless streak that dated back to the spring race at Martinsville in 2008.

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“It’s emotional,” Hamlin said. “We had a dominant car with two heavy souls in our racecar today. I said in my mind that I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than a win. With every corner I went in, that was 120%.”

Not everyone will be happy for the driver of the FedEx Camry, though, who led six times for 91 laps at the 2.5-mile triangular circuit. Among those were de facto teammates Marcos Ambrose and David Reutimann, essentially taken out by an impatient Hamlin on his way to the front. “I was definitely driving aggressive out there, trying to do everything I could to get a win for them,” said the Chesterfield, Va. native post-race.

For Reutimann in particular, it was a bitter pill to swallow. While not eliminated from Chase contention by any stretch, the driver of the No. 00 is slipping further away from the Valhalla of the Chase field with each passing week.

Sometimes, though, it’s just your time. “Definitely had some angels with us today,” Hamlin said afterward, part of a post-race pattern where he savored the moment while grieving the past all in one.

But the emotional win and an unexpectedly exciting race (especially the final 30-some laps) aside, nothing can mask the reality of the situation that NASCAR is facing for the remainder of 2009.

In fact, with the way things are going, NASCAR is headed right for a “Perfect Storm,” and by perfect I don’t mean good – not in any sense of the word.

To quote Wikipedia, a perfect storm refers to “the simultaneous occurrence of weather events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination.” And whichever way you slice it, I can’t help but feel the course on which the sport seems to have inexorably plotted in 2009 is headed right into the heart of just such a weather system.

So what am I basing my evidence on for NASCAR’s parlous situation, and why do I think our beloved sport is headed for a very sticky situation? Let’s dispense with the obvious stuff right away:

  • Significant decreases in at-track attendance, whatever the published figures say to the contrary.
  • Corresponding double digit percentage decreases in TV viewership.
  • Tickets for the Bristol night race actually on sale.
  • At times less than scintillating on-track product, especially at aero-dependent tracks.
  • No testing, tiny “box” in which to play, plus a beast of a car makes it tough to improve.

Back to Wikipedia once more, and the term Perfect Storm: “Such occurrences are rare by their very nature, so that even a slight change in any one event contributing to the perfect storm would lessen its overall impact.”

But the trouble for NASCAR is it’s got a couple other significant “weather elements” brewing. And we’ll start with 17-year, 463-race veteran Jeremy Mayfield and his “drug-test failing” shenanigans. Actually, I won’t. I don’t mean that flippantly, as this story can only end badly for both parties; I’m just fed up of reading about yet more developments, accusations, counter-accusations and the like. I’d far rather read about the on-track stuff. Far rather.

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It’s interesting to note, too, the big scandal of last year, namely Mauricia Grant. That incident was quietly dealt with in the offseason; by now, the top brass at Daytona Beach HQ must be wishing the same could be true of Mayfield. Fat chance. This one’s going to run longer than an ultra-marathoner in training.

Two other big issues spring immediately to mind that makes the picture yet more murky. One: the Most Popular Driver won’t make the Chase. In fact, he won’t even be close. And two: the maverick wild child and big opponent of aforementioned most popular driver is also in danger of missing the Chase. Their collective absences from the big dance would be a factor, in terms of attendance at the track and also TV viewership.

Assuming that worst-case scenario, let’s project forward to the Chase itself: We’ll start with ol’ three-time himself, Jimmie Johnson. Well folks, for those hoping for a changing of the top table and not just the venue come banquet time, Jimmie’s already looking scary fast and the serious business is still five races away. And when he can rally from three laps down to finish 13th, it’s even more frightening. Is there anyone else in the sport who could have done that? Doubtful.

The truth is, despite Johnson’s brilliance, a fourth consecutive championship, however unprecedented and unheralded, is just what NASCAR doesn’t need. The sport needs a new face (not just a new location) at the top table in Vegas come November.

For the past year and a half that I’ve written for Frontstretch, I hope you’d agree that I’ve tended to look on the positive side of things. I’ve always been a glass half-full type and it’s probably not rude to say I’m a lot less jaded than some when it comes to cars going fast in circles. I’d rather not have deviated from my usual fare but the off-week prior to Indy, combined with an unusually ridiculous schedule, gave me less time to focus on NASCAR than normal.

I’d like to think that this temporary hiatus, if you will, was the simple cause of my pessimism; but it’s hard to doubt the mounting evidence.

So, what can be done? Well Matt McLaughlin had some good ideas last week, especially for the “boring middle bit.” The problem is knee-jerk solutions are almost always just that. In other words, they fix the symptoms and not the root cause.

In many ways, NASCAR is at a crossroads. Big sponsors are leaving the sport. Teams are contracting at a rapid rate. The only way to survive is to be a mega-team of three cars or more. The haves keep getting while the have-nots are repeatedly crushed into the dirt.

So, what’s the solution? I don’t know, but one place it could come is on the track, and while there’s hope it’s not all doom and gloom quite yet, consider the following scenarios:

  • Tony Stewart does the unthinkable and wins the Cup – his third – in his first year as an owner/driver.
  • Jeff Gordon finally completes the Drive for Five.
  • Kyle Busch makes the Chase, dominates and wins a title.
  • An unexpected name – Hamlin buoyed by his victory, Kasey Kahne or Juan Pablo Montoya – has the 10-race spell of their lives.
  • Heck, why not Carl Edwards? Do you think he’d pull out a special backflip to mark that victory?

(As an aside, I got into trouble with a dear friend, a non-NASCAR fan and reader of this column for using the word “heck,” so apologies old dear, but it just slipped out again.)

Anyways, there’s still hope. But isn’t hope there always? I’d sure like to think so. The odds are tilted toward a perfect storm… but the fat lady hasn’t begun to warm up her vocal chords yet. There is still time for a course correction.

The question is… will it happen?

About the author


Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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