Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Don’t Shoot the Messenger – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Asks Journalists for Their Opinion

I have been ordered by the most powerful man in NASCAR to write this article.

Before Saturday night’s edict (July 2), I was going to unleash a startling expose on the current perilous economic state of the sport, with facts, figures and even a multi-colored pie chart. Instead, the gauntlet was thrown down after the race (I have never seen a gauntlet; however, I am confident it was cast with authority). The aggressor? None other than Dale Earnhardt Jr., excitable to say the least when asked his opinion of the style of racing at restrictor plate tracks.

“You guys need to get your own opinions and write what you all think about it. I think it is probably pretty damn close to mine. Stop putting my damn mouth with y’all and getting my [butt] in trouble,” he said, in the midst of criticizing the tandem drafting. “Y’all write what y’all think, man. Come on, y’all are good. Y’all have an opinion about it. I read y’all’s stuff. You put us in the damn crow’s nest.”

Well far be it from me to threaten anyone’s livelihood or put them in an uncomfortable position of saying what is on their mind. So what do I think about the current state of restricted racing at Daytona and Talladega? The same thing I felt about it five years ago; it’s not real racing, merely a reasonable facsimile.

For the driver who dominated plate racing from 2001-05, his thoughts on superspeedway racing have soured significantly; even more so when asked to express his true feelings on the matter and what needs to be done to improve it.

“What kind of move can you make in racing like this?” he claimed, frustrated over the competition. “There ain’t no move you can make. You just hold it on the mat and try not to wreck into each other. You see how good we are at that.”

The wreck he is referring to occurred exiting turn 4, when Earnhardt Jr. was collected by Jamie McMurray, triggering a 15-car crash – the reason Junior was left with his third finish that was not indicative of where he had been running in the last four races. Results of 19th, 41st and 21st have been the results over the course of the past month, ugly endings to what was a promising season. A few weeks ago, No. 88 was within 10 points of the championship lead, but now finds himself in seventh, one more poor finish away from falling outside the top 10 in points.

Yet these words aren’t just the mark of a man angry over his slump. Let’s be honest; what is so competitive about making a deal with somebody, committing to pushing another competitor forward and on to victory as your own vehicle is in danger of overheating? In essence, you have surrendered before even firing a shot – the motorsports equivalent of dropping the magazine, clearing the chamber and handing over your weapon.

My biggest regret about the current situation is that Dale Earnhardt Sr. is not around to voice his opinion of the current form of racing. He about blew a gasket after the 2000 Daytona 500 when the cars were completely incapable of passing one another to the point that it took a string of four Fords to overtake the virtually unsponsored plain-white wrapper of Johnny Benson Jr.’s Pontiac. Remember that? The sport is missing an outspoken leader here, someone who’s willing to stand up, with authority and say the racing is unacceptable – then have NASCAR officials cower with fear after they talk.

As much as I hate to draw parallels between stick ‘n’ ball sports, the comparisons to the Big Four would be equally hateful and ugly. Does Justin Verlander tell Travis Hafner what pitch he’s going to throw and ask him to hit it towards Austin Jackson if he could? What if Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson he wasn’t going to tackle him, but just run alongside and let him score a touchdown?

Teammates helping teammates win in plate pairings is a little different – I guess. Kind of like in Formula 1, but at least then they get mad about it sometimes and almost ignore orders – like Rubens Barrichello at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002.

Too obscure a reference? Fair enough, not everybody likes Euro-parading like I do; blame my Mediterranean heritage, I suppose. Dial up a YouTube clip of the 1993 Talladega 500 to see plate racing ran properly.or the July Daytona race from 1994 – a hot, slick track, with cars spread out, forcing handling, horsepower and aerodynamics to play an equally important part in determining which car and driver go to victory lane.

Now, two of the most anticipated races of the year have been relegated to finding out whose car can run the longest with the air openings blocked off. And, if you make it to the end which driver won’t wreck the guy he is shoving forward against his bumper in a turn? It’s a race of strategy and survival, not speed.

So what are the solutions to this bastardization of competition? Carl Edwards says remove all of the downforce from the cars and that would spread the packs out. I’m not so sure that would work. We saw what kind of wrecks followed restarts; having less grip, less drag and double-file acceleration might just wipe out the field after every caution flag.

Earnhardt Jr. thought that given time, the track would wear out a little bit and spread things out. SPEED commentator Dave Despain on his program Wind Tunnel Sunday night suggested that a wrecking ball dimple the banking and make some bumps – the kind that Daytona used to have, which helped give it some character and separate it from Talladega.

Jack Roush has always been an advocate of reducing the banking at both restrictor-plate tracks – a solution he said that would not cost the competitors money for a change. Not sure how good that would turn out; we already have enough carping and moaning about Michigan and California races being “boring,” though both events came down to the last lap in 2011.

So what is my bright-assed idea? Much like American automakers, when we have completely run out of new ideas, I look to the past for inspiration and an answer. The aerodynamic package that produced some of the best racing in 2000 and 2001 – the one with the wicker bill across the roof – always appealed to me.

We could probably stand to cut that massive rear blade down a bit, which would reduce some downforce as Edwards suggested. The front of the car needs some attention as well; maybe raise the air dam up a couple of inches. How about those big gumballs these things ride on?

There was a time in the mid-to-late 1980s when these cars would sail around Daytona and Talladega at over 210 mph without incident; the tires would typically hang on, wear out and string the packs out a bit. There was also the ability for aerodynamics to play a role in things with cars that were genuinely shaped differently, with characteristics that went beyond grille stickers and headlight appliqués.

Considering how most guys now just kind of ride around and stay out of trouble until the last few laps (all of the incidents involving more than three cars took place on lap 159 of 160 – or later), perhaps NASCAR should make Duel races at the two tracks. Have two races paying points of 200 or 250 miles each, then invert the field after the finish. Those who wrecked out of the first event are invited to bring out their backup car for the second.

Yeah, I know, it’s easy to sit here and bang out answers to everybody’s problems on a keyboard. None of my ideas might work in the wind tunnel or prove cost effective. Then again, they can’t be any worse than two cars pushing each other, with a predetermined outcome of who is going to win; after all, each pairing has someone who is just content to sit there and push the car in front of him.

In boxing, it’s called taking a dive; in NASCAR circa 2011, it’s called restrictor-plate racing. That’s not a knock against the competitors, it’s just the position that they’ve been put in – and that’s probably the most unfair result for them and the fans of all.

Let me know how that one works for you, Junior.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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