Race Weekend Central

It’s Not What I Say, It’s What I Mean

While listening to MRN’s post-race coverage from Talladega last Sunday, I was somewhat stunned to hear Greg Biffle describe the last lap of the Good Sam Auto Assistance 500 as being “like “Days of Thunder” once the 25-car accident began. It’s no surprise when racing turns into wrecking at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, but comparing NASCAR’s “fact” to Hollywood’s “fiction” seemed to take the nature of the accident out of context. There was more to the white flag carnage than what came out during post-race interviews.

Context is essential when considering why and how people communicate, yet the concept can be tricky when it comes to interpretation. Because context is always shifting and evolving, depending on conditions and connections, it can be difficult to determine the intention of a speaker. The concept is at the center of both literary analysis and writing, and being adept at managing and understanding context is at the heart of communicating effectively.

The Random House/Webster’s Dictionary defines “context” as being “the parts before and after a statement that can influence its meaning.” It also means “the circumstances that surround a particular event [and/or] situation”. Given all the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and frustrations openly expressed once the checkered flag fell on Sunday, thinking about the race in terms of context became almost a sporting event in itself. What drivers said following the race, and what they meant by their statements – from a contextual point-of-view – were often two different things.

Let’s not kid ourselves…. drivers and crew chiefs have been hyper-critical about restrictor plates since the day one was first bolted atop an intake manifold back in 1970. The infamous multi-car accidents that have haunted plate races over the last twenty-four years have frustrated teams while fascinating action-hungry audiences. Just when we credit NASCAR racing for being safer, we cringe at the smoke, fire, and twisted sheet metal of the anticipated “big one”.

Here’s where Sprint Cup drivers spoke their minds come Sunday afternoon, and here’s where context takes center stage.

In the words of five-time Talladega winner and NASCAR’s “most popular driver” Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: “It’s [restrictor plate racing] not safe. It’s not. It’s bloodthirsty. If that’s what people [race fans] want, that’s ridiculous.”

While being truthful in his comment, might Junior be missing an even-larger piece of NASCAR’s “building a bigger fan base” puzzle? Call me mistaken, but I was under the impression that the advent of electronic fuel injection might mean an end to restrictor plate racing. If NASCAR wanted to lower speeds at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega (or even at not-so-superspeedways like Michigan, Texas, Fontana, and Atlanta), a simple keystroke “tweak” to the injector settings could produce the same result as adding a plate to the engine equation.

But maybe that’s not the idea. Maybe the idea is to keep restrictor plates as a great unknown that keeps spectators (and teams, and especially drivers) on the edges of their seats. Notice that I don’t use the term “fans” in this particular context – when I think of a “fan”, I’m reminded of a person who enjoys NASCAR for the sporting event that it is and wants to see fast cars, not vast carnage.

And Junior wasn’t the only driver to be perplexed by the chaos in Sunday’s race. Even a seasoned NASCAR veteran like Jeff Gordon (whose second-place finish earned him the title of “Mr. Right Place at the Right Time”) had an opinion to share regarding the final lap at Talladega….

As quoted by Jenna Fryer in her report for the Associated Press, Gordon admitted that the last lap on Sunday “was the craziest, craziest finish I’ve ever experienced at Talladega. It was just insane. I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, and I haven’t experienced that in a long time. That was bumper-cars at 200 mph. I don’t know anybody who likes that.”

Jeff Gordon’s comment seemed a little unusual given that he’s been racing Cup cars at Talladega since 1993, five years after the addition of restrictor plates back in 1988. Perhaps his comments on Sunday needed to be amended to allow for the current restrictor plate rules package that forces drivers to run in those “love-‘em-or-hate-‘em” tandem drafts.

Or maybe his comments were shaped by the fact that his avoidance of the final lap wreck allowed him to jump four positions in the current Chase standings? If Jeff Gordon was hoping to make a move toward a fifth Cup title, Sunday afternoon was a good time to do so. As the four-time champion saw it following Sunday’s race:

“From an entertainment standpoint, they [spectators] should be lined up out to the highway. If I’m a race fan, I want to see two and three wide racing all day long, passing back and forth. I want to see guys shoving one another. I want to see the `big one’ at the end of the race because guys are being so aggressive … and sort of defying danger.”

And not because teams are stuck running a competition set-up that promotes pack racing and biding your time until someone makes a mistake. That someone, for all intents and purposes, was the reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

As Smoke explained to the media after the race:

“I just screwed up. I turned down and cut across Michael [Waltrip] and crashed the whole field. It was my fault, blocking and trying to stay where I was at. I was trying to win the race and I was trying to stay ahead of Matt [Kenseth] there and Michael got a great run on the bottom and had a big head of steam, and when I turned down, I turned across the front of his car. Just a mistake on my part but cost a lot of people a bad day.”

To admit such an error in the aftermath of such a large accident is an act of great humility – humility that comes from years of diverse racing experience and three NASCAR Cup titles. Blaming yourself for damage done to others is a bitter pill to swallow, even within the contextual environment of the Talladega wreck.

Again, the larger issue rides with the demands of restrictor plate racing four times each season. Driver responses were almost 100% critical of plate events, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. used the situation to voice criticism of another problem that’s putting the squeeze on NASCAR teams: the exorbitant costs of the Sprint Cup Series….

“If this was what we did every week”, Earnhardt said, “I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ll just put it to you that way. If this was how we raced every week, I’d find another job. That’s what the [superspeedway/restrictor plate] package is doing. It’s really not racing. It’s a little disappointing. It cost a lot of money right there. If this is how we’re going to continue to race and nothing is going to change, how about [having] NASCAR build the cars? It’ll save us a lot of money.”

And is this not the elephant that roams around in NASCAR’s front office – the always-increasing cost of competition? We follow the sport at a time when teams feel compelled to start-and-park because they can’t afford to run an entire event. Even if a team feels comfortable with racing to the checked flag, their decision can be ultimately undercut by a late race wreck that costs both dollars and hours.

In this context, Earnhardt is speaking more about the current state of NASCAR Nation than he is solely about the dangers of restrictor plate racing. As Junior shared with the press:

“….everybody can… get excited about all that which just happened, but for the longevity of the sport that ain’t healthy. I don’t care what anybody says for the good of the sport; I mean it’s good for the here-and-now, and it will get people talking today, but for the long run that [another “big one”] is not going to help the sport – the way that [Sunday’s] race ended and the way the racing is. It’s not going to be productive for years to come. I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”

Restrictor plate racing, in this context, is indicative of a much larger concern in-and-around NASCAR Nation, and that’s the overall stability of a sport that’s trying to navigate through a recessed economy, a consistent downturn in race attendance, and a fairly-constant decrease in television ratings.

Attendance figures for the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 showed a marked drop in comparison to other races at Talladega. Sunday’s event had about 88,000 spectators, which was 17,000 less than last year’s running of the race. Given that Talladega welcomed an audience of 108,500 to May’s Sprint Cup event, Sunday’s attendance numbers were even more dismal, and so were the TV ratings.

Will the buzz following Sunday’s nationally-televised 25-car pileup sustain public curiosity until the Cup Series stops at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend? One can only hope so, but my guess is that it will not.

Maybe NASCAR needs a riveting human interest story to capture the audience’s attention. Who better to turn to than Kurt Busch – NASCAR’s resident “bad boy” and cautious critic….

Sunday’s race at Talladega ended early for Kurt Busch. His “swan song” with Phoenix Racing came to an abrupt end after the No. 51 Chevrolet lost fuel pressure and got involved in an accident. As safety crews responded to the accident and went about their business trying to check on Busch’s condition, he re-fired the car and drove away.

Kurt Busch’s leaving-the-scene-of-an-accident punishment from NASCAR was the parking of the No. 51 Chevy for the remainder of the event.

As Busch later explained, “Now I’m in worse trouble. This is the story of my life. Kurt Busch leads the race, runs out of gas, gets yelled at by NASCAR, and now I have a storm of media around me, and I don’t know what to do or what to say next.”

This is certainly true; all eyes will be on Kurt Busch for at least the next week as he switches teams and races at Charlotte in the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, the ride that will be Busch’s new home. Unfortunately, this new opportunity will come with the same old baggage: a driver who is prone to act first, talk second, and think last. Should Richard Childress and Barney Visser be concerned?

Ask Roger Penske about having Kurt Busch on the payroll….

As Busch said on Sunday afternoon:

“I jumped back in, and I remembered with these [EFI] engines, they’ll run with 20 percent fuel pressure to get it back to the garage. So I jumped back in. That’s the competitor in me, that’s the desire that I have, and that’s what gets misconstrued all the time. And this is the way my life works. This is a perfect example — I’m leading, I run out of gas, I wreck. And still that competitive guy wants to get back in the race, and now NASCAR’s yelling at me because I don’t have my helmet on, and I’m trying to get it [the No. 51 Chevy] to the garage so the guys can work on it. Now I’m in trouble….. This is my life. I’m not complaining. I put myself in a lot of these situations, but it is good things [are] moving forward. I’ve got all the bad luck out of the way. This year has been a great year to test me in every which way.”

Which may another way of saying “The No. 78 bunch should be prepared for more of this same behavior, beginning with next weekend in the Bank of America 500”. To Kurt Busch “moving forward” might be more of a professional stance than a personal one.

One has to wonder what Busch’s sports psychologist is thinking.

So what is the predominant context to rise from the wreckage at Talladega last week? To some drivers (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.), it’s inherent flaws in NASCAR’s attitude toward competition. To other drivers (Tony Stewart), it’s the ability to accept blame where and when it’s due. To still other drivers (Kurt Busch), it’s the need to be competitive at all times and at all costs.

And to a driver who’s striving for a positive turn of fortune (Jeff Gordon), it’s the belief that better days lie ahead. It looks like Kurt Busch isn’t the only competitive driver in NASCAR….

As Jeff Gordon said to the press after Talladega:

“….it’s a little frustrating. Our team is doing a great job. We’ve been performing really, really well. We can sit there and really get mad about what happened in Chicago [finished 35th after wrecking], but the reality of it is all we can do is go each and every week and keep trying to put ourselves in position to win and get top-fives. It’s not over yet. It is certainly not over yet. So we’ll see what happens. If we keep doing this, I really think we might have a shot at it [the 2012 Cup title].”

Given the structure of the Chase, Jeff Gordon is clearly making positive strides. He and the No. 24 team are sitting sixth, 42 points out of the lead – a large margin to overcome within the Chase format.

In NASCAR’s “parallel universe” – the one in which the Chase format does not exist – the scenario looks a tad different. In that system, we’d have a two-way tie for the points lead between Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski. Jimmie Johnson would be running in third place, just two points behind.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be – under the “old” system – only eleven points behind in fourth-place, as opposed to his current position in the Chase. Earnhardt sits 11th in the Chase for the Championship after Talladega – his No. 88 team is a distant 51 points out of the lead. Maybe that explains many of his comments on Sunday.

That’s what’s so challenging about the concept of context; it’s all determined by the way you look at it…

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