Race Weekend Central

No Such Thing As a Bad Champion: Thoughts As the Offseason Looms

It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR season ends in just two days-it goes by so fast, and so much has happened since the engines fired in Daytona last February. Anticipation for the end of the title hunt is in the air, but so is the realization that the engines will be silent for the winter. A lot has happened this season, and, looking back, there are a few things that I’ve been thinking about this week as the season closes on a slightly anticlimactic note, with at least two of three championships all but decided before the teams even unload this weekend. So, for one last time during the 2012 NASCAR season, here’s what’s on my mind:

*There is no such thing as a bad champion* It always makes me scratch my head when fans say that such and such a driver as champion is bad for the sport. This year, the last few weeks have provided a mixed bag of this kind of reaction. One faction says that Jimmie Johnson is bad for the sport because either he’s too vanilla, or his team is less than fair in its dealings. Another group fires back that Brad Keselowski is an arrogant, overbearing type who talks too much about subjects he should leave alone, and that’s just not good for NASCAR. Both sides threaten to stop watching if the other driver wins.

He wins too much or he’s a bad champion for the sport are sometimes things said about Jimmie Johnson, and others before him, that just don’t make sense.

In reality, though, people are allowing one driver to have too much influence over their enjoyment of the sport. The old “but he wins too much” argument has always puzzled me. Anyone who has ever competed seriously at anything will tell you that you can’t ever win too much. Winning isn’t easy and it gets harder as you move up the ranks against stronger competition-if you’re winning often at the top level of any sport, it’s because you are just that good. But here’s the thing I don’t understand…why stop watching a sport you love just because you don’t like the guy winning at the moment? If anything, it makes seeing someone else beat him all the more enjoyable.

Take this season, for example. Headed to Homestead, three drivers are tied for the most wins this year, with five apiece. That means that even if you think that’s too much…someone has beat each of those guys 30 times so far. Even in 1998, when Jeff Gordon was winning 13 races, he also got beat 20 times. If anything, wanting to see that guy get beat should be more motivation to watch. Even if the Red Sox are having a terrible year, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing the Yankees get beat…and I never quite understood why that attitude isn’t always present among racing aficionados.

But as for a champion being bad for the sport? That’s pretty hard to believe. There have been a lot of drivers who a large part of fans didn’t like—seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt comes to mind. Earnhardt won a lot. He often drove in a manner which many fans found distasteful. He was immensely popular among one group of fans, loathed by others. Yet nobody would suggest that Earnhardt was bad for the sport. The same goes for Richard Petty, who was oft accused of cherry-picking races in an era where drivers didn’t run every single race on the schedule and of cheating on numerous occasions, some of which were later admitted. Darrell Waltrip certainly wasn’t known for quietly watching the sport go by. But not one of these drivers, arguably the best of their respective time in the sport, was bad for the sport. Neither were the guys who defied the odds while those guys ruled the roost: champions like Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Alan Kulwicki, and Kurt Busch won titles at times when someone else was dominant.

Not liking someone doesn’t make them bad for the sport as a whole. Jimmie Johnson is deeply respected within the garage as one of the best of his era. Brad Keselowski takes some heat for being brash and outspoken or for being arrogant…but he’s not only running with several of the best drivers of an era…he’s beating them, and his outspoken nature certainly bucks a trend. Keselowski, in particular, stands out because he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, something that is sorely missed in today’s sponsor-controlled environment. If anything, he’s good for the sport because he’s a breath of fresh air. He races others with respect. Maybe he was over the top in his post-race remarks last week, but he wasn’t wrong in what he was saying, either. The funny part to me is that I find Johnson and Keselowski to be very much alike in very many ways, and more importantly, both are remarkably talented drivers. When did being an outstanding talent, or saying what one feels needs to be said become a bad thing?

*Jeff Gordon’s fine sets an unpleasant precedent* Whether or not Jeff Gordon’s retaliation move against Clint Bowyer was justified, NASCAR overreacted. Many people are making a comparison between Gordon’s action and that of Kyle Busch last fall at Texas instead of a more relevant incident, the race in Atlanta a couple years back when Carl Edwards intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski, sending him airborne in the process. That incident happened under green, Edwards was not on NASCAR probation at the time, and it wasn’t the case of a driver from another series affecting the championship in one where he’s not even eligible for points, as the Busch incident was. Edwards had gone to the garage after tangling with Keselowski (a tangle which Edwards admitted was his own fault), but came back on the track with the sole purpose of exacting revenge. For doing so, at a high speed oval, and sending Keselowski into the air, Edwards received three races’ probation and no points penalty.

And it’s that incident NASCAR should have been comparing this one to. And for the simple reason that the sanctioning body had already set precedent in that incident, taking points was over the top. And while you can argue that this race affected the title race more, there is a flaw in that logic. If a driver were to miss the Chase by the number of points cost him by an intentional hit from a competitor in February, that would have no less of an impact than this one.

But the real issue is the slippery slope the penalty sets up. One, there are already rumblings that once the Chase starts, the drivers not in contention don’t race the Chasers as hard as they should, and it makes the Chase races less exciting. If drivers have to walk on eggshells around the Chasers for fear of wrecking someone lest it look intentional, that’s not going to improve things. It also sets up a scenario where a Chase driver, as long as he’s not mathematically eliminated, can take ten weeks to run over someone not in the Chase for whatever reason, knowing that driver can’t do a thing about it. And I have no doubt that there are a few drivers who would take advantage of that situation.

Finally, race fans spent a long time complaining that drivers were getting penalized unfairly for retribution, so NASCAR instituted the ‘boys have at it’ method of allowing drivers to police themselves. Should the sport go back to the way it used to be, allowing a driver to run over another but penalizing the second driver when he decides not to stand for it? And what about the young drivers, who have traditionally been leaned on until they decide not to take it, stand up for themselves, and earn the respect of the veterans for doing that…should NASCAR stop that step in their learning curve. It’s just too hard to separate out the variables; either NASCAR should let the drivers police themselves, or they should penalize everyone who does, in any situation…that would be consistent all right, but is that what people really want to see?

And since I’ve heard a few people say that Hendrick Motorsports should have appealed Gordon’s penalty because they have Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook “in their pocket…”

*Nobody complained about the other three penalties Middlebrook reduced prior to the Hendrick Motorsports hearing this year* It would be one thing to complain if Middlebrook had reduced only the one penalty, but that’s not the case. Middlebrook also reduced fines and suspensions for Richard Childress Racing crew chief Shane Wilson and the No. 33 car chief after that car failed a post-race teardown following a win at Loudon in 2010. He also reduced a fine for JD Motorsports owner Johnny Davis after an infraction in the Nationwide Series in 2010 and earlier this year lifted an indefinite suspension on driver Peyton Sellers after Sellers had a physical altercation with a NASCAR official in a regional series.

So, while it’s fine to disagree with Middlebrook’s decision on the Hendrick car, saying that he reduced the penalty out of nepotism isn’t supported by the facts, especially when you also include that Middlebrook is a close personal friend of NASCAR President Mike Helton as well and was once considered a NASCAR advocate in Detroit. In fact, of the five cases he has heard as the highest appeals judge in NASCAR, Middlebrook has reduced four, upholding in its entirety a penalty against the No. 27 team of RCR after the car was found to have modified frame rails on a chassis that had already been certified with NASCAR.

Danica Patrick looks to have Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman as teammates in 2014. Here’s to hoping she can hold her own among the three biggest jokesters in NASCAR.

*I sort of feel sorry for Danica Patrick* No, not for her woes on the track; she’s a rookie, and those will work themselves out. Remember when I said earlier that a rookie will get pushed around until he (or she, in this case) stands up to it? That will happen. That said, I don’t think Jeff Burton turned her intentionally at Phoenix. I think he meant to move her out of the way, because she was holding him up (and moving a car that’s holding you up has always been an accepted practice), but I don’t think he meant to wreck her, and certainly not just because she’s a female.

I’d have expected the same move from Burton no matter _who_ was in the slower car at that point in the race, and yes, he messed up…but he didn’t put Patrick in the wall on purpose, or on purpose just because she’s female. That’s just not the type of driver Jeff Burton is. Burton, incidentally, is a driver who would make a really excellent champion, but it looks as though the days of being a top contender are, unfortunately, behind him.

But that’s kind of beside the point. I feel sorry for her because as of 2014, her teammates will be the three biggest jokesters in the garage. Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Kevin Harvick all have a wicked sense of humor. Think Dale Junior gives her a hard time in the Nationwide commercials? Yeah, it’s sort of like that. I kind of hope she gives as good as she gets on that one, because it would make for some great stories.

*Finally, the sport could use a few more sponsors like the Miller Brewing Company* Seriously, here’s a sponsor that has been in the sport a long time and with the same team to boot. There aren’t a lot of companies that have shown that kind of longevity or loyalty. They could have easily balked at having a then-unproven Brad Keselowski in the Blue Deuce; they had signed on for Kurt Busch, and when Shell-Pennzoil joined Penske Racing and wanted Busch instead, Miller would have had every right to make a scene…but they didn’t, and their decision to stick with the No. 2 and Keselowski is about to pay a huge dividend as he’s poised to bring them the prize that not even Hall of Fame driver Rusty Wallace could in his prime. The company couldn’t ask for a better driver or a better year, but the sport couldn’t ask for a better example of what a sponsor is supposed to be.

And not only has the company been one of the few who has been in the sport since the boomtime of the 1990’s (and much longer), and one of a handful who still sponsor an entire season, they are also a rarity in one other aspect…they don’t stifle Keselowski the way other sponsors do their drivers. That’s a huge part of why Keselowski stands out so much today-he’s allowed to. Many of the drivers who have long been tagged as boring are really toeing the company line. They can only say so much, and they can only say it in a way that won’t offend anyone. _That_ is boring. Between the sponsors and the marketing firms the teams or drivers hire, they’re so watered down it’s hard to tell what they’re really like, and that’s a shame, because a good many would probably surprise a lot of people if they were allowed the rein that Keselowski has to work with.

Keselowski isn’t the first driver Miller has had who speaks his mind and damn the consequences; Wallace and Busch were that way too. But instead of being afraid of it as some companies seem to be, they’ve run with it-and it’s worked. Other sponsors should look at their example-talent is one thing that’s important in a driver, but so is personality. Miller lets theirs have one, and it’s paid off for years. Imagine how much fun the sport would be if all the sponsors followed Miller’s model of letting the drivers be real.

So, it begins and ends this weekend. The final leg of the championship is underway, but the season is coming to an end. It’s bittersweet as always-the excitement of the title hunt countered by the letdown of the end of another year. And, some of the racing aside, it hasn’t been boring.

*Connect with Amy!*

“Contact Amy Henderson”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14352/

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