Race Weekend Central

Lessons Learned

The 2015 NASCAR season provided quite the educational experience. At the small Midwestern college where I teach we preach the gospel of “lifelong learning”, but it’s safe to say that the last ten months of racing alone have explored a variety of thought-provoking perspectives regarding human potential.

NASCAR circa 2015 was both frustrating and humbling, and that opinion comes from someone who observed the sport from afar. I had no personal stake in what went on this year other than it provided me with material about which to write each week.

And was there ever a diverse assortment of topics about which to write!

The adventures of Kyle Busch provided us with several lessons that bookended the 2015 racing season. His horrific wreck during the XFINITY race on the eve of the Daytona 500 set the tone for the year. Busch’s accident could have been interpreted in any number of ways based on what your personal opinions were at the time: was this “just desserts” for a Cup driver carpetbagging in the XFINITY Series, or was it a reminder that turf has no place near the edge of a racing groove, or was it an example of how race cars and unprotected walls possess significant design flaws?

Such a judgment call was entirely up to the individual, but such a call also tended to speak volumes about how the remainder of the 2015 season progressed.

Case in point: when Kyle Busch took the checkered flag last Sunday to win both the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the Sprint Cup championship, were his accomplishments a testament to medical science, personal courage, and professional determination, or just another example of how NASCAR caters to drivers who attract both sponsors and fans by granting waivers?

I guess it depends on whichever lesson you took away from the 2015 season….

This season taught us how change is a necessity in the world of professional sports. After endless complaints about lousy competition because of “aero push” and a lack of passing in “dirty” air, NASCAR responded by listening to drivers and introducing the low-downforce aerodynamics package that will be standard at every Cup race next year. Making this decision wasn’t automatic, as the mid-summer “high drag” debacles at Indianapolis and Michigan demonstrated, but success of the low-downforce design at the Southern 500 sealed the deal for 2016.

The 2015 NASCAR season did, however, teach us the merits of carrying oneself with dignity, as we witnessed during Jeff Gordon’s farewell tour. The measure of a person’s life can be determined by how highly regarded they are by their peers, and few drivers have ever been held in higher regard than Jeff Gordon. He soldiered on after winning the pole at Daytona in February to secure a place in the Chase on points, and his post-season win at Martinsville on November 1st was punctuated by his sincere outpouring of joy, the likes of which we experienced another 92 times during his 23-years behind the wheel.

And all this unfolded during a season when Gordon never, as in not once, ever cried “Woe is me!” When he and crew chief Alan Gustafson argued during a heated radio exchange at Pocono in June, but not once did Jeff accuse another driver of being the bane of his problems. Not that Gordon always kept his emotions in check (remember Phoenix in 2012? How about Texas in 2014?), but he managed to do so during his final year as a driver. A valuable lesson to take away from the 2015 season.

What we got with Jeff Gordon in 2015 was something we sadly missed with Dale Earnhardt: the opportunity to celebrate a legendary driver during his final season before retirement. It was no secret that Earnhardt was, in 2001, thinking about his eventual retreat from driving. His fatal wreck at Daytona robbed NASCAR Nation of the chance to properly say its goodbyes, to say thank you for “The Intimidator’s” long and storied career.

Others who showed us how to say “goodbye” in 2015 were the dedicated employees of Michael Waltrip Racing, over 200 of whom are now looking for new positions in motorsports. It was sad enough to hear a few months ago that Clint Bowyer was looking for a 2016 Cup ride, but we all know where his future lies. For the folks who worked in the shop and pit crew members left in the lurch, there are only so many positions available. This is another lesson to learn from NASCAR: to recognize the precarious nature of high-stakes team ownership. Racing is a business and businesses are always changing — and not always for the better.

And here we are – looking ahead to 2016 and innumerable other changes. Not only will we have a new aero package next year, but we’ll see Chase Elliott in the No. 24 Chevy, Martin Truex, Jr. in a Toyota, and Danica Patrick with a politically correct primary sponsor in Nature’s Bakery. Jeff Gordon will begin a career in broadcasting, and Tony Stewart will begin his own “farewell tour” before bequeathing the No. 14 Chevrolet to Clint Bowyer in 2017. Will the racing be better? Will the fans be satisfied? We’ll learn the answers to many of these questions as NASCAR 2016 commencements at the new-and-improved Daytona International Speedway.

As we say at the college where I teach: you need to keep learning at the center of everything you do….

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