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Columns Daily & Internet

Monte Dutton, Gaston Gazette

Another Big Day For The Lawless

            TALLADEGA, Ala. – All Talladega Superspeedway needed on Sunday was a couple of European soccer teams – oh, say, the English vs. the Irish – in the gorgeous, grassy tri-oval.
            There were about 150,000 fans on hand, the word “fan,” of course, being short for “fanatic.” They were warned not to throw beer cans. They could’ve encouraged them to throw beer cans. It wouldn’t have mattered.

            When Jeff Gordon won the Aaron’s 499, the National Guard couldn’t have policed the grounds. Catching Osama bin Laden would’ve been easier. Thank goodness for security measures. The only reason they threw beer cans was that there weren’t any hand grenades available.

            It’s not the first time Sweet Home has been marred by violence. It’s not the first time the target was Jeff Gordon. Somehow, though, even though what happened was predictable, it was still shocking.

            What is there to hate in Gordon? He’s a nice guy. He’s good-natured. He laughs easily. He’s sportsmanlike. He’s honest. If perfection is a sin, he comes dangerously close to damnation. Sure, people resent success, but there’s no justification for the unbridled hatred Gordon has received, particularly in these parts.

            Mainly, Gordon is guilty of the apparently unpardonable sin of being incredibly proficient. He’s not the first driver, though, to win races by the bushel.

            Pull against him? Fine. Don’t like him? Fine. But hate Gordon? It doesn’t say anything bad about Gordon. It says something terrible about what people have become, be it this speedway, this state or this country.

            Know what? The little guy’s tough, too. He’d just completed a cool-down lap. We know his car cooled down, because it was splashed and dented by presumably ice-cold beer. Instead of beating a hasty retreat to pit road, victory lane and beyond, Gordon stopped his car exiting turn four and started spinning his wheels. The burnout just increased the mayhem, but there was Gordon, from the protective cocoon of his car, symbolically daring the hooligans to give it their best shot.

            Heroic? Yes. Intelligent? No. It may have been the most ill-considered act of Gordon’s career.
Kurt Busch later made perhaps the weirdest sponsor plug in history when he said, “It was very disappointing to see fans chuck Miller Lite cans all over the race track.”

            Miller Lite is Busch’s sponsor. In other words, they may be jerks, but they’re jerks drinking Miller Lite. In Milwaukee, they must be so proud.

Mom Owns The Team, But Junior Owns The Sport
Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned the stock-car racing world upside-down when he announced on Thursday that he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his late father and owned by his stepmother, at the end of the year.

            While all around the country, observers from inside and outside the sport were declaring the third-generation driver stock-car racing’s first true free agent, Earnhardt Jr. himself did anything but compare himself to A-Rod (the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez) and Dice-K (the Boston Red Sox’ Daisuke Matsuzaka).

            He just wants to win.

            “At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it’s time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now,” Earnhardt Jr. said at a hastily-organized Mooresville press conference. “I believe I’d have my father’s blessing.”

            So ended, apparently, a five-month battle of wits and will between Earnhardt Jr. and his sister and business manager, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, on one side and his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, on the other. The opening salvo was Mrs. Earnhardt’s assertion that her stepson needed to decide whether he wanted to be a racer or a celebrity.

            The whole house of cards collapsed in a breathtaking whirlwind of activity, during which time the prevailing wisdom went from “they’ll probably work things out” to Earnhardt Jr.’s final description of the negotiations: “We never even got close.”

            In recent months, Earnhardt Jr. has been more and more open about his bruised relationship with his stepmother, with whom he has little personal contact. Teresa Earnhardt turned over negotiations to her new president of “global operations,” Max Siegel, formerly an entertainment executive.

            This was a conflict between the tangible and the intangible. In measurable terms, Mrs. Earnhardt owns the team. In immeasurable terms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. owns the sport. Mrs. Earnhardt, even before her husband’s death in a Daytona 500 crash in February 2001, was widely known for her hardnosed business skills. This time, however, she wasn’t dealing from a position of strength, and in Kelley Elledge, she may have met her match.

            What happens next?

            Earnhardt Jr. is, of course, obligated to continue as driver of DEI’s No. 8 Chevrolet until season’s end. How this decision -- and his alleged lame-duck status – affects the team’s performance remains to be seen. He currently ranks 12th in the Nextel Cup point standings.

            The past two seasons were, in terms of victories, the least successful of Earnhardt Jr.’s career. He has won just two of his last 84 races. This is his chance to remedy that. He has the three principal ingredients that every owner wants: considerable skill as a driver, reliable sponsorship in Budweiser, and popularity. In the latter two categories, he ranks No. 1.

            Everyone will want him. The top team, at present, is Hendrick Motorsports, which supposedly has no vacancy since it is limited to four regular entries and already has Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears in the fold. Here’s a prediction: If Earnhardt Jr. wants to go there, a place will be found.

            The most likely scenario would have Earnhardt Jr. moving to Richard Childress Racing, where his father earned his greatest fame. Childress could add a team and also has the rights to the No. 3, the number made as famous by Dale Earnhardt in his era as by the Yankees’ Babe Ruth in his. The number has gone unused since Earnhardt’s death. Childress’s current driver lineup consists of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.

            Joe Gibbs Racing, where Earnhardt Jr.’s pals Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin are employed, is, at present, probably the most interesting long shot. All three multi-car teams – Hendrick, Childress and Gibbs – have been highly successful and field Chevrolets. Few consider it likely that Earnhardt Jr. would move to a team of a rival manufacturer, especially since Chevy drivers have won nine of the season’s 10 races to date.

            Until Thursday, though, few considered it likely that he would leave DEI.

Final Tribute To A  ‘Better Man’

            Benny Parsons died on Tuesday. It was a shock, but not one for which the racing world wasn’t prepared.

            Tributes rang out from around the sport, leading to that inevitable question in time of death: “Why don’t we say these things when people are still alive?”

            Jeff Gordon called Parsons “one of the most genuine and generous individuals I’ve ever met,” and that he was. He achieved a lot, both in driving race cars and talking about those who do, and was as unaffected a celebrity as anyone I ever encountered.

            Here was a man mildly embarrassed by the simple task of signing an autograph. Benny had all the attributes that define genuine humility. Self-aggrandizement wasn’t his nature. In conversation, sometimes, he’d tell a story from his racing days. In few of them did he play a role at all. If he was a character, Benny would assign himself the role of witness, bystander or, sometimes even, clown. Those of us who have written extensively about NASCAR know much about how the sport works and how it has changed, courtesy of Benny. What we never learned from Benny was much about Benny.

            “Affable” is an adjective that fit him. I won’t miss his broadcasts. I won’t miss interviewing him. What I will miss about Benny Parsons is having him nearby in an airport or a lunch line. Our conversations were pleasant and, a high percentage of the time, had nothing to do with racing. He was a jovial companion on the golf course and at a concert. Once upon a time, I sat next to him at a Robert Earl Keen concert, giving me something to remember about that night besides the music.

            Once, when talking TV contracts and the like, Benny told me he didn’t worry much about the business side of the television industry. That was in 2005.

            “Next year is probably going to be my last year anyway,” he said. “I’ll be 65, and I don’t figure I’ll hang around after that.”

            It never even occurred to me, or probably him at the time, that Benny Parsons would never see 66. He’d never get to retire, kick back and take it easy.

            In the summer of 2006, this non-smoker found he had lung cancer. Supposedly, the radiation treatments that followed got rid of the cancer. They also, however, devastated the lung where the tumor had been located. That’s what put him in the hospital for the final time on the day after Christmas.

            Parsons, born July 12, 1941, in Wilkes County, won a championship and Daytona 500 among his 21 victories at stock-car racing’s top level. The first was in 1971, the last in 1984. After retiring at the end of 1988, he broadcast many of NASCAR’s great moments, meaning that Parsons was a significant figure in the sport for parts of five decades.

            “Benny was a fighter, and even when he became ill, he went on with his life like he knew he could beat it,” said team owner Richard Childress, who once raced against Parsons. “He was a strong man with great plans, and it’s a big loss for all of us who knew him.”

            He was a better man than athlete or journalist. When all is said and done, that’s what’s important.

Martin Having Plenty of Fun

            DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s not like Mark Martin intentionally set out to be the Man of Perpetual Retirement.

            It’s not his fault. Really, it isn’t.

            For at least the first 40 years of Martin’s life, he apologized to no one for his workaholism and really didn’t entertain notions that there was any other proper way for a racer to live.

            Martin changed. Along came a son, 15-year-old Matt, with an inquisitive nature and a desire to follow in his old man’s footsteps. Nothing warms a man’s heart like the potential for a chip off the old block.

            All of a sudden, Mark Martin wanted to have fun. To be more accurate, he wanted to discover what fun was. It took a while. He had to turn against his natural inclination. That’s probably why the notion of retirement has been an ever-changing process, not a single event.

            “I’m not really slowing down,” he admitted on Tuesday. “I’m doing more of what I really want to do, instead of being faced with the ‘all or nothing.’ … All was not an option, and nothing was not an option for me.”

            Martin, 48, still loves to race. At first, the plan was to give up the grind of the Nextel Cup Series and go race trucks. Then, gradually, everything changed.

            At last, it emerges why Martin left Roush Racing after a career in which most all the highlights occurred there. It can now be revealed why Martin is at Ginn Racing, a less prominent team but also a team with fewer encumbrances.

            “It’s the same old tune,” as Waylon Jennings once sang. “Fiddle and guitar. Where do we take it from here?”

“I’ve worked really hard,” said Martin, “and I haven’t taken time to enjoy things. I really appreciate now where I am in my career and the privilege of being treated with so much respect. Now I have the opportunity to choose what I do. I haven’t felt like I had a choice, you know. Sponsors and owners and managers sort of dictated to me.

“Last year (at Roush), I wound up racing more races than I really wanted to. I signed up to do the full schedule based on Kurt Busch leaving, and then I didn’t want to do any Busch races, and I got signed up for seven. I signed up for seven truck races and did 14, and was encouraged to do all of them. It was a big year. It was a big load. This year I’m getting to do the races I want.”

            The difference for this fun-seeker is that, now, the decisions are his. He’s not feeling the corporate pressure of Roush Racing. There are no hard feelings. Roush is Roush, and Ginn is Ginn, and never the twain shall meet.

            Apologies to Rudyard Kipling.

“It’s a nice blend,” said Martin, “and now I can adjust that blend going forward. Life’s so good. My contract says I’m going to do in ’08 the same thing as I’m doing in ’07, but I have an opportunity to adjust that based on what I want. I can participate on the level of what I choose. Things that used to be a pain in my rear end now don’t bother me.

“Then it’s not a grind. I’ve done some of the same things I’ve done in the past, where I felt like I was grinding, that I’ve embraced this year. Appearances? It’s been fun. I’ll come home , and (wife) Arlene askes, ‘How was it?’ I say, ‘It’s fun.’ A year or two ago, the same question and I would’ve groaned.”
In conclusion, Martin described his lifestyle with a word he would once have never used.
“It’s cool.”

What I Said Earlier? It’s The Opposite

            TALLADEGA, Ala. – When Tony Stewart compared NASCAR to pro wrestling, he was a little under the weather. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. He didn’t even want to go on the radio that night. He got carried away. In retrospect, he didn’t mean a word of it.

            That’s apparently what happens to a man when he’s rousted out of bed at 6 a.m. It’s not at all unusual for him to emerge with an entirely different point of view. Stewart got the wake-up call on Friday, and he came away – not unlike Johnny Cash in the song “Boy Named Sue” – with a different point of view.

            Just so we all knew that Stewart hadn’t been brainwashed, drunk the Kool-Aid, gotten an attitude adjustment or undergone hypnosis, he flashed his wit. He joked about his rump being too sore for him to sit down.

            We think he was joking. No one actually saw NASCAR president Mike Helton brandishing a paddle, but all this occurred awfully early in the morning.

            It’s not nice to fool with Mother NASCAR.

“They assured me that the debris cautions aren't things that aren't out there,” said Stewart. “They say that there are things that are there.”

            How dare you say the emperor’s wearing no clothes! They’re beautiful clothes. Brand-new clothes. Now go back to your place in the parade and cheer – cheer, I say – the emperor’s new clothes! You’re a good boy. We know you are. Aren’t you?


            And what must you say?

            Thank you, sir. May I have another?

            Stewart really did say that “the group that I spoke with this morning is a group of peers that I trust. If they tell me that the stuff is out there, I believe them. It's hard sometimes when you don't see it, and there are a lot of times we don't see it, and I questioned that. But I think their approach was logical. Instead of doing it in the way I did it … I should have went to them instead of just saying it out in public.”

            Tony the Tiger should have gone to the post-race press conference. At that press conference, though, he didn’t need to talk about debris cautions and pro wrestling and there not having been a fair race all year.

            That’s not what good boys do.

“That's a frustration that's been building up for weeks with me was these debris cautions,” said Stewart, “but, honestly, I feel confident. They've told me that this doesn't happen. It's a group of people that I trust, and until there is evidence to show me that what they are saying is not true, I'm going to believe them.”

            It was a pretty sad spectacle, this two-time champion standing at the front of a room and saying he got the story all wrong. When’s the last time a race driver – no, anyone – flip-flopped so dramatically? Hillary Clinton on the War in Iraq? Johnny Damon on playing for the New York Yankees? George Bush, Original Recipe, on “voodoo economics”?

            Here’s a postscript. Just a short while later, a member of ESPN2’s production team was talking about the difficulty of televising NASCAR. He pointed out that other sports have natural places to insert commercial breaks. Partly in jest, the topic of “debris caution flags” came up.

            “Fox is the only one getting debris cautions,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten one in the Busch Series all year.”

            Undoubtedly, he was kidding.

            None dare call it conspiracy. Least of all, Tony Stewart.