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Columns, Non-Daily
Second Place
Kris Johnson, NASCAR Scene

NASCAR needs to ‘show me the debris’ to gain some credibility

NASCAR craves mainstream acceptance the way a drunkard wants another drop, but it will never be viewed as a legitimate professional sport in America until it becomes transparent.     

     Where conspiracy once helped fuel a regional sport and propel it into the boom years of the late 1990s, NASCAR needs to “show and tell” at every turn now or run the risk of becoming an also-ran. From the die-hard fans who invest emotionally to corporations that spend endlessly and to the much-coveted casual sports fans in between, they all need to be assured that NASCAR is about more than “putting on a good show” if this entails contrived conveniences and mere manipulation of rules.

     Take away the name and family connection, and NASCAR Chairman Brian France is merely a steward of the sport, one he needs to legitimize in the eyes of many. Nothing can be more important than the integrity of the competition. If this means high-paying sponsors miss out and Dale Earnhardt Jr. never wins again, so be it. Human error is an inherent part of any sport and its officiating, but constant cries of conspiracy – right or wrong as they may be – can be alleviated. They need to be. 

     And here’s how:

     • Pit-road speeding penalties: Show every single speed for transgressors, and for that matter, for every driver coming down pit road. NASCAR has scoring loops around the track for its much-ballyhooed statistical offerings that officially debuted last year. Loop data stats can tell you average speed under green for any car, the number of quality passes (those that occur while running in the top 15) and even compute a multifaceted driver rating for all 43 competitors once the race is done. Given the technology that exists, it is incomprehensible that NASCAR can’t both compute and display the comparably lesser speeds of cars coming down pit road.

     • Instant replay: The sport is fast, and because of that there’s even greater chance for human error compared to baseball, football or basketball. To ensure proper calls are made, go back and look at the videotape every time uncertainty abounds. Unlike other sports, you don’t need to stop the event while this occurs; given the dizzying pace of NASCAR competition and the natural rhythms of racing, it wouldn’t be feasible to do so. If a need exists to alter the running order, flag a driver down while the race is in progress or put him in his proper place during the next caution period as is customary now.

     • Phantom yellow flags: These have long been a source of consternation for teams and fans. Instead of “show me the money,” the new war cry should be “SHOW ME THE DEBRIS.” Make it a standard part of every broadcast.

     Football referees, as prone to error as any of us, come to the middle of the field and explain rulings on plays that have been challenged. Going “under the hood” is good, and clearly detailing why a play was upheld or overturned is even better. In the case of debris – unless there’s nothing to see, of course – this would be so easy.

     Have a NASCAR umpire, one who oversees all decisions made by officials on the track, accompanied by a TV broadcaster. Video evidence of debris is then shown during the interview along with an explanation of why this produced a dangerous situation and merited a caution flag. Golf telecasts often have a  league or tournament official appear on screen to explain complicated rulings.

     • When something major occurs inside the garage, such as an illegal fuel additive being discovered in the No. 55 Toyota of Michael Waltrip at Daytona, publicly reveal the substance that produced the largest monetary penalty in NASCAR history. Silence creates doubt. How do we know anything illegal was in fact used?

     The great irony is NASCAR used this new season as a platform to show the world how stern it would be with competitors who tried to circumvent the rules.

     The bottom line: NASCAR must police itself just as hard in the execution and explanation of its rulings. The privately owned company needs to make all of its findings public.

     All parties involved need to know this is fair competition and not some choreographed exhibition around the asphalt. Lose the appearance of a master puppet pulling strings by adopting an open-book policy, one free for the world to see.

     Until then, claims of conspiracy will continue to erode the sport’s credibility and legitimacy will remain elusive.

 Little Jake helps Yeley know NASCAR’s true power

     Fame and fortune are often viewed as perks for drivers lucky enough to work at NASCAR’s highest level. To hear it from one, though, the single greatest thing about being a Nextel Cup competitor might surprise you. 

     “The coolest thing you get to do,” Joe Gibbs Racing’s J.J. Yeley says, “is help people.” 

     Sometimes we forget what really matters. Fortunately, Yeley and so many of his Cup counterparts do not.  

     In Yeley’s case, he will always have a reminder. On his last birthday, he turned 30 on Oct. 5, 2006. That same day, Jake Raborn died. He was 4.

     Jake and Yeley had become fast friends, and unfortunately, that was all too necessary given the little boy’s terminal disease. Hepatoblastoma, a cancer of the liver, ended his life before it really had a chance to begin.

     The boy’s grandfather, Red, met Yeley after a race at Talladega and told him of his littlest fan’s battle. Jake liked the green No. 18 Chevrolet best and had become a member of Yeley’s fan club. The driver decided to spend some time with the boy and his relatives at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a Memphis-based facility that provides care for terminally ill children whose families can’t afford medical treatment.

     “I think Jake had more than 20 chemotherapy sessions,” Yeley says. “One chemotherapy session is $1,000. I mean, bam, just like that. It costs a million dollars a day to open the doors of the hospital.”

     Even though the media spotlight’s red-hot glare too often shines on controversy, and who might be headed where, evidence of drivers’ generosity is abundant. It could be Kyle Petty’s Victory Junction Gang Camp, Tony Stewart donating a million dollars to it or Jimmie Johnson building a new bowling alley there. How about the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital at NorthEast Medical Center outside Charlotte? Space precludes naming all the drivers who give their time, money and heartfelt concern, several of whom took part in the recent NASCAR Day telethon that raised more than a million dollars in a single day.  

     And typically, you won’t hear as much about Yeley. He’s not among the sport’s elite drivers, and he’s OK with that.

     “I don’t necessarily have to be the A-list driver; I don’t have to be a Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.,” Yeley says. “If it came to be, I could handle it. But for me to have to be like that, I don’t.”

     Nor does he need to be to know the true power of NASCAR.

     “You can use your status as a ‘superstar’ to people to help foundations, to help charities,” he says. “In my case, I try to help as many children as I can. If I was still racing Midgets and Sprint cars on a Saturday night basis, I would never have the opportunity to do that.”        His first charity golf outing this March at Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., helped raise $75,000 to benefit Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

     In other words, 75 chemotherapy treatments that otherwise would not be funded. Not all of Yeley’s event proceeds were earmarked for that type of care, but it illustrates in real terms how much it takes to help others have a chance to live. 

     Not every story has a happy ending, as the short life of Jake Raborn attests. 

     “They lost their little boy, who was 4 years old, and to me that’s just not fair,” Yeley says of Jake, whose picture has adorned the dash of both his Busch and Cup cars. “Because of being a father, it just opens your eyes to so many things.”

     Things, of course, that really matter.

     The date on the cover of this issue is May 31, 2007. Faith Anne Yeley, daughter of J.J. and his wife, Kristen, turns 2 that day.

     In January, Zachary Taylor Gibbs, the 2-year-old grandson of team founder Joe Gibbs and youngest son of JGR President J.D. Gibbs was diagnosed with leukemia. J.D. Gibbs says his son’s chemotherapy is going well, but adds it will be five years before doctors can say he’s “out of the woods.”    

     Fame and fortune? Cancer and other terminal illnesses don’t discriminate; they simply don’t care.

     The good news: Many Nextel Cup drivers do when it comes to helping others.

     J.J. Yeley is one of them. 

Harvick-Montoya showdown highlights bizarre race at Watkins Glen

If you’ve got a few minutes, I’ve got 750 or so words to tell you about the strangest day ever at this serpentine circuit nestled in the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes region.

     Watkins Glen International has intermittently played host to NASCAR races since 1957, and there have now been 25 Cup events run on the 2.45-mile road course. None weirder than this one.
     It will be remembered for many things, most of which were spawned by a typical close-quarters collision on lap 73. The real culprit, Martin Truex Jr., nudged sixth-place running Juan Pablo Montoya as the drivers edged their way into Turn 1.

     Montoya, stock-car racing’s world-class rookie, was bidding for a sweep of the two road-course Cup events. Instead, he was swept up into a maelstrom of controversy after Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton got collected in the carnage and drilled Montoya with a 1-2 combination (even harder than the shot he took from a misguided cameraman in that hilarious “You Brokes My Head” video on YouTube). His Big Red-sponsored Dodge was crumpled. Minutes later, Montoya was seeing red.

     As Truex Jr. rolled blithely away en route to a sixth-place finish, Harvick and Montoya – good friends by all accounts – unstrapped from the wreckage and squared off like two prizefighters at the prefight weigh-in.

     Montoya’s reputation as an aggressor followed him from Formula One, but this was the first time his emotion was on display for all of NASCAR to see. After Harvick got in his face, Montoya grabbed his opponent’s helmet in a manner befitting a 15-yard penalty for a flagrant face-mask. Then came the shoves. Harvick pushed too, but Montoya pushed more – until NASCAR officials intervened. Montoya appeared to want even more, but Burton helped escort Harvick into the ambulance for their mandatory ride to the infield care center.

     Montoya, who then strapped back into his car, evidently fashions himself a Latin lover and not a fighter. Asked who would have won an actual bout between him and Harvick, Montoya replied:
     “I wouldn’t fight. I don’t fight.”   

     So who would you take? Harvick, fiery in his own right, or Montoya, whose menacing dark eyes can be intimidating.

     “I don’t want to end up like Pete Rose betting on my own team, but I would have to bet on my guy,” team owner Chip Ganassi, Montoya’s boss, said.  

      Tempers cooled some during the ensuing 26-minute red flag, which allowed a full-scale cleanup at the scene of Truex’s crime in Turn 1. It also allowed some of the 90,000 fans in attendance a chance to catch their breath. But certainly, not all of them. Some were fighting in the grandstands. Others were tossing beer cans onto the track. One brazen and bare-chested fanatic thought the lull in the action afforded him the perfect chance to get an autograph from his favorite driver – while he was sitting in his car, on the track, and waiting for the race to resume. Matt Kenseth refused. The miscreant was eventually apprehended and arrested.

      The race finally restarted with 13 laps left, and then as it dwindled down to two, Jeff Gordon found himself steaming toward a fifth career victory at Watkins Glen. If there was no Tony Stewart in NASCAR, Gordon would singularly stand as Nextel Cup’s supreme talent. The problem is, of course, Stewart is here. And he was there – where it mattered most this bizarre day, on the back bumper of Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet – pressing the pace on the penultimate lap.

     Gordon then did the unthinkable. He spit the bit. He gagged. He spun on his own in, where else, Turn 1.

     “I pushed and I pushed too far. What happened is the team deserved to win and the driver didn’t get it done,” Gordon said.

     Stewart would have been dumbfounded by Gordon’s gaffe, if not for the simple fact that he made the very same mistake while leading midway through the race. To err is human, but timing can be divine. With half a race to make up for his miscue, Stewart had more than enough time. He gave up 19 positions with his solo spin, but charged his way back to the front to capture his fourth career win at Watkins Glen, tying him with Gordon.

     Like so many times before, when it was over, a slightly chubby man scaled the fence in front of the grandstands along the frontstretch.

     What? You thought it was Stewart?

     Not on this day. It was one of his fans. 

Stewart needs to accept share in ‘blame game’

     Tony Stewart is arguably the best pure racer in NASCAR, but his boorish behavior makes it difficult to appreciate his greatness. Whether plowing over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at Daytona, or using his satellite radio show as a bully pulpit to explain away such incidents, one thing remains constant with these on-track skirmishes involving the man known as Smoke: Stewart is never wrong.

     And that’s just not right.    

     After he pinned the blame at Daytona squarely on Hamlin, Stewart uttered his most damning words – on TNT – and for all of America to hear. 

     “He tried to crash us on Friday in practice and didn’t get it done, so at least he finished it off today,” he said.

     Stewart added of Hamlin, “I don’t know if he knows what the definition of team is right now.” 
     You might ask: What is Stewart’s definition?

     In an interview earlier this season at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Stewart offered his thoughts to a pair of reporters on the “open-door policy” that exists at JGR, where he, Hamlin and J.J. Yeley are free to share advice and concerns for the betterment of the entire organization.

     Stewart said, “That’s what [our] team is all about is having people you can rely on.”

     You have to wonder about relying on a teammate and supposed mentor who impugns you on national television – and refuses to share any responsibility for the accident or take the high road by at least giving you the benefit of the doubt.         

      The Hamlin fiasco was only the latest in a string of incidents that reveals a consistent pattern of post-wreck behavior by Stewart. The most memorable occurrence came last season at Pocono, where Stewart helped trigger a three-car wreck involving Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. Edwards said if not for his respect for the sport, he would have made Stewart bleed.  

     Stewart deflected blame and called Bowyer’s skill into question and insinuated that the rookie driver’s ability would be better served on Saturdays in the Busch Series. That was bush league of Stewart, who also opined that there needs to be more “give and take” among competitors at NASCAR’s elite Cup level. Agreed. So when you merit some measure of blame – as Stewart clearly did in Pocono and at Daytona – give us a break and take some responsibility. 

     When was the last time Stewart acknowledged having anything to do with a wreck in which he was involved? Instead, and invariably, he seizes the opportunity to deliver diatribe (Kyle Busch is a dart without feathers), condescend to fellow competitors (this isn’t the Busch Series, Mr. Bowyer) and avoid accountability at all costs.

     This erodes Stewart’s credibility in a serious way. It’s like the proverbial boy crying wolf all the time. There comes a point when you simply stop believing and listening to him. That would be a shame, too, if drivers such as Hamlin and Yeley turned deaf ears to the two-time Cup champion. He is, after all, a leader for the Joe Gibbs-owned team.

     Yeley said, “Last year at Martinsville, I was beating my head up against a wall, and talked to him, just to make sure that things I were feeling were the same things that he was maybe struggling with, that it was something I wasn’t creating myself.”

     Stewart creates some of his own problems, but he steadfastly refuses to own up to any involving other competitors on the race track.      

     There’s at least two sides to these stories but seemingly one version of the “truth” where Stewart is concerned. While he later tempered remarks on the recent incident involving Hamlin on his Sirius Satellite Radio show, Stewart did not necessarily remove blame.

     Stewart’s talent and determination are unassailable. But if he wants to leave a lasting legacy as one of NASCAR’s true champions, he needs to start owning up to his occasional shortcomings.

     Earlier this year, and undoubtedly at the behest of NASCAR, he admitted the error of his ways in suggesting that the sanctioning body played God by helping shape the outcome of races with caution flags. Funny, some of us thought he’d never been more right.

     When it comes to culpability, it’s easier to swallow when NASCAR – and not Hamlin, Bowyer or Busch – is your enemy.

     Every bully eventually meets his match.

For those outside the GM camp, these are dark days indeed

Nearly two hours after it was over – and mercifully so for Ford, Dodge and Toyota teams – the sun still shone as stubborn fans lingered in the grandstands at New Hampshire International Speedway. 

     It had set long ago on Chevrolet’s competitors.

     A quick glance at the final rundown for the Lenox Industrial Tools 300 unequivocally revealed Chevy’s stranglehold on the Nextel Cup Series – and car of tomorrow races in particular. Eight of the top 10 cars were Chevys. The first eight, actually. Only Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, ninth and 10th, respectively, diluted the dominance in a Ford and a Dodge.

     Denny Hamlin was the winner on this day. It could have been Jeff Gordon. Or Martin Truex Jr. Perhaps even Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’d need Mapquest directions to find victory lane at this point. It could have been anybody, really, as long as their car bore the bowtie that’s effectively become a noose hanging rival manufacturers.

     Juan Pablo Montoya’s road-course triumph in a Dodge at Infineon Raceway is the only blemish on Chevrolet’s COT scorecard through eight events featuring the front-splitter, rear-wing machine that will be used exclusively in 2008. But, c’mon. That was Montoya, a world-class driver, on a serpentine circuit that favors his considerable skill and experience. It was back to reality at New Hampshire.

     Laps led: Chevrolet 253, everyone else 47. Thirty of the latter came at the start when surprise polesitter Dave Blaney held the point. Like a Northern Pine in the White Mountains being felled, Blaney’s Toyota and his hopes came crashing down as his car faded to 29th at the finish.

     Newman’s Dodge and the Ford of Carl Edwards appeared capable, but both drivers sounded like Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront” after it was over. “I coulda’ been a contender” should be their new catchphrase. Gaffes on pit road dealt both Newman and Edwards body blows that they simply could not recover from. Newman’s team was penalized on lap 122 for removing equipment – an air hose – from its pit area.

      “I guess they didn’t get the hose pulled back across the car and it got caught in the front of the car,” Newman said. “… That cost us a good top-five finish and potentially a shot at winning the race.” In other words, he coulda’ been a contender.

     Edwards’ Boston Red Sox-festooned Ford fell off the jack on lap 194. He spent an eternity – OK, not really, but nearly a minute – on pit road and watched his bid for a win in front of Bosox nation roll away like a cursed baseball through the legs of Bill Buckner. For those of you into superstition, dig where Edwards ended his day.

     “We finished 13th, but this is a race winner right here,” the other coulda’-been-a-contender said. “It’s a huge step forward for us with the car of tomorrow.”

     A huge step? Roush Racing needs much more than that if it is to catch Chevrolet’s megapowers. A giant leap of faith, perhaps, and a whole lot of COT testing. Jack Roush has hired a designated test team to work only on the COT (something Hendrick Motorsports did long ago). One member of the Roush organization said on the eve of the race that his owner didn’t bother to do much testing on the new car because Roush believed it would go by the wayside, like some kind of fad or fashion faux pas. Believing the entire Roush fleet was three to four months behind on development, the crewman also said none of its teams had a COT capable of winning.

     So, as the year rolls inexorably on, three manufacturers try to exorcise demons. One just continues to win.

     Chevrolet has 14 victories through 17 races as the season’s midway mark approaches. Gordon leads the standings with a 156-point advantage over second-place Hamlin, whose first victory of the season belies his overall excellence in COT events this year. There are 10 Chevy drivers in the top 12. Think about that. If the Chase For The Nextel Cup began today under the rules that governed postseason competition last year, it would be, for the most part, an all-Chevrolet intramural competition.

     If there’s a ray of hope for the also-rans, they won’t find it from up above. Remember that tune by Elton John? You know it, the one where he intones, “Don’t let the sun go down on me.”

     It has already for Ford, Dodge and Toyota.