Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com
1. The Frontstretch Five: Memories to Keep from 2014
1. Something to smile about – finally – for Tony Stewart
No matter what the points system was, for Tony Stewart, Sunday was a much-needed dose of medicine for a 2014 season where the hits just kept on coming. Stewart got off to a slow start to the season as a driver, coming off surgery and rehab for a badly broken leg last fall. In August, Stewart was involved in a fatal crash at Canandaigua Speedway in upstate New York which deeply affected him, and for the first time in his career, the three-time Sprint Cup Champion went winless. So to see Stewart enjoying the championship celebration with driver and longtime friend Kevin Harvick was one of the brightest moments of the season.
2. Future’s so bright
Everywhere you look in NASCAR these days, there are young, talented drivers among the ranks: Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Cole Whitt in Cup; Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher in Nationwide; and Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ben Kennedy, Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick in trucks, just to name a few. Watching youngsters develop is always a special part of the sport. Like the champions before them, they all started somewhere with big dreams and big shoes to fill. In a few years, they’ll be the heroes themselves, and it’s fun to watch them blossom. They’re exciting to watch on track because the thrill of the hunt hasn’t yet worn off, they are still gracious and still just happy to be recognized by race fans. There is an exceptional group of young talent in the sport right now, and they’ll be around for a long time yet.
3. Exceeding expectations
Some drivers are simply expected to win in Sprint Cup racing. Some even get chastised for winning too much. For race fans, seeing their driver take the checkers first is always a satisfying feeling. For most fans, that’s probably something they take for granted. But for some teams, their drivers and their fans, it’s not a done deal that they’ll see Victory Lane from the inside. For a mid-tier team like Richard Petty Motorsports, it happens maybe once a year. For others, the small teams parked on the backside of the garage most weeks, it’s a long shot at best. Money buys speed, and the smaller teams have less money. It’s simple math. But sometimes someone defies the odds and reminds us that it’s about the drivers, too, and no driver worth his salt ever stops trying to pass one more car, gain one more spot. For Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger, that one spot was the one they needed to unlock the gate to Victory Lane, and the celebrations were epic, filled with real excitement and gratitude. They’re why the small teams keep showing up and keep trying.
4. Burning bright
One thing the new Chase did (though possibly for the wrong reasons) was reignite the passion in the drivers, many of whom showed more desire and personality than they have in recent years. That’s something the sport does need – passion from the drivers for winning. That’s why the youngsters are fun to watch and why some of the veterans are so polarizing. This season stripped some of the sponsor-driven blandness away and left us with raw emotion. Perhaps it’s time for some of those sponsors to take a deep breath and let go of the reins for a while. Letting the drivers be themselves all the time could only make the sport better.
5. That game seven moment
Oh, NASCAR, you silly fools. You never needed to try and create the moment. For, you see, it was already there. It’s just not where you think it should be. No, what makes a game seven special and exciting isn’t the big play, which may or may not happen as the contest evolves. The moment that makes every race special isn’t when the checkers wave or when two cars make contact, but rather in the one shining, perfect moment when anything could happen. It’s when the pace car drops to pit road and the field pours off turn 4, engines grumbling in frustrated protest, every driver waiting to be set free to race. In that moment, anything can happen, anyone can win, and everyone can be reminded of why they came in the first place and why they stayed. It’s not about a win, a crash, a fight or even a championship. Those things pale in comparison to the moment when everyone watching rises as one, believing that the possibilities are endless. It’s the moment everything comes together. The moment is there, every week. Nobody needs to make it happen. NASCAR never needed to try to create it. It’s there. It’s what makes the sport like no other. May it never fade.
2. Holding A Pretty Wheel: Bringing the Lady Back Home
According to SIRIUS XM reporter Jim Noble, NASCAR will take a small step back in time next year, moving Darlington Raceway’s lone Sprint Cup race to Labor Day weekend, the date of what was once the sport’s oldest race.
The Southern 500 predated the Daytona 500 and along with the Great American race was one trophy that racers coveted most. More prestigious than even Indianapolis and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600, the Southern 500 was known as a test of man and machine. To win it once was every racer’s dream. To win it more than once was the stuff of legends.
When NASCAR restructured in the early 2000s with a shiny new television deal and hoards of new fans who wanted to see what the big trend at the water cooler was, Darlington was one of the longtime tracks to have a date cut and the remaining date, the former Labor Day weekend race, moved first to the end of the season and then to the spring. Darlington renamed the spring race the Southern 500, but that never felt right. That race was never the Southern 500 (longtime fans will know that Darlington’s spring race was the Rebel 300/400/450 etc.) and fans were not fooled.
In retrospect, Darlington and its fans got off comparatively easily. North Wilkesboro Speedway was already closed by the change of the millennium and North Carolina Speedway didn’t last much longer. The old tracks were replaced by shiny new facilities with plenty of amenities but little character. At the same time, the Nationwide and Truck series also abandoned the tracks that had given them autonomy in favor of the bigger, faster speedways whose owners lobbied for those races to make their tracks a destination for race fans. At least the Lady in Black still had a place on the dance card.
Moving the race back to what many fans have always considered its rightful place on the schedule is, in the grand scheme of things, a small move. It doesn’t bring back the NASCAR many older fans long for, it doesn’t erase the problems the sport has brought upon itself with the Chase and the current state of racing. It won’t fix much in the big picture.
But while it may be a small move, should it occur, it will be the right move. It’s a token gift to the old school fans, but it’s also a gift to the newer fans, the ones who don’t know a NASCAR without a Chase or one with feeder series that ran Saturdays at short tracks instead of the superspeedways they race at now. The Southern 500 is a piece of the sport’s past – and, if NASCAR markets it well, a piece of its future as well.
What makes a sport exciting is the action on the track or the playing field in front of fans’ eyes. But what makes a sport memorable is understanding that there is much more to it than what is right in front of our eyes. Racing is about Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, but it’s also about Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and the hundreds of others who carved a niche within the sport. Some of those people are still a part of NASCAR, and fans and competitors can talk to them, learn what things used to be.
In order to fully understand and appreciate NASCAR today, you need to understand and appreciate what it was like in years past. In some ways, things are very similar. There are dominant teams and underdogs, and fans always think NASCAR favors this team or that team. There are races that become instant classics and races that are duds. That has always been a part of it.
In other ways, the sport was very different. Championships were calculated differently in the early days, which allowed teams to cherry pick races and avoid the heaviest competition. Today, there are no weeks where a team can choose to race at an out-of-the-way track where they know some other big names won’t be there in order to gain points. But then there was no Chase, so the champion had to sustain a level of excellence all year long. In between those eras, there was a season-long championship with a shorter season, too. To know how different each era truly is is to realize it’s impossible to compare some things.
On the other hand, one must understand history to understand when history is being made. Jeff Gordon‘s 91 wins are approaching numbers once thought impossible to reach in the sport’s modern era. In more than 60 years, against all kinds of competition and all kinds of factors, only two men have amassed more than 100 wins at the sport’s top level. It’s never been done entirely in the modern era. If it happens, it will be something to savor, because it’s something fans may never see again.
A few fans have expressed disappointment about the report of Darlington’s new (and old) date. If they have made Labor Day weekend in Atlanta a destination, that’s understandable, but what fans should take away from this is that there is a long and storied history in NASCAR, and it goes deeper than what’s become a fun weekend for the last few years. It’s not about Atlanta, though it can be argued that Atlanta has a long history of closing the season and the right thing to do would be to restore that date as well.
When then-series sponsor Winston introduced a million-dollar bonus for winning three of the four most important races in the sport, the Southern 500 was the culmination of it. To win the Winston Million, drivers had to go through the oldest race (Southern 500), the longest (Coca-Cola 600), the fastest (the summer race at Talladega) and the most famous (Daytona 500). The bonus was only claimed twice, and both times, it was won by conquering the Lady in Black at her fighting best. The first Southern 500, with 75 cars on the track, is the stuff of legend. Fans should know these stories and the countless more in order to understand why NASCAR is doing the right thing with this reported date chance.
If it happens, it isn’t about moving Atlanta. It isn’t about one track at all. It’s about everything that the sport has been and should be. It’s about a storied past even in the face of an uncertain future. It’s about the longtime fans. It’s about doing what’s right for the sport in any era.
It’s about bringing the Lady in Black home at long last.
3. Holding A Pretty Wheel: A Shift in Focus
Sunday morning at Watkins Glen dawned sunny and warm, the perfect summer day for racing. Indeed, the Sprint Cup Series was in town, prepping to run under that blue New York sky. AJ Allmendinger won the race, the first victory of his career, earning a long-awaited redemption and cementing his postseason hopes. But racing was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, even as the color and sound of race day hung thick in the air.
Racing was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, and yet racing was the only thing on everyone’s mind.
As news spread about the fatal incident between three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart and local sprint car driver Kevin Ward, Jr., racing became both the focus of the day and, simultaneously, something completely irrelevant.
Saturday night, Stewart was racing, as he often does, in a sprint car race at a local track. Racing in the “A” Main at Canandaigua Speedway, Stewart and Ward tangled on the racetrack, an incident no different than those that take place every night on short tracks everywhere. Ward’s car spun around and came to a stop. The caution flag flew, and the other competitors slowed to the appropriate speed, somewhere around 40 miles per hour. What happened next will forever be imprinted on the minds of everyone who experienced it, either in person or later seeing the videos. An angry Ward exited his car and walked down the track, looking for Stewart, gesturing all the while as a racer does when he’s upset. Drivers always talk with their hands, after all.
A couple cars passed Ward, and as Stewart’s No. 14 car approached, Ward took a couple more steps. Witnesses differ on what happened next. Some said Stewart appeared to see Ward at the last minute and hit the gas in an attempt to swerve away from him. Others said he revved his engine and tried to drive as close to Ward as he could, perhaps making a point. Either way, the right rear wheel of Stewart’s car struck Ward, and the 20-year-old was thrown at least 50 feet up the track, where he lay crumpled and motionless as safety workers gathered around him. Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital a little while later.
The investigation began almost immediately, and so, unfortunately, did the speculation. No charges were pending as of Monday morning (though they may come, depending on what investigators determine after interviewing witnesses and viewing footage of the accident). Stewart is innocent until proven guilty, but in some minds, that’s already happened. And maybe it will be, but as of the time this column was written, the incident was nothing more than a tragic, senseless accident that’s incomprehensible in so many ways.
Racing, by nature, is costly. As much as is made of the high monetary costs of the sport, the human cost is so much greater, and harder, to accept. Today, a family is grieving the loss of a young man whose life and career were only beginning. Yet racing also invokes family, as any racer will surely tell you, so that grief is widespread and painful. Ward’s blood family and his racing family will have to forge a new path without him, and that path will be a difficult one, with ruts and stones to navigate as they try to make sense of the senseless.
Tony Stewart took solace in racing. He’s felt the sting of loss before, and his answer was, unwaveringly, to compete. Racing is a part of Stewart’s core of being; it surrounds and defines him. It’s always been the one aspect of his life he could count on. Yet Stewart couldn’t bring himself to climb into that race car Sunday, couldn’t find it among the pieces of a broken heart to do the one thing that makes him who he is.
Racing, at its best, is about people: drivers, crewmen, owners, and fans. There’s a community there, a brotherhood within the garage. Racers understand other racers. Even bitter rivals have a common ground, though they’d be hard-pressed to admit it sometimes. Racers band together in tragedy, even as they try themselves to sort through the questions, the hows and the whys.
It’s also a dangerous game. Safety has improved vastly in recent years, but tragedy always lurks just beyond the next turn. Racers know that, accept that. They respect death, because it can come in an instant to any of them, anyone they care about. They don’t dwell on it, because that doesn’t make sense, but they all know the reality. Most racers have lost a friend, a rival, a family member, either by blood or by the bonds of the sport. They grieve… but they race on. They do so because the person that was lost would want them to, would demand that they continue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care, that they’re so callous and jaded that they go out and play as if nothing had happened.
On the contrary, they go out and race out of a deep-seeded need. For some, it’s the need for normalcy; for others, it’s the need to focus on something else, or maybe the need to honor that person. So, they race on as they did on Sunday, as they will at Canandaigua Speedway and short tracks across the country in the coming days and weeks.
There are so many questions now for Tony Stewart. It’s possible that when all is said and done, he will be charged with a crime, maybe even tried and convicted. It’s possible that Ward’s death will be ruled an accident. For Stewart, though, no punishment that could be handed to him by a judge and jury will ever be worse than having to live the rest of his life knowing that he killed a fellow racer. Whether it was a split second display of temper or simply a terrible twist of events, Stewart will never, ever be the same.
Ward’s family, team, and fellow racers deserve our thoughts and prayers and sympathy. So does Tony Stewart. The loss of Kevin Ward, Jr. is about racing, because it happened on a racetrack. But it’s also not about racing at all. It’s about human beings. Racing affects human beings on a much deeper level than the entertainment it provides. Racing gives, but it also takes, and it causes unfathomable pain. Right now, many people are feeling that pain from this latest and freshest of wounds. The rest – the legalities and the future and the blame — only matter in that they will be decided. What really matters is people. Racing has always been a sport where the people are everything, and today, they’re all hurting, shaken to the core. Racing means nothing, even as it means everything.
4. Holding A Pretty Wheel: Everything Has Changed
There’s a commercial for NASCAR which talks about how everything in the sport has changed, but in the end, how nothing has really changed at all, because the spirit of the sport remains unchanged. Drivers, after all, still want to win races more than anything, and fans still want to find their racing heroes on the venues on which they race. Nothing has changed, NASCAR says, and for just a second, you want to believe it.
If only that were true.
So much has changed in racing in recent years, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the Chase, different cars (which, not unlike their real-life production counterparts, are uninspired and generic), new rules, the eschewing of so much tradition. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which changes tipped the scales, but it’s hard to deny the growing discontent among race fans. It’s clear that something has changed, and not for the better.
One of those things is the drivers.
Nobody wants to think that the faces of the sport have fundamentally changed in recent years, and in some ways they have not and never will. They still have that deep, unending hunger to race, to win, to be that guy who does something truly special. That inherent, fundamental desire hasn’t gone away.
But there’s no denying that things are different now. I touched on it briefly earlier this week, but here it is: drivers just don’t come across as blue-collar heroes anymore. And really, isn’t that what fans loved? The notion that someone, not that different from them, really, could do something as cool as driving a racecar and do it so well that he could make a living doing something most people only dreamed of?
The stories were sometimes endearing, sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming. They ranged from the sport’s most successful drivers driving to races in the family station wagon with his wife and kids to late night antics where somebody inevitably ended up naked or in a swimming pool. Sometimes both. There were the drivers who put their last dime into a racecar knowing if they lost that week, they couldn’t feed their families. They did it anyway. There were the ones whose pedigrees were deep in the sport and there was little doubt they’d ever do anything but drive a fast car. There were all kinds of stories.
And they were, predominantly, real.
The men and women in racing could have been your next door neighbor, your kid brother, your fishing buddy. They weren’t that different from you and me except they had that really cool job. And they knew that. Many of them reached out to fans, signed autographs by the hundreds, talked to kids they saw at the track, took the time to be part of somebody’s most treasured memory.
Even then, there were sponsors to answer to, but the sponsors understood that the best advertising a driver could give them was to sign some photos and then go out and put the car up front on the track. The way they raced made the sponsor’s weekend, not the hands they shook in a corporate suite nor the carefully crafted words spoken in front of a television camera.
Then came the popularity boom, the big-money era, and sponsors changed their game. Sure, performance is still important, but it often takes a back seat to the meet & greets with clients, regional visits, and carefully controlled words and actions. And the drivers have to play the game, even if it distances them from the everyday fans. After all, one can’t sign as many autographs for fans if he’s visiting with executives in the suite instead. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And then there’s the money. A good race used to mean the driver got a couple hundred bucks, which paid for groceries and rent, maybe a car payment. It certainly didn’t pay for a palatial motorhome or a private jet, which are standard equipment for elite drivers today. Even the ones who drive for smaller teams have a motor coach that rivals some fans’ homes in amenities. There are seven-figure salaries plus a percentage of winnings. There are lakeside homes and apartments in the city.
Suddenly, the blue-collar heroes aren’t so blue-collar anymore. They’re not driving to races with the rest of us. They aren’t staying in the same hotels or sitting a few tables over in the local restaurants. Nobody is naked and in a swimming pool (though that might not be a bad thing…), at least not at the same time. Drivers aren’t just like the average Joe anymore.
Tony Schumacher, who drives fast cars in the NHRA, a world apart from NASCAR, can see the difference. In an interview with Frontstretch earlier this year, Schumacher said that NASCAR drivers have been separated from the fans by their salaries, no matter how down-to-earth they might be.
“NASCAR drivers are heroes because we’ve separated them from everybody else, as messed up as that sounds. You overpay someone and you make them a hero. Michael Schumacher makes $120 million a year. I want to meet the guy and I don’t even care what he drives. There’s a certain aura about these guys and we’ve built them into that,” Schumacher said. And that is true – that aura separates drivers and fans in a new and different way. Once, they were heroes because they were just like everyone else. Now, they’re set apart.
Money has changed the sport in many ways, a lot of them not for the good. The separation between drivers and fans is wide and deep. While most of them are still the kind of person you could sit and have a beer with, they no longer come across to fans that way. No matter how likeable or personable a driver is, he’s still criticized for not spending the time with fans his predecessors did. Many of today’s drivers are perceived as having had their careers handed to them, as having had unlimited resources to build their careers. In many cases, that’s simply not true. Some of the ones who get the most criticism for not earning what they have have, in fact, worked harder than most to get it.
But fans don’t see that. They don’t know the drivers like they at least felt like they did in years past. Increasingly, fans only hear what a sponsor, or NASCAR, wants them to hear from the men and women who drive the cars that are their bread and butter. A lot of the time, they blame the drivers for that. Sometimes, they’re right. Others, they’re wrong—if anything, it’s the sponsors and NASCAR who keep the drivers from speaking from the heart and risking not saying the exact right thing. Some of today’s drivers can tell stories that rival the naked, swimming pool stories of old … but you will rarely hear them, because someone has decided they don’t want that side of them to be seen, or the drivers themselves are too self-conscious, too afraid of what sponsors might think. That’s too bad, because it only widens the rift.
Whatever the reason, no matter who’s at fault, things have changed. Drivers aren’t like the common man anymore. And maybe that’s what some fans miss the most.