August 23, 2008
By Brenda Benedict
There have been several controversial stories in the NASCAR world this week. But the overriding theme of all these stories has to be frustration. As I look over the news articles, web sites and podcasts, I am amazed at the amount of irritation and disappointment being expressed by drivers, owners, teams and fans.
Frustration was the important word at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday. There was plenty of frustration to go around.
It is hard to decide who was the most frustrated when all was said and done this week.
The list of drivers who did not meet their personal expectations must begin with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt was having a strong day, running in the top five, and yet finished a disappointing 23th.
After the race at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. remarked, "Yeah, I can drive 'em, man, they're just hard to drive like that all day," he said, laughing. "I ran fifth all day and maybe better than that at some parts of the race, and I'm a good enough driver. I should have finished somewhere around there with that car."
"It's been the same old story," he said. "We show up fast, but we can't put a whole race together. So we've got to do some homework. We've got to science it out and figure out what the heck is going on, because we are sure fast when that race starts.
"But I've been like that my whole career."
Sounds like frustration to me.
Another driver expressing would be Denny Hamlin. His interview with the press immediately after falling out of the race proves that drivers need to wait until they cool down before talking to the press.
Hamlin, who was third fastest during Happy Hour practice on Saturday, blew an engine with five laps to go and came in 39th. Hamlin was so disgusted afterward that he said he didn't think his team deserved to make the Chase because his equipment keeps breaking down.
Hamlin’s attitude toward his equipment and crew has been the target of his frustration in the past. This finger pointing has caused his team’s morale to fall in the past and we could be seeing it work out that way again in the remainder of this season.
Jeff Gordon whose entire record this year has been more than disappointing, expressed irritation with his performance but a resolve to run all-during the final weeks leading up to the Chase.
"I'm relieved, because we've been going every week, 'Well, we can't take too big a risk, but we've got to push hard enough,'" Gordon said of their race-by-race strategy. "I'm relieved. Now we can just -- don't worry about anything; just drive as hard as we can, do everything we possibly can and just go all out.
"That's all we can do and see where we end up."
What is causing the problems for these drivers? Conventional wisdom seems to lay the blame at the feet of either the crew chief or the driver. In each case, there are opinions on both sides. And in each case, the drivers are defending their crew chiefs. Earnhardt Jr. defended his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., in an interview with Marty Smith of espn.com. Smith stated: “But I discussed this with Junior this week, and he told me precisely what I thought he'd tell me: Tony Eury Jr. has the hardest job in NASCAR -- damned if you do, damned if you don't. Every. Single. Weekend.”
As the week has wound down, I would like to nominate Johnny Benson for a frustration award. He went into the Craftsman Truck race on Wednesday hoping to secure his 4th win in a row, setting a Craftsman Truck record for most consecutive wins. Benson, a veteran driver and consistently good racer, never seemed to have a chance for the win because of the strong showing by Kyle Busch who led for 145 laps out of the 203 lap race. Even though Benson is still the points leader, his charge into NASCAR history was stopped by the young upstart, Kyle Busch.
But the prize for frustration this week must go to the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team. After NASCAR discovered magnets in Gibb’s Nationwide cars, the Gibbs team was hit with ‘substantial’ fines and penalties including indefinite suspensions of seven crew members, loss of 150 points from both the drivers and owners. The Gibbs organization has been proactive in addressing the issues and taking responsibility for the actions of their team members.
“We want to apologize to NASCAR, all of our partners, all of our families at JGR and all of our fans," Gibbs explained to the media. "A poor decision was made by some key members of our organization, and 100 percent of the blame rests with us. We take full responsibility."
I know there is a belief in NASCAR that cheating is not wrong and bending the rules is expected of all teams. In an earlier column I quoted from several people who expressed an attitude toward cheating that I find disturbing. I will quote those statements again.
The FOX commentators admitted that things are done when NASCAR officials are out of sight. Dale Jarrett stated that the drivers are looking for crew chiefs to “skirt things”, or at least they were when penalties weren’t nearly so severe.
Brad Daughtery told us that teams want to attempt to maintain ‘a competitive edge’ and that they have always manipulated the rules to get the best performance from their cars. What has changed, according to Daughtery, is the severity of penalties given when the team is caught.
Andy Petree admitted that the new approach to violations by NASCAR “has sucked all the fun out of being a crew chief”. He also admitted that he has “played the game”.
It has always confused me about the legitimacy as NASCAR as a sport if those competing are so open and up front about ‘getting a competitive edge’ or cheating as I would call it.
So who was the most frustrated person in NASCAR this week? It is us, the fans who are being cheated out of a truly memorable racing season. It is the fans who are sitting there in the stands, paying for tickets or spending their afternoons watching the race on TV who are not getting the experience that they deserve. NASCAR has the biggest and most loyal fan base in all of professional sports. It is time they started treating their fans well by presenting a fair and equitable race. “
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