Monday, November 21, 2016

Brian France And A NASCAR Season - Yet Again - To Forget

NASCAR's 2016 season plodded to its end at Homestead and to the surprise of many Jimmie Johnson exploded to the championship by winning the Miami 400. That Johnson won the title - and became the third driver with seven Winston Cup titles - was a head-shaker and yet another layer of success for a driver who has never struggled for anything at the major league level, getting into stock cars by way of the old ASA Series in 1998 and having GM's then-racing boss Herb Fishel as a guiding force, to where it was obvious by 2000 that Johnson would be slotted with Fishel's designated championship outfit - Hendrick Motorsports.

The longtime story that Jeff Gordon "discovered" Johnson and signed him to Hendrick is just spin, as the prospect that Johnson would enter Winston Cup with a Ford team, a Dodge team, or a non-Hendrick Chevy team was nonexistent by dint of the fact Herb Fishel was basically his mentor - it would nonetheless provide reason to respect Johnson's successes if he'd won races and titles with one of the other Chevy teams like Morgan-McClure or Andy Petree Racing.  Being Fishel's hack inevitably puts a damper on Johnson's successes.

Johnson's title - the seventh time in now thirteen Chases where the declared champion was not the champion of a non-Chase format - and his widespread unpopularity testifies to the underrated problem that NASCAR's stars are not in sober fact worth rooting for, and it is just another example making the 2016 Winston Cup season worth forgetting.   The racing at the Cup level once again was the biggest reason - NASCAR's lack of lead changes was in graphic evidence to a more visible extent than normal this past season, and the low downforce package was pushed throughout the season in varied media forums even though the blunt truth of its utter failure testifies to the spin that substitutes for analysis in modern NASCAR.   There simply isn't reason to feel NASCAR is giving people the actual truth.

Brian France's reputation for spineless spin was in action yet again during Homestead weekend following word that NASCAR's champion's points fund was cut in half.   The spin is the points fund will be more equitably split - which rubs salt into the wound for the likes of Dave Marcis, who long demanded NASCAR and its tracks "pay a better damned purse" as he would caustically put it to Bruton Smith.   That NASCAR suddenly is going that way suggests there are real money problems.

And it led Brian France to hold a 30-minute presser defending the health of the sport, and his defenses as usual have no credibility. As one observer, Randy Cadenhead, put it, "he was not prepared and had no intention of fielding any hardball questions."    Indeed Cadenhead described the presser as "a trainwreck" and with a new Cup series sponsors still not signed just three months before the Daytona 500 - this twenty-three months after Sprint announced it was leaving the sport - the analogy to a trainwreck is apt.

There is also the promised new manufacturer for NASCAR - Brian France made it out that two such manufacturers were wanting to enter the sport, and yet there is no sign of anything.  


So was there anything worth remembering in the 2016 NASCAR season?  Well yes - the Truck Series produced terrific races at Daytona (by far the best race of the year), Kansas, Texas, and Michigan, while the Xfinity series saw a pair of unusual affairs at Bristol and a very spirited Firecracker 250.   At the Cup level the Daytona 500's photo finish was virtually the only racing all day while the Firecracker 400 had the most sustained battle for the lead.   The Cup series also ended a drought spanning some 25 months without a first-time winner.  

Yet it was all thin competitive gruel for a sport that's supposed to be a lot better than this, illustrated not only by the Trucks but by the Indianapolis 500 and Indycar's Texas 600k finish, Indy Lights' 100-miler at the Brickyard, and Talladega's ARCA 200-miler.   


Adding to the sense of bitterness is 2016 marked anniversaries of three of NASCAR's most memorable seasons -

In 1976 NASCAR's first greatest finish erupted in David Pearson's stunning wreck and victory in the Daytona 500, followed by his spectacular ten-win season, a spectacular nine victories and first title for Cale Yarborough, and gutsy efforts by Richard Petty, Dave Marcis, Benny Parsons, and Lennie Pond, not to mention a shocking comeback win by Donnie Allison amid a winless season for his brother Bobby.  It was a season highlighted by the Daytona 500 stunner and memorable battles at Atlanta, the Southern 500, Charlotte, Pocono, and Talladega.

Ten years later 1986 saw an eruption of thirteen Cup winners and three first-timers - none wilder than Bobby Hillin's upset at the chaotic Talladega 500.  A last-lap melee at Richmond by Dale Earnhardt sent a surprised Kyle Petty to his first win and was the first national notice to the questionable racing ethic of Earnhardt.   The story of the year was the mid-season eruption of Tim Richmond to national prominence; Richmond's eruption to seven wins was highlighted by his wreck at Pocono where he erased a lap deficit and stormed to a stunning photo-finish win; amid all that Earnhardt clawed to five wins and his second series title, and it wasn't until controversy and tragedy cut short his career that people realized how special Richmond was.

Ten years after that, the 1996 season began in one of the wildest Daytona 500s ever; a three-straight victory bid by Sterling Marlin faltered - he would settle for a huge comeback win at Talladega and a rain-shortened Firecracker win - and Dale Jarrett, a former 500 winner, stormed to the win that began a spectacular run of success (four wins that year alone) while Earnhardt earned a pair of wins and more controversy after a dropkick to Bobby Hamilton, denying Hamilton a win that would not come until a bitterly fought season reached Phoenix at the end of October. Memorable upsets by Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd, and Bobby Labonte - driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in the first year the organization opened its own engine shop - sandwiched around Hamilton's breakthrough.   The story of that season, though, was Jeff Gordon, who exploded to ten wins for the first time in his career, and Terry Labonte, who stormed to two wins and pounced on late-season DNFs by Gordon, this despite a wrist injury late in the season.   The Daytona 500, both Talladega weekends, Pocono in June, Dover in September, and Phoenix highlighted quality racing that season.

It was a case of a lot to look back upon and next to nothing to look forward to.   This may be the summation of what so many fans feel about NASCAR with the end of 2016 and Brian France's endless spin in the wake of real problems.

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