The life and times of Jim Hunter were celebrated wonderfully this week with a visitation followed by a wonderful service Wednesday at Darlington Presbyterian Church. NASCAR’s former Vice President of Communications, who passed away last Friday following a lengthy battle with cancer, was remembered as a caring father, friend, and passionate leader for the sport he helped mold into a national powerhouse since entering the stock car workforce in 1968. But as the last of the sport’s “old guard” made his peaceful transition into another world, those left remaining in this one had to privately be thinking the same question many down in Daytona Beach have been asking for several months:
Hunter’s passing is just the latest in a number of NASCAR’s aging leaders who have either left the Earth or their jobs the last few years. Chief among them is Bill France Jr., whose 2007 passing has sparked a three-year period where the sport has lost Bristol Motor Speedway President Jeff Byrd (death), former Technical Director Steve Peterson (death), legendary Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler (retirement), New Hampshire Motor Speedway President Bob Bahre (retirement), top journalist David Poole (death) and even Motor Racing Outreach founder Max Helton (death) in just the last two seasons. The current head of NASCAR’s Public Relations Department, Ramsey Poston is leaving his post at the end of the year, as well as Sprint Cup Director John Darby, whose replacement has yet to be named despite the announcement of a “transition” in February.
It’s a long list of star power fading into the sunset, complicated further by the number of those still hanging on who are reaching the end of their tenures. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Speedway Motorsports, Inc. leader O. Bruton Smith, the man once looked at to fight NASCAR for control of the sport, is now 83 years old. Chairman of the Board at ISC, Jim France, is 66, while brother Bill’s former wife Betty Jane is over 70; together, they own 65 percent of the stock in a company whose future is increasingly uncertain in the midst of massive attendance losses at each of its major facilities around the country.
But the Social Security crowd isn’t just limited to executives. Cup Series owner and Indy 500-winning legend Roger Penske is 73. So is NASCAR’s King, Richard Petty, reduced to merely a figurehead in the nearly-bankrupt RPM organization he’s trying to purchase. But how long will Petty be an active leader even if he succeeds? Ford power Jack Roush, who nearly lost his life in a plane crash in July, is 68, while Toyota rival Joe Gibbs turns 70 this year. Of those listed, only Gibbs, whose son J.D. runs the day-to-day operations of the program, seems to have a seamless transition plan in place.
So as NASCAR heads into a turbulent offseason, a crucial turning point in its history after four straight years of clear-cut decline, a “next generation” to replace all these leaders remains unclear. Sure, there’s a small handful of promising young owners coming up the ranks with Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch attempting to keep his team afloat in the Truck Series, and Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip having already made it in Cup. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
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But five men aren’t enough to bail water from a sinking ship whose natural transition of leadership seems to have stopped across the board. Having no rookie drivers in the Cup Series is one thing, but what’s troubling is in the backrooms where the sport earns its money, there’s no All-Star executive I’ve named rising through the ranks to help Brian and Lesa France, and NASCAR President Mike Helton help engineer a turnaround. Going along with the Election Day theme of the week, if given an opportunity to vote these people out of office, as so many fans often push for, a legitimate question to ask is whom to vote in.
A quick look at ISC’s track presidents shows that five were put in their current positions within the last two years, but no one stands out as a “Humpy”-type promoter capable of injecting attendance and bucking the negative trend. And after all, you can’t just take Joe Schmo off the street and make him the leader of a racing organization. Years of knowledge, budgets, and charisma must be in tow, along with an understanding of the media that Hunter had down pat. It was he who led the charge after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, fostering explosive growth with the way the horrifying tragedy was spun into a positive to both encourage track safety and get millions to take a second look at a sport they’d never heard of.
More than ever, this sport is in need of innovative ideas as much as fans want a return to the status quo: no Chase, no Fontana, races at Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, and Darlington twice a year. It’s cute to get sentimental, but unhelpful to a NASCAR pocketbook that’s rapidly shrinking when Martinsville’s two dates averaged a paltry 48,000 in attendance in 2010. How are you going to convince shareholders that abandoning the second and third-largest media markets, Chicagoland and Fontana, for a half-mile track they don’t even own and needs millions in renovations will be financially viable?
The ugly truth is you can’t, and the millions in renovations to turn Fontana into a short track aren’t going to be on the table, either. So the sport and its track ownership branch is in a tricky conundrum, needing to get back to its roots and increasing competition on what’s been sleep-inducing 1.5-mile ovals. Unfortunately, those shutdowns across the country would cost NASCAR-armed ISC its viability. At the same time, NASCAR needs a new, sleeker-looking car just three years after the last disastrous design while encouraging new ownership to challenge a stagnant period of domination at the top by the same select country club elite.
That’s not an easy list to tackle, the current list of problems for the newest Congress tame by comparison. But at least in Washington, D.C., there’s an infusion of new leadership every two years pushed forth by a nation capable of generating change when needed. For a private corporation like NASCAR, it’s dependent on the natural development of people it hires, hoping they will one day be capable of evolving the business to keep it profitable.
Who will step up on all sides of the fence to make that happen? From the experts that cover this sport behind a computer to the leaders inside the granite walls of Daytona Beach, I don’t think anybody knows, leaving Brian France in the awkward position of fixing a NASCAR that’s broken under his watch with the same people who helped break it. And that, perhaps more than any other issue, could be a damning statement for a sport in need of an injection of fresh blood just about everywhere.
1. Jimmie Johnson He’s won the Chase every way imaginable, so why doubt he can outduel Hamlin and Harvick in a dogfight down the stretch?
2. Kevin Harvick How do you differentiate between Hamlin and Harvick here? Take whichever driver finished better in the last race. Yeah, it’s that tight.
3. Denny Hamlin Say what you will about the Chase, but there’s no denying the three best teams have risen to the top and are deservedly duking it out for this title.
4. Kyle Busch There is a big gap down to fourth, where Busch slots in just ahead of Gordon based mainly on his explosiveness — and the fact that he actually wins from time to time.
5. Jeff Gordon Eleven top fives and 17 top 10s are on par with the Big Three, but the goose egg in the win column finds Gordon over 200 points back in the standings.
6. Clint Bowyer He may be 12th in the standings, but it’s hard to argue with his two wins and a runner-up showing in the Chase.
7. Carl Edwards The No. 99 team just can’t get out of the sixth- to 12th-place range. They’re clearly two steps behind Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress.
8. Joey Logano The Chase hurts guys like Logano, because he’s not getting any attention due to the fact he didn’t qualify. Meanwhile, he’s outperformed 90 percent of those in it.
9. Jeff Burton Man, can this guy’s luck get any worse?
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10. Mark Martin Quietly set to overtake McMurray for 13th in the standings. Which is kind of like Crash Davis in pursuit of the minor league home run record.
11. Tony Stewart Tony makes the list because, well, he’s Tony Stewart, but the truth is this team is collecting notes for next year.
12. Matt Kenseth How has Kenseth remained in the top 12 despite zero wins and only five top fives? Answer: He has no DNFs and has not finished worse than 30th all season. That worked under the old point system.
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. In the midst of a four-race run at tracks that historically have agreed with Junior.
14. Jamie McMurray It’s gotten to a point where we actually expect more out of McMurray at certain tracks.
15. Greg Biffle Biffle is in not on what he’s done, but on what he could possibly do in the next three races.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann
Location: Ft. Worth, Tex. Distance: 1.5-mile quad-oval (334 laps/501 miles) Banking/Turns: 24 degrees; Banking/Quad-Oval: 18 degrees; Banking/Straightaways: 5 degrees Race Dates: April 18 (Denny Hamlin) and November 7
From the Spotter’s Stand
Everything is bigger in Texas; just ask Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup champ ended a pair of major droughts at the 1.5-mile quad-oval in April 2009.
Ripping the monkeys off his back, Gordon ended a 47 race-winless skid, and took his first checkers at Texas in 17 tries since the stop was added to the Cup schedule in 1997 — with a second annual trip added in 2005. Unfortunately for the four-time champ, the win was the one that bridged the gap between the 47-race slide and his current 62-race drought.
The 82nd victory of Gordon’s career (and the only victory of his ’09 season) moved the 24 car into sixth place all-time, behind Cale Yarborough’s 83 wins in 560 races over 31 seasons. Gordon finished ahead of runner-up and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, the November 2007 winner at Texas, by .378 seconds to extend his lead in the points standings at the time.
Gordon nearly broke the bad luck this April, when he led a race-high 124 laps at Texas — but the bug bit him again when he was involved in a late-race accident that also eliminated Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, among others. Instead of Gordon, it was Denny Hamlin who fired the six shooters in Ft. Worth, followed by a familiar cast of characters in Johnson, Kyle and Kurt Busch.
In this event last season, a brotherly feud broke out between dominant driver Kyle Busch — who led a race-high 232 laps before running out of fuel three laps short of sweeping the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series in one weekend — and ultimate winner (and older brother) Kurt Busch — who led 89 laps before earning his second victory of the season. In all, the Busch Bros. led a combined 321 of 334 total laps.
Carl Edwards has back-flipped his way to three Texas wins, while Jeff Burton has two victories, including the inaugural running in 1997. Other than the two multiple winners, 14 different drivers have taken the checkered flag in Fort Worth.
Crew Chief’s Take
"Texas looks like Charlotte and Atlanta, but trust me, it isn’t. It’s different from any other track in the way that it flattens out off of Turn 2 onto the back straight. At other tracks, there’s a little banking on the straightaways. Turns 3 and 4 are dramatically different from Turns 1 and 2 because of that. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there."
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: It’s tough to not figure one of the three Chase contenders — Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick — won’t factor. Pretty Solid Pick: See above ... Gordon, Kyle and Kurt. Good Sleeper Pick: Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth could break long losing skids here. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Joey Logano has been solid lately, but that may end in Texas. Insider Tip: The Earnhardt-Childress engines have been the best on tour all season. It should pay off here.
Classic Moments in Texas
A third-generation driver grabs his first win in the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000, while a fourth-gen driver makes his first and only start.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads a race-high 106 laps in his DEI Budweiser Chevy and wins in only his 12th Cup start. His father and car owner, Dale Earnhardt, greets him in Victory Lane for an emotional post-race celebration.
Adam Petty, great-grandson of Lee, grandson of Richard and son of Kyle, makes his one and only Cup appearance in the No. 45 Petty Enterprises entry.
No one realizes how bittersweet the day will be for the Pettys, though. Later that week the patriarch of the family, Lee, passes away. And tragically, just over one month later on May 12, Adam passes as well, when the throttle on his car sticks and he hits the wall while practicing for the Busch Series race at New Hampshire.
November 2009 Race Winner: Kurt Busch April 2010 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin
April 2010 Top 10
1. Deny Hamlin
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Kyle Busch
4. Kurt Busch
5. Kasey Kahne
6. Mark Martin
7. Kevin Harvick
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Greg Biffle
April 2010 Laps Led
Jeff Gordon — 124
Tony Stewart — 74
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 46
Jimmie Johnson — 39
Greg Biffle — 13
Denny Hamlin — 12
Jeff Burton/Jamie McMurray — 10
Kurt Busch/Juan Pablo Montoya — 2
Travis Kvapil/Michael McDowell — 1
It was the race that kept Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick awake at night. The three drivers left to settle the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup knew the Amp Energy Juice 500 from Talladega Superspeedway would be the ultimate wild card race in a tight championship battle.
After 188 white-knuckle laps with giant packs of cars in tight drafting quarters, the trio of contenders escaped unscathed, and more incredulously, all with top 10s. In fact, one — Harvick — came within a foot of winning.
Instead, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, who won the lottery after finding the right draft to get him in the right position at the right time and have just enough of an advantage over Harvick when a caution was displayed after the leaders had taken the white flag.
AJ Allmendinger’s frightening spin, flip and head-on contact with the inside wall triggered a yellow flag as four leaders entered Turn 1 in two-by-two formation. Bowyer edged out Harvick and David Reutimann with drafting assistance from Juan Pablo Monotya to score his second win of the season, both having come in the Chase.
"Just very, very happy for a lot of reasons," Bowyer said. "Everybody at RCR has worked very hard to get us back. To have Kevin racing for a championship is where obviously Jeff [Burton] and I wanted to be. But to have him still in a shot at winning a championship, that's very important. To be able to win two races in a Chase for our race team is very important."
Despite Bowyer’s win, he remains 12th in the standings after being penalized 150 points after an infraction found after the New Hampshire event, which Bowyer won. But the focus of the point standings now centers on the top three, where Johnson, who finished seventh, holds a 14-point lead over Hamlin, who ran ninth on Sunday. Harvick remains third, just 38 points out of the lead.
Harvick suffered nose damage to his No. 29 Chevy with 46 laps remaining, when Bowyer spun the car of Marcos Ambrose while racing in the pack. The contact dented Harvick’s nose, but the crew repaired the car with duct tape and Bondo and, miraculously, the aero-sensitive car seemed unaffected.
"When I saw him start to spin, I didn't want to spin out," Harvick explained of the accident with Ambrose. "I didn't want to come back up the racetrack. I didn't want to spin backwards and have a chance of getting in the wall.
"He just kind of rolled across the nose. I was able to just kind of not keep hitting him. I was able to just kind of go back on the gas and push him off of me. That was the best way I knew at that point to minimize the damage on the nose.
"[The crew] did a great job fixing it. Got the fenders pulled out. As long as we were in the middle of the pack, we were fine."
Johnson laid back at the tail end of the field for a large portion of the race, waiting patiently with teammate Jeff Gordon to make one last mad dash through the field near the end. When the duo decided to go with 16 laps remaining, neither expected to slice through the field as quick as they did. Within two laps they drove from 26th and 27th to first and second, only to get shuffled back when Gordon dropped back due to what he believed to be an engine issue. Without his drafting partner, Johnson plummeted through the field, but Gordon’s engine came back to life and the two recovered to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.
"We had a strategy [and] stuck to our game plan," Johnson said of riding in the back and making a late charge. "In the end, I had a shot at winning the race, which is what we were after. Unfortunately, the 24 [Gordon] felt like he had an engine problem developing once we got to the front [and] kind of pulled out of the way so he wouldn't blow an engine in front of me or the field. In the end, he was pumping some oil out and didn't have an engine problem.
"Where things kind of went wrong for us was on that restart. Things must have shuffled around behind the 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.]. The 77 and I were the only ones in the middle lane, which was the outside lane at the restart. The inside lane was well-organized. The outside lane, I think Kevin and some of those guys were hooked up and motoring on by. At that point we were just trying to get back up in there for a decent finish. On my way sliding backwards, I found the 24 again. He pushed me [and] we made our way up through the center."
Hamlin struggled as well, only to rebound late. Employing the same sandbagging strategy as Johnson, Hamlin rode in the back but at one point lost the draft and went one lap down. He wasn’t able to get back on the lead lap until the Harvick/Ambrose incident, but once there, hooked up with his teammate, Kyle Busch, and drafted to the front. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo sat atop the pylon too early — with 30 laps to go — opening the door for others to pair up and draft by.
"We were in great position to win with two to go," Hamlin said. "I had a push from the 5 [Mark Martin], but as soon as we passed the 48 [Johnson], he stopped pushing. It killed us. That's what I would expect of a teammate, but we weren't around teammates at the end."
The three points leaders are now prepared to settle the championship over the last three races — at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. And with a 38-point spread, it’s still anyone’s title.
"We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point," Johnson said of the final trio of stops. "We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. You're going to have to run in the top 5 to stay in the game then, obviously, take advantage of things and win if you can.
"Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on you’re A-game from here on out."
Martinsville Speedway provided another fantastic race last weekend with 24 lead changes among 12 drivers swapping paint and knocking fenders. Six points now separate first and second in the Chase standings by virtue of Denny Hamlin’s win, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a leader for 90 laps. And, maybe most telling, was that there was no late-race debris caution thrown to engineer an exciting finish.
The race was attended by 56,000 fans — 92 percent capacity for the speedway — while 3.9 million fans watched the race on television. While at first blush those numbers seem decent, when compared to the rest of the Chase races, the Martinsville event was behind California, Dover and Charlotte in terms of attendance and viewership. Fans continue to vocally complain about what is wrong with NASCAR and how it needs to get back to its short track racing roots, but fail to back that up with their actions.
Martinsville Speedway has been on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since the series’ first season in 1949 and is one of only two race tracks still in existence from that inaugural season. Hard core fans scream about tradition, history and how the sanctioning body turns its back on the foundation of the sport, but when the time comes to support these cornerstone facilities, the fans continue to drop the ball.
There’s no doubt that the Martinsville, Va., area is suffering mightily during this economic downturn, with unemployment near 20 percent. However, local fans are only part of the attendance for any major touring series event, and fans from outside of the region need to speak with their wallets by showing up at the half-mile paper clip. Of course, there are the usually excuses from fans — the traffic is a problem, parking is difficult, ticket prices are too high, hotel rates are ridiculous — but by comparison, Martinsville is on par with all of the other tracks on the schedule.
The speedway has done its best to help alleviate the traffic problems associated with entering and exiting the venue. Track management has worked with the state of Virginia to secure a grant from the Tobacco Commission for an upgrade to the immediate area’s infrastructure, ultimately building a new exit ramp from US 58 next to the speedway to help ease traffic flow. As part of the agreement securing the grant, International Speedway Corp. has promised to host two Sprint Cup races at the facility for the next five years. The Virginia Tourism Commission has also committed to assisting in promoting the Martinsville races through its nationwide marketing campaigns.
As far as ticket prices, Martinsville is always trying to make the racing experience affordable for the fans. This year it offered a family four pack for the Tums Fast Relief 500 that allowed a family to purchase four tickets (two adult and two child), four hot dogs, four soft drinks and two Martinsville hats for $99. To score four tickets to a Cup race for $25 is a pretty decent deal to begin with, but add in food, drinks and souvenirs for four and it is pretty hard to claim the speedway isn’t doing its best to make attending a Cup race affordable. In addition, Martinsville offered other tickets specials, from $25 backstretch and $40 Bill France Tower seats to $55 Clay Earl Tower and $65 Sprint Tower seats. The prices are without a doubt as reasonable as any found on the Cup schedule, and offer a wide variety of options.
Weather is also a factor that tends to make fans stay away from races, and Martinsville has been working hard with NASCAR to try and move its spring date closer to the late-April timeframe it occupied for years. Next year’s schedule sees the spring race moved to the first weekend in April, which will certainly allow for more comfortable conditions. The fall race lands on Halloween weekend in 2011, which should be an ideal time to enjoy the hills of southern Virginia.
The bottom line is that the fans can complain all they want that NASCAR is getting away from its roots by moving more and more races to 1.5- and 2-mile cookie-cutter tracks, but when the rubber hits the road, the fans are dropping the ball in proving to the sanctioning body that short track racing is what they want to see.
The track offers some of the best racing, year in and year out, that anyone will see during the season. Cars beat and bang, strategy comes into play and occasionally there are even dustups on and off the track, as we saw last weekend with Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. However, the fans left 4,000 empty seats in the stands on Sunday and didn’t tune in for the television broadcast, so there’s no reason for the suits in Daytona to be impressed with a crowd of 56,000 fans for a great race when Fontana gets ripped for having 70,000 in the stands at a boring one.
The populace is going to the polls next week to elect government officials for the next two years and a groundswell seems determined to send a message to Washington that the changes they’ve seen the last couple of years are unacceptable. The fans of NASCAR need to do the same thing with the races at Martinsville and the other short tracks if they truly want to see change. Because if the races at NASCAR’s oldest track are not sold out next year and the year after, then when the five-year commitment from ISC runs its course, the only people to blame for the demise of the track will be the absentee fans.