By: Jonathan Ingram
Ingram's Flat Spot On:Is NASCAR A Reality Script?
I always enjoy the buffoons who immediately condemn NASCAR racing as fixed whenever something fortuitous happens in the way of driver accomplishments. If they're commentators on sports in general, they usually come from stick and ball backgrounds, don't have to answer to race fans, don't know a damn thing about racing and enjoy winding people up, including themselves, by sharing their ignorance.
Those within the sport, on the other hand, who think NASCAR pulls the strings to determine who gets into Victory Lane are more than likely disgruntled individuals who believe the world -- and NASCAR -- are always conspiring against them.
Just as a reminder, NASCAR's power historically has been wielded by making sure somebody doesn't win, i.e. inopportune cautions, failure to pass pre-race inspection, etc. The effort to make sure a certain car and driver get into victory lane or win the pole is dicey at best. (Granted, back in 1998 the new Ford Taurus carried too much rear spoiler the year Dale Earnhardt Sr. finally won the Daytona 500 in his Chevy with a couple of Fords on his tail and maybe this extra spoiler that was soon trimmed prevented the Fords from winning and slightly stacked the deck. But, hey! That's another story.)
I bring all this up because it's unlikely NASCAR's Sprint Cup could have gotten off to a better season than the 2011 campaign thus far. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Daytona 500 pole. (Thus his accomplishment brings the "fix is in" from the smart money, the people who somehow can figure out how NASCAR was able to subtract a few thousandths of a second from the qualifying lap time of Earnhardt Jr. versus teammate Jeff Gordon.)
Then, the sport's youngest driver and a kid so unsung as to be mute on the expectation scale wins at Daytona with NASCAR's oldest team, which breaks a ten-year losing streak for the Wood Brothers.
Michael Waltrip wins the Camping World Truck race in Daytona on the same day that Dale Earnhardt Sr. died ten years earlier -- and just about the time Waltrip's book about that day begins to climb on best seller listings. (And yes, Mikey does it with a damaged rear spoiler that gives him more speed, which means, according the the forever disgruntled, that NASCAR allowed the team to figure out just how to damage the wing in the right way to be able to win.)
Danica Patrick leads a lap in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in a major series at Daytona. Tony Stewart wins by an eyelash, complementing Waltrip's move at the checkers the night before and foreshadowing Sunday's big finish.
There was back-up in Phoenix, where points leader Carl Edwards and a likely candidate to knock Jimmie Johnson off his throne, wins the pole and confirms that Roush Fenway Racing has escaped last year's doldrums and that the new Ford FR9 engine really has got soul. Kyle Busch, the one driver NASCAR needs in order to have at least one winning but divisive personality, sweeps the Truck and Nationwide races.
At the end of a Sprint Cup race that included enough contact to qualify as a wrestling match, Jeff Gordon denies Busch the hat track with some old-fashioned bump-and-run, thus breaking his losing streak of almost two years. The (full) grandstands erupt with praise.
About the only thing that's supposedly gone wrong has been the new points system of NASCAR, which allows drivers to earn points in only one series. This fan-pleasing radical surgery left the ladies and gentlemen of the racing media in a not-so-fine fettle after winning drivers didn't win any points in Daytona -- fulfilling the precise goal of the new system to focus the championships on the regular drivers in each of the three traveling series. Just who is the loser here? Please let me know. (Daytona trophy or points? Hmmm. Let me see... .)
So what's next? You guessed it. A victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yep, I just got the call from Daytona Beach. (They called open-wheel specialist Robin Miller of Speed TV to let him in on the fix about Earnhardt Jr.'s pole; this week, I got the call.)
Yes sir. Little E is going to turn up big in the near future. Just as switching Alan Gustafson to the rides of Gordon has the 39-year-old former champ hitting on cylinders again, Steve Letarte working on the No. 88 entries is going to bring Earnhardt Jr. back to the front. (Late last year, NASCAR called team owner Rick Hendrick and said, "If you switch your crew chiefs to make it look legit, we'll handle the rest. And, oh yes. If you help us out, we'll lower the age limit to 15 in the K&N Series so a hot prospect like Chase Elliott is eligible. So sign him up!" This according to top secret sources.)
Earnhardt Jr. is playing along in all of his interviews as well, saying all the right things. After the race at Phoenix he was upbeat despite a poor starting position, poor track position and a broken wheel that forced him to pit for an unscheduled stop after climbing back into contention.
"We need to keep doing this," said Earnhardt Jr. "We need to do this a little bit better, we have to keep making up big ground. We have to keep this up. I haven’t run good here for awhile, I really haven’t. So I was pretty happy with the way the car worked. The car can always run better. We ran a little bit different than the No. 24 (Gordon) so we will look at what he did and talk to him all week and see what’s up. We really studied hard trying to do good and we had a result. We will try again next week.”
Oh yes. I forgot something. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne got his Ford turned with an ill-advised move on the front stretch aboard the Wood Brothers Ford in the early going at Phoenix and crashed. (Among other things, this suggested that Bayne could use more seasoning as a Nationwide regular and always has been an unlikely candidate to gain a lot of points in the Sprint Cup -- even if he were eligible, which he's not under the new system. Which is fine. Say hello to fellow youngster Joey Logano, still trying to make the Chase again this year.)
By crashing, Bayne's fairy tale week, which included more TV appearances than Jay Leno and John Stewart combined, came to an end. The kid is actually human. In general, maybe all this good stuff going on in the NASCAR ranks is for real.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.