Friday, February 09, 2007

NASCAR Preview

"Not that there's anything wrong with that."

A few things before I get to my long-awaited Nextel Cup preview (hey I'm not laughing...not funny!), here's a few things I just want to lay down:

The more I watch college basketball, the more I realize that any team who wins back-to-back championships has to be considered a dynasty. Honestly, as a fan, I love this. With Florida really being the only "power" out there right now, it just makes it so much fun to watch a game and really have no idea who will win (except when USC plays a ranked opponent...the outcome is pretty much inevitable). I can almost see why people hate the Patriots for this exact reason: It's kind of fun to see someone else win, and not just the same old teams every single year. What also makes the college game great, again from a fan's perspective, is the age limit the NBA has set on potential players entering the draft. It definitely adds a lot of talent that, otherwise, would have never even thought about going to school. The reason I say that is from a fan's perspective is because, when I look at the situation realistically, I think it's a travesty that these kids can't enter the draft straight out of high school. Again, I know that there has been a lot of discussion about this, but when you watch guys like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant playing out of their minds right now, you can't help but wonder what they would be like right now in the NBA. Also, it is such an incredible health risk to be playing another year of amateur ball before attempting to be drafted. I know that these guys have large insurance policies on them, but the money they would get from that is not even close to what they would be making if they were able to get into the NBA right away and start earning their money right off the bat. That contract is guaranteed when you sign it, so even if you get hurt in the preseason, you're still going to be netting the same amount. Also, when you think about these kids' backgrounds, you can't help but feel bad, because some of them are already feeling a burden to try and help support their families financially. So, basically what I'm getting at is, if the kid thinks he can make it in the NBA, and the teams, who have already been exposed to the "busts" that have previously come straight out of high school, are willing to use their first, or sometimes, second round picks on these guys, then what's the harm? It's a complete myth that the NBA was going to be diluted with high school kids, and that the NCAA was going to be any less entertaining or would lose its value is just being naive. Again, NBA teams have seen guys like Kwame Brown and Jonathan Bender, and they realize how much of a gamble it is to take a guy out high school, but when you consider the immediate impact that most of them have made (I'm not going to even bother trying to list them all), it seems to me that the cream rises to the top, and that most of the guys who aren't either skilled or mature enough to handle being in the pros eventually get weeded out. I don't get it, and neither do a lot of people, but then again, it's all part of David Stern's plan to complete abolish the "ghettoism" of the league, and really that's what it's all about if you think about it.

I have always raved about how great ESPN Classic is, but frankly, some of their programming choices are a bit questionable. I mean how many times do you throw that channel on, and you see bowling. Bowling? And it's not even "classic" moments, like a perfect game, or a great match. It's just two dudes in a bowling match, most of the time for no real important set of circumstances. What the hell? Also, I could go without the constant billiards, unless it's of the trick shot variety, which is actually watchable. Look, if I had access to literally every sports moment that has ever happened, and every sports movie as well, I would definitely be able to be running a 24/7/365 network. I mean I could just do that with Boston sports! Now that I would watch. But getting back to my original point, what is the thinking about putting this stuff on? Are they really running out of things to put on? I mean they're showing Arliss now, which is arguably one of the most polarizing shows in the history of TV (you either love it or hate it, there is absolutely no middle ground). Still, I have to give them credit for a lot of the things they do. For every silly thing they put on, there's another ten that they show that have definitive value to watch. I may be too demanding, but when it's 2:00 in the morning, I do not want to be watching Walter Ray Williams, Jr. vs. Norm Duke from the 1991 Firestone Open.

With the Daytona 500 just one week away, I felt that it would be an excellent time to preview the 2007 Nextel Cup season. So before you click off of this, at least hear me out here, as I will attempt to explain why NASCAR is watchable.

1.) The Coverage. I cannot stress how great the coverage that FOX provides for every race they do. There is no greater pleasure I get than getting up on a Sunday afternoon, shaking off a hangover by drinking beer, and listening to Mike Joy, Larry McRenyolds, and good ol' "DW," Darrell Waltrip (the best color man on the air right now...buggidy buggidy buggidy!). They know all the ins and outs on every track and know the flow of the race. When you add in the pit crew reporters, the "Crank It Up" segment (which is brilliant to all ends), and the overall format, it doesn't get any better. I am overly curious has to how ESPN will handle the races in their first crack at the "hey, NASCAR's popular now" era. Remember, they did cover the races for a long, long time, so it will be interesting to see how they do this time around (They had the races on ESPN2 actually...2! To understand fully how well they covered that, watch a drag race that they cover now, and actually, they have it on ESPN Classic, ya know, instead of showing the Kordell Stewart hail mary, let's show drag racing from 1998).

2.) The Fans. It is incredibly hard to imagine, if you're an outsider, how much people get into a particular driver. They live and die for these guys every Sunday. Picture the emotion you get for a playoff game, and then spread that out over 35 races. It's pretty nuts. People will hold grudges against another driver because of an incident that could have happened five years ago. And in a way, isn't that true in all sports. I mean I hate the Yankees for something that happened 88 years ago (ok, that may have been reaching a little, but still, they got a lot of passion).

3.) The History. Ok, so if you can't get into stock car racing from the above two, maybe this will help. Stock car racing, on a whole, was started when a bunch of crazy southerners were bootlegging moonshine during prohabition. If you think about it, it was like the mafia of the South. Can you really name another sport that was started based on criminal activities? (and no, mailbox crashing is not a sport...degenerate). And now, not only is it an accepted sport, it is grossing a bizarre amount of money. Bill France, Sr. is like the Don Corleone of racing. The France family receives about 80% of the total revenues from TV and merchandise, and not only that, they have controlling interest in over half of the racetracks on the circuit. And if they don't own it, it's likely that they will stop racing there, because guess what? They run the scheduling too! (R.I.P. Rockingham, that was an awesome track). So if nothing else, you have to admire how this guy is running a dictatorship in America, and no one really seems to care (except maybe for the drivers and everyone else involved in NASCAR).

Ok, so here's some things to look at as the season gets closer to starting:

John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, has just completed a deal to purchase 50% of the stake in Roush Racing. Roush's race team includes Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, and David Regan, so you're not talking small-time here. This is legitimately a huge deal because this is what the future could hold for NASCAR. In my opinion, you're going to start seeing a lot of billionaire, sports-related figures getting into the business, which is unfortunate for them, because I think NASCAR really has already reached its peak, and from here, a decline is almost inevitable. I mean I'll still be watching (by the way, I failed to say that I've been watching races since around '97, so you can't really call me a bandwagoner right now), but as for the rest of America, I think it will be very tough to attract any more viewers. I mean, I think you're pretty much stuck with the fans you have right now. I don't see any way of NASCAR getting more fans on board (even I've tried, and got nothing, and trust me, I can be very persuasive). You already had by far the biggest spike in the history of professional sports, so where can you go from there? Anyway, with Henry buying this stake in Roush, expect a whole bunch of racing shows and commercials to start popping up on NESN (which will make people even sicker of NASCAR).

Toyota will be entering the Nextel Cup for the first time this year, and they have been able to woo away a bunch of drivers from the traditional Ford/Chevy/Dodge/Pontiac mold. They include AJ Allmendiger, Brian Vickers, Dave Blaney, Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Jarret, David Reutimann, and Michael Waltrip. That's a pretty impressive amount, which is only equalled by the equally impressive amount of cash Toyota was most likely throwing at these guys. This will be by far one of the big stories of the year. Will the Camry have a real chance to contend against the Monte Carlo and the Grand Prix, which have dominated the circuit for years, or will it crash and burn much like what the Ford Taurus has done so far in its short time on the circuit. So far, it's been...good I guess? In a recent article by's David Newton, the senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development said "We haven't run one into the fence and we haven't seen smoke come out of any wires yet, so we're ok." Yeah, I'm not sure how to interpret that. I think it's a little thing called "we'll see."

The last bit of big news that happened over the Cup's offseason was the announcement that Juan Montoya, the former CART champ and Indy car driver, will be joining the Nextel Cup for his first season. He will be driving the #42 Toyota car for Chip Ganassi racing. This will be the first time in recent memory an open-wheel driver, who had the success that Montoya had, decided to bolt and join NASCAR full-time. Montoya also adds another aspect of intrigue, becoming one of a select few minorities to be driving on the circuit. It's another unknown about how Montoya will be able to handle the unbridled aggressiveness of stock car racing, as he is used to going extremely fast, but probably is not used to bump-drafting and the other nuances of driving with these guys. If he doesn't know about it now, he is going to find out very quickly.

Ok, so onto my predictions. Honestly, I just don't see any way of anybody competing with Jimmie Johnson. Hate it or love it, the guy is an amazing driver, and figured out how to perfect the "Kenseth method," which is basically having the thought process of "winning, but not going to extreme lengths to do so." I know that sounds bizarre, because normally, you would do anything to win, but it's really simple actually. It's not as though Johnson takes no risks at all, but he is able to avoid "unnecessary" risks that so many other drivers take to try and win. Johnson will simply keep everything in front of him, and wait for someone else to mess up, and capitalize on that, which he did so often last year (14 top fives and 25 top tens out of 37 starts). Also, he has Chad Knaus, a guy who goes through completely unnecessary, and most of the time, illegal means, to make Johnson's car better than anyone else's. So, I have Johnson winning the whole thing again this year.

As for the rest, here's how I see things shaking down:

Jeff Burton is going to go back into mediocrity, as repeating his seventh place finish from last year will simply be too much to ask. Although Burton did have past success (from 1998-2001, he went 5th, 7th, 2nd, and 8th respectively), his recent performance has been closer to what you can expect from Burton this year (2002-2005, 12th, 12th, 17th, and 18th).

The most improved driver on the circuit will be Casey Mears. After finishing 14th last year, which was his best finish of his four-year career. Couple his escalating success with the recent additon of new crew chief Darian Grubb, who was the lead engineer for Jimmie Johnson, and also, recall that he filled in as crew chief when the previously mentioned Chad Knaus was suspended at the Daytona 500, and won, Mears has a ton to go off of, and should be considered as a dark horse to at least contend to make the year end "Chase For The Cup."

Tony Stewart is not going to have the kind of "bounce back" season that a lot of people are predicting that he will have. I think he will make the Chase, but will finish in the bottom five at year's end. The reason people believe that Stewart will come back is due to his success in the last portion of the schedule, earning three wins and one second place finish in his last ten starts. However, you can basically attribute nearly all of his success to the fact that he was driving with absolutely nothing to lose. He was out of the Chase, and really racing purely for winning, and not for placing in the standings. The fact is that Stewart has made so many enemies on the track (except perhaps Dale Jr., and even that relationship has been rocky at times), that he simply will not be able to have the kind of success that he has shared in the past. In the modern era, having allies on the track is almost as important as having a good car. If you are able to get "drafting buddies," you will be infintely more successful as you would if you were like Stewart, being completely egregious to following any kind of "track etiquette." It is unfortunate because it is clear that Stewart has a lot of talent (won the championship two years ago), but he has played the "bad boy" role for much too long, and now, people are starting to get tired of his act, unless you like Tony Stewart, which also means you relish in being a "bad ass." So go on in your bad ass ways I say, but don't expect your boy to be bringing home a championship any time soon.

Denny Hamlin will kick serious ass. Period. And that's it.

Alright, well I hope you enjoyed that, and if you didn't, I hope you will enjoy my little send off here. I'm going to go have a drink or ten, and cheers the upcoming NASCAR season. So to them and theirs, have a fun, safe weekend. Thanks for reading. Peace.


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