Friday, June 23, 2017

Negative Noise: Five Questions for Sonoma and Iowa

(Credit: Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Hold on, let me dust off my soap box.

This week, a lot of people had a lot of conversations, centering around the sport itself. We'll keep talking about it as the race weekend gets underway. The NASCAR Camping World Truck and NASCAR Xfinity Series converge on Iowa Speedway, while the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway.

I discuss the Truck Series’ most recent winner, an old phrase that needs to be hurled out the window, and two headlines that made a lot of noise this week. Strap in, grab a glass of wine and check out this week’s Five Questions.

Can we put Nemechek’s success into words? John Hunter Nemechek pulled off a fantastic Father’s Day gift, winning at Gateway Motorsports Park with his father, Joe, on the pit box. He’s now in the playoffs for NEMCO Motorsports, a small operation that has achieved so much with a young driver at the wheel. When Nemechek won his first race, it was a shock due to those circumstances—but now, it feels almost commonplace. Nemechek has made himself a recurring contender, despite the odds against him (lack of top-tier affiliation, limited sponsorship). He will be a force for years to come, but we can’t let his consistency blind us from the fact his accomplishments are amazing. Keep on keeping on.

Will Iowa impress like in years past for Xfinity? Trucks and Xfinity invade Iowa this weekend, the site of impressive finishes for both series. With Xfinity the butt of criticism for lack of diversity when it comes to the winner’s circle (and I’ll touch on the most recent winner’s problem later on), so Iowa provides an escape from the critiques. NXS regulars flooded last year’s top-10, with Sam Hornish, Jr. coming in and grabbing his first Xfinity win since 2014. That’s exciting and all, but can it get better? Oh yes, it can; there are no Cup drivers in the field. Some of the Truck series standouts (like CWTS Iowa winner William Byron) are now Xfinity drivers. This weekend has the potential to create some great storylines and cut through the negative noise. Let’s hope it works out.

When will people understand the irony of road course ringers? With Cup spending time in wine country, the influx of “road course ringer” talk has begun. This would be a great time to reiterate that the era of the road course ringer is dead; it’s nothing more than a moniker that’s run out of fuel. There are drivers who excel at road courses but also do well on other configurations, with A.J. Allmendinger being an example; his sole MENCS win came at Watkins Glen International in 2014, but he’s backed it up with solid seasons since then. Then, there are drivers who just race road courses and do well. We’ll see a few of them this weekend. This isn’t to discredit their abilities; however, it is proof that the term "road course ringer" makes no sense. In this age of NASCAR, road course specialists aren’t strong picks for wins—making them not ringers. It’s time to put that term to bed.

Is it time to live up to the ‘encumbered’ label? Did you hear the buzz around the sport this week? Two pieces of news broke this week—and I’m here to basically tear them apart. First, let’s discuss Denny Hamlin’s “win” last weekend—and why I put quotes around that word. Because the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NXS machine’s splitter wasn’t flat enough (a vague penalization, but that’s for another time), the victory was considered encumbered. The term “encumbered” means “to impede or hinder,” which roughly translates to a victory that has restrictions. Not in NASCAR Land; the crew chief was suspended for two races and faced a $25,000 fine. The No. 20 car can’t use the win’s points in the playoffs. Since Hamlin doesn’t compete for NXS points, he receives no blow back—and the win/money/trophy is still his. Imagine how Byron feels, knowing his legal car only lost due to someone’s splitter. None of these penalties means much if the win stands. NASCAR’s rebuttal is that fans should know who won the race when they leave the track, which is understandable—and completely archaic. If fans love the sport enough to go to the track, they’re interested enough to keep up with the mid-week happenings. Technology at our fingertips makes it easy to get the breaking news that Hamlin’s win is invalid and Byron is the new Michigan International Speedway victor. NASCAR needs to go all in on stripping wins if they truly want to deter people from cheating; it’s time to embrace the true meaning of encumbered.


Do we have a personality problem or a closed-minded problem? A post-Michigan column from the Detroit Free Press was shared via USA Today earlier this week. Author Shawn Windsor is completely entitled to his opinion, which is what a column is meant to showcase. However, there is a lack of research that hangs over this piece. Now, there are points with which I agree, like the fact that other sports are struggling with attendance numbers. We also agree that drivers’ personalities aren’t even close to those of their predecessors. This doesn’t strike me as a bad thing at all; although we look back on those beer-slingin’, punch-throwin’ badasses with fondness, some drivers just don’t fit that mold. Larson said after his MIS victory that he was excited to drink wine in Sonoma, and he later said on Twitter he wasn’t a fan of beer. Does that make him any less exciting to watch? Not to me. Windsor goes on to describe how the sport will suffer without Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (a solid opinion that’s accurate to a degree), claiming that no other driver’s celebrity status goes beyond racing. Jimmie Johnson posing for GAP, Landon Cassill profiled by GQ, and Kasey Kahne highlighted in Runner’s World beg to differ. There are more examples as well, but those three link current drivers with large, mainstream publications. The fact of the matter is, the rise of the young guns also brings brand-new personalities that rival the norm and what we would use to describe the ultimate NASCAR driver. Just because drivers prefer wine to beer, metal to country, golfing to hunting doesn’t make them less interesting. Traditional fans should welcome the change with open arms instead of balking at the idea of young millennials “tainting” the driver image. Nevertheless, I respect Windsor’s opinion and appreciate his coverage of the sport; it forced a conversation that needed to happen. 

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