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WAID’S WORLD: As The ‘Old’ Among The ‘New’ Johnson Remains Unchanged

I’m not sure Jimmie Johnson ever thought this scenario would arise. At 42 he is the graybeard – or grandfather, grizzled veteran, whatever – of the Hendrick Motorsports team.

It was just 16 years ago he was the team’s newcomer, its freshman driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The native Californian got his break when Jeff Gordon, at the time a Hendrick veteran, saw his potential and convinced team owner Rick Hendrick to sign him.

I’m thinking Johnson has asked himself, “How did 16 years go by so fast?”

For Johnson, they were a very successful 16 years. Heck, upon review they were a spectacular 16 years.

Johnson amassed 83 victories and won a record-tying seven championships, including an unprecedented five in a row from 2002-2006. His last title came in 2016 – when he was 40 years old – and he’s bee trying to notch a NASCAR record eighth even since.

As mentioned, the Hendrick landscape has changed. Gordon retired after the 2016 season and 2017 was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last year as a full-time Cup competitor.

They were marquee names; drivers who were among the most popular in NASCAR. Earnhardt Jr. was the most popular.

William Byron and Alex Bowman have replaced them. Another Hendrick driver, Chase Elliott, joined in 2015.

All are well under 30 years old. Which means that Johnson is now the team’s elder statesman and mentor.

The new roles don’t concern him.

“The fresh blood brings great excitement and it also brings just a different vantage point,” Johnson said. “When you look at William, for the longest time, like, using our simulator, I watch something happen with another driver, that’s just a gaming way to go about it. It’s starting to happen in the real world.  That new vantage point is really helpful. 

“I am excited to have all this new stuff going on around us, from rules internally at Hendrick, the new car, my teammates. I’ve taken a notebook and pen everywhere I go because everywhere I look, there’s something to learn.  That’s exciting.”

Traditionally, most drivers express optimism when they are introduced to new things, such as teammates and car models.

But inwardly most have been concerned mainly with their own performances. For Johnson’s part, if he’s going to win an eighth championship he is going to have to do better than he did in 2017 – new circumstances notwithstanding.

Last year Johnson posted a record of three wins, four top-5 finishes and 11 finishes among the top 10. He wound up 10th in points.

Those numbers would be very good for most competitors but for Johnson they were subpar. The last time he came away with three victories was in 2003. The number of finishes among the top five and the top 10 were the lowest of his career.

“We kept hoping every stone we turned over would help us find our problem last year,” Johnson said. “What was so frustrating is I’ve never worked so hard in my life to get such little return. 

“I know Chad (Knaus, crew chief), can say the same and the team can. The efforts they put in, just mind-boggling. 

“I’m so happy I have a group of guys to do that, to do anything possible. It was just so frustrating when you don’t get anything for it. So that was tough.”

Surrounded by so many things “new,” it might be difficult to determine what might happen to the “old” Johnson in 2018.

He is signed with Hendrick through 2020 so he has three more years left as “the old guy.”

Knaus, Johnson’s right-hand man for 16 years, might be a free agent at the end of 2018. If this is his last season at the helm of Johnson’s team, well, that is yet another “new.”

“I guess we’ll wait to fully embrace it until we both decide to hang it up,” Johnson said. “I feel like crew chiefs have always lived in dog years and I’m not sure where he’s going to be.

“Of course I want him to push on. I keep telling him, ‘Man, I started this with you, I want to finish it with you.’ I’ll try to stretch him as long as I can.”

To repeat: New teammates, new car and a crew chief that might be a lame duck. And on top of it all, Johnson is the “old man” at Hedrick.

Does all of this really matter for Johnson in 2018?

“No, that doesn’t change anything,” Johnson said. “My desire to be competitive, my desire to be a champion, my desire to win races, has never wavered. 

“That’s who I am, it’s what I am.”

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: Don’t Look Now, But CMS Has Planned Another ‘Gimmick’

Well, Charlotte Motor Speedway is at it again.

At what, you may ask?

It’s made yet another bold, innovative initiative that is geared toward making Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing more entertaining, while, at the same time, provide an impetus for fan interest and potentially higher ticket sales.

Or, more simply put, it’s come up with another gimmick.

We’ve known this one was coming. Late last year CMS revealed that it was going to conduct a NASCAR event on a road course.

Of course, the speedway is a 1.5-mile oval. But it has always had an infield road course layout that would be put to use to create the “Roval” – a 2.28-mile layout with 17 turns that makes use of much of the long-standing circle track.

The “Roval” has come to fruition and will be used for the first time on Sept. 28-30 for the Bank of America 500.

Now here’s where Charlotte’s gimmick may just pay nice dividends. The Bank of America 500 will be the first road race in the history of NASCAR’s playoffs.

It fulfills what many fans and media have requested. It will be a road course race amid the oval-track events that make up the 10-race playoff. It will offer a stronger challenge for a championship in that all types of NASCAR racing – on superspeedways, 1.5-mile ovals, short tracks and, now, a road course – will be utilized.

Don’t think for a moment CMS hasn’t tried to capitalize on this. Yes, there are many who do not like road courses and may have already scratched the Bank of America 500 off their “must watch” list.

But the speedway is gambling that more fans approve of a road courses than don’t. Additionally, the race is bound to raise curiosity – and thus, perhaps, lift attendance.

You can bet CMS is going to do plenty to promote the event.

After all, that is what it has been doing for years, namely, applying as much hoopla to its gimmicks as possible. And very often it gets the desired results.

Let’s talk about the gimmicks – or, more politely, the innovations.

In the mid 1970s after Bruton Smith regained control of the speedway he helped built, he made it known very quickly nothing would languish. Changes based on new ideas were coming and there would be plenty of them.

He hired as his president a long-time PR and marketing pro named H.A. “Humpy’ Wheeler. He was the type of individual who believed racing, at any level, could not happen without fan appeal and support.

In other words his philosophy was to give the customer more than his or hers money’s worth.

This meant more than, say, 10 cents a beer night.

Smith announced that, along with speedway renovations, condominiums would be built. They would be sold to potential homeowners for six figures.

This, of course, had never been done. Condos at a race track? Suffice it to say many thought Smith was ready for the psycho ward.

But darn if all of them weren’t sold. And, a few years later, Smith decreed there would be more condos – much more luxurious and much more expensive.

By this time folks didn’t question Smith’s sanity. They just stood by to see what would happen. Sure enough, the condos sold out.

Wheeler kept pace with his boss. Races at CMS routinely had their own competitive twists; nearly all of them planned the track president.

As one example he created “team” racing, in which one competitor would unite with another and their combined finish in the event could provide a nice payout.

But over the years Wheeler’s claim to fame was not the actual racing, rather, it was the pre-race. He hatched such extravaganzas as flying school buses, a taxicab race, motorcycle jumping, boxing matches and military invasions.

By the way, there were multiple military exhibitions, complete with helicopters and explosions.

The Army was delighted. It claimed it got 200 new recruits with each pre-race show.

The media called Wheeler’s pre-race shows “Humpy’s Circus.” When he heard that, Wheeler’s next show was, yes, a circus – complete with elephants.

CMS was chosen as the site for The Winston, a special “all star” event for winners only. Because of its promotional and showmanship abilities the track was a natural choice. It still is.

There’s much more, such as the installation of lights (CMS was the first large track to have them), the creation of a huge backstretch video screen (not available at any other track), and, of course, The Speedway Club (now decades old after many thought a country club atmosphere would never succeed).

Now we can add the “Roval” to the list.

I will readily admit that the media, and the fans, can be a cynical bunch.

But many times in the past CMS has quelled their cynicism and doubts.

At the Bank of America 500 this September, it will have its chance to do so – again.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: Reducing Seats At Tracks Reflects What Has Come To Be

Have to say it’s interesting that Martinsville Speedway is reducing its number of seats. By doing so, it is following a trend that has been long established by several other NASCAR tracks.

Many speedways have reconfigured their seating arrangements by reducing their capacity. In some cases the changes have been dramatic.

Charlotte Motor Speedway has removed all its backstretch seats, or at least converted them into blocks of advertising accompanied by a massive, one-of-a-kind video screen.

Daytona International Speedway made perhaps the most dramatic transition. It, too, removed seats from its long backstretch.

But, as you probably know, it completely revamped everywhere else. It’s hard to describe, at least for me, but Daytona is now perhaps the most visibly spectacular speedway and the most accommodating for the fans.

However, it does not have the amount of seating it once did.

Martinsville is removing rows of seats from the top of the Bill France Tower between turns three and four, and all of the seats above the press box in turns one and two.

Speedway President Clay Campbell is the grandson of track founder H. Clay Earles and has acquired much of the senior’s business and marketing acumen.

Campbell explained that the seats being eliminated were too high and difficult for fans to reach. This created logistical problems.

Campbell added that it would be far easier for fans not to have to negotiate 10 stories to get to their seats. It took 180 stair steps to reach the top row at the press box. As high as the chairs were, they weren’t high enough to install elevators.

Campbell’s logic is spot on. If you have been to Martinsville and seen those tall towers you might well have reached the conclusion I have:

To wit, if a fan seated near or at the top of one of those towers slipped in the aisle it would result in a harrowing, uninterrupted plunge.

I know, it sounds a bit melodramatic. But that’s what I thought each time I looked up and tried not to get dizzy.

Campbell admitted there was another reason for the removal of the seats. Attendance at Martinsville – or just about any other track – is down, so much so that a reduction in capacity is necessary.

At Martinsville it’s the logistically challenging seats that are being taken away.

At Daytona and Charlotte the backstretch seating, the cheapest and least favorable for fan viewing, were taken away. Other tracks have followed the same strategy.

All of this is dramatically different from what was once a boom in speedway expansion. There was a time – in the early 1990s – when tracks added seats.

They felt they had to. It was a time of booming popularity for NASCAR. What was then its Winston Cup Series had attracted public attention on an unimaginable scale.

The addition of new venues such as Las Vegas, Kansas City and Chicago – each magnificently groomed to lure fans – fueled that.

With booming track attendance, some of NASCAR’s older facilities, several of which were 30 years old or older, found themselves at a crossroads.

NASCAR held all the cards. If they didn’t manage to keep up with the capacity and amenities of the new facilities, their continued existence was doubtful.

So they began making changes, one of which was to greatly increase seating. Nearly every speedway found the means to add capacity, among other things, to protect its place in NASCAR.

Some tracks, such as Bristol and Atlanta, became handsome reincarnations. Most others, including Martinsville, added new levels or towers of seating.

Some of them were marginally successful – in some cases they still lost one of two Winston Cup dates.

Others disappeared. North Carolina Motor Speedway changed from a sleepy, one-mile track into an almost regal facility.

North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of NASCAR’s oldest, added its own tower of new seats.

But it wasn’t enough. Both were gone by 1996, unable to generate enough attendance to survive.

Ironically, today almost all of NASCAR’s speedways have not been able to generate the attendance they once did.

Downsizing, capacity-wise, is the only answer.

And it’s a far cry from what used to be.

I think it is reasonable to assume neither NASCAR nor its tracks ever thought this would come to pass.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: The Time When NASCAR’s Season Began In January – In California

During the seemingly long, cold (for most of us) months that make up NASCAR’s off-season, diehard fans impatiently count down the days until racing begins anew in February at Daytona.

There was a time when no one had to do that. Believe it or not, a new season began in November of the previous year.

No, really.

For example, the 1963 Grand National season began on Nov. 4, 1962 at Birmingham Speedway in Alabama. The second race was held at Tampa and the third in Randleman, N.C., before the end of the year.

The road course race in Riverside, Calif., was the fourth of the season but the first run in 1963 – Jan. 20, to be exact.

It was won by road racing ace Dan Gurney in a Holman-Moody Ford.

Why the NASCAR schedule of the time was so convoluted and downright peculiar is uncertain,

But my own theory (theory, mind you) might have had something to do with the fact that there were 57 Grand National races conducted in a single, 52-week year.

Rather than trying to cram them all in, NASCAR simply started all over again before the end of the year.

This unique schedule went away after the 1964 season. However, for the next 17 years Riverside maintained its January date. And for the majority of that time it was the first race of the season – and not the Daytona 500.

Riverside International Raceway was a 2.62-mile, nine-turn road course that was opened in September of 1957. It was a haven for sports car racing and then the Indy Car circuit made a couple of appearances.

NASCAR’s first race at the track was held on June 1, 1958. It was part of a grandiose plan that included a trio of 500-mile races. Indeed, the promoters had an immense idea but the financial blow was equally immense – they lost $50,000.

The winner of what was known as the Crown America 500 was Eddie Gray, a California native known for racing Jalopy cars.

Interestingly, only four widely recognized NASCAR drivers competed in the race – Lee Petty, Jack Smith, Eddie Pagan and Jim Reed.

NASCAR went back to Riverside in 1961 before it was established as part of the Grand National circuit in 1963.

Riverside’s debut as the first race of the NASCAR season came on Jan. 17, 1965. Called the Motor Trend 500, it was won by Gurney in a Wood Brothers Ford. It was Gurney’s third straight Grand National victory on the road course.

There were many more NASCAR regulars in the race than there were in 1958. Among them were Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Marvin Panch, Darel Dieringer, Sam McQuagg, Ned Jarrett and a young Bobby Allison.

Future racing school entrepreneur Bob Bondurant finished 28th in a field of 42 cars.

The last January race at Riverside was held on Jan. 11, 1981 and was won by Allison, who was driving for the late Harry Ranier.

Riverside continued to hold two Grand National races per season until 1988, the year Rusty Wallace emerged as the winner of the June race. By that time it was no longer NASCAR’s sole road course. Watkins Glen came on board in 1986.

The track was built on what evolved as prime commercial property. It was the victim of expansion and closed its doors in 1989 after 32 years of racing. The land on which the track was built is now home to a shopping mall and townhouses.

Riverside was an anomaly. It was a road course in California, not exactly a NASCAR hotbed. It was not popular among the stock car regulars and many of them stayed away – most claimed the expenses incurred to go west were too great.

To be honest, many of them did not know how to negotiate a road course.

Perhaps the track’s greatest notoriety was its status as the host of the first race in each Grand National season from 1964-81.

Of that time it can be said NASCAR’s off-season wasn’t all that long.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

      

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WAID’S WORLD: The New Year Brings Old, Familiar Problems For NASCAR

Now that 2017 is over – and I think it was a good year for Monster NASCAR Cup Series racing as far as competition goes – naturally we turn our attention to the season ahead.

There are many challenges for NASCAR this year but then, the same could be said at the start of every past season.

But the issues now, I think, have much more to do with NASCAR’s very survival.

For several years now NASCAR has had to deal with dwindling interest, popularity and television ratings. And then there is the matter of money. Less and less of it has become available and willingly spent by sponsors, the very lifeblood of the sport.

Let’s start with money because it is, literally, the foundation for the issues facing NASCAR.

Unlike in days past, teams have found it very difficult to secure major sponsorships. Remember the time when one sponsor’s name and colors were on a car for an entire, uninterrupted season?

That is long gone. Teams have had to secure fractured sponsorship to compete for a full season. You’ve heard about sponsors paying up for a handful of races, which compels organizations to find others who will also dole out cash on a limited basis.

Only by cobbling together varied sponsors have teams been able to compete. The number of single, season-long financial backers has decreased appreciably.

Yes, the economy has had something to do with that. And, let’s admit something here, when teams had money, and a lot of it, they spent freely and somewhat needlessly, in my opinion – testing? private planes? luxurious motorhomes? over the top salaries?

But the financial support literally crashed with the recession of 2008, when team personnel layoffs were not easily counted. Things haven’t been the same since.

As mentioned, it is more than the economy. To many companies with a notion to become sponsors, they pause to determine if it’s worth it.

NASCAR’s sagging attendance and television ratings have much to do with that. When the sport’s popularity was booming the numbers justified the spending. Now they do not.

Even Monster, the energy drink brand, committed to just two years of series sponsorship, the smallest tenure ever.

It was supposed to have announced its future association by now, if any, but it has hedged until the spring. There is any number of reasons for this, but undoubtedly Monster is considering the value of its investment.

In other words, it is looking at the numbers.

And I would not doubt the television networks, and their potential sponsors, are doing the same thing.

No one should be surprised if NASCAR is conducting a quiet, behind-the-scenes hunt for new financial backing.

But how successful it will be has a lot to do with the numbers – the fans in the stands and the TV ratings.

Fans and television, together, form NASCAR’s biggest confrontation. There is no easy means to make the figures rise.

But, to put it in the most rudimental terms, NASCAR has to continue to court new fans while satisfying those long-time aficionados who have felt slighted.

It’s like one NASCAR Hall of Fame driver told me: “We’re lucky that we were in the sport at the time we were.”

 Again, there is no easy answer.

But here are a couple of notions that appear obvious.

Don’t mess with the competition. One thing that has ruffled the “old time fan” feathers is the seemingly constant changes in rules, regulations and championship formats.

All gimmicks aside “stage racing” and the current playoff system seem to work. At least there is no reason to make any changes, in my opinion. Leave it alone.

These formats are by no means popular with every veteran fan but if any wholesale changes are made it is simply going to drive them further away.

One of the reasons such changes were made was to cultivate younger fans. It has been only partly successful so why not let things settle down?

A competitive magnet might serve to attract young fans – and older ones for that matter.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was that magnet for a long time. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but like those before him, he is retired.

There is a void.

As much as NASCAR needs a villain it needs a hero. And one who lures the attention of young, interested fans is perfect.

NASCAR can’t create him but he’s out there. Perhaps it will be Chase Elliott, who has a legacy as big as Earnhardt Jr.’s. Maybe it’s Ryan Blaney, Eric Jones or William Byron. Of course, there’s always Bubba Wallace – or someone still under the radar.

Again, all of this is a very simplistic review of the problems NASCAR faces and how they may be overcome.

I don’t have to tell the sanctioning body what it faces.

It has overcome obstacles before and with the right decisions and policies, it will again.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: One Person Knew NMPA’s New HOF Members For More Than Achievements

The 2018 National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame is made up of four worthy individuals who have established themselves as among NASCAR’s greatest competitors.

They include drivers Donnie Allison and Terry Labonte and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

The achievements of each have been widely reported and will again be the subjects of media offerings when they are inducted Jan. 21 in Charlotte.

That said, I am pleased to say that during their competitive heyday I knew each of them well enough to learn something of their personal side – which meant they were comfortable enough with me to allow me to do so.

And they were characters; real down-home, “good ol’ boy” NASCAR characters that could make you laugh with a single sentence.

 

—- In the mid 1980’s Grand National Scene, later to become NASCAR Scene, was a growing trade paper. It was quickly becoming touted as the “Bible of Winston Cup Racing.”

By that time, Allison, the younger brother of Bobby Allison, had already established himself as a top-flight competitor whose skills were equal in stock cars and Indy cars.

He was the subject of a GNS “Spotlight” feature, which was composed of a one-page, large photo of an individual or lighthearted incident.

For one issue I selected a photo of Allison and the late T. Wayne Robertson, the head of Sports Marketing Group, an arm of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The two faced each other, smiling. They had pushed out their stomachs to the limit and looked like two jolly fat men smiling at each other.

About a week later Allison came up to me. For a competitor to do so is not always a good thing.

“Know what happened?” he said. “My mama (Kitty) came up to me and said, ‘Did you see your picture in the Grand National Scene?’

“After all these years and she talks about that photo.”

“Well,” I said, relieved that he was not angry. “You and Wayne made it funny, for sure.

“Yeah,” Allison said with a smile. “We did do that.”

 

—- By the time he joined Rod Osterlund’s team with rookie driver Dale Earnhardt, J.C. “Jake” Elder was a widely successful and respected crew chief.

The union was perfect as it paired Elder’s experience and knowledge with Earnhardt’s raw talent.

Earnhardt won at Bristol in the spring of 1979, a victory that heralded a future superstar.

The irrepressible Elder came up with a classic quote, paraphrased here:

“Stick with me kid and we will be rolling in diamonds as big as horse turds!”

At a dinner with Elder, also at Bristol, he ordered a filet mignon. He didn’t realize that his piece of steak came wrapped in bacon, which, of course, was held to the meat with toothpicks.

Bite after bite Elder kept pulling shreds toothpicks out of his mouth.

“Durn,” he said, “I don’t believe this but I have already eaten a cord of wood!”

We don’t know how great Elder and Earnhardt could have become because Elder move on after just one season.

He moved on often – so often that he earned the nickname “Suitcase Jake.”

“Suitcase” remained respected until his passing in 2010.

 

—- Parrott loved jokes and loved to laugh. He smiled a lot. He still does.

He had already established himself by the time he joined DiGard Racing Co. and driver Darrell Waltrip in 1978. The two would win 22 races in a four-year span.

His fun-loving persona was best displayed to me at motel pool on a hot July day at Daytona.

He was on the diving board – but not for long. He performed a series of twisting, turning dives, coupled with outlandish spins and flops.

He was a one-man show. Everyone at the pool was watching in awe.

“Hey Steve!” yelled. “Get on up here with me!”

I wasn’t going anywhere near that diving board.

Later the story was that Parrott once been a serious diving competitor – and a champion.

As much as he loved to laugh, he was fiercely loyal to his friends, whom he would protect if needed.

It was seldom needed, by the way. Parrott was not a man with whom anyone would want to tangle.

 

—- Labonte hit NASCAR like a cyclone. By his second year of competition, 1980, he had already won the Southern 500. As you know there was much more to come.

Labonte drew media attention quickly. It was new to him. He was quiet and somewhat reticent. If a one-word answer could suffice, that’s what a media individual got.

Once I asked his wife Kim why her husband was so quiet.

“He just doesn’t have anything to say,” was her answer.

He earned the nickname “Iceman” because of his cool, calculating driving style.

I said he earned the name because when it came to interviews, he was frozen.

I was part of a Labonte video presentation offered during his induction in the Unocal-Darlington Record club’s ceremony on Southern 500 weekend.

Understand, it was supposed to be funny.

So I tried. I portrayed Labonte as the silent type. In the video he was being interviewed.

As Labonte, I shuffled, scratched my head, rolled my eyes and finally said, “I don’t know what to say.”

When the affair was over I stood in a hallway, ready to leave. Labonte came walking by.

He passed me then turned around. He walked up to me.

“Ass—-!” he said. Then he smiled and strode away.

Suffice it to say as the years passed Labonte, who became a two-time champion, grew more comfortable with the media.

There were times when it appeared he wouldn’t shut up.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: Like It Or Not, The Championship Format Changed – And Might Again

This was the first year of “stage racing” and other amendments to NASCAR’s current playoff system. And, I believe, no one has any complaints over the champion, Martin Truex Jr., who – let’s face it – would have won the title under any system.

You might not approve of the present system for a lot of reasons, namely, it’s convoluted, it’s unfair, it’s just another Brian France gimmick that does not work.

OK, fine. But the way it used to be wasn’t perfect. That can pretty much be said of everything.

Once the point system was just that – a method to determine a champion based on points alone.

The driver who gained the most points over a 30, 32 or 36-race season was the champion. To get the highest number of points meant he had to have a consistent season.

For example if a driver won 10 races but failed to finish in 10 more, his chances for winning a title were practically nil.

But if he won five races and compiled more than 20 finishes among the top 10 the opportunity for a title was much greater.

A system of consistency didn’t please everyone. The most dominant complaint was that too often, the driver who won the most races wasn’t the champion.

The first time I heard that was in 1972 when Bobby Allison won 10 races and had 27 top-10 finishes and still couldn’t beat champ Richard Petty, who won eight times and had 28 top-10 finishes.

Problem was Allison failed to finish more races. Consistency won out.

That, I believe, is one reason why NASCAR continued to streamline and tweak the point system over the following years. But it never altered the foundation. Consistency was always the key to success.

But even with the adjustments NASCAR made, the system was far from perfect. Its biggest flaw, in the opinion of many, was that it often failed to provide competitive drama toward or at the end of a season.

Indeed there were many seasons in which all a driver had to do was start the final race, be it at Riverside or Atlanta, and the title was his.

Sometimes – which during the 1980s seemed more like most of the time – a driver claimed the championship well before the season finale. It usually happened at Rockingham. Dale Earnhardt did it more than once.

There were notable exceptions. The most celebrated happened at Atlanta, the finale of the 1992 season.

That race has been well chronicled and the subject of books. It is prominent in NASCAR lore because it evolved into a two-man duel between Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki.

As you no doubt know Kulwicki calculated that if he could lead the most laps he could win the title. He led one more lap than Elliott and became the champion by a mere 10 points, the closest margin in history under NASCAR’s system of the time.

As well remembered as that championship battle has become there was another that has largely faded into obscurity.

It happened in 1980.

Earnhardt was in his second year with team owner Rod Osterlund. In 1979 the young driver from Kannapolis, N.C., won a race and the Rookie of the Year title.

The final race was set for Ontario Motor Speedway in California. It was a magnificent 2.5-mile facility that was opened in 1970 – and had consistently lost money since.

But the track did have some notoriety. In 1979 Darrell Waltrip entered the race with a two-point lead over Richard Petty. The situation promised high drama.

But Waltrip, unfortunately, looped his car early in the race while Petty finished fifth in a close contest won by Benny Parsons.

Petty won the title by 11 points, the closest margin in NASCAR history until 1992.

In 1980 Earnhardt tried his hardest to give the championship to Cale Yarborough, already the winner of three consecutive titles from 1976-78.

Earnhardt pitted too early under a caution flag and lost a lap to the field. But he charged back – that was his style, after all – and wound up fifth, two positions behind Yarborough.

Earnhardt won the title, his first of seven, by 19 points.

Admittedly, that was pretty good stuff at Ontario in 1979-80. But only 15,000 fans saw Earnhardt win the title and its new owner, Chevron, tore down the debt-ridden track.

Over the next two decades NASCAR had few championship scraps that could provide similar drama. NASCAR realized things had to change, which they did after the 2003 season.

That wasn’t the only reason NASCAR created ”The Chase”, which in a short time became “The Playoffs” with stage racing.

Things will likely change in the future, no matter if we like it or not.

One thing is certain:

NASCAR won’t go back to the way it was.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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WAID’S WORLD: Retired Earnhardt Jr.’s Legacy Is Simple: Himself

At Homestead when Dale Earnhardt Jr. parked his Chevrolet and enjoyed a beer-chugging sendoff with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates and others, many people thought it was the end of an era.

An “era” might be overly descriptive, but don’t tell the “Junior Nation” that.

Because NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver – he will be for the 15th time this year – and the son of a racing icon whom no one has forgotten or will forget, was through as a full-time competitor.

He will move on to new adventures, the most public of which will likely be his role as a television analyst. He will be busy with his team, JR Motorsports, occasional racing and other as yet unpublicized endeavors.

Earnhardt Jr. had already won two Busch Series championships before his father perished in a wreck at Daytona in 2001. By that time the son was well on his way to the assumption of his father’s mantle.

But the death of the elder Earnhardt created a void in NASCAR, if for no other reason than the sport lost the man who represented almost everything fans love about stock car racing – achievement from humble beginnings, a warrior’s courage and skill, willingness to give no quarter or ask for none and blessed with common sense and leadership qualities.

Fans turned to Earnhardt Jr. to help fill that void. Their thinking was that if they could support the father they would do the same for the son.

Earnhardt Jr. gave them their reward. He didn’t do it by being the “Intimidator” his father was. He didn’t do it by achieving a high number of victories. He didn’t do it by winning a championship. He never won a Monster Series NASCAR Cup title.

Instead, he did it by simply being himself. As a competitor he was able and talented. But as a man he was smart, affable and humble.

His personality was such that fans and media alike were attracted to him. As far as the press was concerned his opinions were as valued as his father’s.

Fans appreciated Earnhardt Jr. and supported him if for no other reason than while he was a more than capable driver, he was also a “nice guy” with whom they couldn’t find fault.

I believe Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy is simply himself.

So the question arises, how does NASCAR find, and promote, another Earnhardt Jr.?

It should not bother. It can’t. But it should hang on to the fans it has, which include those who aligned themselves with Earnhardt Jr.

How it does that is NASCAR’s dilemma.

But it doesn’t have to worry about its next most popular driver. There will be one.

There has been since the days of Richard Petty evolved into those of Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.

Will it be current champ Martin Truex Jr. or young Chase Elliott, Bill’s son who is also a Hendrick prodigy and seemingly on the verge of success?

Or will it be someone we don’t even suspect?

Heaven knows there will be ample opportunity for a newcomer, given the departures of Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Gordon and others over the past few years.

When a new driver ascends to the level achieved by Earnhardt Jr. – assuming that one does – that will be good for the sport.

But what is also good for the sport is the fact that Earnhardt Jr. will still be a part of it.

I’m thinking we’ll see a lot of him and hear a lot from him.

He’ll continue to be himself.

And that is exactly what his fans want.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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WAID’S WORLD: Truex Jr.’s Championship Earns Wide Fan Approval

While in most cases a NASCAR champion isn’t universally accepted and respected (with, perhaps, the exception of Richard Petty), it seems Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 Monster Series NASCAR Cup titlist, is about as close as it gets.

Using the vast majority of fan response as evidence, Truex. Jr. is an enormously popular champion for several reasons, namely:

He is a first-time champion who bested three former champs – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski – to earn that distinction. Also, he’s the first series champion from New Jersey. I think most fans like to see someone new rise to the pinnacle.

He races for a team – Furniture Row – that was, for many seasons, considered an outsider and an underdog. It competed with one car, for the most part, and was based in Denver, Col., far removed from NASCAR’s heartland south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The team enjoyed a technological relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing but that sometimes doesn’t mean a great deal. Getting assistance is one thing, knowing how to use it is quite another. Furniture Row proved it had the skill and talent to make the most of it.

In the end the underdog won it all.

Truex Jr. was not a controversial character who often found himself amid turmoil because he was arrogant, a smart aleck or both. He didn’t have a reputation as a careless, overly rough driver.

Instead, as rigorous a competitor as he was in 2017, Truex Jr. always seemed outgoing, personable and pleasant. I think fans recognized that and thus had no qualms over the personality that became a champion.

Truex Jr. had the capacity to think of others before himself and to give support where it was most needed. All fans know of his girlfriend and partner, Sherry Pollex, who has been staunchly in Truex Jr.’s corner for years despite a battle with ovarian cancer.

From all the evidence their union has been built on a foundation of mutual caring and respect. They have not wallowed in sympathy and I doubt they want any.

I think fans have come to recognize this and it’s one more reason why they appreciate Truex Jr.’s reward.

It’s true many fans do not like the playoff format (both now and in the past) and it’s not likely anything is going to change their minds.

But consider the following: If you believe the champion should be the driver who wins the most races in a season, then it is Truex Jr. with eight victories in 2017.

If you believe consistency is the key to a title, Truex Jr. is also your man. He had 19 finishes among the top five and 26 among the top 10 – again, more than any other driver.

If you support the current playoff format then Truex Jr. performed as you would want. He had more stage wins (18) and playoff points (53) when the “regular” season ended. And he did not fall from first place in the point standings during the entire 10-race session.

I think fans appreciate Truex Jr.’s resilience and determination. He’s been around since 2004 and spent full, if unspectacular, seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing. He might well have been on the sidelines after 2013 if Furniture Row’s Barney Visser had not picked him up.

He obviously made the most of his opportunity. He said doing so was a great deal more satisfying than having to return to work on his father’s clam boats.

In conclusion I am of the opinion that Truex Jr. meets fan approval as a champion for a multitude of reasons, as explained.

The 2017 season had its highs and lows; ups and downs – which is true for every year.

Indeed, there were sources for fan complaints or disapproval.

But the fact that Martin Truex Jr. is the champion isn’t one of them.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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Truex, Furniture Row Champions All The Way

In the end, the little team that could, did.

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship was settled in the best possible way: The year’s two dominant drivers, Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, waged a battle for the ages over the final 34 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday night, with Truex narrowly holding off Busch to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and, more importantly, his first Cup title.

This was a true Clash of the Titans and it was ultimately decided as it should have been, with a green-flag run unsullied by a late-race caution for debris or some strange pit road strategy that let a driver steal a win.

This was mano a mano, hammer and tongs, war; hard, clean racing by two drivers and teams that combined to win 13 of 36 points races this year, including seven of 10 playoff races, plus the all-star event.

No flukes here, just the real deal times two in Truex, Busch and their respective teams.

And, lordy, did it come with some drama.

Furniture Row ran its first race in Cup in 2005, but didn’t win for the first time until 2011.

The team’s owner, the soft-spoken and likeable Vietnam vet Barney Visser, wasn’t even in Homestead because he had a heart attack followed by bypass surgery Nov. 6.

Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, continues to wage a brave and public battle with ovarian cancer.

Furniture Row fabricator Jim “Wildman” Watson died of a heart attack last month at a team go-kart event during the Kansas race weekend.

While virtually all of the top NASCAR teams are based in the Metro Charlotte area, Furniture Row is the only located in Denver, where Visser’s business is.

And let’s not forget, the Ford EcoBoost 400 concluded the last full-time Cup seasons for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick and, likely, Matt Kenseth, too.

It was one whale of an exclamation point to put on a wild and unpredictable season that began in January with the shocking announcement that Carl Edwards was walking away from the sport.

In the end, though, Truex got it done the way he has so often this year.

“We didn’t have the best car,” said NASCAR’s newest champion. “I don’t know how we won that thing. Never give up. Dig deep. I told my guys we were going to dig deeper than we ever have today and 20 (laps) to go I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long. I just found a way.”

Yes, he did.

And the tears flowed freely, as they should.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Truex said. “To think about all the rough days and bad days, the days that couldn’t run 20th, to be here, I never thought this day would come and to be here is so unbelievable.”

Congratulations, champ.

You and the little team that could made it happen.

And when you did, you created a story that will last for the ages in NASCAR lore.