Conspiracy Theorists Howling After Talladega
By DAVE MOODY
If you believe in the grassy knoll and alien abductions, you would have loved Sunday’s “Aaron’s 499” at Talladega Superspeedway.
For those just emerging from a long winter’s nap, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., took home his fourth consecutive Talladega trophy Sunday, breaking a record held by Buddy Baker. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, his win was tainted by a late-race move that had NASCAR’s ever-present band of conspiracy theorists in a dither. For the record, Earnhardt took the lead from Matt Kenseth with just two laps remaining Sunday, putting his left-side tires below the yellow out-of-bounds line on the apron of turn three, in a daring, three-wide move.
Similar moves in the past have drawn penalties from NASCAR. Earlier in the day, Earnhardt’s teammate, Steve Park, was blackflagged for straying below the same line. Kevin Harvick, Sterling Marlin, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson - to name just a few -- have been penalized for yellow-line violations in the past. Earnhardt’s move went unpunished, however, sending the conspiracy theorists into orbit.
It didn’t help that NASCAR was coming off a pair of questionable on-track calls the week before; one that prompted President Mike Helton to issue an unprecedented “mea culpa,” admitting that his officials had erred. That admission was seen as a sign of weakness in some camps, and Sunday’s Talladega non-call opened the floodgates for second-guessing.
Harvick, Johnson, and Jeremy Mayfield all filed formal appeals following the race, while others, perhaps sensing the futility of public protest, elected to keep their grousing private. ''I don't want to say anything, because it will just cause me trouble,” said driver Matt Kenseth, echoing the thoughts of many. In the media center, members of the press circled like vultures over a dying carcass, hammering out the preliminary paragraphs of their latest “NASCAR is rigged” diatribe.
After apparently drawing the short straw in the NASCAR trailer, Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s Vice President for Corporate Communications, stepped into the lion’s den, labeling the decision not to penalize Earnhardt “a judgment call.” Hunter said Earnhardt’s pass of Kenseth was already complete by the time he drove to the apron, and thus, not subject to penalty. Predictably, few bought into his explanation. By Monday morning, NASCAR once again found itself torn to pieces in the press, where allegations of favoritism once again reared their ugly heads.
Make no mistake about it, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is the face of NASCAR in the 21st century. His hat-on-backwards, pseudo-slacker image packaged stock car racing for the MTV generation the way no one ever had, and his fans - tens of thousands strong at every stop on the Winston Cup circuit - have made him as big a phenomenon as Richard Petty ever thought of being. What’s good for Junior is good for NASCAR, and boys in Daytona Beach know it.
Unfortunately, the “Earnhardt phenomenon” has a dark side, as well. Every time Junior wheels his Budweiser Chevrolet into Victory Lane, the conspiracy theorists seize the opportunity to turn up the volume. The bulk of his victories have come on restrictor plate tracks, prompting repeated charges that NASCAR is slipping their favorite son a little something extra in the tech line. Sunday’s ruling - or the lack thereof - added more fuel to an already raging fire.
Allegations of an Earnhardt fix are nothing new. They hounded Junior’s father, the late Dale, Sr., who dominated Talladega before his son had ever turned a Winston Cup lap. In typical “Intimidator” fashion, Earnhardt the elder scoffed at the rumors, inviting anyone who doubted the legitimacy of his record to go jump in the nearest lake, head first.
Junior flashed a bit of that pedigree Sunday, telling members of the media that he’ll be reading - and taking notes - in the days to come. “I’ll be watching, and for any of you sons-of-guns that want to talk (expletive) about me - you know where you can go."
In addition to being misguided, allegations of underhanded dealings by NASCAR are unfortunate, for a number of reasons. First, they diminish the Herculean effort Earnhardt and his team have put into becoming a dominant force on NASCAR’s restrictor plate tracks. Dale Earnhardt, Inc., cars - Junior and his teammate, Michael Waltrip - have won eight of the last 10 plate races; something no amount of sanctioning body chicanery could ever accomplish. They ignore the hard work of Earnhardt’s crew, which changed engines after discovering problems early Sunday morning, then spent much of the day scrambling to repair damage sustained in a fourth-lap crash. They disregard the obvious talent of Earnhardt himself, and they place NASCAR racing on the same tawdry level as professional wrestling, where the outcome is always scripted in advance.
Make no mistake, NASCAR is not the WWE. It’s the NFL, the NBA, and Major League baseball. It is a big-time sport in every sense of the term, and it is - unfortunately -- subject to the same human frailties in its officials. Most of the time, the men in the NASCAR control tower make the correct call. Sometimes, however, they drop the ball.
Maybe NASCAR blew it Sunday, maybe it didn’t. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Like the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, the referee’s call stands; right or wrong. And all the conspiracy theorists in the world won’t change it.
"It's a judgment call," said Junior Sunday, "and I'm not kissing up to NASCAR for making the call for me. But if we like racing cars, and you guys (in the media) like these nice press boxes, we've got to get behind them when they make a judgment call. They are the ones that are running the show.
"When they make a call, I question them, too,” he said. “But it's tough. They're not in the easiest position.”
Unfortunately, members of the media don’t respond well to scolding. Earnhardt’s remarks fell on deaf ears Sunday, and the avalanche of Monday morning “NASCAR is fixed” articles was unprecedented in scope. But fear not, NASCAR fans. The same media watchdogs who spent this week impugning the integrity of the sport will be right back in the buffet line Sunday at Martinsville, looking for a free lunch and a new controversy to exploit.
Despite a fourth-place finish Sunday, Ricky Craven was not a happy camper.
Hot off his second career Winston Cup victory last month at Darlington, the Newbergh, Maine, driver complained bitterly about the dominance of multi-car teams in restrictor plate races, saying he longs for the days when racing was every man for himself.
“This teammate thing is ridiculous, it’s unbelievable,”
he said. “I’ve always been taught that this sport was one (driver) against
42. I’m a stand-alone guy out there with no help, and these teammates really,
really frustrate me. A lot of these guys I’m referring to are friends of mine,
but they don’t play this game the right way.”
Craven’s comments reflect the frustration of driving for one of NASCAR racing’s few successful single-car operations. Two years ago, when Craven signed with Cal Wells’ PPI Motorsports Team, he did so thinking that the team would continue to be a two-car operation. Lack of sponsorship forced Wells’ second team to disband shortly after Craven’s arrival, however, and while a second entry is frequently discussed, it has not yet come to pass.
“This is a great team,” said Craven, who posted his third
top-five finish of the year, the same number he recorded in all of 2002. “We’re
getting better and better, and gaining more and more momentum. Today was
actually fun, and I don’t remember the last time I said Talladega was fun.”
Craven now stands sixth in Winston Cup points, 233 behind
leader Kenseth, and only 11 behind fifth-place Jeff Gordon.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Local fans are being offered reduced ticket prices for the first two events of the 2003 ACT New England Dodge Tour at Thunder Road and Airborne Raceway, through a New England Dodge Dealers discount coupon plan. The promotion includes Thunder Road’s 44th season opener, the “Merchants Bank Freedom Lynx 150” on Sunday, May 4, and the 28th annual “Ehler’s RV Spring Green 100” at Airborne on Saturday, May 11.
While supplies last, fans are invited to visit their local New England Dodge dealer for coupons worth $3 off an adult general admission ticket to those two events. Regular admission prices for Thunder Road’s Merchants Bank event are set at $15 for adults, and $5 for children aged 6-12. Tickets for Airborne’s Spring Green 100 are $15 for adults, $5 for children and $30 for a family (two adults and two children).
…The Vermont State R/C Racing Championships are on the agenda at the 7th Annual Checkered Flag Racing and Camper Expo at the Fenton Chester Arena in Lyndon Center, April 24-26. The Expo will also feature race car displays from White Mountain Motorsports Park, Bear Ridge and Canaan Fair Speedways, Riverside Speedway, Busch North and vintage racecars. Another highlight of the show will be the annual Northeastern Speedway reunion, where race fans can view memorabilia from many area speedways.
Three days of radio controlled racing will be featured at the Expo, with the Vermont State championship being contested Saturday night. Ten divisions will be competing, with entries expected from throughout New England and Canada. Show hours are set for Thursday from 5-9 p.m., Friday 5-10 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Daily admission is $3.00 for adults, with kids under 12 admitted free with a paying adult.
…Todd Bodine will do double duty this weekend, competing in
both the Busch Series race at Nashville Superspeedway, and the Winston Cup race
at Martinsville. He will qualify and practice the #54 National
Guard-sponsored Winston Cup Ford at Martinsville, with Mike McLaughlin handling practice and qualifying in the #92 Herzog Jackson Busch Series entry at Nashville. Bodine, the Busch Series point leader, will start at the rear of the field Saturday. Hermie Sadler will also run both races, with Craftsman Truck Series veteran Dennis Setzer set to practice and qualify Sadler’s Winston Cup, while Hermie qualifies his Toys-R-Us Busch Series machine.
…Looking for the latest competitive advantage in Winston Cup racing? Sources say oxygenated oil additives are all the rage these days, boosting performance by up to 15 horsepower. NASCAR officials took random oil samples last weekend at Talladega in an effort to determine what - if anything - is being used, but there is presently no rule against using any type of oil additive.
…Tickets for the NASCAR Busch Series “New England 200” and the Busch North Series “New England 125” at New Hampshire International Speedway are now on sale. Both events are scheduled for Saturday, July 19 as a part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series New England 300 weekend. Reserved seat tickets for the doubleheader event are $50, with children aged 11 and under just $5. General admission tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the gate on race day. For more information, call Speedway Guest Services at (603) 783-4931 or visit the Speedway’s Web Site www.nhis.com to purchase tickets online.
…Busch North Series regular Matt Kobyluck will race in Saturday's “Orleans 222” Winston West Series race at the 3/8-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The race is the second of five Winston West starts planned for 2003 by the Uncasville, Conn., driver, who ran among the top five earlier this season at Phoenix before cutting a tire and crashing en route to a 23rd place finish.
…Brothers Todd and Brad Parrott are reportedly on the way out at Robert Yates Racing. Sources in Talladega said that Brad Parrott has been released from the team, with Todd placed on administrative leave.
…Looking for the first sure sign that spring has sprung? The 2003 season of the “Inside Track” motorsports talkshow premiers Monday night on WDEV-FM 96.1 and AM 550, as well as one “All American Country” WVAA-AM 1390 in Burlington. Hosted by yours truly, “The Inside Track” combines the latest from NASCAR, ACT and DIRT with news from all the local speedways, live interviews with your favorite national, regional and local stars, and live phone calls.
Tune in as we kick off our 25th anniversary season, Monday night at 5:30.