- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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On Sunday morning, I competed in a triathlon. The start times were staggered, and given my placement in the novice division, I had a couple of hours to kill before I broke out the tight pants and hit the pool.
Sometime during the lull, I figured it pertinent to stretch and performed a unique rendition of redneck yoga off in the corner by myself, during which several fellow novices approached to ask why -- and how in the name of fluorescent pig parts -- I wasn't at "The Paper Clip."
"Well," I thought, "because I'm here." I digress
Many folks also wanted to discuss NASCAR in general. So much for a day off. (Kidding -- I love it. I'll debate racing during a wedding.) So we formed a little redneck yoga semicircle and had a big ol' racin' powwow. One topic, broached by a 40-something mom, intrigued me: dominance.
Some fans are just plain ol' tired of seeing the same guys win all the time -- Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, etc. I wasn't surprised it was broached, because I'd gotten this e-mail just a couple of days prior:
Is it really good to have one driver dominate the races every week? I don't dislike Kyle Busch (he is not my fave), but I don't want to watch any race to watch the same person win week in and week out. Let's just say Kyle wins 14 Cup races this season. Do you think the TV ratings will suffer? Oh, how do I get to be part of The Six? Or would that make it The SEVEN?
-- Michele P., Milwaukee
No. Quite the contrary. To me, dominance is intriguing. Tiger Woods is the consummate example. If Tiger's not playing, I'm not watching. And when he does play, I know he's going to win.
It's just a matter of how.
It seems I'm an anomaly here, though. You're not alone, Michele. Many folks share your sentiment. I'm new to this whole Twitter thing, and for the heck of it, I cast the dominance bait out there to see what hit.
Forty or so e-mail responses filtered in, and 30 screamed parity. The overwhelming consensus from my small focus group was simple: We don't want to see the same guy win all the time.
I get it. But I'm different. Dominance makes me pay attention. I'm just fine with a guy winning 13 or 14 races in a season. And if that did happen, like it did for Jeff Gordon in 1998, maybe mainstream media would start paying attention and pick up on it and give half a damn. That, it seems, would be beneficial to television ratings.
I don't know much, but I know when NASCAR blew up. Right then, during Gordon's heyday.
Why? Fringe fans.
I'm of the mind that hard-core fans -- the real ones who love and support the sport, despite the fact that its brass have made some hairbrained decisions and hopped out of the South, and despite all manner of other standard criticisms of late -- will watch to cheer their man regardless whether he's winning or not.
That brings up another key variable in the dominance equation: Who's going to step up and dethrone them? That's half the fun. Or more. It was David Pearson for Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt for Darrell Waltrip, Gordon for Earnhardt and so on.
Let's move to tennis. I'm an Andy Roddick fan, so I would check him out sporadically but didn't necessarily seek out the sport on television. But when Roger Federer started winning everything there was to win by age 25, I started paying much closer attention to tennis. Federer is amazing and for a time was unbeatable. Some even said he was better at his trade than Tiger was at golf.
Then Rafael Nadal showed up.
Their rivalry is transcendent. Fringe fans -- guys like me -- started caring more, largely because folks started cheering for David over Goliath. It became cooler-talk for a beer or two, which was unprecedented. Men talk about football and race cars and ladies around the cooler. But believe me, after Federer-Nadal, tennis was broached. I'd had a couple, and I had to scratch my head, but I'll be danged if I wasn't sipping JD debating it.
That would happen for NASCAR, too -- again. Dominance and great rivalries built NASCAR. From Petty to Earnhardt to Gordon, dominant drivers make people wake up and take a look. Sprinkle in archenemies, and even more people fall in love.
It's like Giants-Eagles, Cowboys-Redskins, Celtics-Lakers, Duke-Carolina, Oklahoma-Texas and Tennessee-Florida -- must-see whether or not you have specific allegiance. Especially when the teams are good.
The manner in which fans relate personally to a particular athlete also is a dynamic to consider, with NASCAR, it seems, more than any other sport. Many folks love Dale Earnhardt Jr. because they look at him and say, "Man, I could drink a beer with that guy. He's just a regular good ol' boy." They don't look at Busch and say that.
But if Busch, Gordon, Johnson, Edwards, Tony Stewart or David Gilliland won 15 races, you would see NASCAR on "SportsCenter" more often. Therefore, the guy in Armani and pearl cuff links at LaGuardia C6 would be rapping about it over his venti triple-steamed chai crème extra whip upside-down-cake frappuccino.
Dominance is amazing to witness but nearly impossible to respect in the moment.
How smart was Nike with the LeBron James ad "We are all witnesses"? It's so true. Whether you're jaded on the NBA or you adore it, you can't help but marvel at James. In him, we're witnessing greatness and taking it for granted. Same goes for Kobe Bryant and Albert Pujols and Tom Brady. And certainly for Tiger. I think we all respect that variable with Tiger far more than with any other athlete.
When Johnson wins races, the fan reaction isn't the same as it would be if, say, David Reutimann were to win. When Johnson wins, it's just another win. The general public isn't bursting with pride for him. Everyone would be giddy for Reut.
Love Johnson or hate him, what he's doing is historic. And here we stand, witnesses. Relish it.
When I was in seventh grade, my daddy took me to Charlotte, N.C., to see Michael Jordan. I grew up in Pearisburg, Va., just west of Nowhere. Blacksburg was "big city." This was a very big deal. The tickets were stealthy positioned on our Christmas tree on the big morning, and I was floored. I still have both tickets, mine and Daddy's.
On Jan. 12, 1991, we saw Jordan play, live. He scored 33 points that night. It was amazing at the time, but it's far more amazing now.
I had the distinct blessing of witnessing the greatest of all time.
Maybe you are, too.
Now, The Six
All fans heard for the past year is how Joey Logano is the next big thing. He has to have talent or Joe Gibbs wouldn't have put him in Cup so early, but can he really drive that good? He hasn't shown me much of anything. Was the hype just hype, or is the kid really legit?
-- John M. Glass, Peach Tree City, Ga.
He'll be fine, John. Remember: He's an 18-year-old rookie. The hype clouded our judgment, completely altered our expectations. Gordon is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. He killed 14 race cars as a rookie. Not just wrecked them. Killed them, sent them to the scrap heap.
It takes a while.
Let's go back to Tiger for a moment. He was a teen phenom. I wonder how he would have done if he had been forced to show up for the championship round every weekend without the luxury of practice rounds. That's Logano's plight.
He's never seen half these tracks, let alone in the new race car. And he can't test. In the current climate, he's forced to learn on the fly. That's a tough draw.
All we talk about these days is how great Busch is. The praise is warranted. But if you recall, every time he got in the No. 84 car back in 2004, he backed it into the fence.
And he got to test.
Has there been any discussion about holding races in the middle of the week during months like May and June in order to have more of an offseason?
-- Nathan, Birmingham, Ala.
NASCAR has indeed tossed the idea around, Nathan. But at present, the boys in Daytona don't see it as logistically feasible. The primary issue, they say, is the number of folks who use race weekend as a vacation. They come from far and wide to see Bristol and Talladega.
That's not to say it won't happen down the road, especially at smaller facilities that haven't been built to such colossal standards. This is NASCAR. If it benefits the sport, it could easily happen.
I have a restart question. Why are the lap-down cars given the preferred line on restarts? It would make more sense that those cars that were on the lead lap would be given the preferred line [inside].
-- Susan, Newington, Conn.
Excellent question, Susan. I spoke to David Hoots, NASCAR's race director, for you, and he told me that the inside line is in fact not always preferred. More times than not, lap-down cars are slower, and NASCAR always requests that slower cars move to the inside and yield to the leaders.
Being on the inside also gives lapped cars the opportunity to race for a lap back. Hoots noted that several years back, NASCAR positioned Nationwide Series cars oppositely, with lapped cars on the outside, and it didn't always work as they'd hoped because slow cars were trying to get to the inside and out of the way.
Love the column, look forward to it every week. My question is this: If more than one car moves to the back of the field at the start of a race due to transmission change, or an accident during practice, etc., what is used to determine how they line up in the back? Thanks and keep up the good work!
-- Kathi, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Yet another excellent question -- well done, Kathi. I asked Hoots about this one, too.
In these instances, NASCAR positions cars in the order they would have lined up otherwise, not including any backup cars that haven't yet seen the racetrack.
In other words, if two cars -- Car A and Car B -- earned the fifth and ninth starting positions, respectively, Car A will move to the rear and start on the inside line, while Car B will assume the outside line at the rear of the field, behind cars that weren't forced to the back.
Now, if a team moves to a backup car, and that car never sees the track during practice, it starts at the very rear of the field regardless, in case there's a mechanical issue such as an oil leak.
How can you say Bristol racing is not worse? It is not the racing the fans came to see in the past. Obvious by the empty seats. Those seats are empty for more than economic reasons. The repaving job has ruined what the track became famous for. Maybe they will have to move those stands to Martinsville!
-- Rocket J, Gurnee, Ill.
Um, because the racing isn't worse, Rocket. Just different. It's a rather simple concept.
Is there anyone else upset about the No. 28 team shutting down? On my fifth birthday I received the news Davey Allison had passed. In the years following numerous guys kept the winning ways going.
Irvan, Jarrett, Rudd. It was tough to watch NASCAR without the 28 for a couple of years and now a dominant team early THIS decade is out? Do you think a resurgence is in the future, or do you think Menard will get a number switch?
-- Hewitt, hometown unknown
My buddy Mike is crushed that he has to retire his Travis Kvapil T-shirt. It was plain white.
That's the point. Without money to fund it, Doug Yates can't afford to run it. It's terrible, but it's truth.
You only kept the beard for about a week! The Man got to you, didn't he?! First the suits, now the razor. You're weak, man! Be a man!
-- Kenny Sarver, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Despite a Bristol, Conn., weekend full of one-liners from anchors companywide, ESPN had no qualms whatsoever with the beard. My son, on the other hand, was disgusted by it. He wouldn't let me kiss his sweet face with "the very, very scratchy stuff."
The beard had to go, dude.
That's my time, folks. Time to throw on the Charlie 1 Horse and head to the Lone Star. See y'all in the heart of Texas.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Golf has Tiger Woods. Tennis has Rafael Nadal. Would having a dominant driver -- say, Kyle Busch -- be so bad for NASCAR? Hardly.