Thursday, 29 September 2022

NASCAR’s bet on a spectacle in L.A. paid off

Many doubted NASCAR when this unprecedented event was announced. But between the amazing and historic venue that looked beautiful on TV (and no doubt in person, too), tremendous on-track action and musical entertainment from Pitbull and Ice Cube, and an impressive crowd, the Clash at the Coliseum is something that exceeded NASCAR’s wildest expectations.

Joey Logano put on a tough battle with Kyle Busch up front to take the inaugural win for the Next Gen car, and in the process NASCAR exposed itself to a California audience largely composed of people who don’t normally follow the sport. Here’s hoping they stick around and remain fans of the sport as we head into the Daytona 500 and beyond.

I can see the Clash coming back to the Coliseum next year, but we need to be careful to make these things special, and not try to do them multiple times a year. Make it a destination every February; and later, once it’s served its purpose, give another stadium a chance. 

One thing is certain. The Clash, which had become an almost forgotten and frankly boring event at Daytona, has been revitalized, and we’re not going to back to the old ways again. Kudos to Ben Kennedy, the future of the sport’s leadership, for pushing the sport in bold, new directions despite some howling from legacy fans.

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After the long weekend we experienced at Talladega — with three wild races all ending with first-time winners, and the ultimate capper of Bubba Wallace making history with his first career win after a strong charge to the front before the rains hit — there’s a lot that can be said.

I could talk about all the “firsts” that happened with Bubba’s win at Talladega, and there’s a lot of them, but that’s been covered ad nauseam. 

I could talk about the historical importance of Bubba’s win — but all you have to do is watch Bubba’s emotional interview after the win was announced and you’ll see in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he absorbs the reality of what he’s achieved and why it matters. I couldn’t say it any better than he did in that interview, nor would I try. And if you as a fan can listen to that interview, and still try to claim that this isn’t a significant win, I suggest you learn a little bit about history. 

The two big stories I see coming out of this weekend are that the underdogs can come out on top with enough dedication and hard work over many years, and that our nation still has some work to do until the type of milestone achieved by Bubba on Monday is no longer a newsworthy event.

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2020 has been the busiest NASCAR Silly Season in years — Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer wrapping up their Cup careers; the surprise return of Matt Kenseth as a fill-in; Matt DiBenedetto holding on to the Wood Brothers ride by the skin of his teeth for one more year with Austin Cindric taking over in 2022; and much more.

Here’s my breakdown of who gets high marks on their new ride transition, and who has a rockier road ahead.

CUP SERIES:

Grade: A
Driver: Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing
The biggest announcement of 2020 was a home run move for Bubba Wallace. Bubba did what he could to improve the 43 team, and they had a great relationship with him, but in the end it’s all about getting to the next level. Teaming up with the new 23XI Racing team owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan is the perfect scenario for Bubba to succeed and reach new heights in his career. He’ll no doubt have a bevy of sponsors and funding to help boost the competitive nature of the 23 car, and the Toyota team will be affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing. With everything he’s done to push forward the social justice movement within NASCAR, Bubba is arguably the sport’s most recognizable name outside the core fan base. And if he can be successful in his new ride and run up front regularly and contend for wins, it will be huge boost to the sport as a whole and draw in new fans. He’ll have a lot of people rooting for him to succeed, both inside and outside the sport. 

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There’s so much going on in the sport of NASCAR right now, it’s hard to keep up. 

Silly Season is in full effect, with rides being announced. The playoffs are in full swing, with no shortage of controversy, and we got the 2021 schedule announced with more changes that we’ve seen in many years — perhaps ever.

Before anything else pushes these issues off the front page, here are my takes on the hot issues of the day:

Yellow-line rule

This one is easy: Get rid of it, at least on the last lap. The simple fact that NASCAR had to revise its ruling against Chase Elliott after initially ruling against him is proof that it’s too complicated and subjective. It’s deciding too many finishes and that’s not what we need happening in the sport. Let them race to the end.

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After all the drama of the last week, Bubba Wallace was his usual candid self when speaking to media ahead of this weekend’s racing at Pocono. Here are some highlights of the press conference: 

THE LAST FEW WEEKS WITH EXTRA DISTRACTIONS, BUT ALSO LOOKED UPON AS A SPOKESPERSON AND SYMBOL. WITH ALL THAT RESPONSIBILITY, HOW ARE YOU NAVIGATING THAT?

“It’s just another day. The clock resets at midnight every night and we’ll go through whatever is on the schedule then and I’m just excited to get back in the race car come tomorrow. But we’ve got media in between then and now, so we’ll see.”

WHEN YOU RAN OVER TO THE FENCE (POST-RACE) ON MONDAY AND THERE WERE A GROUP OF BLACK FANS THERE TO GREET YOU AND IT SEEMED LIKE THEY CAME JUST TO SEE YOU. IT’S ONLY BEEN A SHORT TIME SINCE THE CONFEDERATE FLAG ISSUE HAS COME UP WITH YOU, BUT HAVE YOU FOUND MORE BLACK FANS OR PEOPLE WHO SEEM INTERESTED IN NASCAR THAT WEREN’T BEFORE?

“Yeah, absolutely. I think just from the following standpoint, it’s been pretty big. Before all the chaos and madness started a couple of weeks ago at Atlanta and Martinsville and now this, it was like 180 thousand fans on Instagram and now I’m at 450 thousand, or something like that. I don’t know. A lot of people of color are coming out and saying that they’re going to be watching for the first time and have been watching since; so yeah, I think there’s a huge following that we will see and I’m excited to see when the full racing schedule gets back to normal from COVID to allow fans to come back in full capacity and see a new face there. That was pretty damn cool to see that new crowd there at Talladega with all the support. So, we’ll see how it continues to grow.” 

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU TO BE A LEADER IN CHANGE? AND CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE ANY NEW COOL CARS FROM YOU LIKE THE ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’?

“I don’t know if anybody has inspired me. I think it’s just what I feel in my heart and what feels right and finally voicing my opinion on the tough subjects that a lot of people are afraid to touch on. I’m not afraid to speak my mind. I’ve done it and gotten in trouble and learned from it. So, people that know me, I’m 100 percent raw and real. I’ve told you that before, as well. As far as another paint scheme, I’m not sure. That was an unsponsored race where we paid out of pocket for that one and basically took a bet on ourselves and took a chance on ourselves and that was big. I think with all this stuff we’re starting to get some partners involved and who knows if we’ll have another unsponsored race this year. If so, we’ll see what we can do.”

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The shit has officially hit the fan in terms of how NASCAR takes on the lingering racists in its ranks. Pardon my French, but it’s no time to be polite: This is serious business.

In case you weren’t awake when the story broke late Sunday, the horrific news is that a noose was found in the garage stall of the 43 team at Talladega. The 43 car is driven by Bubba Wallace, the lone black driver in the Cup series. This is, of course, right on the heels of NASCAR banning the Confederate flag after Wallace pushed for a ban. 

It’s a clear case of racist retaliation from an evil remnant of the past squealing their last breath before they are excised from the sport. It also comes on the same day racists flew a Confederate flag over the speedway, with a sign reading “Defund NASCAR”

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Today’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a major milestone for NASCAR, and the significance had nothing to do with Kevin Harvick’s dominating performance on the track.

As the national outrage continues against the death of George Floyd from a knee to his neck from the police (a very literal metaphor in so many powerful ways), and America demands justice, NASCAR could have sat this one out. 

It’s clear from the reaction today that a large percentage of the sport’s fan base did not want to hear the sport weigh in on the topic that’s dominated the news for the past two weeks. They just wanted to watch a race and see their favorite drivers compete, and forget about all the strife around the nation for a few hours.

But there are times when you have to choose which side of history you want to be on. And you should not sit out. This is one of those times.

Published in NASCAR

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