Helton’s Sermon Has Drivers Singing NASCAR’s Praises

Charlotte, NC – It was a sermon from above and the assembled congregation lapped it up, like it or not.

NASCAR president Mike Helton held a drivers/owners only ‘come to Jesus meeting’ Friday at Michigan clearing the air about the new ‘Car of Tomorrow’ being used in the Sprint Cup division. Afterward, many drivers who have been critical about the car were contrite as choirboys.

“My interpretation was that the drivers should be thankful for the position they’re in and should be more positive in where this car is going to be in a year or two,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. “I think NASCAR is doing more than we give it credit for. They’re thinking and working and trying and wanting to improve, and that we should, we drivers, should do less complaining. If I enjoy what I do and I’m having fun and want to be here and want to be around for a while, I shouldn’t tell people not to buy tickets.”

Apparently, NASCAR threw down the gauntlet in the closed door meeting telling the drivers it’s our way or the highway. Why else would Earnhardt, Jr., and others like Carl Edwards say things like the following?

“They (NASCAR) just wanted to remind everybody,” Edwards stated. “I can understand their position; we’ve got it pretty good here.”

In a move that smacks of 40 years ago when Bill France, Sr. ruled NASCAR with an iron fist, it sounds like Helton trotted out the most trusted tool in the company’s tool box – the hammer.

“This is early in the building process and we don’t need to rush to conclusions that this car is junk and it’s never going to be any good because that’s not going to be the case,” said Denny Hamlin, who last week was too out of breath to comment after excessive heat in the new car had him gasping for air after the Pocono event. “I think they are going to be open to the suggestions that us drivers are willing to give them and it’s just a matter of time before we get back to the racing the way it was.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

The fact is whether the driver’s say it or not, the racing – the core of the sport – isn’t the same with the new car as it was with the old model. Events this season have mostly been 500 miles/laps of single file, no passing drudgery. Drivers have been vocal about how the cars – even more aerodynamically dependant than the racers they replaced – don’t turn as well in the corners, especially when behind another car.

Sunday’s race at Michigan was a prime example of that. Simply stated, when an also-ran car that doesn’t pit for tires (Jimmie Johnson) can consistently stay in front of a field that took on four fresh skins, something is wrong. Matt Kenseth easily had the best car in the race, but he finished third in large part because his car couldn’t pass once he cycled back in the pack (dirty air) after a pit stop.

With any new product, there’s going to be an incubation period of acceptance. In the case of the COT, teams spent untold millions of dollars to replace their old fleet of cars and drivers were told the new car would be better than the previous model. In some ways it is – especially in the areas of safety.

When it comes to racing, however, the car hasn’t proven to be as good – not yet, anyway. The fans, or the media who follow the sport, don’t need the drivers to tell them that. All they have to do is watch 50 laps or so of a Cup race to see that it’s not anywhere near as exciting as the events produced by the old car.

Think of it this way – if the NFL decided to change the shape of the ball making it much harder to play with and reducing the number of touchdowns in a game, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Tom Brady and the rest of the top stars in the league would probably have some not so nice public comments about the change. Meanwhile, the fans and media would easily see that scoring and excitement was down.

NASCAR’s way of handling this like-kind situation is to basically tell the drivers to park their gripes to the media and be “thankful for the position they’re in and should be more positive in where this car is going to be in a year or two” as Earnhardt put it.

Hopefully, the sanctioning body has that much time to ‘perfect’ the new car. To our knowledge, no driver has told anyone “not to buy tickets” as Earnhardt, Jr. intoned. We live in a world where public tastes change in a heartbeat and there are untold entertainment venues vying for the ever shrinking disposable income of the buying public. If people aren’t buying tickets, our guess is it’s more for those reasons, not because Cup drivers are having trouble passing or grousing about it.

No amount of conversation, or lack of it, can change that.

‘Hapless’ Harvick
Of course, no NASCAR controversy would be complete without driver Kevin Harvick weighing in on the issue.
After Friday’s meeting with Helton, Harvick – known as ‘Happy’ in some circles- chimed in with this nugget.

“There are a lot of them (drivers) that disrespect the sport week in and week out and they act like a bunch of 18-year-old punks, which most of them probably are, and they just need to grow up .. When you turn 15, 16, or 17 years old, you kind of rebel against the whole situation, and a lot of the young guys in the garage don’t really understand what’s going on. And they’re really fast in the race car, but don’t really have a clue of everything that’s going on around them.”

Forgive us, but there are no 15, 16 or 17 year olds in NASCAR that we are aware of. And isn’t Harvick the one who showed “disrespect to the sport’ and was sat down for a race a few years ago when he drove his vehicle right up to the back of the NASCAR trailer in the garage area to spite a ruling that didn’t go his way in a race?

And a couple months ago – when the NASCAR crisis of the week involved mandatory drug testing – didn’t Harvick stand in front of the world and proclaim NASCAR needed such a thing even though his own company, KHI, didn’t have such a policy?

Talk about a credibility gap – as in none.

To be sure, Harvick has his share of fans and they may want to hear what he has to say on the sport’s issues. We’re just not one of them.

The Lawsuit –
No column this week would be complete without acknowledging the $225 million lawsuit filed against NASCAR by former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant.

The lawsuit alleges 23 specific incidents of sexual harassment and 34 specific incidents of racial and gender discrimination during Grant’s two years as a series official. Grant, who is an African American, also states in the transcripts of the suit that she was released in October 2007 in retaliation for complaining about the incidents.

We’re not sure where this is headed, but NASCAR did suspend two of the officials named in the complaint this weekend. One of those officials has already detailed specific instances damaging to NASCAR’s position in an Associated Press interview.

To say it was a tough week for NASCAR is an understatement.

Back Home Again –
No amount of off-track distractions can dim the fact that we are returning home this week to compete in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at The Milwaukee Mile.

We can’t wait to get home to Wisconsin where the fans are the best, the beer is cold, the brats are sizzlin’, and the racing is great.

Look for a unique Feature Photo gallery on Close Finishes every day this week as we post some great historic images of the famed Wisconsin State Fair Park oval. The photos, courtesy of the late Al Krause, treasured friend and longtime Milwaukee Mile historian, give a great look back at America’s oldest, continuous racing facility.

Enjoy the pics See you at The Mile Friday.

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