Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2013

After A Season Of Chaos, JJ Restores Stability To NASCAR

The big car haulers and luxury RVs of the Sprint Cup Series pulled into Homestead-Miami Speedway this week for the final race of NASCAR’s 2013 season. For a lot of race fans it was a year that couldn’t end soon enough. The France family that controls the sport as well as the car owners and drivers will all do their best to focus on whatever they can extract as positives out of the 36 races that began last February at Daytona and ended Sunday 300 miles down Florida’s east coast. But there’s no way to ignore the number of disappointments and disasters throughout the year, culminating with a cheating scandal at Richmond in September.

Certainly for track owners there were disappointments week in and week out in the form of empty grandstands. A trip to a race, and for many NASCAR fans that means a full weekend at a track, is not an inexpensive proposition. As a sport with a working to middle class core to its fan base, stock car racing took a body blow to its bottom line from the recession, and it has yet to fully recover. At every stop on the schedule the TV cameras from either ESPN or Fox caught anywhere from patches to acres of empty seats as the brightly colored race cars roared by the grandstands. Even with a championship on the line this was true again on Sunday at Homestead, where fans at either end of the long grandstand fronting the one and one-half mile oval’s front stretch had plenty of room to spread out.

For fans who tend to be intensely loyal to their favorite driver, there were repeated disappointments in the form of extended absences from some of the most recognizable names. Denny Hamlin, who wound up taking the checkered flag on Sunday, missed more than a month early in the season after injuring his back in an accident at Fontana. In 2006 Hamlin became the first and still only rookie to qualify for the season-ending ten-race Chase for the Championship, and he’s gone on to build a successful career with Joe Gibbs Racing. Since drivers only earn points if they are actually driving the car, Hamlin’s wreck in March also effectively eliminated him from this year’s Chase.

Also absent for the final fifteen races was 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. One day after the NASCAR race at Pocono Stewart was leading a race on a short dirt track in Iowa when a lapped car spun in front of him. The spin resulted in a multi-car wreck that included Stewart, who suffered multiple fractures to his lower right leg. Stewart has a huge fan base that went with him from Joe Gibbs Racing to his own team that he started after the 2008 season. Those fans got to celebrate three years later when their hero became the first owner/driver to win the title in nearly two decades, but for the final four months of this NASCAR season Tony Stewart fans were left to idle.

It was also a season when early promise faded to disappointment. As the only female driver Danica Patrick remains very popular and extremely marketable. But increasingly the question is whether Patrick can achieve success commensurate with her popularity, or whether her fate is to just be the most recognizable 25th place driver in the field. This was Patrick’s first year running a full schedule of Sprint Cup races, and it started with a bang. She won the pole at the Daytona 500, and became the first female driver in history to lead a green flag lap at NASCAR’s biggest race. She ran in the top ten most of the day and was in third place as the car crossed the start/finish line to begin the final lap. While she got outmaneuvered down the back stretch and faded to eighth place, it was still a far better than expected outcome and a source of hope for the future.

Months later that early hope seemed forlorn, as by the time the checkered flag flew early Sunday evening to end NASCAR’s season, the Daytona performance remained Patrick’s only top-ten finish. Until now it has been fair to say that Patrick has still been learning the nuances of driving stock cars after coming over from the Indy Car Series. But in 2014 there will be a ton of pressure weighing on the tiny shoulders of the petite young woman from Beloit, Wisconsin, to prove that she is more than just the most attractive driver on the starting grid.

But all of the disappointment paled next to the damage done to the sport by the disaster at Richmond International Raceway in early September. With several drivers competing for the final spots in the 12-car Chase field, Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing brought out a caution by spinning out with just seven laps to go. Ryan Newman, one of the drivers fighting for a Chase spot was leading at the time, but wound up fading to fifth place after the restart. At the same time Brian Vickers, another Waltrip driver, inexplicably slowed over the final laps, allowing Martin Truex Jr. to pass him and eventually claim the last spot in the Chase over Jeff Gordon. What looked suspicious in the moment became something viler when transcripts of radio communications made it plain that all of the machinations in the final laps had been ordered from the pits.

NASCAR bounced Truex from the Chase and replaced him with Newman, then expanded the Chase field to thirteen for the first time ever by adding Gordon. They also fined owner Waltrip $300,000, driver Bowyer $50,000, and suspended a spotter for the team indefinitely. That was just the beginning of the pain for Waltrip, who saw longtime sponsor NAPA Autoparts announce its decision to end its contract shortly after the Richmond debacle. That forced Waltrip to announce that the #56 car would be sidelined next season, shrinking his team from three cars to two and meaning an inevitable loss of jobs at the team’s home in North Carolina.

So it was that NASCAR limped into south Florida for its season finale, where against that backdrop of shortcomings and scandal, Jimmie Johnson finally provided some reassuring stability. Johnson won five consecutive titles for Hendrick Motorsports from 2006 through 2010. That success earned him both fans and haters in roughly equal numbers; with the bile directed at Johnson by some of the latter no doubt fueled by their belief that the southern California native doesn’t adequately reflect NASCAR’s roots. But after two years without a championship Johnson was clearly hungry for a return to the top. He won six times this season, including two races during the Chase. When closest competitor Matt Kenseth had a bad day last week in Phoenix Johnson pulled ahed by 28-points in the standings. At Homestead he needed only a twenty-third place finish to claim the title, even if Kenseth won the race.

The latter did his best to do just that, leading the most laps and running strong all day. But as the warm Florida sunshine gave way to a finish under the lights, Johnson was nearly Kenseth’s equal. The only scary moment came with just over 100 miles to go, when on a restart some slow traffic at the front caused the field to accordion, and Johnson’s left front fender brushed Kenseth’s right rear, even as both cars slid dangerously toward the outer wall. In the end it was only a scary moment, not a season-wrecking disaster, and Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line in ninth place to claim his sixth Sprint Cup championship.

The six titles leave Johnson just one behind the seven won by both of NASCAR’s two greatest legends, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Thus the driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet inserts himself into the unending debate about the sport’s greatest driver ever. While the old-timers won’t like it, there is no denying that Johnson has won his six in just eight years, half the time it took Petty and Earnhardt to win their seven. And he has done it driving three distinctly different race cars. First the sleek car NASCAR raced from 1992 through 2006, then the largely unloved box that was the Car of Tomorrow, run through last season, and finally this year’s Gen-6 model. No matter the sport, the “greatest ever” debate is of course one that can never be resolved. It’s enough for now that after a season of turmoil, the greatest current driver restored some stability to NASCAR.

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