Monte Dutton column: The Limits Of Xfinity

Longtime NASCAR writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for this weekend. Below is his second post.

By Monte Dutton

Man, I thought I had messed up.

It was all I could do to get on the road by 9 a.m., and it’s a good two hours from home to here. When I entered the outskirts of Charlotte, I thought 11 would be the only bad time to get to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Hisense 4K TV 300, the race whose name activates home wi-fi.

The race that read like a password ran at about 1:20. Eleven would be the time to arrive if you wanted to grab a bite to eat, drink a beverage with gusto and play a little cornhole before moseying across to the track for some good old NASCAR Xfinity Series racing.

I haven’t been here in a while, so I still vaguely remember something called traffic.

Driving through Charlotte, absent the sun, it could have been 2 a.m. Traffic thickened as I-85 collected cars from other major thoroughfares, but the traffic never slowed. At Smith Boulevard, more vehicles were lined up to go left to Concord Mills mall than right to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, double Dillons and Ryan Blaney were in the race.

Blaney won. He hasn’t won a Monster Cup race yet. He wasn’t really slumming. He wasn’t in the race to see how the other half lives. Blaney has undoubtedly interviewed butlers for his undoubtedly palatial and stately estate (on the royal property of Dale Earnhardt Jr., no less), but none has been hired.

When in doubt, I root for the underdog, though in this position, it is best not to root for anyone. It’s acceptable to root for a good story, and, as the laps wound down, it became obvious that Ryan Blaney was the best story I was going to get. Of the six Cup drivers who started, five finished in the top six, the lone exception being fourth-place Christopher Bell, who earned a merit badge.

I’ve been away. I’ve watched from afar. I don’t know Ryan Blaney. I know his daddy and think a lot of him. It followed logically that I should ask Ryan about Dave, thus making it less likely that the question would be idiotic. Dave Blaney won an Xfinity (then Busch) Series race here. It was his only victory in the series.

“To me, personally, he’s the best race car driver ever,” said son of father. “That’s how I’ve always looked at him and that’s how I’ve always thought of him, not only as my father but the way he drives a car – and not only his driving ability, but his mindset toward things. I think he’s one of the smartest people I know, personally, in the race car, outside the race car, building parts, coming up with inventions and ideas. He always just supports me and it was cool to have him here today.

“In my mind, I’ll never be half the race-car driver he is, personally. I think he’s the greatest one ever and that’s how I’ll always think of him.”

Damn the calendar. It was Father’s Day for the Blaneys.

Remember, the reason Monster Cup Series drivers absolutely must compete in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series is that, without them, the crowds wouldn’t show up.

The crowd below me numbered 5,000 or so. Count the infield and suites, and I’d concede 10,000. I’ve seen high school football crowds numbering that many, but, in fairness, they were big games.

The presence of six Cup regulars drew five figures to Charlotte. Oh, but they’re crucial to the TV ratings.

What TV ratings?

Poor Kyle Busch. It’s not fair for me to bring up this topic. He didn’t even compete in the Xfinity race. He spit-polished the Trucks last week without so much as a coat of polish. He’s closing in on 200 total victories in NASCAR’s “three major touring series.”

As a general rule, NASCAR values the minor leagues. If baseball valued the minor leagues the way NASCAR does, Steve Balboni would be enshrined in Cooperstown. Ron Hornaday just got named to the NASCAR Hall, and that’s okay because auto racing has its own peculiar customs and institutions. People used to value NASCAR for not being like other sports before the best and brightest started turning that into a lie.

Now it’s one big Yogi Berra. This place where I’m sitting is so crowded nobody comes here anymore.

So …

What’s the point of using Monster Cup monsters as a drawing card? Is it possible that even less would be here?

Oh, the propagandists.

For what it’s worth, Kyle Busch’s quest to go where no professional race driver has even considered going before is damned impressive and, in its way, even admirable. The lad just loves to race.

Even in races where he is astride a thoroughbred and everyone else mounts mules, he still has to ride that nag, and he rides it like, oh, Braulio Baeza. (As a jockey, Baeza won 4,013 races, but some were claiming races at Dogfeed Downs.)

The younger of the Bee Bees (Brothers Busch) is doing what no man has done before. What makes it slightly less impressive is that no one has ever wanted to collect obscure NASCAR races like bubble-gum cards. Only Mark Martin has ever lusted so passionately for victories that don’t ultimately matter.

I can understand it a little. I’ve tried many kinds of beer in my life. I’ve watched every pitch of baseball games my favorite team led, 15-1. I can’t even get tired of writing books. Writing is my passion. I’ll cover a major automobile racing event of worldwide renown, and I’ll cover the annual Red-White Football Classic at Clinton High School. My business card should read, Have small paycheck? Will travel.

But let’s get real. Every time this discussion comes up, someone chimes in to the effect that, sure, Richard Petty won 200 races, but “there was no competition back in those days.” What a slur. What a celebration of ignorance.

For what it’s worth, in 1967, Petty certainly had some strolls that looked effortless in 100-milers at Beltsville, Md., or Marysville, Tenn.

You know, like Kyle Busch in a Truck race.

In 1967, the schedule had 48 races in it. Today’s has 36. There were about 36 where the competition was intense in 1967. Five hundred miles was a sterner test of equipment in those days. Sometimes the winner lapped the field, but it would happen today if the rules allowed it.

Kidding around with a racer, I once said, “You know, hotshot, a man’s got to drive like hell to lose a lap in this day and age,” and he replied, “Yeah, and once you finally lose the son of a [gun], they won’t let you keep it!”

In the World 600 of 1967, Petty also faced off against the likes of David Pearson, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac, Buddy Baker, Dick Hutcherson, Darel Dieringer, Charlie Glotzbach, Tiny Lund and Jim Paschal, who won it.

Ever heard of Paschal? A shame. He should be in the Hall of Fame, too.

Never mind, though. You want to combine victories in touring series? Fine. In other sports, they don’t play major and minor league at the same time, but racing is different, and it’s righteous and unique.

Do it comprehensively, though. Don’t just count the series running now. Count the Convertible Division of the 1950s. Count the Grand Touring/Grand American (oft referred to as “baby grands”) series of the ’70s, and, while you’re at it, count the Grand National East Division of 1972. That series combined Cup (then Grand National) and Grand American cars (Mustangs, Camaros, Cougars, Javelins) at short tracks that lost their dates when NASCAR shaved off a third of the Cup schedule.

The best short-track race I ever saw was a GN East race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. Neil “Soapy” Castles edged Elmo Langley by inches. They ran the final 10 laps side-by-side on a flat half mile, and neither driver knew which had won. It was the same length (200 laps/100 miles) as the Grand National (now Cup) races that had been run at G-P the previous year. The race took an hour, 25 minutes to run, and the official margin of victory, as recorded on the NASCAR box score, was three inches.

You want to combine races in three series and declare it to be a thing? Okay. Make a list. This time check it twice. Don’t just throw a few numbers together and play like they make sense.

Monte Dutton column: In the end, it’s not the kids’ fault

Longtime NASCAR writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for this weekend. Below is his first post.

By Monte Dutton

Passion. That’s what NASCAR has to regain.

It cannot restore its glory by appealing to people with but a passing knowledge of what is going on. It must instill passion, and with allowances for the crack work of TV producers, that kind of storm doesn’t crop up in a living room with a six-pack of beer and a pound of nachos.

Quite often, these days, it takes at least a 12.

Kevin Harvick won the pole for Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600. Whoop-de-doo. It’s not me talking, but, rather, the fans who weren’t here. At this point in the history of NASCAR, the prevailing view is that time trials aren’t worth watching anymore. Some cars don’t even make it through inspection. The format has been infused with tasty elements that TV reportedly enjoys.

On the way up Interstate highways 26 and 85, I thought about a similar drive back in 1986. I was about where I am now in the journalism racket, writing local sports for the Clinton Chronicle and doing morning sports at WPCC-AM 1410.

It was before both the rise and the fall of NASCAR and me. Like Lefty in the country song, now I’m growing old.

Charlotte Motor Speedway promoted back in those days. Even at the lowly Clinton Chronicle, a promotional packet arrived containing inexpensive novelty items and a fistful of tickets that weren’t going to sell anyway.

Lest you believe they were buying the media, the following year, after Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott tangled in The Winston, a box arrived containing one sliver of Wrangler denim and one empty, crushed can of Coors. At the time, crushed cans of Coors were not uncommon in my life.

The tickets were for Pole Day. I couldn’t go to the race, partly because of a full slate of local sports but also because I couldn’t afford to pay my way in. I called up a friend – I spent half the drive up today trying to remember who it was – and said, “Hey, I got some tickets to pole qualifying at Charlotte. Wanna go?”

“Hell, yes,” he said, because, back in those days, folks like me and him were willing to do things like drive over two hours to the other side of Charlotte, where we watched individual race cars drive extremely fast one at a time. A lot of young people said “hell, yes” about racing in those days.

There may have been beer involved, but best I know, beer is still involved today.

Thank God I went. If I hadn’t, I’d have never known the name of the only driver in NASCAR I’d pay to see qualify, even though I didn’t.

Tim By God Richmond.

He wrestled that red Chevrolet like he was running on Folger’s Coffee instead of sticking it over the fenders. In all those years, and all those long rides, and all those race-day notes packages, maybe there are 10 scenes etched so vividly in my mind’s eye that they appear sometimes as if by magic. Richmond’s qualifying run that day is one. His lap around CMS was similar to every lap during the final hour of qualifying at Indy.

My forgotten friend and I watched from the first turn. I’d say there were, oh, 30,000 people there. If the final performance of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus had been conducted in the CMS tri-oval grass after qualifying on Thursday, I doubt the crowd would have been as high as it was for single-round, single-lap qualifying on an autumn afternoon more than 30 years ago. In the 1990s, 40,000 was about the average crowd for Coca-Cola 600 qualifying.

Now all the fans come out to CMS disguised as empty seats. Well behaved. Never buy hot dogs.

I’ve measured the decline of stock car racing a hundred ways. The ways are easy. Their relative importance is hard.

I keep hearing, the kids don’t care about cars. They don’t care about anything. They spend all their time listening to rap music, playing video games and posting to Instasnapbooker or something. They have short attention spans. Yet, oddly, they don’t like drag racing, either, and drag racing is short.

They have no passion. Thus must we squeeze every drop of it from NASCAR. Then they’ll love it.

In the upstate of South Carolina, you know what the kids still have passion for? The Clemson Tigers. They’re truer to their schools than the Beach Boys ever were. They’re scapegoats for every executive trying to pass the buck on his cockamamie marketing campaign.

“Those kids of today.” They’ve been the lame excuse for every adult dysfunction since Louisa May Alcott was a schoolmarm.

The pole winner, circa 2017, talked about how his career has jelled at Stewart-Haas, and his hopes for Sunday, and the benefits of family and the serenity that comes with middle age. He also talked about how money isn’t everything. Easy for him to say, of course. He’s got a lot.

Harvick said some things in the sport have to be “bottom up” instead of “top down.” Specifically, he was talking about the Camping World Truck Series schedule and how he’d like to see it go back to the short tracks, but he could have been talking about most everything that has gone wrong.

Now qualifying is three rounds. It’s less likely the pole winner really drives the fastest car because going through those three rounds without using undue rubber is really the key. Was there a need to jazz up qualifying? The excitement of qualifying would be limited if they set them all on fire as they pulled off pit road … and then ran the burned-out hulks through the Laser Inspection Station, where, oddly enough, they’d probably pass with charred colors.

Who cares? Well, I once did, back when Richmond was the Count of Monte Carlo.

Post-All-Star Race podcast with Lee Spencer, Three Dumb Qs with Tito Ortiz

I’m joined by’s Lee Spencer to help make sense of the NASCAR All-Star Race on this week’s post-race podcast. Plus, I get to ask Three Dumb Questions to MMA legend Tito Ortiz. And a personal update on where Sarah and I are headed next.

Thoughts on New Hampshire losing a race

In the brief time since it was made official this afternoon that New Hampshire Motor Speedway is losing its September race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2018, I’ve seen plenty of NASCAR fans grumbling on Twitter about the loss of a short track and the addition of another cookie cutter 1.5-mile track.

Usually I’d be right there with them (More short tracks!!!) but not in the case of New Hampshire. The truth is NHMS is not a very exciting track for stock cars.

When is the last great NHMS Cup race you’ve seen? I asked myself that as well, and I can’t remember one. The common refrain during New Hampshire weekend is the Modified race is the best event at the track, and that’s true — not only because it’s a good race, but because the Cup race is usually a bad one.

Last year, both New Hampshire races rated in the bottom seven points races of my weekly “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll. And that’s where they should have been, because they weren’t very good races.

Let’s just be honest here: As much as cookie cutter tracks are boring, Las Vegas had a better race than NHMS last year (71 percent of people liked that race as opposed to 50 percent and 48 percent for the two New Hampshire races, respectively). If you want to call NHMS a short track because it’s only 1 mile, then I guess that’s fine — but it certainly doesn’t race like one.

Plus, it’s not like NASCAR isn’t going there at all anymore — just one less time. Seriously, did NASCAR really need to visit New Hampshire twice in 10 weeks every year? I don’t think so.

Look, it would suck if this was going to add another 1.5-mile track to the playoffs and the overall schedule, but it’s not. As Nate Ryan reported yesterday, they’re likely going to take the Charlotte fall race and run it on the infield road course.

So what is NASCAR really trading here? The actual swap is a ho-hum flat track race in exchange for a road race — in the playoffs!

What’s so wrong with that?

News Analysis: Charlotte Motor Speedway road course will be used for 2018 playoffs

What happened: NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan reported Tuesday the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course will likely be used for the 2018 playoffs instead of the 1.5-mile oval.

What it means: Fans will finally get to see the road course race in the playoffs they’ve been asking for, and a third road course will be on the Cup schedule. In addition, this would likely leave New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the top candidate to lose a race in favor of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is expected to get a second Cup race next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, because this news has multiple impacts. It not only adds a road course to the playoffs, but it prevents the number of 1.5-mile tracks in the final 10 races from increasing (it would stay at five).

Questions: Is this really it for New Hampshire’s playoff race, or is there some unexpected wrinkle? How will fans react attendance-wise to the Charlotte road course? And will this give a driver like AJ Allmendinger a chance to make a deep playoff run?