Monte Dutton: Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Works Pretty Well With Speed

By Monte Dutton

Resistance is futile. Martin Truex Jr.’s season is a wildfire, out of control, fueled by drought conditions elsewhere.

The Bank of America 500 came down to an overtime finish matching the indomitable Truex against a host of NASCAR immortals — genuine, would-be and arriving soon — who didn’t have a chance.

Denny Hamlin, who started the Charlotte Motor Speedway autumn race on the pole, said that where speed was concerned, Truex had it — and has it every week — in reserve, with whipped cream and cherries on top.

Truex’s sixth victory of the season was an excellent time to make that argument. Truex qualified 17th on Friday. Only twice — both times on plate tracks where it doesn’t much matter — has he qualified worse. Seventeen times Truex has started on the front two rows.

Many observers, including virtually all those who describe races electronically, thought Truex starting 17th suggested a certain susceptibility to grim defeat. More likely, he was just having a little fun.

Cole Pearn, the unassuming crew chief, said they sure messed up in qualifying and added that it was evidence of “how close everyone is.” He couldn’t keep his face completely straight.

Say whaaaaaaaaaaat?

A lot of the Truex case has been tagged as evidence for how far away everyone else is. On the two laps noted for a green, a white, and a checkered flag, Truex’s Camry laid close to a second (.911) on Chase Elliott, and even young Elliott couldn’t beat himself up too much for that.

Yeah, I mean, it’s nice to run in the top five solidly,” Elliott, who has done it two weeks in a row and three of the last four. “Obviously, you hate to run second because that means you were close to first, but hopefully we’ll have our day sometime.”

In two late-race restarts, Truex’s Toyota took off as if it were a blue streak. On second thought, it was a blue streak.

If the season has a mystery regarding Truex, Pearn, Barney Visser, Denver, Colo., and Furniture Row, it is why hasn’t the team won 16 races instead of six?

The winner’s press conference seemed ridiculous. Most of the questions asked what made the team so strong, and most of the answers were because of how great the competition was. The question may have many answers, but that one isn’t it.

For what it’s worth, the answers to all questions regarding strength — by Truex, Toyota, the team, the State of Colorado — are not to be found in the conspiracy files, either. The grapes of Ford and Chevy wrath are sour. The overwhelming reason for Toyota supremacy in NASCAR, circa 2017, is not that NASCAR’s best and brightest have been paid off. Nor is it that its engineers are double-aught spies from the Organization Formerly Known as the KGB.

A NASCAR legend named Banjo Matthews, now looking down from heaven at Toyota with serenity, is associated with a slogan: “Money buys speed. How fast you want to go?”

The Toyota answer: Pretty damned fast. In NASCAR, the way one tells that a company has barely limited money is when said company says it doesn’t. It’s the same principle as chalking up a football team’s 59-0 victory to the incredible level of the opponent’s “athleticism.”

In modern-day NASCAR, points don’t mean much, but it doesn’t look bad on a resume that Truex has led them 13 weeks in a row.

Know what? Strip away the high level of pontification that often accompanies press-conference questions, and Truex is a straight shooter. Six victories, given his and his team’s performance week after week, from the high banks of Talladega to the flat concrete curves of Martinsville, are damned near the Marty Truex minimum.

“We could have won 10 or so,” Truex said. “That’s a realistic number. Winning six seems ridiculous, though. You don’t worry about the ones that got away.”

No. That’s Chase Elliott’s role. His day will come. At age 37, Truex knows some things that Elliott doesn’t  at age 21.

Editor’s Note: Longtime racing journalist Monte Dutton covered the Charlotte race for this website. If you’re interested in more of his racing-related work, check out his novels “Lightning in a Bottle” and its sequel “Life Gets Complicated.”

Monte Dutton column: Singin’ In The Rain (What A Lovely Feeling, I’m Happy Again)

By Monte Dutton

On my way to Charlotte Motor Speedway, I learned from a radio personality that, up ahead, it was “pouring mist,” and I picked up the pace because I wanted to experience the phenomenon of mist that would pour.

My God, it’s misting sideways! Alert Jim Cantore!

Here I sit, at 4:32 p.m., in the CMS infield media center, and Top Gun is showing on the monitors, now that Duke-Virginia is over, along with Cars and, according to tweeted reports from chums who were here, Speedway with Elvis Presley before I got here.

If the advance of this storm gives us a worst-case scenario, I may get to watch Rory Calhoun in Thunder in Carolina by, oh, Tuesday.

Surely not. The Bank of America 500 is optimistically scheduled even earlier than before!

This morning I arose sorrowfully, knowing that even though I haven’t experienced one of these long, rainy journeys into night in a while, a few of them remain vivid in my psyche. It’s not like the old days when NASCAR officials waited to announce a postponement until Dale Earnhardt was safely out of the track and boarding a plane. The discerning scribe could simply find a vantage point where he could see Earnhardt climb into a black limousine, then he could go to his rented Ford Contour and beat the traffic a short distance behind the seven-time champion. He could then wrap up the day’s activities from the motel room while his ears were ringing from less astute scribes, ensnarled in traffic, cussing him from afar.

Everyone from that era misses Earnhardt. That’s my reason.

It was long ago and far away (Pocono), when men were men and race tracks had traffic.

It rained in varying degrees, from the regular, non-pouring variety of mist to the kind that made me cuss every driver on the road who didn’t know how to turn his lights on, from the South Carolina Upstate to the grandeur of the Queen City. I stopped at a truck stop for gas and considered a hoodie that was day-glow yellow but sold for a mere $14.99. Instead, I bought a Diet Coke and a corn dog because not even a truck stop can mess up a corn dog.

I still own a Winston Cup Series umbrella. As I walked into the media center, a fellow looked at it and said, “Duude, that’s, like, serious old school. Cool. I like it.”

I looked at him and didn’t say a word. He probably thought I was a serious sort. It was just the umbrella that’s been behind my seat since I bought my truck and the one before it.

The word has just come down from Imperial NASCAR that the driver introductions are going to take place momentarily. Technically, no announcement has been made regarding the running of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Shield of North Carolina, but, as a general rule, one is not held without the other.

I’ve left the infield now because I like press boxes, never more than the present, because I watch races the way they do in the infield – on TV – every week. I like to watch a race without conforming to television’s judgment. Sometimes I use primitive instruments such as stopwatches and radios that just go one way.

Besides, before the race, I heard Dale Jarrett say that this race –- because of all the rain and all the hocus-pocus stick’em and unexpected nighttime running (when all the goblins come out) — would have more uncertainty and pure madness than any race he could remember (and he remembers a lot).

What about the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, won by Umberto Maglioli? Dale might have to ask Ned.

They’ve completed a stage now, and the field seems full of professional drivers unfazed by the predicted madness. Literally hundreds are in the stands.

Tomorrow – if a scheduled Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is run ahead of a tropical storm with a bigger advance team than a Trump golf outing – the 40 greatest drivers in Cabarrus County will take to the track without having practiced on Saturday.

I’m sorry I am unable to provide you, gentle readers, with more hard-hitting, gritty racing coverage, but I’d have had a better chance of bumping into Tiger Woods at the Family Dollar than a prominent driver in the garage. They were all holding virtual practice on simulators somewhere.

It’s after 11. Alex Bowman is in Victory Lane. It’s all been worth it … for him. I’m hoping that coffee at the truck stop I visited earlier is hot and plentiful, but truck stops are more reliable in coffee than day-glow hoodies.

What I miss most about the racing lifestyle is the glamor.

Monte Dutton: The Encumbrance of a Truncated View


By Monte Dutton

Most weekends I stare at the forest from afar. This weekend I’m scheduled to mingle among the trees.

For the second time this season, my intention is to write on-site about the NASCAR races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where once I wrote about 40 consecutive points races, and 20 consecutive All-Star races, circa 1993-2012.

When I study the forest, the beauty is evident, but the details are sketchy. The first time I ever wandered into the Charlotte trees, Elliott won the race in No. 9. Next year, Elliott will be back in No. 9. Different Elliott. Chase, son of Bill. In a way, it is a microcosm of more than three decades. That first time, I was a fan, there because the Furman University football team was playing the Fighting Dates of Open. My job was with the Paladins. The Paladins took up most of my time.

Growing up, the forest was something I could barely make out in the distance. No cable. No live (flag-to-flag!) coverage. I listened on the radio to Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett and a bunch of guys yelling from various turns and pit stalls. On Monday night, WBT in Charlotte televised the highlights. Channel 3 was one of those stations I could watch by adjusting the antenna in order to make the electronic snow slightly less snowy. I loved the way the Charlotte tri-oval had been clipped into harsh angles. In the ’90s, the late NASCAR historian and freelance statistician Bob Latford coined the term “truncated tri-oval,” which I liked only because Bruton Smith’s preferred term, “quad-oval,” made no sense.

Then Bruton truncated a tri-oval near Atlanta, tinkering mainly because he could, and built another one near Fort Worth, and truncating became such a blur that truncation disappeared from the NASCAR lexicon, just like the old point system that Latford had famously devised.

What has changed the most? The rules. NASCAR then was a lot like Southwest Airlines now. It was easier for the leader to get away. In the ’70s, when I was in high school, the cars to beat were driven by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. On Oct. 8, 1972, Bobby Allison won the National 500, and the only other driver to finish on the lead lap was Buddy Baker. By my rough estimation of the consequences of the current system, had that race been run on Oct. 8, 2017, Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Butch Hartman, Darrell Waltrip, James Hylton, Buddy Arrington, Joe Frasson, Petty and Larry Smith would have also been on the lead lap. Today’s rules are the equivalent of, “No shirts? No shoes? No problem!” where the lead lap is concerned.

Now the cars to beat, every single confounded week, are driven by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. One reason more surprises happen is the rules. Losing a lap today is no more an impediment than a mosquito bite on a camping trip. It’s a mild annoyance. An itch.

Yet the season has still settled into a reliable pattern. Truex to Busch to Larson is as reliable as a double-play combination. Not every fair ball bounces to short. Early this season, Jimmie Johnson won three races before anyone else did. Now the seven-time champion is in the reserve pool, which has more swimmers than the public ones on the mill villages of my youth. No race’s outcome has really been a surprise since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis on July 23.

Denny Hamlin, hardly an underdog, mind you, won at Darlington, but that was “encumbered,” a word as mystifying as “truncated” in the ’90s.

The forest seems ever more distant and obscured by haze. The trees reveal detail, depth and craftsmanship. I’d like to see the trees of Darlington, Martinsville, Atlanta, Talladega, Bristol and Richmond again. I don’t want to fly on airplanes to races anymore. In a car, I can watch the trees all along the way.

I’m anxious to be there, well, a little more. Four and 94/100ths years away have made me keenly aware of the difference in perspective. At the track, I will be surrounded mainly by others who also love racing. TV’s message is that everything and everyone is just alike, only better. I don’t know any better.

The double entendre was intended as entendres tend to be.

Back home, I seem to be surrounded by others who tell me, ad nauseum, that they used to love racing but no longer. The general answer is “it ain’t like it used to be.”

Just what in the wide, wide world of sports is?

Monte Dutton column: Turns Out The Thief Was Dillon

Esteemed racing writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for this website. Here’s his final post from the weekend.

By Monte Dutton

When the wrong guy wins, it’s interesting. It’s not exciting. Wrong guy, interesting, beats right guy, boring. It’s similar to the way a flush beats a straight.

What if it’s the wrong guy, once removed? All the more fun for the wee hours.

Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night and Monday morning. He drove No. 3. It’s been a while for No. 3. Talladega in 2000. Cat named Earnhardt.

“It hasn’t sunk in, by no means,” Dillon said.

Later, he added, “To be quite honest with you, we had an argument, full-on, face-to-face, with my grandfather, this week, about the performance of the car.”

Cat named Childress. Richard Childress. Won six championships (out of seven) with the cat named Earnhardt. He’s got a pair of grandsons who like to go fast. One never went faster.

“We’re not down,” Childress said. “We’ve got everything we need to win.”

“We did our job,” Dillon said. “We had a chance to win, and we did what it took to do so. The 600 is a lengthy race, and you can’t afford mistakes. We didn’t make them.”

Martin Truex Jr. dominated the race. He finished third.

“Two out of the past three (600s), we lost it on (fuel) mileage,” said Truex, who was gracious.

Jimmie Johnson was the chief suspect in the impending theft. What he wound up stealing was 17th place, citing first gas and then lack thereof.

Dillon? Dillon? Where’d he come from? The far side of Johnson, that’s where.

It appeared as if the thief in the night with enough gas in the getaway car was Johnson. Johnson’s crew chief is Chad Knaus, Super Genius. For once, Knaus was Wile E. Coyote, not James Bond. Johnson’s Chevy crashed into a canyon floor because his Acme parachute was an anvil.

Okay, Johnson’s Chevy ran out of fuel. Dillon’s didn’t. Who knew Dillon, the Roadrunner, was lurking in the shadows, waiting to go beep-beep?

Truex was supposed to be the Roadrunner. He wasn’t supposed to lose. The Roadrunner is a cartoon. It’s not supposed to be complex. The Coca-Cola 600 wasn’t a whodunit. It was a who-won-it. Truex led 233 of the 400 laps. Last year he led 392 laps. He won that one.

If watching the wrong guy win strikes your fancy, the Coca-Cola 600 was the race for you.

Kyle Busch was so overjoyed to finish second that he threw a tantrum in the media center. After basically daring anyone there to give him an opportunity to bite off their head, he slinked away to a nearby swamp to feed on lizards.

Six words he spat out. “I’m not surprised about anything. Congratulations.”

Then there was a crashing sound.

This was the most valuable race in the regular season. The race drivers were like truckers. They got mileage (especially Dillon). The race had four segments, not three, which, in turn, meant it awarded three sets of bonus points, not two. It’s a step in evolution. Before 2004, all races were created equal. Then playoff races became gold. Now the Coca-Cola 600 is silver, but only by a little.

The night’s first and almost only excitement occurred on the 20th lap, when apparently something approximating a manhole cover, or, more likely, a gong, clanged out from under Jeffrey Earnhardt’s Chevrolet and very nearly brought another, driven by Chase Elliott, to a stop. Brad Keselowski’s Ford struck Elliott’s Chevy, and it wasn’t a tap. One day Elliott may drive a tank, but a stock car can’t withstand such fierce impact.

Later the track went wet for one hour, 39 minutes, 56 seconds.

All those Air Titans were scarcely needed. Truex mopped the track with the rest of the field.

Into all lives, some rain must fall. For the Coke 600, though, it wasn’t in the budget. The thunder rolled, and the lightning struck. Ladies and gentlemen, there is lightning in the area! Just being the longest stock car race in the world wasn’t enough. God was in a whimsical mood.

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.