Monday, July 27, 2009

Disastrous Day for NASCAR at Indy

No, it wasn't the 2008 debacle of exploding tires, explosive tempers, and 52 of 160 laps run on yellow.

Instead, NASCAR provided its fans with nothing interesting at all during Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. That might actually be worse in some ways than the tire controversy that came out of last year's race.

This isn't meant as a slam at Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, or Tony Stewart. All three are generally likeable drivers who have done nothing wrong. It's getting a tad old, however, to see the same drivers (under the same ownership flag) riding up front all the time.

(Yes, I know Stewart "owns his own team". What this statement avoids is that he's basically driving Hendrick cars, and his team is widely considered an extension of Hendrick's team.)

While it was refreshing to see Juan Pablo Montoya dominate the race Sunday until his stupid mistake on pit road, the reality is that things weren't any more exciting then. Montoya thrived in the clean air at the front of the field and built a lead that reached over seven seconds. Because there weren't many cautions in Montoya's run of 116 laps led, the race quickly disintegrated into a 190 mph single-file parade. There was no passing to be found on the track, and no real good racing for position. Double-file restarts couldn't save NASCAR because there were so few cautions.

Restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega may make some fans queasy, at least they have the promise of last-lap fireworks to hang their hat on. You might wait four hours to see something interesting happen, but you'll usually get a payoff. The race at Indy became a really fast parade not long after the start, and it stayed that way for the remainder of the 160 laps.

Making matters worse, ESPN's crew is led by a NASCAR-loving veteran who has as much business doing play-by-play of Sprint Cup races as I do. Jerry Punch, by all accounts, is a prince of a man, and he is a big reason why NASCAR has the kind of media attention it does now. He sucks at calling races, because it's obvious he sees his job as more of a "traffic director" gig than a traditional play-by-play man. As irritating as Bill Weber was on TNT before he got suspended (or fired, whatever), he's better than Punch. So is FOX's Mike Joy, no matter how horrible the rest of the FOX team is.

Let it be known that no play-by-play could have made anything interesting out of Sunday's race. Johnson was going to win from the moment of the last restart, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it, especially when the race stayed green the whole time.

Reality is that ESPN has built some quality pieces, but Punch does not belong in his role. The sooner they figure this out, the better it will be for everyone. Right now, ESPN doesn't have the play-by-play guy to carry them through a bad race. With Hendrick Motorsports obviously holding the keys to success with the "COT model", and everyone else struggling to find out what they have, ESPN is going to have more bad races than good as we ramp up to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In all seriousness, does anyone want to bet money on a non-Hendrick driver winning the Chase? I didn't think so.

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