Two concussions knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the championship playoffs. Will NASCAR address the issue of driver concussions? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
A new stock car racing season looms, and let's hope things go better than they have for this sport the past few years.
Another gas mileage finish to a boring three hours of driving in circles may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Or maybe that's already happened.
How many boring NASCAR races in 2012?
How many fuel mileage finishes?
Too many, far too many.
And this sport's execs have yet to come up with any solutions.
Now they're banking heavily on some new machinery, these still-untried 2013s, to turn things around.
Most likely scenario, as with any major new rules package, is that the sport's top teams -- and there are really just three at the moment, despite Brad Keselowski's title run for Roger Penske -- will dominate right out of the box.
And trying to play catch-up in this much-too-high-tech sport is a game plan for losing.
So the line on the early season is pretty simple: the Rick Hendrick Chevy juggernaut versus the Jack Roush Ford operation, which struggled down the stretch in 2012 after dominating things early on, versus Joe Gibbs' Toyotas, presuming Gibbs can resolve all those mechanical issues.
The wild card here, of course, is Paul Wolfe, the newest headline crew chief whose work with Keselowski in 2012 was flat amazing: can Wolfe and Keselowski pick up this season as hot as they finished the last one? Well, they certainly pulled off enough surprises in their championship run to put that question centerstage.
Brilliant work by Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe at Martinsville to stay alive in the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rest of these guys?
Just so much cannon fodder, to use a phrase Roush likes.
And the smart money has to be on Hendrick and Chevrolet. First, because his guys have virtually no turnover, and thus great loyalty. Second, because Hendrick has some of the best drivers in the sport. Third, because Ford has been so erratic in this sport over the years (just five championships since 1975?) Fourth, because it's still unclear how well Roush, the Ford star for so many seasons, and Penske, the new guy in the Ford camp, will play together.
Penske has never been that much of a team player, preferring to go it alone. (Yet despite all the power and technological strength Penske can bring to this game, it is telling that Keselowski's championship was only Penske's first in NASCAR at the Cup level in his 40-plus years in this sport.)
NASCAR officials made some questionable calls in 2012, like the one that led to this melee at Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So before returning to the field of play for a new season, let's quickly review what happened in 2012....maybe to avoid some pitfalls:
The biggest story of the year seems obvious: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s two concussions, which forced him to sit out two playoff events and cost him any shot at the championship, down the stretch of one of the best seasons of his career.
That whole story is even more pointed now, in light of the furor over the National Football League and its current concussion controversy. Repeated blows to the head in football can lead to brain damage, it would appear.
And what does that mean for NASCAR, where drivers are subject to even more brain-jarring concussions?
Yes, stock cars are much safer today, and helmets are much improved, and head restraints too.
But hard hits are not infrequent. And they add up.
How many concussions are too many?
Is NASCAR keeping count?
At least an NFL coach can take a player out of the game if he starts seeing stars. NASCAR leaves it up to the driver himself.
NASCAR's biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn't get much of a look-see after crashing so hard while testing at Kansas. That is question enough in itself. Then he hid that concussion from everyone...until a second concussion at Talladega a few weeks later forced him to the sidelines -- but only at his own request. Time for NASCAR execs to rethink injuries and concussions? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In NASCAR, well, the story behind the Earnhardt story is that NASCAR -- despite all the safety innovations over the past 11 years -- still forces drivers to play while injured, no matter how badly injured.
The bottom line, as we all just watched play out only a few weeks ago -- If a driver, like Earnhardt, or any number of injured drivers before him, does take time off to heal, the team takes a big hit too -- no championship points, and any title hopes go all but down the tubes.
We have addressed this issue many times over the years, most recently in this article: CONSIDER THIS
Brad Keselowski's title charge is a great one for this sport, putting a fresh, new personality in the spotlight. However he too realizes the bigger picture story of Earnhardt's concussions.
Inexplicably, Keselowski says when he asked about using those Indy-car earpiece G-force sensors, just weeks after Earnhardt's stunning admission, NASCAR turned him down.
Danica Patrick: one of the biggest disappointments of 2012. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Will these 2013s save the sport?
Everyone has a lot riding, and that's one big reason not to expect any discouraging words from drivers and crews.
The company line that it's all going to be fine may well play out. But..... well: AND CONSIDER THIS
The 2012 season opened on a strange series of events, with Sunday rain forcing postponement of the Daytona 500 to Monday night. The race had never been delayed like that.
Midway through the race itself Juan Pablo Montoya made headlines by crashing into a jet-dryer during caution. The fiery mess damaged the track, which has since been fixed. Fortunately no one was injured. But the two-hour downtime didn't help TV ratings.
However Keselowski added some humor to the situation by using his cellphone to tweet pictures of the crash scene.
A cellphone in the car? NASCAR pondered that issue and ruled it was okay....only to revisit the issue nine months later and decide to penalize Keselowski heavily for carrying a cellphone while racing.
NASCAR's wishy-washy handling of that issue was but one of a number of odd NASCAR calls or no-calls during the season. (Remember the no-call caution at Phoenix for Jeff Gordon's crash, and moments later the no-call caution for Danica Patrick's crash?)
AJ Allmendinger: a second chance in NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For the sport, things quickly went downhill. Action on the track was hard to find. Boring doesn't begin to describe things.
Then at California the sport added insult to injury when NASCAR only ran half that race and then called it for rain, certainly doing yet more damage to this sport's audience in the Los Angeles market.
The Texas 500 in early April was a disastrous show. The final 234 laps went green. The Bristol 500 too was less than a thriller.
The Kansas 400 was one of too-many gas mileage races.
Talladega? Well, it was a crash-fest: HERE
Tony Stewart ripped plate-racing with sarcasm: "It's not fair to these fans not to see more wrecks than that and more torn-up cars. We still had half the cars running at the end, and it shouldn't be that way."
That assessment may have been the catalyst for the boring October 500.
And didn't Stewart's teammate get a big 'secret' fine from NASCAR earlier for similar criticism about Talladega racing?
Running barely halfway in the rain-marred California 400 didn't do much for NASCAR's Los Angeles fans. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the oddest stories of 2012 was Dodge's withdrawal. How a company so centered on high-performance machinery could say no to NASCAR racing, even botching such a logical move as re-signing Roger Penske, still boggles the mind. Keselowski's championship -- Dodge's first since 1975 -- was an in-your-face that even Sergio Marchionne, the company's boss, couldn't miss it...even though he rudely snubbed the historic moment in Homestead, preferring instead to spend that day in Austin.
The next big story in this sport was Matt Kenseth's, who stunned nearly everyone in June by saying he would be leaving Jack Roush at the end of the season after 14 years and the 2003 championship together. That Ford would let one of its biggest stars leave -- to join Toyota's Joe Gibbs -- was also surprising.
The Joey Logano story thus took on a life of its own. Logano, still one of the youngest drivers in this sport, won at Pocono, just as the Kenseth story was breaking. Logano's future was up in the air for a while.....until:
Another major story -- AJ Allmendinger failing a NASCAR drug test and being pulled out of his car just moments before the Daytona July 400. But Allmendinger, unlike Jeremy Mayfield, quickly accepted NASCAR's judgment, sat on the sidelines for a month or so, and finally earned reacceptance....though he did lose his ride with Penske.
That ride is now Logano's, after a vote of confidence by Keselowski himself.
Wonder if CNBC's Jim Cramer would rate NASCAR racing a Buy, Sell, or Hold? (Photo: GettyImage for NASCAR)
Meanwhile, out on the track, still little was happening.
Watkins Glen did deliver fireworks in the closing laps....when NASCAR officials failed to see oil on the track, leading to a wild finish.
Johnson's Indianapolis victory had been so decisive that the title appeared his for the taking. But at Michigan, in a stunning final few moments, Johnson's runaway went up in engine smoke, giving Greg Biffle the win. And Biffle promptly ripped the media for having written him out of the title chase, vowing to be in the hunt at Homestead.
(Biffle's title hopes, though, vanished early in the chase.)
The chase itself featured more mistakes than brilliant duels. Keselowski set the tone for his title charge at Chicago by stealing victory from Johnson during the final round of pit stops.
By the time the tour hit Martinsville in late October it was a three-man race, Johnson versus Denny Hamlin versus Keselowski. And when Keselowski qualifying so poorly (32nd) at a track he doesn't run well at to begin with, it appeared to be his Waterloo. The game line was Johnson versus Hamlin that Sunday, with Martinsville's two best expected to go head to head, while Keselowski faded.
But then in a wild turn of events, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rallied brilliantly, even with a shot at the win at the end...while Hamlin suffered a mechanical issue that killed his championship hopes.
So suddenly it was Keselowski versus Johnson at Texas...and that 500 was easily one of the best chase races, with Johnson and Keselowski battling unusually hard for the win, considering the championship itself could have easily been lost with a single mistake in the final miles. That, in fact, was one of the best finishes of the season, with that tense series of restarts.
Stewart, a no-show in this chase, ripped Keselowski for racing Johnson too hard, throwing in the curious phrase 'death wish,' for whatever reason.
Those remarks by Stewart -- who, remember, gets his cars and engines from the same Chevy shop as Johnson -- angered Keselowski, who fired right back.
That setup a Phoenix showdown between Johnson and Keselowski, in the season's next-to-last race.
Johnson held a seven-point lead into the Arizona race, and the five-time champ appeared right on target for number six. But a late-race right-front blowout put Johnson in the wall, and that all but ended his title hopes, so abruptly.
Jimmie Johnson hit the wall too many times in 2012 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Curiously, the post-race controversy between Clint Bowyer -- remember, still a title hopeful at that point -- and Jeff Gordon all but overshadowed the Johnson-Keselowski duel.
Gordon, angered at a brush back by Bowyer, crashed Bowyer, and Bowyer's post-race run to Gordon's trailer to confront him was great theater.
NASCAR officials added to their season of controversial calls by not suspending Gordon for the Homestead finale, despite the obvious precedent NASCAR had set just a year earlier in dealing with the same move by Kyle Busch at Texas.
Yes, it could be argued that Busch has 'a history' and Gordon has long been one of this sport's 'nice guys.'
Still NASCAR's calls here smell too much of a double-standard of justice: THIS
Gordon, in defense, pointed to several run-ins with Bowyer as leading to the mess.
And maybe frontier justice is just what this sport needs. Boys, have at it.
Daytona fire: Curious start to the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)