- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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It wouldn't be Daytona Speedweeks without a hauler full of controversy.
Indeed, it is long-standing tradition that NASCAR fans ramp up their outrage in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the running of the Great American Race and the official start to the stock car season.
But as we near the green flag for this year's 500, let's do a little better job of picking the stories that get our collective Nomex undergarments in a bunch. There are certainly stories that should enrage us. But there are also "controversies" that have become more overcooked than my wife's meatloaf.
I'm talking about the stories that are either:
A. Not actually stories
B. Totally misunderstood
C. A total waste of breath and stress
D. All of the above
So light a relaxation candle, grab a glass of warm milk and a handful of chill pills, and read on as we present NASCAR's Five Most Overrated Controversies.
1) Buying your way into the Daytona 500
In 1997, just my third Daytona Speedweeks, I the young idealistic TV producer was caught up in the amazing story of Phil Barkdoll, who dramatically qualified for the Daytona 500 in his self-owned car, built primarily by his family and some volunteers. It was going to be his first start in the Great American Race since 1992 and the celebration that it set off in his garage stall was like an impromptu birthday party for the 59-year-old.
I bought in, hook, line and sinker.
By that afternoon Barkdoll's No. 73 was not on the side of his X1-LR Chevy. It was on the side of Joe Nemechek's Monte Carlo.
Nemechek's boss, bazillionaire Felix Sabates, had bought Barkdoll's car number and starting spot in an effort to save face with new high-profile sponsor BellSouth after Nemechek's No. 42 had failed to make the field.
"Sorry, kid," Barkdoll told me. "I probably messed up your story. But we need the money."
The point is this: There's no point in screaming outrage over teams doing deals to swap points and transfer car numbers to make races (or more recently to grab a spot in the coveted top 35 in points), because it's nothing new. Purchasing assets or even exchanging cash in dark corners of the garage at the last minute is a time-honored racing tradition, no matter how weird. And it's not just a stock car issue. It happens at the Indianapolis 500, too.
I'm not saying I like it. I don't. But until they drastically change the rules concerning owners points and how/why/what they belong to, we need to not get too emotional about it.
Instead we must employ my new least favorite athlete cliché: It is what it is.
2) Start and parks
This continues to be the great news story that isn't.
Are there "teams" that field cars simply for the sake of pocketing cash and taking it to the house before the first round of pit stops? No question about it. However, the notion that they are stealing starting spots and hard-earned money from "real race teams" is more off-base than Coco Crisp with a green light and a rookie pitcher on the mound.
"If you don't make a race because you lost out to one of those teams, then the message is pretty simple," Jeff Burton said. "Then you should have been faster than they were. And if you get beat by one of them in a race, then the message is even simpler. You should have beaten them."
Start and parks have been around since NASCAR's earliest days and they aren't going anywhere. So instead of focusing on the low-budget teams that aren't really trying, how about spending more time supporting those that are.
Take Tommy Baldwin Racing, for instance. In 2009, TBR was roundly ripped by fans for starting and parking. That year TBR made 25 starts with five different drivers, posting 19 DNFs. The following year TBR made 27 starts with eight drivers and had 18 DNFs. Last year it was 42 starts with six drivers and 12 DNFs, but Dave Blaney ran a nearly full schedule with 34 starts and seven of his DNFs were more than legit, either engine failures or crashes, and he finished 33rd in owners points. This year TBR will run two Cup cars, including a points swap deal with Stewart-Haas Racing to aid Danica Patrick.
"We took a lot of heat for the whole start-and-park deal," Baldwin said recently. "But we were never out to make a quick buck. We have always been about building something. And if you saw what we were in 2009 and what we are now, then you know it's pretty obvious."
3) Electronic fuel injection
Don't misunderstand here. EFI is a huge step for a sport that was the last place in the world running a carburetor not named Grandpa's House.
Yes, there is now an ECU (electronic control unit, not East Carolina Pirates), a set of engine sensors that teams can plug a computer into to download data and regulate ignition timing and fuel flow. That's a big deal for a sport that's always had an unapologetic allergy to computers. No, teams can't do anything with those computers on race day. No, they can't receive real-time data feeds a la Formula One. And yes, teams will be able to restart cars on pit road after they run out of fuel and do it without a laptop.
But the vast majority of the questions I have received from fans, dating all the way back to the first big test at Charlotte, have centered not on the technology of it, but rather on what I have witnessed from the cars in person.
Do they sound different? Do they smell different? Do they make cars slower? Do they make cars faster? Do they have R2-D2 mounted in the rear deck lid doing in-lap repairs?
Let me answer all of the above right now and with one word.
Honestly, if you didn't know that EFI had been installed, you wouldn't be able to tell. Aside from a new click-click-click-click that leads into the firing of the engine, nothing's outwardly different.
4) The demise of Dale Junior
If I get 10 EFI questions per week, then I get 100 questions about the end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career. As in, "Hey Ryan, don't you think Dale Junior is done and should quit?"
Yes, I know he hasn't won in 129 starts. Yes, I know he hasn't won a Cup title.
But I also know that three years ago he finished 25th in points. Two years ago he finished 21st. Last year he finished seventh, posting more top-5s (four) and top-10s (12) than he had since 2008. He's also only 37 years old, not exactly ancient. His father won six of his seven Cup titles after the age of 35 and four after turning 37.
So, no, Junior's not retiring. Nor should he.
5) The 3 returns to a race car
Two years ago I spent NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying at Daytona strolling through the campers down in Turns 3 and 4. Why? I wanted to be with the people flying black No. 3 flags when their beloved digit hammered over the high banks of the World Center of Racing for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death.
The group I sat with raised absolute hell when I asked about the idea of Dale's number being back on the track. But when Austin Dillon blew by in his black truck with the big white slanted 3, they all held up three fingers, wept and then cheered when he qualified (of course) third. "I have to admit," a man dressed head-to-toe in Earnhardt gear said to me, "that number looked mighty damn good back out there."
I honestly thought the "He can't run Dale's number!" was over. And I especially thought it was over when Dillon won the Trucks title this past November.
But now those comments have returned. Why? Because this season Dillon will be racing in the Nationwide Series. In a car, not a truck.
"It had gone away, but I am hearing more of it now," Dillon said last month, reiterating that he has raced the No. 3 his entire career to honor grandfather Richard Childress, who raced with the number before giving up the ride to Earnhardt. Childress ran it in honor of his childhood hero, Junior Johnson. "But I'm hoping that we can win them over in Nationwide like we did in Trucks."
This Friday I will be back among the Earnhardt flags once again. And once again I expect the haters to be swept away by the vision of their favorite number back on their favorite racetrack.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are five issues that seem to have fans riled up, but really shouldn't. One of the silliest is whether or not Dale Earnhardt Jr. is washed up.