Marty Smith’s Sunday Money: Shifting Gears and Focusing on This NASCAR Community

by Marty Smith

The response to Sunday Money has been wonderful, and it intrigues me that I hear from industry folks as much as I hear from fans. Sponsor representatives. Team officials. Folks in downtown Charlotte and further south at the beach. Even a driver or two. So I figured I’d shift gears a bit. Let’s make this thing about you guys. A community. Let’s open this thing up as a mailbag portal to answer the pressing questions that weigh heavy on the shoulders of your fandom.

As is well-documented, I am not a Twitter fan. But it does offer me the opportunity to ask you folks what you want to know. Score one for Twitter.

Jonathan McIntire (@shangri_la_deda): What’s the kindest gesture in NASCAR you’ve seen that no one knows about? #SundayMoney

The term “NASCAR Family” is often used, to the point that some consider it cliché. Like most cliches’ it’s cliché because it’s true. Folks take care of each other out there in the traveling circus. I’ve been the benefactor of that kindness many times from many people, and I’ve seen countless examples of industry individuals and teams assisting another member of the garage when he or she faced real-life strife. One individual who I’ve personally seen care for others is Tony Stewart’s manager, Eddie Jarvis. That guy has done amazing things for people, and he’ll be upset with me for sharing that.

Speaking of Stewart, he’s a lion on the racetrack, a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent and snarly as hell when he feels crossed. But he has a huge heart for others when they most need it. And that dude loves dogs. Years back at Daytona, right around the turn of the century or so, Stewart was testing a racecar for two days at Lakeland Speedway in Florida.

Back at his hotel after the first day, he flipped on the television and was channel surfing when he happened upon a local news story about a man who was arrested for abusing his dog. A fund had been established to generate money to assist in rehabilitating the dog, which needed substantial veterinary assistance. Stewart picked up the phone and called the station, which connected him with the group championing the pup. He anonymously wrote a hefty check to cover all costs associated with nursing the dog back to health and finding it a permanent home.

And he warned the staff if they told anyone who sent the money he’d say they were lying.
Stewart never wanted anyone to know that story. True story. Sorry, Smoke. I owe you one.

@Briff388: Thoughts on (the Indianapolis road course) race?

I enjoyed it. Granted I’m a racer, so I even typically enjoy events others might consider boring.
(Admittedly for my journalist friends rolling their eyes, that’s because I’m at home. I enjoy less-thrilling races much more in front of my television with a cold one in my hand and a nap at-the-ready than I did parked in the media center on deadline). Like Ricky Rudd, I was road course before road course was cool. I advocated for Sonoma way back. It’s physical, strategic racing. Corners are thin and passing is often very technical, so contact between cars is inevitable. Crew chiefs must plan pit strategy backwards from the way they typically do.

There was once something called a “road course ringer,” which was a road-racing expert who showed up twice a year to compete in the pair of Cup Series events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Meanwhile, full-time Cup drivers simply tolerated those two weekends — get in and get out and get on to the next oval. Rudd was an exception. He was quite talented at turning left and right. Then Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart came along and became the standard among full-time drivers in the field. These days, nearly every driver is more than capable and focused on road course competition. Where there was once just two Cup road races, there are now six. And all six present an opportunity to win, and thus present drivers a tremendous opportunity to qualify for the playoffs. Tyler Reddick has won back-to-back road races this season, first at Road America and now at Indy. Reddick recently announced he would leave Richard Childress Racing for 23XI Racing in 2024. His decision is a substantial setback for RCR. He is a generational driving talent. As for Indy, it had everything you want: Physical racing (Kyle Larson dive-bombed the 5 car into the corner and body slammed Ty Dillon), weird strategy (Ross Chastain tried to win the damn thing on the access road before NASCAR slapped him for it), overcoming adversity (Reddick and his team aren’t letting his pending departure distract them) and something that resembles tradition (Reddick kissed the famed Yard of Bricks). I dug it.

However, all that said: I want the oval back. It’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It shouldn’t be just another race weekend, and the road course – even though the racing may be more interesting – dilutes the magnitude of the platform. IMS belongs to IndyCar and the unparalleled prestige of the Indy 500, and it’s the most famous racing circuit in America. And if NASCAR is running there it should be highlighted on that stage.

The Brickyard 400 doesn’t have to be 400. Change it up. Maybe make it 300 miles, so the drivers race like hell to get up front in a hurry and take chances because their time to adjust cars is limited. Maybe change up the stages to add intensity on what can be long, drawn-out parade-like races. I don’t know the right answer there. Some say take it over to Indianapolis Raceway Park. I like road courses. But I love the mystique of the Brickyard. And the mystique is the oval.

Chris Haynes (@sparky2SS): In 2019, (NASCAR president) @stevephelps said “I think we chased a new fan at the expense of an existing fan. We’ll never do that again.” Do you believe they are still fixated on chasing new fans while ignoring their loyal fan base? (Dirt, street course, 6 road courses,
@lacoliseum, lower hp, etc)

No sir, I do not believe they’re aimlessly chasing new and shiny any longer. That’s not to say they aren’t aggressively trying any-and-everything that might grow the sport, because they most certainly are. That in itself is an admission – what we were doing wasn’t working and the sport suffered, so let’s be fearless to change and adapt to anything that best suits and boosts our future. They’re aggressive and they’re unapologetic: If it grows the sport, figure out how to do it. And if it fails, so be it. We’ll strap in and try again.

For years, changes were made in the name of potential progress in bigger television markets. That applied in many areas, including nixing some traditional race markets and frowning upon certain driver personalities. That approach turned traditional fans off. They felt forgotten, used up, that NASCAR forgot its roots. The most glaring example: moving the Southern 500 from Darlington to California. That was a dumb decision and it didn’t take very long to see it. (I do recall writing once for that it was good for progress. The sport was enjoying a meteoric rise and battled the NFL for television ratings and merchandising sales were astronomical and race drivers flew to Letterman and Leno and
Regis & Kelly on private jets, on and on. So why not put the sport in LA on one of its most-treasured weekends? I was stupid).

Eventually, NASCAR admitted its blunder and rectified the mishap by returning the Southern 500 to its rightful home in South Carolina. (Raise Hell Praise Dale). These days, the broad scope decision makers in this iteration of NASCAR — Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, Ben Kennedy, etc. — understand that its lifeblood is the three-headed monster of its core fanbase, sponsorship partners and television partners. The sport had gotten away from listening to core fans. It had distanced itself from country music and Wrangler jeans and blue collars. Old school fans were always so damn proud that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarbrough represented them, but by the mid-2000s those fans didn’t feel well-represented anymore.

That’s one of the countless reasons that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was so wildly popular. He felt relatable to blue-collar America – even with bleached-blonde hair. Phelps, O’Donnell, Kennedy and their teams have all worked diligently and delicately to rekindle the bond.

There’s a long way to go. And yes, NASCAR is digging its heels in the dirt and taking swings big enough to Gary Sheffield blush, with the new car and the Chicago street course and throwing dirt on Bristol’s high banks. The difference, at least from what I’ve seen, is the energy surrounding the changes. Most agreed things had to change. The sport was stagnant. It’s not anymore.

At Daytona, Jeff Gordon looked at me and hollered, “NASCAR IS BACK!” That’s how the air felt down there – new and exciting. We have an old-school rivalry now between Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin. Michael Jordan and Pit Bull are deeply invested in the sport, and
their teams are both winners in 2022. It’s an optimistic time – for fans old and new.

Jake Fletcher (@JackFletcher64): Championship 4 favorites?

Predicting this answer this far out is ill-advised, and prognostication is not a skill with which I was graced. In NASCAR, a lot can change in a hurry in terms of who is competitive, when. For all we know, Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers might find an improvement to their No. 4 Ford tomorrow that allows them to reel off a bunch of wins. I’ve seen it happen before. Speed is a sliding scale in the garage. Plus, with the elimination format in NASCAR’s playoff, one bad race or a knockout punch from Lady Luck can thwart a title opportunity. But I’ll do what I can for you here, Jake, based on consistent speed so far this season.

Chase Elliott. Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex. Kyle Larson.

Chastain is fast everywhere. But I don’t know that his peers will let him get to that final race in the title hunt.