Winston Cup season a mixed bag of emotions

The top stories of NASCAR’s 2001 Winston Cup season indicate a year of mixed emotion and results.

The top story of the year — that which overshadowed all others — was the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in the first race of the season.

On the heels of the Earn-hardt tragedy was the safety issue. NASCAR appeared to do the correct thing with the Earnhardt investigation, but in fact it was just a dog-and-pony show, not unlike what you’d expect to be presented in front of jurors in a courtroom. NASCAR has been short on facts, and quick to leave safety pioneer Bill Simpson, whose seatbelt broke during the Earnhardt crash, hung out to dry. NASCAR has failed to address the issue of proper seatbelt installation, or the fact that the cars’ chassis don’t absorb enough impact, leaving the driver vulnerable.

Competition also was a major story in 2001. A record 19 drivers visited victory lane, including five first-time winners. But other than the four restrictor-plate races and the six short-track events, the only races of note were the two Atlanta events and the final race at New Hampshire. NASCAR seems intent on holding events at cookie-cutter 1.5-mile tracks, most of which offer little side-by-side racing. But as long as NASCAR has results on paper that rival this year’s incredible level of competition, nothing will change. In reality, most events featured about a half-hour of good racing during a three- to four-hour event, whereas short-track events featured good racing throughout. The bigger-is-better mentality prevails, however, so don’t expect another short track on the schedule anytime soon.

Jeff Gordon’s fourth Winston Cup title has to be considered one of the year’s biggest stories. He’s the third driver to win more than three titles, placing him in the company of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Though Gordon’s clean-cut persona differs from the pioneering spirit of Petty and the charisma of Earnhardt, the fact that he’s only 30 makes him one of the best to sit behind the wheel of a Winston Cup car. And this championship season came with Robbie Loomis as crew chief and not Ray Evernham — which only proves Gordon’s ability.

The ability of the new TV deal to deliver was another major story. For the most part the networks did a good job, and were smart enough to bring talented and experienced broadcasters with them. But conflicts with sponsors led to problems early on, when networks refused to put car sponsors on TV graphics unless those sponsors emptied their wallets with commercial time. Then networks refused to call races by the sponsor’s name unless the race sponsor also bought TV time, a situation that has resulted in at least one lawsuit. At Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NBC’s equipment almost was towed off the premises because of NBC’s refusal to refer to the track as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

And while TV networks attempt to recoup their investment by squeezing the cash cow dry, the quality of their coverage is suspect. Most races were OK, but few drivers outside the top 10 in points were interviewed if they dropped out of a race. And too many graphics — including stupid-looking bubbles placed atop cars on the track to demonstrate the networks’ satellite tracking system — brought complaints from viewers, who just wanted to watch the race. Some fans enjoyed daily hour-long TV and cable shows dedicated to Winston Cup, but others thought the saturation was overkill:How much news comes out of the series on a daily basis? The networks that outbid ESPN and TNN on the TV contract spent too much money, so as long as the daily Winston Cup shows and atop-the-car bubbles are sponsored and help cover losses, they’ll continue. And does anyone other than NASCAR think that keeping ESPN’s RPM2Nite outside the track at Cup events is a smart move?

Dodge, however, was smart to re-enter the Winston Cup ranks, and bring Evernham with the program. Their success certainly ranks among the top stories of 2001.

What will 2002 bring? Expect safety, the level of competition, and television to remain big topics. But also look for the length of the season to become an issue, as well as the cost of competition. And the new restrictor-plate rules will be an issue at the season-opening event at Daytona, only three months away.

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