Clinton, S.C., Monday, July 28, 2014, 1:20 p.m.
Jeff Gordon, bless his soon-to-be-forty-three-year-old heart, didn’t save the day, but he and his lovely wife and precocious children sure did warm up the boredom and make it fuzzy.
Age gives a man an appreciation of the phrase “in due time.” In the waning laps of the Whatever-the-Brickyard-Is-Now 400, Gordon had a pesky problem. It wasn’t just another shiny race car riding in front of his. It was a teammate, Kasey Kahne, one who needs a victory to make the Chase Powerball, but Gordon needed a record fifth NASCAR victory at Indy and a ninetieth career victory, and the man who had won four and eighty-nine, respectively, was bound to go full speed ahead, damning torpedoes and whatnot.
Gordon was cool. He always has been. He waited for a restart, and away he went. Kahne didn’t have the ethanol to make it anyway, so everything turned out for the best.
Good news and bad news. A Gordon victory lessens the perception of boredom. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won, people would have filed it away in the part of the brain charged with imagination, and by, oh, 2018, two hundred thousand would claim to have been there for the three-wide finish won by Junior, upside-down, backwards, and on fire.
It wasn’t a good race, but it became a good story. Dale Earnhardt’s one Daytona 500 victory was a great story, and like this one, a humdrum race.
In fact, in terms of all those considerations image specialists love, it was quite the lollapalooza, beginning on the popular dirt of Eldora Raceway with Darrell Wallace Jr.’s victory, and continuing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Ty Dillon’s victory in the overmatched Nationwide Series, which is rather obviously beneath the big track’s dignity. The big race went to the most graceful racer since Ned Jarrett. A direct descendant of Richard Childress, related by number to Earnhardt, won the little race. An African American demonstrated that NASCAR’s land of opportunity doesn’t have to be coated with asphalt or concrete.
It was the best that could be made of a bad situation.
Forget what I think the crowd was. The best counter in the sport, Humpy Wheeler, figured the Brickyard Sprint Cup attendance was less than fifty thousand. The sport used to have lots of funny people. One of them, watching from home like me and almost everyone else in America, opined that there were entire sections on the front straight that could have withstood live hand grenades without any casualties.
Thank the Lord for a good, safe race.
On the one hand, live TV treated attendance as if it were one of George Carlin’s seven words that can’t be said on TV. On the other, when I was watching local news, ad-libbing sports directors couldn’t avoid it. Can you believe the empty seats? I saw an old friend at Fatz Café with his wife and kids.
“Hey, how you been? I watched the race. Wasn’t nobody there.”
A quick flick of the remote control reveals a Dow that is just shy of 17,000. The rich folks, the ones NASCAR reveres, are doing quite well again in spite of Obama. Indy’s a great place to wine and dine. Where were they? Have they rediscovered the Hamptons? NASCAR emperor Brian France was there, and, normally, where France is, the wealthy are sure to follow, right? The emperor’s minions were all hot and bothered, meticulously spewing their tweeting points.
The other major sports would love to draw 80,000 or 90,000.
This one, too.
They’re going to have to do more of what the fans like. The problem is they’re liking less and less.