It's the stars, not the cars
David Newton [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
February 7, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You will hear about the great accomplishments of Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace on Friday night when the fourth class is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. You will hear great stories showcasing their personalities that contributed to their legendary status.

You won't hear much, if anything, about how the chassis or car that they drove back in the day looked.

Last I checked, a car hasn't been nominated for consideration into the Hall. Last I looked, a car hasn't won a race without a driver or signed an autograph for a fan.

Unless the "Gen 6" has a "Herbie the Love Bug" mechanism that we don't know about, that won't change.

Nevertheless, NASCAR is promoting the new car and how it will improve racing -- the sport -- like it can challenge Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the most popular driver award.

An email arrived on Monday that said: "Road Warrior: NASCAR's Gen 6 Car Embarks On Multi City Media Blitz."

Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski "accompanied" his No. 2 Ford to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus on Wednesday. Earnhardt was scheduled to "accompany" his No. 88 Chevrolet to New York City for several stops on Friday.

NASCAR president Mike Helton kicked off the tour on Tuesday in Detroit by saying, "We've found that four of five of our fans have an affinity for the brand of car. A lot of those relationships are even older than the relationship with their favorite driver."

That may be true. But I'm betting fans who come to any of these events do so for a chance to meet the driver, not the car that has been paraded out there since Ford introduced the "Gen 6" Fusion more than a year ago.

As the Hall of Fame induction ceremony nears, I am reminded the drivers and personalities are -- and always have been -- the stars of NASCAR.

The cars, like a pair of Danica Patrick's $1,200 designer shoes, are an accessory. They look nice, but they don't put you in Victory Lane without something in them.

That's not to suggest the brand identity the "Gen 6" brings back to the sport isn't good. It is.

That's not to suggest we can't hope the competition improves. You always want that.

But the hype surrounding the new car has been like a film critic predicting a movie will win an Oscar before it is released.

And then it doesn't, and people are disappointed.

Headlines from a Darlington tire test on Tuesday said drivers like the "Gen 6" at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, that speed records will fall. Another suggested that Patrick's transition into the Cup series will be helped by the "Gen 6."

Another said Hendrick Motorsports will be even more dominant with the "Gen 6" than it was before.

I sometimes wonder, if this were 1979 and a fight broke out between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers in the infield, if we wouldn't hear more about how the "Gen 6" helped create a milestone moment than we would the actual melee.

"Gen 6."

"Gen 6."

"Gen 6."

We get it. It's a great look, a much-needed look for manufacturers to become relevant again. It may help bring back some of the race on Sunday, sell on Monday.

But let's temper the enthusiasm.

Fans aren't going to flock to Daytona International Speedway the next two weeks because the car looks more like the one they drive. They're going to see if Earnhardt can win another Daytona 500 or if Tony Stewart can win his first.

They're going to see if Clint Bowyer has forgiven Jeff Gordon for ruining his championship hopes last season at Phoenix, or if he's still mad and wrecks him. They're going to come to see if Kurt Busch can become relevant again as a championship contender with Furniture Row Racing instead of as one of Forbes' most disliked athletes.

Some will come just to see if Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. race each other differently now that they've gone public with their romantic relationship.

"The personalities of the drivers is 95 percent of it, is what I've always thought," team owner James Finch said.

Fans may be happy that the "Gen 6" discourages the two-car draft and encourages more passing, but if Earnhardt wins, that won't be the topic of conversation on Sunday night.

It'll be the driver.

Over the past few years I've felt too much emphasis has been put on quality of competition. I've actually felt the quality of competition was quite good, better than we often saw in the Gen 1, 2, 3 or 4 cars that never were referred to that way.

Maybe social media has something to do with it.

When I was a kid and listened to races on the radio, every lap sounded exciting. Announcers have a knack for doing that. Now if there are 50 consecutive laps without a green-flag pass for the lead, somebody is instantly on Twitter or Facebook saying how boring the race is.

The "Gen 6" won't change that. There always will be times during a race -- just as there are in any sport -- when there's a lull in the action.

As former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler recently was honored at the North Carolina Motorsports Industry banquet, I was reminded that he made race weekends feel like an event. He blew things up and promoted rivalries between drivers who didn't like each other.

It didn't seem to matter if the race wasn't a thrill a minute.

The overall show had that feel.

Now fans seem to expect every lap to be as exciting as a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega or they want their money back.

The "Gen 6" won't fix that.

The first half of Sunday's Super Bowl was pretty much a dud when it comes to a close game. But you didn't hear fans grumbling like they would if Jimmie Johnson was 25 seconds ahead of the field 200 laps in.

Tell me if I'm wrong, but are NASCAR fans different in this regard? Do you expect more than the average fan in baseball, basketball or golf?

The past two weeks, the PGA witnessed runaway performances by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But instead of there being complaints about the lack of competition, the victors were appreciated for their great play.

"We're overreacting to a great sport as far as what we're expecting out of it," Buddy Baker told me earlier this week.

If the "Gen 6" changes that mindset, it could indeed be the best thing to happen to the sport.

Otherwise, it's the personalities we should be focused on.

I am reminded of this as we approach another ceremony at NASCAR's shrine, where you'll hear stories about how Wallace became known as "Rubberhead" and how Buck Baker was somewhat vain when it came to his hair being in place.

Where you'll hear inductees thank all the people who got them there and praise their fellow competitors.

Where...
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