Hey, NASCAR fans, I need you to circle up here. Grab a chair, grab a knee, take a seat on a cooler, whatever's most comfortable. We need to have a chat. I'm worried about you, so I want to tell you a story.
In high school, I had this friend named Billy Ray. Billy Ray was the man. He had it made every possible way for a 17-year-old. He dated the best-looking girl on campus. He drove the best-looking car, a navy blue 1967 Ford Mustang convertible 289. The four of us best buds drove everywhere in that thing. And to beat it all, he had the best-looking left-handed swing I've still ever seen from a prep baseball player.
But one day, he saw some movie star had cut her hair really short and told his girlfriend he liked it. So she cut all her hair off. Billy Ray hated it and he dumped her. He said he might think about getting back together with her once her hair grew back, but by the time it did, she had moved on.
In '87 Ford came out with a redesigned Mustang convertible. Billy Ray sold his '67 and bought the new one. It didn't have enough room for our entire crew, the roof leaked and the ragtop motor burned out, so we couldn't put the top down.
Then Billy Ray ordered up one of those Tom Emanski Baseball World training videos, the ones that used to advertise 10,000 times a day on ESPN when Fred McGriff declared the user would "get results." Unfortunately, Billy Ray got results. His swing became so robotic he went into a terrible slump, and surrendered his starting spot on the team.
Billy Ray, my friend who'd had the awesome girl, awesome car and awesome swing, was now alone, wet and benched.
"I didn't realize how good I had it when I had it," Billy Ray recently confessed to me. He now sells timeshares somewhere in South Florida. "You get to thinking it's never good enough and you keep complaining about it and one day you wake up and you're old and wondering, 'what all have I missed while I was doing all of that whining?' "
And that brings me back to you, NASCAR fans.
Don't be Billy Ray.
Within minutes of the end of Sunday's race at Bristol, my email inbox and Twitter timeline were filled to the brim. Were the comments about Carl Edwards becoming the season's sixth different winner in eight races, or Dale Junior's slidejob into second, or Matt DiBenedetto's Cinderella run, or the third race in a row with a change atop the championship standings?
Nope. What I heard was this:
* Bristol's grandstands were empty.
* Bristol's TV ratings were down.
* Bristol's racing sucked.
* Bristol was better when it was a two-lane racetrack.
* The National Anthem singer was "too fancy."
* Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip clearly don't like each other.
* The race started too early for West Coast fans.
* The race should have started at noon like they used to for East Coast fans.
* Everything was better in the good old days.
Please understand this, NASCAR fans. We've been in this together for a long time now. I love you. Heck, I'm one of you. But it's getting to the point where I don't know if I want to be around you much longer. And I'm not alone.
Why? Because you're a downer, man. You've developed a reputation as some of the sports world's biggest whiners. Seriously, just listen to yourselves. Tune into NASCAR's satellite radio channel for five minutes. Any five minutes. If we're at the beach it's too hot, and if we're in the mountains it's too cold.
If a Cup guy wins an Xfinity race, he's ruining the series. But if an Xfinity regular wins, I inevitably hear, "Well, who the hell is this guy? I want stars!" If a race ends without a late caution and the leader wins by a second or two, it's boring. But if a late caution comes out to set up a green-white-checker finish and the debris isn't the size of a Winnebago, it's NASCAR rigging the finish.
I hear all the time that NASCAR doesn't listen to the fans. The reality is that they listen too much. People used to scream that the championship battles were too boring ... and they were right. That's how we ended up with the Chase. Now people scream about the Chase, even after it's been tweaked repeatedly based on research done through NASCAR's massive Fan Council.
The race we just ran is the all-time greatest example of this over-willingness to overreact.
A decade ago, fans raised a ruckus that Bristol Motor Speedway needed two lanes for better racing. With ticket sales softening, the track listened. They made a big deal out of reconfiguring the place to create more lanes. But what happened as a result was one of the greatest overreactions I've ever seen in professional sports. Fans immediately said they wanted the track to go back to the way it was and cast their votes by not buying tickets ... even though the racing was actually pretty great.
Now it's been put back the way it was, but clearly the fans that left haven't shown back up. When I've asked why not, they cite the changes that were made eight years ago that have since been erased because they said they'd return if the old configuration returned. But they haven't.
Just like Billy Ray after his girlfriend cut her hair.
Meanwhile, such grousing and griping is bleeding the sport dry from the inside. I know for a fact that some sponsors have been run off because of it. They've told me. I also know that some TV executives have been turned off by it. They've told me, too. I've even had a handful of drivers tell me the same.
I fear that you're so busy complaining that you're missing a truly great time to be a race fan. You miss Dale Earnhardt? Me, too. But his son is running perhaps the best he ever has. And, oh by the way, his grandson Jeffrey and his old team, RCR, are out there slugging away every weekend. You miss Rusty Wallace? Me, too. But man, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski sure remind me an awful lot of him. You say you miss Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin? Have you met Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer?
I know it hurts that Jeff Gordon is done, but his car is running pretty dang well. I know you miss Bill Elliott, but his son is the one driving Gordon's car, the leader of the best group of young drivers to come along in forever. And Jimmie Johnson, whether you love him or hate him, might very well be the best that's ever zipped up a firesuit. The opportunity to witness that alone is something to be appreciated.
Are you really going to allow yourself to miss out on all of that because you are mad they did away with the souvenir midway in favor of a one-stop shopping tent? That move had to be made because people weren't buying enough stuff off that midway to justify the cost.
Are you really not going to a race at Martinsville or Bristol or Richmond because you're still mad that Rockingham and North Wilkesboro have been out of business for decades now? Those places were abandoned largely because fans didn't support them well enough, not even after recent attempts to reopen them. Are you really going to say NASCAR has abandoned its roots and then not go to those races ... or at least visit the Hall of Fame?
Because if you keep not going at the rate you're not going, there won't be anything left to visit.
Have all of NASCAR's moves been good ones? No. Did they make too many big moves all at once? Yes, a decade ago. But what's happening today is great stuff. Don't miss it because of an obsession with the good old days ... which, FYI, weren't all that great. There's a reason we remember the '76 and '79 Daytona 500s and the '95 and '99 Bristol night races. Those finishes stood out because most finishes weren't that close. Go back and watch those races in their entirety. If they happened now, people would say "the finish was good, but the rest of it was so boring."
A two-lane Bristol? Weekly door-to-door finishes? Nonstop lead changes? It's never happened. Today's racing is easily the closest it's ever been to that kind of NASCAR nirvana.
So, are you really going to miss out on what's happening now because of what you think you might remember about those races back in the day? Ignoring the great stuff today by pining for a myth of yesteryear? Tuning out of the most competitive era in NASCAR history because somehow you think it could be better?
Please, people ... my people. Don't be like that.
Don't be like Billy Ray.