On one channel on Sunday, golf’s senior statesman was going off on the course. On the other, NASCAR’s senior statesman was going off on his organization.
Phil Mickelson had an unlikely day in the sun in the Southern heat. Kevin Harvick? He was just heated.
And the dichotomy spoke volumes.
It was the perfect illustration of all of the things the PGA Tour continues to get right and all of the things NASCAR — at times, seemingly purposefully — continues to get wrong. And it was right down to the setting, where the sun beamed on one of the most striking and beautiful backdrops in golf at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and the rain poured down at the Course of the Americas in Austin, Texas, a track NASCAR has no business being at in the first place.
Mickelson utilized controlled breathing, Harvick huffed and puffed. Mickelson beamed holding the Wanamaker Trophy, Harvick scowled looking over a destroyed race car.
I don’t want to spend too long on the success of the PGA Championship. The decision to move the event to May was a terrific one. Too often in past years, tacked on toward the end of the schedule in the fall, the PGA often felt like the forgotten fourth major. And sure, Mickelson, a clear fan favorite arguably second only to Tiger Woods, defying age and registering an unforeseen sixth major was a fortunate break in terms of viewer ratings.
It was great. All of it. From Thursday on, it couldn’t have gone better.
And then there was NASCAR. If the organization shot itself in the foot with its ridiculous scheduling and the Bristol dirt debacle, it emptied the clip on Sunday. I’m talking Swiss-cheese metatarsals.
The NASCAR Cup Series visited COTA for the first time on Sunday, marking the second of an ungodly seven stops at road courses on the 36-race slate. As I’ve already written, NASCAR continues its head-scratching venture into trying to become F1, because who doesn’t love 15-second leads and visiting tracks where only one-eighth of the course is visible from the stands?
But I’ve covered that already. This was even something else.
Let me ask you something: Have you ever driven your passenger car in a downpour in rush-hour traffic on the interstate? How long did you have to massage your forearms afterward to get feeling back? Hydroplaning in low-visibility surrounded by cars on all sides, your knuckles as white as the page this column is on ... not much fun, eh?
Now, lower all of those cars to the ground, have everyone drive 180-plus miles per hour and careen toward a sharp turn that requires an entry of around 50 mph and, oh by the way, have no idea where that turn begins. Yeah, put me back on the interstate.
But that’s what drivers faced on Sunday as NASCAR was somehow dim and stubborn enough to see opportunity instead of near-tragic consequences.
Most drivers in the field had just one practice session on the track and one qualifying run. Sure, there are simulators. But I can also build a farm on Facebook — just don’t come to my house looking for corn.
And so the rain poured down, teams switched to rain tires and drivers shot down a straight stretch without being able to see the front of their own cars, much less any others around them. At least they had grip, right?
Not really, as evident by drivers swerving back and forth as if they were trying to control Yoshi on an ice track in Mario Kart.
But how ... breathe ... HOW does no one in the sport have the foresight to possibly see visibility trouble in those conditions? These aren’t Indy cars with spread tires and without full windshields, these are square-bodied passenger replicas, lowered as far as possible to the ground.
And what was with the wipers NASCAR gave these guys? I had better ones as a poor student in Morgantown after they had been frozen to a Hyundai for three weeks. The ones on Sunday glitched and lagged as if they were running off Suddenlink internet.
And how, when Harvick was run over by Bubba Wallace, who never saw Harvick’s checked-up Ford until he was into the back of him, was the race not called then? How about in Harvick’s interview, when he said that Sunday was the most unsafe he’d ever felt in a race car? Harvick, by the way, is the series’ active wins co-leader (with Kyle Busch, both with 58) and has been driving a Cup car since 2001, not to mention the prior experience on his way through the ranks. Yeah, his word is good enough for me.
What if Martin Truex or Cole Custer — who got together in the most terrifying accident of the day as Custer hit a checked-up Truex so hard in the rear that it threw the No. 19 Toyota onto the hood of Custer’s 41 as both slammed into a wall cutout on the straight stretch — had been seriously injured? What if Truex, arguably, behind Chase Elliott, the sport’s most popular driver, was never able to race again?
Can you imagine the blowback on Monday?
Luckily, all were OK, and against the word of every driver who had crashed out of the race, they raced on. That is until, with 14 laps to go and Elliott finally in the lead, NASCAR called the race because of — get this — rain.
Is there a conspiracy theory to be made out of NASCAR handing Elliott, the sport’s most popular driver, a win? I’d hate to think so, but after sending guys barreling into each other basically blindfolded like an underwater destruction derby for two hours, it’s admittedly pretty sketchy.
In full transparency, I didn’t watch all of it. The PGA Tour won the day, and having already been not-so-excited to see stock-car drivers make 20 turns 68 times, I had mostly tuned out just a few laps in.
I hope other fans were with me. I hope they continue doing so until NASCAR finally gets the message.
Cup cars belong on an oval. And they certainly don’t belong in the rain.