NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Racing & Political Drama In NRA 500

It’s a Saturday night edition of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this week, as the NRA 500 goes from Fort Worth this evening on Fox at 7:30 PM ET. Kyle Busch, currently running a strong fourth place overall, grabbed the pole.  Although, at a track that tends to offer fluid racing and ease of passing, the pole is not likely to matter all that much.

What does matter is that Jimmie Johnson is opening up a lead on the rest of the field in the points standings. JJ’s win last week in Martinsville moved him 16 points ahead of Brad Keselowski. Now with 19 races before the playoffs start, that’s hardly some insurmountable gap. But it’s at least a noteworthy gap, and more important is that Johnson now has two wins while Keselowski has yet to take the checkered flag in 2013. Casual NASCAR fans be reminded—when the playoffs start, the standings are recalibrated in a way that reward wins.

Wins are also the first criteria for wild-card qualification, the two playoff spots that go outside the Top 10 and we have some intrigue in that no one outside the top 10 has yet to win a race. Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon are officially in 11th and 12th in the points standings, and that’s the next tiebreaker after wins. But the current landscape has to provide some relief to Tony Stewart. The two-time champion is off to a rough start and he’s 72 points out of 10th right now. But he’s just one win from moving to the top of the wild-card standings.

Johnson and Kyle Busch are co-favorites this week in Fort Worth, each going off at 6-1. Keselowski and Greg Biffle—currently tied for fifth overall—are at 7-1, Carl Edwards is at 10-1 and then you have a quartet of Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Stewart, and Gordon at 12-1. The betting lines normally aren’t this packed, and Johnson normally does not share the favorite’s role. There’s clearly some division among the smart money this time around, which heightens the intrigue for tonight.


The intrigue is already heightened for this race, in light of the current flap over the NRA’s sponsorship of the race. If you don’t follow politics, there’s currently escalating drama in Washington as the votes on gun control proposals put forth in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut last December are coming up and the lobbying has intensified. The NRA is quite obviously involved in that process and Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, is saying that Fox shouldn’t televise this race because of it.

I believe in the separation of sports and politics. Our current climate is one where politically-inclined people not only agree on less, but have a decreasing ability to communicate with each other civilly. We can thank the current generation of D.C. strategists and grass-roots activists, who have profited by whipping people up into a froth against each other.

The arenas of popular culture—sports being a primary one—are the places where people of differing sides can come together, share some common enjoyment and remind themselves that however much they might disagree at the ballot box, their opponents are still human and that probably about 90 percent of the people on either side of the aisle really do just want what they think is best for everyone.

In that light, if NASCAR wants to make a determination not to have political organizations sponsoring their races, I’m okay with it. What I am not okay with is Senator Murphy’s obvious attempt at political grandstanding. Would he be this outraged if the Planned Parenthood 500 was getting set to run? For that matter, even allowing for NRA sponsorship, would he be this upset if MSNBC was the network who owned the television rights? This is just an attempt by a self-aggrandizing politician to interject himself where he doesn’t belong, to embarrass an organization and a network that he has political disagreements with.

Whatever you think of the current gun proposals being debated (a federal background check is the primary one on the line right now), the National Rifle Association did not cause the tragedy at Newtown last December, either directly or indirectly. No one has shown any evidence that the killer, Adam Lanza, was in any way shape or form influenced by the NRA.  To tie him to the millions of ordinary citizens who are in the organization is guilt-by-association, a tactic that was forever discredited during the McCarthy hearings.

For the record and for full disclosure, I don’t own a gun, I’m for the background check legislation being debated, and have mixed views on the assault weapons ban that preceded this. But I feel even more strongly that if everyone who owned a gun was registered with the NRA and was a part of their gun safety programs, that the world would be a safer place. I further think that NRA is right in assuming its political opponents—Senator Murphy included—have larger designs for gun regulation than they’ll reveal right now.

But what I think or don’t think about the specifics of the NRA’s political program is frankly irrelevant. What’s relevant is that Senator Murphy is trying to politicize a facet of American culture in a way that’s inappropriate and inconsistent. Perhaps, in time, NASCAR will decide that the involvement of political organizations is more trouble than it’s worth, and so long as that verdict is enforced equally across the board, I’m okay with it.

Somewhere along the line, there needs to be venues of popular culture where people can all get along, while the bigger picture issues work themselves out. Sports is one of them. Let’s make sure it remains so and resist the politicans and grass-roots activists who insist otherwise.