NASCAR’s Black Hole: No Testing, No News

jeff-gordon-fanhouseSo far in 2015, the notable points of interest for a NASCAR fan are incredibly, shall we say, light. Other than today’s press conference with Jeff Gordon announcing his retirement after the 2015 season (Which may seem like news but was predictable), the only tidbits to hit the wire so far include that same Jeff Gordon auctioning the last race car he won with Ray Evernham, Dale Earnhardt Jr selling a couple of classics from his personal collection on EBay, and of course, the ongoing Kurt Busch saga. While a certain segment of motorsports fans may like seeing wrecks, there is nothing entertaining with the public spectacle (Kurt Busch) that has become of The Outlaw and The Mercenary (Coming SOON on TruTV!).

Bring back the Preseason Thunder, please.

With the moratorium on independent testing this year, and thus by extension the unceremonious cancellation of Preseason Thunder, NASCAR has inadvertently created a vortex of nothing. Typically, by now the fans and media have seen the first true ‘preseason’ appearances at Daytona in preparation for the Super Bowl of Motorsports, and while testing has never produced a definitive ‘who’s who’ of the upcoming season, there was always something to talk about, to keep even the most fervent fans updated and most of the media people covering the sport employed. Not so much this year.

All across the landscape, the news has been scant, as there is nothing to report. Instead of hearing about single car versus pack speeds, tire notes, restrictor plate tweaks, we are instead delighted with overzealous reporting of personal appearance promotions, such as Gordon winning a trike race and, well, that’s about it.

Expect the same pack racing at Daytona in February. The new rules don't apply to Daytona or Talladega.

Expect the same pack racing at Daytona in February. The new rules don’t apply to Daytona or Talladega.

No one is complaining, least of all anyone who has the privilege of writing or covering this sport, though it can be difficult to find something new and different to write about. The benefits in this instance far outweigh the negative consequences, if the results can barely be considered a negative. Consider that the NASCAR season by far is the longest of any professional sport, running 10 out of 12 months. Who is opposed to actually giving drivers and crew 3-4 weeks back? Truly, when taken into consideration, the economic impact to Daytona Beach, a town that was founded on speed but built and strengthened on tourist dollars, is practically nil.

Not that the time is all spent promoting the new grandstands at Daytona or doing commercials for the upcoming season, or hunting big game or taking ‘Twitter Trips’ (Dale Jr was fun to follow on Twitter for a couple of weeks). By the way, the grandstand construction is THE reason we have no Preseason Thunder. Expect Preseason Thunder to be back next year. More time in the shop means more time to fabricate, build and simulate, which is time that can be used elsewhere in the season for whatever purpose that is needed. Luck, they say, is where preparation and opportunity meet, and therefore the more prepared the teams, the luckier they get.

BrjHvtGCIAAJyR4.jpg-largeYet, there is an upside, albeit a small one. When Speedweeks finally kicks off, there will be a myriad of unknowns to watch. Reduced horsepower and spoilers will impact qualifying and practice, and teams will be scrambling to find ways to implement the knowledge they pick up on the track during practices. In other words, there will be a plethora of ‘Unknown unknowns’. Whereas preseason testing provided a baseline of speeds and handling with known tire combinations, this will be the first time cars have been on the track in qualifying and race trim, which should result in teams finding speed unexpectedly. So in the past, the reports coming from Daytona Beach were either a continuation or confirmation of known stories, there should be some brand new events to captivate and fascinate those that follow the sport.

But the results should be well worth the wait. It should, as NASCAR has long hoped, increase the parity of competition across the board. Of course, this statement only applies to the Daytona 500, where restrictor plates, pack racing and pure unadulterated luck affect the racing. But with no team showing up at the track with a clear advantage, qualifying should produce some surprises, the qualifying races will be worth more, and even the modified (or, hand-picked) Bud Shootout should provide some valuable insight and data for the upcoming race.  

So sit tight, NASCAR fans. While the next 4 weeks may seem a bit longer than normal, by the time the checkered flag waves at Daytona, the wait will be well worth it.

Unless you miss Danica photobombs. In which case I don’t know what to tell you.

Lug Nut Rule Step Backwards in NASCAR Post Modern Era

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Five lug nuts have been used by NASCAR since its inception.

Recently I opined on the decision made by NASCAR to make pit road a little bit safer and save a few bucks on operating expenses by using technology, rather than a small army of officials, to monitor and enforce all pit stops with a camera system. I lauded this as a logical and wise move, not only in the interest of safety and cost efficiency, but also because of the consistency that NASCAR loves to talk about but rarely achieves when so many subjective decisions are made that this system affords.

While published, and I hope read and enjoyed, this wasn’t without a sidebar conversation with my editor, to wit, “What about the lug nut rule?”. What about the lug nut rule, indeed. Since that conversation (debate?), this question has been bouncing around in the fictional garage I call my mind, and after scouring for other informed opinions, I feel I must tackle this issue.

Horrible idea, NASCAR. Absolutely horrible.

For those that aren’t aware, for quite a while, five lug nuts were required to be seated on five wheel studs on all four wheels before a car left the pit stall. Makes sense, right? Without wielding the impact gun, the pit road official could only visually confirm that all the lug nuts were seated, but couldn’t visually determine how tight they actually were. However, when a lug nut isn’t tight, a driver feels it at speed and so it’s common when the uncommon mistake of missing a lug nut is made to call the driver back to pit road instead of racing with a loose lug nut.

Safety on pit road and on track is where the utmost attention must be paid.

Safety on pit road and on track is where the utmost attention must be paid.

A lot about NASCAR gets made fun of by racing enthusiasts of other disciplines, the most common adage being ‘Go fast, turn left’. Without giving too much history in one column, the short story is these cars were DESIGNED to race on oval tracks. By nature of the shorter lap distances and relative uniformity of corners, teams can push the limits of components because the performance is constant and the corners are very similar. As a result, drivers are particularly attuned to minute changes in their vehicles, and can often alert their respective teams to tires losing pressure or being on the verge of suddenly blowing. So rest assured, a driver KNOWS when he has a loose lug nut.

There’s this old joke that I heard once about a guy who suffered a flat tire right outside of an insane asylum. The story goes that the guy gets out, jacks up his car, takes off the tire, and right when he’s about to put the spare in place, he accidentally kicks all but one lug nut into the sewer drain never to be found again. A patient watching through the fence (and here’s what makes the joke funny: the patient (inmate?) is watching the entire time making faces and/or funny noises) suddenly tells the guy to simply take one lug nut from each of the other wheels and run it that way. After a second of thought the guy says, ‘Why didn’t I think of that’, to which the patient replies ‘Mister, I may be crazy, but I ain’t stupid!’

The safest wheel security is the center locking nut.

The safest wheel security is the center locking nut.

At any rate, it is absolutely, positively ok to run with four lug nuts. I’ve done it, and I see other people do it all the time. But I’m only commuting to and from work, and I make sure the those four are as tight as possible. Because, even at the relatively safe speed of 80 miles per hour (if you’re law enforcement, and you’re in my area, I mean kilometers per hour), my car isn’t operating at the very limits of what the equipment is designed to withstand. In other words, I’m not putting enough load or g forces or centrifugal force on my wheels to worry about them breaking off. Even so, I’ve suffered a loose lug nut at 80 miles – excuse me, KILOMETERS per hour, and I did end up with a new wheel. Why? Because the lug stud will elongates the hole in the wheel, and as it becomes worse, so does the vibration.

Drivers hate loose racecars. They hate tight racecars. They hate worn tires and they hate peanuts. They really, really, REALLY hate vibrations.

More importantly, though, this WILL cause a wheel to break right off. It’s a rare occurrence, but it DOES happen.

So, back to the conversation I mentioned earlier. My initial thought was that I couldn’t fathom a driver intentionally leaving his pit with anything less than five lug nuts, but the more I think about it, and how important winning is in this post-modern era of NASCAR, if a win was on the line, why wouldn’t they?

And there’s the slippery slope. And this slippery slope is why I think this is a horrible idea. Let me explain further:

In the pre-modern era, NASCAR was awesome. It’s awesome now, but the ingenuity of bootleggers and filthy garage engineers is really what built this sport. It’s too awesome and requires too much space to expound upon, so if you’re in the know, think Smokey Yunick. If you’re not in the know, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND READ ABOUT SMOKEY YUNICK.

The point I’m making is, if there’s anything that will give a team a competitive advantage, they’ll take it, rules be damned. But now there are no rules, which means NASCAR has introduced a gray area so big that you could drive the hauler through it. If a win is on the line, and a driver can get track position by taking four lug nuts while knowing everyone else is taking five, he’ll do it, particularly during a late race caution when the action is stopped for ‘debris’. So when a team gets to the front and gets the win, the rest of the field does the same thing, at which point a team decides to beat the competition to it and does it earlier, then another team does it earlier than that, and so on until all teams are running four lug nuts during the entire race but for the opening laps.

Then the scenario is repeated with THREE lug nuts. See where I’m going with this?

I stopped liking the wrecks a long time ago, and as much as I grumble about how far away the sport has come from its roots and even as often as I write about how I’d like to see smaller teams have the same opportunities Hendrick and Hendrick Jr (Stewart Haas) have been afforded, I really do enjoy the quality of racing we’ve seen the last two years. It’s been a renaissance of sorts – stock cars look like stock cars and stock car drivers act like stock car drivers again. And they’ve never been safer. So I don’t say that in hopes to be proven right.

Rather, it’s worth pointing out that for the most part, all major safety enhancements have come at the expense of someone’s life or livelihood. From the guardrail evolution to the retaining wall (Lee Petty, Beauchamp), the fuel cell and fire suppression technology (Fireball Roberts), the window net (Richard Petty), inside retaining wall access gates (Michael Waltrip), the inner tire liner (Donnie Allison) to the Earnhardt bar, SAFER barriers, closed face helmets and HANS device (Earnhardt). Yes, SAFER barriers, closed face helmets and HANS devices were already developed prior to the loss of Earnhardt, they were just not considered necessary in NASCAR, and were universally abhorred.  Every time an improvement is made, something happens to confirm that this was indeed the correct decision.

Case in point, watch this video. Note the child commentating, and then you come away thinking, why aren’t there SAFER barriers or even tire barriers on that particular short chute at Watkins Glen?

Because no one had ever hit the guard rail there before, that’s why. Those guard rails were there to keep track workers OUT, not racecars in. Which, incidentally, will be corrected before the series returns in 2015.

To use a phrase I read a while back when someone was giving his two cents on putting roll cages in F1 cars: Everything that CAN happen has NOT happened yet (see freak accidents, above). However, we already have empirical evidence of what can happen when a tire isn’t secured, and those wheels are an incredible piece of machinery – two pieces jammed together so tight it’s as if they’re one – but they can, and do, break.

Yes, the tires are tethered, so we shouldn’t have to suffer Darrell Waltrip’s rendition of ‘You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Loose Wheel’, or more importantly, worry about THIS happening:

Ha, you did have to suffer it after all, but I digress.

There have been other instances where the vibration from the naked wheel studs or loose lug nut just rips a piece out of the wheel and breaks it off. Again, this isn’t an end all be all example, because every track is unique and every situation is different. The point is, if there is evidence already existing as to what can happen, why eliminate a rule and open that window of possibility? Especially when the person making the judgment call is only thinking of the win?

In the interest of fairness, if a wheel comes off on the racing surface, it’s considered a P3 penalty, which carries a $50,000 fine, loss of 15 precious points, and an automatic crew chief suspension. That’s pretty bad. But that’s not a worst case scenario. A loss of life is the worst, and again in the interest of fairness, that would be a great convergence of events; a freak occurrence.

But, freak occurrences causing loss of life have too often been the catalyst for safety improvement. I say there’s more than enough experience here to categorically assert knowingly allowing a team to use less lug nuts than designed for is a bad decision. If you want less lug nuts, design a wheel with four lug nuts. Design center locking hubs, if that’s what you’re after. But don’t counteract the safety culture you’ve worked so hard to establish.

NASCAR has worked long and hard to eliminate the gray areas of competition as best they could, which is why I hope, in the interest of safety, that NASCAR reconsiders this rule before being forced by circumstance to do so.

*Yes, SAFER barriers, closed face helmets and HANS devices were already developed prior to the loss of Earnhardt, they were just not considered necessary in NASCAR, and were universally abhorred.

Change is Good, But So is Sports Tradition

With the exception of a few critical monitors, the pit road officials will be replaced by cameras in 2015.

With the exception of a few critical monitors, the pit road officials will be replaced by cameras in 2015.

“Sports tradition is as American as apple pie recipes on Instagram” — Junior Johnson

In a previous life, when I learned that multiple speeding tickets resulted in a conversation with a judge, rather than a conversation regarding me strapping in as a replacement driver for the #3 GM GoodWrench Service Plus Chevrolet Monte Carlo, I began researching alternate methods of being up close to my favorite sport. 

Outside of purchasing my own car and equipment, procuring sponsors and hiring a crew, there were only two alternatives: Move to North Carolina, get a job with a major team, sweep floors, tote sheet metal — ‘gopher work’ — until I was promoted to hauler driver or crew member, OR (and this seemed easier), get a job as a NASCAR official.  

Working as an official, I reasoned, would be just as good, as I would get to wear a cool fire suit, and a headset/radio, and have the best seat for every event and get paid for it. Glad it was a previous life. You see, for 2015, the job of pit road official is obsolete. 

While the need for live officials will never be eliminated, the need has definitely been reduced by the implementation of video officiating on pit road. See? I would have been out of work again. 

To be sure, this decision isn’t a reflection of the type of job the officials were doing. Officiating pit road isn’t an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. But pit road is a congested place, and even the most experienced eyes in the world can’t monitor everything at once. 

For example, is it humanly possible to watch the crews’ feet to ensure they don’t hit the ground outside the wall UNTIL their car crosses the back line of its own pit stall every time? What about counting the pit stalls a car crosses before stopping in its own, making sure its no more than 3? 

I have yet to see an official make a ‘bad’ call, because there IS a layer of redundancy in that Race Control has the final say in everything, but sometimes, ‘no’ call isn’t ‘good’.

Can cameras add or detract from pit road safety?

Can cameras add or detract from pit road safety?

Example: If one second on pit road equals 300 feet on the racetrack, then a half second advantage in the pits equals 150 feet of track position. This is a very over-simplified example. 

The bottom line is that there are now less people on pit road in harm’s way. 

But, let’s not kid ourselves, money has a lot to do with it. Paying all those officials costs a ton. The cameras are a one time hit and then set-up expense at each track. It cost less.

No one can argue that technology hasn’t benefitted the sport. Gone are the days when drivers could contest their position by pulling alongside another car until the final say came down from Race Control. 

Scoring loops track every position with absolute accuracy and leave no ambiguity on who was where when a caution came out. There is no longer a need to compare stopwatches when there may be an instance of a car coming in too hot to pit road. The loops don’t lie. Which is why, in my roundabout manner I say that ultimately this change is for the better. 

If there is one aspect an ‘Eye In The Sky’ improves, it is safety. Frankly, that’s enough justification for ANY change. But it also ensures consistency, which improves competition, and that’s the point. 

By ensuring that all teams are adhering to the same standards, there can be no question of an unfair advantage. Questionable integrity is not good for any sport. 

When I’m not writing about the sport, I sometimes fall into the ‘Traditionalist Fan’ category. I emphatically stated that scoring loops were a horrible idea, because now the car number on the roof no longer needed to be positioned facing the infield, which would screw up the look of the cars. 

When the Chase was introduced, I questioned why non-championship drivers would even want to enter the final 10 races. But this is no longer a bootleg sport with bootleg competitors. 

Some of us traditionalists forget why certain things are the way they are while railing against changing them. For example, why do crews fuel the racecar using cans, when other racing series have different fuel delivery methods? It began with fuel tanks. 

NASCAR mandated a 22 gallon fuel tank for parity’s sake, so crews began adding ridiculous amounts of fuel line to hold additional fuel. When NASCAR caught on, they mandated that no more than 22 gallons of fuel could be added per pit stop, and enforced that rule by mandating the fuel can we see today (and let’s be honest, there were sponsorship dollars attached to that, but that’s an different article for a different day).

I sometimes think that it’s the cat and mouse game teams play with NASCAR to gain a competitive advantage that I enjoy, rather than the results. 

But no discussion of this sort would be complete without a quick point about current NASCAR leadership. Sometimes, when I’m wearing my traditionalist hat, I really think Brian France is hell bent on making sudden right turns with the sport in its entirety.

Perhaps its the secrecy in which leadership makes their decisions, or perhaps its the influence they wield on all aspects of the sport. 

Perhaps its hearing, time and again, that no changes are forthcoming, only to learn afterwards that changes were indeed forthcoming.

I understand the sport must change with the times to stay relevant. I get that. NASCAR is the #2 sport in the US, though I think they’re kind of like the band Nickleback: Everyone and their brother say they hate them, but Nickleback sells a lot of records. 

Note to Brian France: If Nickleback EVER plays a NASCAR event, we’re through.  

 

NASCAR Testing Ban: Maybe Good, Maybe Bad

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Professional sports, in general, has long been challenged by the lack of parity in the primary participants: No, not the athletes or competitors, who earn millions in their sport of choice and become the faces of cities, franchises and large fan bases that transcend regional and even national boundaries. The true disparity of professional sports, NASCAR is but one example, lies in the owners and the depth of their purses. Entertainment isn’t free, and it is extremely profitable, thus making the world of pro sports the true playground of the ultra wealthy and elite businessman. It is, after all, first and foremost a business, and like any other business, the measure of success is ultimately how profitable a team or franchise is.

This dynamic creates a slippery slope for the continued functioning of a successful sports league. Teams are managed by ultra successful businessmen who understand that winning drives profits, and to that end will invest whatever necessary to create a team that continues to win. The New York Yankees is an excellent example of this paradigm: a perennial winner who consistently courts the best players with the best payroll in all of Major League Baseball. But what makes the slope slippery is where the line is drawn between good competition – and entertainment, and when being a winner suddenly becomes being a bully because one team is able (and willing) to outspend every other. Going back to the Yankees, one recent season it was noted that the payroll of the Bronx Bombers was more than the rest of their division combined.

We wouldn't expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

We wouldn’t expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

Some organizations have combated this through rules and compacts, such as salary caps offset by revenue sharing through collective bargaining in the NFL, with the argument being the better quality of competition for all teams at all (aka ‘Any Given Sunday’) is good for the entirety of the sport. While imperfect, this has had a positive effect for the longevity and popularity of professional football as a whole.

NASCAR, to a certain degree, has been addressing similar issues in recent years. Their business model is somewhat different, but as technology has advanced the separation of teams and quality of funding has become more pronounced. NASCAR has attempted several cost cutting measures in the last 15 years, one such example being the now (thankfully) defunct COT, which was supposed to minimize car production cost by standardizing the entirety of the chassis and body, thereby reducing the number of cars a team needed in its fleet to compete for a full season. Other measures include limiting the amount of tires teams can use during an event and testing limits.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Testing, by and large, is a huge and arguably unnecessary expense. NASCAR has moved and tweaked their testing policy multiple times, yet with the same results. When testing limits were first introduced, limiting teams to a finite number of testing sessions at sanctioned tracks on the schedule, they inadvertently created the behemoth of powerhouse teams. Up to that point, there was no advantage for race teams to share information with one another.

Example: Jeff Gordon could test as many times per season at as many tracks as possible, and there was no reason or incentive to share that information with any other team, whether or not they were under the Hendrick umbrella or not.

But once NASCAR limited the teams to 5 per season, now the savvy business owners saw the value in creating strong bonds within their own organizations. For example, a single team may be limited to 5 tests per season, but with 4 teams under one team owner, that number becomes 20, far more tests than necessary to compile competition data to share among those teams.

Further, in the name of parity and helping the smaller teams, NASCAR has continued to find that line between competition and bullying, yet the teams with better funding have skirted the spirit of the rules by testing at tracks that don’t have Sprint Cup dates.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

This gaming of the system makes NASCAR’s decision to ban all testing outside of approved Goodyear tests a very curious one.   You can be sure drivers don’t lament this decision. Testing is tedious, boring and time consuming. Yet those tests provide invaluable data that teams parlay into results on race day.

Much like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson hit far more golf balls on the range than in tournaments, the fine-tuning of car mechanics and driver practice provide a competitive edge in a sport where the margin between winning and losing is becoming smaller and smaller in terms of technology.

But in a larger sense, Pandora’s box was opened a long time ago. The teams at the top are at the top for a reason: Because they’ve earned their way there. Auto racing, in and of itself, is not a profitable sport. No professional team can afford to stay competitive, nor even operational, if their sole source of revenue is the proceeds of the race purse. That’s why corporate sponsorship is the driver behind the business, and the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that will win. Conversely, the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that have already proven themselves winners.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

So, in NASCAR’s quest to help the little guy, they are, in a sense, handicapping them further. Teams like Hendrick and Penske, Roush Fenway and Stewart Haas, already have the internal processes and people with experience to find ways to advance their programs. For example, when testing bans were truly enforced, the top tier teams simply invested in 7 post shakers, and ran simulations in-house. The same holds true now. The top teams have the resources to find the advantages and use them while the smaller teams do not, which will only reinforce the gap between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Not’s’.

In the movie ‘Days of Thunder’, Randy Quaid’s character was modeled after Rick Hendrick, a local auto dealer who wanted to break into racing. Fast forward 30 years or so, and this feel good story of success is now the exception rather than the rule. Single car teams have not been consistently competitive for two decades now, and as success continues to favor the multi car organization, so will sponsorship dollars.

Money follows winners following money, after all. Now it seems the model is reversed: Build a winning race team, and THEN put your resources into an auto dealership (Rusty Wallace). So, the more roadblocks NASCAR creates, the more creative the ones with resources will be to continue their winning ways. Sponsorship has its advantages, but also its expectations: Win, or lose funding.

The argument can be made that now is a perfect time to try this newest ‘Grand Experiment’. By reducing horsepower (through tapered spacers, so thankfully teams don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel – er, motor) and chopping 2 inches off the spoiler for 2015, all teams are theoretically starting off on a level playing field, as they’re all starting the season with the exact same car. However, just as the New England Patriots continue to find ways to win, so will the Rick Hendricks and Roger Penske’s of the racing world, who have the business acumen and experience to remain competitive no matter what the rules are.

Yet, just like other sporting leagues, there is no perfect solution. Too much tampering and the product on the track suffers, yet not enough, and the same occurs. Perhaps this ban will achieve the desired results, whether temporarily or permanently, though if past experience tells us anything, it will simply further separate those that have from those that don’t.

As an upside, no testing in Daytona means more time for fans to think about things like this.

Harvick Deserves Sprint Cup Title, or Maybe Those Other Guys?

Harvick deserves the Sprint Cup Title...just ask him!

Harvick deserves the Sprint Cup Title…just ask him!

Kevin Harvick should, by all indicators, be crowned the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion. Book it, put it on the board, write that down in the history books. Done.

What Happy and the #4 Stewart Haas Racing team has accomplished in their very first year as a brand new team is amazing. Harvick has been the most consistent of the field week in and week out speed-wise, and would have more wins to show for it if they also weren’t the most consistent in pit road mishaps and just bad racing luck in general.

Once it became evident that Harvick was a legitimate title contender, his boss Tony Stewart effectively fired the entire pit crew of the #4 and replaced them with his own championship caliber pit crew from the #14. With the right tools, support and confidence that only speed and experience can give, Harvick should be the guy raising that beautiful trophy Sunday afternoon at Miami Homestead.

Except for the fact that Ryan Newman should actually be the champion. The only driver to make it in the Chase on points alone, he has made every lap of every race count during the Chase. He’s stayed out of trouble, kept his fenders intact, and generally made very little noise, instead letting the likes of Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and the woes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson take the spotlight and pressure off.

Winless this season, Newman's intrusion into the Cup title finale has ruffled a few feathers, but his consistency can't be argued.

Winless this season, Newman’s intrusion into the Cup title finale has ruffled a few feathers, but his consistency can’t be argued.

His last lap-last gasp pass at Phoenix is the stuff legends are made of, when he drove his #31 Chevy as deep as he could in the corner, bounced off Rookie of the Year leader Kyle Larson to get that one last position he needed to advance to that one last race. If Newman were to win the Championship by winning at Homestead, that would be nothing short of amazing. There has been plenty of grumbling and criticism that Newman is even in a position to compete for the Championship, prompting Brian France to articulate that yes, this format is designed to reward winning, but not at the expense of consistency. So absolutely, Ryan Newman is the clear favorite for the title.

As a humorous sidebar, Harvick, the master of one liners, addressed the ‘Newman Not Gordon’ controversy this week by quipping to the media, “I’m just glad to get here tonight and not know there wasn’t a fifth participant added”, a polite but pointed jab at NASCAR for arbitrarily adding Jeff Gordon to last year’s Chase field. Harvick just gets funnier the more he speaks his mind.

Hamlin has been tenacious enough to earn him a spot in the UFC.

Hamlin has been tenacious enough to earn him a spot in the UFC.

But, no matter, Denny Hamlin is the favorite. The standard bearer for Joe Gibbs Racing, which encountered a bit of a slump this year (by JGR standards anyway) secured his position in the Chase with one win at the wreck-fest known as Talladega in the spring race. Hamlin has come a long way since the 2013 campaign, when an incident at Fontana with Joey Logano sidelined him with a back injury for 4 weeks and relegated him to finish 23rd in the points, missing the Chase for the first time since entering full time Cup competition. The JGR Toyotas have struggled to find speed this year, and if it weren’t for the talent and tenacity of Hamlin and teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth (both early Chasers, as well), JGR would have far less to show for their 2013 efforts. Hamlin has been dedicated to re-establishing himself as a premier driver in the series, and if anyone deserves a nice piece of hardware, especially after narrowly missing one in 2010, it is definitely him.

Then again, Joey Logano should be the guy celebrating in showering confetti and champagne. The oft-overlooked little ‘brother’ of Brad Keselowski, it seems that Joey’s season in the #22 Ford was just a half step behind Keslowski’s in the #2. And truly, if it weren’t for the 2 and 22, Ford would be sorely represented in Cup for 2013. While Roush Fenway struggled, Penske’s teams found something special that had them contending for wins every single week. Brad finished the regular season with the most wins, and was probably the most exciting driver to watch in the Chase because of his ability to ruffle feathers and upset the driver establishment. However, Logano kept plugging away, and was able to advance through the first 2 Chase rounds by scoring wins at Kansas and New Hampshire, and now has made it to Homestead as a contender by finishing 5th, 12th and 6th the last 3 races. He has raced hard but smart, and if anyone deserves a beautiful Sprint Cup to put in the trophy case or on his mantle, it’s Joey.

Often under the radar, due mainly to his team mates flashy performances, Logano is a true contender.

Often under the radar, due mainly to his team mates flashy performances, Logano is a true contender.

And that’s why this race is the most anticipated in this Chase, which has easily surpassed the expectations of the competitors and fans alike. It certainly hasn’t been without controversy – in fact, this field stumbled from controversy to controversy like a drunken sailor. But for once, these were almost ACCEPTABLE controversies, revolving around drivers and teams rather than flubbed calls and cautions for debris.

To be fair, this week has seen a louder grumble from the long time and loyal fan base, particularly Gordon fans, who are absolutely livid that Gordon missed the final cut and Newman is in, but this isn’t a surprise to anyone. Everyone knew the rules before the season began, and everyone played to the same standards. NASCAR is always in a precarious position when they play with their ‘product’: Too much change, and the traditionalist fan base gets upset. Not enough side-by-side/wheel to wheel action, and the newer fans wonder why this sport was exciting in the first place. Brian France himself has stated categorically that the results of this Chase have exceeded expectations, and it’s hard to disagree.

Long time followers of local short track racing series know that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is unique in the race distances (length), variety of tracks, and length of season. However, in what can be considered a ‘throwback’ move, the culmination of the 2014 chase resembles a Saturday Night Track Championship Feature. Four eligible drivers qualified, and it doesn’t matter HOW, only that they did, four drivers start, and one is crowned Champion. Kind of the way intense racing should be.

And that’s why he deserves the title. And him and him and him.

Kurt Busch in Trouble Again? Say it Isn’t so!

With domestic violence heavily in the mainstream news, allegations against Kurt Busch could be damaging.

With domestic violence heavily in the mainstream news, allegations against Kurt Busch could be damaging.

Kurt Busch picked the wrong time to be in the news.

To be clear, the allegations that Busch assaulted his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, are simply that: allegations. Nor is this an attempt to fall into the easy trap of trying and sentencing Busch in the court of public opinion. Busch deserves the benefit of the doubt only (and ONLY) because here in the USA, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, and until the Dover, DE police investigating these allegations decide otherwise, charges have not been filed.

But, this is Kurt Busch we’re talking about here. The same Kurt Busch who showed his butt (literally) to Jimmy Spencer (I bet Jimmy didn’t forget), won a championship for Jack Roush, got fired a season later (“We’re no longer Kurt Busch’s apologists”), seemed to get his head on straight piloting the 2 car for Penske only to be shown the door when video surfaced of Kurt going postal on Dr. Jerry Punch. So even though he deserves the same assumption of innocence afforded to all suspects, there is plenty to judge his character by in the court of public opinion, and the verdict is in: Kurt Busch has shown he can be a jerk. That’s not a crime.

I had thought that, though undeserved, a chance to drive with Stewart Haas would be an excellent opportunity to prove to pretty much everyone in the garage, the media and the grandstands that he was a changed man. Kurt could show friends and rivals alike through his actions that he was mature enough to recognize his personality flaws, or anger management issues, or whatever explains his arbitrary narcissistic and selfish behavior.

Better days with ex-girlfriend Patricia Briscoll.

Better days with ex-girlfriend Patricia Briscoll.

When he was asked to leave Penske, I thought for sure he would be an anathema to the top tier teams in Cup, and he would spend the rest of his career with a second-rate team, and only then because he comes with a Past Champion’s provisional. Think about that for a second – Kurt Busch was the medicine that would heal your wounds, replacing them with cancerous blood. So when SHR came calling, I was mildly optimistic that at the very least, Kurt could keep himself under control and display even a modicum of maturity.

But then Kurt Busch happened.

Regardless of whether charges will be filed or not, there is already enough attention for both Stewart Haas and NASCAR issue statements separately. In other words, because of Kurt Busch’s track record, both his employer and the sanctioning body of the sport are already posturing themselves for swift damage control.

Let’s get this out of the way: The timing is horrible. The timing is NEVER right for domestic assault. If what he’s accused of is even half-true, his behavior is disgusting and inexcusable.

With the microscope on the NFL and their handling of the bungled circus that is Ray Rice, all of the professional sports world is very image conscious right now. NASCAR loves their Rule 12-4-A (Actions detrimental to stock car racing) to keep their drivers in line when they get too big for themselves, has technically never had to impose penalties to drivers for behavior away from the track (There are exceptions for drug use, but arguably that’s a directly related to on-track behavior due to safety concerns), instead leaving those types of matters for the teams themselves to handle.  

But now, NASCAR will have no choice but to respond, because the public, especially those who don’t follow sports in particular is tired of hearing about troubled athletes who are unable to keep their hands to themselves.

They will wonder aloud why this is suddenly happening across the board and why something hasn’t been done about it already. A few more might wonder quietly whether or not this is behavior that has been tolerated up to this point. When people question the sport, they question the brand; when they question the brand they question the sponsors, which hurts the bottom line.

To be clear, NASCAR does not like their bottom line intruded upon.

No, this isn’t all about money or sponsorship dollars.

NASCAR has arguably done a far better job than other leagues in setting expectations of their participants’ behavior both on and off the track. No, they haven’t always got it right, but they’ve been proactive and willing to listen to teams, individuals, fans and sponsors with positive results for the most part

This is a scenario that they’ve surely been glad to avoid so far, which is why this is such a big deal for the sport: NASCAR has been thrust in the spotlight, where any decision they make will instantly be tried in the same court of public opinion, and they don’t have the luxury of getting a do-over like Roger Goodell did. They have to get it right the first time, with swift and decisive action. They absolutely have to show the rest of the sports world how it’s SUPPOSED to be handled.

As to what the outcome will be, only time will tell. However, now is not a good time to be called Kurt Busch.

NASCAR Wins With Keselowski Talladega Victory

Keselowski and Penske Racing masterfully  orchestrated the Talladega Victory Sunday.

Keselowski and Penske Racing masterfully
orchestrated the Talladega Victory Sunday.

When the smoke clears, victory lane empties and the fans go home, there will be one group of people keeping the champagne flowing until the wee hours of the morning.

No, not Brad Keselowski, Paul Wolfe and the No. 2 Penske team – but Brian France, Mike Helton and the NASCAR brass.

The sole blemish on this weekend’s race at Talladega is that one previous champion and the fan favorite did not advance to the Eliminator Round.

Despite leading the most laps, Jimmie Johnson will have to wait at least another year to tie the NASCAR record for most championships all time, and his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the second most but settled for a loose race car with faulty gauges in the last quarter of the race, will do the same.

Talk about drama, though: Who would’ve thought that Danica Patrick would be leading with less than 20 to go, holding off “Six Time” himself, days after being criticized (maybe) by teammate Kevin Harvick?  Drama? Check.

And what about intensity? One errant piece of scrap metal with nine laps to go was a probable savior to many racecars participating in a ‘free for all’ up front, with some of the most exciting and intense restrictor plate racing seen this season, and arguably in many seasons.

Several drivers were on the borderline of out of control. Even the two GWC finishes created their own mini stories keeping drivers and fans alike on the edge of their seats. Intensity? Check.

Surprises were a’ plenty. Four drivers started the race needing a win to advance to the next round, and one driver did accomplish that goal, yet probably not the driver most thought or even wanted to see: An apologetic and trite Brad Keselowski was in victory lane expressing a mixture of regret for his actions last week, joy in winning, and gratitude to the team that got him the win he needed to advance to the next round, after the obligatory burnouts and tribute to the Stars and Stripes. Surprises? Check.

Check, check, and check.

For years, NASCAR has been tweaking the formula for television success when the NFL begins its season and noticeably cuts into race viewership.

Matt Kenseth’s 2003 championship run was a yawner, and it’s no coincidence that it was the final nail in the coffin of the old points championship system.

The Car of Tomorrow, now the Car of Yesterday (or, The Car That Was So Awful Everyone Hated It), which gave us tandem drafting in rather boring restrictor plate races and generally was like watching shoeboxes race, gave way to the new Gen 7 car.

And, if no one can duplicate Tony Stewart’s feat of winning half the races in the Chase on the way to tie-breaking championship, then the format will now create pressure and intensity. No more racing for points, boys. Win or bust.

To be fair, Jeff Gordon was in a position to protect his points, and did so by avoiding trouble. He didn’t have to win; he just had to not lose.

Kasey Kahne, who at one point was in, then not in, then in and finally not in again, did everything possible to run a trouble free race, while being carefully aggressive.

Even Ryan Newman, who challenged late for the win, at one point seemed unconcerned when he lost the draft and went a lap down.

Yes, indeed, the champagne glasses are clinking in Daytona tonight. There are smiles galore, and many powerful decision makers patting themselves on the back. And, they deserve to. With six races done and half the Chase field eliminated, NASCAR brass has accomplished everything they’ve wanted and more.

The sanctioning body has, at times, been the target of ire and frustration from the traditional fans when it seemed that attracting new fans, sponsors and viewers to the sport was more important than the opinions of their long time supporters.

It was a calculated risk, to be sure, and one with mixed results. But with the rules package changing for next season, most notably a reduction in horsepower, it seems that NASCAR may have finally gotten it right. Late race debris caution and all. And, with a new Chase round come new Chase storylines, starting next Sunday at Martinsville, the shortest track on the circuit.

But in the meantime, drink up, Brian, Mike, et al; you deserve it.

 

Talladega: Every Lap Could Be Heaven Or Hell

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

By virtue of the storied Alabama mega-track´s existence as the sole restrictor plate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Talladega’s fall date has been circled twice on many fans and teams calendars this year-and for good reason. Talladega is, after all, a track where fortune and dismal fate consistently collide with regularity at over 200 miles per hour, taking hopes and dreams of glory and leaving twisted sheet metal and bent emotions. After last weekend’s shenanigans following the closing laps of Charlotte, the inherent drama Talladega provides will only be exponentially multiplied. Heaven or Hell.

Adding to the normal blood pressure spike, four drivers are going to be eliminated from Championship contention following the 500 miler this weekend and, absent a miracle, those four are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. It almost seems heretical.

In a way, racing at Talladega has always been a race of nail biting decisions. Talladega’s wide racing surface makes handling and tire wear less an issue than at the high banks of Daytona and the use of horsepower-robbing restrictor plates virtually levels the field putting the race in the drivers’ hands. Or their minds.

Glorious victory or smoky demise depends on making the correct decisions at the correct time. Imagine a 200 mile an hour chess match against 42 other hungry opponents with the same goal: Victory Lane. Chase or not.

The "Big One" always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The “Big One” always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The first, and truly only, decision a driver can make before strapping into the race-car is strategy during the first half to 3/4 of the race. More specifically, the car must have some vital components intact to complete the event, so keeping the fenders intact and the toe (alignment) correct means avoiding the big one (unlike years past, the question now isn’t ‘when’ the big one occurs, but ‘how soon’). So the possibility of some teams ‘laying back’ towards the rear of the field is a distinct possibility, although a strategy that will be employed by very few, if at all.

In fact, the savvy and experienced drivers who can and need to win at Talladega know that most wrecks occur in the middle of the field, and will attempt to stay up front for the duration of the race.

Racing up front means clean air and fewer obstacles, so a vital decision is choosing who your dance partner is going to be. Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have proven to work well together at this track, and both have the same amount to gain or lose, so they will no doubt find each other early and attempt to stay together towards the front. They will both be early and strong contenders for this event, and they are two of the most capable and experienced drivers at this monster track.

Another pair of drivers whose decisions could impact the Chase field on every lap of this event, are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, both of whom are locked into the Eliminator round of the Chase by way of victory in the Contender round. Much like the popular girls at a middle school dance, they are being and will be courted frequently by the rest of the Chase field.

"Roller Girl"

“Roller Girl”

Case in point: Logano may be Keselowski’s sole hope to consistently run up front, as Brad may find trouble keeping a partner with him to maneuver through the field after last week´s dust-up. The 22 doesn’t have to win, he just has to start to advance, so they will almost surely team up and stick together through the entirety of the event. Roger Penske, legendary team owner, might have “suggested” that already.

Harvick has the luxury of going with who he chooses and when he chooses. Harvick´s #4 has arguably been the best team week in and week out this season, and “Happy” has both the equipment and experience to find himself with more suitors than he can please. More like “Boogie Nights” than “Talladega Nights”. Whatever decisions these two drivers make have Chase implications on every level, on every lap.

However, just because the bottom four are carrying the most pressure heading into the Geico 500, that doesn’t mean that rest of the Chase field shouldn’t be concerned. Jeff Gordon has competed in, and won, many of these restrictor plate races. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch know what it takes to get it done, as well. Those drivers, along with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman know that each lap, each decision they make – and when they make them — could keep them in the Chase for the next 3 races, or suddenly place them on the outside looking in.

Think about, for a moment, the Talladega races we had in NASCAR before the Chase, where even a casual fan could tune into the race and know within a half a lap of watching how early or late in the race was. What fan, and even TV announcer has watched a particularly daring move and not said ‘No,no,no, that was way too soon’!!

Those days are long past. With every position important, every lap, the type of racing that was saved for the final laps of the race will now be the standard. The trick is to be aggressive, but not aggressively stupid. A fine line, which many drivers will either ignore or completely forget.

Decide well, and be rewarded.

Decide poorly, and Talladega will allow someone else to make the decision for you.

 

 

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