The Frontstretch: The Wheel Files: Conspiracy Theories Alive and Well in NASCAR by Amy Henderson -- Friday June 5, 2009

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The Wheel Files: Conspiracy Theories Alive and Well in NASCAR

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 5, 2009


Did you hear? NASCAR wants Kyle Busch to win the championship and will do anything to make sure he does. NASCAR doesn’t want Hendrick Motorsports to win another title, either. And the reason they don’t publish the rulebook or specific punishments is so they can punish based on who they want to win and who they don’t. And let’s not forget that they really don’t want independent teams in the sport and will go about slowly eliminating them, one by one. All secretly.

Cue the whistly, sort-of scary music and bring on the slightly harangued FBI agent who works in the attic because nobody else will work next to his lunchbox, which contains Limburger cheese every day since 1982, because there is a conspiracy afoot.

Or so legions of NASCAR fans would have us believe. To hear some fans tell it, NASCAR picks and chooses who is going to succeed, and who is going to fail. And maybe the weather, too. While this theory seems a bit farfetched, NASCAR isn’t exactly doing anything to dispel it, either. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the some of the common theories that pop up on fan message boards and in conversations, take a look at the facts-and at what NASCAR can (or should) do about it.

Case #1: NASCAR helps a certain “driver of the moment” win races
The Theory: The claim here is that NASCAR helps or hinders the driver of their choice with everything from a timely caution to ignoring an obvious rules violation. Depending on whom you ask, the driver they help (or penalize) varies. Recently, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have been common names on both sides of the spectrum.
Just the Facts, Ma’am: There are a ton of factors that go on here. One is that the television networks broadcasting races don’t always do a thorough job of showing debris on the racetrack. The networks don’t help the cause when a commentator is singing the praises of one driver in question in a rather biased manner for a large part of the broadcast. NASCAR is a sport of judgment calls when it comes to many things. Yellow flags are a judgment call, and NASCAR is often inconsistent in using them-one week a driver blows an engine and the caution flies, while the next the race stays green for a seemingly identical situation. If the caution is for debris and that debris in not visible to Joe Fan at home, it becomes suspicious. Ditto for debris that appears to be out of the racing groove.
The Roswell Factor: NASCAR has thrown cautions (or not) that have helped or hurt a driver. They have called rough driving or other penalties on one driver but not another in seemingly identical situations. They have been very quick to call some races for rain and agonizingly slow in others. Penalties have been wildly inconsistent over recent years. In the season finale at Homestead several years ago when Casey Mears was poised to win his first Sprint Cup race, NASCAR threw a caution for a spring rubber on the apron far out of the racing groove. Mears couldn’t recover on the restart and didn’t find Victory lane-the second time that year that Mears lost a win under those circumstances. On too many occassions to count, a comfortable lead is erased by debris that is seeminly invisible, or a popular driver is spared losing a lap for the same. Coincidence, but it happens so often that people dont look for coincidence any longer.
The Fix Is In: This perception would be a hard one to fix. NASCAR will always have to make calls, and sometimes those calls will change the outcome of a race. However, NASCAR needs to find (surprise) consistency here. For example, always throw the caution if an engine blows on the racing surface. I’m in favor of that for safety reasons anyway. Keep on the networks to show debris-having a safety worker point it out before picking it up, if necessary. And finally, make damn sure there are no mistakes in the restart order, like at Michigan last year when the only driver who had a shot at beating Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was Brian Vickers-and that chance was taken away when NASCAR botched the running order, putting Mark Martin between Vickers and Earnhardt on track costing Vickers too much time to get to Earnhardt. At a time when both Earnhardt and ratings were struggling, it’s easy to see why some fans cried foul.

NASCAR goes out of its way to help Dale Earnhardt, Jr….or penalize him, depending on which side of the conspiracy theory you are on.

Case #2: NASCAR either has it in for or heavily favors Hendrick Motorsports (and/or Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, or any other major player)
The Theory: Much like in the above scenario, the idea here is that NASCAR either heavily favors or will go to great lengths to penalize a certain, big name team. By far, Hendrick Motorsports gets the most mention here, on both sides of the coin. The camp on one side alleges that NASCAR favors a team with things like discussed above, as well as by overlooking more major violations. Many fans believe that NASCAR lets things slide for certain teams in inspection, or that they will do the same for any team in their favor. They wonder why cars, such as the No. 48 and No. 29 (though the crew chief in question is now with the No. 07), are not more heavily scrutinized each week, since they are known repeat offenders. On the flip side, fans who say that NASCAR “has it in for” an organization will look for the opposite-NASCAR coming down hard on that team for something.
Just the Facts, Ma’am: The NASCAR rule book does not list specific penalties for specific rules violations. This leaves NASCAR the ability to up the ante, so to speak, on those who break a rule that has been broken multiple times before. The rule book is not available to anyone outside the garage. And looking at a list of recent penalties and infractions, NASCAR has penalized teams differently for what looks, at least on the surface, to be the same infraction. And where there is no written rule, and punishments vary wildly from week to week, people are going to wonder.
The Roswell Factor: NASCAR is inconsistent with the application of the rule book, whether intentional or not, and without explanation on the sanctioning body’s part, this looks fishy to the average fan. In 2007, two cars from Hendrick Motorsports were found to not fit the template at Infineon Raceway. On one hand, the penalties eventually handed down set the standard for body violations with the new car, and have been used with little variation since. On the other, the penalties handed down during the race weekend were something fans had never seen before and have not been repeated since (not allowing the teams to practice or qualify, even after the cars were fixed), even for other teams with body violations. To add to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, 17 cars failed template inspection the very next week, and all were simply told to fix the issue and go back through inspection. Whether those violations were similar to the previous week’s or not was never spoken to. Another incident that made fans wonder was in 2008, when, following Carl Edwards’ win at California, several competitors questioned the legality of the right front fender on the No. 99 after it was pulled out on pit road during the race, but nothing was investigated. It may have been a legitimate complaint, or it may have been simply sour grapes, but in either case, it was seemingly swept under the nearest rug.
The Fix Is In: NASCAR could do themselves a favor in the credibility department if they would be more transparent on the rules to the fans. The other major sports that NASCAR seems to want to emulate not only don’t keep their rule books a secret, they make them available for fans to purchase at bookstores. And most have specific, written penalties for most violations—a certain number of yards, runner is out, time in the penalty box, technical foul—it’s right there for fans to see, and it is the same for every player or team who breaks the rule, every time. This kind of transparency would do nothing but good for NASCAR, because it would put a lot of rumors and innuendo to rest.

Case #3: The Mysterious Invisible Banned Substance List
The Theory: The real reason for NASCAR’s refusal to publish a list of banned substances for drivers is that a popular or winning driver is known to use a substance that would raise eyebrows if it was not included on the list. NASCAR is willing to overlook this particular driver’s indiscretion, and therefore doesn’t publish the list, so as not to expose this glaring omission.
Just the Facts, Ma’am: Everybody from fans to drivers has questioned NASCAR’s reluctance to publish the list. NASCAR has said that the reason for this is so that if something came up in a drug test that was not on the list, but should be, such as a new variant of a drug, they would be able to add it then and there and penalize accordingly. This allows NASCAR to stay one step ahead of pharmaceutical manufacturers of various degrees of reputability. The drivers were seemingly appeased at a recent meeting; fans would like to know what substances are illegal and, if a driver is found in violation, what he or she tested positive for.
The Roswell Factor: The controversy surrounding the recent suspension of driver Jeremy Mayfield has certainly brought this issue to the forefront. While I firmly believe this theory is completely false, I understand it. The mystery swirling about Mayfield isn’t helping. Questions about what he was taking and conflicting opinions on whether specific prescription drugs could cause a positive test for a similar recreational substance abound. NASCAR isn’t talking. Mayfield isn’t talking. Speculation and accusations are thick in the air.
The Fix Is In: NASCAR should publish the list. Even if they have to put a disclaimer on it stating that they reserve the right to add to the list at any time as necessary and that the list includes, but may not be limited to, those named substances. I have mixed feelings on the release of specific test results to the public, because of the damage that could be done to a drivers reputation and privacy. On the other hand, if a driver is truly driving high, he may not deserve this protection—this jury is still out. However, once again, NASCAR as only fueling the fire by concealing things from fans, and in this case competitors, which only looks worse to the fans.

I’ve heard plenty of theories out there. While many of them are based on nothing more than fan-driver loyalty, and the truth may be completely innocent or it may lie somewhere in the middle, NASCAR is doing little to dispel these ultimately damaging theories. Fans won’t stick around of they feel there is a fix somewhere, and NASCAR has not done enough to dispel the theories that pop up like weeds on message boards and around water coolers. Transparency, or at least translucency—publishing of the most basic rules and applying the rules and making on-track decisions in a more consistent manner—would go a very long way in getting rid of the “_Pssst…did you hear…?_” talk. Transparency and consistency instead of opacity and randomness could be all it takes, if you want the real truth. The truth must be out there, somewhere, in the middle of the questions.

Cue dark, spooky closing credits.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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06/05/2009 12:26 AM

I don’t know about all this Grassy Knoll stuff. But I have been at a track when a debris caution was called and nobody picked up anything. From the top of the grandstands at that track you can see every inch of that track. So all I know is what I saw.

06/05/2009 02:20 AM

Sorry, Amy, the “debris” cautions are clear as day phoney..want an example? ok! few years ago Jr cut down a tire at Talladega and had to pit under green a few laps later he was lapped and a yellow came out for debris

06/05/2009 07:25 AM


It is all about CREDIBILTY!


One cannot, in any stretch of their imagination, come up with even a SINGLE thing that NA$CRAP does that provides even a hint of CREDIBILTY!

Debris cautions! Drug testing! Rules infractions! Yellow flags! And the list goes on!

Show me even one instance that would EVER exhibit a “consistency” on the part of NA$CRAP!

Stu Gatz
06/05/2009 07:50 AM

Sorry Amy, you missed it:
Myster Debris, Unpublished Rule books, Unbalanced fines…. NA$CR does what it wants, when it wants, to who ever it wants.
Now with the latest round of Beatings that have been administered to the small teams in the last 4 weeks it is obvious that they are on a mission. Mayfield’s mysterious Drug Suspension, Carl Longs Engine, Robby Gordons Rearend gear,???? Come on it pretty plain to everybody (except you) that N$CARS latest vendeta is to eliminate the small Owner Operators.
Your a good reporter,
stop drinking the Brian France COOL AID and open your eyes.

06/05/2009 08:17 AM

Amy, I feel that you are very naive when it come to debris cautions. We used to have a pool as to how many seconds lead the leader needed before the debris caution. We had to stop because it was too easy (5-6 seconds). I have also heard, on the scanner, a crew chief warn his driver not to pull away from the field anymore or there would be a caution. Additionally, telling the networks to show the debris will not work if there is nothing to show. I have sat in turn three at Richmond, saw that Junior was about to be lapped, predicted a caution, heard on the scanner NASCAR race control call for a debris caution in turn three and of course there was none. I was right there. The safety truck didn’t even stop. Listen to how the teams, networks and NASCAR refer to the event. It is a “show” not a race. It isn’t a show if one driver is lapping the field or the name drivers are laps down.

06/05/2009 08:38 AM

AMEN! to Douglas’s statement!

Ann in DE
06/05/2009 09:18 AM

Let’s face it, Amy, perception is reality and our reality is that Nascar races are fixed these days. You can rationalize until the Red Bulls come home, but fans aren’t as stupid as Nascar seems to think we are. The restart rule is going to be the first of many ‘fixes’ Nascar is going to come up with to try and get their TV ratings and track attendance back. Good luck with that, Brian France.

Carl D.
06/05/2009 09:44 AM

Amy… you usually write knowledgeable and insightful commentary, but when I read this, well… Stu was said it best… lay off the Brian France Kool Aid.

M.B. Voelker
06/05/2009 10:45 AM

Perception is not reality, reality is reality.

And the reality is that the concept of conspiracy theories is completely shot down by the fact that Dale Jr is not a multi-time champion.

After all, ensuring the success of the perennial MPD would put a ton of money in Nascar’s pocket.

And if they’re not doing that they’re certainly not doing anything less profitable — considering the downside of getting caught.

06/05/2009 11:11 AM

MMMM, some good stuff, first for M.B. Voelker, your “Perception is not reality, reality is reality.”, can be taken a step further, “if a problem is real, or perceived, it is still a problem”!

So, if we “perceive” NA$CRAP has no credibilty, it should be a problem to NA$CRAP and they should take appropriate action to “cure the perception”!


And for JohnBoy60, Big Thanks!

And, if the “BEST” NA$CRAP can do after their town hall meeting, and listening to the fans, is to institute a double file restart, we are in for a long summer for sure!

As King Brian says: “here is your token, you idiots”!

I’m sure a double file restart will fill the stands every week!

How exciting!

06/05/2009 11:59 AM

How many times have we heard the TV talking heads state flat out if such and such does not get a caution now he will go a lap down and BANG out comes debris.

Now M.B. if NA$CAR could get away with it they would. What they are doing now is as much as they can with the MPD. If they could get him a Cup championship they would, but shooting drivers in the chase while at the driver’s meeting would be too obvious and nothing short of that will help Ralph Jr.

06/05/2009 01:49 PM

Funny how when Tony mentioned the “debris cautions” and got called in by nascar to “talk it over”, the “debris cautions” went WAY down for the rest of the year.

It’s also funny that when “big name” drivers are in the lead but look like they might lose before the last lap there’s a “debris caution”.

What’s the saying about perception?

06/05/2009 06:41 PM

Amy- Speaking of conspiracies, Carl Long made one comment that made a lot of sense to me. He mentioned the topic of franchising, that I had not heard in a while, and that used to be a regular topic of discussion. Back then, Na$car said it wasn’t looking at that til 2010, which is conveniently coming up. I would think that any franchising arrangements would include a way for any “current” team to purchase a franchise from Na$car, meaning that owning a current team would have some significant value at that point, as only so many franchises will be available. If indeed franchising the teams is around the corner, it would make sense for Na$car to try to get rid of the little teams (read: Carl Long, Jeremy Mafield, Robby Gordon, etc.) which will reduce the number of current teams that would have the “right” to purchase a franchise. The laws of supply and demand mean that the fewer remaining teams/franchise would have significantly more value, potentially raking in much more money when Na$car sells those franchises.

It all makes perfect sense in that light.

Food for thought.

Thanks for your great columns, and GO CARL!


06/05/2009 07:22 PM

The Carl Long ruling is just wrong…and the Mayfield issue has been badly handled…from every aspect…and Nascar racing keeps getting worse. I am done…after 35 years as a fan and 21 year as a Phoenix season ticket holder…I will not watch or attend another nascar event…ever. Besides, open wheel midgets and sprint cars…plus the World of Outlaws will give me my racing fix. I gave up on the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL over 10 years ago. I haven’t attended or watched a game in that time. I found out that college football and basketball is just as entertaining. NASCAR R.I.P.

06/05/2009 08:33 PM

Has anybody remeasured/tested Carl Long’s engine. I seem to remember a couple years ago one of the Bigger Teams having on engine or heads that measured to large and nascar waited a couple + hrs a remeasured and they/it tested within limits.( At Lowes I believe) Just asking

06/07/2009 01:32 PM

Take it back a while longer, the 1996 Championship was being decided at Atlanta. Jeff Gordon and Terry LaBonte were duking it out for the championship. Gordon was surely the NASCAR, if not necessarily the fan favorite. He went 3 laps down due to brake problems. They got that sorted out. Threw the caution, of course he was lined up just inside of and faster than the leader. 3 laps down, yeah you guessed it, 3 caution flags for debris. LaBonte won the championship by a few points, but NASCAR did everything they could otherwise. Oh, and by the way, they were both Hendrick cars. I know this firsthand, because I was there and witnessed in person.

Drunk France
06/08/2009 06:12 PM

Kryle can’t win a cup title. He’s to aggressive. Even with the chase garbage, it still comes down to consistency. Spoiled little rich brat doesn’t deserve a title anyway. It’s fun to watch him run away to cry when things don’t go his way. Screw you Kryle


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