Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday October 11, 2013
Give it your all.
It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? In professional sports, where winning is the most important thing — the only thing — there shouldn’t be any motivation needed. But after Richmond, where winning became secondary for two teams, it suddenly wasn’t so simple after all.
After a race where both Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer were told to give up track position, and in Bowyer’s case, bring out a caution to help a teammate’s chances for a Chase berth, NASCAR felt they needed to up the ante and tell teams they had better give 100% effort in every race… or else.
Even that sounds easy enough. If every team went out and raced balls to the wall, as hard as they could, for up to 600 miles, all would be well. But all isn’t well in the House of NASCAR. There are more questions than answers surrounding the new “100% rule,” and no easy answers on the horizon.
Many fans, who have long been frustrated with the strategy that some teams employ at superspeedways, where cars hang at the back until the end, have questioned whether that will still be allowed under the new rules. It’s a valid question, as to the casual observer, hanging back doesn’t constitute giving it all you have. After all, you don’t see an NFL quarterback wait until the end of the game to go after touchdowns.
But this example is a little different. Whether or not fans like it, hanging back is a strategy play. Teams don’t choose to hang back and then not race as the laps wind down. They aren’t settling for a 35th-place finish; they’re trying to protect their equipment so they can race hard towards the end of the event. Planning how to run a race, from start to finish is something race teams do each and every week. At most tracks, that involves racing as hard as they can, towards the front every lap. But at Daytona and Talladega, where multi-car crashes are nearly a given, avoiding them becomes paramount, and these melees usually start towards the front of a tightly-packed field. That means a few teams hang back, hoping to avoid the wrecks that will inevitably thin out the pack down the stretch. It’s no different than planning tire strategy or fuel strategy somewhere else. Sometimes, that makes for less exciting racing, but it’s how winning organizations win.
So are those teams giving 100%? Well, yes. Fans might not like it, but those teams are trying to win those races, and it’s likely that NASCAR will let that strategy remain. It’s impossible to say that those teams aren’t trying to win in the way they prefer. Unless fans want NASCAR to start dictating strategy, this argument is probably a lost cause. Teams will hang back in the pack as long as it works — that part really is simple.
The same goes for things like fuel and tire strategy. Some teams are going to play that game, and honestly? They should. It’s part of racing, and has been since the beginning of the sport. If strategy is thrown away, in an effort to force action, the sport loses a huge piece of what makes it tick.
The other half of the equation is actually policing strategy. It’s easy to punish a team when there’s compelling evidence that they didn’t race to the finish they were capable of. It’s harder, if not impossible to penalize someone for trying something that might give them a better finish. Look at teams who elect to slow down to save fuel in an attempt to nurse the car to the end of the race. Can NASCAR penalize them for not pitting for gas? Certainly, the team would argue that they were giving 100% in an effort to stretch the mileage and possibly get a better finish than they would have if they were to pit. And if that’s the truth, then the bottom line is they were giving it everything they have.
Brad Keselowski also brought up an interesting point, last weekend at Kansas: intentional wrecking. It happens in the sport, and it can be argued that intentionally wrecking a driver rather than racing him clean is the easy way out. In other words, if racing for position is 100% effort, wrecking the guy instead is not. On the flip side, a driver might say that his last, best shot at a win was to use his bumper… in other words, 100%. How does NASCAR decide?
In the end, they can’t. Not really, anyway. It’s just not a rule that can be fairly enforced. The sentiment behind it is understandable; but overall, the rule was a knee-jerk reaction to an incident that could have been handled on its own. It’s also not necessary as most of the time, every team is out there to get the best finish they can. Most of them are already giving a hundred percent, every lap of every race. Sometimes, that means knowing when to lay back, and sometimes, it means racing door-to-door. Smart drivers know that, because it’s been a part of racing for decades.
Race to win. Race to take home the best finish possible. It all sounds so simple. In some ways, it is simple; teams are doing it every week. Planning a strategy for how to get there isn’t easy — teams are giving it their all. To imply that they are not is, in most cases, a slap in the face to those who are out there scrapping for every position they can get, week after week. To try and dictate how teams try to win, to make strategy obsolete, would be a foolhardy move in a day when there is little room for innovation in the sport already. What’s a hundred percent? Watch a race; it’s evident in every team’s strategy. To say otherwise is, most of the time, selling those teams far too short.
What is a hundred percent? It’s doing what it takes to win. And in NASCAR, that doesn’t simply mean driving hell-bent-for-leather every single lap. It means strategy. Sometimes that looks, to some, as though teams are not doing their best. But they know which lap is the one they need to lead… they’re just trying to set themselves up to do it.
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