Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday March 15, 2007
To the victor go the spoils. That's been true since man first discovered that if he could outrun his neighbor and steal his mammoth steak, he didn't have to risk death or dismemberment to bring down his own. The spoils have evolved since then-mammoth steak was messy-but the adage has remained. In NASCAR it is alive and well and killing the underdog.
The garage is segregated by point standing. If you have ever watched the haulers enter the track and park, you have probably noticed that one truck is always first and that's the reigning champion. Next comes the current point leader, and so on down the line until the last-place team has parked. If it ended there, it would be fair and right. After all, the champion gave a whole season of sweat and tears to get there and the team deserves some bragging rights.
But it doesn't end there. NASCAR has said that they want to reduce costs for smaller teams, that they want to level the playing field, but what happens next every race weekend tilts the smaller teams right off the field. Every car has to go through technical inspection before it's allowed on track for practice. That makes sense. Once again, the cars roll trough the line in preordained order: defending champion, point leader, on down the line.
The inspection process is not always quick. It's not often completed before practice begins, and that means the teams who are already struggling do not get the entire practice time. It's not unheard of for a few of the last teams to miss practice altogether. Look at the practice stats sometime. Specifically, look at the number of laps each team is running. It often tells the tale.
Dale Jarrett made headlines this week complaining about this practice, but it isn't new, and it hurts teams already struggling to catch up with the frontrunners. Practice time can mean the difference between racing on Sunday and watching from home to teams not locked into the top 35, or between racing into the top 35 or being on the outside. In an era where a team's survival depends on sponsor dollars and television exposure, not making races can be a death sentence for small teams.
Could this be fixed? Sure. NASCAR could do a couple of things to make the process fair and equitable to every team. First, and simplest, they could start inspection earlier. Teams should be prepared for it off the truck, or close to, and if a team isn't ready, they should go to the end of the line. If the process started early enough, it could be finished before practice, and everyone could get more track time. (Although, not all the cars are allowed on track for practice the moment it begins. They're sent out in groups in-surprise!-the order of defending champion, point leader, and so on.)
Jarrett said as much recently, as the former champion (and recipient of first-in-line privileges) is 32nd in owner's points and now in the position of the other guy, near the end of the tech line every week. "It’s something I haven’t looked at over the years because I haven’t been in that position,” Jarrett said. “I can now have a little sympathy with those guys that have been back there in the past. They don’t get a lot of practice time. It’s hard enough for them to try to make the races as it is. I honestly think it’s a situation that practice should not start until everybody’s through inspection. If that means practice starts late and we have to run late – I know we have a lot dictated by TV and radio now, but if you’re going to run a fair process, everybody should be able to have the same amount of time to practice. Do we have to start earlier? I know it’s long days already for the NASCAR officials and for the crews. But I know from the crew side of it, they would be more than willing to go in 30 minutes earlier if we needed to do that to ensure that everybody was going to get the same amount of practice time.”
If starting inspection earlier is truly impossible for some reason (there are all-night donut shops, so nobody's breakfast would be disrupted), NASCAR could run the tech line the way they handle qualifying order: as a lottery. Even if the defending champ was given a "provisional" and got first dibs every week, shaking up inspection order would make the process fair from week to week.
NASCAR is sending a strong message to teams and fans that they don't care about the smaller teams, and the current inspection/practice policy only strengthens that conception. The teams that are adversely affected end up in a vicious cycle: in a points hole and unable to make their cars good enough with limited practice to dig out of it. Surely there is a fix to this problem. The victor can have the spoils, but ensuring that the same select teams will always be the victor goes against everything NASCAR should stand for.
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