The Frontstretch: Another Speedway Race, Another Chink In NASCAR’s Armor by Kurt Smith -- Friday July 17, 2009

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Never in my years of being a follower of the sport have I witnessed the state of near-panic that NASCAR is in right now. They’re changing rules that had been in place for half a century, opening the press doors to people they once considered irrelevant, installing suggestion boxes for drivers and practically begging fans to tell them what they want. Never did I ever think I would see NASCAR, or any sport for that matter, dropping its tight-fisted, take-it-or-leave-it guard so quickly and obviously. It brings back memories of the 180 the town of Concord did when Bruton Smith threatened to move his speedway.

But these efforts do little to address much of what ails NASCAR. Chicago was another nearly unwatchable race, and venues of its type are a good part of the reason why.

The event was another spiritless display of aero package and track position ruling the day. The combination of the aero push in the current common stock car and the plethora of 1.5-2 mile common stock speedways has been a lethargic explosive powerful enough to not only knock fans out of their seats but even away from their television sets.

It’s long been my opinion that the Chase was NASCAR’s biggest mistake of the last 20 years. It’s hard to argue with people that would say it was their worst decision ever. But the more I witness NASCAR in its continuous and steady decline, the more I’m convinced it isn’t any one problem or decision that is driving fans away in droves. Chicago was just one more display of why. The speedways are a big piece of the puzzle that NASCAR is trying to solve.

The race at Chicagoland was another spiritless display of aero package and track position ruling the day.

It’s beyond obvious that with the current NASCARmobile, the leader has a decided advantage in clean air. Even with two fresh tires as opposed to four, a pit crew can win a race for a driver simply by getting him up front at the end. Every race, time after time, the leader pulls away as everyone else fights briefly for position, at least as much as it is possible to pass.

In theory, the lead-lap-cars-up-front restart rule should have changed that—a car strong enough to be in second would now have a chance to overtake the leader, which was one of the main reasons for the imposition of the rule. Yet NASCAR put a key provision in the deal which basically nullified that: you cannot overtake the leader before the start-finish line. In other words, if you see yourself passing the leader as you’re halfway to full speed, you best back off. And so the leader is in front by the start-finish line, and most likely, pulls away from the field yet again.

No one’s denying that Hendrick Motorsports built a superb machine for Mark Martin to drive last Saturday night and deserved the victory. But he didn’t win the race by fighting through the field during the green. He won by getting out front in the pits and pulling away on the restart, and then benefiting from Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson’s slightly reckless battle. Then he was out in front on the last restart and won the race.

Now, I’ve said that Mark Martin is the second best driver in NASCAR today. But I also believe that Elliott Sadler could have pulled that off in a car that good and with a pit crew that flawless.

Nowhere is the clean air effect more prevalent than at the speedways. It’s impossible to say who has a superior car, because the leader can lead 100 laps convincingly enough to make the announcers wonder who could catch him, yet as soon as that driver gets dropped in with other cars, he can’t pass anyone worth a damn. Most drivers will tell you that to pass anyone in this car, your machine has to be vastly superior. How much better can a driver’s car be than someone running second or third?

The clean air problem isn’t as pronounced at places like Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol, or Dover. It’s hardly, if at all, noticeable. No leader has clean air for long at any of those places. But that’s only eight races out of 36—and we keep hearing it may be less than that soon.

One of the reasons we’ve had so many race winners this year, aside from Mother Nature’s role, is that track position is everything. The best of the best have all kinds of difficulty passing in the current car. And it was supposedly designed with the opposite outcome.

Add the Chase to this and you begin to see why drivers don’t fight as hard for position as they might…why wear your car out doing so and even risk wrecking when the important thing is to score as many points as possible? In the position Mark Martin was in before Chicago, he would have been pretty happy with a third place finish and wouldn’t have risked a DNF going for anything better. And rightly so. The current rules dictate that that needs to be his main concern right now. It’s often said that we need to add 20, 50, or 10,000 points for a race win, but nothing will eliminate the focus on points racing as long as there is a Chase. (Suppose there is 10,000 points given for a pre-Chase win. Where is the incentive to go for a second win once a driver has one?)

And so it goes. Right off the bat after the inevitable mess restrictor plates leave at Daytona, fans are immediately subjected to watch-the-leader-pull-away events at Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Just when people start to see some decent battles at Bristol and Martinsville, back we go to Texas.

As more and more speedway races pass by without leaving a mark, the reputation of a follow-the-leader, unmoving auto racing series continues to grow in NASCAR. Were any of the speedway races memorable this season? It’s not that they never have their moments, but they decidedly pale in comparison to Bristol or Martinsville or Richmond or Dover in the quantity of such moments. There is the occasional good finish at some of the speedways, but they are the exception, especially with the current car. And as snoozer after snoozer like we saw in Chicago piles up, more and more fans lose interest. This sport used to be recession-proof. No longer.

I doubt any of this will come to mind when deciding what track should lose an event for a race at Kentucky or another at Vegas.

But hopefully, with their newfound status, the citizen journalists will keep pushing the issue.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • OK, so NASCAR ordered Mayfield to take a second drug test after Mayfield contested the results of the first one. And he failed it? That’s like O.J. putting the gloves on without a problem.
  • After my prediction about Tony Stewart turned out to be about as wrong as possible, I’m not going to say anything about what will happen with Martin Truex, Jr. driving the 56 for MWR. But I will wish Michael well in retirement. No doubt he’ll be in a broadcast booth somewhere.
  • I also see that Kevin Harvick is unhappy at RCR. I’m only speculating, but it may have something to do with his Daytona 500-winning crew chief being sent over to Casey Mears’ team with little in the way of results. If he had an opportunity at Stewart-Haas, that would seem like the wise choice…even if it sure didn’t seem like it last season.
  • If Danica Patrick is just negotiating her contract as is often asserted, she sure is playing it to the hilt with her visit to the Stewart-Haas shop earlier this week. Unfortunately, while I think she’s a better driver than she is often given credit for, her ability won’t matter. If she decides to try NASCAR, she’ll have a ride and she’ll have it immediately. In times like these teams are going to take the sponsorship dollars and she will bring them.

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NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
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Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
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wcfan
07/17/2009 02:47 AM
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I would like to see the points stay as is but take say 5 or 10 million dollars from the point fund and add that to Just the winners purse every week and see if that would get them to race harder for the win. Let the Trophy and endorsement by the prize for the championship. And give the race winners an extra $150,000-$300,000 every week.

wcfan
07/17/2009 02:51 AM
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I know its hard to fix the racing with these cars and the cookie cutter tracks. The above is just a suggestion to fix the points racing problem.

RamblinWreck
07/17/2009 03:09 AM
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The results haven’t been with Harvick the last few races, but Gil and Kevin seem to be doing a much better job at improving the car through the race, something that Todd just plain wasn’t doing. Wrecks at Daytona and Infineon and a power steering leak this past week were the causes of poor finishes at those tracks after the team had got the car running really well each race. If Kevin is unhappy with the switch, it’s an impression I don’t get from his radio chatter. Sounds to me like he’s unhappy with the engines… and given that his teammates are running similarly mediocre this year after finishing 4-5-6 in the standings last year, I’d say that’s a more likely complaint.

Douglas
07/17/2009 07:34 AM
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Your: “Add the Chase to this and you begin to see why drivers don’t fight as hard for position as they might…why wear your car out doing so and even risk wrecking when the important thing is to score as many points as possible? In the position Mark Martin was in before Chicago, he would have been pretty happy with a third place finish and wouldn’t have risked a DNF going for anything better. And rightly so. The current rules dictate that that needs to be his main concern right now. It’s often said that we need to add 20, 50, or 10,000 points for a race win, but nothing will eliminate the focus on points racing as long as there is a Chase. (Suppose there is 10,000 points given for a pre-Chase win. Where is the incentive to go for a second win once a driver has one?)” is ONE GREAT SUMMATION OF POINTS RACING!

As far a Mayfield goes, I am still in his corner! (just wait for the out-of-court-settelement).

And as far as Danica, money is the name of the game these days! She will go where the money is! BUT! I firmly believe it would be a HUGE mistake to switch to NA$CRAP! She is used to cars than actually can be adjusted and react accordingly, switching to the “WMD” cars, commonly called the CoT, would create HUGE problems for her!

They simply ain’t race cars!

Ken
07/17/2009 07:44 AM
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Generic tracks with generic drivers driving generic cars does not make for good racing. Whats makes it worse is NA$CAR manipulating the race with fake cautions. The best pit work wins rather than the best driver or the best car. The late “debris” cautions make the first 90% of the race meaningless for most of the teams. Football season is just around the corner and the dropoff in NASCAR ratings may take a larger drop this year than in the past.

mick
07/17/2009 09:29 AM
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I can’t imagine why many fans, and media folks like Jenna Fryer, think that ‘dega was the best race of the year so far. Was it just because of the last lap? If that’s the case then the race should only be about 10 laps total and spare us the 3 hour run around.

If there was EVER a time when short tracks were needed it’s NOW. Especially with the new restart rule. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to so many co-workers complain that nascar is boring.

PittCaleb
07/17/2009 10:04 AM
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I believe I’ve said this before and I can’t remember if I read it once before taking it as my stance:

Keep the chase, but change the qualification rules. Everyone who WINS a race gets into the chase. As well, the top 10 drivers in points without wins also get in.

Theoretically you could have 20 chase contenders, or you could have only 10.

You’d add so much excitement the final few races because literally anyone could get themselves into the chase. And a mutliple winner might want to push hard to avoid yet another driver wiggling his way into the case to compete against him.

Thoughts?
PittCaleb

chris
07/17/2009 10:33 AM
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I believe that a more equitable distribution of tracks as well as more-win-oriented points would produce better (more) racing.

Less Intermediates. Move a California date to Irwindale. Move a Michigan date to…I dunno, is there a short track nearby? Move Chicago’s date to Iowa. Move atlanta’s 2nd date to Road Atlanta. Pocono used to have a half-mile interior track for the Modifieds. Run that configuration for 1 of the 2 dates.

Intermediates have their place, but not “half the schedule” place.

Increase the points award for positions 1 thru 10, as well as the difference between them. Everyone 26-43 gets the same points (no need to drive rolling debris around for “points”) If you have a big difference in points between 3rd and 4th, that position has more value.

I liked the idea posted above about taking “points fund” money and moving it to winner’s money at the tracks.

As with anything, rewards (or punishments) determine behavior. If you reward conservative points racing, that’s what you get (by making bad finishes much more negative than good finishes are positive).

We see almost every week a car that is capable of driving up through the field, even with the “car that can’t pass”. All it requires is that the reward be higher than the risk. Stewart passed 3/4 of the field under green. He then passed half of that again, under green. Kahne passed a bunch of good cars under green. Gordon and Kahne ran side by side for multiple laps competing over 2nd.

Douglas
07/17/2009 11:33 AM
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Hey Ken! Your “The late “debris” cautions make the first 90% of the race meaningless for most of the teams” is right on baby!

PURELY FABRICATED RESULTS!

AND NOT RESULTS EARNED ON THE TRACK BY RACING FOR POSITION!

don’t you just wish more people would understand when they buy a ticket just what they are watching!

It sure ain’t “racing”!

Big thanks for writing your thoughts!

Maybe we should coin a new NA$CRAP phrase to describe Sunday afternoon “events”!

POSITIONING”!

yankeegranny
07/17/2009 11:34 AM
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I agree: if you win a race, you are in the chase. I don’t care if there are 25 drivers in the chase. Keep the chase format though and let’s have more short tracks. The others are so boring.

mr
07/17/2009 12:43 PM
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Tires are whats wrong !!!
all cars are not on the same tire it looks like they are but they are not!! nascar is out of control on a hero creational path to thier demise,

eddy
07/17/2009 12:48 PM
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Nascar and Bruton Smith has also gutted Bristol , the great slamming and bumping that made the place a legend is no more. In its place is a cookie cutter track in half mile format . I never thought I would say boring and Bristol in the same sentence , but its true . Its become just another nascar snooze fest …

mkrcr
07/17/2009 02:26 PM
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PittCaleb, I like the idea. Unfortunately, the COT takes any hope of any driver “racing” harder. NA$CAR has brought a mule to the Kentucky Derby.

Matt
07/17/2009 07:08 PM
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Good article about the points racing, but the comment about Atlanta is not necessary, it is one of the oldest tracks on the circuit with several of the closest finishes. Youre just not going to get side by side finishes every week, how often did we get them with the old car…….?

Carl D.
07/17/2009 07:40 PM
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The speedways are a big piece of the puzzle that NASCAR is trying to solve.

No, they’re not. They know the problem is with the cookie-cutter tracks they’ve added to the schedule (California, Chicago, Kansas) and the sorry-ass COT they’ve forced on the Cup teams. Those are the two biggest things wrong with the Nascar product. But instead of addressing those issues, Nascar officials have tried to solve their problems with diversionary tactics like “Single-File Restarts.. Shoot-Out Style!” and giving some internet reporters access to the garage. They absolutely refuse to admit they made bone-headed decisions and they refuse to make the real changes necessary to correct the racing on the track.

Also, Nascar gambled that the new fans they would gain by giving races to new markets would offset losses in the traditional base. They were wrong. Now they are paying the price for their folly.

Douglas
07/18/2009 08:27 AM
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Hey Mick, your comment “I can’t imagine why many fans, and media folks like Jenna Fryer”, etc., well, please remember Jenna is a NA$CRAP schill and will say anything to keep in the good graces of King Brian and company.

Maybe King Brian invites her over for “cocktails”? (by the way, know any?)

LOL!

john
07/19/2009 11:44 PM
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And while Cup racing keeps getting worse and worse, The Camping World Truck Series and even the Nationwide Series when they go to SHORT tracks are putting on shows 10x better. And they’re the ones in financial trouble. Go figure.

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