The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: The Slippery Slope Slickens by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday October 13, 2011

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MPM2Nite: The Slippery Slope Slickens

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 13, 2011


The less said about the Kansas race, the better. In summation, it was a farce masquerading as a stock car race. Nothing to see here, people, move along.

But little has been made of some potentially troubling developments that took place at Kansas long after most people had drifted off for an autumn’s afternoon nap. In one instance everyone left watching saw what happened. In the other instance, things are all a matter of conjecture and yet another conspiracy theory.

In the first instance, late in the race, Kevin Harvick and team decided to try to steal a win on fuel economy while most of the other lead lap cars ducked into the pits under caution. We’ve seen that strategy play out successfully numerous times this year. It was pretty clear Harvick didn’t have a car that could win the race on speed so employing stealth and strategy was the only way he was going to grab the brass ring.

Under the caution, Austin Dillon decided to give Harvick a hand. He used his car to push Harvick’s No. 29 Chevy around the track so Harvick could cut off the engine and save some fuel. Technically, Dillon was not a teammate of Harvick’s; he was driving a car owned by record producer Mike Curb. But more realistically, Dillon is Richard Childress’ grandson and the No. 29 entry is run out of the RCR stable. Already laps down, Dillon had nothing to lose by giving Gramps and his driver a hand.

Austin Dillon’s Sprint Cup debut wasn’t short of controversy as Dillon gave Kevin Harvick some assistance under a caution.

There was no subterfuge to this ruse, as it was plainly evident to everyone what was going on. Nor, technically was there a rule against what Dillon was doing. Current NASCAR rules state only that no driver may receive assistance like that from another driver on the final lap of the race. (That’s the infraction, if you remember that cost Matt Kenseth all those finishing positions at Joliet.) But NASCAR decided they didn’t like what they were seeing. They conveyed to Dillon they wanted him to cut that crap out and to Harvick, they wanted him to tighten up his gap to the car ahead. NASCAR says this issue has been on their radar for awhile; the problem is, as usual they make up a new rule when it suits them and don’t bother to commit it to paper.

In this instance, that might be for the best. With all the races decided by fuel mileage this season and the number of Chase contenders who have at least one teammate not contending for the championship, we could have ended up with a half-dozen drivers being pushed by their teammates for who knows how many laps up until that final circuit, of course. As it stands now, there is still no rule on the books that all drivers and teams know of going into the race. NASCAR once again will use its discretion to decide when it’s OK to give another driver assistance and when it’s not. So let’s say halfway into a race a driver, say Jimmie Johnson, runs out of gas, and another driver, say Mark Martin, pushes him into the pits to be refueled. (I’ve seen this scenario happen countless times with various combinations of drivers.) Is that OK, or should Johnson coast to a stop on the back straight and lose all those positions and potentially even laps while waiting for a wrecker to come push him to the pits? And if it’s OK for Martin to push Johnson, what about some other driver who faces the same predicament but doesn’t have a teammate to offer assistance? How is that fair?

The other incident in question is more a matter of conjecture, or some would say conspiracy theorists venting their dislike for the current five-time Cup champion. I’ve had a lot of people suggest that Kasey Kahne, who was in fact pretty darned good on most restarts earlier in the race, didn’t try to pass Jimmie Johnson on the final restart. Rather, some would say, he let Johnson ease ahead and then purposely blocked Kenseth and Keselowski to keep them from mounting a challenge on the No. 48 car. Now why in blazes would any driver, particularly one like Kahne who is suffering from a long, frustrating winless season, let another driver win a race and even help ensure the outcome? Recall as of 2012, young Mr. Kahne will be Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. So helping a Chevy to win the race and Johnson to make another stride towards a sixth title would be greatly appreciated by the organization that will be signing those big paychecks next season. Certainly, getting up there in a desperate late laps duel with Johnson and having both of them wreck out of the race would have been frowned upon.

Others want to push up the conspiracy heat another few notches. They claim NASCAR’s own highly suspicious debris caution on lap 206 occurred just beyond the No. 48 team’s ability to stretch their fuel to the end. Thus, Landon Cassill was bribed to purposely spin out a little later to allow Johnson to enter the pits and get enough gas to finish the race.

Personally, I’m not buying into either of the above conspiracy theories, but it worries me that I might be wrong. For decades now, there has been too much focus placed on winning championships rather than races and it has yet to be seen to what level teams are ready to rely on underhanded techniques to win the Cup. (And, of course, the big check that goes with it in these difficult economic times.) Not too long ago, we had a highly questionable spin by Paul Menard that ultimately benefited his RCR teammate Kevin Harvick. Denials were issued from all quarters anything fishy was afoot, but listening to the radio transmissions between Menard and his spotter it’s hard to conclude there wasn’t some sort of despicable strategy in play. Why on earth would a driver need to know from his spotter how his teammate was running and who he was racing with?

How much further will team owners go to help clinch a championship? Do you have any doubt if Matt Kenseth had a comfortable points lead going into Homestead, but wrecked early in the event, Jack Roush wouldn’t order the other three cars to park so the No. 17 would at least finish ahead of them?

And while team orders to help out another teammate are troubling enough, there’s an even darker side to this scenario. Would team owners ask one of their drivers to hamper the efforts of another team’s title contender? We’ve already seen some questionable blocking that gave a driver’s teammate an advantage. If Jimmie Johnson built up a points lead, would an owner ask one of his drivers to wreck out the No.48 car? If asked to do so, would any drivers comply with the request? In the dog eat dog world of landing a Cup ride right now a lot of drivers would probably do as asked. Sure, they’d take some heat, but it’s a long offseason for everyone to get over it and start forgetting what happened. If such an incident occurred, it would be easy to make the contact look accidental. How draconian could NASCAR be in its punishment of such barbarism unless they were certain the contact was made on purpose? I hope we never have to find out.

As I’ve frequently stated, this is stock car racing… not lawn croquet. Drivers not in the Chase are still entitled to gun for the win and that might involve roughing a competitor up a little from time to time. But there still needs to be some level of respect between the drivers and some modicum of fairness if there’s to be any legitimacy to a Cup title. Let’s hope the amount of money that’s entered the sport over the last decade hasn’t blurred those distinctions beyond recognition.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Bill B
10/13/2011 07:27 AM

Answers to all your questions…. YES they would.

Money, in the form of sponsorship, is harder to come by right now than it has been in a long time. People will do all kinds of things to get it if they think they can get away with it.

Matt L
10/13/2011 08:28 AM

I remember there was a big problem with this in the truck series…in 2003 I think. The championship contenders all had extra team cars on the track that made things messy. Ask Brendan Gaughan.

10/13/2011 09:35 AM

As far as sponsorship dollars go, nas$$car is pricing themself out of the business. And anybody who pushes aside the notion of team orders is pretty naive.

10/13/2011 10:03 AM

…and that’s why we {ever so quietly} call it rasslin’.


Carl D.
10/13/2011 11:19 AM

I’m no Kasey Kahne fan, but no way did he do anything at Kansas to intentionally help Johnson win the race. He may be a future HMS driver, but he’s not driving for them this year and has nothing to gain by helping Johnson. Plus, he’s winless this year and no doubt hungry for a win. Johnson was dominant all day; only second place was up for grabs.

Bill S.
10/13/2011 02:56 PM

Do I think Austin Dillon was put in the race as a ringer by Richard Childress? Hell, yes! He did the same by entering Neil Bonnett in one of Dale Senior’s championship races just to assure a single higher finishing position for Dale.

Do I think KK blew the restart on purpose? Maybe. The second place driver has the disadvantage in that he can’t GO until the leader does, so timing is everything. And Kasey may or may not be the master of restarts that he would have to be to give this one away. I certainly would not put it past Hendrick to pull this, I am just not sure Kahne is as cagey as you imply.

10/13/2011 04:10 PM

This is what makes me uneasy. A few years ago Tony Stewart was still driving for Joe Gibbs but the announcement had already been made he’d be starting his “own” team and moving back to Chevy the following year.
In Victory Lane late that season Jimmie Johnson applauded the way Stewart had raced him and noted that they’d be teammates the ffollowing year. Ummm…point one. What’s that have to do with anything? Why didn’t Tony go down guns blazing. Point 2….technically it was supposed to be Tony’s team not a satellite operation of Rick’s. NASCAR rules said no team owner could own more than four teams. That’s why Roush had to get rid of McMurray and that team. By calling Stewart a future teammate Johnson revealed the true nature of the relationship.

10/13/2011 06:22 PM

Wasn’t it Thomas that got wrecked out (and injured) by a member of the Kiekhaefer team in the 50’s?

10/13/2011 08:19 PM

Yes, it was Herb Thomas who had been leading the points but was hurt badl on Oct. 23rd 1956 at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds (NC not OH), a race NASCAR allowed Keikhaefer to add to the schedule at the last minute to give Buck Baker another shot to pick up points on Thomas.
Speedy Thompson, Baker’s teammate at Keikhaefer’s team, allowed Thompson to pass then put him hard into the wall. I think there were nine or ten cars involved. Thomas was removed from the car comatose with head and internal injuries that nearly cost him his life. Baker went on to win the 56 title three races later.

It was the most despicable thing I can recall in the history of auto racing.

10/13/2011 09:56 PM

IMO the answer to all your scenarios would be “yes”. Unfortunately I also think that Kahne held back so that Johnson could win that race. And that makes me like NASCAR racing a lot less. Personally it was far more fun when it was the race that was important all season long rather than this farce of a championship, playoff, whatever pipe dream you want to call this thing that Brian France concocted.