The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... "Waving" A Silly NASCAR Rule Goodbye, Innovation vs. Ignore, And Real Heroes by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday August 4, 2010

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Did You Notice? … That Pocono was one rain shower away from the most laughable victory the sport has ever seen? Under a red flag for rain, Sam Hornish – yes, the same Sam Hornish that has yet to score a top-10 finish this year – was sitting out front, using pit strategy to vault into the lead by not stopping when everyone else pitted for fresh rubber. As Mother Nature teased us with a shower, a first win for him in stock cars at one point seemed inevitable, not earned but giftwrapped in the form of some laughable rules.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the IndyCar convert still giving it his all each week to survive at the Cup level. If this were the June race, where Hornish ran well all day, then used strategy to fight his way to the front before fading to 11th, I wouldn’t have had much of an issue. But on this day, Hornish and Co. proved why they’re sitting outside the top 25 in Sprint Cup points. Dropping like a rock from his 15th starting spot, Hornish was 31st by Lap 10, never rising higher than 26th over the next 250 miles. To add insult to injury, a missing lugnut during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 75 resulted in a penalty, dropping him two laps off the pace and well out of contention by the typical NASCAR “debris” caution on Lap 122.

So how in the world did Hornish go from two laps down – the equivalent of nearly two minutes behind the leader on the racetrack – to running up front? Simple: NASCAR’s increasingly asinine wave around rule. Hornish used it under that Lap 122 yellow to gain one of those two laps back, while the following list of drivers ahead of him all immediately got back on the lead lap: Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Regan Smith, Joey Logano, and Scott Speed.

Once the green flag dropped, those half-dozen drivers quickly made their pit stop under green, falling three-quarters of a lap behind but staying far enough ahead of the leaders not to get lapped again. That also left Hornish further up the pecking order for the Lucky Dog, despite the fact he was running up to a full second slower than the leader per lap. And, like clockwork, he eventually got the break he needed, with three cautions by Lap 159 catapulting him back on the lead lap. Moments later, crew chief Travis Geisler played it smart, leaving Hornish out with enough fuel to go the distance while everyone else came down and pitted for tires.

David Ragan was one of several drivers Sunday who used the wave around to gain 10-15 positions by the finish of the race.

Still confused? Let’s summarize: Hornish legitimately fell two laps behind, then was giftwrapped his lap back by NASCAR through a series of timely cautions. He didn’t “race” back to the line like the old days, or even earn the Lucky Dog for one of those two laps. He simply chose not to pit under a caution flag, so NASCAR simply let him drive around the pace car with no penalty. And he’s not the only one, with Menard, Kenseth, and Ragan all turning in top-20 finishes out of their “wave around” get out of jail free card.

Hornish wound up being a non-factor by the end of the race, slipping to 11th in the final running order. But just the fact he was even allowed to finish up there after all his problems showcases one of the major issues with NASCAR today. People complain about drivers slacking off for the first 400 miles … but when you look at Hornish’s day, you question whether there’s even any point to racing hard early. Leaders who work to pull away from the field, lapping drivers just see them get right back in contention through free gifts that magically erase mistakes like loose lugnuts and speeding penalties as if they never happened. Jamie McMurray had two speeding penalties that put him outside the top 30, yet still finished on the lead lap in 22nd because of the “wave around.” It’s only a matter of time before someone earns three, four, even five laps back because of this rule, then goes on to win the race with a little luck and the right adjustment.

That’s highly damaging to the sport’s credibility. I understand why the rule was established: to give more than one car the opportunity to earn its lap back, especially since the double-file restarts make it impossible to do it the hard way. But the amount of drivers benefiting from the setup is wildly out of control. It’s one thing to earn back your track position after making a mistake; but the way the rules are set up now, NASCAR’s like a pushover parent who can’t send the kids to their room for doing something wrong. “You sped down pit road? That’s OK; here’s a wave around.” “Your car has bad handling? This Lucky Dog here will give you a second chance.”

There has to be some kind of happy medium to keep the competitive balance of the sport in place. Because drivers realize when the rules work in their favor, and they’ve adjusted their early-race efforts accordingly – to the point fans and even fellow competitors on pit road are falling asleep with their single-file, ho-hum, no worry conservatism until the last 100 miles.

Did You Notice? … The different attitude between Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman about these secret fines? It’s important to note, because these two competing schools of thought will begin to shape the sport going forward.

Let’s deal with Hamlin’s positivity first. Obviously the man to leak these penalties, he was open and honest with every minute detail in a series of press conferences Friday. While other drivers refused to even tackle the issue, he insisted publicity was a positive thing, a healthy way to move the sport forward while promoting the changes fans would like to see.

But Newman – backed by the majority of the garage – was a whole other story altogether. His team owner lied about his knowledge of the fine, and when pressed on it Newman refused to not only expand on the incident, but chastise the media for printing negative stories. Not a big fan of being the center of attention to begin with, his response to the whole thing was simply to sweep this right under the rug.
For a reason as to why Newman would respond like that, the answer comes in the form of that impromptu NASCAR team meeting amongst the car owners last week. Among the topics? Driver salaries.

“The escalating costs will stop at some point because sponsors will stop paying the money,” Sabates said to the Charlotte Observer on Friday. “The guys who are going to make sacrifices are going to be the drivers.”
And don’t think some of the drivers don’t know it. As the opportunities and sponsorship dries up, so will the desperation of the men who’ve spent years adjusting to living a certain lifestyle. To some, change is the way to fix the slow but steady collapse and keep their jobs. But for others … there will be a push to toe the company line more than ever, salvaging what they have in thinking unifying around NASCAR will keep it from getting any worse.

“Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included, and we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot because we’re convincing some of these people that this stuff is bad,” said Tony Stewart, a telling sign for how some drivers will treat this issue going forward. “It may not always be perfect, every scenario may not always be perfect but every time we write something bad about it, or talk about it from our standpoint, all we do is break this sport down and it doesn’t deserve that. We’re all making a pretty good living, and we’re lucky to have our jobs doing what we do.”

So, there you have it: innovation versus ignore. It’ll be interesting to see which one wins out.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits:

- Much has been made of Paul Menard’s possible move to Richard Childress Racing for 2011. But did anyone notice he’s got three straight top-15 finishes for the first time in his Cup career? Don’t look now, but he’s just 57 outside the top 20 in points and could realistically finish as high as 19th or so if everything broke his way down the stretch. Yes, Menard has his daddy’s money, but all of a sudden you’re not just hiring a sponsored hack anymore; by far, it’s his biggest season of growth since entering the Cup Series in 2007.

Brian Pattie has a long road ahead to regain his driver’s trust after two bad pit calls for four tires cost them track position and a shot at the win these last two weeks.

- What in the world was Brian Pattie thinking? One week after losing one of the sport’s biggest races on a four-tire stop, he brings Montoya down pit road for his final stop … and slaps on four tires? I’m sorry, but the driver had every right to be pissed at his team on that one. You wonder with the outrageous DNF total, combined with some serious trust issues in the Pattie/Montoya camp, whether divorce may be all but inevitable at this point. He and Steve Letarte could run a seminar: Choke Artists 101. Greg Norman and Michelle Kwan could be guest lecturers…

- So let me get this straight. NASCAR doesn’t throw a caution for Elliott Sadler spinning into the cone on pit road – causing Jamie McMurray to lose his reference point on the racetrack and wind up speeding – but they’re willing to call a random, Lap 122 caution for debris that was never shown? I don’t think picking up that small piece of metal stopped Sadler from hitting the catchfence; and he never would have had his car torn in two if the right yellow flags were called at the right times.
As for McMurray … I’ve never seen someone go from hero to zero so quickly, so many times over the course of the season. But at least he’s inspired a new quote: “The smaller the race, the harder they fall…”

- Former Cup Series owner Michael Holigan (who once partnered with Rick Hendrick on the No. 25 car) was in the news this week for forming an IndyCar team attempting the 2011 Indy 500 and a full season schedule in 2012. I see you rolling your eyes over there … this one’s important because it’s critical to see how many investors buy into the new, supposedly inexpensive chassis setup in IndyCar that’s supposed to revitalize the open-wheel industry. You don’t see any new NASCAR owners announced on this side of fence lately, do you? Where the investment money goes is crucial as the sport tries to figure out where the next generation of ownership is going to come from, particularly after getting an ugly reminder with a near-tragic plane crash that could have left Ford’s entire Cup organization of 11 cars in shambles. So if these big time investments start to lean towards open-wheel … that could pose a problem for an industry desperate for more Boston Ventures and Rob Kauffmans to keep the Big Boys running at high prices.

- Speaking of ownership, the start-and-park issue took a bigger step at Pocono when eight cars pulled in early after no more than 63 of 200 laps. Looking back on NASCAR records, it’s the first time that’s happened since the full schedule expanded to a minimum of 42 cars per race in 1997. It’s one thing for two, three or four cars to park but a full 20 percent of the field? At the sport’s highest level? It’s an issue that’s going to need to be addressed heading into 2011 and beyond, especially if the sport undergoes another two-to-four car contraction in the offseason. As we talked about earlier in this column, it’s all about giving a positive perception to the public. Only a 36-car field, where a handful of teams fail to qualify and it looks like it’s difficult to sneak in each week? Far better than a field of 43 where eight cars pull in early and they’re doing nothing but taking up space every weekend on the track.

Did You Notice? … The real heroes walk among us? I rarely get personal in my columns, but I’ll be taking unexpected time off from Watkins Glen this weekend to support one of my best friends in his darkest hour. In the span of three years, my buddy has now lost both his father and mother to the disease that seemingly affects us all – cancer – before age 30. It’s a cruel dose of perspective; one that life is far more than just cars going around in circles.

And as I prepare to shift the start of my weekend away from racing, I stop to marvel at the quiet strength in people. For two years, nearly every weekend my friend – an only child – has dutifully traveled to his mother’s home, an hour away from where he and his wife live to care for her. As she became terminally ill – within months of his father’s passing – never did he shirk those extra responsibilities, or pouted over the major life events he missed in the name of watching someone die. Not once did he complain about the hand he was dealt, the cruelty of fate in which you’re dealt a bad poker hand that you can only manage, not change your cards. Instead, when we could see him, a beaming personality was more concerned about his friends’ lives, what we were doing and making us laugh instead of trying to keep him smiling.

It’s a special type of inspiration to us all, a quality not lost on his wife and the handful of close friends who know him best. So take a moment this week to find the person that inspires you, remind them how much you care. Because life is a journey of the unknown, and we never know when those bad cards get headed our way.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Carl D.
08/04/2010 10:01 AM

So now the Nascar brass expects the drivers to take a pay cut in order to save the sport they themselves are responsible for destroying through through their own incompetence and greed.

I remember when Bruton Smith threatened to start his own stock car racing league. We all thought he was crazy. I wonder… could he have done any worse than Brian France and Mike Helton? And which league would still be standing today?

08/04/2010 10:52 AM

Brian France mantra: It’s everybody’s fault but mine.
Everybody loves my ideas.
Can I go back to counting the money now?

Tony George was kicked out. Can Brian be too?

Bill B
08/04/2010 10:58 AM

Thank you for covering the ridiculousness of the wave around rule and how it undermines the first 3/4 of the race making it pointless. As an example, Dale Jr ran pretty good the first 3/4 and had a problem at the end where he finished the first car a lap down. Before the caution on lap 122 there were only 20 cars on the lead lap. Without the wave around rule the worst Jr would have finished is 20th but because all those lap down drivers were gifted a lap back he finished 27th (guess he should be glad a couple of cars wrecked out). BTW I am not a Jr fan just using him as an example.

The same could be said for Jeff Gordon missing the win. Some of those drivers that took no tires or in Hornish’s case stayed out were at one time a lap down but because NASCAR rules gifted them a free lap, now they are in a position to muck up the front runners. Now he has to pass 12 cars in 20 laps instead of 6 cars.
I don’t blame the drivers for taking advantage of a poorly thought out and implemented rule, it is obviously NASCAR’s fault. They know what they are doing and they love to increase the luck/crapshoot factor because it allows them greater leverage and higher probability of scripting “exciting” endings.
As I have said many times, this rule (and many others) just increase the “crapshoot factor” in who wins the race. This may appeal to some fans but it is ruining the races for me and many others.

I must also point out the fact that this rule was put in place to get rid of cars on the tail end of the lead lap. I ask you, How often did that happen (maybe once every 5 races)? Now there are wave arounds every caution. How did we go from fixing a problem that happened once in a blue moon to an entitlement program?

Bill B
08/04/2010 11:14 AM

Wow, Tony Stewart falling in line. Never thought I’d see the day. Guess that’s part of being an owner. But I ask, do any of we fans need to hear the drivers say anything in order to form our own opinion as to whether the race or sport sucked or not? I don’t and that is where NASCAR is missing the boat – the more they try to tell us everything is great when we are coming to the opposite conclusion, the less willing we are to give them the benefit of the doubt.

08/04/2010 11:29 AM

I understand where Bowles is coming from, but is your disdain for the wave-around the fact that Hornisch took advantage of the system? If it were the other way around, we would reading about the 48 car “battling back” from adversity.

08/04/2010 11:33 AM

When NASCAR first announced the wave-around rule last year, I thought it was a great idea. It’s used in many other racing series already, and it seemed like a great way to make sure the leader always starts at the front of the pack.

Now, I realize just how wrong I was about that. This rule is not doing what it was designed to do and it only serves to make the first 3/4 of races even more irrelevant. It is especially bad at Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap, but that is an issue with just this track (and road courses, but cars rarely go a lap down on those anyway).

NASCAR needs to fix it, and soon. I think they should do away with it completely. If they don’t want to completely abandon it, I have another idea: They could let the wave-around cars restart in the middle of the backstretch. That way they get half a lap back, but still have to work hard to earn the rest of it.

As an alternative, if they get rid of the wave-around, they also need to tweak the lucky dog rule, simply because drivers are no longer able to race to get their laps back like they could before double-file restarts. I’m not quite sure how to implement this, but the lucky dog should go to a driver who has had a problem and got trapped a lap or two down, not just to whoever happened to get passed by the leader right before the caution came out. Maybe the criteria could be the first driver not on the lead lap who has made an unscheduled green-flag stop earlier in the race. Since drivers can’t earn laps back anymore, their day shouldn’t be ruined just because of (for example) a random tire problem.

08/04/2010 12:07 PM

Wave arounds, lucky dogs, competition cautions, fake debris—-all need to go but it won’t because the “haves” will put the “have nots” 20 laps down every race.

John Potts
08/04/2010 12:14 PM

I can understand the dissatisfaction with the wave around, but it’s better than restarting a race with four or five cars in front of the actual leader. Every short track I know of restarts a race with the leader in front. Are they doing it wrong?

Michael in SoCal
08/04/2010 12:17 PM

I don’t know anything about your friend other than what you wrote, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for this person, even if I will never meet him. Let him know his appreciation and dedication to his family, in incredibly difficult times, is indeed heroic.

08/04/2010 01:20 PM

I really liked your tribute to your friend. He sounds like a very special person and I’m very sorry to hear about his loss of father & mother. There’s no easy way to handle those things, but he sounds like he’s done well.

I thought the wavearound rule sounded like a good idea when it was originally put out there, but like the lucky dog its been abused — anyone remember Kyle Busch getting back 5 laps with the lucky dog and winding up finishing well up in the field — ugh – can’t blame the teams for taking advantage of it, but its a mess and I would have been mad if Hornish had won on Sunday over other drivers who had much better cars all day.

Sad that NASCAR and now the drivers continue to think that the fans will simply fall in line if they keep telling us that “everything is wonderful”. Sorry, its time for the sanctioning body to pull its head out of its butt and FIX the PRODUCT. As a fan, I’m the consumer and I don’t buy products that don’t perform or I don’t like – I don’t care whether the salesman is telling me its great or not.

Its insulting that all of them keep thinking the fans are just that stupid.

Kevin in SoCal
08/04/2010 01:56 PM

I’m with John Potts. The wave-around rule is better than what we had previously. I do like the suggestion by Kevin though, that the cars start on the backstretch half-a-lap down. However, that wont work quite as well at Bristol or Martinsville at it would at Pocono.

08/04/2010 03:03 PM

JerseyGirl Your last paragraph should be put on a billboard in Downtown Daytona Beach, FL!

08/04/2010 03:58 PM

Interesting that the most “innovative” to use your word, and also most controversial drivers regularly come from Joe Gibbs Racing. Maybe that’s something the coach learned from football – it takes all personality types to make a successful organization. Tony, Kyle, Denny, and a bit from Joey. What would NASCAR do without them? Y’all hate Kyle and barely tolerate Denny, but do you really want only “white bread” out there?

Kevin in SoCal
08/04/2010 06:17 PM

Susan has a point. If a driver wins a lot of races thru skill and talent, like Jimmie Johnson, you hate him cuz he’s too plain and boring. If a driver wins a lot of races by using his car to battle his way to the front, like Kyle Busch, you hate him for being aggressive. Make up your mind.

08/04/2010 06:37 PM

Get rid of the wave around rule. To make it simple. The lap down cars start behind the lead lap cars in their position on the track. The only way to get a lap back is the lucky dog after a caution. This will allow the lap down cars to race themselves for the honor of getting the lucky dog if the caution comes out. The lap down cars should have to race in order to get back on the lead lap. This would ensure that.

Brian France Sucks
08/04/2010 09:49 PM

What, another poorly thought out and implemented idea? Now who might’ve come up with that one? You know, if the greedy fools at I$C and $MI would’ve built more short tracks instead of snoozers they wouldn’t have this problem, only the problem of the idiot in charge.

08/04/2010 11:03 PM

At least Hornish doesn’t start and park. That puts him, regardless of performance, miles ahead of those that do. Yea, I know, big team and top 35 and all. But still…

08/05/2010 12:24 AM

The wave-around is the standard operating procedure for caution periods in probably more racing series around the world than anything else. I see nothing wrong with NASCAR using it

IF they knock it off with fake debris cautions and cautions for just minor spins or bumping the wall. Call cautions as they were called in the mid-‘90s when there were generally few and then use the wave-around.

I didn’t mind the lucky dog either (I found it way superior to the gentleman’s agreement, which frequently led to chaos and drivers slamming on the brakes to let their teammates back on the lead lap, often allowing 10 or more cars to get a lap back). However, if you’re going to do wave-around, lucky dog has to go. It’s now easy to get a lap back, so there shouldn’t be two ways to do it.

I don’t mind the lucky dog. I don’t mind the wave-around. I do mind NASCAR’s excessive cautions and think that they are the REAL problem here, not the mechanism for getting a lap back. Honestly, I have never liked shootout style either because it leads to more wrecks. You could just dispense with that and put lapped cars on the inside again.

So either lucky dog, wave-around, OR old school double-file restarts, but don’t mix and match.

08/05/2010 08:02 AM

Bowles, do some homework before you attack this sport. The reason the wave around was put into place was to prevent the leader from starting mid pack. That would happen when lapped cars stayed out, and it would always cause wrecks. The ONLY places you can advantage if the wave around like that is Pocono, Indy, and the road courses. Anyone who follows NASCAR should know that. So no, it wasn’t made to give guys like Hornish a get out of jail free card, and no, someone running 38th 5 laps down won’t win because of it. Clean air is everything at Pocono, if you noticed, Hornish stayed in front of Smoke for like 8 laps. This article is just plain wrong. Do your homework before you attack this sport.

08/05/2010 09:03 AM

I agree with Tom. I hate all these “welfare” provisions NA$CAR has instituted in the last few years. Frankly, I loved it when there were cars on the tailend of the lead lap and in front of the leader on restarts. I found that more interesting that giving these stupid free passes over and over again to guys who can’t keep up. If it’s not your day, it’s not your day. Then we have the oh so predictable fake debris cautions just as certain fan favorites get lapped every week, so they can get more welfare and NA$CAR can claim there are “record” number of cars on the lead lap at the end. Sure, there are more than ever because you give everybody free passes/wave arounds/welfare every week.

They really do think we fans are stupid…


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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