Thomas Bowles · Monday February 14, 2011
Love me not.
Love me… win the race.
This Valentine’s Day, all around the country from elementary school crushes to senior center bingo you’ll have millions trying to play Cupid while pursuing the partner of their dreams. It’s not unusual for an eight-year-old to go back and forth like that, trying to navigate the fine line between charisma and cooties in between a few extra trips down the slide on the playground.
But what’s strange this Monday, as NASCAR Nation begins to wake up and recognize it’s 2011 is how the first actual competition on the weekend was won and lost not by athleticism, not by skill, but by playing a simple game of “Which Driver A loves Driver B the most.” In the blink of an eye, an exhibition race was mocked and NASCAR’s Super Bowl had become threatened, reduced to a three-hour, dramatic equivalent to Days of Our Lives where going fast meant finding your best friend, supergluing yourself to the rear bumper and ignoring everyone else like you two were having some sort of weird private dinner date.
Don’t believe me? Ask Jamie McMurray, whose Bud Shootout faced a dramatic change of plans the second teammate Juan Pablo Montoya wrecked out of the race in the second segment. Left without an automatic drafting partner, the No. 1 car was a wanted machine, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner armed with the speed and experience to team with the right person and will them to victory.
Whoever would he choose as a replacement?
“I told Lauren my spotter, I said listen,” he explained. “Matt Kenseth or Kurt Busch will be the next two most loyal guys out here to me.”
Dun dun dun. Insert Lifetime and/or Spike TV dramatic music here. In the past, that statement would be borderline ridiculous; plate races would have you pick multiple partners in your bid to get to the front or maybe – just maybe – you’d spurn them all, go it alone and see if anyone would follow your lead. After all, isn’t racing an individual sport? Last I checked, you don’t get winner’s points or the trophy for pushing someone else to the finish line first.
But now? Playing teammate, regardless of which person you choose is pretty much a necessary evil. This new plate package, designed for NASCAR on-track married couples mandated McMurray start picking his draft partner the second the green flag dropped, sticking with him or risking falling 20 miles an hour off the pace. That’s how much of a difference these “suck up,” two-car drafts were making in terms of raw speed, a connection that could pull away by 1.5, maybe 2 seconds a lap from cars running side-by-side and an eye-popping 4, even 4.5 seconds from a single car out there by itself. You pair up with someone, hope to take the lead and then maybe, must maybe, use your momentum on the last turn of the final lap to squeeze by if you don’t get blocked and/or forced below the yellow line in the process.
What a weird way to race (and you thought the old plate racing was a total crapshoot). And what if you don’t get a partner when the music stops? Mr. Kenseth knows that last part all too well; for when push came to shove, McMurray picked Busch (who ultimately won), rocketed toward the front and left the No. 17 out to dry. Without a Valentine of his own, the Crown Royal Ford was a sitting duck, lapped once by race’s end (in less than 20 laps) en route to 13th simply because, well, who knows? Maybe he needs to mow McMurray’s lawn once in awhile or something.
“It’s not really that great having a whole bunch of groups of two,” he said afterwards, to the surprise of exactly no one. “When you can’t do anything without that it isn’t really that much fun. If you’re the pusher, you can’t see a thing; going 207 miles an hour and pushing someone when you can’t see, it’s not a lot of fun. At the end there, I was the odd man out because I couldn’t get with a group of two. Everybody was grouped up in twos and if you can’t get with one other car in a group, you’re pretty much done and you’re just gonna fall back. It may be a little different next Sunday with more cars, but I don’t know.”
It’s the “I don’t know” factor, among others that resulted in two new rules to stop this practice late Sunday night. NASCAR changed two things: the maximum size for the air inlet on the cooling system will be 2½ inches tall by 20 inches wide. Meanwhile, the pressure release valve on the water system will be set at 33 pounds per square inch. It’s going to cause some anger inside the garage, as what the drivers have been practicing through a December tire test, a January open test and two days of practice at the 2.5-mile oval is now effectively scrapped. With these new “adjustments” in place, the ability to suck up to one car is effectively eliminated; that is, if you don’t want your engine to explode in a shower of ugly sparks 10 laps into the “draft.”
But it’s also a move that needed to be done for the sanity of the racing world. Reaction on my Twitter feed during the NASCAR race was largely negative, fans used to big packs and jockeying for position up front now placed in a bizarro universe where groups of back-and-forth pairs kept passing each other like yo yos. Armed with plenty of room on either side, it was the most uneventful race in terms of setting a lead change record I’ve ever seen; the only drama was seeing if some of these pairs would bobble and spin each other out, an ugly pattern we saw several times with disastrous results. It wasn’t the type of racing people expected, and for a fan base weary with change it was certainly not going to be welcomed with open arms.
So that’s why, on this Valentine’s Day NASCAR is scrambling again, redrawing the rules so late in the game when they should have been set in stone months ago. In their world right now, millions of disenfranchised fans aren’t automatically responding to the chocolates, the love notes and the promises that the next date (er, race) will be better. These people have to be wooed, and they need to be wooed by white-knuckle, big-pack racing even if it’s manufactured by some type of restrictor plate so many of us hardcore, “pure” racing people hate.
The two-car tango doesn’t exactly fit the bill there right now, a short-term curiosity that doesn’t fix a long-term problem. Kudos to NASCAR for taking the tough step, recognizing the ridiculousness of the situation and taking steps to correct it as soon as possible.
Because after all, friendship may be the ties that bind … but in a sport where there are no ties, no credited assists only one driver and team gets to pull into Victory Lane. Let’s hope, no matter what they come up with that sense of individuality can be handed back into the driver’s hand by NASCAR’s upcoming Super Bowl Sunday.
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