Thomas Bowles · Wednesday June 1, 2011
Did You Notice? … The inconsistency of NASCAR’s Sunday caution calls at Charlotte? Let’s review what caused a yellow flag and what didn’t:
- Jamie McMurray blowing an engine on Lap 182. (oil on the track) – Jimmie Johnson blowing an engine with five laps to go. (oil on the track)
- Debris cautions three times: Lap 76, Lap 172, Lap 283. – Green-white-checkered wreck where cars were slowing and/or spun around in Turn 1. Jeff Burton’s No. 31 car clearly put debris on the racetrack, limping around simply to complete one of two laps and end the race. No caution thrown.
The concern over those calls was echoed, somewhat by Tony Stewart at Tuesday’s NASCAR teleconference that seemed to jive with the fan reaction from Sunday’s race. Here’s an excerpt of what he said when asked about the sport’s Charlotte caution calls:
“I think NASCAR just has to be consistent. I don’t think anybody really has a problem with however they do it, as long as they do it the same every time all the time. You want to know that no matter what the scenario is, they’re going to make the same decision every time consistently and not change it because it’s the end of the race or beginning of the race. You want consistency all the way through.”
“That way it’s the same for everybody, it’s the same all the time, and you know what to expect.”
Those quotes seemed to hit the nail on the head. People didn’t seem to be upset based so much on favoritism – say, that conspiracy theory of NASCAR holding the yellow on a green-white-checkered restart so Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a better chance to win. Safety, while it should be a bigger concern really doesn’t resonate here, either; a lot of fans, drivers and media agreed with the “no caution” call, letting the drivers race to the flag on that green-white-checkered mess. After all, by the time they got to Turn 1 on the white flag lap, the track was clear. No, the real issue is confusion over what, necessarily constitutes a caution flag. It’s been the issue for years, from the time Mark Martin slowed anticipating a yellow at the end of the 2007 Daytona 500 to “debris” cautions Denny Hamlin openly accused NASCAR of throwing to bunch up the field last June.
What’s NASCAR to do? Kevin Harvick said something interesting in his post-race press conference Sunday that hasn’t gotten as much play as it should:
“The one thing I have learned over the last two or three weeks, and it really kind of puts it all into reality, is there has to be a judge. There has to be somebody making those decisions, and there has to be somebody who’s going to say, ‘Yep, there’s debris on the track. I see it and there it is.’ And if this car is illegal or that car is illegal, here’s the penalty… but it still doesn’t keep me from getting frustrated. If I don’t see the debris, I’m going to be mad on the radio because we just went a lap down.”
OK, I agree with Harvick, and technically there is a judge: but those judges also double as full-time NASCAR employees. The job responsibilities of Robin Pemberton, Mike Helton, and other top officials go far beyond figuring out what’s a yellow flag and what’s not: they’re also representing the sport in about 1,000 other capacities.
So what’s stopped the sport, in this modern age of transparency to finally buckle down and hire an outside observer to make their calls? NFL referees and MLB umps don’t have to worry about the President of their sport either overruling or interfering with calls as they’re made. Just like a head ump can be questioned after the race, why can’t there be a third party who sits in a box, makes the call the way he sees fit and then backs up or backs down based on an official copy of the rules (which still aren’t available for public review). So if someone questions a debris call, let’s say, at least you have someone exclusively responsible for making those decisions and then facing the fire of public scrutiny.
Clearly, the debris cautions are the most subjective because hey, pretty much anyone can spot a piece of metal or rubber on the racetrack by Lap 50: 43 cars streaming by at hundreds of miles an hour + 100,000 fans in the stands are going to make things dirty. The rulebook clearly needs to be clarified there, as well as what, exactly constitutes something unsafe enough that the cars need to bunch up and slow down. Otherwise, competitors don’t know what to expect, fans get confused over bad calls and the whole process loses some amount of credibility.
This issue has been revisited many, many times before so I’m not certain NASCAR will act on this latest pressure. But it’s clear the inconsistency of this race has bothered people more than any other so far in 2011.
Did You Notice? … The way in which points seemed to influence decisionmaking down the stretch at Charlotte? With the race’s final caution, leader Greg Biffle from Roush Fenway Racing was forced to pit rather than let it all hang out and go for the victory. Why better safe than sorry? Simple: at 11th in points after this race, the No. 16 Ford team couldn’t afford another crippling mistake that would have set them back further in the standings. The “wild card” is nice, but a secure position in points? If it’s within your reach, at this point it isn’t worth the risk.
Now compare that with the strategies of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne, two guys on different agendas up front. For Earnhardt, at fourth in points there wasn’t as much of a gamble to stay out because with a cushion inside the top 10, the way team and car are running, the boost from ending a 104-race winless streak outweighed jeopardizing Chase chances that are already somewhat secure. And for Kahne, it’s completely the opposite: 42 points outside a top-10 spot coming in, the only way he’s going to make the postseason is likely through a “wild card” bid, making the risk of going for a victory well worth it.
Three people on three completely different strategies: far different than when this race was simply a “crown jewel” where drivers were gunning for the victory at all costs, right? At this point in NASCAR’s modern era, people are simply looking at the “bigger picture” instead which is dramatically changing the way these races pay out. At some points this season, that will create exceptional racing (August and September) but in others, when you want to see every driver let it all hang out for one of the sport’s biggest races points concerns, not the trophy may win out.
Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we take off:
- Jeff Burton has now gone 12 races without a top-10 finish. That’s the longest streak in his career since 1995; I’ve heard of bad luck, but for Burton this season is getting borderline insane. Once again, the No. 31 Chevy was on track for a solid finish before being the guy who got wrecked the worst in that chain reaction restart on the green-white-checkered.
- So if Penske and Rick Hendrick are really considering an IndyCar partnership, what does that do for Dodge’s future in the sport? Surely, Penske can’t switch manufacturers in one sport and align itself with another on the stock car side. And, at 74 is Roger Penske inching closer to either hanging it up or making a major transition within his company?
- He’s a wonderful colleague of mine, one of the better up-and-coming writers in the business but after this weekend, I now “disagree”:http://www.frontstretch.com/bkeith/34127/ with Bryan Keith’s theory on Kimi Raikkonen’s future in NASCAR. The more information I collect about the situation, the more I’d be surprised to see Kimi again beyond Infineon and Watkins Glen this year in the Cup Series – much less accepting a full-time ride with Red Bull Racing.
Why? Simple: Raikkonen won’t run around in the back, and while his Truck Series race went OK (15th) he was a disappointing 27th, four laps off the pace at Charlotte in the Nationwide Series. Those aren’t close to the numbers Scott Speed or even A.J. Allmendinger put up when developing in NASCAR’s lower divisions, meaning further development (and dollars) are necessary from Raikkonen. And I just don’t know, after watching the Finn these last two weeks that he’s willing to put in the time – and most importantly, the cash – to improve. Red Bull isn’t like a bank handing out free money; in fact, they’re using Fuel Doctor sponsorship to support current development driver (and Truck Series point leader) Cole Whitt.
- Unreported in the midst of an outstanding finish was Charlotte’s attendance, up 5,000 from year-to-year. And while the All-Star Race struggled to meet Track President Marcus Smith’s insane marketing promises (the way things got portrayed, you wondered if Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick were going to have a fight to the death) his savvy helped buck the trend and get more fans in the seats. And heck, they even got treated to a fantastic, unpredictable finish that lies at the heart of what racing’s all about! Let’s hope this race is the start of a trend, not an aberration for a sport looking to build on positive news.
- The one big difference between the Indy 500 ending and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600: a rookie losing his one big chance versus the sport’s Most Popular Driver getting a new lease on life. We’ll see which one leads to a bigger boost for their respective series.
And while this isn’t an IndyCar column, one couldn’t help but notice the irony Dan Wheldon whizzed by the team who released him on the way to capturing the sport’s biggest trophy. Sometimes, revenge is a dish best served by cold, hard on-track results.
- One other little-reported quote going around: David Ragan’s quote on the bizarre ending to Charlotte’s race: “We could have done all that in 40 laps and been at the house a couple of hours ago.”
It’s a quote worth revisiting, as drivers continue to recognize that falling a lap, even two laps down early in the race means nothing when they can get it back and race for a top-5 finish without much effort in the closing laps. Heck, Joey Logano was third in the final running order after getting two free passes! Back in the old days, there was drama and unpredictability involved when drivers were faced with early in-race crises: some would spend a whole afternoon getting their laps back. When you hand it to them on a silver platter instead, too much intrigue is lost for a fan dedicating four hours of his life to watching this stuff.
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