Thomas Bowles · Tuesday November 1, 2011
After a ho-hum start to the Chase, the last two weeks have seen the action pick up considerably across the board. Whether it’s getting off intermediate tracks, the stress of the season, the battle to find a job for 2012 or all of the above (I choose option D), NASCAR Nation has been acting like a bunch of rebellious teenagers acting out. When will the madness stop? What storylines still need tidying up after Martinsville made such a mess of the field? And will the dreaded words “1.5 mile” up ahead turn this recent tide of momentum into a Debbie Downer? Let’s turn to Fact or Fiction to tackle a couple of these lingering issues and move forward.
FACT: NASCAR Should Not Have Thrown A Caution For Brad Keselowski
Plenty of buzz surrounded NASCAR’s run to the finish Sunday, a three-lap sprint that started with Brad Keselowski sliding sideways in Turns 1 and 2. Many figured NASCAR should have thrown the yellow for that, forcing a green-white-checkered finish, more overtime and a chance for the No. 2 car to make up the distance.
My question is: why? Back in the day, NASCAR used to actually withhold throwing the yellow flag as long as there were no issues with driver safety. In order to throw the caution, here are my criteria:
1) There is a giant piece of debris, obvious in nature that would cut a tire instantaneously if you ran over it.
2) There is someone that blew an engine, in the groove, with oil leaking out to the point even an 18-wheeler going 30 miles an hour would slip through it.
3) There is a driver who has hit the wall to the point debris is on the racetrack OR he is immobile (through wrecking or otherwise) on the track to the point it endangers driver/fan safety.
Keselowski’s spin, while devastating to his title chances, did not meet any of those three criteria. He did not litter debris on the racetrack, never blew his engine and restarted the car and drove away a full ten seconds before Johnson, Stewart and the rest of the leaders re-entered Turns 1 and 2. Outside the racing groove, he was not a safety threat and the car did a full 360, never hitting anything so it was able to resume full speed. So sometimes, believe it or not modern NASCAR fans, cars spin and there’s no reason to throw the yellow flag! Just because a driver’s in title contention doesn’t mean you get to throw him an extra break. Believe it or not, the best finishes, like this one actually occur when the cars are allowed to finish full speed and settle it naturally, amongst themselves.
Of course, there’s a reason NASCAR got itself into this whole mess into the first place. When you run on intermediate tracks, creating a product that’s a single-file parade and need to make up the existence of hot dog wrappers on the racetrack so you can throw debris cautions in order to bunch up the field, fans are certainly going to expect cautions for everything under the sun. It’s a troubling inconsistency; but on Sunday, NASCAR did what it should be doing all the time.
FICTION: Double-File Restarts Are Fair
There’s no question double-file restarts for lead-lap cars have ratcheted up the Sprint Cup excitement level. Especially on the 1.5-milers, where passing is at a premium who knows if we’d see much if any position swapping if the cars weren’t forced to duke it out the first few laps.
But for certain tracks, where passing is still second nature, these double-file finishes come with a downside. While Stewart was able to make chicken salad out of passing Jimmie Johnson on the outside over Martinsville’s final few laps, getting traction up there was a limited proposition at best. More often than not, being on the outside proves a tremendous disadvantage and can cost front-running cars up to four or five spots simply because of their restart position. After all, on a one-groove track if you’ve got a faster car on the outside… what are you going to do? Slow up and let him back in line? It’s hard enough to get by people as it is.
This phenomenon hurt Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, among others, for much of the race and would have cost the No. 2 car spots regardless of that late-race spin. I don’t have a solution yet; fans are certainly not in favor of returning to the “old school” lapped cars on the inside type of restart. But it’s a tough situation at some of these one-groove tracks, one that needs to be addressed so that drivers aren’t cost positions and points through no real fault of their own.
FACT: Jimmie Johnson Is Out Of Title Contention
Certainly, what Jimmie Johnson has done – five straight Sprint Cup titles – is a feat that will never be matched. But we’ll have to wait for the next great prodigy to make an unprecedented bid for six straight. Yes, even the most fervent Johnson supporters have to admit his title hopes are now toast. A second-place finish, while admirable at Martinsville left him 43 points behind Edwards with just three races left. Even worse, J.J. must hop over five rivals: Edwards, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth to have a chance.
Sure, it’s possible Johnson can win the final three races, even lead the most laps for a grand total of 144. He’s made that type of stomp through the Cup series before. But for Edwards, all he’d need to do in that scenario is come up with 102 points (10th-place average finish, without leading a lap in each race) to take the title. So far this Chase, just so you know the No. 99 car has finished no worse than 11th. Some of the other rivals are beatable – in fact, I could see J.J. rise to as high as third – but the bottom line is Cousin Carl, along with Stewart lie just too far ahead for Johnson to make a charge.
If only Chad Knaus could flash back to Talladega… for more reasons than one…
FICTION: NASCAR Should Have Given Carl Edwards A Penalty
One of the big surprises late in the race was for NASCAR to issue Carl Edwards a penalty for jumping the restart, only to take it back.That’s got a whole lot of fans up in arms; but conspiracy theorists, calm down. I happened to be listening to Edwards’ radio channel throughout, and NASCAR correctly realized they caused their own problem with the No. 99 going three-wide on that restart. In trying to line up the field, they asked Edwards to pull up not once, but twice while incorrectly causing a jam-up; either they miscounted, or mis-spoke, but the bottom line is they were provoking a three-abreast row instead of two. Asked to speed up, the momentum from the No. 99 car forced Edwards into a side-by-side situation he couldn’t avoid; initially, NASCAR felt like they still had to make the call but in the end correctly recognized their request is what caused the whole bottleneck in the first place.
How much of a difference would a penalty have made for Edwards? By my calculations, it would have put Stewart in the point lead by four. But when NASCAR makes the right call, how much do those “would haves, could haves, should haves” really matter?
FICTION: We’re Done Seeing Payback
Think those tempers are settled post-Martinsville? On Monday, Brian Vickers was angry, not apologetic with Matt Kenseth in a Bob Pockrass interview. Point blank, he said it was Kenseth, not his silver No. 83 that ruined a championship bid. Add in Jamie McMurray’s anger towards Vickers, a little Marcos Ambrose – Juan Pablo Montoya scuffle, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. roughing up Kurt Busch and Joey Logano… the list goes on and on. Clearly, Martinsville was a real life game of bumper cars unlike any we’ve seen on the Sprint Cup circuit for quite sometime.
But don’t think these issues have to wait until next Spring. In less than two weeks, we’ll set up shop at Phoenix, a reconfigured one-mile oval that acts more like a short track than a superspeedway. New pavement means a likely one-groove start, leaving drivers impatient and opening the door for one final act of revenge.
Maybe Vickers still has time to buy a Halloween costume? Nah; when a driver gets wronged, he has a way of finding you no matter where you try and hide on the racetrack.
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