So far, it seems the landscape of Nextel Cup as we leave Las Vegas is littered with more broken dreams than a craps table at 4 A.M. at the casino. Las Vegas is a track that usually doesn’t see many accidents, let alone any type of caution, in its final results. But here we were on Sunday night, with the speedway registering 10 cautions in 400 miles to go along with 9 DNF’s in the running order, shattering the previous record of 6 cautions and leaving many broken hearts left in turns one, two, three, and four.
When you add those numbers to the season, the Cup series is averaging 9 cautions and 10 DNF’s per race, up significantly from the 6 cautions and 10 DNF’s from a year ago (the DNF number is more significant this year as the field for each race isn’t stocked with start and park drivers, which inflated the 2004 total). And with NASCAR continually erring on the side of safety, throwing a caution for nearly every blown engine or piece of metal it can find on a regular basis, it appears things are going to continue to go in the direction of the short green-flag run.
So what does this change mean for you, the NASCAR fan? Well, there’s good and bad news attached.
More lead lap drivers. Whoever your favorite driver is, chances are if he’s driving anything but a start-and-park car he’ll find himself within striking distance of the lead lap unless he experiences a mechanical problem. Which will keep you tuned in for more of the race, by far, as you know any driver still on the lead lap of the race has at least some small chance to come back and win the race no matter how bad the car’s been during the first 400 laps of a 500-lap race. Also, with the Lucky Dog rule in effect, you can easily recover from a tire problem or other mistake as long as you don’t fall more than one lap behind. Don’t think NASCAR doesn’t have this in the back of their mind at this point every time we’ve got an engine failure a long way into a green-flag run.
The pit crews have an even more critical role to play. With 30 cars on the lead lap, you can’t have a bad pit stop after the halfway point or your day is done, even with the new rules, which, with what we’ve seen so far, have allowed for more passing on raceday. We saw this problem plenty of times at Las Vegas. Joe Nemechek, running third before his final pit stop, fell to 13th with a bad stop and never sniffed the Top 10 again. Kurt Busch, running in the top five, had a lugnut problem on a late pit stop which forced him to come back to the pits a second time under caution and took him out of contention for the win (although he came back to finish 3rd).
Spinning may not end your day. With a caution being thrown for 95% of all crashes on the track, a 360-degree spin that may have put you a lap down before and kept things under the green flag now results in a caution in which a driver’s mistake can be fixed for free. No harm, no foul…the yellow takes care of that for you.
Looooong Races. I think this week’s Cup race ended about 7 P.M. EST. Now, those longtime fans know NASCAR used to have races that would start at around 12:30 EST in the summer, and end by 4 P.M. so you could actually go out and mow the lawn or do something with your kids instead of sitting in front of the television all day. But, cautions bring down the average speed, extend the race, and when you add-in the extra half-hour of pre-race coverage FOX seems to have committed to at this point, you pretty much have to book your entire Sunday for NASCAR if you want to watch from start to finish. And that puts more pressure on both the consumer and the product; more time spent watching means people expect more in return. Hopefully, NASCAR is prepared to deliver.
The best car has even less of a chance to win the race. Now, for fans this is either a good thing or a bad thing, as some people enjoy the fact that a 10th-place car the entire day can smack on two tires with 20 laps to go on their final pit stop and hold off everyone for the win. But for a driver who’s led the most laps all day, only to see a caution for a hot dog wrapper with 20 laps to go close the gap between them and the leaders, I doubt they’re pretty pleased about what’s happening. And shouldn’t a dominant car be allowed to, well, dominate every once in awhile instead of being snookered? And that leads me to my next point…
Teams who miss the setup are no longer being punished. When you’re talking about short green-flag runs, that means you don’t, contrary to popular belief, end up with a situation in which a team needs to have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed heading into Sunday. You can basically have a junk car in the first 100 laps of the race, make 7 or 8 adjustments during each yellow-flag pit stop, and come through to the front by the end of the event. Now, perhaps this is what NASCAR’s counting on with the new impound rule, which prevents teams from tinkering with their cars between qualifying and the race, and may give the drivers up front a clearer advantage over those in the back, who don’t have the practice time they need after qualifying to make themselves better. So in an “impound” race, those drivers who qualified at the back will basically have time to make practice-like adjustments during a race with a bunch of short green-flag runs. Still, don’t you find it the slightest bit odd that more and more a car running 35th for over half the race can stay within striking distance of the leader for over 3/4 of the event, even if they’re significantly off the pace? Does what a driver does in the first 250 miles no longer matter in the grand scheme of things?
Now, nobody’s saying cautions are unnecessary; all fans would like to see the race run smoothly rather than their favorite driver smacking the wall after hitting a piece of metal. But the sanctioning body is admittedly slowing things down and picking more stuff off the track more than at any time before in our history; I can’t remember the last time the record was set for the fewest number of cautions, but there are at least 6 recent races where we’ve set records for the most since 2004. And with that, we’re seeing a different type of racing; as for what that means for the sport, well, the odds on that gamble in Vegas are still too early to tell.
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