The Frontstretch: Food For Thought: What's Broken and What Works in NASCAR by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday September 23, 2008

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Food For Thought: What's Broken and What Works in NASCAR

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday September 23, 2008


The popular saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies to many things in life — especially in racing. As we’ve seen the last few years, sometimes NASCAR tends to tinker with things that don’t need to be messed with, while ignoring problems that badly need to be solved. So, on the heels of a solid race at Dover, I got to thinking of those things that are still definitely in need of attention — while recognizing that a couple of others are doing all right by themselves after all…

Broken: Kyle Busch’s Car
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way! Kyle Busch had been enjoying a career year until the Chase began a fortnight ago. Leading the points by over 200, it wasn’t a question of if the 23-year-old could win the title this season … but by how much. Indeed, a series-leading eight wins by Watkins Glen had many wondering aloud if Busch could match – or break – the modern era record of 13 set by Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon.

But fast-forward to Chase time, and it’s a completely different story. Last week at Loudon, Busch was felled by a failed sway bar mount, which caused his car to wallow and lean through the corners more than a Chevy Citation with soggy struts. The nightmare wouldn’t end until he finally spun out and was rammed by Jamie McMurray — all while doing his best Stevie Wonder impersonation in the process.

Then, at Dover this Sunday, the normally bulletproof engines from Joe Gibbs Racing were riddled with shrapnel by way of a derailed valve train in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota. And just like that, the top seed in the Chase and the pick of many to win it all now is mired in 12th place in the standings, sliding from 30 points ahead to some 210 points in arrears in the matter of eight days. For a team that had defined the excellence of execution for the first two-thirds of the season, they inexplicably resemble what Walter Sobchak would have deemed, “a bunch of (expletive) amateurs.”

Kyle Busch is more than mathematically alive for this year’s title; but if he’s unable to put the past two weeks behind him, that scowl might as well come packaged with a white flag of surrender.

Not Broken: Kyle Busch’s Chances
However, the only thing that really needs fixing with the No. 18 team is attention to detail. Well, that and the driver’s attitude. Let’s put it this way: Busch might be well served if one of those anti-depression medications that used to find its way onto the side of the No. 18 were on the car this weekend at Kansas.

You could sense that frustration at Dover, when Busch walked away from reporters and into the team transporter following his exit on lap 172 — a DNF which relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. After finally emerging to face the media, he then deemed his chances all but done after just two weeks into the 10-race title fight, referring to his failed ’06 playoff campaign in which a similar poor start (40th, 38th) left him on course to finish dead last.

But all Busch needs to do is take a look back in time to 1992 — perhaps the greatest title Chase in the history of NASCAR — to realize he still has a chance. Following the Fall Dover race of that season, Alan Kulwicki was 278 points back from leader Bill Elliott with just six races left. But just as he appeared to be doomed, Kulwicki staged a miraculous comeback, closing the year with four Top 5s and six Top 12s to close the gap over Elliott, Davey Allison, and others. When the checkered flag flew at Atlanta, he wound up winning the Winston Cup by 10 points over Elliott, the closest finish in the history of NASCAR’s pre-Chase modern points system.

Consider that Kulwicki had two less races than Busch to work with — he also didn’t have the crapshoot that is Talladega — and you understand the moral of this story: a title is still a distinct possibility. But the No. 18 team has to get back on their game, and the driver needs to get his mind right, too. However, there is another similarity here — note that Alan Kulwicki also conceded defeat following his Dover debacle in September of 1992. So in that regard, Kyle remains in some pretty good company … for now.

Broken: Dodge
If there has been a group more predestined for futility this year, it’s the Dodge bunch. Their best car sits 13th in points, and not one Charger is in the Chase for the first time in five years.

Their slump is even more surprising when you consider how the ’08 season started off — with Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch posting a 1-2 finish at the Daytona 500. That win, however, was a bit deceiving, as it was largely the result of a late-race restart which caused Newman to get plowed from behind at 185 mph by his teammate.

Since then, Kasey Kahne posted a couple of wins in late Spring — at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Pocono — to seemingly become a lock to make it into the Chase. As he has in years past, though, that suc-cess turned into suck-ing, as Kahne and his No. 9 team floundered down the stretch. Going winless for the last three months, they officially took themselves out of the running with consecutive 40th-place finishes in August, capped off by a 19th-place run at Richmond that left him 69 points short.

But he’s not the only disappointment in this camp. Preseason title favorite Kurt Busch has been downright dismal, never contending for the playoffs while simply struggling to finish in the Top 10. Somehow, he was able to secure a win at New Hampshire in June, but that was only because Pat Tryson can read a weather map. Yes, a win is a win, and there are no asterisks in the record books (wherever those are kept…), but the fact it was such a serious upset points out a glaring issue: Dodge has fallen behind the curve big time. The Penske cars are on TV usually only because of an accident, the Gillett Evernham cars are average at best, and if Chip Ganassi Racing folded up shop tomorrow, would anyone notice?

For a manufacturer that returned to NASCAR with such fanfare in 2001 and had so much success in the first half of this decade, Dodge has fallen from grace faster than a scandal involving a Senator and an intern. So fast, in fact, even Robby Gordon looks as if he is dissociating himself with the manufacturer after the season; and if that happens, you know you’re in trouble.

Not Broken: Ford
Ford may very well be home today to some of the most uninspired cars on the planet (save for the F-150 and fifteen versions of Mustangs currently offered), as well as owners of the worst franchise in the history of competitive sports. However, their racing program in the Sprint Cup Series is clearly alive and well. Witness the Roush Fenway parade at Dover this past weekend: when the race wasn’t being won by Greg Biffle, it was being dominated by Matt Kenseth, or led by Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray. Even David Gilliland, in his Yates Racing No. 38, managed to keep it together for 400 laps and bring home a Top 20 finish — despite running into Kurt Busch just after the first lap of the race.

More than anything else, Greg Biffle’s recent resurgence is proof positive that the Blue Oval is not the fading nameplate that it appeared to be not that long ago. Biffle has been one of Ford’s most reliable and productive drivers, bringing home the hardware in the form of championships in both the Truck and the Nationwide Series. If the Biff is able to continue this momentum and bring home a Sprint Cup title, he will become the only driver to have won titles in all three major NASCAR divisions – doing so while driving a Ford each time.

Broken: The Nationwide Series
NASCAR’s minor league series should be sponsored by Amtrak these days, as it is an absolute train wreck and an unmitigated disaster of Old Testament proportions. If a pylon falls at a Nationwide race, does anyone hear it? The stands are emptier than ever these days, as the same series that once featured some of the best racing in NASCAR has devolved into a perpetual rerun of uncompetitive races, few fresh faces, and a wasteland of dedicated small-time teams that have succumbed to Cup Series giants and their technology run amok.

Sponsorship is now even harder to come by in the Nationwide Series compared to Cup, due to decreased exposure and dwindling interest brought about by the lack of actual racing. And when there’s no money to be found, that leads to a dangerous pattern in which teams show up simply to collect a check from the purse. This past weekend at Dover, nine cars barely made less than 30 laps before having to be retired for various reasons — if you’re counting at home, that’s nearly one quarter of the 43-car field. The “start and park” brigade that was a fixture in the Cup Series a few years ago has made its way to the lower divisions now in even larger numbers — and it doesn’t show signs of disappearing anytime soon. Couple this with the advent of a new CoT being introduced in 2010, and the day of “the little guy” being able to compete with the likes of Richard Childress or Jack Roush may be going not only to the wayside, but to its grave.

On the bright side, it does appear as if NASCAR will be running different models of cars in the Nationwide Series soon: the Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro will be the stars of the second-tier division in 2010. Perhaps that will help give the Nationwide Series the identity it so desperately needs; but will there be enough teams left to fill the field?

Not Broken: The Craftsman Truck Series
Can someone tell me again why this is considered the third rung on the NASCAR ladder? With vehicles that are identifiable, personalities aplenty, and rubbin,’ wreckin’, and racin’ the way it was in the mid-1980’s, the Truck Series is where it’s at. And as always, there’s another back-and-forth championship battle brewing that doesn’t need the Chase to fuel the fire. Defending champion Ron Hornaday and perennial contender and Most Popular Driver, Johnny Benson, have gone back and forth for the year-ending trophy, one that won’t be decided until the last laps of the final race at Homestead.

Unfortunately, for the group that NASCAR would like to reach – people who know very little about racing – the trucks are often standalone events run on Friday night or Saturday afternoon on a small cable outlet that you usually need a special sports package to view. It really is a shame, as this is what racing on the Cup side used to be like not too long ago — packed with drivers who were actually in the Cup Series not too long ago.

Couple these racers with a broadcast team that actually seems enthused about what they are covering and don’t deadpan, “Oh, there’s a car in the wall here on the frontstretch…” when a crash ensues, and it makes for an unbeatable experience for the viewer. The networks would be well suited to recruit a few of the Truck Series commentators and pit reporters to their Nationwide and Sprint Cup broadcasts, as it is the next best thing to listening to MRN or PRN call the races on Sundays.

I have to admit, when it first came to be some 15 years ago, I thought the Truck Series would be kind of hokey, a gimmick to cash in on the burgeoning light-truck sales market in this country. But now, it is by far the most compelling series in NASCAR, a refreshing reminder of what made the sport so much fun to watch in the first place.

These are just one man’s opinions of what is good and what is not so good in the sport today. I’m sure you can think of a few things I might have missed – scheduling, the championship format, and NASCAR’s new drug testing policy are among them. But that’s the challenge with the sport today, as the list of things that are broken take up more space than just one column can provide these days.

So, as we work through the playoffs and head towards 2009, let’s hope that’s something the sport will choose to fix.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

09/23/2008 05:44 AM

The downturn in popularity for the Busch series came when it turned into a parallel Cup series . Same cars with different numbers on the doors . Why? Because Bill France saw an opportunity to add to his bank account by giving the manufacturers another series in which to market their new cars . So the identity of the Busch series was swallowed up by marketing concerns . A switch back to completely different but identifiable cars will help the series greatly .

09/23/2008 08:16 AM

Nice job writing this, but you left out the biggest “what’s broken”!

And that is NA$CAR itself.

As Phil Allaway mentioned; “ Last year, cars outside the Top 35 in owners’ points comprised the top nine qualifiers, causing A.J. Allmendinger to miss the race despite posting the ninth quickest time.” RE: Talledega. In what other “professional” event would a 9Th place qualifier, out of some 50 cars, be sent home?

And the “new” drug testing policy of NA$CAR!
With the way NA$CAR changes the way they interpret their own rules, week after week, and with the lack of specific “drugs” not listed as being banned, I can see it now:

NA$CAR PRESS RELEASE! For immediate release!

Tony Stewart has been tested for illegal drugs and will be suspended for six (6) races for having too much caffeine in his system. Coffee is part of our banned substances!

Also, Dale Jr. was tested and failed his mary jane test, but since this substance is not exactly on our banned list, he will be allowed to race!

Also, we tested Robby Gordon, and he is also suspended because of excess carbon monoxide in his system!


09/23/2008 08:20 AM

The Nationwide Series is abosolutely broken.

How about altering the format…run some heat races to get in, like at my local short track?

And maybe put the Cup regulars in the rear of the final heat regardless!

09/23/2008 09:29 AM

I have to agree with you 100% about the Truck series, & also the Busch, oops, I mean the whatever series. One big thing I think is broken, would be NA$CAR itself. They have alienated the core fans, in an ill conceived effort to appeal to the casual fans. This hoeky so-called chase is a prime example. Has anyone noticed that under the old system. A system which precluded a fluke, faux champion ala Kurt Busch. That we would have a riveting battle underway. Lastly the new car. Contrary to what you ink stained wretches would have us believe. 40-50 laps of good racing, on a very good track, after a season of near total boredom. Does NOT make this abortion, of a race car a success!

09/23/2008 09:40 AM

Great column Vito but, as mentioned above, what is broken is NASCAR and unless and until NASCAR fixes itself, we’ll still have the problems you mentioned. CTS racing is definitely as good as it gets and even the announcers are stellar and keep the excitement dial cranked up – now NASCAR has to fix what is wrong: the COT, the continual snore snoozefest that is Jerry Punch on ESPN, the cheerleading of Brad Daugherty and Chris Myers, and the Chase format – NASCAR should be concerned with the empty seats, the lack of interest of long term fans, and the continual problem of cookie cutter tracks – if NASCAR really cares, they’ll fix these problems and soon – let NASCAR go back to good racing – we haven’t seen much of that this season so far! Thanks Vito!

c chan
09/23/2008 10:04 AM

The people are speaking.
Nascar isn,t listening.
Like the recording industry
Nascar is telling the public what they like ,using personalities to sing their song ,on programs that are supposed to be reporting
,more that supporting
the Nascar way!
I personally believe Nascar could not stand any serious competetion
if there were any.

09/23/2008 10:53 AM

Dodge being backmarkers makes me sad.

I think it may have been a little too much to expect GEM to return to 2006 form after falling off the edge of the earth in 2007. They’ve made progress, but they’re not back yet.
I didn’t really see Penske tanking like they have.

I can’t take Ganassi or Petty seriously, even with the top-notch drivers they have.

I hope the new engine helps. I hope that they’re “caught up” in 2009. Dover was a total disaster, let’s not do that again!

Kevin in SoCal
09/23/2008 12:29 PM

Has anyone noticed that under the old system. A system which precluded a fluke, faux champion ala Kurt Busch. That we would have a riveting battle underway.

Uhm… under the old system, we would have three drivers within 100 points, and 4th place would be Dale Jr 272 points behind. With the Chase system, we have 12 drivers within 210 points, and 4th place is Jeff Burton, only 82 points behind. Please explain how that makes the old system more exciting? I dont get your logic. And, Kurt Busch is just as much a champion as Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, or Rusty Wallace. Kurt excelled at the right time and earned enough points, same as all the previous champions did.

09/23/2008 12:51 PM

I like this one, Vito! I’m unwilling to call the 18 out of it quite yet, but you nailed the issue-Kyle’s attitude. If he take sthe attitude that he’s done, then he is. Jimmie Johnson was 156 markers back after Dega in 06-and the word “done” never entered his head-and after Homestead, Johnson was holding the trophy. Never underestimate attitude.

As for three guys within 100 vs. 12 within 210-the reason that would be better is those three guys would all actually deserve the championship if they won it, instead of being handed a whole boatload of points they did not earn. The guy with the best SEASON should be a champion, not a guy who got lucky in a few races. See Busch, Kurt.

09/23/2008 01:07 PM

NEWS FLASH: RE: NA$CARS new drug policy!

It is now being strongly rumored that NA$CAR was forced to delete their list of banned substances due to pressure from the Pfizer Group, the makers of VIAGRA!

It seems VIAGRA was on the original list of banned substances due to the fact it is a “PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUG”! (please refer to the NFL for more info)!

The problem was twofold, 1) VIAGRA sponsored Mark Martin in the CUP series for several years!

2) NA$CAR did not want any driver to “DRIVE HARD”! (or harder than normal anyway)!

Stay tuned for more developments!

(of course this would be an easy check to determine if any driver took VIAGRA before a race, volunteers anyone?)

I can see it now on ESPN! And folks, here we have a close up of Jimmie Johnson, do you see his big Johnson?

(sorry, couldn’t resist)!

Kevin in SoCal
09/23/2008 01:42 PM

Who is deserving of a championship is completely different than the battle for said championship being exciting. Twelve drivers with a shot to win is more excitement than three drivers, in my opinion.

09/23/2008 02:18 PM

A “fact:

Using the “classic” points system, the top three (3) drivers would have amassed 18 WINS between them!

Using the new “sick” CHASE points system, the top three drivers have ONLY 12 wins between them!

Six, count’em, SIX wins difference and I think that is HUGE!

So at this point in the NEW way of counting, SIX WINS gets tossed as unimportant!

And we are going to crown a new chumpion?

Maybe NA$CAR needs to pay each driver a million $$$ for each point they swipe at the start of the “CHASE”!

So? Just who is “deserving” of the “Chumpionship”?

Actual multiple race winners, or the occasional race winner?

Gets back to that “winning thing”, vs. “manufactured excitetment”, ala “The Chase”!

09/23/2008 02:29 PM

Hey “Dawg”!

Quote: “40-50 laps of good racing, on a very good track, after a season of near total boredom. Does NOT make this abortion, of a race car a success!”

KUDOS! Well stated and summed up!

Kevin in SoCal
09/23/2008 03:43 PM

Douglas, it seems to me you want to wipe out the entire points structure, have 36 races, and whoever wins the most events wins the championship.

09/23/2008 04:56 PM

Hey Kevin in SoCal, actually that would work a heck of a lot better than anything NA$CAR came up with!

Can you imagine where in ALL 36 races, we actually saw “racing for the win”??

How friggin awesome would that be?

Stands would be packed each and every race! Winner take all!

Man, my adrenalin is pumping big time now in anticipation!

Then some 41 or 42 drivers would have to take the “cruise control” out of their cars!

But just remember, NA$CAR themselves thought the original points system was broken, so they introduced yet another flawed system, I am just offering my expert help to NA$CAR to get a system that works! You know, one that crowns a champion thats wins a lot!

Of course maybe I need to suggest to NA$CAR that they adopt the PBA style of scoring, you know, give every driver a handicap! Heck? Isn’t that exactly what the chase does? Takes from the good, gives to the bad?

Contact Vito Pugliese