This isn’t a history column, per se. That’s the usual agenda, but if you came in looking for some stories from NASCAR’s glorious (and not-so-glorious) past, you might leave disappointed. What I’m going to write about – what I need to write about after the race at Talladega – is how NASCAR needs to prepare for a future that is less than bright. NASCAR has made the same three mistakes (or variations on the theme anyway) for far too long, and as the sanctioning body of one of the most popular sports in the country, they must learn from these mistakes for the good of the sport – and now, rather than later, before enough fans start leaving your house as fast as I can run.
First up is NASCAR’s seemingly arbitrary, knee-jerk reaction to all things safety and the subsequent rule changes. On Friday, after Jeff Gordon flirted with the apparently magic speed of 200 mph, teams were handed new, smaller restrictor plates to shave off another 5-10 mph on the track to a “safer” 190 or so. With qualifying at noon on Saturday and the only two practices behind them, teams were NOT given a practice session to test throttle response and drafting capability with the new plates. So much for safety.
Every time an engine is restricted, even a little more than before, the driver of the car is robbed of more than horsepower. He (or she) is also robbed of throttle response – an often time-critical component of car control. The driver must have the ability to control the car’s closing and drafting rates with the gas pedal. Restricting the engine can drastically change how the car will react to a small lift or press on the pedal, and even a small change in that feel could result in a driver miscalculating a distance and causing a multicar crash. It isn’t the speed that’s dangerous, not really – it’s the potential for high-speed, multi-car crashes. Perhaps they got lucky (there was only one fairly large crash), perhaps not (could the change have cost the late race spin that cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson so dearly?) but it was a chance NASCAR should never have taken. Just like the decision to run plates at New Hampshire a few years back (teams were given practice time then, but the plates did NOT slow the cars to speeds below those of Busch Series cars like the one Adam Petty died in), NASCAR made an off-the cuff decision to create the illusion of safety, but not to solve the overall problem. (NASCAR knew about a potential problem in GM engines causing the throttle to potentially hang open before Petty’s accident, too, and chose not to address the real problem) It’s not safe to implement a rule and not give teams time to adjust. Period.
NASCAR’s second mistake became glaringly obvious on Sunday. The sanctioning body seems to have difficulty in enforcing its rules uniformly. Officials warned Earnhardt midway through the race about excessive bump-drafting and the “no-bump” zones on superspeedways. Logically, that should have served as a warning to every team on the track that NASCAR was not going to tolerate any more bump-drafting in the corners. They said it was going to be punished, right? Well, it wasn’t.
Then, when Brian Vickers won the race by bump-drafting his teammate Johnson at an angle in a corner, NASCAR failed to do anything about it. Don’t let the “the race was over” angle fool you – if NASCAR enforced their own rule like they should have, than Kasey Kahne should have been celebrating in Victory Lane – not Vickers. Vickers, in one of his ever-morphing versions of the story, admitted he was bump-drafting Johnson. “He knows just as well as I do that if I hadn’t have been bump-drafting, he never would have had a shot to pass Junior,” Vickers said Sunday night. So, NASCAR, where’s your rule? The driver admitted he was bump-drafting when he wrecked two cars. Was the sanctioning body so afraid to look biased toward the Chasers that common sense went out the window? Whatever the reason, NASCAR must, must, MUST either enforce both the bump-drafting rule and the yellow-line rule fairly and uniformly to retain a semblance of credibility with the teams and the fans.
Finally, Sunday’s race showed the glaring need for a different rule change. As of right now, the field is frozen under caution at “the moment of caution,” meaning when the yellow comes out, often after several cars are spinning. Shouldn’t the “moment of caution” be when the crash actually started, especially on the plate tracks? Seems to me that would protect the innocent victims of these multi-car crashes. After all, wasn’t the moment of caution when Joe Nemechek and Kyle Busch got loose, causing a chain reaction behind them that ultimately ended the days of several teams early? Wasn’t the moment of caution when Vickers got into Johnson’s bumper and sent him sliding into Earnhardt? NASCAR has enough scoring loops and enough video to do this right.
There is no reason that the moment of caution is the moment NASCAR decides there maybe ought to be one rather than when a crash or problem actually starts. If a car can’t complete the lap, maybe they should be scored that way – which makes Johnson’s 24th-place finish legitimate if not fair under the circumstances. But Earnhardt got his car refired and was able to complete the lap. If the “moment of caution” was actually the moment of caution, he would have won the race. Wouldn’t this method be fair to teams and solve the “wreck a guy to win” mentality all at once? It would still allow for bump-and-run moves, but it would force drivers to do the move correctly (which is moving a car up the track, not ever spinning it out), which would only enhance the racing and emphasize drivers’ talent.
The time for NASCAR to make these changes has come. In order to make the sport safer, fairer, and more competitive, the governing body needs to look long and hard at the way they do things. To ensure a rich history, NASCAR must first look forward. A forward-thinking organization will only make the racing better for both teams and fans – and what a history they’ll have to look forward to!