NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: All That’s Missing Are Some Turnbuckles

What a reversal of fortunes for NASCAR the last couple of weeks. Daytona started off with controversy: those who broke the rules were dealt with an iron fist. Punishments came out early and often for rules violations, consequences that were more severe than they’ve been in several years. Four crew chiefs were sent home for, of all things, creative use of duct tape, circumventing a rule that doesn’t even exist. Another was sent home for the use of a substance in the fuel system that was to be disclosed later that week. We still don’t know what it was, but this much is for sure… NASCAR is making it seem like they saved the world with their shocking discovery of another rule breaker.

Too bad it took just days after that for NASCAR to start breaking their own rules they claimed to hold so dearly.

As much media exposure as NASCAR gets for taking a bite out of crime, they’ve gone ahead since then and found a way to bite themselves. With all of the attention that they garnered for the biggest race on the schedule from major media and fans alike, NASCAR volunteered to put itself under the microscope as a result; unfortunately, NASCAR officials haven’t responded so well to being looked at.

Let’s start with the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona. Johnny Benson went below the yellow line to advance his position as they were coming to the checkered flag in a three-wide battle with Travis Kvapil and Jack Sprague. One could make the argument that Kvapil did swerve a little, in effect causing Benson to go below the line to avoid him. It would have been a perfectly plausible explanation. Instead, we were told by NASCAR officials this surprising excuse for the no penalty call: “If you can see the checkered flag, anything goes.”

“Anything Goes.” That’s just what the Truck Series needs on a restrictor-plate track. What do they tell the ARCA guys? “Two Men Enter/One Man Leave?”

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I wonder how Tony Stewart feels about this new rule. All he could tell you is that mode of thinking didn’t seem to help him a few years ago when he went below the yellow line to advance his position on the last lap in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. But that was then… and this is now. It’s funny how NASCAR’s rules never change on paper but still cause different decisions at different times. One thing I could tell you for sure is Stewart wasn’t laughing back then… NASCAR knocked his finish all the way back to 21st place.

With one rule turned confusing, let’s fast forward to this week in California, where there was another epic last lap battle in Friday’s truck race that appeared to be shaping up between Mark Martin, Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner. As Martin was coming to take the green flag, he was downright punted by Hornaday and spun down into the infield grass. Not only was he spun and passed before the green flag flew, no caution resulted, and Hornaday was not penalized for his actions.

Now, the bumpers of Hornaday’s racecars are not exactly virgin territory by any stretch of the imagination, and being “King of the Restarts” he has on more than one occasion turned the guy in front of him. That’s still no excuse; on a restart, it’s supposed to be the leader that determines the start of the race, and if you mess with the leader, you get sent to the penalty box. Well… not this time. No caution flag flew for the incident, either, at a track where all the hot-dog wrappers of the world apparently go to bring out a yellow at some point during a race.

If an upside-down car on fire doesn’t bring out a caution flag, I don’t know what will. Well, maybe rollbar padding. Or a Gatorade cup. All I know was in that race, Martin was the one who got screwed by NASCAR officials, arguably for a second time in less than a week.

Well, for all the hesitation over NASCAR throwing the yellow, there was a special caution flag on Sunday in the Cup race; apparently, it was for something that fell off of Wonder Woman’s jet. No one really knows why there was a caution on lap 225 for debris, but Jimmie Johnson is probably still curious as to what it might be. Maybe it was the substance found in Michael Waltrip‘s fuel system reappearing on the track, like some sort of high-octane stigmata. Either way, we’ll never know what it was… the TV broadcast didn’t show it, and no one appeared to see NASCAR actually picking something up.

Of course, most fans are used to the loose interpretation of the rules at this point; the timely caution flag when some guys are short on fuel, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to go a lap down, or during a commercial so they don’t see what the debris was (or wasn’t). In a sport where most people don’t “get it” until they’ve been to a race or have watched it on TV for a few weeks, the last couple haven’t been very good for NASCAR in their effort to indoctrinate the uninitiated.

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Can you imagine if you’re a new fan trying to figure out the sport? NASCAR brings the hammer down on what appeared to be the usual creative engineering by the brightest minds in motorsports, but then, to ensure an exciting finish for some empty grandstands, they toss the rulebook out the window, risking the very lives of the drivers they were created to protect. Sunday’s case in point: David Reutimann, who’s still seeing stars after a savage late-race wreck Sunday left him bruised and battered. If the phantom caution doesn’t fly for debris, does Toyota’s prized rookie end up headfirst into the wall? Probably not, because a restart bunching up the field doesn’t happen in the first place. The unfortunate thing is when they showed the in-car camera shot of David, I wasn’t sure if he got knocked out or if he just nodded off because California is such a miserably boring race.

I have many friends and family members who are aware of the sport but don’t really follow it. After watching the aftermath of the Daytona 500 last lap fracas, the capricious nature in which fines were doled out, the incident Friday night in the truck race and then the mysterious caution on Sunday, they were all shaking their heads and rolling their eyes saying, “You actually WATCH this stuff?!” In NASCAR’s effort to woo the casual fan, they are running the risk of not only alienating their core fans, but also completely turning off those whom they are trying to attract. What outside viewers see is a bunch of cheaters competing in a series that makes up the rules as it goes along. It reminds me of a scene in the movie The Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen’s character Lt. Frank Drebbin is posing as an umpire. A player swings at a pitch, misses, and he still calls a ball.

If you’re a major sport getting compared to a comedy when it comes to enforcing the rules, there’s a problem. NASCAR needs to take a look at what got them here in the first place, not what silly rock concert they are compelled to beat us over the head with before the race gets underway. The ratings, which have been consistently lower the last two years, are evidence of this. It goes way beyond NASCAR competing with the NFL in the fall.

The off weekend for the Nextel Cup Series probably came at a good time. Perhaps after the whirlwind few weeks we’ve started out with, they can stop and get their wits about them. The sport that rocketed to popularity in the early and mid-’90s on its own merits of being genuine and real is more and more looking like a professional wrestling script run amok. Hornaday should’ve hit Skinner with a folding chair in victory lane and taken the trophy away with him… that would have been par for the course in what was a wacky weekend of inconsistency. Maybe NASCAR should change their name to WRASCAR, a combination of wrastlin’ and stock car racing. Come to think of it, it has been a while since we’ve had a Donnie, Bobby and Cale fistfight in the infield grass. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It would certainly spice up those dreadfully boring races at California.

And they probably wouldn’t even throw a yellow for it.

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