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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR Can’t Make a Living Playing It Safe

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you enjoyed the Safety 400 at the Brickyard, presented by Allstate. Oh, the irony contained within that title sponsorship; for after the way NASCAR chose to run the event, I doubt the fans felt the sport was in Good Hands.

In case you tuned out before the checkered flag – as many fans did – Jimmie Johnson won the seven-lap shootout, in a race that could have easily been shortened to exactly that length based on tires that no one seemed to trust. Ashes to ashes, rubber to dust, Goodyear made a mockery of the second-biggest race of the year, scurrying for cover from a problem that quickly revealed no solution.

But instead of NASCAR officials leaving it up to the crews to figure out how to handle this challenge, they acted like an overprotective mother who couldn’t bear to see her child hanging from the monkey bars. So, they chose to monkey around themselves, grounding their kid while busy making up the rules and the reasoning as they went. Competition caution after competition caution turned into a 10-lap parade of pit strategy and pretending, with everyone well aware that the final 25 miles were suddenly all that really mattered.

That’s OK though, because the winning trophy wasn’t first on the minds of all 43 drivers out there. After all, the 10-race Chase for the Championship is what it’s really about these days, and playing it safe and collecting precious points is what you need in order to participate. On the pre-race show, none other than a Sprint Cup car owner expounded on the principles of such a conservative strategy to keep yourself in the game for the long haul. After all, why win at the most infamous track in America when you can simply survive for a 10-race playoff that’ll ensure you’ll be back the following year? Nowhere in that analysis was it mentioned that the driver could be placed in that precarious Chase position again, and again, and again… until his career was safely over. Risk has been replaced with reason, courage by caution and daring by deflated.

MCLAUGHLIN: THINKIN’ OUT LOUD AFTER INDIANAPOLIS

So, the world’s best drivers were angry but never altered in their quest to finish the race safely; 75-85% throttle on the track was better than parking out of protest. And on the other side of the garage, none of the teams towards the back of the field dared risk their hand and stay out on worn tires – even with 10 laps to go. While staying off pit road could have given them track position for a solid finish and perhaps even a win – taking a risk that their Goodyears held up – no one could afford not to play it safe. Of course, earlier in the day it was a different story, as several different backmarker teams led a lap under yellow – getting the five bonus points that came with it – until fear forced a stop and kept them stranded at the back of the pack. In the end, the risk of losing a lead-lap finish trumps all – for dropping out of the Top 35 in owner points could keep them from making the starting lineup the next week at Pocono. And with millions of sponsorship dollars of on the line, no one can risk the dreaded DNQ that drops their race team off the track and out of the corporate conversation, can they? Survival now depends on sustenance, not strength.

Speaking of muscle, you’d think the drivers would flex theirs in taking both NASCAR and Goodyear to task over Sunday’s multitude of problems. But instead, nervous smiles and a litany of thank yous were the norm, not the exception, as drivers took time to thank the fans for watching them come home safe but slow – tipping their hat to the pace car driver for putting up with all that extra driving. OK, the last one’s a lie but you’d half expect that to come out of their mouths – what with President Mike Helton’s June drivers-only meeting at Michigan telling drivers to stay within a “safe zone” of criticizing the sport – or wind up sorry they opened their mouth.

The irony in all this, NASCAR, is that the safe and sensible thing to do would be to have an open test at the second-biggest race you hold all year – one which could have adequately revealed a laundry list of problems both the sport and its tire company could have been put in position to solve. After all, we spend the entire month of January testing for the Great American Race – doesn’t the world’s most famous track deserve at least a smidgen of that attention? Instead, for the first time in years we were busy testing at places like Pocono, putting our eggs in a basket that clearly didn’t contain the answers needed.

After years of searching for answers to increase the sport’s popularity, NASCAR claims they’re looking to get back in touch with their roots. But to do it, they need to run the stop sign and face an ugly truth: racing itself can never completely be under their control. We can make the Car of Tomorrow, throw a caution flag for every smidgen of debris and build as many SAFER barriers as we want, but the second the green flag flies, someone on that race track could die – whether they’re points racing or pushing it for all their car is worth. That’s the danger of a sport that was build on speed and makes its living pushing it to the ragged edge. We can’t deny that fact any more than we can deny the mortality of our own lives, and what we need to accept is that these men in the cockpit are doing this for a living because they choose to. NASCAR gets back to its roots by forcing the drivers to dig deep for the aggression that got them here, coming up with incentives to get them fighting for glory instead of staying in line in order to collect a check. Football players don’t play the game because they’re afraid they don’t get hurt. They play the game because it’s what they do for a living. Seven years after Dale Earnhardt‘s death, we’ve put on so many shoulder pads that you wonder if some of the players have forgotten how, exactly, to make that tackle out on the open field.

Now, I say these things with every intention of going into battle protecting these men. Some have become trusted sources, others friends, and I could never dream of putting my life on the line in the way they do for a living each Sunday. But there comes a point where one has to let go, accept the inherent dangers and get on with the task at hand. Two, even three competition cautions were enough for these crews – the best in the business – to figure out the dangers and decipher the best ways to get around them. At that point, the sport needed to set the drivers loose and let their crews do what they do best – figure out how to push it to the ragged edge without going over, keeping their driver safe while allowing for the basics of competition to take place. Or, if the tires were deemed so radically unsafe that even a 35-mile green-flag run was too much – our record on Sunday was 12 consecutive green-flag laps – the sport needed to bite the bullet, take it on the chin, and stop the race until a more suitable tire compound could be created.

Unfortunately, they did neither, and now we’re left with an awkward aftermath in which they’ve initially looked defensive. Who’s listening? Not the fans; for while all of them are sitting home safely tonight, it’s far from a safe bet they’ll be coming back to Indianapolis anytime soon. Pure speed and excitement was what they were after, and Sunday’s event – just like so many others this season – clearly didn’t deliver.

And that’s the only safe bet you can take from all this.