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Did You Notice? Fixing NASCAR’s Penalty Problem, Sponsor Hogs & Why Parity Doesn’t Matter

Did You Notice? All the hubbub surrounding Juan Pablo Montoya’s pit-road penalty? In the wake of a boring race at Indy, it seems all everyone wants to talk about is a conspiracy theory, with NASCAR putting the No. 42 in the penalty box for speeding simply to “spice up the race.” At the time of the stop, Montoya had led 116 laps and was putting a hurtin’ on the rest of the field, leading by several seconds over second-place Mark Martin with a spot in victory lane all but a foregone conclusion. But after going over the five-mph grace period for speeding not once, but twice on pit road, Montoya was slapped with a black flag that took him from first to well outside the top 10.

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but all accounts point straight to the fact Montoya was speeding. Not only has John Darby come out and given official mph readings of when and where the No. 42 sped on pit road, an inside source has shown me conclusive computer data that compares Montoya’s stop to all the other drivers during that cycle of green-flag stops. It turns out that, according to the data I’ve seen, he was faster than anyone else getting on and off pit road by half a second. Of course, I realize as I write this comment that for some of you, telling you that is just not going to make one damn difference. In the wake of the incident, there are plenty of fans on this site alone refusing to believe it; in fact, perhaps the funniest comment I’ve seen was from someone who claims we’ve changed our content in the wake of the Citizens Media program to go pro-NASCAR in the wake of this ruling (couldn’t be further from the truth).

I think there are two problems you can pinpoint in the wake of this whole incident. The first involves NASCAR’s inherent lack of trust with the fans, which Tommy Thompson is going to tackle in his column tomorrow. But what I’m going to talk about is a solution, a means of presenting official data inside the car you can show the fans to prove someone was speeding – because right now, we have absolutely nothing to show people as it’s happening. Just like the infamous “list” of banned substances NASCAR has but no one else can see, the sport has an insidious history of hiding their official data from public consumption, leaving them looking more like the KGB than one of the biggest sports in America. But after much corrosion of trust between the sanctioning body and their fans, perhaps the only way for them to enforce believable penalties is to put a speedometer or some sort of electronic data in the car everyone can see that lights up when the driver goes over the limit.

The more I think about things, the lack of physical proof when it comes to penalties is the difference that separates NASCAR from other major sports. It’s not like baseball, football, basketball and hockey are immune from making bad calls; in fact, they probably happen at a rate equal to or greater than what you see in racing. But when the official makes a controversial call in football, the television broadcast is able to show it to us with 10, 15 different camera angles so what’s being judged is made perfectly clear. Maybe we still don’t agree with the call in the end, but we can rest easy and argue at the office the next day knowing that someone just didn’t make an arbitrary one for the hell of it.

Compare that to what you see in racing, where pit road speeding penalties from a fan’s perspective are nothing more than subjective calls in the booth. What is it they say about trust? Actions speak louder than words. If NASCAR could have some way to show the fans the action of speeding itself – like I said above, either something on the speedometer or some other reading to show fans in black and white – it would add that extra layer of proof which would have a whole lot fewer people crying foul and threatening to shut off the TV this Sunday.

Did You Notice? Teams starting-and-parking even though they have a primary sponsor on the hood? Tommy Baldwin Racing picked up support from Guy Fieri’s Knuckle Sandwiches this weekend, but that didn’t stop them from parking after 35 laps with a “transmission” problem. Of course, that comes just one race after sponsorship from Palermo’s Pizza at Chicagoland resulted in engine failure around the race’s one-quarter mark.

If these small teams are taking money from companies and it’s still not enough to keep them out on the racetrack, what does that say for the future of new owners in this sport? These are ugly warning signs that, at some point, will refuse to be ignored in the face of a field that’s shrinking back to just 43 entrants per week (Pocono has just 44 on the list). During the second-biggest race of the year this Sunday, a total of three cars start-and-parked: the No. 36 of Tommy Baldwin Racing, the No. 66 of PRISM Motorsports and the No. 87 of NEMCO Motorsports. As far as I can tell, it’s the first time that’s ever happened at a race with the prestige and purse of Indianapolis; combined, they made over $420,000 for less than a full race’s worth of work between them. And if Indy is looked at as start-and-park material… will the Daytona 500 be next?

Did You Notice? Along those same lines, Matt Kenseth’s multi-company sponsorship deal pending for 2010 is just the latest in a long list of superstars who no longer run with one primary sponsor throughout the course of the season? In fact, if you look up and down the Sprint Cup garage you’ll be hard pressed to find a car with just one company on it for the whole year. There are still a few exceptions – UPS and David Ragan’s No. 6 come to mind – but even the big corporations like AFLAC and DuPont have sold off races to others in this faltering economy so they can still participate in the face of increasing demands to compete.

But when I look at X number of companies sponsoring a superstar, I take a different approach: What if just one company was allowed to partner up? That would free about five or six other potential sponsors to partner up with other owners and programs. Sure, I bet some of them would be turned off supporting anyone other than Carl Edwards or Dale Earnhardt Jr. But maybe a few could be convinced to back up-and-coming drivers at a lower cost. I don’t know how you could put a sponsorship limit on the cars unless it was self-imposed, as NASCAR teams are in essence private contractors. But for every sponsor that flocks to Jeff Gordon’s car, that’s one less company out there that could be signed by one of the smaller teams.

Can someone say salary cap? Some of the other major sports have one, and it could be a big help in this economy… but the way NASCAR is structured, the chances of it happening are slim to none.

Did You Notice? That unnoticed amidst the Hendrick dominance is the unprecedented parity behind it? If the regular season ended today, we’d be on track for the most number of teams in the Chase since 2004, and that’s even if you group the Stewart-Haas cars in with Hendrick Motorsports. Here’s the breakdown as we have it right now:

Hendrick – 3 teams
Roush Fenway Racing – 3 teams
Stewart-Haas Racing – 2 teams
Penske Racing – 1 team
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing – 1 team
Joe Gibbs Racing – 1 team
Richard Petty Motorsports – 1 team

It’s possible that number might expand to eight teams, too, with David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip Racing hovering just outside the cutoff in 13th. Seems the parity NASCAR sought with the advent of the CoT, something we thought would never happen, has instead come to fruition to a certain degree (albeit amongst those teams with the money to play with the big boys).

So with so much parity amongst these organizations, why aren’t more people excited about the playoffs? Certainly, Hendrick dominance plays a factor – the team has won 10 of the 20 races so far when you include Tony Stewart’s two wins with Stewart-Haas – but that’s not totally it. The absence of “new” drivers challenging for the playoffs makes a difference, too – Montoya’s the only one who would make his Chase debut if the season ended today, and with no top-five finishes this season, he’s hardly considered a true title contender.

No, I think the bigger problem facing the series continues to be the single-file, conservative points racing that we see in order to simply make it into the playoffs. The amount of beating and banging during 160 laps at Indianapolis on Sunday equaled the equivalent of one lap of side-by-side action at O’Reilly Raceway Park across the way. That Nationwide Series event has been looked at as the best of the season to date, with aggressive competition spread all the way around the small .686-mile oval. There were no complaints of aero push and difficulty passing Saturday night; compare that with the following day, when even Joey Logano (who passed more cars than anyone else) said that after just a few laps, his car would be so aerodynamically out of whack he could do nothing more than stay in line and wait for a set of fresh tires.

I think the bottom line is that more parity is always a good thing… now, it’s time to fix the cars themselves as well as the points system so the drivers are actually encouraged to mix it up on the racetrack.

Did You Notice? Let me give credit to Melissa, a frequent commenter on the site, which gave me the idea and basic research to finish off this column. There’s been so much written about how the Cup guys once used the Nationwide Series as a “tune up” to make their cars better for Sunday’s race. But in the wake of Kyle Busch falling out of Chase contention, more than ever we’re finding out that running on Saturdays is more of a hindrance and not a help for top-level athletes whose schedules already leave them strained enough.

Just take a look at the current top 12 in the standings. Edwards is the only driver in there running a full-time Nationwide Series schedule, while the rest have run no more than eight of the 20 races run to date. In fact, of the top 10 in points only Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne have run so far this year, combining for just two, one, four and one start respectively. Greg Biffle and Kenseth, who currently round out the 12 drivers in the Chase, have run eight races apiece behind the wheel of Roush Fenway’s No. 16.

With Kyle Busch now 14th in points, maybe it’s time he took a look at the growing trend here and seriously reconsider running for a title in 2010. As I said yesterday, Cup drivers are paid to drive Cup cars, not moonlight in other series during the week. If someone can handle that, fine… but it’s clear that in Sprint Cup today, the best drivers need to keep their outside schedules to a bare minimum in order to meet all the outside demands of running at race’s highest level.

That would be all and good for the Nationwide Series… if Edwards, Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t keep winning all their races to keep them from establishing an identity. So close, and yet so far away…

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