NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Racin’, the Dumb & the Just Flat Ugly: Where Do On-Track Incidents Rate?

The blame game.

It’s a game that race fans and media play all the time when it comes to wrecks, one that’s to be expected as no two viewers are going to have exactly the same view on an on-track incident. But since I got taken to task for calling out a certain driver this week in Mirror Driving (an opinion I stand by), I decided to take a look at some different, but common scenarios where controversy can come into play. For example, what makes something a “racing incident” instead of over-aggression or a flat-out lapse of judgment on a driver’s part – and what kind of crash can be chalked up to pure selfishness or lack of thought instead of an honest mistake? Where do we draw the line?

I can’t speak for every observer, but here’s my take on a few scenarios.

First, let’s look at the Jimmie Johnson accident at Texas on Sunday. It’s a scenario that plays out throughout the year, with a couple of key variations.

Here’s what happens: Three drivers are racing for position coming into a turn. The driver on the top of the racetrack holds his line. The driver in the middle tries to hold his line, but his car is loose. The driver on the bottom decides to make it three-wide into the corner, hits the left-rear of the middle car and sends that car, which was already loose, into the outside car. The end result is a wreck that leaves at least two of those three vehicles in tatters.

My verdict: At Texas, David Reutimann, the driver on the bottom, made a stupid and dangerous move. It was just the third lap of the race, and Reutimann had a good car. It’s his responsibility as a driver to know the car directly in front of him is loose. Had Reutimann backed out, Sam Hornish Jr. might have been able to save his No. 77 Dodge, allowing Reutimann to make the pass cleanly within a couple of laps. The car on top in this scenario became an innocent victim. In this case, it was the points leader, but as long as that driver holds his line and doesn’t compound the issue by trying to drop down, it doesn’t matter who is up top. The end result is a wrecked racecar – and it’s all because someone got impatient.

It might be different if: There is no bottom car, the middle car isn’t visibly loose, or it is considerably later in the race. If the driver in a side-by-side pairing loses the car and spins (like the Juan Pablo MontoyaCarl Edwards wreck on Sunday), that’s a different deal. It might be ugly, it might even suggest that the driver isn’t as skilled as he could be, but it’s just a racing incident – albeit an avoidable one. Also, if two cars are already racing with one not clearly having handling issues, making it three-wide in some turns at some tracks is perfectly acceptable and should be expected, as long as the battle is chosen wisely. And if Sunday’s incident had happened with three laps to go instead of three laps into the race, it might even be a different story – but early on isn’t all “go time” all the time. Competing at this level, with races hundreds of miles in length, makes it as much a game of strategy and patience as it is going fast – something that the best racers have always known.

Next, we’ll take a look at the typical restrictor-plate track incident.

Here’s what happens: One driver gets out of shape (or sees the driver in front of him in trouble), slows a fraction, and gets run into from behind, which more often than not triggers a multi-car incident in which several cars suffer damage.

My verdict: This is a racing incident, and is much more the fault of a car without any throttle response. If a car slows just a fraction, the driver behind him might have the chance to avoid it, but the car behind him – not as likely. Many times, it’s not even visible in real time that the first driver slowed down, a product of a draft that’s a powerful and difficult thing at best. So blame this type of Big One on the racing created by restrictor plates, not on driver error.

It might be different if: The driver behind mistimes a bump draft and launches the car in front, or a driver tries to throw a block. Bump drafting has its place and has helped many a driver win a plate race, but if it’s mistimed or off-center, it can be disastrous. In some cases, it is a case of overaggression (it’s called “bump drafting” and not “slam drafting” for a reason), but in others, it’s the case of an error in judgment or in execution – still an error, but of a different ilk. Blocking on a plate track (or an intermediate, for that matter) is a touchy business to begin with, anyway. Unless there is considerable distance between cars (a rarity on the plate tracks), it simply takes more time for a car to move in multiple directions to block (forwards and sideways) as it does for them to move in one. That can easily result in the blocker getting a wild ride from the blockee – but in the end, it’s the blocker who’s at fault.

The third scenario often appears like the first one we discussed, with two notable differences.

Here’s what happens: Two drivers race hard into a corner, late in a race – and one of them doesn’t (or can’t) hold his line. Last year at Richmond, this happened twice, with the same drivers in the spotlight, and ended the same way both times – with wrecked racecars and angry drivers.

My verdict: In the closing laps, it’s a racing incident, but most of the time, it’s an avoidable one. It’s also always the fault of the driver who did not hold his own line – regardless of why. Even if the car just “gets loose,” it’s the driver’s responsibility to keep it together when racing side-by-side going into the turn. In both cases last year, it appeared that Kyle Busch didn’t hold his line in either incident, though he was the top car on one and the bottom car on the other. Both times brought fan outcry because the other driver involved was Dale Earnhardt Jr. – only the sport’s Most Popular Driver – who appeared from every angle to have held his line through the corners. Late in the race, I understand drivers need to take chances, but one does wonder if “wreckers or checkers” is always the best philosophy in the long run. Would backing off with a loose car and finishing in one piece really be a terrible option instead?

It might be different if: It were a deliberate blocking (or wrecking) move. If one car, more likely the top car, turned in an attempt to squeeze or block the other, then it’s a deliberate move made with the intention of at least making the other guy hit the brakes. Part of racing, but not the cleanest part.

Finally, there’s the infamous “bump and run.”

Here’s what happens: In order to gain track position, one driver drives deep underneath the other and deliberately bumps him in the left rear in an attempt to make his car get loose and slide up the track, allowing him to take the spot. It’s been done countless times over the years, and there are definitely mixed feelings on the morality of this one.

My verdict: If it’s a last lap attempt to take the checkers, it’s the driver’s job to get all he can. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do the “bump and run.” The right way doesn’t involve wrecking the car on the outside: That makes the car loose, forcing the driver to back out and allow the car on the inside to complete the pass. The wrong way causes the car on the outside to hit something (or several somethings), including but not limited to the outside wall and/or other cars.

Instead, the right way – on the last lap, light enough to upset the car in front but not send him wrecking – has been part of the game since they made the second car and ran the first race.

It might be different if: It happens on any lap but the last, or it’s done the wrong way. Then it’s just dirty driving.

That’s just my take on these types of incidents. Others can call ‘em like they see ’em, and that’s what makes racing interesting. But in judging any type of on-track contact, both timing and thought are key. Racing is sometimes as much a game of patience as it is speed, as even the most aggressive drivers know when to push an issue and when not to. There are smart, aggressive racers and there are not-so-brilliant racers who act without forethought. The latter are dangerous for obvious reasons; they don’t think and don’t plan, meaning someone else pays the price. As for the former, they will make every attempt to get by, but their moves are calculated and correctly timed and orchestrated – almost like watching a big cat stalk and kill its prey.

And as for the dirty drivers? Well, those are the ones racers just have to avoid at all costs.

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