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Did You Notice? Earnhardt’s “50-Mile Mess,” “Chasing” NASCAR Points & Drugs

Did You Notice? What Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in a moment of frustration after Monday’s race? NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver never fails to tell it like it is, and in a moment of passion jumped into some political incorrectness that vocalized what we’ve all been thinking:

“I was having fun until all those cautions kept coming at the end,” he said. “We run 450 miles to sit there and settle it in a bunch of mess there at the end of the race… and it is kind of stupid.”

It didn’t take long for the man to correct himself, but the words were put out there – and he’s not the only person who thinks that way. These NASCAR races of 2010 have followed a familiar pattern: spread out single-file for the first half, make sure you’re on the lead lap within the final 150 miles, and then drive like a bat out of hell for the final 50. A full race’s worth of side-by-side racing is pushed into the final 20 minutes.

They’re great finishes, don’t get me wrong. But for a sport asking a fan to stick around for four hours, how are you going to keep them entertained for the first three-and-a-half?

That question begs another one, how the races have gotten so unbalanced as of late. Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with:

1) In-race problems are easier than ever to recover from. With NASCAR’s new double-file restart rule, there was a little addendum called the “wave around” that a lot of people didn’t pay much attention to. Simply put, if a caution comes out and a lapped car decides not to pit while the lead-lap ones do, it’s given the “wave around” and allowed to pass the pace car, earning its lap back. It’s designed to make sure there’s no lapped car out front on the restart, clearing up any confusion as to who’s the leader heading to the green flag.

In one sense, the rule’s worked like a charm, making the sport easy to understand for casual fans. But there’s also been an unintended consequence: all of a sudden, getting multiple laps back is easier than calling for mystery debris.

Take the case of Mark Martin. Before Texas’s final caution with 25 to go, he was trapped in 23rd, a lap behind and nowhere close to the free pass. But by staying out and choosing not to pit, he (along with a dozen others) were allowed to pass the pace car, get their lap back, and – voila! – placed right into the fringes of contention. Five laps later, a caution on the restart allowed these “wave arounds” to dive down pit road, grab fresh tires and suddenly be in a better position than the leaders. No wonder that by the time the checkered flag flew, Martin had worked his way up to sixth.

That’s not the first time the rule’s worked in someone’s favor, and it won’t be the last. During one race over the past year, Ryan Newman made up multiple laps by simply getting waved around by the pace car, turning what should have been a 30th-place finish into a top 10.

This kills the momentum of the race in a bunch of ways. It allows lapped cars to take it easy, knowing the only way they’re going to work back into contention is by gambling on pit strategy, taking the “wave around,” and hoping for the best. As for the leaders, they know setting a torrid pace early, then lapping several contenders doesn’t do much because the “wave around” puts them right back on the tail end of the lead lap anyways.

Certainly, the rule allows for more cars on the lead lap than ever before. But do you really want your driver to finish inside the top 20 because he won a game of roulette? More than ever, drivers who make mistakes aren’t punished for them, making the early segments of the race far less important. I’m all for giving the lapped cars chances to work their way back up through – maybe we have two Lucky Dogs instead of one – but 15 at once is absolutely out of control.

2) It’s all about the Chase, not winning the race. While NASCAR’s heading in the right direction with their “Boys Have At It” policy, it’s clear drivers are still focused on the playoffs, not pushing the envelope early in the race. I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve done with drivers this year where the main theme remains the same as ever: don’t put yourself in a bad spot early on in the year, because you want to score as many points as possible. Well, you don’t score points for running side-by-side for the lead on lap 50, only to have someone get loose, both cars spin out, and you fail to finish the race. Sponsors, crew chiefs, heck even your own wife will point that move out as the culprit when you miss the Chase by 10 points – along with the millions in exposure and recognition that go with it.

A recent Time magazine article struck my eye, because it’s the first time Brian France has been open about changing the points system towards putting more focus on winning. It’s a step in the right direction, but eliminating any type of playoff system may be the best way to go. For until fear of missing the playoffs gets removed from drivers’ heads, why would they do anything but run conservative enough to get there?

3) Bring back the bonuses. Remember the old Winston Million program? The old series sponsor set up a $1 million bonus for winning three of the sport’s four “crown jewel” races at the time: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) and Southern 500 (Darlington). Only two people ever won it: Bill Elliott (1985) and Jeff Gordon (1997), but the national attention brought to the sport during its growth period can’t be understated.

Yeah, a million doesn’t mean as much to the country club organizations of today, but the pride in winning these prestigious races would be enough to get teams and drivers to lay it all on the line. What if Sprint revived that program? There’s also something simple it could do for every race: money for leading at halfway. Or maybe bonuses for the 100, 200, 300 and 400-mile mark. Again, these drivers make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want more.

There’s plenty more reasons here, but at least we’re off to a solid start. Certainly, fantastic finishes have NASCAR slowing the bleeding down to a trickle; but until they address the whole wound, there’s no way it’s going to completely stop.

Did You Notice? Along the same lines of what we were talking about, just one of our five winners this season is currently inside the top eight in points? Let’s check out where each of them stands:

Jimmie Johnson – 3 wins, 1st in points
Kurt Busch – 1 win, 9th in points
Denny Hamlin – 2 wins, 11th in points
Ryan Newman – 1 win, 16th in points
Jamie McMurray – 1 win, 21st in points

To be fair, not every driver that wins a race is playoff-caliber: for example, McMurray’s wrecked four times in seven starts since his Daytona triumph. But how has a trip to victory lane helped them to be in better position for the playoffs? If you take the 30 points away from winning Martinsville and Texas, for example, Hamlin’s still 11th in points. He doesn’t even drop a spot.

More than ever, as NASCAR looks to revise the points system they have to give more focus on winning and/or finishing in the top five. Newman has two top-five finishes to Jeff Burton’s one, but he’s behind him in points because Burton has seven top 20s to his six. Is that really how we want the playoffs to be decided? Because someone finishes 19th more often? I might be slightly mistaken, but I don’t think race fans come to the track to see their driver run 19th.

Did You Notice? That all the drug suspensions have revolved around small, underfunded teams? Looking at the tally I have so far this year, this is what I’ve got:

Cup Series No. 38: 1
Nationwide Series No. 01: 1
Nationwide Series No. 23: 1
Truck Series No. 76: 1
Truck Series No. 57: 1

That’s five suspensions from teams that either struggle to make it to the track each week or are bit players in the weekly NASCAR scene. Of note is the lone Cup Series suspension, assessed to Jeremy Mayfield’s former brother-in-law (everytime a Mayfield connection gets mentioned, you have to sit there and raise your eyebrows).

Hey, maybe I need to give the big teams credit. Maybe the combination of NASCAR’s stringent testing rules plus policies in place by the major organizations has slowed the drug violations down to a trickle. But just five failures amongst hundreds tested is enough to raise my eyebrows just a little. In comparison, a total of 26 players participating in the NFL draft combine alone (of about 300-400) failed their drug test prior to the draft last year.

I just have my doubts that NASCAR is that much cleaner than other sports. That’s why if I were the sanctioning body head, I’d be worried about this Mayfield case going to trial. For it’s not about whether he’s innocent or guilty anymore; it’s who else – or what else – he’s willing to expose.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before I go:

  • Amazing how little things change paths forever in this sport. If Paul Menard doesn’t get loose in front of Casey Mears with two laps left in his Duel, he cruises to a spot in the Daytona 500. Instead, his Keyed-Up Motorsports car missed the field, causing a DNQ streak that reached five of six before Mears jumped out of the car to help Hamlin as he recovered from his torn ACL. Then, when Hamlin went two laps down early at Phoenix, it looked like Mears would get his shot in competitive equipment. Instead, Hamlin chose to stay in the car, setting up the confidence boost that would carry him to victory in 500 miles at Texas the following week. Mears ended up with a wasted two weeks and lost his ride at Keyed-Up in the process when, in that same Phoenix race, Scott Riggs ran the car solidly inside the top 25 before blowing a tire late. From hero to zero, to hero to zero again – this sport can be a cruel business.
  • If you only believe one thing I say this season, believe this sentence: RPM’s debt problems are far from over. Too many people are telling me there’s more to the story. And if you’re the Gilletts, why would you be selling your soccer franchise but then suddenly committing to a sport in NASCAR that’s on a down cycle in comparison? It doesn’t make sense. There’s more to be uncovered, and it’s only a matter of time before one of us reporters completely sniffs it out.
  • The last thing NASCAR needs is contracts prohibiting an extended post-race show for the fans. Brian France has been lenient in backing off the family’s “benevolent dictator” status of recent years. Now, can he turn around and play hardball with everyone to sit down and make a deal on this thing? I don’t think so, but whether he butts in is worth watching.

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