NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Midseason Progress Report – Room for Improvement All Around

Really, it’s hard to believe that the 2010 NASCAR season is almost halfway over. I’m a glass half full kind of girl, so I like to think that there are is still half the season (plus a couple races more) left to go. But in any case, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the things happening in NASCAR and give the Sprint Cup Series a midterm progress report. Let’s take a closer look at some of the things that have happened this year:

Multiple green-white-checkered finish attempts: D The only reason this one doesn’t flunk outright is because the intention was good. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been. One GWC was plenty. When there is a late-race incident such as a crash or engine failure, using the GWC to ensure that fans saw an attempt to finish under a green flag is fine. When the rule was instituted, it was needed… a few races had finished under caution to the resounding dismay of race fans, and NASCAR made the right call to change this.

Where the real problem comes in is NASCAR’s seeming need to use the GWC as often as possible. Questionable late-race cautions are popping up like noxious weeds on an almost weekly basis. Even the teams recognize the blatant manipulation of races. Denny Hamlin’s win at Michigan was all but a foregone conclusion when NASCAR threw a caution for a piece of debris that nobody saw and nobody ran over. Hamlin said afterwards that he though the caution was a fake, thrown to tighten up the field and make the end of the race exciting. Incredibly, some people actually agree with the practice, citing the fans’ right to see an exciting race if they pay for a ticket. That sentiment gets an F- from me… fans pay to see a race play out to whatever conclusion it will naturally have, not to see some contrived fakery. If a driver wins by 10 seconds, it was due to his team’s hard work and 42 other teams’ failure to rise to that standard.

Standardized start times: A- This may be the best thing NASCAR has done in years. Two weeks ago, the race in Michigan was over by 4:30 Eastern or so. That’s a great thing for families and those folks with something to do on a Sunday evening. You never have to wonder when the race starts or come up short on a guess. The only reason this one gets an A- instead of an A+ is the still too long pre-race wait time. The green flag should fall at the advertised start time instead of the broadcast starting at that time. Still, it’s great to see earlier starts and uniform times.

The return of the spoiler: C The spoiler may make the CoT look a little more like the racecars fans are used to, but it doesn’t race that much better with the blade. Whether the blade will keep cars on the ground at the bigger tracks remains to be seen-fans must remember that before the wing, there were plenty of nasty wrecks involving airborne cars, and many of those cars had a large blade spoiler on them. The so-called “shark-fin”will do more to keep the cars on the ground than the spoiler. As for the racing, it hasn’t changed much. Clean air is still too important and passing too difficult to call the spoiler anything better than soundly average.

Television broadcasts: D Regardless of the network or the on-air talent, race broadcasts are barely passable this year. The culprit? Probably corporate sponsors, demanding more commercial time and more mention of their cars during the actual broadcast, but the networks have certainly taken the bait. Remember the days when the networks went through the field a few times a race and mentioned every driver at least those few times a race? Those days are long gone, with multiple drivers getting zero mention during the broadcasts. That’s just not right, and it’s a huge part of the reason why teams either fall by the wayside or resort to starting and parking. NASCAR needs the small teams now as much as ever, but sponsors lose interest, at least in part due to the zero return on their investment given them by the networks (unless they pay extra for the privilege of an extra mention, of course).

Not only is the lack of coverage killing teams off, it’s unfair to race fans. Every fan should see their driver during the broadcast and receive updates, not just the fans of a select few drivers who the networks decide we want to watch. And every driver in the field has diehard fans who contribute to television ratings, merchandise sales and sales of sponsors’ products. Those fans deserve to see their favorites at least a couple of times a race. There is no excuse for the broadcast not at the very least telling why a driver goes to the garage or whether he is OK after a crash. None. And no network broadcasting a major NASCAR series is above the criticism this year… they all need some serious improvement.

Driver rivalries: B It’s great to see drivers showing some passion. And we have seen more of that, often in the form of on-track retaliation and radio trash-talk. Whether it’s between teammates or rivals, it’s refreshing to see drivers being aggressive and assertive. It was great to see a bit of competitive fire from Jeff Gordon and a bit of defensive backtalk from Jimmie Johnson. It’s also great to see drivers defy the team concept that has pervaded the sport and refuse to yield to a teammate, even blocking when necessary. Hamlin did the right thing during the All-Star Race, by not racing his teammate any differently than any other racer, even if Kyle Busch did think Hamlin should have just moved over for him.

NASCAR’s handling of driver rivalries: B In general, I like NASCAR letting the drivers show a little personality. Rubbing is, after all racing. But there is a line, and NASCAR needs to be very, very careful about letting drivers cross it. A bump and run, a few tire donuts or a crumpled fender, even following another driver around like a second shadow, those are all ways of getting the message across without costing an owner tens of thousands of dollars, without putting another driver’s safety on the line. Crossing the line into violently wrecking a car is another story, and it’s NASCAR’s job to make sure that nobody’s life or livelihood is unnecessarily endangered. Rubbing is racing, wrecking is dirty.

In school, we got midterm progress reports to give us time to improve, and for NASCAR, the networks and even the race teams, there is plenty of time for improvement. If anyone doesn’t try to better themselves and their decisions on and off the track, shame on them when they don’t like the report card they get in the end. But there is still half a season to go-half a season to improve, or half a season to throw it all away.

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