“Horrendous.” “Berserk.” “A living hell.”
All these words were uttered by some of NASCAR’s finest drivers Friday, looking back at the Infineon Bumper Cars 350 as the newest pimple on a face littered with the acne of bruised egos and broken racecars. Six months after the sport’s “Have at it, boys” mentality and one year after double-file restarts, a litany of crashes have led to a rising concerto within the Cup garage, all of whom are chanting a one-line chorus: Enough.
“I thought the respect shown last week from driver to driver was completely unacceptable,” said Jeff Burton, unbiased from the standpoint he wasn’t a Jeff Gordon victim – or anyone else’s. He simply watched 110 laps of carnage unfold on Infineon’s winding road course, wrecks in which half the field thought the best way to gain positions was simply to bully their way through. “If our sport is going to become that, then we need to change it from racing to demolition cars.”
For most, the general theme of this year’s late-race wreckers or checkers has centered around a age-old Rodney Dangerfield quote: “I don’t get no respect!” With passing more difficult than ever, parity has amped up the pressure during double-file restarts late in races, leading to mad scrambles for position where drivers wind up rolling the dice so many times they’re almost certain to come up short.
“I just think guys cross the line too much,” said Martin Truex Jr. “I don’t know what the answers are to fix that. Every spot means so much, the clean air situation, the pressure….”
Of course, these problems were always there well before the start of 2010. The Chase has been around for six years, the dreaded aero push a decade or more. So why is this year sending so many drivers over the edge?
“It is getting worse mostly because the nature of our racing and the growth of the sport,” Mark Martin added. “You don’t see Jeff Burton and I running over each other, and Bobby Labonte and a number of the veterans. We still try to race the way we raced, but we are also having to learn to race differently [now]. It puts you in a bind.”
“I think Jeff [Gordon] will readily admit that he hit way too many people last week,” Burton told me. “But I know exactly why he did it. The reason why he did it was if he slowed down as much as he really needed to slow down, he was terrified that the guy behind him was going to run over him because history says that’s what is going to happen.”
And so it went. While a handful of younger, more aggressive guys shrugged their shoulders and hid behind a “These are the cards we’ve been dealt” philosophy, the veterans and the victims seemed to rally behind a message the aggression’s got to stop.
There’s just one problem with all these words; they’re coming from a duck-and-cover mentality inside media press sessions on Fridays, not those all-important Sunday mornings before the race.
“It is a little late now,” said Tony Stewart after I asked him if someone needs to man up and speak to the crowd the only time all 43 drivers are forced to listen to each other: the drivers’ meeting. “We are a week past it already. The good thing is we are out of that environment and we’re back to an environment where you won’t see that this weekend.”
But is that really true? Moments later, even temperamental Tony was admitting we’re in the midst of a long-term problem.
“Younger guys coming in aren’t accustomed to running 500-mile races or 500-lap races, realizing that you have to be patient and you have to have respect for each other,” he said. “There’s a phrase we use all the time: “Give and take.” There is a lot more taking anymore than there is giving amongst the drivers. The equation is out of balance.”
Just like that, the problem was brought to the surface again… without working towards a solution. But there is one. Looking back at history, there are plenty of times many drivers in the 43-car field got a little too big for their britches. Back then, what met them around every turn were veteran leaders like Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and others willing to reel them in, then take a stand in private and public, laying down the ground rules that roughing people up to substitute for racing is not acceptable.
Some might remember Ernie Irvan, the 1991 Daytona 500 winner who wound up in hot water later that year for starting not one but multiple multi-car wrecks. After several talkings-to by veterans in the sport in private that summer, the once-arrogant Irvan stood up and apologized to everyone in the drivers’ meeting, claiming he was a changed man and would look to channel that aggressiveness into assertive passes where the sanctity of competition was left intact.
Let’s fast forward to 2010. Can you imagine any of today’s Cup superstars doing the same thing? Sure, there’s plenty of people preaching voices of reason nowadays. But it’s one thing to say a few things in a press conference, then hop into the hauler or your motor home without taking the message straight into the faces of your competitors. Stewart, Burton and Martin almost sound like they’re waving the white flag, submitting to this new form of “competition” on a weekend they should be standing up and doing the opposite.
Now would someone standing up in the driver’s meeting, taking charge and claiming the current status quo is unacceptable fix all the problems? Hardly. But it’s certainly a better choice than doing nothing at all. When a sinking ship is taking on water, you only sink faster if no one starts trying to bail the water out.
Here’s hoping someone shows up to Sunday’s drivers’ meeting with a bucket. It’s about time.