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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: The Time is Now for 2011 Rules, Paying Back Cousin Carl & More

ONE: NASCAR Needs to Make Nationwide Series Rules Now

After seeing Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick dominate yet another weekend that was supposed to highlight the Nationwide Series and its own regulars, SceneDaily.com has again brought to our attention remarks made by Brian France that NASCAR is exploring means to discourage what has, for years, been a case of Cup Series superiority in the sanctioning body’s AAA division. Options apparently on the table include cutting points and money for Cup drivers in the field, limiting the number of starts a Cup full-timer can make and taking measures to ensure they cannot win the Nationwide title – as has been the case since Harvick annihilated the competition to jumpstart this mess four years ago.

These measures are certainly great ideas; unfortunately, as has been previously discussed in this column, they’re a decade late and a grand short. But assuming that there actually is some sincerity to Brian France’s words this time, it’s vitally important that NASCAR make decisions on what those new rules are going to be… and set them in stone in terms of when they’re actually going to take effect. Now.

The remarks of Kelley Earnhardt should speak volumes to this necessity. In ruling out any chance that JR Motorsports would be fielding a Cup car in 2011, already beginning the sponsorship search for the team’s Nos. 7 and 88 cars next year, the team owner noted last week that to carry out their search effectively and to cater towards the goal of putting a true development driver in their seats full-time, a Nationwide Series operation would need to know well in advance whatever changes NASCAR was going to make.

Truth be told, this isn’t rocket science… and something the sanctioning body would do very well to take to heart. Making these decisions early would give Nationwide teams a greater leg to stand on when pitching development talent to potential sponsors, considering companies are looking to set their 2011 advertising budgets now… not November. Giving plenty of lead time on these tweaks would give NASCAR a new tool to promote the Nationwide ranks, pumping up those efforts off the track – especially if it meant guaranteeing that a Cup regular would not be able to swoop in and make a mockery of the championship race in that series. And, most importantly, it would show that they’ve learned a lesson from the asinine decision made earlier this season, three weeks before Daytona and well after teams had calculated their 2010 budgets to cut purses by 10 percent.

So rather than sticking it to the few teams they’ve got left contesting their minor leagues, NASCAR may well want to get its act together in a timely matter on this one… assuming they actually are planning to do anything.

TWO: Shelby Howard’s Golden Opportunity with KHI… Or Is It?

One of the more underrated performances seen on the Nationwide Series circuit the last season and a half has come from Shelby Howard and the No. 70 ML Motorsports team. And apparently, someone finally took notice, with Howard signing a three-race deal to drive Harvick’s No. 2 truck starting this weekend. The No. 2 is a ride that’s hardly been short on horses, with Harvick winning three races behind the wheel this season. In his last dozen starts driving the No. 2 or No. 4, he’s visited victory lane 50% of the time.

That pairs nicely with the stats of Cup drivers Elliott Sadler and Ken Schrader; they’ve scored five top-10 finishes between the two of them in their last six starts. Those numbers are all the more impressive when you consider Sadler’s fifth-place run in the No. 2 was his best finish in NASCAR competition since the 2009 Daytona 500, and Schrader’s fourth-place result at Iowa was his strongest since a fourth in the Martinsville Truck race back in March, 2008.

But as hot a ride as this truck has been in 2010, the fact remains that for every prospect such as Ricky Carmichael, who has used KHI as a springboard for bigger and better things, there’s an elephant graveyard of development drivers that haven’t. Cale Gale‘s now an ARCA crew chief, Kertus Davis is no longer driving, Burney Lamar is out of a ride, Sean Caisse is still searching for a full-time home… the list goes on and on. So for as much as KHI has contributed to NASCAR’s lower levels in terms of rides and racing services, successful driver development has not been one of their strong suits. Can Howard be the one to break the mold? It’ll be well worth watching over the next few weeks to come.

THREE: Inconsistency in the Name of Fan, Media Reactions to Carl vs. Brad II

There’s certainly no shortage of reading material out there on Saturday night’s last-lap carnage at Gateway. Looking back, it’s one of the most violent race conclusions NASCAR has seen since Dale Earnhardt took out Terry Labonte under the lights at Bristol in 1999. But through all this material, there’s themes emerging:

Carl went too far. Sure Brad hit him, but Carl hit him way harder. Too hard.
Brad wasn’t trying to get into Carl. It was incidental contact and didn’t warrant retaliation.

This time, Carl’s gone too far. A points penalty and fine are appropriate… now.

But here’s the problem with each and every one of these reactions that have been lighting up comment pages and message boards alike; they’re all subjective. “Carl hit Brad harder” is a judgment call based on perceptions of aggression, the elements of racing to the checkers, etc. – not to mention that “too hard” is about as subjective as they come. Whether Brad’s contact with Carl that actually triggered the whole episode was intentional in the first place is a judgment call, one that no official could hope to make under white-flag conditions. And as far as points or fines being appropriate, applying such deterrents because of the gravity of the wreck that followed, history, post-race comments, whatever… it’s all total subjectivity.

Sound familiar? Hmm. Wasn’t the subjectivity of officiating one of the major complaints being leveled at the sanctioning body? So is green-lighting and encouraging NASCAR to step in and make such a judgment call opening a Pandora’s box – no matter how gut-wrenching and horrifying Saturday’s night wreck was?

FOUR: Edwards Needs to Be Punished by His Peers, Not His Employers

Here’s why. The first, and most important reason is Edwards became a NASCAR superstar during the era of points penalties, fines and probation. He spent his first five-and-a-half years in the Cup ranks racing under the more stringent, pre-“Boys will be Boys” era, and yet was still involved in a number of notable incidents with fellow competitors, including threatening to assault teammate Matt Kenseth at Martinsville and a nasty payback tangle with Tony Stewart at Pocono in 2006.

So if Edwards’s long rap sheet of 2010 is any indication, dishing out NASCAR penalties when he acted out of line didn’t teach this guy a single lesson. The only tool that NASCAR has in their arsenal that actually may prove a deterrent would be to park cousin Carl; but considering he’s both the poster boy for the struggling Ford Racing program, as well as the spokesperson for big money sponsor Aflac, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

That means, as it should, that Edwards’s discipline should come from his fellow competitors. Notice I didn’t say solely Keselowski. Edwards has, as many fans noted, become an eerie “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality, with the darker side proving constantly willing to use 3,400-pound stock cars as weapons of mass destruction. And just ask the drivers and guys at JR Motorsports, ML Motorsports and others having to rebuild cars as a result of his brash on-track tactics what they think of it. Edwards’s obsession with making sure that Keselowski doesn’t steal a sixth-place finish on his bad day or a Nationwide Series win at Gateway is proving to have real implications for all of his competitors – be it those having to rebuild racecars this week, or those that are going to pay the price for the fans either angered or scared away from the sport by his deadly antics.

It all adds up to this conclusion: the only way that Edwards is going to learn a lesson on-track is by having the field step up to what has become a dangerous bully. If they all bond together as one, making it clear to Edwards that as long as he acts like a battering ram, he will not be able to race cleanly or to contend for titles, there’s no way in hell these kind of incidents will keep happening. It’s that simple, no matter how many times Brad pulls a good ol’-fashioned bump-and-run.

As for the second reason?

FIVE: Brian France’s Wisdom Strikes Again

Does any fan out there really want to green light NASCAR, under any circumstance, to made a judgment call based on their collective wisdom? It was reported today that NASCAR has named Andy Schwalb, a former Disney Parks executive, to an executive position within the NASCAR Media Group.

Hmm. That’s just what NASCAR’s Media Group needs, to be led by someone with Disney pedigree. This Disney is the same one, of course, whose ABC/ESPN broadcasts are making racing media look bad every weekend.

Sadly, these clowns should not be making any calls of any kind in this sport, no matter how hard the resulting wrecks are. And that’s why drivers need to literally take matters into their own hands to fix it.

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