NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? “Waving” a Silly NASCAR Rule Goodbye, Innovation vs. Ignore & Real Heroes

Did You Notice? That Pocono was one rain shower away from the most laughable victory NASCAR has ever seen? Under a red flag for rain, Sam Hornish Jr. – yes, the same Sam Hornish Jr. that has yet to score a top-10 finish this year – was sitting out front, using pit strategy to vault into the lead by not stopping when everyone else pitted for fresh rubber. As Mother Nature teased us with a shower, a first win for him in stock cars at one point seemed inevitable, not earned but giftwrapped in the form of some laughable rules.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the IndyCar convert still giving it his all each week to survive at the Cup level. If this were the June race, where Hornish ran well all day, then used strategy to fight his way to the front before fading to 11th, I wouldn’t have had much of an issue. But on this day, Hornish and Co. proved why they’re sitting outside the top 25 in Sprint Cup points. Dropping like a rock from his 15th starting spot, Hornish was 31st by lap 10, never rising higher than 26th over the next 250 miles. To add insult to injury, a missing lugnut during a green-flag pit stop on lap 75 resulted in a penalty, dropping him two laps off the pace and well out of contention by the typical NASCAR “debris” caution on lap 122.

So how in the world did Hornish go from two laps down – the equivalent of nearly two minutes behind the leader on the racetrack – to running up front? Simple: NASCAR’s increasingly asinine wave-around rule. Hornish used it under that lap 122 yellow to gain one of those two laps back, while the following list of drivers ahead of him all immediately got back on the lead lap: Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Regan Smith, Joey Logano and Scott Speed.

Once the green flag dropped, those half-dozen drivers quickly made their pit stop under green, falling three-quarters of a lap behind but staying far enough ahead of the leaders not to get lapped again. That also left Hornish further up the pecking order for the Lucky Dog, despite the fact he was running up to a full second slower than the leader per lap. And, like clockwork, he eventually got the break he needed, with three cautions by lap 159 catapulting him back on the lead lap. Moments later, crew chief Travis Geisler played it smart, leaving Hornish out with enough fuel to go the distance while everyone else came down and pitted for tires.

Still confused? Let’s summarize: Hornish legitimately fell two laps behind, then was giftwrapped his lap back by NASCAR through a series of timely cautions. He didn’t “race” back to the line like the old days, or even earn the Lucky Dog for one of those two laps. He simply chose not to pit under a caution flag, so NASCAR simply let him drive around the pace car with no penalty. And he’s not the only one, with Menard, Kenseth, and Ragan all turning in top-20 finishes out of their “wave-around” get out of jail free card.

Hornish wound up being a non-factor by the end of the race, slipping to 11th in the final running order. But just the fact he was even allowed to finish up there after all his problems showcases one of the major issues with NASCAR today. People complain about drivers slacking off for the first 400 miles… but when you look at Hornish’s day, you question whether there’s even any point to racing hard early. Leaders who work to pull away from the field, lapping drivers just see them get right back in contention through free gifts that magically erase mistakes like loose lugnuts and speeding penalties as if they never happened. Jamie McMurray had two speeding penalties that put him outside the top 30, yet still finished on the lead lap in 22nd because of the “wave-around.” It’s only a matter of time before someone earns three, four, even five laps back because of this rule, then goes on to win the race with a little luck and the right adjustment.

That’s highly damaging to the sport’s credibility. I understand why the rule was established: to give more than one car the opportunity to earn its lap back, especially since the double-file restarts make it impossible to do it the hard way. But the amount of drivers benefiting from the setup is wildly out of control. It’s one thing to earn back your track position after making a mistake; but the way the rules are set up now, NASCAR’s like a pushover parent who can’t send the kids to their room for doing something wrong. “You sped down pit road? That’s OK; here’s a wave-around.” “Your car has bad handling? This Lucky Dog here will give you a second chance.”

There has to be some kind of happy medium to keep the competitive balance of the sport in place. Because drivers realize when the rules work in their favor, and they’ve adjusted their early-race efforts accordingly – to the point fans and even fellow competitors on pit road are falling asleep with their single-file, ho-hum, no worry conservatism until the last 100 miles.

Did You Notice? The different attitude between Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman about these secret fines? It’s important to note, because these two competing schools of thought will begin to shape the sport going forward.

Let’s deal with Hamlin’s positivity first. Obviously the man to leak these penalties, he was open and honest with every minute detail in a series of press conferences Friday. While other drivers refused to even tackle the issue, he insisted publicity was a positive thing, a healthy way to move the sport forward while promoting the changes fans would like to see.

But Newman – backed by the majority of the garage – was a whole other story altogether. His team owner lied about his knowledge of the fine, and when pressed on it Newman refused to not only expand on the incident, but chastise the media for printing negative stories. Not a big fan of being the center of attention to begin with, his response to the whole thing was simply to sweep this right under the rug.
For a reason as to why Newman would respond like that, the answer comes in the form of that impromptu NASCAR team meeting amongst the car owners last week. Among the topics? Driver salaries.

“The escalating costs will stop at some point because sponsors will stop paying the money,” Sabates said to the Charlotte Observer on Friday. “The guys who are going to make sacrifices are going to be the drivers.”

And don’t think some of the drivers don’t know it. As the opportunities and sponsorship dries up, so will the desperation of the men who’ve spent years adjusting to living a certain lifestyle. To some, change is the way to fix the slow but steady collapse and keep their jobs. But for others… there will be a push to toe the company line more than ever, salvaging what they have in thinking unifying around NASCAR will keep it from getting any worse.

“Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included, and we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot because we’re convincing some of these people that this stuff is bad,” said Tony Stewart, a telling sign for how some drivers will treat this issue going forward. “It may not always be perfect, every scenario may not always be perfect but every time we write something bad about it, or talk about it from our standpoint, all we do is break this sport down and it doesn’t deserve that. We’re all making a pretty good living, and we’re lucky to have our jobs doing what we do.”

So, there you have it: innovation versus ignore. It’ll be interesting to see which one wins out.

Did You Notice? Quick hits:

  • Much has been made of Paul Menard’s possible move to Richard Childress Racing for 2011. But did anyone notice he’s got three straight top-15 finishes for the first time in his Cup career? Don’t look now, but he’s just 57 outside the top 20 in points and could realistically finish as high as 19th or so if everything broke his way down the stretch. Yes, Menard has his daddy’s money, but all of a sudden you’re not just hiring a sponsored hack anymore; by far, it’s his biggest season of growth since entering the Cup Series in 2007.
  • What in the world was Brian Pattie thinking? One week after losing one of the sport’s biggest races on a four-tire stop, he brings Juan Pablo Montoya down pit road for his final stop… and slaps on four tires? I’m sorry, but the driver had every right to be pissed at his team on that one. You wonder with the outrageous DNF total, combined with some serious trust issues in the Pattie/Montoya camp, whether divorce may be all but inevitable at this point. He and Steve Letarte could run a seminar: Choke Artists 101. Greg Norman and Michelle Kwan could be guest lecturers…
  • So let me get this straight. NASCAR doesn’t throw a caution for Elliott Sadler spinning into the cone on pit road – causing McMurray to lose his reference point on the racetrack and wind up speeding – but they’re willing to call a random lap 122 caution for debris that was never shown? I don’t think picking up that small piece of metal stopped Sadler from hitting the catchfence; and he never would have had his car torn in two if the right yellow flags were called at the right times. As for McMurray… I’ve never seen someone go from hero to zero so quickly, so many times over the course of the season. But at least he’s inspired a new quote: “The smaller the race, the harder they fall….”
  • Former Cup Series owner Michael Holigan (who once partnered with Rick Hendrick on the No. 25 car) was in the news this week for forming an IndyCar team attempting the 2011 Indy 500 and a full season schedule in 2012. I see you rolling your eyes over there… this one’s important because it’s critical to see how many investors buy into the new, supposedly inexpensive chassis setup in IndyCar that’s supposed to revitalize the open-wheel industry. You don’t see any new NASCAR owners announced on this side of fence lately, do you? Where the investment money goes is crucial as the sport tries to figure out where the next generation of ownership is going to come from, particularly after getting an ugly reminder with a near-tragic plane crash that could have left Ford’s entire Cup organization of 11 cars in shambles. So if these big time investments start to lean towards open-wheel… that could pose a problem for an industry desperate for more Boston Ventures and Rob Kauffmans to keep the Big Boys running at high prices.
  • Speaking of ownership, the start-and-park issue took a bigger step at Pocono when eight cars pulled in early after no more than 63 of 200 laps. Looking back on NASCAR records, it’s the first time that’s happened since the full schedule expanded to a minimum of 42 cars per race in 1997. It’s one thing for two, three or four cars to park but a full 20% of the field? At the sport’s highest level? It’s an issue that’s going to need to be addressed heading into 2011 and beyond, especially if the sport undergoes another two-to-four car contraction in the offseason. As we talked about earlier in this column, it’s all about giving a positive perception to the public. Only a 36-car field, where a handful of teams fail to qualify and it looks like it’s difficult to sneak in each week? Far better than a field of 43 where eight cars pull in early and they’re doing nothing but taking up space every weekend on the track.

Did You Notice? The real heroes walk among us? I rarely get personal in my columns, but I’ll be taking unexpected time off from Watkins Glen this weekend to support one of my best friends in his darkest hour. In the span of three years, my buddy has now lost both his father and mother to the disease that seemingly affects us all – cancer – before age 30. It’s a cruel dose of perspective; one that life is far more than just cars going around in circles.

And as I prepare to shift the start of my weekend away from racing, I stop to marvel at the quiet strength in people. For two years, nearly every weekend my friend – an only child – has dutifully traveled to his mother’s home, an hour away from where he and his wife live to care for her. As she became terminally ill – within months of his father’s passing – never did he shirk those extra responsibilities, or pouted over the major life events he missed in the name of watching someone die. Not once did he complain about the hand he was dealt, the cruelty of fate in which you’re dealt a bad poker hand that you can only manage, not change your cards. Instead, when we could see him, a beaming personality was more concerned about his friends’ lives, what we were doing and making us laugh instead of trying to keep him smiling.

It’s a special type of inspiration to us all, a quality not lost on his wife and the handful of close friends who know him best. So take a moment this week to find the person that inspires you, remind them how much you care. Because life is a journey of the unknown, and we never know when those bad cards get headed our way.

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