NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Perhaps a 12th-place finish doesn’t sound as impressive as a top five, but for Landon Cassill it was pretty darn impressive. Driving the newly renumbered No. 51 for Phoenix Racing, which a year ago was rumored to be about to fold, Cassill was a fixture in the top 15 for much of the day before ending the day 12th. When you consider that Cassill, the 2008 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, has never raced a full season in Nationwide or Cup, well, it’s an eye-opener to say the least.

An honorable mention shoutout also needs to go to Kyle Busch this week for gutting it out all day despite an upset stomach, which, no matter how you slice it, makes for an absolutely miserably experience even when you’re not strapped into a 120-degree racecar for three hours. Scott Riggs was on standby for Busch, but Busch never seriously voiced a desire to get out. Of course, that might have been part of crew chief Dave Rogers’s master plan; there were certainly more capable drivers available at that point. Perhaps having Riggs on standby was all the motivation Busch needed to stay in the driver’s seat.

What… was THAT?

Asking NASCAR to show consistency with rules infractions is probably about as productive as trying to herd cats. However, at some point, the sanctioning body needs to find a hard and fast rule concerning what to do about rules infractions in opening inspection. There have been too many different messages on too many different occasions, ranging from parking cars during practice and qualifying to after-the-fact penalties to no penalties at all.

The way I see it, there need to be two categories of infractions: those that give a performance advantage and those that do not. Forget whether it’s a template violation, a mechanical violation, or something else. Does it give an advantage or not? That’s all fans need to know. Once that’s been determined, penalties could be handed out accordingly. If there’s no advantage, forcing the team to go back and fix it is sufficient. They will miss practice time making the correction and that’s punishment enough. If there is an advantage, confiscate the part in question and tell the team to go fix it and come back after first practice for re-inspection. Pair that with a hefty monetary fine (and I do mean hefty, as in six figures hefty) and call it good. If the car comes back and fails inspection again, then it’s time to consider other measures.

The problem is, NASCAR doesn’t do this. The sanctioning body is arbitrary in assessing penalties, and this raises the question (again) of some kind of favoritism. Again, the answer to that question is irrelevant; fans should never have to ask it in the first place. NASCAR did the right thing not assessing a points penalty to the Nos. 11, 18 and 20 after all three cars had unapproved oil pans in opening tech. However, there needs to be an explanation form NASCAR as to why there was no further penalty in light of past penalties. If reports are correct and the oil pans in question weighed 4-5 times as much as a standard oil pan, when does this become an illegal weighting issue instead of a simple unapproved part? If that was the case, and there was an advantage (and 20 or so pounds of unapproved weight could or could not be), NASCAR dropped the ball by allowing the teams to continue the weekend as though nothing had happened. Once again, NASCAR has raised questions when there should be none at all.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After winning his second pole in as many weeks, Kurt Busch showed how far his Penske Racing team has come in the last month. His 11th-place finish also showed how far the team still needs to go to find consistency. Teammate Brad Keselowski has the team’s lone 2011 win, and while both teams have shown strength, it hasn’t yet proven to be lasting. If that turns around, Busch could make a late-season title bid. If it doesn’t, both Penske drivers will be on the outside looking in at the championship. Again.

When… will I be loved?

Michigan is almost always a fuel-mileage game, so it’s no surprise that mileage was an issue during the race. What was a bit surprising was the number of crews who let their drivers’ tanks run dry on track this week. It’s not uncommon for a few cars to run short at the end or even for a couple to try to stretch a fuel run too far, but this week it seemed like several teams tried to run too far late in the race and it bit them: Juan Pablo Montoya caused a two-car incident trying to get to pit road as his car sputtered, and Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray also fell victim to the fuel game. Perhaps it’s time to find a calculator company to sponsor these guys?

Why… would Carl Edwards like to see significant changes when the new 2013 racecars debut?

Edwards’ comments after the race were interesting, and probably to many fans’ thinking, dead on as Edwards called for changes that would make cars less dependent on downforce to be fast. Basically, if cars were not so dependent on downforce and the clean air at the front of the pack, the races would be more in the hands of the drivers than they are now. “It would be nice to race cars, not downforce,” Edwards said. We’ve heard this all before; the current car was supposed to be less aerodynamically dependent than its predecessor, but that hasn’t proven to be the case, as the cars are nearly as finicky as the former model, with side draft being an issue as well as the need for clean air. A change would certainly be welcomed by a lot of people.

How… much more profitable is it to start and park two cars instead of having just one car go the distance?

Believe me, I understand why some teams are forced to start and park in today’s NASCAR, and I have nothing but respect for the drivers who take a hit to their pride every time they hear “bring it in” over the radio. There’s no arguing that being there makes a team more relevant than one sitting at home, but are multi-car start-and-park outfits really making money? Just to show up with a car is insanely expensive by the time a racecar, engine, and tires are accounted for. While last-place money clearly covers expenses (otherwise why do it at all?) wouldn’t it make more sense to have one car run a full race for a bit more prize money?

Surely tires and crewmen for one car aren’t nearly as expensive as preparing and hauling an entire second car which also requires a crew and a few sets of tires? It has to be frustrating for drivers like JJ Yeley and Casey Mears to be pulled in week after week when they could probably run a whole race, improve their chances of staying in the Top 35 in owner points, and save a little dignity. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like if these teams want a real future in racing, they need to race, even if it’s just a single car.

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