*ONE: The Brickyard Has to Go*
Back in 1994, when the Brickyard 400 was an inaugural event, there’s a reason it sold out and was instantly one of the sport’s marquee moments. Taking the green flag there was more than tackling a storied oval. It was a story of triumph for how the backwater racers of NASCAR had surged from down south, become prominent in a way open-wheel racing used to be, and brought their beating and banging onto Indy’s home turf. It was the equivalent of planting the flag in the enemy’s capital city.
Nearly 20 years later, the event is old news, Indy a conquest long since mastered. Now, late July at the 2.5-mile oval is just another companion weekend, a race with sparsely filled grandstands, start-and-parks aplenty… and an absolutely horrendous on-track product. Both Saturday and Sunday’s events were not races, they were parades, cars snaking their way at high speeds around a gargantuan oval. Short of 2008’s tire debacle, this one was as boring a race at the Brickyard as has been seen… and this track’s seen plenty of boring, boring races. It didn’t matter that there was a Nationwide event accompanying the big show this year; fans simply got 650 miles of crap instead of 400.
NASCAR has made its point at Indy, having taken stock cars and all their non-refinement to a track that still stands an entity to itself, the Rose Bowl of motorsports. But just as time came for college football to say to hell with keeping the Rose Bowl significant, we’re going to a playoff system, NASCAR has reached that moment as well. There’s no longer the lure of 250,000-person crowds to keep stock cars on a decidedly open-wheel race track. Indianapolis is a been there, done that deal for NASCAR racing now… meaning instead of something novel and special, fans are stuck with what can be reliably counted on as one of the most painful events of an already marathon season.
What’s the solution? There’s plenty of tracks out there worthy of a Cup race that would put on a show worth watching (try Iowa or a third road course). Even better, maybe shorten the schedule by a week. It certainly hasn’t hurt the competition in the other two series.
I’ve long been an advocate of giving every venue capable of hosting a Cup race at least one bite at the apple a year. So call me a hypocrite… but stock cars cannot race well at Indianapolis. Therefore, stock cars should not race at Indianapolis.
*TWO: The Restart Rules Need to Go*
Leave it to NASCAR to take a perfectly good and compelling title chase and mess it up with a subjective and inconsistent call from the tower. What was fine for Kyle Busch was not fine for Elliott Sadler, who lost what likely was going to be a Brickyard victory (seeing as how making a green-flag pass for the lead Saturday was about as likely as Congress balancing a budget) for allegedly jumping the restart. It didn’t matter that Kyle Busch took a huge lead early in the event doing the same damn thing when Kasey Kahne got off to a slow start. It didn’t matter that the replays clearly showed Sadler was getting all but bowled over by teammate Austin Dillon from behind, and that leader Brad Keselowski had indeed spun his tires on the restart. Nope, NASCAR threw their nasty black flag, threw rhyme and reason out the window, and all but eliminated Sadler’s points lead for their troubles.
Having been covering this sport for the past five years, perhaps the one conclusion I can draw from my experience is that when something is not absolutely black-and-white, NASCAR will get it wrong. Their only consistency is inconsistency, their only skill getting the call wrong. Driver safety? That’s a black and white issue; keeping drivers safe prevents death. NASCAR’s done admirably in making this sport safer since losing a Petty and an Earnhardt within 12 months of each other. But talk about the yellow line at plate tracks, maintaining minimum speed under caution conditions, restart lines… if there’s a gray area, the call will never be the same, and competitors end up getting hosed for no good reason.
So take the double red lines, the ability of the leader to restart the race, take it all away and have it done by the flagman. When they drop the rag, the field goes. The leader already has plenty of an advantage in making a lane choice; if they’ve got the faster car, it doesn’t matter where the race starts, they’ll get away. Take any and all ambiguity out of the equation…when the flag drops, go. One change is all you’ll need to eliminate the nonsense about etiquette in a driver’s meeting, of officiating mucking up points races, and fans turning the television off over bad calls.
*THREE: Penske’s Commitment to the ‘Dinger Could Save a Career*
Even the most optimistic ‘Dinger fan knows full well that their hero will not be racing a Sprint Cup car again in 2012 following an indefinite suspension for violating the sport’s substance abuse policy. Returning to a car this year is no longer the objective… somehow keeping a career on track now is. And, based on my observations this past week it certainly appears that Allmendinger has an ace in the hole: the loyalty of one Roger Penske.
Sure, it may be nothing more than well-written press release material spoon-fed to ESPN. But if reports are true that Penske and the ‘Dinger are in almost daily contact, that the Captain still is seeking to have his underperforming signee stay racing and paired with his organization even after this latest episode, AJ Allmendinger may well be in a comfortable position for 2013. Not in the sense that Shell/Pennzoil is going to readily hand the keys to the No. 22 back over; after all, any sponsor that dumps a Cup champion in Kurt Busch for using foul language isn’t about to forgive a failed drug test, no matter what said drug is or circumstances are. No, look for ‘Dinger to bounce back in 2013… in a Nationwide Series entry.
Just look at the wonders a step back has done for Sam Hornish, Jr. An accomplished open-wheeler that wrecked enough cars to make Danica Patrick blush during his time as a Cup driver, Hornish is now a week-in, week-out contender in the AAA ranks, getting seat time he should have gotten five years ago.
Think about it from Allmendinger’s perspective. Your image is in tatters, and everyone’s most recent memory of on-track performance is seeing a Chase-worthy team crash headfirst into a lake. You keep things solid with Roger Penske, complete the “Road to Recovery” program, and take the wheel of a stout Nationwide Dodge that’s capable of winning. The spotlight dims, the competition level dips a bit, and another open-wheel convert gets valuable seat time and some experience winning.
There’s plenty of signs right now that even through all the trials of the 2012 season, the ‘Dinger is still in the Captain’s fleet. As long as that’s true, know that the popular Californian’s career is far from over.
*FOUR: Earnhardt As Points Leader Shows Just What’s Wrong With Them*
Mr. Letarte, take a bow. To get Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 team to the top of the standings, considering just how underwhelming they’ve been at Hendrick Motorsports the last few seasons is no small feat, but it has been accomplished. On the backs of a win at Michigan and 15 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, Junebug is the Sprint Cup points leader heading to Pocono.
Just goes to show how little winning still matters in this sport. Junior leads the standings, including five drivers that have won more races and have been no slouch on consistency either (all repeat winners in 2012 are batting at least .500 when it comes to finishing in the top 10). What’s more, teammate Jimmie Johnson has an identical number of top 10s and has won two more times… yet he’s fourth in points.
For all the good that will come from having Junior the leader and a title contender in 2012, try explaining to an outsider… and to a lot of race fans, for that matter… how does that make any sense whatsoever? Yes, Junior has had a fantastic season to date, the best he’s enjoyed since leaving DEI for Hendrick. But having said that, the No. 88 is not contending for the win every weekend (it’s been five races since Earnhardt, Jr. even led a lap). The team and car have not led more than 10 circuits in only three events in 2012 (less than any other squad running inside the top 5). And yet they’re on top of the points.
This isn’t an Earnhardt, Jr. criticism, per se, it’s one about how this sport keeps score. In the end, ESPN’s guilty of false advertising… something indeed does beat first place. It’s called finishing seventh every weekend.
*FIVE: Might as Well Give Him the Trophy*
Prior to Sunday, Jimmie Johnson had won three Brickyard 400s… 2006, 2008 and 2009. He won the Cup Series championship in 2006, 2008, and 2009. Considering the form the No. 48 team displayed this past weekend, does anyone need a map drawn here?