*ONE: The Joke That is the Debris Caution*
It’s to the point that the TV cameras don’t even bother acting like they’re trying to find debris on the track. It’s no longer a surprise, but an expectation; a Sprint Cup race will be stopped on multiple occasions for debris on the track, whether or not anything is actually out there. Frankly, I’m amazed there hasn’t been more fan outrage and expressed frustration from the teams that their competitions are being interrupted whenever the sanctioning body gets the impression that the field is too strung out or ESPN needs a commercial break (yes, that’s me speculating, feel free to write in if you think of any other motivation.)
It’s the reality of any sport, it can’t all be non-stop action. Baseball will have dull innings, but umpires don’t throw batters a bone by calling balls to force a walk and put baserunners on. Football officials don’t call fouls on the team that’s up 42-0 to help get the Division II opponent back into the game in the third quarter. Soccer officials don’t award penalty kicks in the 60th minute when two teams have settled into a passing game, biding their time for the right opportunity. If any of these incidences were to occur in a stick-and-ball sport, it’d be a scandal of epic proportions. So, how is it acceptable that the biggest sanctioning body in stock car racing gets away with bunching up the field and wiping away leads at will?
If fans want to see scheduled cautions, then speak up and ask for heat races instead of endurance events. If teams are OK with having the “sport” they compete in manipulated by an invisible hand at will, well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The job market is bad after all, and more often than not these days it’s all about toeing the industry line that the sport is as good as it ever has been, without serious issues.
For those keeping score though, a playoff race was stopped, the field bunched up, and pit strategy dictated three freaking times by the officials. For all those folks out there that argue NASCAR racing isn’t a sport, the sanctioning body’s making the case for them.
*TWO: Does Kyle Busch Need to Start Looking?*
As my colleague Mike Neff noted, while Joe Gibbs Racing has endured a number of engine failures following changes to their power plant provider this season, the failures have disproportionately affected Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team, who saw another top 5 run go down in flames on Sunday with a bad cylinder (the team finished a distant 28th after a front row start.) Just as I wrote a few weeks back, after the No. 18 team missed the Chase, the driver himself needed to be looked at as a place where change needed to be directed (no, I didn’t say fire Kyle, all you Rowdy fans out there put the torches down.) However, there needs to be hard questions asked here. Is Kyle’s driving having an impact under the hood?
It’s no secret that Busch pushes his equipment about as hard as anyone racing motor vehicles today. Who can forget seeing Busch win the Southern 500 a few years back despite hitting the wall at least half a dozen times? But pushing cars to the absolute edge is a live by the sword, die by the sword practice…just ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr. following his weekend at Kentucky.
It’s not hard to fathom that Busch’s relentless style behind the wheel is impacting JGR’s Toyota power plants more than that of say, teammates Hamlin and Logano. And the question has to be asked as a result, if Toyota’s premier engine provider can’t build a motor capable of keeping up with Busch’s driving style, is there another manufacturer that can?
In an era of spec cars, what’s under the hood is one of the very few elements left where a manufacturer can really make a difference. Busch is talented enough to shop around…and maybe he should be if this latest Loudon race was any indication.
*THREE: Is Roush Regretting Cup Races for Stenhouse?*
Rewind back to 2009. Denny Hamlin ended up pulling double duty at Dover despite knowing full well the Monster Mile was one of the worst tracks on the circuit for his No. 11 team. One tussle with Brad Keselowski later, Hamlin’s head was completely out of the game. He limped to an 18th place finish in the Cup race 24 hours later, and was an afterthought in the 2009 Chase.
This weekend sees a different situation but same risks for Nationwide Series title contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is slated to pull double duty for only the third time in his career. Stenhouse, unlike with his start in the Daytona 500 back in February, is not locked into the field for Sunday’s race, meaning he’ll have to spend the first part of the weekend working on qualifying and ensuring he actually makes the 43-car starting grid. No matter what a team owner or press release wants to say, that’s going to distract a driver, especially one needing to make a statement at the Cup level as he seeks sponsorship to make a full season in 2013 happen.
And all of this at a track that absolutely bit Stenhouse earlier this season; the No. 6 car didn’t last 50 miles before Stenhouse spun himself hard into the interior retaining wall in the Spring race, the second in a stretch of four consecutive ugly races that ultimately made the NNS title race as close as it is right now.
So the situation is as follows: Richard Childress Racing made a statement at Kentucky and now have the Nos. 2 and 3 teams riding a wave of momentum into Dover. Stenhouse, meanwhile, is coming off another self-induced disaster and headed to a track that he has limited notes on, seeing as how the car left Dover in the spring in pieces. Not exactly an optimal weekend for a development driver to be a go-or-go-homer on the Cup side.
There’s a very relevant question to be asked here. What possessed Roush Fenway Racing to put a NNS title contender in that position? Even without the Kentucky wreck, this points chase was rather tight.
Either this was a big-time oversight by Roush, or the Nationwide title really doesn’t mean that much anymore. The fans at Kentucky didn’t seem to think so anyway. All 50 of them.
*FOUR: Top 35 Sandbagging…Two Months Early*
On the Nationwide Series side, the No. 24 of SR2 Motorsports appeared to start-and-park, lasting only 52 circuits before a “vibration” sent them to the garage. On the Cup side, Tony Raines parked the No. 36 car on Sunday after completing 68 laps, the fifth time in the last 10 races that Tommy Baldwin Racing’s second car did so. And yet, both of these teams are sitting comfortably in the locked in part of the top 30 and top 35 in their respective series, with no real pressure coming. The closest Cup team to the No. 36 is a part-time effort from the Wood Brothers, while the No. 24 is actually ahead of Go Green Racing’s No. 39 for the 30th and final Nationwide slot (the No. 23 car, 17 markers back, is the next challenger.)
Oh, the beauty of it all. The top 30/35 rule was put in place to protect sponsors from the horrors of having to actually be fast enough to qualify for the races they want to advertise in. Instead, it’s protecting teams to the point that they can run the better part of a quarter-season without competing and yet show up to Daytona in 2013 with no fear at all of qualifying–whether or not some company out there was crazy enough to put the millions being asked for on their car.
This rule has absolutely got to go. It’s already bad enough that Chase races and Nationwide races alike are struggling to produce racing at the front of the field. There’s no reason to keep rules in place to incentivize teams at the back not to race either.
Besides, there are already plenty of start-and-parkers out there already. It’s not like they’re going to get lonely.
*FIVE: Olsen’s Story a Reminder of Why the Field Needs to Stay Open*
He finished 11 laps off the pace in 33rd, scarcely a blip on the Sylvania 300’s radar screen. But having said that, it was very cool to see Mike Olsen, a two time East Series (then North Series) champion make his Cup Series debut at Loudon. Loudon has long been one of the few tracks where the East Series regulars still make appearances (Matt Kobyluck, Joey McCarthy and Ted Christopher also come to mind), and there’s something to be said for that.
With everything gone wrong with NASCAR, one of its still existent features is that, even limited by those asinine top 30/35 rules, anybody can show up to race. It’s always fun to see the big stars come for their rare visits, but there’s something also to be said about seeing the local hero out there on the same track. Hats off to Frankie Stoddard for making that happen.