NASCAR Race Weekend Central

When Push Comes To Shove… NASCAR’s New Plate Race Problem

Heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500, on paper NASCAR has it all under control. Two races, in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series were decided by a combined 0.033 seconds. Try blinking that fast and then get back to me; literally the width of a front bumper, twice over has meant the difference between Victory Lane and second place. I don’t know how else you build momentum within a sport, making it a “must see” other than cars crossing the line five-wide.

Danica Patrick, who ran the Nationwide race yesterday was one of many drivers frustrated over NASCAR’s new rules.
Danica Patrick, who ran the Nationwide race yesterday was one of many drivers frustrated over NASCAR’s new rules.

Danica Patrick, who ran the Nationwide race yesterday was one of many drivers frustrated over NASCAR’s new rules.

No, the problem heading into Sunday hasn’t been the white flag laps of these races (except for Jimmie Johnson). The issue, made abundantly clear in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race is the battle leading up to those final 2.5 miles. Rules in both lower divisions, banning tandem drafting left drivers confused over how much they could bump each other. While only one penalty was issued, for James Buescher during the Nationwide event the fear of a pass-through penalty was palpable.

“You just don’t want to step over that boundary,” said Ron Hornaday, who ran fifth in Friday night’s Truck Series event. “You don’t know how far to push and shove.”

So drivers, trying to simply survive a plate race played it safe. Quality racing always takes a hit when you put a restraining order on contact; drivers wound up relearning to draft conservatively during the race itself. What we saw, as a result were just two “lanes” of pack racing, seesawing back-and-forth at a turtle’s pace. Only one driver was called for a “pushing” violation, James Buescher, but for the rest it was hard to push them over the edge.

The call against Buescher, which infuriated owner Robby Benton (sources claimed he felt “the team was made an example of”) didn’t look different than most of the “half-bump, half-tandem” drafting several drivers were accomplishing during those events. But NASCAR needed to slap someone in the penalty box, letting the rest know they meant business or their heavy-handed rules would eventually go by the wayside down the stretch. (For the record, sources claimed owner Robby Benton was more infuriated than most had ever seen).

Turns out most drivers listened; the end result was them adhering to the inside line, hesitating to move out of line and multiple complaints about being “stuck.” Track position at Daytona? It’s typically never a problem, but this weekend drivers in those series have felt like they’re stuck in rush hour traffic on I-95 (or whatever local interstate of your choosing).

“It is the way it is because of the aero package,” claimed Brad Keselowski. “The Cup aero package is quite a bit different and a lot more sensitive to running the high lane. You don’t see that at the Cup level. The Truck and Nationwide level, the cars have quite a bit of grip. They also don’t seem to be as sensitive to the right side side-draft.”

“Running the bottom of the track is just the shortest distance.”

It also creates a lot of boredom. Fans are used to the fast closing rates, of other plate race packages where you can move up four, five spots in several laps. You can’t show them that type of speed and then take it back. Turning these events into a chess game, where moving up one spot can take five minutes is the equivalent to watching paint dry by comparison.

“It’s like sitting in traffic,” said Patrick yesterday, over the radio. “And picking the wrong lane every time.”

That’s not to take anything away from the sport’s scintillating finishes during Speedweeks. You see that two-minute highlight, on SportsCenter or FOX Sports Live and you see an opportunity to grow the sport. But you can still get that same type of ending with a different package that offers a faster closing rate. Two lanes of traffic, bobbing back and forth over two hours just won’t get the job done long-term.

“When you bump ‘em, you jar ‘em, it kinda jacks ‘em a little bit. It’s a little more abrupt, obviously,” said Busch, claiming the risk of the new rules outweighed the reward at times. “I thought it was OK there at the end. It was certainly fun and hopefully entertaining.”

“But [it was] a little bit of a struggle in the early part of the race and the midpart of the race to see a good race. And that’s unfortunate for the fans. You can’t do that the whole race, you can’t tear up your stuff, knock your grill in, overheat your motor, all that stuff so there’s no sense in doing all that until you get down to the last lap.”

All sources tell me – along with practices, the Sprint Unlimited, and Thursday’s Duels – today’s Daytona 500 will be different. But NASCAR should take a look at the racing in these other series; banning tandem drafting, although it’s come with its own frustrations may not be the answer. Changing the cars so tandems are impossible, like at the Cup level due to overheating concerns appear to be a far better option – while removing this “bumpdrafting police.” The last thing the sport needs, these days is more subjective calls from above.

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