The debate continues unabated; does NASCAR throw caution flags for debris that either doesn’t exist or if it does is of little to no potential harm to spice up races when the field gets too strung out? How hot a debate topic has the issue become? It’s caused widespread dissension amongst the normally amicable staff here at the stately world headquarters of Frontstretch to the point some of us, me chief amongst them, may soon be sent to a corner for a time out. My longtime friend, Doc (as in Doctor Mark Howell) went so far as to write that fans who feel that NASCAR “fixes” races with yellow flags should not follow the sport. Egad! Another staff writer who I am on less familiar terms with opined that references comparing NASCAR to the WWE (and I’m struggling to recall which writer might have done that though likely it was me) ” plucks (his) last nerve” and we all know how painful that can be.
In that vast spectrum between black and white, between rabid conspiracy theorists and outright NASCAR apologists, I find myself often on the darker end, “A Touch of Gray” if you will. I have a hard time stomaching some notions that NASCAR would throw a caution to aid certain drivers (typically Gordon/Johnson/Earnhardt Jr.) from going a lap down. I have to reject that one simply saying I don’t think NASCAR has ever done that to help out a male driver, especially since with the wave-around rule it’s easy enough for a driver to make up lost laps himself. Naturally NASCAR gets a free pass of their own at Martinsville where close-quarters racing reduces most of the entries to rolling debris fields shedding parts like a retriever pup fresh out of the creek sheds fleas.
It was interesting how the network presenting the race on one of their more obscure satellite venues (and somehow this was supposed to be a good thing?) tried their best to show the offending debris when debris cautions flew on Sunday, only to quickly zoom out when they’d identified a piece of flotsom that was harmless in response to fan demands. But if you believe that NASCAR doesn’t throw cautions to spice up a moribund race (and I present Fontana as Exhibit A, Councillor) then likely you also believe in the Easter Bunny. As to whether you should continue to watch races if you feel the same, I’ll leave that one up to you, Gentle Readers, so highly do I count your native intelligence and discernment.
Here’s a minute bit of trivia I wasn’t aware of. Did you know by birth Denny Hamlin‘s first name is James? Longtime readers know I’ve pointed this next one out before, but since it’s won me plenty of free mugs in taprooms, what is Earnhardt Jr.’s middle name? Actually it’s Dale. Like his father before him, the driver of the No. 88 car was born “Ralph Dale Earnhardt.”
Speaking of James, er, Denny Hamlin, I felt his conduct on pit road Sunday was outright villainous. With the inside line at Martinsville so highly preferred on restarts, Hamlin was bringing his car to a screeching halt on pit road to allow cars to go by him so he’d leave the pits in an odd-numbered position and thus line up on that inside row. The rules don’t forbid it, but the tactic clearly annoyed a lot of fans and even Hamlin’s fellow drivers, most especially his teammate Matt Kenseth, who looked like he was ready to knock the No. 11 car out of the ball park.
Other drivers have done the same, most notably at Daytona and Talladega, but if this is going to be a weekly occurrence, it behooves NASCAR to find a way to put the chicanery to an end before it causes a massive pileup at the end of pit road. (or at least the unwanted spectacle of a bunch of cars sitting still at the end of pit road refusing to move until someone else took the un-coveted even numbered spot).
What’s the solution? I haven’t had time to dwell on it long, given I’m in the midst of writing a new novel and setting up a new computer to replace my trusty coal-fired PC. Perhaps something will occur to me during the off-week. But I will go on record as saying that I believe: A) NASCAR left to their own devices will come up with a solution so unwieldy, ineffective and preposterous that it will defy belief and cause general mayhem in the actual conducting of a race. Longtime fans will recall the unholy mess NASCAR allowed during the first six races of 1991 in an effort to increase pit-road safety eventually solved by the simpler solution of pit-road speed limits.
B) Eventually someone (smarter than me), be it in the garage area or an ink-stained wretch, will come up with a simple and effective solution and NASCAR will all but dislocate their corporate shoulders patting themselves on the back and claiming the idea was their own. Hopefully that solution will be found quickly enough that old DW will be able to claim he’s been championing the very same idea for years and it’s his best idea since naming that ground-level camera “Digger.”
Chase Elliott‘s Cup debut didn’t go to well, to be kind about it. How did it compare to the Cup debut of the scion of another racing legend? Our friend Ralph Earnhardt Jr. made his debut in the 1999 World 600. He qualified eighth and finished 16th, three laps off the pace. However, in his second Cup race Junior didn’t fare so well. Ignition problems sent him to the garage at the outset of the July race at Loudon and he was only able to complete 44 laps on his way to finishing dead last. And yet they still produced a diecast car to celebrate that embarrassing result and it sold out overnight. Earnhardt Jr. started five Cup races that season with a best result of 10th in the autumn Richmond race, four positions behind his dad.
The contrived excitement of Kevin Harvick‘s assault on the King’s record of top-two finishes is over with, Harvick having finished eighth at Martinsville. But I’ve done some digging of my own and have come up with a top-two finishing record that I’d bet the farm will never be broken. Since joining the NFL in 1919, the Green Bay Packers have finished first or second in every game they’ve played!
(Since someone asked, Petty’s top-two (and I can’t help giggling every time I write that) streak also came to an end at Martinsville with a 22nd-place finish caused by a broken rear end. I thought he was sitting a little funny that day.)
I’ve also gotten some questions as to what’s going on with NASCAR taking all those tires from teams after a race to be checked out by experts. Obviously none of you saw me doodling hot rods in my notebooks back in high school chemistry but here’s what I’m told is going on. You’ll remember that given a set volume of gas (in this case as in air or nitrogen, not Sunoco) as heat increases pressure will rise. Thus race teams will start their tires out at less than optimum pressures, knowing that air pressure will build up as the tire gets hotter. Eventually, tire pressure reaches its optimum, and after that it rises higher than the optimum pressure.
By drilling incredibly small holes in those tires, teams can bleed off pressure from those tires (since volume is no longer fixed) allowing them to start the tires at closer to the optimum pressure and not build up pressure as quickly beyond optimum. Which teams are doing this? Naturally suspicion falls first on the teams that are running the best, which isn’t necessarily fair. But I do know that no team wants to get caught doing so. There are three type of rules infractions that draw NASCAR’s “Hammer of God” level of wrath and penalties; over-size engines, messing with the racing fuel or doctoring tires. To date it seems that NASCAR has only taken a shot across the bow of the teams by letting them know they’re aware of the trick to spare those teams and their sponsors much embarrassment, but moving forward they’ve drawn a line in the sand.
One of the unanticipated results of NASCAR’s new Orwellian pit-road camera system replacing human officials on pit road is a wealth of penalties for teams not controlling tires taken off cars during pit stops. I find that rather amusing because as recently as last year I recall watching helpful NASCAR officials grabbing tires that had gotten away from the pit crews before they could roll onto pit lane.
You don’t see it often, but I swear it has happened before. Sunday NASCAR radioed to the No. 41 team that Kurt Busch was going to have to serve a drive-through penalty for having changed lanes before crossing the start/finish line on a restart. The team protested that Busch had not since he restarted the race on the inside lane. After further review, NASCAR admitted they were in error and rescinded the penalty. A little payback for that lap 199 yellow debris flag at Fontana? (Bad Matt, back to your corner! Take a sip of this nicely chilled Kool-Aid.) Like I said, it does happen time to time. The most infamous incident I can recall (and someone else will have to provide the date and race as my memory ain’t what it used to be) involved Dale Earnhardt Sr. The No. 3 team used to paint their lugnuts yellow to make it easier for officials to see all five lugs were on the car during a pit stop. A lug fell off a wheel that was being installed on the car, but the tire changer had a spare (not painted yellow) at hand and quickly installed it. An official, not seeing the yellow, erroneously called a penalty for a missing lugnut. The caution was extended so that Earnhardt could pit again to prove all five lugs were on that wheel. Seeing they were, NASCAR allowed him to retake the position Earnhardt had exited the pits in.
A race weekend has come and gone at Martinsville absent of the traditional (and some folks would add disgusting) red Jimmy Jones hot dogs. Contrary to some folks beliefs the sun still came up the next morning, but yet another tradition has been cast into the scrap heap of expediency in NASCAR racing. I respect the Hell out of Clay Campbell, seriously I do, but some of his statements on Wiener-Gate were disingenuous. Campbell pointed out that the track had served the new hot dogs in the press box at Daytona and there were no complaints. Given that the press corps feeds on free food like a pod of orca, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s like saying that a new sort of cold beer was served at a biker picnic and there were no complaints.
Bah to tradition right? Perhaps next year Martinsville can start handing out wristwatches to race winners rather than Grandfather clocks and justify it by saying after careful comparison, both devices told the same time. In case you were wondering, you can buy the same Ridgeway grandfather clock race winners get for $2,658.25. Maybe if I be good and drink my Kool-Aid I can get one for my corner office here at the stately Frontstretch world headquarters?
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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