(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

MPM2Nite: The Easter Bunny, Hot Dogs, Villainous James Hamlin and Other Musings

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.com 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. Ecod! 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.

dueling
Well there’s one way to settle this, Doc!

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”? Long-time readers know I’ve pointed this next one out before, but since it’s won me plenty of free mugs in taprooms, what is Dale 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).

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
“If I slow down and let him pass me, will I get a better shot on a restart later?…” (Photo: Amy Henderson)

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 8th 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-2” finishes is over with, Harvick having finished 8th at Martinsville. But I’ve done some digging of my own and have come up with a “Top-2” 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-2 (and I can’t help giggling everytime 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 lug nuts 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 lug nut. 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’s 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 $2658.25. Maybe if I be good and drink my Kool-Aid I can get one for my corner office here at the stately FS world headquarters?

 

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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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27 comments

  1. Avatar

    Yes we knew Hamlin’s name was James and I love how so called “fans” get mad when you call him DENNIS. Look it up people!!!! It amazes….

  2. Avatar

    While it does seem that NASCAR has, on occasion, thrown a questionable debris caution to benefit a specific driver (especially during chase time, can’t have those chase guys falling off the lead lap or no game 7 moment), in my mind there is no doubt that they throw fake cautions to keep races that have become parades interesting. I don’t see how anyone paying attention can think any differently.

    • Avatar

      Several drivers benefit from these cautions just about every race, every year, not just one race. It is all part of the orchestrated opera known as Nascar.

    • Avatar

      Be on phantom debris caution alert next Saturday night at Texas.

  3. Avatar

    The solution is to allow drivers to pick the lane they want to restart in. Just as the leader gets to pick his lane, so would everybody else. This would not only eliminate what Hamlin did, but add an element of strategy. At Martinsville, where the inside lane is preferred, if the first three drivers pick the inside, does the fourth driver also go inside or does he take the first spot on the outside? It would add a small amount of time for getting drivers lined up but would eliminate the situation where somebody gains spots on pit row only to lose because they had to line up outside.

  4. Avatar

    Isn’t Dale Earnhardt Sr. really Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? So doesn’t that make Dale Earnhardt Jr. really R. D. E. III?

    When I read what Hamlin did exiting the pits I thought of the 91 Daytona 500 and the brilliant pit rules. The next few races weren’t much better. Cars were racing for odd positions during the race so they could pit before the even numbered positions. We can’t blame Brian for that can we?

  5. Avatar

    Hey! Here’s a novel idea. A tire leaves your pit stall (touches any pit box line) then its uncontrollable. Keep it simple.

  6. Avatar

    If my memory serves me, which is scary I remember this one…..but it might have been the 1995 race at Rockingham that Ward Burton won…..I seem to recall this being a huge issue when it happened…..

    • Avatar

      You are correct it was the Fall Rockingham race in 1995. Poor Rick Mast had the car to beat that day but a missed shift on a restart led to terminal engine issues.

  7. Avatar

    I’d like to point out that Brad Keselowski has two consecutive top-2 finishes. That’s the longest current streak of top-twos in Sprint Cup racing. Can he stretch that to ten and break King Richard’s record? Anxious fans can only wait and see.

    • Avatar

      Yes, you are correct..it was very obnoxious listening to the booth go on and on about Kevin Harvick It is something how the come up with these “facts”. Whoopie!

  8. Avatar

    None of us are duped or even surprised by NASCAR’s shenanigans. But to be fair, they are not alone in the funny business. TV, which delivers into our homes the sports we love, has ruined them, IMO. There is simply too much money involved for the ‘broadcast partners’ not to have huge influence in managing the ‘product.’ In a curated, over-hyped, over-exposed culture like ours the only defense is to stop caring or stop watching. I freely confess that I am not that pissed yet. But if I had a local short track, it would be an easier decision.

  9. Avatar

    Matt, Of course it’s fixed, however all fixes are not created equal. The reasons can be quite different. WWE is completely fixed as it views its product as purely entertainment. Boxing is occasionally fixed for financial gain. Old timers like me will tell you that the Ali punch that supposedly knocked out Sonny Liston has to this day yet to land. NASCAR’s problem is the inability to decide if it is a legitimate competition or a show. Since forever NASCAR has attempted to manipulate the rules to make the show more interesting. Is that not fixing to some degree? Almost every book written by any driver complains about NASCAR’s meddling. As to your colleagues, are they that stupid or do they think we the fans are that stupid. Most of what the racing press says is about as believable as what Bill Clinton would say when caught exiting the ladies room. Thanks for an honest column.

    • Matt

      John, While I appreciate your kind words and sentiment let me hurry io point out none of the folks here at FS are stupid. They’re all gifted writers who like me have their good days and bad days. It’s a variety of opinions that keeps things interesting around here. Read what you like, feel free to disagree but dislike the message not the messenger.
      MPM

      • Avatar

        Matt, I find it difficult not to be annoyed by the racing press. In my experience the sporting press will not hesitate to excoriate the home team when warranted. The failure of MLB to address the steroid issue is but one example. They got pounded. On the other hand the racing press has historically chosen to spin and excuse. The propagandist must assume that his target audience is unintelligent if he hopes to be successful. So, if I accept your assertion that your colleagues are not stupid, which I do, then I can only conclude that they believe we fans are. Thank you for the response.

      • Avatar

        Nice application of the confederate flag. Sort of a southern Grateful-Dead thing going on there.

  10. Avatar

    The solution to pit road exit games would be to allow some sort of lane choice to the leaders. Every track seems to have a preferred restart line, and its accentuated at places like Martinsville, Darlington, and the road courses. My idea is you let the top-8 or the top-10 have lane choice. That way a good car with a good pit stop won’t get penalized because they happened to come out in an even number spot (e.g. Martinsville). It would add a new strategy element because teams could then gamble by taking the outside to gain track position, but risk losing the preferred restart line.

    On the hot dogs it sounded like “a much to do about nothing”. I’ve eaten plenty of Jesse Jones dogs. Their good, but they compare similarly in taste to an Oscar Meyer or other mass produced dog. It’s the fixings (chilli and slaw) that make the Martinsville hot dog. Martinsville should really consider mass producing both for sale at the track. I would buy it by the caseload.

  11. Avatar

    The only Nascar in race ruling overturn I recall also involved a Busch, but Kyle not Kurt. I believe it was at Richmond (or another track where the pit lane doesn’t have a commitment cone) and he was penalized for a commitment line violation as he only drove over the line with the left side tires prior to pitting under caution.

    When told he was penalized Kyle said over the radio that in the drivers meeting Nasscar said you only had to get the left side inside the line which he did. After Coach Gibbs argued with a Nascar official they ultimately let him restart where he left the pits w/o penalty.

  12. Avatar

    I’d like to challenge the Next Sponsor of the Cup Series 1. Have a Proper Sponsor that goes with Cup Series, 2. Why not move the Cup Championship from Miami to Charlotte because I want to see and hear the public. and 3. If it where Denny Hamlin, he’d love to see the Title at Martinsville or Hickory and 500 Miles and Laps from day to night like Charlotte as he’d be dominating like Chuck Bown and everyone would say “AIR HAMLIN” for all time.

  13. Avatar

    I definitely don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, however, I certainly do think that NASCAR, when it suits them, throws cautions to close up the field and get the “exciting” finish they want. The times when they do let a race finish out w/o interference is more of a surprise than how often they manipulate it.

    Dr. Howell, the regular NASCAR media and NASCAR need to be cognizant of the “be careful what you wish for” clause. Sometimes when you tell people they should “go away” if they don’t agree with you, they do go away and eventually that will bite NASCAR & the tracks. I realize that right now, there are bushels of TV $ coming in to NASCAR and the tracks and the fans being present, well, that seems to be optional right now but it may not always be the case. Sooner or later, the low ratings & attendance is going to catch up.

    I also thought the logjam at the end of pit road was ridiculous and dangerous. It is a shame that NASCAR has to make more rules. Personally I want them to make less, but if drivers are going to do boneheaded stuff (even if it makes logical sense from their perspective), there isn’t much choice.

    • Avatar

      Funny how NASCAR can’t envision how teams will react to rules before they enact them and try to thwart some of the unintended consequences before they happen (unfortunately with more or better defined rules). Whether it’s group qualifying at restrictor plate tracks or double file restarts at Martinsville (I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to think of more), they are supposed to be smart and know their sport, yet time and time again we see them put a rule in that has ridiculous consequences. Maybe they should ask crew chiefs before they put a rule in…. “If we do this, how will you react?” (or maybe that would be a waste of time because the crew chiefs would just lie).

      • Avatar

        I think NASCAR uses the magic 8 ball to figure out the rules and you are right about asking the crew chiefs, of course they would lie, that, has always been a given in the sport, but then again, I always thought having the media ask a stupid question like “what will you do in X situation?” near the end of the race was dumb. Gee, of course I’m going to tell you the truth so that it will be broadcast over the tv’s in every pit box. Doh!

  14. Avatar

    hahaha. this made me spit my tea.

    “I have to reject that one simply saying I don’t think NASCAR has ever done that to help out a male driver,”

    me? yep, I did notice that a certain (non male) driver does seem to (coincidentally i’m sure) benefit quite a bit from yellow flags.

    • Avatar

      How foolish. If Danica is getting help from Nascar like you say, you can bet other drivers are too. Why would they help Danica but not Jimmie, Jeff, Jr etc, when they actually have a better chance to win? Do people think before they type? So what was it this week that helped Danica get a top 10? Was it attrition? Luck? Nascar’s help? Sexual favors? She ran a good race and got a good result and people still hate on her. This hating on Danica does nothing to help the stereotype that Nascar is a sexist red neck sport.

      • Avatar

        If you haven’t noticed the help Jimmie, Jeff, Jr. (any Hendrick or satellite team) gets from cautions, you haven’t been paying attention. Check who got the free pass. If you don’t think NASCAR is a sexist red neck sport think again.

        The best hot dogs are at Oswego.

        I’m OK with the Super Bowl play call. It didn’t turn out the way it was planned because a defensive player made what will probably be the play of his career. It should have ended up a TD or incompletion.

  15. Avatar

    Anybody catch the INDYCAR race last weekend? With the new ridiculous aero packages on the cars that looked like they could have been developed by NASCAR after a cocktail party there were yellows all day for winglets on the track. By the end of the race carbon fiber parts and pieces littered the track, but it was all out of the groove and they let the race go on without needless cautions. I kept thinking to myself that if it was NASCAR they would have used that debrie to throw a couple of cautions at the end to spice it up, or to keep a chosen one from a bad finish.

    As for the NASCAR show, I couldn’t even tune in for the last few laps as I don’t have FS1, and won’t pay extra for it.

  16. Avatar

    This issue with the outside groove at Martinsville has been going on for some time. they really need to do something with the track to address it. Make both grooves racy and you don’t have to worry about drivers trying to get the odd numbered positions coming off of pit road.