Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: What’s New in NASCAR?

I can’t help but feel a bit confused.

For all the pundits, fans, drivers and NASCAR honchos who say, week-in-and-week-out, that racing in the Sprint Cup Series is better than ever, I can’t help but think they must be watching something I’m not.

Kurt Busch led 291 of the scheduled 400 laps last weekend to win at Richmond. Joey Logano led 94 laps. No one outside the top five led any laps at all.

Last year, eventual Cup champion Kevin Harvick led about 20% of all laps run during the season. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski enjoyed multiple victories.

Thus far in 2015: Harvick, Johnson and Keselowski have already punched their tickets into the Chase. Busch and Logano also joined the short list given their wins at Richmond and Daytona, respectively.

The argument in favor of better racing in 2015 is parity across teams. More cars are running well and have a shot at winning on any given week. Finishing orders are splattered with new names, new sponsors and evidence of new opportunities thanks to the new rules package.

Really? From where I sit, I see the same few names atop standings almost every Monday morning. Most races of late have been nothing short of blow-outs where one driver simply dominates the field. Sure, a driver like Harvick can have a bad weekend and wind up 30th or so, but then he bounces back the next Sunday to snag a second-place finish and the natural order of NASCAR returns to its rightful position.

Drivers like Busch, Harvick, Johnson, Gordon and Logano seem to have more good races than bad, however we might define such adjectives. Whenever the topic of their success comes up in conversation, there’s often the disclaimer that drivers like Harvick and Johnson, for example, have more talent, or that they work harder than their peers.

In a word: no way. I can speak from personal experience – everyone in the Sprint Cup Series, from the race shop to pit road, works hard and tries harder.

Of course drivers like Harvick and Johnson tend to run well because they have talent – they wouldn’t be in the Cup Series with championship trophies at home if they didn’t possess some amount of skill. These men and their race teams also have nearly unlimited resources at their disposal. Big sponsors love big winners, so it’s little wonder the No. 4 and No. 48 operations have the cash they need to generate excellence.

What gets me is the way drivers like Harvick and Johnson (and more recently, Kurt Busch) thoroughly dominate races. These guys don’t just lead a little; they lead a lot. Their margins of victory may be small, but they’re still races for second place.

As Bobby Allison famously said to a reporter many years ago: “Second place is first loser.”

So when folks – especially those in the media – say that today’s NASCAR is more competitive and favorable to close racing, I have to stop and wrap my head around their statements. “Remember the old days,” the pundits often say, “when only two or three drivers had any real shot at winning a race.”

OK. I’ll flash back to those old days and the dominance of names like Petty, Allison, Pearson, Baker and Yarborough. Those were the days when you’d see maybe four cars (or fewer) on the lead lap with ten to go.

Now flash forward to NASCAR circa 2015. We may see races with 25 or 30 cars on the lead lap with 10 to go, but the number of legitimate potential winners can be culled to only three of four. The dominant driver who doesn’t win is still likely to snag a top-five or top-10 finish.

Not too different than what we used to see back in the old days of NASCAR.

NASCAR has always prided itself on its emphasis on parity. Strict rules and strict inspections make for close racing. With all things being as equal as possible, the focus shifts to the abilities of a driver and the talent of a team. The car/driver/team trinity has always been the centerpiece of NASCAR’s mission statement and, in theory, it sounds like a noble way to structure a professional sport.

Even Communism sounds good on paper. Things get shaky when you put the theory into practice.

Maybe that’s because drivers, crew chiefs and pit crew personnel are people with complex lives, complex emotions and complex responsibilities. Success in a sport rides on so much more than merely executing the basics of what you are supposed to do.

There’s more to NASCAR success than mashing the gas pedal and turning left.

It’s the unforeseen variables that wreak havoc on a race team mired deep in the points. We lament the difficulties of a Tony Stewart or a Clint Bowyer or an Earnhardt Jr., but we need to consider that they (and their crews) are doing the best jobs they can at any given time. Good performances are there from time-to-time; they just aren’t there each and every weekend.

And even the more dominant teams struggle periodically as the variables of life move about and alter our overall focus on what needs to be done and when. Fate can play just as big a role in the outcome of a race as a last-lap pass. We’re seeing such fateful occurrences as teams toy with the new pit road surveillance measures brought on by NASCAR.

Notice how teams seem to be cutting time on pit stops by neglecting to tighten lugnuts. How might the outcome of a race be affected by a loose lugnut, an additional stop to fix the noticeable vibration and how that extra stop shuffles the running order?

Maybe the only sure thing about today’s NASCAR is that there’s no sure thing, except who’s likely to finish in the top-five. Just like back in the old days.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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