Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has a few rules she’d like to see NASCAR consider.
1. Yellow-flag consistency
NASCAR needs to find a way to be consistent with caution flags, particularly late in races. Whether that’s in the form of a hard-and-fast rule or simply reviewing recent races and making a call with officials, it doesn’t really matter, but something needs to be done. NASCAR needs to face the fact that no matter what it does in these situations, some fans will be dissatisfied with the outcome. And knowing that, there need to be guidelines that will keep drivers safe.
Yes, that might mean fans don’t get to see the final half-lap run under green, and that might lead to an unpopular winner. On the flip side, it might lead to a popular one in Victory Lane and allegations of fixing the race. You can’t please them all. There needs to be a guideline of some sort, something that can be applied easily. The caution should fly when an engine expires, even if the driver gets out of the groove quickly, because fluid on the track is dangerous. As for crashes, a decision needs to be made to either throw the caution immediately when a driver spins or tags the wall, or wait and see if he can get going immediately and without danger. Right now, it seems to be a mix of the two and that’s confusing to fans and does teams no favors either. In the Cup Series, the tendency is generally to flag it right away, while in the Xfinity and Truck series, they often wait a bit. That’s not necessarily the wrong way to go at some tracks, but it is a bad idea at others, and that should be taken into account as well. What’s good at, say, Homestead might not be safe at Daytona.
Debris cautions will always be a source of debate, and there’s no answer that will satisfy. Fans need to understand that a small piece of metal, hard to spot or identify from a distance, can cut a racing tire easily, and in turn a driver could be hurt. What looks harmless might not be, and it’s hard to determine that when the cars are running around and over it at speed. Sometimes, slowing them down is the way to go. If NASCAR is throwing debris cautions to tighten the field and keep the crowd interested, that needs to end. If the sanctioning body wants the field to be tighter, it needs to find a car and tire that race better. The cautions don’t fool fans. Still, if there is any question of real debris, NASCAR needs to make a call to keep drivers safe.
2. Real consequences for post-race infractions
NASCAR’s current policy of tacking on additional point penalties for infractions found after a race was a good idea in theory. However, in practice, it’s not quite so fair. Before it was reduced, Ryan Newman‘s team was docked 50 points for a post-race tire infraction, and an additional 25 points for the fact that the illegal tire was found after a race. 75 points is more than a driver can earn in one race, where the maximum points a driver can nab equals 48. So, in essence, some of the points taken are ones the team earned running a legal car in another race. That’s not quite right.
So what is? It’s easy. If an infraction is found, NASCAR should strip the team’s finishing position and disqualify them from the event. If they really want to get serious, once they’re disqualified, don’t allow them a Chase waiver, even if they win a race later on.
NASCAR has long held that stripping a finishing position, especially a win, would confuse fans, who should know the finishing order when they leave the track. That’s weak; if anything, allowing a win to stand when the driver had an illegal car over someone whose car passed tech is confusing. It’s time to make punishments fit the crime, and taking away finishes would do just that without punishing a team excessively by taking points from races that were never in question.
3. Actual pit-road speed
I’m with Jeff Gordon on this one. Instead of having pit road divided into segments and timing each individually, simply penalize anyone who goes over the speed limit at any time. The current rule allows teams to gain an advantage by selecting certain pit stalls because they can gain a lot of speed in that segment because their stop balances the time. Simply clocking actual speed (with the digital dashboard, a speedometer would be easy to use) would be easier for fans to understand and put all teams on the same plane on pit road. That’s a win-win.
4. Chase waiver parameters
I said this last week, but it bears repeating. The handing out of Chase waivers like candy is ridiculous. Either give anyone with a win in the top 30 a Chase bid regardless of the number of races, or come up with actual rules governing who gets a waiver. That should include both the reason for the driver’s absence and the number of races he can miss. And for goodness sake, don’t give waivers to drivers who are suspended, no matter how many races it’s for or if the suspension was given prematurely and probably should not have happened. For that matter, a suspension should negate the other requirements as well.
Overall, the waiver is a good thing; it keeps drivers healthy and safe by giving them a way to stay out of the seat when they’re not 100%. But giving them to one and all, regardless of reason or length of absence defeats the purpose. In theory, an already-qualified driver could claim a sniffle and sit out a couple of weeks at tracks like Sonoma, Indy or Watkins Glen, and that would be a disservice to fans and sponsors.
5. A better plate package
Part of the blame for Sunday’s lackluster race lies with the current race car package. It looked as though cars could not close up enough to really get a run, and it also seemed to take at least half a dozen cars working together to make any headway. The instability of the cars in the air also led to a pair of spins last week at Talladega. That’s not good.
I’m not suggesting that NASCAR alter the cars in a gimmicky attempt to manipulate the racing. But from a safety and a racing standpoint, there’s plenty of room for improvement. The cars need to be able to push and be pushed in order to make a run, and they need to be stable enough not to snap around if they’re caught in the middle.