Welcome to Friday Faceoff, our weekly NASCAR roundtable where the Frontstretch experts give their take on major storylines surrounding the sport. Here’s a few major questions we’re trying to answer heading into the Sprint Cup off-weekend.
1) NASCAR approved a series of rule changes to debut at Kentucky next month. Is it the right call, will it improve the racing or should NASCAR not be making such radical changes in the middle of the season?
Beth Lunkenheimer, Content & Technology Director: I’m not convinced that making a rule change midseason, especially those as substantial as the ones for Kentucky, but the bottom line is that something had to give. NASCAR’s ratings were down, fan apathy has been growing, and the sanctioning body needed to make a hard decision in a time when the sport’s interest is quickly dwindling. It’s not like rules package hasn’t been tested before, and really a race setting is the best way to get a true feel for how it affects the overall product on track. Sure, you can run as many test sessions as you’d like, but the fact is that single-driver runs don’t tell the full story about how these changes will fare in a pack of cars. And bonus: these changes are currently only set for a single race, so anyone worried about how it will affect championship contenders can rest easy.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I’ll reserve judgement on the Kentucky package until we see it race; I really think the key to better racing lies more in tires (and there are no tires as of now designed for this package) and in getting the cars up off the ground in front and on the sides. I don’t mind the changes being made midseason in this instance because the changes appear to be mainly with the spoiler and splitter, which are easy enough for all teams to work with. Any more than that would really leave the small teams thrashing. I do think a full-day test would be beneficial to teams for information gathering, though.
Aaron Bearden, Assitant News Editor: It’s a bold decision to put rule changes in toward the middle of the season, and while I approve of the changes being made, I feel that the timing is bad because of the points system. Teams have been working on their current packages to get themselves ready for the Chase. If these rule changes completely alter the racing, all of that preparation could be for naught. The fans wanted changes, and they’re getting them. Just don’t be surprised if some of the early-season favorites start to struggle.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: When you find yourself drowning, it isn’t time to Google swimming lessons to see if you can schedule something for later in the week. The state of competition this season has been so horrific it’s time to try something – anything – else out. The status quo just isn’t an option anymore.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: While I applaud the changes, I can’t help but see them as a “Hail Mary” on NASCAR’s part given the grief they’ve received since the second race of the year. I don’t know if the new drivers’ coffee klatch influenced the decision, but it had to be obvious to everyone at headquarters that something needed to be done, and fast. Every race has led to an onslaught of criticism from pundits and paying customers alike. It seems like a very bold move, especially if the changes result in more of the same mess. Then we just might have another set of changes to debate come early August.
Zach Catanzareti, News Contributor: I see this as a huge move in NASCAR’s way of handling change. I’m very happy to see NASCAR listen to feedback and realize the faults of the current rules and say they are going to base the “success” of the new rules on what the fans think. I believe NASCAR is more open than ever before and that is a major positive. I’m also happy we don’t have to settle with something that the fans and teams know can be better and that NASCAR is looking to change as soon as reasonably possible for the teams.
Clayton Caldwell, News Contributor: I actually like the rule changes for once. I think different aero packages at different race tracks make a lot of sense. I just don’t understand the back and forth NASCAR does all the time. We were originally going to run the 2016 rule package at the All-Star race then NASCAR said we might not see the changes at all. Then a meeting with the drivers and they come up with the 2016 rule package at Kentucky. If anyone doesn’t think that the sanctioning body was affected by the drivers’ council meeting, they are sorely mistaken.
Gene Higgins, Fan Contributor: NO on the “shot in the dark” execution, but YES on their overall intent. The downforce reduction is said to be the equivalent of 800 to 1000 pounds. But, why implement this large, if not severe, reduction in down-force without tire testing? It sure seems like the Kentucky race is going to be 400-mile test, and a meaningless one at that, since the tires were made for an obsolete car.
2) Mother Nature made a mockery of Michigan. Is there anything NASCAR could have done better, considering the situation or was it just a series of bad breaks?
Lunkenheimer: I really wish everyone would just let it go already. Rain is nothing new when it comes to NASCAR racing, and it’s a fact of pretty much any sport held outdoors. NASCAR moved up the start time in an effort to get more of the race in, and despite multiple bouts with rain, a substantial number of laps were run. Was it an ideal situation? Not really. No one wants to see a rain-shortened race or one where momentum is killed by multiple red flags. But the forecast for Monday was much of the same, even if there was a window in the forecast, since we know how easily weather can change. Besides, no one wants to race on Tuesday, and that’s most likely what would have happened, given that those still in the area reported rain off and on throughout the day. Some reports said the sun came out shortly after the broadcast went off the air, but when you consider track drying time and the lack of lights at the track, NASCAR’s hand was forced, even if fans didn’t get the 200 laps that were promised.
Henderson: What could NASCAR have done differently? Run on Monday morning, when there was a forecast window. Getting the race in on Sunday at all costs isn’t a great idea. It worked at Bristol because almost the whole race was able to run without stoppages for weather after the initial red flag. But what fans saw Sunday could barely be considered a race. It reminded me of the Indy tire debacle, and that’s history that should NEVER be repeated. There was little to no chance of racing the entire scheduled distance on Sunday at Michigan, where there was a better chance Monday. Running the full distance should be the ultimate goal, not running to halfway on the scheduled day.
Bearden: If there’s anything that Midwest racing fans such as myself understand, it’s that rain can come and go in the blink of an eye. My area of Indiana has been hit by at least one shower everyday for three weeks, and Michigan hasn’t faired much better. Short of rescheduling the race or attempting to dry the track on more time, there really isn’t much that NASCAR could’ve done.
McLaughlin: Made a mockery of Michigan? I don’t think so. It just irrigated the crops. Fun fact: Michigan produces more than 200 commodities, making the state with the second most diverse agriculture industry in the nation just behind California. And it ain’t raining in California. (Not until they try to get the race in at Sonoma anyway.) The rain did however make a real mess of the attempt to conduct a NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway. Races are run outdoors. Sometimes it rains. As our British friends might say, “Can’t be helped.” What struck me was the cynicism on the part of NASCAR and FOX. Both made it clear they just wanted the race over with. If that was their their take on things can fans be blamed for feeling the same?
Howell: As someone who’s worked through numerous rain delays at Michigan, I can say that without having lights to allow for a later restart, the track is stuck with its current “dry-and-try” method. Lodging and travel around the Irish Hills is pretty awful, so holding fans hostage until Monday is anything but a good way to boost public relations. The almighty Air Titan did its job, but so did Mother Nature. Until MIS either gets lights or a much better regional infrastructure, I’m afraid such long, wet days (like the fans) will endure.
Catanzareti: Just a series of bad breaks. Darrell Waltrip said he’s never seen a day at the track like that one and I don’t see how NASCAR could have put the full distance in. The final storm ran for well over an hour and at that point, the fans were tired, the teams were tired and the lack of lights at the track were going to be the period at the end of Michigan’s day.
Caldwell: I feel NASCAR did the best they could to run the race on Sunday. It probably would have been better to wait until Monday to race but fans have to work on Monday so its understandable to try and get it in Sunday. You can’t control the weather and that’s what the big issue was Sunday.
3) Viva Motorsports shut down its Xfinity Series program this week, citing a lack of funding to continue. Is this an isolated incident, or a sign of a much larger issue brewing?
Henderson: As of now, it appears isolated, but it could be a sign of trouble down the road. Look at the NXS programs with decent funding right now, and there are what, maybe 10 of them? Maybe up to 15 if you count the ones run by Cup drivers on a weekly basis. There needs to be value for sponsors in that series, and as long as the television cameras are on the Cup stars 90% of the time, a couple of choice NXS regulars 9.9% of the time and the rest of the field splits that 0.1% left, there is no value for a company wanting to invest in racing. They’re better off buying a quarterpanel on a top Cup car for a race or two, and they know it.
Bearden: Running in the Xfinity Series is an expensive ordeal. Ask any driver outside of the top 10 in points, and they’ll all tell you they struggle to make it to the track each week. Viva Motorsports closing down is indicative of the economics of NASCAR. It takes a lot of money to make a little, and not many teams have a lot.
McLaughlin: Viva Motorsports is just the canary in the coal mine. The top performing teams are run out of the big Cup shops and used as R&D and driver development efforts. Given the size of the purses, the TV ratings (though starting a race at 10 p.m. ET this week really ought to boost those… when did they legalize dope in Daytona Beach?) and the dearth of sponsorship leaves the NXS series the best way to make a small fortune in racing… if you start with a large one.
Howell: The elephant in the room is the fact that there’s no such thing as an affordable lower-tier in NASCAR, and there never has been one. We see the same “haves” versus “have nots” struggle at every level, and the Xfinity Series is simply the next in line to implode. Changes to the rules/cars mean changes in spending, like we’ve seen in the Cup Series. NXS teams have been feeling similar pinches, only now we’re seeing budgets getting pinched, too. Expect more closings to follow.
Catanzareti: It’s always bad when a team, in any NASCAR series, shuts down. The team went through a lot with many accidents and driver changes. I look at Furniture Row as an example that a once start-and-park team can one day be the best in the sport.
At another angle, looking at what Formula 1 is going through which lost the key event of the German Grand Prix for 2015 and has the Italian Grand Prix on the edge of the cliff after 2016 (in NASCAR terms, that would be like losing Darlington and Martinsville) and also has teams like Caterham out the door and Red Bull threatening to “quit.” It could be much much worse for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. However, it is something we should pay close attention to.
Caldwell: Being an Xfinity Series only team is a tough deal. You’re running against Cup teams with Cup drivers with Cup engineers and Cup pit crews on the same racetrack as the Cup race is run the same day. How can you compete with that? The cars nowadays in these series are so identical it’s just a playground for these teams. Not only do you factor in all that but think of the money these teams are up against. Jeremy Clements‘s team usually runs unsponsored during a race weekend. Compare that to Chase Elliott‘s NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship which has enough money to move to the Sprint Cup Series for 24 races to sponsor the No. 24 car at Hendrick Motorsports next season. With the lack of purse in the Xfinity Series it almost makes you wonder if it makes more sense to run 30th in Cup than it does to run 15th in NXS.
4) Matt Crafton lost his chance at victory late in Saturday’s race at Gateway. Was John Hunter Nemechek out of line, should he be worried about payback and do we look at this incident differently – fair or unfair – because Nemechek is underfunded?
Lunkenheimer: There is no doubt in my mind that Nemechek saw a hole and tried to make a big move for the win but couldn’t make it stick. Simply put, he made a mistake… nothing more than that. He holds Crafton in high respect and told me at Texas that he learned so much in their side-by-side battle at Gateway last year. As for payback? Not even close. Nemechek took responsibility and apologized to Crafton immediately following the race, and Crafton is smart enough to know that payback over one incident isn’t wise.
Henderson: That wreck in no way looked intentional. If it had been, it would be a different story, but it was a mistake. Young drivers make those from time to time. Crafton is a veteran and I suspect he knows that his time and energy will be better spent on running up front in the remaining races and aiming for a series-record third consecutive title than on exacting revenge on a rookie driver in equipment that’s no threat. I hate to see drivers send “payback” for unintentional stuff anyway, but doing that to a small team is a little extra-low as they’re the last guys to do something that would intentionally tear up equipment in the first place.
Bearden: Nemechek, while an incredible talent, is still inexperienced. He tried to complete a big move, and made a mistake. That’s all. As for payback, I wouldn’t expect to see anything happen. The incident hurt Crafton, yes, but Crafton’s in a position in points where he can’t afford to give payback to every driver that roughs him up a little. I imagine the two will have a conversation, chock this one up as a racing incident, and move on.
McLaughlin: Oh for the love of Pete. This is auto racing not lawn croquet. A teenager saw his chance to score an upset win, a chance that his dad might take him to the Waffle House to celebrate on the drive home and he went for it. It didn’t end up well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Ask Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. The last 20 laps of that truck race featured more unexpected twists and turns than the entire 2015 Cup season to date. Please, sir, I want some more.
Howell: Despite his family lineage, Nemechek is still a kid. He doesn’t have nearly the experience now as he will accumulate over time, so such run-ins as we saw at Gateway should be both expected and overlooked. It was a rookie/young driver mistake, one that many others racing that weekend have committed in their own various ways. It was pretty much a blip on the racing radar and one move John Hunter will likely try to avoid in later events.
Catanzareti: It was late in the race and a young driver was pushing it at a track that got him known one year ago. Crafton, at that point, didn’t have too much to lose after Erik Jones‘s issues. Nemechek apologized well after the race and I don’t expect a veteran like Crafton to waste time trying to payback a teenager instead of focusing on winning like he has been in 2015.
Caldwell: This isn’t even a question. Nemechek didn’t intentionally go into a corner with the intention to wreck Crafton. Nemchek made a mistake and one I’m sure he felt horrible about. I think Crafton for the most part is a smart enough racer to realize that. If Nemechek had used his bumper to get out of the way then Crafton would have every right to go out and wreck the kid. I’d be all for it. However, that’s not all all what happened here. Should Crafton be frustrated? Sure, who wouldn’t be? But Nemechek knows the game. His dad was a racer and he comes from a respected family. My guess is John Hunter reached out to Crafton and apologized and this is all forgotten about.
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