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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Making Baby Steps

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues a bit of a northern swing this week with a trip to Watkins Glen, a track that has quietly put on quite a show in recent years. And the sport enters the race on a bit of an upswing after a couple of small, but significant shifts within the sanctioning body.

First, the Sprint Cup Series is coming off a week in which the race, despite a rather strange conclusion due to several cars running out of gas in the closing laps. Fuel was at such a premium that drivers who ran out at slightly more opportune times than others came back to finish in the top 10. Joey Logano was leading after a dominant day and ran out. Kyle Busch was gaining on Logano but burned up too much fuel in the process. Matt Kenseth stretched his fuel all the way to Victory Lane.

Raise your hand if you expected a debris caution with 10 laps or so to go.

Yeah, me too. But it didn’t come. The race ran to a natural nail-biter of a conclusion. Had a caution flown, allowing teams to conserve just enough fuel to finish, Busch would likely have completed his comeback mission, moving into the top 30 in driver points, a position he needs in order to secure a Chase berth. After missing 11 races to open the season, Busch’s comeback has been the story of the summer. NASCAR could have ensured Busch his happy ending, and, probably the larger part of the reasoning, had a much tighter race to the finish — but instead the race itself took precedence.

Letting the individual races take center stage is something that NASCAR and the broadcast media simply have not done enough of in recent years. With the emphasis on the Chase and the title, as well as a desire to make every race into a fender-banging spectacle, there’s been a definite push to make things happen, even if that means throwing a “debris” caution to tighten up the field. While I’ve never been sold on the theory that NASCAR throws cautions to benefit whichever driver it feels like throwing a bone that week, it’s undeniable that races are manipulated by cautions that aren’t necessary in an attempt to make the racing closer and possibly creating a little mayhem on a restart.

That’s just not necessary; races need to play out the way they will, and most fans understand that sometimes a driver just dominates. Does the racing need to be better? Absolutely, but the way to do that is to improve the cars themselves and the schedule, not by trying to make something happen that isn’t going to without help. The racing doesn’t need that kind of help.

So as the laps ticked by on Sunday, it’s understandable why many people expected to see a yellow flag as the filed strung out and teams worried about mileage. It was refreshing that the flag didn’t fly. Hopefully that will become a trend rather than a fluke.

The other change that NASCAR made this week was to change its policy on teams receiving penalties if they have to make multiple trips through inspection on more than one occasion. While NASCAR will still issue warnings to those teams, it will now penalize them by taking away pit box selection after four warnings. That’s consistent, and it’s enough. Sure, teams are going to push the tolerances as far as they can. That’s been going on since the dawn of time. But in this case, these are pre-practice and pre-qualifying inspections. The cars in question have not competed illegally in qualifying or a race. Failing post-qualifying or postrace inspection is a whole other animal.

Losing pit stall selection is a big deal at a lot of tracks, and can be hefty punishment, particularly for a team who qualifies well. I’m a fan of more immediate punishment for failing tech too many times, primarily in the form of missing practice time waiting to go through again or even by missing qualifying if it’s the team’s fault and not NASCAR’s, as has happened earlier this year when several teams didn’t get to make a qualifying attempt due to issues with the laser inspection. But this solution, with a clean slate after the penalty served, is the next best thing. It’s fair and consistent, and that’s something NASCAR needs to present itself as to the public eye.

Small things? Sure. But small positive things are a step in the right direction for NASCAR, whose audience continues to waver and dwindle. They’re small, but they were both completely right, and that leaves a good vibe heading into race weekend, something the sport does need.

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kb

The only reason a caution did not come out is because Logano’s team took him out of contention with 3 laps to go. If he was sailing towards the white with no chatter of fuel issues, I bet my soul NASCAR would have called one. Logano is one of the drivers who more often than not is cursed with the multiple debris caution when he is leading or some back marker mysteriously spinning out after driving and staying out of trouble the whole race. Nope Penske did it for them. Just an observation after studying the NASCAR method for many years.

Bill B

kb,
I have to say that I respect your opinion and in most cases agree with it. However your “mission” to defend or elevate the stature of Logano (who is obviously your driver) gets old. I can tell you from experience that it always seems like my team or driver gets the short end of the stick or the questionable call that keeps them from winning. And it’s rare that I feel the refs don’t penalize my football team more than the other team when the clock runs down to 0 in the fourth quarter. That is human nature and it is the result of only being able to see things through one’s own perspective. I AM AS GUILTY OF THIS AS ANYONE.

All I am saying is that I could list a bunch of incidents where I thought Gordon got screwed by a questionable late caution or a back marker (or Bowyer) spinning out. However if I take a step back and look at the last 20 years, I’d have to say that the questionable cautions and untimely spinouts (with the exception of Bowyer which was intentional) have pretty much evened out. The good breaks and bad breaks where luck is with you or against you also evens out over time. If NASCAR throws a fake caution it most likely has less to do with a specific driver and more to do with trying to manufacture an exciting ending (which I hate above all else, except for maybe the wave around rule).

So relax. There is no conspiracy against Logano. Some people like him and some don’t. He had a slow start and was over-hyped when he first came up to the Cup series which as worked against him with the NASCAR fan base accepting him as one of the best. Trust me, when Logano hangs up his hat the breaks will have evened out. Fate (or NASCAR’s heavy hand) will have handed him some wins and taken some away.

kb

Bill, this is a reoccurring theme, as you gave me basically the same speech last year. I will say what I said last year.. I get it..you don’t like Logano and my typing what I see because I pay attention to how drivers are treated will continue. You are very condescending on several levels in your reply to my post, that is your problem not mine. Please don’t read, it seems to offend you.

JohnQ

I wish I could share the writer’s optimism. All I see is floundering organization fiddling with tiny problems because it is in denial as to just how serious the big problems are. The truck series is dead. The Xfinity series has probably been ignored long enough that nothing can save it. The Cup series problems are serious and obvious to everyone except NASCAR. There are no new fans. The remaining fans fall into two categories Going, and Gone. And we are worrying about how many times it takes to get through tech inspection.

Chris

Have to agree John. I am totally lost as to why failing tech inspection (pre-race) is such a big issue as NASCAR clearly doesn’t care about post-inspection (Get caught and still get to keep your finishing position/money). Failing pre-tech hurt the teams as they have to go back around again. They go around 10 times then that is less practice time. NASCAR may have some long term TV and merchandise contracts but I’m not sure what will be left 10 years from now for the remaining fan to see. NASCAR really needs to get away from the slot cars that they are running now; I mean seriously, did you see the size of the spoiler that they ran at Indy?!? You don’t even need to take the car off the trailer to see that its going to suck right to the ground (add to that the silly splitter on the front) but yeah, your right Brian, lets crack down on those that fail tech inspection.

Bill B

I agree with John as well. What I see from NASCAR is mainly lip service. They give the appearance of trying to make the product better and please the fans but when it comes to any major concessions or changes nothing much is happening. The Kentucky race with the new package did not prove anything to me. There were 10 or 11 cautions if I remember. That’s a lot of bunching up and restarts so it was hard to tell how much the new package could produce a compelling race if there were only a couple of cautions. The jury is still out.

IMO, NASCAR’s rule changes have continually undermined the competition side of the sport to increase the perceived entertainment part and it has failed to resonate with the fan base. Mainly because most of us don’t want contrived, manipulated events that produce phony game 7 moments and close championships. We see right through that smoke and mirrors.

As for why the pre-race inspections matter to NASCAR it’s obvious. Having cars have to be inspected several times is more work for the NASCAR officials. No one wants their job to be more difficult.

DoninAjax

Going and Gone! Did you see Ed Howe’s cars?

russ

It seems that Nascar is a bit conflicted right now. On one hand they do seem to be reaching out and making some attempt to improve the racing. Yet at the same time they cling to the notion of pack racing and parity. While at the same time the public’s view of the private automobile is undergoing a dramatic change.
While I hope that the author’s optimism is justified, the cynic in me feels otherwise at least for the long term.

GinaV24

Amy, color me as surprised as you were that the caution didn’t come out at the end of the race. Based on past experience with NASCAR’s desire to “manufacture excitement”, I just thought they’d throw it to bunch up the field. Another reason I was expecting it to come out because it would have screwed up the fuel strategy play that Gordon’s team was on. I was pleasantly surprised that it worked out in his favor.

As you pointed out, NASCAR would be better served long term to work toward whatever they need to do to improve the racing, rather than always trying to manage a short term solution by manipulating the finish of a race. NASCAR has been working hard for a lot of years IMO to convince the race fans that they just don’t get it – mostly by hammering us over the head with various media types who insist if we’d just embrace the world according to Brian, things would be great. Even though they are supposedly trying things to do that with some of the changed rules packages, BZF really really wants that pack racing thing so there is chaos all the time. After all, that is the only way there is any real excitement on the track with the kit car and the crapshoot for the championship the focus of all things these days.

I remain unconvinced, as do many others. Since I plan to be a very casual fan after the end of this season, Brian and the rest of his minions can tap dance with batons on fire after this and I still won’t “care”. NASCAR drove away its fans all of because one guy thought he had much better ideas than the ones that had been working and had the sport in growth mode.

Bill B

Didn’t mean to sound condescending, I was trying not to sound mean spirited (guess I missed the mark).
Don’t remember giving you the same speech last year (if I did sorry to repeat myself).
You’re wrong, I do not dislike Logano at all. He’s OK and a great driver.
Nothing you said offended me at all.

And I don’t think you got the point I was making at all. There were two points. The first is that sometimes it seems like you are trying to “sell” how great Logano is to those who don’t think he’s the best thing since sliced bread (which is pretty much a waste of time, people form their own opinions). And two, I think your perceived opinion of how Logano is treated (or mistreated) by the press is because you are very defensive of him and lose some objectivity (as we all do). However your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s and I wouldn’t expect you to change your tune regardless of what I or anyone else might say. Wave that flag!

Finally I am sorry if I offended you and that wasn’t the aim of my comment.

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