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.