Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein
Hey, who knew? After the much ballyhooed and largely successful experiment with a new rules package at Kentucky, NASCAR reverted to their tried-and-true 2015 rules package which has consistently delivered substandard results and stood back as if they expected a different result. What they got of course was the SOS. (Same Old Stuff. “Stuff” is obviously my second choice for the last word, but the editors here at Frontstretch occasionally remind me this is a “family-oriented” site. And there I thought Charlie and his family were all either still in prison or dead… so what the fu… dge?) Actually I’m not being fair there. In the spring race there were 12 lead changes, a couple of which might have occurred on track. The margin of victory in the spring was listed a .754 seconds. Saturday night there were 13 changes for the lead! (Though at least one of them when Kyle Busch pulled over and waved his teammate and eventual race winner Matt Kenseth by.) And the margin of victory was listed .951 seconds.
The big takeaway from the spring Richmond race was NASCAR officials left looking like they’d just sucked on lemons, because the driver they’d suspended at the onset of the season because of allegations of domestic violence, Kurt Busch, had just irrevocably punched his ticket into their “ultra-exciting” Chase though there was still snow on the ground in the northern latitudes of the US of A. They’d gone out of their way to deprive Busch of a win at Fontana the previous month and he hadn’t taken the hint that his presence in the Chase wasn’t wanted. That no doubt left them scratching their heads wondering if they could revert to the rule that insisted a driver at least attempt to qualify for every race to make the Chase, but with Kurt’s younger brother Kyle still on the sidelines they were faced with racing’s equivalent of Sophie’s Choice. The other takeaway from the first Richmond race was Kevin Harvick finished second as he became quite prone to do for the rest of the season.
Yep, there were high hopes for the Richmond race. Surely someone would claw their way into the Chase. At very least maybe an organization could have manipulated what their drivers did to get the lame duck of the organization into the Chase. And NBC was eager to break out the paddles and try to resuscitate the contrived excitement if at all possible but they could not. Minus little green alien skinheads from Mars beaming up the rest of the field, Tony Stewart wasn’t going to make the Chase. (And if the aliens did, the way this season is going my guess is that Stewart still would have found a way to finish second.) NBC was forced to constantly show the points standings on the ticker rather than letting fans see the gaping intervals between drivers in successive positions. My guess is Kenseth would have gone on and lapped the field were it not for NASCAR’s reaching into their standard bag of tricks and throwing needless debris cautions. (Which resulted in a back-marker running into a safety truck, perhaps the most discussed highlight of Saturday night’s event. Hmmm. Maybe if we put pyrotechnics in the rear bumper of the safety vehicles so we can have another Juan Pablo Montoya moment. Whatever happened to the new rule there’d be a second safety truck behind any other one that had discharged passengers?) Anyone who might have noticed cars brushing the wall at Darlington last week didn’t merit a caution (or the race might still be going on) but at Richmond they did, I understand your confusion but get with the program. The only consistency in NASCAR officiating is that they’re consistently inconsistent.
I can’t speak for everyone but I was at the edge of my seat all night simply because I found when I reclined back I quickly drifted off for a nap and I NEVER fall asleep during a stock car race, well not until last night anyway. Right about the part of the dream when Heather Locklear was ready to whip off her bikini top to finish buffing the wax off my new Dodge Hellcat, an eye would flutter open, and yep, Kenseth was still leading. And the second-place runner was still in a different zip code. Three cans of Red Bull kept me awake long enough to see 16 drivers grinning like mules eating briars to celebrate having made the Chase. Officially, the last time a driver made his way into the Chase field was Kyle Busch “earning” his way in at Darlington displacing Aric Almirola but with the way he was running and clicking off race wins that was pretty much preordained. Minus Kasey Kahne’s meteoric plunge out of the top 16 over the summer (finally accomplished at the Glen) there hasn’t been a whole lot of movement in the Chase standings.
But the summer doldrums are over and it’s now time for… the fall doldrums. The NFL cranked back to life this weekend, so on a brighter note damn few people will be watching NASCAR anymore. Because the same rules package that has made this season an insipid test of endurance and loyalty will once again be in effect. Yep, they could have at least tried something else with the cooperation of Goodyear of course, but NASCAR on the brink of grabbing some level of glory settled once again for mediocrity and mindless monotony. But now it’s different. After three races we’re going to eliminate four drivers, My guess is that some driver or pit crew drew will do something so boneheaded during those three events, or perhaps an engine will blow or a driver will get caught up in someone else’s mess and despite what they’ve achieved the entire season to date they’ll get the gong. What I don’t expect is a driver running at Dover, the next culling station, in second place making a last-corner pass of the leader to make the cut by a single point. It’s not going to happen because passing is so difficult with the 2015 rules package. But some drivers will be eliminated, and dad-gum it that’s exciting, Vern.
Of course we’ll need the network statisticians to tell us who they are because it’s all a bit confusing. Nowhere but in NASCAR in the season finale could a winless champion potentially finish 39th with his wrecked racecar long since on the trailer and still get the big trophy. I’m no fan of football and don’t know the rules, but I know if I see a playoff game at a tavern the team what wins moves on and the one that loses is done. Which is why playoff elimination systems work in stick and ball sports with two teams rather than NASCAR where all 43 teams keep competing anyway. If there’s one thing more grating than a lack of excitement at the racetrack, it’s contrived excitement at the race track.
Some fearless predictions for the 2015 “ultra-exciting” Chase:
Restarts are going to be a big issue, and it’s likely going to blow up in NASCAR’s face during the next 10 races. Drivers, crew chiefs and team owners have been hammering on this issue in the drivers’ meeting for months now. Obviously there’s a huge temptation to violate the rules when 90% of the passing occurs within three laps of a restart (and the other 10% occurs in the pits) but there’s got to be some order imposed. Kenseth clearly jumped the final restart Saturday night, but NASCAR swallowed their whistle and threw up their hands figuring he was going to win anyway so let’s just get this over with. Kyle Busch clearly changed lanes prior to the start/finish line on a different restart, but NASCAR decided they really didn’t want to listen to him whine the rest of the night and ignored it. In most sports there are occasional muffed calls by the officials. In NASCAR officials occasionally don’t muff one. As such I propose when the race leader goes a bit too early, rather than penalizing him on the spot, NASCAR ought to wave off that restart and give him a warning and one more chance on the following restart. If he does it twice, he’s clearly dense and deserves to go to the back of the pack.
Brad Keselowski will lose a chance at this year’s title on pit road. His team has decided that their pit crew isn’t that good (a ringing endorsement I’m sure they all appreciated but I’m no sports psychologist) so the No. 2 bunch has decided they need to have Keselowski push the limits further entering and exiting pit road.
As all those prospectuses note “Past performance does not guarantee future results” but JGR seems to be sitting pretty right now. It was somewhat amusing to listen a driver running in the top three whining that his car was handling like a dump truck. If nothing else, it was a mighty fast dump truck. Denny Hamlin didn’t do himself any favors with the basketball injury (seriously, can’t he take up a safer hobby like cliff-diving or vintage motocross?) but then he wasn’t top dog at JGR and he’s a bit of a China doll to start with. (Just a little nervous every fall…. bonus points if you get that one. GBTGD). Kenseth has won three of the last six races. Busch won four out of five from Sonoma to Indy. Carl Edwards has just two wins but they were both big ones, the World 600 and the Southern 500. Team Penske is on a roll as well. Maybe now that not winning is no longer inconsequential to the guy who made the Chase back in February, he’ll get back in the saddle again. (Yeah, yeah, I know. He won at Bristol and the Glen, but I’ve watched him decide to cruise when he might have forced the issue too.) And it’s hard to ignore that with the game now afoot three Hendrick drivers managed top-10 finishes Saturday night as the organization rubs the sleep from their eyes. But none of the threesome led a lap at Richmond but other than Kenseth practically nobody did. Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his first top five since Pocono in August. Jeff Gordon managed his first top 10 since that same race. Yep, they’re back. Color me surprised.
Want to see an intense points battle? Tune in on Saturdays. Both the NXS and trucks have tight little battles going for the championship. Ironically, neither of those series use a Chase format. Go figure. For the record, under the old points system Kevin Harvick would hold a relatively slim 30-point lead over Joey Logano while Earnhardt would be a distant but manageable 84 points behind and would need the rally of his career to join the fray. Which would be exciting to watch. And you know what? I’d be OK with that.
As NBC comes to the realization that they went shopping for a tiger and came home with a tabby-cat, look for a lot of the focus to drift to Gordon and whether the four-time champion can somehow still manage a win in this his final season of Cup competition. Come on, now. Even you once rabid ABG types would like to see it happen. Gordon fans rest assured that NASCAR will do everything in its power in the inspection line and from the flagstand to make it happen in hopes to get race coverage moved up closer to the front of the sports section rather than wedged between high school soccer scores and the odds at the local horse tracks. It would be deliciously ironic if Gordon could claim a final title without a win under the new format after all those years the Chase system deprived him of one despite stellar success. But I doubt “Old 6-Time” is quaking in his booties just yet considering those odds.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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