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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Old School vs. New School NASCAR On Display

Denny Hamlin made one of the better comebacks in recent history at Chicagoland Sunday afternoon. Causing the race’s first caution after making contact with AJ Allmendinger, Hamlin fell a lap down and was dead last less than five laps into the race. Two weeks after a torn ACL, it seemed last year’s “Final Four” participant was riding a recent run of bad luck straight out of the “tournament,” digging a deep hole outside the Chase bubble.

Instead, the only shovel Hamlin has to worry about is one where he gets to throw dirt on his 15 rivals. A surprising trip to Victory Lane, punching his ticket to round two was punctuated by the fact he led just nine laps, including the final five on old tires. It was part of a remarkable turnaround for Hamlin’s employer, Joe Gibbs Racing, who appeared to struggle most of the day only to post all four of its cars inside the top 10 by the finish.

Hamlin’s heroics deserve their fair share of credit. Dicing through the field with the 2015 rules package isn’t easy; passing has been difficult, even with a tire that fell off during long green-flag runs at Chicagoland. Restarts are their own art and Hamlin pulled off a beautiful move on the last one, darting to the inside and blowing by both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon to ride the beauty of clean air and clear sailing to the checkered flag. So why does the victory feel more hollow than it should? Why did a race that was above average by Chicagoland standards generate a 1.8 rating and limited buzz so far this week?

Those answers are easy. It’s accepting the changes in racing, as most longtime NASCAR fans have tried to do for years that wind up so hard.

Consider the way this race might have played out 15 years ago. Hamlin, after his spin with Allmendinger would line up on the inside line each restart. With the lead-lap cars single-file, he’d have to fight tooth and nail to get his lap back the hard way by fighting with the leader and other lap-down cars. If he was lucky, a “gentleman’s agreement” with a teammate would let him slip through but considering rivals like Martin Truex Jr. and Busch spent time up front he could just as easily been kept a lap down.

That’s if there would have been a caution to give Hamlin a chance to catch up. Following his spin, the race went green for 117 straight laps, nearly half of the 267-lap scheduled distance before NASCAR magically found debris on the backstretch. Years ago, the hint of metal there would have never caused a caution, especially on a straightaway where cars were unlikely to race inside that part of a groove. Just a few extra laps under green would have made a difference for Hamlin; at the time of that yellow, he was nearly two laps down and would have likely been passed by leader Kyle Busch in the near future.

Should Hamlin have been able to fight back onto the lead lap his pit strategy would have likely been different. NASCAR tires years ago fell off so quickly the choice of staying out on old rubber, like Hamlin did during the race’s final caution would have been impossible. Four tires would have won out so quick, blowing by the No. 11 car on the restart the JGR Toyota might not have even run inside the top 10.

Let’s compare that with what actually happened, the scenario all fans swallow these days for better or worse. Hamlin was one lap back when that “debris” was found on the backstretch; the safety car was shown on NBC but the piece of metal was never described, picked up on camera or specified by NASCAR. That means fans have no idea what changed the outcome of the race during a “postseason” (I.E. – special, everyone on top of their game) event.

Hamlin, catching the lucky break remained just one lap behind the leader. That’s when crew chief Dave Rogers made the smart move of keeping the No. 11 car out under caution, putting them in front of the leader and allowing them to take the wavearound. The rule, allowing the equivalent of extra “free passes” back onto the lead lap gave Hamlin a full 1.5 miles by simply choosing not to pit. Lining up at the tail end of the field, this gamble left him within sight of the leaders and back in contention to finish strong.

The strong strategy was cemented a few laps later when Austin Dillon wrecked, one of the few clear-cut reasons for a yellow flag all day. That meant Hamlin’s place on the lead lap was assured; he could come down pit road, take time and make adjustments to an already fast Fed Ex machine that could slice through traffic. A long green-flag run after that put Hamlin back on the cusp of a top-10 performance; yet another debris caution, occurring in the middle of green-flag stops boosted him up near the top five. One of seven drivers who didn’t pit, the weirdly-timed yellow left rivals a lap down and gave precious track position to Hamlin, Carl Edwards and others who simply stretched out their fuel mileage more than everybody else.

Headed back to green, Hamlin used double-file restarts to gain positions and remain in contention down the stretch. Still, the team wouldn’t have been in a winning spot had its driver darted down pit road during the final caution instead of failing to listen to commands in time.

“My spotter said come,” he explained after the race. “I was already kind of committed to not come. He said it so fast, I couldn’t process it quite fast enough. So I just thought we were screwed actually.”

However, screwed turned to successful almost instantly after a final restart where Hamlin started third. Gordon spun his tires in front of him, Kurt Busch didn’t get going and all of a sudden a bold three-wide move left the No. 11 out in front. The reality of aerodynamics with this rule package means Hamlin was virtually untouchable from there; no one was going to close the gap and break the dreaded “aero push” even with new tires. It’s a big win for Hamlin, his team and his Chase chances after being the forgotten JGR driver in a summer of big victories.

Yet it’s also a win defined by strategy, luck, a “botched” pit call and questionable NASCAR cautions that put the No. 11 in position to win the race. Not exactly the dashing drive to victory Dale Earnhardt had at Charlotte when he came back to win the Coca-Cola 600 from a lap down in the early ‘90s, is it? Or when Dale Jarrett nearly came back from multiple laps back to stage an improbable victory in the Brickyard 400?

No, Hamlin won fair and square, his team making the most of NASCAR’s rules. Don’t hate the player in this case; hate the game. Unfortunately, few people like the different way in which teams and drivers are forced to play it.

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23 thoughts on “Bowles-Eye View: Old School vs. New School NASCAR On Display”

  1. Wow! Well said Tom. That pretty much sums up the crapshoot, lottery that NASCAR has become.
    Most fans do hate the game but the hate the designer of the game even more.

  2. I remember when every Sunday I would listen to the race on my grandfathers Philco radio. Today its hard to watch for more than short periods. Sad.

  3. It is hard to admire wins like that, well because they don’t feel like wins. They don’t seem have the same grit as a hard fought true win and frankly piss me off because the person seemingly destine to win is robbed by a BS caution to fit NASCARS agenda. IE that scrape on the wall by a TOYS back marker driver MATT D. NEVER a camera on those back markers who cause a caution at the end of the race. Funny how they seem to stay out of trouble for 290 laps and then the last 10 they “lose” it. Lol. Slimy NASCAR These type of wins are gifted and some seem to luck into them more than others. Hate the system, and hate just about everything including the players…just about all of em’. Sad state of affairs and yet I still hope Castle Daytona will see the error of their ways. Yup, I am the idiot.

    • kb, yeah, funny how that always seems to happen. If anyone but NASCAR did it, they would be called out for cheating but since it is the sanctioning body, who’s going to tell them they cheat?

      Many of the fans think NASCAR is dishonest and cheats, certainly I do, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

  4. You have summed up the lack of enthusiasm for this ‘playoff’ system in a nutshell. When drivers are ‘gifted’ a lap it’s hard to admire the move very much. It always amuses me when Nascar decides to change something that worked well for many years, citing that the ‘old’ way was too confusing for the fans. I’m not sure if that’s a commentary on the average intelligence of today’s fan, or that it’s too confusing for BZF. Fans managed to cope just fine for many years. Those in Daytona have taken away the set up options for the teams, they no longer can balance speed vs. reliability vs. tire falloff. No more battling your way past the leader and earning a lap back. Reminds me of the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ attitude too prevalent these days. I still contend that, as talented as JJ is, his ‘chase only’ titles will never be held in the same regard that The King and Earnhardt’s are. Sad for him.

    • Maybe the average intelligence of today’s fan really isn’t too high, which plays into Brian’s plans for the product. I’m sure they spend most of their time with their eyes on their phones (on the Sprint network).

      • ha, yeah, its like the people who use those little sprint vision things at the track — now I can sort of understand that at some of the bigger tracks, but man, to me, if I’m at the track, I’m watching the whole thing – if I wanted to only watch one car at a time, I’d stay home and watch it on tv.

  5. I don’t get all the hate for the “lucky dog” and the “wave around”. Both were created because “racing back to the yellow”(safety reasons) was eliminated and “double-file restarts” (fan demand) were implemented. If neither existed now, it would be impossible to race your way back to the lead lap. There is no way even a dominant car could pass through all the lap down cars and the lead lap cars to earn a lap back coming off a restart. The bigger issue is NASCAR’s quick hand with the “debris” caution flag.

    • Well, if you got rid of the double file restarts which basically create chaos and are unfair (would you rather be in 4th on the outside at Martinsville, or 9th on the inside,,, if you said 9th on the inside then they are inherently unfair), put the lap down cars back on the inside lane like they used to be, then there is your opportunity to race your way back on the lead lap. Of course you need a really good car to outrun the leader, which should be a prerequisite to ever getting a lap back. After all why should there ever need to be an entitlement program for cars that aren’t fast enough to stay on the lead lap. They don’t hand out free touchdowns in football if one team is leading by 4 touchdowns at the end of the first quarter. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any sport that gifts competitors anything to keep the game close… and then there’s NASCAR, the pseudo-sport.

      I have to ask, did you just forget that’s the way you used to get a lap back Update24Fan or have you only been a fan since double file restarts?

      BTW, that would really cure a lot of the worries of jumping the restart. The leader won’t be as upset if the car that jumps is just getting a lap back and not taking away the lead from them.

      • Great post Bill B. Make them race to get their lap back. No freebies.
        But then, that would make it racing, which could possibly change the entire complexion of the “Sport”.

        • Bill B, exactly. Watching the madness on the restarts and having NASCAR/BZF/the media call it excitement rather than what it really is so frustrating. It goes along with the multiple green white checker BS.

          I remember watching Ryan Newman deliberately try to cause a wreck on a restart (he was the leader) so that the race would be over.

  6. The Chase is and always will be a joke- no matter how many fights they stage.
    Why was there a camera pointed at the motorhomes hours after the race?

    If you listen to Sirius NASCAR this week you would think that 03 Darlington just happened again.
    The racing sucked as usual and NASCAR is grasping on to this “fight” as real excitement, give me a break.

  7. Fans not interested? Well, who’s to blame for that? NASCAR’s worthless leader, that’s who. You are right, racing is different now mostly because the rules are made up on a weekly basis by NASCAR and the dice are loaded.

    Last year I was somewhat interested, mostly because Gordon had a good season, so I paid attention even though I dislike the chase. This year with the new stupid 2015 non-racing package, I lost interest early on but have held on so long as Gordon was racing. 9 races & counting and NASAR won’t be a blip on my ratings radar.

  8. I really have no issue with the wave around and not racing to start/finish line as those were safety driven. I do have two big issues. One is phantom yellows. Its really gone insane. If the TV cameras can’t show it and NASCAR can’t even tell you what it was then that is pure horse bleep.

    Secondly races were made 500 miles to pit man vs machine. Could car and driver both survive 500 grueling miles. With the way these cars are today the race could be 1000 miles and the finish would be the same. YAWN!!

    Might as well make the races 250 miles. Except the lost commercial time what would it matter?

    • Steve, you have hit on part of the issue which is that the cars, through advancement in technology in addition to NASCAR not allowing teams to make changes in many areas on the car (shocks, suspension, gearing, etc.) have made the phrase “mechanical failure” just about obsolete in NASCAR. Back 15 years ago seeing a couple cars drop out in the late stages of the race due to engine failures wasn’t uncommon. Seeing we aren’t seeing mechanical failures that much anymore we should look at debris cautions as their replacement?

  9. Sunday’s race in the grand scheme of things was really irrelevant. The only sporting event NASCAR beat in the ratings this weekend was golf, and that was by two tenths of a percent. Hard times in NASCAR are only going to get worse, and that is because of the product on track. Casual fans won’t watch a boring race.

  10. Don’t have an issue so much with “wave around” & “lucky dog” ..They were done for a few reasons, but they are hard & fast rules…These fake cautions & judgement calls & thet Do Not appear to be the same….It all smells funny & wheres there’s smoke there’s usually fire..It just looks so bad ..As always credit brian …

    • I agree. I don’t have much of a problem with the wave around as much as the lucky dog, but I would rather have the lucky dog than a car sitting in the middle of the track under green flag conditions. The wave around does have its risks so I wouldn’t necessarily call it a freebee. If you take it, you need a quick caution afterwards to make it work for you. If the race stays green, the wave around doesn’t work for you because once you take the wave around, you cannot pit.

      Like Earner said, its the fake cautions and the convenient timing of these that help out the chosen ones. The author nailed it. Hamlin is in the Chase and was close to being put 2 laps down. Nascar can’t have that for one of its Chase guys (especially a toyota apparently this year) so this is what they do. And it really frustrates the fans. Races don’t naturally play out anymore, which is another reason to explain the low tv numbers. Nascar saying it was a success because they sold out 50,000 seats is a joke. The place used to hold over 60,000 so they took seats out. But then again perception has always been more than reality lately for nascar so its no surprise

  11. All the people on here complaining about the double file restarts makes me laugh. Weren’t the fans the ones demanding the double file restarts (like every short track does in America)in the first place since the single file restarts were boring and the lapped cars didn’t belong at the front of the field? That’s what I heard at the time. So what’s changed? Jeez, I wish people would make up their minds.

      • What I heard fans saying was they wanted better racing which for me at least translates into cars being able to race side by side and then pass.

        I wasn’t looking for a gimmick to get back onto the lead lap or to use the double file restart nonsense to result in major chaos on the track. Of course that is what BZF and NASCAR interpret as excitement when it is a big mess, rather than skill.

        DoninAjax — ha, yeah I’m with you on your comments.

        • One might argue if you could actually pass with these cars, then drivers wouldn’t have to kamikaze into the first turn every restart just so they can pass someone. Right now, they know it might be the only shot they have. You don’t see that at the local short track because you can actually pass at other times beside the restart.

          The double file restarts used to be fine, but you could also pass cars and not have to rely on restarts as your only chance to do it. So in my opinion the double file restarts are the problem. Its the lack of passing.

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