Oh, I used to be disgusted,
Now I try to be amused.
Since their wings have gotten rusted,
The angels wanna wear my red shoes
Yep, sometimes it’s impossible not to be amazed by how consistently NASCAR’s sharpshooters can shoot themselves in the foot. Click those red shoes together, Dorothy, ’cause I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore… that was last week. The ill-winds of a wayward Mexican hurricane blew foul fortune upon some and unearned benefit upon others at the end of Sunday’s race in Sweet Home Alabama. (A song whose three writers, by the way, were, in fact, from Florida, but the guitar licks are legendary nevertheless.) Never before have five minutes of not racing and non-restarts caused so many hours of flaming posts on Twitter. If there are two sides to the debate in this instance it doesn’t involve whether NASCAR’s calls were right or wrong but rather which call they blew the worst.
There’s a certain solace to my new Tuesday deadline on Frontstretch this season. Those with deadlines on Monday; Neff, Bedgood, Henderson, Jordan et al, have to come to their own conclusions and let their opinions float like trial balloons into the air. (At least one of them chose to duck and cover this week rather than likely draw heavy fire.) With a Tuesday deadline I have more time to contemplate, read fans’ reactions to what those other writers said, and tweak my own thoughts. I’m sort of like a prairie dog poking his head the day after the battle to consider the blackened field of combat and the smoking ashes to see which fires are burning the brightest.
But as is my nature, I’ll start by going off the grid. Yep, we need to talk about that restart that wasn’t a restart and the move the driver of the No. 4 car made that ended the race, but the biggest mistake NASCAR made wasn’t either of those calls (or non-calls). Jamie McMurray’s engine expired in an oily plume late in the race. (Conspiracy theorists might consider perhaps the team had rigged the engine to do so at the touch of a button because that exploding engine was the only way McMurray and the sponsors on the side of his car were going to get shown on TV given NBC’s fixation with the Chasers… ask Greg Biffle.) It was clear there was a lot of fluid on the track, and Talladega is the biggest track on the circuit. You didn’t have to have a PhD in hazardous waste management to know that that was going to take a long while to clean up.
When NASCAR threw that yellow flag, they should have instantly thrown the red flag as well and stopped the field on the back straight, still several laps short of the scheduled distance. Oddly enough, NASCAR did just that during Saturday’s truck race. I don’t know who this Fred guy was, but he must have some clout with the boys in the tower. Given the nature of pack racing at Talladega, it was obviously imperative that the track be thoroughly cleaned and the resultant clouds of absorbent material be vacuumed up prior to a re-check before setting a thundering three-wide eight-deep herd of cars stampeding into the setting sun. Remember what happened at Charlotte when NASCAR didn’t quite get the track cleaned up enough?
I’m puzzled as to why NASCAR didn’t choose to do so Sunday. The race had only been slowed twice by caution flags to that point. They had plenty of daylight left to work with and no impending bad weather to deal with. The race was even within its TV time slot so NBC couldn’t be have been telling them to wrap things up quickly. Had NASCAR thrown the red flag and cleaned up the track, there’s no way of knowing if another caution would have flown before the scheduled distance, but at least the drivers could have sorted it out racing at full speed and not thanks to two abortive attempts at restarting the race. Running all those extra laps under caution cost Biffle a shot at an upset win and allowed Kevin Harvick to nurse his wounded car around until the end. Maybe Joey Logano would still have won. Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had the dominant car would have won and advanced. Or maybe someone running 10th would have made one of those last-minute kamikaze drives through the tri-oval to take the victory. Sadly, we’ll never know.
I also found it curious that NASCAR decided to change the rule for Sunday’s race deciding there’d be no more than one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, as opposed to a maximum of three attempts as has been the rule at every other track on the schedule. NASCAR naturally stated they made the change out of concern for the drivers’ safety (and presumably concern for the safety of the fans in the stands after way too many close calls at Daytona and Talladega.) Most of you will recall that NASCAR instituted the GWC rule after an incident at this very track. Back in April 2004, the Talladega race was allowed to finish under caution. Jeff Gordon won and Earnhardt Jr. was deprived of a chance to make a run for the checkers after an incident involving Brian Vickers, who went on to finish the race on the lead lap anyway. To further rile up the highly partisan Earnhardt crowd in Alabama, Gordon’s victory allowed him to surpass Dale Earnhardt, the Original, in the career victories stat. Enraged, the Earnhardt diehards pelted the No. 24 car with beer cans as he celebrated the win. (If you’ll allow me a brief aside, I think we can all agree throwing beer cans at a winner is low rent. Given the inebriation of most of the those throwing those cans, more of them hit someone else in the grandstands rather than making it onto the track, and it is, after all, a waste of perfectly good beer… or Budweiser.)
Originally, nothing in the rule stated how many attempts would be made at a GWC finish. Fans were going to see the race end under green no matter how long it took. Then during one truck race (I think it was at IRP), people kept wrecking and there were so many attempts at a GWC it seemed if they let things play out nobody would finish. Shortly afterwards the rule was changed to a maximum of three attempts. And you have to appreciate the unintended irony of a race at the track that gave birth to the GWC rule ending under caution with an Earnhardt in second and people throwing beer cans at the winner anyway.
I’m still struggling with how a single GWC finish was supposed to make anyone safer on either side of the grandstands. The impetus for the single GWC finish rule was Austin Dillon’s nasty wreck at Daytona (the last plate race) which occurred…ahem, during a single green-white-checkered finish. Despite one of my colleagues contention back in July that Dillon’s wreck proved the catchfences were adequate, it would seem what the NASCAR officials on hand saw during that wreck scared the bejezus out of them and had their liability lawyer wringing their hands. But in changing the rule, they seem to be admitting that restrictor-plate racing is more inherently dangerous than other oval-track events. Thus, it would seem that if safety is the true goal of the rules change, safety would have been better served by eliminating the races at Daytona and Talladega to protect the drivers and fans alike. At very minimum, an effort should have been made post-Daytona to find a way to slow the cars down to a safe speed without those cursed plates which were adopted as a “temporary” measure almost three decades ago. It’s just the nature of the beast. If a race concludes under green at the scheduled distance or if it ends after 20 laps of “overtime” there’s still going to be drivers in those huge packs Brian France says he likes so much throwing caution to the wind. Almost inevitably one day a car will end up in the grandstands. By implementing the new rule this weekend, NASCAR is all but admitting as much.
As a historical footnote, Bobby Allison’s wreck at Talladega didn’t introduce the plates to NASCAR racing. Initially they were used to limit the horsepower disparity between Dodge and Ford’s purpose-built race engines (the Hemi and the Boss) and the more conventional wedge engines. Many felt it was a sop offered to GM to get back into racing in the wake of Ford and Dodge quitting the factory teams. In actuality it ushered in the era of small block engines which NASCAR preferred to slow the cars down. To make racing safer of course. Smaller plates were also used at Michigan when it first opened to lower those speeds.
And now, on to the two controversies most fans latched onto after the event at Talladega NASCAR alleges was a race. You’ve heard a lot of opinions from the media, and the drivers themselves and have doubtless come to conclusions of your own. You can count me in the camp of people baffled by how a restart cannot be a restart. Those expanded zones on now painted on the edges of the track and enhanced by NBC’s add-on red lines are called “restart zones” are they not? I mean maybe next week they’ll be calling them “re-acceleration zones” or something but that’s the area of the track within which the control car (the leader) has to hit the gas and restart the race. There’s that word again. If the control car fails to accelerate within that zone, the flagman throws the green flag to restart the race. Yep, there it is again. Clearly the green light on the flag stand was illuminated on the starter’s stand, meaning someone in the tower had decided the race had restarted. But now we’re being told that the race hasn’t actually restarted until the cars pass over the start-finish line. Huh? That surprised me, but I don’t feel bad. Apparently the drivers who get paid to race for a living didn’t know that either. That caution came out so quickly you have to wonder if the starter him (or her) self made the call or they got word from the tower to throw the yellow.
Now if the race never restarted, which NASCAR is telling us, why weren’t the drivers involved returned to their starting positions? I suppose the argument is they failed to maintain reasonable speed under the caution, which is difficult to do if you’re spinning through the infield grass.
I seem to recall in shooting pool at seaside bars in Jersey, whoever broke (the winner of the last game and thus the control player) could wave off his break saying the balls had been racked loosely and thus for a better game they should be racked up again for another shot. Unless any colored ball had gone into a pocket. And trust me there were a lot of fights, both verbal and physical, when someone chose to invoke that rule. My buddies and I would roll our eyes and call it “Jersey pool,” just as the Jersey boys used to contest our rule if that you don’t hit the 8-ball on a shot that might win the game you lose. Yeah, sometimes in desperation with no shot to take on your own, you’d try to block the 8-ball to steal a win, but we fought over that strategy too. The only way to shoot pool rather than argue and to brawl was to decide on the rules before the break and have everyone be on the same page before there was an advantage to them one way or another.
That led to the second attempt at a restart and I presume you all know what the outcome was even if the intent of the driver involved is open to interpretation. On that restart-that-wasn’t-a-restart, Harvick, knowing his mount was mortally wounded, did the right thing and moved up out of line to stay out of the way. There’s no debating when that yellow flag flew Harvick had to think it was a gift. He was clearly not happy when told that that restart didn’t count. At his best Harvick can be an affable guy. He doesn’t handle irritation well.
On the restart that counted as a restart Harvick changed tactics. Rather than drift outside to the wall he held his position. As we discussed last week, blocking isn’t illegal in NASCAR racing. Given their decision making this week, I think we can all agree we don’t want to hand NASCAR a new rule against blocking they get to interpret. According to the No. 4 driver, he’d decided maybe he’d get a push from the cars behind him and get up to speed. I find that questionable. You can put the spurs to an ailing jackass, but it’s still not going to win the Kentucky Derby. Trevor Bayne moved up to the outside line against the wall to pass Harvick’s stricken Chevy.
Now we’re at the crux of the matter. It’s possible that Harvick thought nobody could pass him prior to the start/finish line. I believe the rule actually says another driver can pass you if you fail to accelerate, but again that’s open to interpretation. If the leader buzzes the tire and fails to come up to speed quickly and the second-place finisher gets ahead of him, I’ve seen the “passing” driver penalized. Either way, after a couple hours of flying in tight formation without anything but incidental contact, Harvick suddenly cut right and clipped the back of Bayne’s car. The No. 6 car got sideways and it was Katie Bar the Door time. Harvick said he wasn’t aware Bayne was out there. Frankly I’d find that easier to believe if Harvick’s Chevy had been gathered up in the wreck too. The fact he says he didn’t know Bayne was out there, accidentally ran into him, then took split-second action to avoid the wreck defies belief.
Other drivers involved in the incident seemed equally certain Harvick’s move was intentional, and they had the best seats in the house. Some called on Harvick to be penalized, which would have had playoff implications, but NASCAR had already painted themselves in a corner in that regard. Brian France called Logano’s decision to knock Matt Kenseth out of his way at Kansas last week “quintessential NASCAR.” (As an aside a special nod to some hardworking behind the scenes NASCAR type who managed to get Brian France to use a four-syllable word correctly. My guess is that fellow could teach a trout to play trombone.)
I very much doubt Harvick will be penalized for that move, even if evidence surfaces it was intentional. But some Earnhardt Jr. fans are still holding out hope that there will be points penalties handed down this week against Kurt Busch and Harvick, who are currently seventh and eighth in the standings. NASCAR saw something they didn’t like with the radiator pans on all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars prior to this weekend’s race and forced the teams to change them. Typically any tweaking of the aero rules at the plate tracks draws big penalties. So let’s say NASCAR hits both drivers and teams with a 25-point penalty, which I doubt, but again it wouldn’t be unheard of, and they get to make up the severities of a penalties too. (So I guess you could say if they decide that a restart is a not a restart you could also call a penalty leveled at the No. 48 team a non-penalty because it’s suddenly like it never happened after the appeals process.) Here’s the 411, Junior Nation: if Harvick and Busch do get penalized, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin would make the next round. Earnhardt would still be on the outside looking in. But there’s always next year. Which I believe is what Linus used to say about a visit from the Great Pumpkin.
One thing I did notice after the race, though I suppose no one was supposed to. The drivers, even those who were clearly enraged, were picking and choosing their words awfully carefully and they kept hitting a common theme, “its NASCAR’s sandbox and they make the rules. Whatever they say goes.” It would seem there was some back-door communications with veiled threats not to “disparage the product” and to keep things positive. Hamlin, who was clearly fuming, was obviously censoring his thoughts and added he just couldn’t put a positive spin on things as if someone in the background was whispering in his ear he had to do so. But the Stepford Wives’ quote of the race goes to Earnhardt Jr. for his comment, “NASCAR makes the calls. They are the governing body and I have 100% faith in the choices that they make.” Sure, kid. And I believe in Santa Claus too, but Heather Locklear has yet to appear under the Christmas tree.
In a way, it’s a shame that all the shenanigans and debate after the race are overshadowing the stories we might have been talking about. Take for instance the fact Logano has won the last three races, a pretty notable achievement in modern-era Cup racing. (For newer fans, Richard Petty won 27 races in 1967, 10 of them in a row.) Prior to this year, Logano had never managed back-to-back wins. In fact between 2008 and 2013 combined he won a combined three races. Normally you’d consider Logano a favorite for the title right now, but keep in mind the Chase format erases the value of those three wins going into this weekend. But you never know. Logano could be this year’s surprise champion if Kenseth doesn’t knock his block off first.
One of the key talking points of the “All Singing, All Dancing Ultra-Exciting Chase” is that it puts a premium on winning and running up front. Really? Let’s have a look at the stats for our friend Hamlin in the last round of the Chase. He finished fourth at Charlotte and second at Kansas. A pair of top-five finishes is pretty good, especially given his torn ACL and whatnot. But the wheels fell off Hamlin’s little red wagon at Talladega with a 37th-place result after his roof hatch tried to go AWOL. In the end, the Chase doesn’t reward strong runs nearly as much as it makes one poor result a death knell for a driver’s title hopes.
Prior to the start of the season, I doubt many folks would have bet Gordon would be the sole remaining Chase entrant for Hendrick Motorsports. If he can finish decently the next three weekends Gordon could arrive at Homestead with the Drive for 5 still alive. As his fans remind me, Gordon would probably have several more titles had it not been for the implementation of the Chase in its various unseemly formats. The Chase was started in response to Kenseth’s single-win 2003 season that saw him crowned as Top Dog. I would consider it deliciously ironic if in this, his final season, Gordon could claim the title without having won a race at Homestead next month. To go down as the driver that made NASCAR decide to ashcan the Chase would add further luster to Gordon’s not inconsiderable legacy.
But in the end, I can think what I think and feel what I feel, and so can you. But at the end of Mike Helton’s proverbial day it is in fact what it is and there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it. Try not to be disgusted. It’s more fun to be amused. Three straight weeks in a row and fans are talking about the races for all the wrong reasons. More importantly, the major media isn’t talking about the races at all, so the Chase has failed to elbow its way into the relentless talk about the NFL, college football and the World Series. Brian France says he wants NASCAR to have “Game 7” moments. (Which I find highly amusing in that I still have a “NASCAR… Everything else is just a game” magnet on my fridge.) Instead what NASCAR has reaped is a “Game 2” moment, like Chase Utley’s takeout slide at second with the Dodgers that got him suspended two games. People who are talking about both situations are doing it for all the wrong reasons and portraying both sports in an unflattering light. But it’s the end of the day and in fact in four weeks we’ll reach the end of the season and quite frankly that can’t come fast enough for me after Sunday. I suppose it’s a sign of getting old. It used to be when you read The Night Before Christmas all the excitement was about gifts that would be arriving soon. Now I’m more looking forward to a long winter’s nap. If you’ve been part of the NASCAR media and you aren’t at least considering retirement by this part of the season there’s something wrong with you. But every year most of us keep coming back, though some of them never do.