NASCAR opted not to penalize Kevin Harvick for causing a late-race crash that caused the race at Talladega to end under caution, ensuring Harvick a spot in the Eliminator Round. Was Harvick’s move legit, and where is the line in this new Chase era?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: According to NASCAR, Harvick did nothing wrong. According to fans of anyone other than Harvick, his slide-job into Trevor Bayne was merely strategy awaiting execution. I think Harvick’s last-lap behavior should not be all that shocking given the nature of what Brian France and Co. hath wrought: weekly resetting of points, elimination of teams after every third race, using wins for automatic berths in the next round and such. We saw similar behavior at Phoenix last year when Ryan Newman shoved Kyle Larson into the wall to pick up one position and make the final round at Homestead. If NASCAR wants the championship to be all winning, warring and whining, then the sanctioning body should be careful of what it wishes for. The line seems to be that there is no line.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: This just in: there is no rule in NASCAR that says you can’t wreck someone. You can’t wreck someone on pit lane, you can’t wreck someone in the garage, but you can wreck them on the track all day long. Was it sporting? Was it fair? Nope. Did it get him into the next round? Absolutely. We’ve learned that winning isn’t the only thing in this form of the Chase. There has been as much point racing as there ever was. Harvick played the game to a T and is still alive. Will he make it out of Martinsville in one piece? Don’t bet on it.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I’d say this is a perfect example of what NASCAR has wrought. With five races left to run under the old points system Harvick might have done the sportsman like thing and gotten out of the way, but not with elimination from title contention on the line. Harvick used a great many words to say not a whole lot of anything discussing the incident. I guess the takeaway is he’s not a quitter. A loser maybe, but not a quitter. He offered only a lukewarm admission he was somehow involved. Sharing the guilt with NASCAR is NBC. Being eliminated from the Chase means going forward no matter how well you run, even if you’re leading a race, a driver is going to be all but invisible to the TV audience. Sponsorship dollars are the mothers milk of the sport, and your sponsors aren’t going to be happy if their logos aren’t shown clear and in focus on TV as a company uses a special paint scheme to celebrate 100 days without a food-borne illness in their chain of family restaurants. Expect more of the same now that NASCAR didn’t even issue Harvick a slap on the wrist for his treachery.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Harvick’s action and NASCAR’s inaction was one that will be detrimental to stock car racing. While Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not win Sunday’s race as the result of either aborted restart, he would have made the field of eight had NASCAR rightly penalized Harvick. There is in-car video, a camera on the frontstretch, and audio traffic between driver, crew chief, and spotter – as well as other teams discussing what is likely to happen – and a field full of wrecked cars and a nation (49 states and 22 countries) of livid fans, you have effectively de-legitimized the race, your championship and the sport. This is on the same level as the 2008 tire debacle at Indianapolis, except it is worse because the sanctioning body has elected to support the actions of a polarizing driver, rather than penalize him as precedent has been set. He deliberately manipulated the finish and has been arrogant in his comments surrounding the situation thereafter.
NASCAR appeared to wait a very long time to throw the final caution Sunday at Talladega, especially in comparison to the one thrown just before. Did it wait too long?
McLaughlin: In this instance NASCAR’s hand was forced. The No. 11 car was on fire briefly and there was a driver with a torn ACL inside with his escape hatch taped and riveted shut.
Pugliese: NASCAR waited too long to throw the red flag after Jamie McMurray blew his engine and oiled the track down. That put them in the position of having to deal with one green-white-checkered finish and the nonsense that followed.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: I’m not shocked that NASCAR waited so long to throw the yellow; NASCAR didn’t want the race to end under caution and wanted Earnhardt, Joey Logano and the others to race it out for the win. Unfortunately, it became clear that the track was no longer raceable.
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: The only reason NASCAR even threw the caution was because Denny Hamlin‘s car was on fire. The rest of the drivers might have been able to get to a safe spot on the track but Hamlin was a different situation. If NASCAR was in the business of rigging races, as some ignorant fans believe, it would have waited until the split second Earnhardt passed Logano to do so.
NASCAR announced the 2016 schedule Monday, and along with it, that it had reached five-year agreements with the tracks to keep their race dates, which precludes the addition of any new tracks to the schedule before 2021. Does the deal make sense for the sport?
Pugliese: No. It’s stupid. But whatever, at least not that many people are watching to be offended. Ratings are down 10-20% for every Chase race so far (save for a 10% bump at Kansas), and ignoring a driver manipulating the outcome of a finish at Talladega to suit his title hopes by taking out a third of the field isn’t going to draw more in. When you have Formula 1 and soccer taking precedence on one of the big four networks, and a track that is so synonymous with a sport there’s a movie named after it is relegated to the sports-tier package with your cable subscriber, you are officially doing everything in your power to ruin your sport. Why abandon that strategy?
Allaway: The five-year deals more or less stifle any kind of movement on the schedule. No one that isn’t already there can get in. If a race gets dropped in the next five years, it’s either getting shifted (most likely) or outright dropped, no replacing. It hurts the Xfinity Series more than Sprint Cup, though.
Jordan: I think this is a presumptuous statement to assume there could be no new racetracks added to the schedule before 2021 because NASCAR and the tracks likely have performance guarantees and sales quotas. Additionally, if Bruton Smith – or ISC, for that matter – wanted to add a track, they could always manipulate the dates at their other venues to do so. It’s a contract and contracts are broken all the time.
Howell: The five-year proviso looks like another example of NASCAR’s “good ol’ boy” reputation. Any friend of the sport gets friendly treatment. One thing the five-year plan does is it enables tracks to establish longer-term agreements with event sponsors, regional service providers like hotels and hospitality, and other forms of support. These kinds of deals are easier to make when you have a guaranteed race date for the next half-decade. It’s good to be the king, or at least the king’s friend who happens to have a racetrack with a Sprint Cup date.
After winning all three races in the second round of the Chase, Logano is a heavy title favorite. Who, if anyone, can step up and compete with the No. 22 in the final four races?
Howell: The stage is now set for perhaps the greatest swan song in sports history. Jeff Gordon has used consistency and experience to place himself in the Eliminator Round. With the series heading to Martinsville – one of Gordon’s best tracks – he’s in a good place to score his first win of the season and punch his ticket into the final showdown at Homestead. One win could very well lead to his fifth Sprint Cup title. Not that Gordon is the only challenger Logano has to face for the next month; the brothers Busch also pose a serious threat. They’ve missed a combined 14 races this year and are still in the hunt. Logano should be very concerned about his future.
Neff: You would think Harvick was in position for that but, after Talladega, he will be hard pressed to dominate Phoenix like he has recently. Most likely one of many drivers destroyed last weekend will take him out. Kurt Busch has won at all four of the tracks left on the schedule and he’s been solid for much of the year. Kyle Busch has been my pick since they announced this rules package and I’m sticking with it. Logano might be a heavy favorite, but he’s made some enemies along the way this Chase. He very well might not make it out of this round.
McLaughlin: When you read a prospectus for an investment opportunity (other than buy-one-get-one-free six-packs) it always says in the fine print, “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” Obviously Logano is hotter than Mobile on the Fourth of July right now, but going into the Exterminator Round or whatever it’s called (and how long will it be before we have title sponsors for each round?) his three consecutive wins don’t amount to a cup of warm mule spit. All it takes for any of the eligible drivers is leaking gasket or seal, gremlins in the ECU, or part of the rotating assembly that wasn’t properly heat-treated and his chances are over. Even a couple lugnuts left loose on a pit stop late in a race could end the party for a driver and team. I guess that’s supposed to be exciting, but is it sporting? Can we add a fan popularity vote that gets one or two drivers voted off the island back in the game and gives another first choice of pit stall no matter where he qualifies? I look at my crystal ball right now and it says, “Answer cloudy. Try again later.”
Pugliese: With the tracks that are coming up, Gordon and Kurt Busch will be his biggest threats – though I think the No. 22’s only real threat right now is its preparation and execution. With that said, it might just come down to Harvick winning again at Homestead. If that happens, the republic is lost, and you will see a ripple effect for years to come.
Jordan: Well, it’s easier to tell you who won’t step up to win the title, and that’s Logano. It isn’t because Logano lacks talent but it is doubtful Matt Kenseth makes it through this weekend without sending Logano into the wall, a tire barrier, another car, the crossover gate, 75 feet up a light pole or into the side of a hauler at Martinsville Speedway. In fact, if Kenseth could figure out a way to send Logano’s car flying into the press box, he’d probably do it. As for a driver, who can contend for the championship, it has to be Kurt Busch. That team has it together. A championship would be the icing on the cake for Busch, who began the year not knowing if he would ever sit behind the steering wheel of a stock car again.