Did You Notice? Every controversy we’ve seen in NASCAR this year has revolved around… rules? We changed the rules package for 2015 even though there was great racing the year before. Restart rules have been continually criticized, tweaked and remain a major sore spot. Green-white-checkered rules were modified, then mishandled in the wake of scary accidents at Daytona and Talladega. Even breaking the simple rule of running late for pre-race inspection leads to a penalty, a public flogging in the form of a NASCAR weekly discipline report and losing your first choice of pit stall.
Which leads us to the week’s biggest “rule breaker,” Matt Kenseth and Tuesday’s climax after Martinsville’s demolition of rival Joey Logano. It’s a two-race suspension, unprecedented in the sport’s modern era that brings to mind a two-letter word: B.S.
The punishment’s ironic considering Kenseth was responding to a “rule” broken inside his own world of stock car racing peers. This one isn’t written out on paper but explained brilliantly by Ricky Craven Tuesday, an impassioned speech reminding everyone of the “driver’s code.” It’s a code Kenseth strongly felt was broken when Logano, already “locked in” to the next round of the Chase chose to spin his rival out rather than pass him cleanly on the racetrack in Kansas. Logano, sitting there with nothing to lose got away “scot free,” the second notch on a round 2 sweep that entrenched his place as a budding superstar. Kenseth, by comparison lost his chance to advance and perhaps his last, best shot at the Sprint Cup championship at age 43.
Logano effectively knocked Kenseth out, putting him on the floor of the ring to the point the veteran felt he had to jump up and respond. Just listen to his post-race quote on Sunday: “I had to maintain respect within the garage area.” There is no 12.1 in the rulebook of driver’s code; it’s a self-policing system designed to keep each driver in check. Keep in mind Kenseth had to sit there, steaming and watch the last few weeks while Logano made no attempt to communicate, no apology uttered even to a member of the press. Logano never reached out over the incident; he just got to smile and battle for the championship Kenseth no longer had a chance to win. When someone steals something from you, especially in athletic competition like that why would you never attempt to take it back?
“We all worked really hard to get to this point, we worked all year and guys take you out,” said Denny Hamlin Sunday. “Matt lost his opportunity to race for a championship and what do you do? You have to answer the bell when that happens.”
“I’m not going to argue with what Matt did,” added longtime friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Matt felt like he was justified after Joey wrecked him at Kansas and then was arrogant about it afterwards. I think that was really what got under Matt’s skin more than anything, that Joey was arrogant – damn, when you wreck a guy, admit it!”
That’s not to say Kenseth’s move at Martinsville was a bit overdone, a video-game level of destruction that did bring up potential safety concerns. For all the fans cheering in the stands NASCAR had to do something. A fine and probation was perfectly reasonable; taking away points, while somewhat meaningless under the new Chase format (Kenseth can do no better than fifth) would also have been within the realm of fairness. That’s consistent within the rulebook they’ve created without trying to play dictator over an internal code in the garage area they’ve never interfered with.
But a two-race suspension? Where’s the precedent for that? Turns out “Boys, have at it,” the mantra NASCAR CEO Brian France preached these past few years can only work until Big Brother gets mad. Yes, we’re all adults here but the way in which it’s all drawn up makes officials seem like parents having to discipline petulant children. Indeed, the statement written by Vice President Steve O’Donnell, handing down the verdict could have been confused with a father scolding his son for bad behavior.
“The No. 20 car [Kenseth] was nine laps down,” O’Donnell said, “And eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race. The new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.”
It was a poor choice of words, not only because the Chase format has created this environment but the “premium on each and every race” was witnessed by fans just one week earlier at Talladega. In that finish, Kevin Harvick turned hard right into Trevor Bayne, saving his Chase despite a sagging engine while causing a wreck which ended the event and totaled almost a dozen cars. Not enough evidence existed to convict Harvick of race manipulation but the perception by not just fans but drivers themselves was that a dirty trick was pulled.
That maneuver may still bite Harvick yet; even after this suspension for Kenseth rumors abound other drivers will call their “shot” on the No. 4 car at Phoenix. But Harvick, along with Logano the week before, didn’t pay any price for questionable actions. Kenseth getting his head cut off just a few moments later reeks of NASCAR choosing to interfere only when it sees fit.
What’s disgusting about the way it’s done is there’s still a bit of brand marketing involved. Kenseth gets suspended for two weeks; why in the world wouldn’t you do all three? Oh, that’s right; Homestead looms, the season finale where Logano may very well still qualify to run for the title. One Logano win at Texas or Phoenix erases all this madness, corrects the Martinsville mayhem and then the No. 22 could face down its biggest obstacle, Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota en route to a possible title. It’s a scripted storyline, the type of extra “oomph” NASCAR CEO Brian France looks for as part of his “let’s try and ‘create’ as many Game 7 moments as possible” philosophy.
Is this wrestling or is this sport? Somehow, in France’s lifelong mission to make every lap an adrenaline rush he forgot those moments must be created by the competitors themselves. Bill Elliott didn’t need the rules adjusted for a “Game 7 moment” in 1985. He just went out there, busted ass and won the sport’s Winston Million bonus with a performance that helped put NASCAR on the map. Ditto for Alan Kulwicki, the famous 1992 driver/owner champion who recovered from a seemingly insurmountable 278-point deficit under the old system. The sport didn’t need to change any rules or provide a “Chase reset” for Kulwicki to fight back; he and his team created the comeback (along with the drama) on their own.
Athletes competing against athletes creates an authenticity that draws fans to sports. Games decided by officials, whether in baseball or the final laps of racing always leave a sour taste in your mouth. The less outside control over a natural athletic competition, the better, right? Somehow, NASCAR has forgotten this point while using “rules” to cover up the worries of lessening emotion and side-by-side competition. “Why, there’s not enough passing due to poor aerodynamics? No worries! We’ll create double-file restarts so a rule forces everyone racing for position to start side-by-side.”
“There’s not enough battling for position on track? No problem! We’ll turn the focus to pit road, give officials every tool possible to enforce the rules and make an extra effort to punish those who don’t comply.”
It’s creating “solutions” in the form of words on paper that do nothing to solve the problems – just cause more. Their rules are changed so often and so frequently, without consistency, every portion of the sport from the All-Star Race to Friday qualifying is seemingly under a yearly assault. It’s almost like NASCAR forgot the principles of its core, once connected to Republicanism to the point George W. Bush once courted the sport specifically throughout the 2000 and ’04 elections. I bring it up not to play politics but remind us of that Republican principle: A small, streamlined government whose goal is not to interfere in peoples’ lives. The funny (and sad) thing about it all is that even with all this regulation it seems like the sport is more haphazard than it’s ever been throughout its 67-year history.
“It’s a mess right now with everything that’s going on,” said Hamlin. “I wish we had some kind of better structure ’cause right now, it’s kind of the Wild Wild West. Anybody’s doing whatever.”
No wonder why everyone is all up in arms, even drivers like Hamlin willing to tweet their displeasure (the garage has not been this close to mutiny since the late 1960s).
Two 👎🏻 down. Bad call. #freematt
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) November 3, 2015
Thought it was pretty clear from drivers reactions after the race that Joey broke driver code. Matt made sure it was enforced. #freematt
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) November 3, 2015
You can only act like judge, jury, and executioner without any pattern of consistency for so long before people start to lose patience and shout, “Enough!” At least the driving corps is willing to do something; fans don’t have the financial connection aside from feeling like they’re wasting money on tickets, watching the sport on television, etc. and have made the simple (although often difficult) decision to walk away. Now, we’ll see more walk away again after another Tuesday saw NASCAR choose to stick its nose in and feel like it needed to meddle. We’ll see this pattern repeated in the coming weeks with franchising, yet another potential new way to qualify and new rules on creating a starting grid.
Here we go again. If only someone would tell Daytona Beach the one rule that might keep them from going out of business: sometimes, when faced with a choice of sticking their nose in, the answer is to simply stay the hell out of it.
Hat tip to Mike Neff for the post-race quotes from Martinsville.