Hopefully over the next few days the busiest guy in Daytona will get a few hours off to catch his breath. No I’m not talking about Alan Gustafson, who prepped Chase Elliott’s car well enough to claim the pole with a rookie driver at the helm. Nor am I talking about the various team’s body-men after the car crunching catastrophe of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited. For the most part cars entered in that event are throwaways the teams fully expect to get bent up, not even the backup car for the 500. The busiest guy in Daytona Beach has got to be the guy running off new pages of the NASCAR rulebook on the Xerox machine the last couple weeks. (OK, so NASCAR probably does have printers these days rather than Xerox machines even if they still do embrace OHV engines and four speed manual transmissions.) What with the charter system, the new green-white-checkered rules, and the qualifying rules for the Daytona, that guy had to be copying, sorting, collating, and stapling until all hours of the morning.
And in the end, his job is a thankless task because at their own whim, NASCAR routinely throws their own rulebook right out the window. It might as well be printed on an Etcha-Sketch.
While not making it official last week Brian France strongly hinted that Tony Stewart might be given a waiver to compete in the Chase despite Stewart being out of the seat of the No. 14 car until May, and folks are admitting that’s an optimistic estimate of when Tony might return after a severe back injury suffered operating an ATV in California. Naturally, Stewart would have to gain enough points to get into the top 30 in driver points and all, but certainly he’d have to win one or more races. (For the record, Stewart hasn’t won a Cup race since Dover in June of 2013. He missed 13 Cup races in 2013 after suffering horrific leg injuries at the wheel of a sprint car, and three more in 2014 as he dealt with an on-track tragedy also in a sprint car race. Stewart has finished 29th, 25th and 28th in the standings over the course of the last three years.)
Of course, precedent was set for such a potential chance at the Chase last year when Kyle Busch suffered a broken leg and foot in the Daytona NW race the day prior to last year’s 500. Busch returned to the series with a vengeance, winning four races last summer, three of them in a row, enroute to claiming last year’s Cup title. (And lest we forget, Busch’s older brother Kurt was Chase eligible last year despite missing three races after being wrongfully suspended for domestic abuse charges that were later judged to be unfounded. The elder Busch won at Richmond and Michigan last year.) Denny Hamlin remained Chase eligible despite missing a race. Presumably Kyle Larson would have been allowed a Chase spot despite missing a race last year had he won a Cup event and made the top 30 in points. But, long story short, now that Kyle Busch claimed a title last year by winning a title despite missing almost a third of the season a precedent has been set. Or has it?
Last season NASCAR officials said one reason an exception was made for Kyle Busch was that they felt simply awful he’d been injured at Daytona. In doing so they put aside momentarily that fantasy that NASCAR, which runs the sport, and International Speedway Corporation, the track owning entity also run by the France family, are somehow unrelated. Either way, that previously bare concrete wall Busch hit is now protected by a SAFER barrier and the grassy area leading up to the wall that prevented the No. 18 from slowing or taking evasive action is paved over. Kudos to NASCAR (or ISC, whichever is appropriate) there. But cynics can be forgiven for thinking last year that the possibility of getting hurt running a support race and not being able to do their day jobs is a factor in keeping some Cup drivers from running in the NXS or truck series. If a driver chooses to do so he accepts the risk and career implications a long recovery period might entail.
In Stewart’s case the matter isn’t so clear cut. He was not engaged in any sort of sanctioned race. As best I’ve been able to fathom he was driving what we call a “sand rail” around here, a four wheel off-road vehicle with a steering wheel as opposed to handlebars on a quad, usually equipped with two seats and a roll cage. I’d judge engaging in such an activity, particularly in an unknown area as a moderate risk activity, on a scale where bird-watching would be considered low risk and base jumping in Manhattan would be high risk. All right, so if we make an exception for Stewart, what if a Cup driver is hurt next year during the off-season, riding a bicycle, using a chainsaw to fell a tree or falling down the steps? Well, gosh, you don’t want to exclude anyone who suffered some foul fortune, do you? Especially not a high profile, former champion, driver whose presence and quest for the Chase might sell some tickets and boost TV ratings. So what if it’s Landon Cassill? Does he get a waiver as well?
And while this can of worms is open and nobody has thought to bring along a fishing pole, what does NASCAR do if a driver is injured mid-season not pre-season? (Remember, Busch was hurt the day prior to the first points paying Cup race of 2015.) Naturally if a driver was hurt as Hamlin was at Fontana a couple years back it would seem compassionate and fair to leave him Chase eligible. But take things a step further, and that’s the danger of a fluid rules book. A driver wins early in the season and thus becomes Chase eligible. Suddenly he shows up and says, “I’ve got this nagging lower back pain and my chiropractor suggests I sit out Talladega….and the next five races after that to relax a little bit and recharge the batteries for the late season stretch.” But the Charter agreement says that a driver has to compete in every event to maintain their team’s charter, right? Au contraire mon fraire. The charter system says the team has to race every week and they can put a trained monkey in the car if need be. Or even Michael Waltrip. You have to wonder when it will end. I know a fellow who felt quite strongly he deserved a week off work paid compassionate leave after his pet cat died. His former bosses felt otherwise.
In the case of a legitimate injury, I can see why NASCAR officials want to at least try to be compassionate. These are real men and women in Brian France’s Flying Circus, and they interact on a weekly basis for most of the year almost like a family. But I’m still scratching my head over how the No. 14 car was able to compete in Saturday night’s Unlimited event. The rules there are convoluted as to who gains entry, but there’s never been any question that it’s the driver, not the team, who is eligible. Tony Stewart was eligible to compete in the event but as noted above medically unable to do so. (Stewart won that event in 2001 and 2007 thus making his eligible forever for the Clash or whatever they call it.) Somehow the 14 team was still able to field an entry in the event with Brian Vickers at the helm though Vickers was not eligible for the event. NASCAR officials stated that they felt since the SHR team had worked hard to prepare a car for the event and had sponsor obligations they should be able to run the No. 14. Huh? I’ve heard the argument made that NASCAR is a team sport. In the NFL if a starting quarterback is injured his team can still compete in the playoffs with a backup. But even if NASCAR is a team sport, that’s never how things have worked. We’ve always had a driver and team owner champion at the end of the season. It’s been a long time, but in 1963 Joe Weatherly won the driver’s title competing for no less than nine teams. (Weatherly drove 34 races for Bud Moore, 10 for Cliff Stewart and one or two for seven other teams including outfits owned by Possum Jones and Worth McMillion…you can’t make this stuff up.)
Unfortunately for Vickers, he was probably wishing that NASCAR hadn’t granted that waiver at he headed nose first into the wall carrying triple digit speeds but thankfully he wasn’t hurt. But if the sole basis for entry is hard work, sponsorship commitments, fan interest and a previous driver’s accomplishments, why wasn’t Chase Elliott able to compete in the NAPA No. 24 car Saturday? After all, newly retired Jeff Gordon put the No. 24 car on the pole for the Daytona 500 last year.
Things are still fluid when it comes to the rulebook. Originally it was announced that no charter holder could have more than four entries. (Rick Hendrick was awarded four charters. Joe Gibbs was awarded three and bought another.) They wouldn’t even be able to run a fifth team part time for an up and coming rookie as both HMS and JGR did last year with Chase Elliott and Erik Jones to help them towards the future. I can understand the logic behind that. There’d be no keeping Gibbs, to cite an example not to pick on JGR, from saying, “Well since we’re all but certain Kyle Busch will qualify on speed, we’ll list Jones as the driver for the No. 18 charter car this weekend and have Busch in the 81 open car. But suddenly NASCAR is wavering on that rule. They might just allow an exception for up and coming rookie drivers….as long as they get to pick the races and define “rookie.”
It’s a confusing time in NASCAR when it comes to the rules. In a fiasco worthy of Monty Python, the K&N East season opener this weekend featured a bizarre finish when the flagman failed to display the white flag on the semi-final lap. (Well apparently he did, but not until half the field had streaked past the flag stand.) Thus the race went a lap further than the 150 laps scheduled and to add to the merriment, on the extra lap third-place runner Ronnie Bassett Jr. forced his car into a three-wide situation passing leader Todd Gilliland and wrecking then-second-place running Spencer Davis. But after trying to sort out the mess, NASCAR decided to resort to the running order on the 150th lap, the scheduled distance of the race, and awarded Gilliland the win. They say that that’s in the rulebook too but I must have missed that page. What’s more, NASCAR officials forbade a clearly surprised Gilliland from discussing what happened on the “overtime” lap. Yep, that’s probably in the rulebook somewhere too, Section B-5.1 Rev. 2, ‘any conversation that tends to make NASCAR officials look like incompetent jackasses.”
But in some instances NASCAR will stick to their guns on the rule and compassion, a sense of fairness and even common sense will not sway them. When the Charter system was adopted just prior to the start of the season, the rules for eligibility were pretty clear. A team had to have at least tried to qualify for every race from the start of the 2013 season to most of the way through last year. Teams that were awarded charters have a guaranteed starting spot in every-points paying Cup event this year and a guaranteed slice of the prize money. To date, most fans I have talked to are confused by the whole arrangement and at least leaning towards not caring much for it.
One reason is that somehow the Wood Brothers team, which has been competing in NASCAR racing since the Truman administration, was left on the outside looking in. After all, they had been a part team during that 2013-2015 period in question. (Though in fact they tried to qualify for three other races last year but never got a shot because weather canceled qualifying.) You’d have thought maybe somewhere during the process NASCAR could have decided to issue charters to the top 35 teams during the period in question and held one out for any team that raced more than 1000 times in NASCAR’s top division. I mean, competing in 1438 events shows some level of loyalty. The message being sent here is just mean-spirited: “You helped build the house, hung the cabinets in the kitchen, helped nail down the hardwood floors and all but there’s no space at you for the table for the feast. Ideally I’d have liked to see any team owner from having more than two charters awarded (and we’d just overlook the fact SHR is essentially a satellite team to HMS) which would have left more open chairs at the table but I don’t see that happening.
And to be honest my guess is than Ryan Blaney and the Woods qualify for every race anyway. He’s already got a slot in the Daytona 500. Some weeks there might not be more than forty cars vying for starting spots anyway and if there are, the No. 21 bunch with their ties to Penske are clearly the sharpest knife in the drawer. But it remains possible the No, 21 could miss a race, despite all their hard work and sponsor commitments…the same reasons given for allowing the No. 14 car in the Unlimited. At least publicly, the Woods have kept it classy, saying they’ll deal with the reality and work hard to make every race. I find it telling, though, that the team decided to withdraw from the Race Team Alliance, the owner’s group that worked out the charter system with NASCAR. I guess they’re too proud to settle for the scraps left over by the big buck team owners. After all, compassion and fair play can only be expected to go so far when there’s money on the table.
As an aside, as I figure out this charter system thing, admittedly still a work in progress, I’m left wondering why NASCAR would agree to adopt the system after stating for years they had no interest in doing so. I’m told the TV contracts stipulate a reduced rate for any Cup race that fails to draw a full field. So NASCAR made a “full field” three cars lighter. With 36 teams committed to run every race for the next nine years (coincidentally, I am sure, to the same time he current TV deals run out), that’s handled. With the five-year deals with the tracks to run the current slate of events there can be no more conjecture or posturing about taking a date away from a particular track just because the races tend to be lousy and ticket sales are soft. It seems a matter of NASCAR and the other moneyed principals in the sport circling the wagons in anticipation of a tough period ahead.
But I’m struck by one clause to the charter rule I’ve read. In order to maintain their charters the Chosen Ones must remain in “good standing” with NASCAR. Remaining in good standing involves showing up at every race. But is NASCAR now wielding a new form of penalty? Say that the No. 78 car is judged to have been modified in a way to purposely break the aerodynamic rules at Daytona, a very big no-no. Can NASCAR revoke the team’s charter? How about it another team got caught manipulating the outcome of a race the way MWR did at Richmond a couple years ago? While there’s been rumors some teams have run traction-control at some tracks, NASCAR has always threatened that any team caught running such a system would face “hammer of God” level penalties. Have the team owners just inadvertently handed NASCAR a new form or punishment far more draconian than anything they’ve had in their arsenal to date? I wouldn’t rule anything out.
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