Admit it, you’ve heard the talk in NASCAR in recent years. The racing is boring, the drivers are boring, some people have no business racing in the Cup Series. But wait, what do you mean there won’t be a parade of new teams fielding backmarkers? Drivers are robots if they don’t speak their minds, jerks if they do. Rubbing is racing unless it isn’t.
The racing this season is much improved. In some ways, the sport is heading in a much better direction than it has recently. But there are some things that just can’t happen. Things that can’t go both ways, that aren’t feasible. In order for the sport to right the ship and move forward on a positive note, it’s important to understand that some of these things are next to impossible… and it’s OK.
1. Reward without risk
There was a lot of talk about tires this weekend at Fontana after several teams had failures, but much of it was misdirected. Did Goodyear bring a perfect product? No. But it did bring a product that race teams and race fans said they wanted – a softer tire that wore out before the end of a fuel run. And nobody should have been surprised when that’s exactly what happened. Aggressive setups that worked with a harder tire won’t last with this one, and perhaps stretching a tire run wasn’t the best strategy. And you know what? That’s part of racing.
Years ago, teams had a lot of choices. They could run a gear that was fast but hard on the engine and drive train, or a gear that might cost a little speed but was much more likely to get to the end of the race. They could tune the engine for speed or durability, but seldom both. There were risky choices with springs, shocks, etc. Teams could play it fast or play it safe. As NASCAR has tightened the rules, it’s taken a lot of the risk out of the racing… the same risk that once brought out enough authentic cautions to keep things interesting.
A tire failure here and there isn’t necessarily a bad thing (barring injury, of course). They’re certainly better than contrived cautions, and the risk of something occasionally going wrong makes watching worthwhile because fans want to see if their guy can go the distance. The risk vs. reward choices are few and far between these days, and it’s time to bring them back.
2. Personality without honesty
Talk about confusing. Listen to the talk on one day and it’s all about how boring and restrained people in the sport anymore and how it’s just too bad they’re so darn vanilla. The next day, one says something slightly off-color and everyone goes on about how unprofessional and uncalled-for it was and what a jerk that guy is. The thing is, you can’t have it both ways, and it can’t be okay for some but not others. Those moments of complete human-ness need to be embraced, or there should be no complaints when someone says the same thing .
A perfect example was Cole Pearn’s now-infamous (and sadly, removed) Twitter callout of Joey Logano. I found it surprising how many people took Pearn to task for the insult thrown at Logano after Logano tangled with Pearn’s driver, Martin Truex, Jr. If Matt Kneseth had said the same thing last year after Kansas, I find it doubtful that it would have gotten the same reaction. And here’s the rub: it’s not about who says it or who’s on the receiving end. Either displays of emotion, including anger in the heat of the moment, are acceptable, or they’re not, and everyone should be boringly vanilla at all times. You don’t get to pick and choose; you can have human or not, but you can’t complain if you choose human and someone suddenly (and hilariously) is.
3. Winning without dominance
Sometimes races end in spectacular fashion, like we were treated to at Daytona and Phoenix this year. Sometimes they end more like we saw Sunday in Cailifornia, with an exciting late-race move that nobody can parry before the checkers fly. And sometimes, somebody dominates, as Kevin Harvick might have Sunday if not for a late caution or as Jimmie Johnson might have in Atlanta before a late yellow flew there. There’s no question that the door-to-door need-to-see-the-replay finishes are the most exciting, but there’s nothing wrong with a race where a driver dominates, either. It doesn’t even mean there isn’t good racing to be had; racing for the lead isn’t the only battle that counts.
There’s not even anything wrong with a race ending with 10 or 12 cars on the lead lap. There have been plenty in the sport’s long and glorious history with a lot fewer than that, and those didn’t ruin the sport either. If racing is to play out naturally, then sometimes there will be a blowout. Coupled with the low risk of mechanical failure these days, it comes down to this: Do you want a driver to run away and hide up front, or a questionable debris caution? Because sometimes, those are the options it will come down to.
4. Good for the goose without good for the gander
Hand in hand with whether drivers should speak their minds and whether teams should work in the grey areas of the workbook is the fact that if something is acceptable for one driver, team or person that it is then acceptable for anyone else. That means a couple of things. It means that if one driver slams another and it’s labeled dirty, then when another driver makes the same move, he deserves the same label. If one driver is penalized for a Twitter post, then any driver must be penalized for the same type of post. It can become a slippery slope really fast, but if fans want fair, then they must also be fair, whether the driver in question is their guy or not.
It also means that NASCAR must follow the same path. If one team is given a “fix it and come back through” during inspection, other teams with the same issue need to be given the same directive. Allowing one team to fix it one week and dropping the hammer with a six-week-suspension the next reeks of favoritism to race fans, whether it is or not. If the issue isn’t the same, NASCAR needs to explain that, in detail. That means the sanctioning body needs to be a little more careful. Once it starts down a road – policing Twitter, for example – it can’t turn around gracefully.
And the problem there is that plowing ahead willy-nilly won’t work either. If someone is penalized for every tweet that insults a competitor, before long, fans will be railing that drivers are too boring again.
Consistency and fairness from both fans and NASCAR are key…as is perspective.
5. Entry level without growing pains
In recent years, there has been a decent number of new, small teams that have tried to make it in NASCAR’s top series. Often met with ridicule from fans, they struggled mightily just to make races or to finish in the top 35, which, if not taken into perspective, hardly seems like much of an accomplishment anyway. If they parked early some weeks to pay the bills, they were sneered at. A few persevered and slowly turned the struggles into success, but there are no overnight successes in NASCAR these days. Furniture Row Racing made it to elite status, but it took a decade of missed races and missed opportunities along the way.
With the amount of disdain displayed for them, you’d think creating a way to help the smaller teams in the sport improve and thrive in the race within the race they run every week would be well-received. Though the charter system does just that, it’s been maligned. While it’s true that it will be difficult for new owners to enter the sport, it is by no means impossible as they can run as an open team, or if there’s enough money and the timing is right, they can purchase a charter or a chunk of a chartered team. There are also the XFINITY and Truck series where it would be a big deal to have a competitive new team or 10.
But it’s also true that the system will help the existing teams that are disparaged as backmarkers and no-talents improve, and that’s good for the sport as a whole. The more teams that are competitive with each other, the better the on-track product will be. It’s about quality, not quantity. That’s just common sense.
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