Did You Notice? … Ryan Blaney could have failed to qualify for a Chase race? That’s certainly a loophole NASCAR was looking to shore up by its decision this week to ensure every team that qualifies for the Chase is guaranteed a spot over the final 10 events. Officials looped this adjustment in the rules in with a new policy that leaves owner points, not practice speeds the primary way starting lineups will be set in the future when weather cancels qualifying.
“These changes provide a more even competition field for both Charter and Open teams, rewarding strong performances over the course of a season,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president, racing operations in a press release announcing the move. “Earning a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is extremely difficult and requires consistent elite performance. Those teams should be guaranteed an opportunity to race for the title, and this ensures that will be the case.”
Current rules backed NASCAR into a corner due to the strong performance of Blaney this season. The rookie sits just three points outside the Chase and could easily make the 16-driver postseason field; he’s been remarkably consistent in the Wood Brothers car, finishing all but one race and has the resources of Team Penske to pull from.
So let’s say Blaney makes the field, heads to Chicagoland and blows an engine in qualifying. Under the old rules, he’d fail to qualify while the other 15 cars would automatically make the race no matter what. Even if you don’t like the provisional system for everyone it’s easy to see how the system would be incredibly unfair.
What would be more interesting is if Charters became guaranteed (or non-guaranteed) for the following season based on performance. Let’s say all 36 Charter teams come back next season but Blaney makes the Chase with the Woods. Should he miss out on a guaranteed spot if he was eligible to run for the championship? That seems pretty strange and you wonder if that’s an area NASCAR will address next. Would they bump up the Charters to 37, perhaps expanding the field back to 41 cars (or more) or would the worst-performing Charter team from 2016 lose their spot?
Did You Notice? … Two debris cautions getting called at Sonoma? On a road course? Not too long ago, even small wrecks or spinouts on this wide, nearly two-mile racetrack were declared as nothing more than “local yellows,” situations where cars need to slow down in the particular area of an incident. Now? A tiny piece of debris spotted anywhere brings out the yellow as officials operate “under an abundance of caution.” (How ironic!)
The way in which debris cautions have increased at Sonoma is pretty noticeable. From the 1989 through the 2002 seasons, the first 14 Cup races held at the track only two yellow flags were called for debris. During the last 14 races, from 2003 through 2016? We’ve had eighteen yellow flags thrown for debris. One of them made the difference in track position that sent Tony Stewart skyrocketing from the middle of the field straight to the front of the pack Sunday afternoon. Certainly, crew chief Mike Bugarewicz should get credit for gambling under such conditions, but the fact he knows to do so in the first place is a little concerning.
Just think for a minute that you’re trying to explain what happened to a potential new fan of the sport. Staying out because of impending weather? Everyone totally gets that. Fuel mileage gambles? Sure. But rolling the dice to see if NASCAR will find a piece of metal on the track? A spring rubber? That’s a little weirder sell — great strategy but not exactly a shining moment for your sport.
“A hot dog wrapper! A small piece of plastic! See which one will jumble up the field at Racetrack X on Saturday night!”
Of course, Stewart’s victory turns the storyline sentimental and the debris caution that bunched up the field will be quickly forgotten. But did NASCAR turn toward this method of officiating, like it has at other tracks because the racing at Sonoma was so clean? Not a single driver spun out over 110 laps of the race; just three cars failed to finish, two of them stalling on track to cause a caution. Does the sport feel like it needs to occasionally bunch up the field to keep fans entertained?
That’s a question only the head guys in Daytona Beach can answer. But the caution clock in the Truck Series, the sport’s latest experiment, is the latest in a long line of decisions – yellows for simple scrubs of the wall, a rogue tire, etc. – that lean toward aggressive use of the yellow flag in questionable circumstances rather than putting it away.
The problem with throwing these “random debris” cautions, like I’ve said in the past, rather than using a caution clock is they can truly be subjective calls. Especially at a place like Sonoma, where pit strategy ruled the race exactly when you call it could be the difference between leaving a driver in the lead and trapping them back in 31st. It’s a variable officials control in the tower that is taken out of the competitors’ control. So if NASCAR feels like they can’t stay green for long? Just stop the madness, move the caution clock to the Cup Series or create a “competition caution” to occur over a set number of laps. If you don’t want to look like you manipulate the race, the answer is simple … just don’t do it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Sunday’s race at Sonoma pulled in nearly 3.9 television viewers, making it the most-watched race on cable (second in sports behind Copa America’s combination of viewers). However, compared to 2005, the Nielsen rating was less than half what it was at NASCAR’s peak. With the NBA Finals plus MLB on FOX all marking increases in viewership, along with the NFL holding steady, it’s getting harder to say the problems of stock car racing match the same “depression” in ticket sales and national following we see in other sports.
- I try and avoid commentating on the television broadcasts due to my past and present relationships within that compound. I do believe, though after Sonoma Darrell Waltrip’s “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” shtick has outlived its usefulness and FOX would be wise to revisit that in the offseason. A main complaint of the NASCAR on FOX broadcast within the sport’s fan base is that the booth is out of touch with the average viewer. I’d be interested to do a survey of a random 100 fans in the sport’s target audience, 18-to-34 year olds, play those three words for them and ask whether it gets them psyched up to watch a race. I’m hard-pressed to believe the “boogity” believers are going to win out; even those who remain fans of DW appear to be growing tired of it. It’ll be interesting to see if the Cup Series ratings, which still declined many times during the second year of this new contract will be more stable with an NBC broadcast team that has been lauded for its by-the-book, more standard approach for covering the sport.
- 45 teams are competing for 40 spots at Daytona in an XFINITY field that’s dealt with multiple start-and-parks all season. The answer is not hard to figure out; independent teams will cherry-pick races in which they have a shot of staying competitive and winning extra money. Plate races provide them with that opportunity. The trick is for NASCAR to figure out how to level the playing field elsewhere….
- AJ Allmendinger’s starting position the last three races at Sonoma? 1.3. Laps led? 56. Average finish? 29.3. He has to be frustrated.
- NASCAR CEO Brian France said Sunday the sport is on pace with negotiations for a new title sponsor. Keep in mind Sprint (then Nextel) was announced as a formal replacement for Winston in June of 2003, a mere six months before the contract expired. Where are we now? Six months before Sprint leaves the sport.
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