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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Time to Lose the “No Pushing” Rule

The XFINITY Series will make its second trip of the season to Daytona International Speedway on Friday night.  Fans should be in store for another wild contest at The World Center of Racing. However, one of NASCAR’s rules has the potential to turn a great night of racing into a massive controversy that would surely leave fans and drivers displeased.

The rule in question is NASCAR’s mandate that NXS drivers refrain from “locking bumpers” and engaging in an ongoing tandem draft around either of the superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega.  More often referred to as either the “no pushing” or “no push drafting” rule, the measure has caused NASCAR officials, competitors, and fans more harm than good, and the sanctioning body would be well-served to get rid of the rule before it causes a big enough controversy to cast NASCAR’s entire officiating process in a bad light.

In fairness, NASCAR had good reasons for trying to discourage the tandem draft.  The practice of drivers pairing up to most effectively manage the draft became commonplace across NASCAR’s three national series in 2011.  While the tandem draft broke up the big drafting packs and lessened chances of creating a Big One, the new style of racing presented its own problems.  The biggest issue was that it made each driver overly reliant on having one other driver with whom to draft, rather than the whole pack itself.  Additionally, having drivers swap leader/pusher roles caused the pair to slow down dramatically. The switch led to greater disparity in driver speed than what pack racing produced and thus did not totally eliminate the potential of having a huge crash.  Finally, team owners began dictating who would be drafting partners, even during the course of a race.  For many fans, that practice crossed into the area of team orders a little too much. By the end of the season, the tandem draft was rather unpopular.

NASCAR made changes to its vehicles in an attempt to limit the effects of the tandem draft.  In the Sprint Cup Series, the problem solved itself by 2013, when NASCAR rolled out its new car design.  The Generation 6 cars did not have front and rear bumpers that lined up well with each other, limiting the potential for pushing in that series.  Meanwhile, tandem drafting continued to have a presence in the XFINITY Series through 2012, but the issue really came to a head at Daytona in February of 2013.

On the last lap of the NXS season opener, several pairs of drivers were racing toward the finish line in tandem drafts.  Regan Smith held the lead at the exit of turn four, pushed by Brad Keselowski.  As the pair rocketed down the frontstretch, Keselowski moved to Smith’s outside and attempted to make a pass.  Smith moved up the track to block Keselowski, but Smith did not have Keselowski cleared.  As a result, Smith got turned sideways across the track and set off a horrifying crash.

The scariest moment was when Kyle Larson went flying into the catch fence.  The front end of Larson’s car hit a pedestrian access gate in the fence, ripping the barrier apart and sending debris flying into the grandstands.  Nobody lost their life as a result of the accident, but over two dozen spectators were injured by the debris that pierced that catchfence.

(Photo: Mike Neff)
What can be done with pack racing at plate tracks? (Photo: Mike Neff)

NASCAR made the determination that tandem drafting was responsible for the size and seriousness of the crash.  So when Speedweeks got underway at Daytona in 2014, the sanctioning body announced that there would be no prolonged push drafting in either the XFINITY Series or Truck Series.  Drivers were still allowed to bump each other in an effort to move both vehicles forward, but they were not permitted to “lock bumpers” and push each other for too long.

Problem solved, right?  Wrong.

NASCAR had to do something to try and prevent another wreck that could tear down a catch fence.  The trouble is, NASCAR made the incorrect assumption that tandem drafting directly contributed to Larson hitting the catch fence, which was not the case.  Examining the replay of the crash, Larson checks up, gets hit from behind, and spins directly into Keselowski’s car. The force of the hit causes the back end of Larson’s car to lift off the ground, causing air to get under the car.  Larson’s No. 32 then does a midair twist before hitting the gate in the catchfence, creating the hole.

The initial crash may have started because of Smith’s block on Keselowski, and the two may have been tandem drafting before that.  However, seeing a lead driver get spun after throwing a block is not something that is exclusive to tandem drafting.  That is a product of superspeedway racing in general.  Moreover, the seriousness of the crash was compounded by where Larson hit the catch fence.  In fact, Larson only went airborne in the first place due to the angle at which he hit Keselowski’s car.  Essentially, Larson went flying because of how he hit another car, a phenomenon called ramping.  In his column earlier this week, Matt McLaughlin wrote that, in NASCAR’s determination, the same thing happened to get cars airborne in the Cup race at Talladega earlier this year.  Yet there was no tandem drafting in either that race or last year’s 400 mile event at Daytona, when Austin Dillon went flying into the catch fence.

It seems that tandem drafting got blamed for a crash that could have happened just as easily while pack racing.  That makes NASCAR’s ban on pushing seem rather silly.  However, the rule is problematic not only because it is ineffective, but because it is difficult to fairly enforce.

In most NXS restrictor plate races, there is usually a pair or two of drivers who get black flagged by NASCAR for pushing.  Usually, the replay shows the drivers to be locked together for longer than a bump.  The question is, how many times do drivers push each other and get away with it?  There is no way that NASCAR can watch the entire field every second of the race, and in auto racing a few seconds can mean a huge difference.  It might mean all the difference in making the call to issue a penalty, because NASCAR has never sufficiently defined what constitutes a bump and what constitutes a push.  How long is too long before an official determines that two drivers have “locked bumpers?”  Nobody, including NASCAR, really knows.

A rule like this, that is not clearly defined and cannot be objectively enforced, sets up a nightmare scenario for NASCAR.  Suppose that, on the last lap of Friday night’s race, the winner appears to tandem draft with another car.  What would NASCAR do?  The sanctioning body has been famously averse to stripping a driver of victory after taking the checkered flag.  It has happened a few times in recent years when NASCAR deemed a driver passed another competitor below the yellow line in a superspeedway race (the 2011 Bud Shootout comes to mind).  Yet the yellow line rule clearly demarcates an “out-of-bounds” area.  While there is sometimes a question of how a driver wound up below the yellow line, it is clear where drivers are not supposed to go.  The same cannot be said for the “no pushing” rule, the limits of which exist entirely in a gray area.

So what if a pair of drivers pushes the envelope too far by pushing each other too far on the way to victory?  What if multiple pairs of drivers push each other on the final lap?  NASCAR has no way of determining what is legal and what is not.  The only solution available to the sanctioning body may be to not penalize anyone for pushing on the last lap.  Yet if NASCAR is unwilling to enforce its rules at the most crucial point in the race, than why have the rule in the first place?

NASCAR’s prohibition of the tandem draft in the XFINITY Series has not made the racing any safer, and is has the potential to make the sanctioning body look foolish.  The controversy that would erupt if NASCAR took a win away from a driver for breaking undefined parameters of an ineffective rule would call the legitimacy of the sanctioning body into question.  Nobody wants to see officials decide the outcome of a race based on a judgement call, but that is exactly what NASCAR is setting themselves up for if they do not ditch the “no pushing” rule.  Hopefully, NASCAR will do the smart thing and lift the ban on tandem drafting, making life easier for drivers, officials, and fans.