Given that I’ve vocally opposed the Chase format in the Cup Series, it should come as no surprise I’m not a big fan of it oozing down to XFINITY and Trucks. Sunday evening gave those few fans paying attention yet another lesson in the rule of unintended consequences stemming from the new championship format.
I haven’t seen the TV ratings for the Charlotte NXS race, one which had to be rescheduled from a Friday evening time slot to late Sunday afternoon due to Hurricane Matthew. (No relationship.) My guess is they’ll fall in the “restless cat on the couch batting playfully at the remote” range. There sure weren’t many folks in the stands during the race, and that came despite (cue the applause) Sunday evening’s race was an Elimination Round paring the drivers eligible for this year’s NXS championship from 12 to eight.
Joey Logano, a Cup regular, won the event to no one’s great surprise. Cup full-timers have now won 17 of this season’s 29 NXS races with Kyle Busch accounting for eight of those wins by interlopers. Series regular Erik Jones won four events, second in the series to Busch, but it’s been slim pickings for everyone else.
Ty Dillon, though, shouldn’t have been in danger of being eliminated Sunday. Dillon drives for one of those “tweener” teams. It’s not one with a Cup regular at the wheel of a car prepared by his Cup team; however, Dillon runs out of the RCR stable and uses a Cup pit crew most weeks. That means he has a decided advantage over the full-time, single-car, NXS-only teams and drivers.
The younger of the Dillon brothers has made ten Cup starts this year and a total of 17 during his career, earning a best finish of 14th at Michigan last year (he did run sixth in relief of Tony Stewart at Talladega). The jury is still out on Dillon as to whether he’ll eventually be a Cup contender or if he’s just another journeyman driver riding his grandpop’s checkbook into the big leagues.
To date, Dillon’s NXS stats are less than overwhelming. He has just one series victory. (Admittedly, a big one at Indy; having those Cup interlopers run in the NXS series every week makes it hard for a rising star to ring the bell too often.) Dillon finished third in the NXS points last year without the benefit of a Chase system. In the Truck Series, Ty Dillon has won three races and was runner-up in the points to Matt Crafton in 2013. If nothing else, he certainly doesn’t lack for self-confidence. Dillon’s vocal that he’s ready to run in the Cup Series which would likely be a pain in the neck for Ryan Newman if he had one.
At one point, while Ty Dillon was telling the media just how ready he was for Cup, I looked at his stats. At that point, he’d started 100 NXS races and won one. In most occupations, a 1% success rate wouldn’t earn you a promotion. Such a success ratio for a bomb squad member would make for an awfully short career. No wonder why Newman has a contract extension in hand with RCR.
As recently as a month ago, after the Richmond NXS race, Dillon was fourth in the standings before the Chase reset. Things then went horrifically wrong for Dillon and the No. 3 team at Kentucky when he got caught up in a lap 187 wreck not of his own making. (Ironically, that wreck was triggered by Erik Jones, the winningest NXS regular this season, putting himself in danger of being eliminated on Sunday too as a result.) Even a second-place finish at Dover wasn’t enough to keep Dillon from the hot seat. (You’ll recall that race was rain-delayed until Sunday as well; most of the Cup stars slated to run in it withdrew because the race was being run prior to the Cup event.) Had Dillon won that event, he’d have been guaranteed a place in the Leftover 8 or whatever they’re called but a tire issue and a strong run by eventual winner Daniel Suarez ended that possibility.
Dillon arrived at Charlotte, then three points below the cutoff point for advancement. (Numerologists, go ahead and have a field day with that.) But right from Jump Street, it appeared that Dillon (at the insistence of the No. 3 team, I’d wager) decided to play it conservatively. They clearly weren’t gunning for a win. Instead, they just wanted to play the points game to advance. Erik Jones, who arrived at Charlotte a point behind Dillon, clearly had another strategy in mind, going for the win or at least the “best in class” award behind the Cup regulars.
There was a method, it seemed, behind their madness as many of the competitors ahead of them just didn’t have good speed. Darrell Wallace, Jr., for example had yet another lackluster performance after damaging the nose of his Ford on the very first lap. How Wallace, who hasn’t had a top-5 finish since June, was even playoff eligible is beyond me but that’s what comes of letting the big leaguers play AAA ball on Saturday, I suppose. Still, things didn’t look good for Wallace who spent much of the race three to four laps down in the mid-20s as far as running order.
It’s only a classic bit of Monday morning lounge chair quarterbacking given all the variables involved but it would appear the conservative strategy the No. 3 team employed backfired on them badly. Late in the race, Dillon stayed out under caution to get back to only one lap down. But Ryan Sieg had managed to pit for fresh tires and return to the track ahead of Dillon, so Ty was faced with the unenviable task of trying to pass a faster car on worn tires. That didn’t appear likely with just 12 laps to go. And even if somehow Dillon had passed Sieg, he was still going to finish the round one point behind Wallace, Jr. (In the event of a tie, Dillon would have had the edge in the first tiebreaker with his second-place finish at Dover.)
That’s when Ty’s older brother Austin, also driving for RCR in the NXS race, decided to try to help his younger sibling make the cut. Austin, also a lap down, dove for the pits for no apparent if clearly obvious reasons. Officially, the No. 2 team Dillon was driving for said they needed to make sure some lug nuts were tight so they wouldn’t run afoul of post-race inspection and they wanted to add a little gas to the Chevy as an insurance policy.
Sorry, no dice. With only 25 laps since he last pitted, Dillon didn’t have fuel concerns (although 25 laps after a stop would have been plenty of time for a wheel legitimately left loose to have come free of the car.) What Dillon did in pitting to hand his brother a spot wasn’t illegal but it surely wasn’t sportsmanlike.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Ty Dillon never passed Sieg and his bid to advance to the next round fell one point short. As such, nobody made a big deal out of what had happened most likely because after a long, frustrating, and rainy weekend everyone was just ready to gather up their rocks and roll.
It’s a bad sign, though for a sport who knows the consequences of foul play. Team orders have reared their ugly head before in Chase competition, most notably at Richmond in 2013 when the now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing operation ordered Clint Bowyer to spin and Brian Vickers to pit unnecessarily to earn Martin Truex Jr. enough spots to make the Chase cutoff.
Now, with multiple elimination rounds in all three of the top 3 NASCAR touring series, hijinks like the ones that occurred Sunday will likely become the status quo. The clear problem here is Sieg, driving for a single-car, family-owned team, doesn’t have a teammate, much less a brother to pull over and hand him a spot. (Speaking of brothers racing, allow me an aside. How’s this for a daydream: you get to race the Formula One track at Monaco against a longtime sibling rival. It’s just the two of you and you can run as fast and hard as you want. But here’s the catch. You have to drive a four-door Toyota Camry, a soulless transportation appliance with all the “fun to drive” factor of an enclosed garden tractor. Sigh.) There’s still some folks grumbling over last year’s fall Talladega finish as well. With his engine running on six or seven cylinders and a likelihood he’d finish as the last car on the lead lap, fully out of the Chase Kevin Harvick hooked Trevor Bayne coming to a green-white-checkered restart. The resulting wreck allowed Harvick to finish 15th, making the next round while half the field wound up in a Demolition Derby behind him.
After that 2013 mess at Richmond NASCAR did, in fact, announce a “100%” rule that stated all drivers had to give it their all every lap to advance or maintain their position – not pull over to allow a teammate or quasi-teammate by. The only problem with that rule is it’s unenforceable. When a driver like Brad Keselowski slows dramatically late in a race, is he trying to give a position to teammate Joey Logano or is he trying to stretch a fuel load another ten laps to avoid making a stop with a chance to steal a win on fuel mileage? If a driver legitimately feels that he was a right front tire delaminating but hopes to nurse it along another four or five laps to the finish rather than pit and give up 20 spots, is that a legitimate strategy? Absent any careless chatter on the radio to tip the team’s hand you simply can’t know.
One brother helping out another might be a fairly unique set of circumstances (the Busch brothers drive for different teams and manufacturers) but teammates helping teammates probably won’t be uncommon. This is yet another reason drivers ranked within the top 25 in Cup points shouldn’t be allowed to run in NXS. Without them, right now fans of the series would probably be watching a nice little championship battle between Jones, Elliott Sadler, Suarez and, yes, Ty Dillon. As it is, if Jones or Suarez runs into trouble they could have as many as three teammates to pull into the pits and retire due to “handling” issues, allowing them to grab some more points.
How do you fix it? This B.S. is the sort of unintended consequences that spring from poorly thought out policies being rushed into place. But for NASCAR, it’s business as usual.
“New and improved contrived excitement manufactured weekly. How many tickets can we put you down for, sir?”
It’s nobody’s fault and it’s going to happen sometimes in any sport conducted outside, but Hurricane Matthew’s brush with the U.S. east coast this weekend resulted in both NASCAR races being rescheduled for Sunday. For those keeping score both Pocono NASCAR races (plus the Indy-car event there) were rain-delayed as was the Bristol night race and NXS race at Dover.
Postponing a race is a tough call to make because of the vagaries of weather forecasting as evidenced by the badly overhyped Tropical Storm Hermine not long ago. While I won’t discount the destruction, inconvenience, injury or (thankfully small) loss of life caused by Matthew residents of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas dodged a bullet compared to what a full-on assault by a CAT 5 hurricane would have done to the area. Still, track management has to take into account unlike most stick and ball sports NASCAR has a greater percentage of fans from outside the immediate event area that travel to races. Asking those folks to head towards rather than away from the storm isn’t too bright. Rules that forbid return or exchange of tickets due to potentially dangerous weather force fans to either take their chances or eat their losses. Having driven a Class A motorhome tens of thousands of miles, I can tell you they don’t handle real well in stiff crosswinds at highway speeds given they are as aerodynamic as a washing machine. Fortunately, race attendance is way down because evacuees fleeing to the Charlotte area found themselves competing with race fans for lodging. (A note to the displaced. That hotel wasn’t gouging you because of the weather crises. They do that to us all the time!)
Whatever headaches and inconveniences we endured this weekend is nothing compared to the widespread destruction and massive loss of life in Haiti. Thoughts and prayers go out to all those victims in both the United States and abroad.
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