The lingering storyline from Talladega turned out to be a trio of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates whose strategy was to run far off the pace all day, including at the finish. NASCAR says the three didn’t violate the spirit of the 100 percent rule. What say you?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Hanging back at the plate tracks has been a strategy teams have used for a long time, but it’s been more prominent recently (another unintended consequence of the Chase?). I don’t really care one way or another if a team does it; if they hang back and avoid the crash but can’t get to the front, well, that’s their own fault. If they do it and win, it worked. But I do think NASCAR was wrong here, because it said the drivers’ actions didn’t help a teammate, which was what the rule was really designed to prevent — but it did, or at least it had great potential to, because had they joined the fight at the end and one of them inadvertently passed or pushed someone else past Denny Hamlin, Hamlin’s Chase would have been over. So by not taking that chance, yes, the spirit of the rule was violated.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: It’s difficult to define exactly what it means to run at 100 percent. It’s like when people say that they’re really hard workers while hanging out in the break room or updating their Facebook page from their office. Levels of competitive exertion are seriously relative terms. I’ve been with race teams where we ran as hard as we could despite the fact that our car was off the pace and we needed to stay out of everyone’s way. Not that this is what the three JGR cars were doing at Talladega last weekend, but it’s difficult to judge just what racing at 100 percent really looks like, especially at a superspeedway.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The only people complaining about it are either vehemently anti-Toyota or Austin Dillon fans. There was absolutely nothing to be gained by the Nos. 18, 19 and 20 JGR cars to mix it up and possibly get caught up in a wreck, eliminating themselves from championship contention. There’s a reason why races are 500 miles not and five laps; there is a certain amount of strategy involved in auto racing, just as there is any other sport. Do you constantly swing for a home run in baseball? Is every play in football a 50-yard go route? Any suggestion that what they did violated the spirit of any rule is patently false and downright absurd. No different than any other driver in the past 68 years who took it easy when he was trying to maintain a championship position. So spare me the tears from the bummed-out bow-tie boys who didn’t seem to be wringing their hands over the No. 48 dogging it running 23rd to help save Chase Elliott a point.
NASCAR confiscated hollow jack bolts from the No. 78 prior to qualifying (rules state these much be solid) but stated there is unlikely to be a major penalty. Right call?
Howell: Last time I considered the state of jack bolts, I don’t recall having to choose between solid or hollow. That choice usually comes when buying chocolate rabbits at Easter. Teams always have a fascination with hollowing parts out to reduce weight — I’ve heard crew chiefs over the years strategize the benefits of hollowing parts and using materials like titanium to add strength while maintaining a NASCAR-legal exterior. The No. 78 team was caught with illegal parts. I believe the punishment should be fairly severe, especially if NASCAR wants to ensure that such indiscretions aren’t seen again.
Pugliese: Yes. This is an issue that occurs at the shop when they’re prepping the car on the setup plate. It’s an oversight and not an effort to circumvent any rules. As much as a non-issue as the JGR cars taking it easy Sunday afternoon.
Henderson: Wrong call. We all know every ounce counts in racing, less weight in one place means it can be added somewhere else to change the car’s handling. Things that are supposed to be solid and are hollow instead didn’t get that way by accident. Yes, Martin Truex, Jr.’s engine detonated and it doesn’t matter in the scheme of the Chase, but there should have been a penalty. It might have been too small to give a big advantage but that doesn’t mean the team wasn’t trying to gain a small one.
With one single-car team reportedly selling its charter this offseason and another considering it because it’s in a position where it could be revoked in a couple of years, should there be an underlying concern for the health of the sport as a whole?
Pugliese: Not so much the charter, but rather the reduction of the field to begin with down to 40, and the dwindling ratings are what point to icebergs on the horizon. Economic uncertainty due to an over-inflated stock market, a re-emerging housing bubble and election year lowest race record EVER since 2001. What would be interesting would be to see if there would be any ratings increase or change if they went back to the Latford system used from 1975-2003. My guess is there would be a net effect of zero, one way or the other. The Chase hasn’t worked since after 2004 or 2005. The new format gives the media something to fret over like the Final Four brackets it is trying to emulate, but it hasn’t caught on. The casual fan doesn’t care; fall is for football and even the NFL is experiencing a ratings decline. The fact is that this series has become prohibitively expensive in which to participate. Reduce the number of races to reduce the expense and create scarcity of product to help increase demand.
Henderson: It’s not really about the charters. You will see these bought and sold as the years go on, but it is an issue when teams try and fail to make it in the sport. It’s not like Tommy Baldwin and Frank Stoddard didn’t know what they were doing, but the odds are so stacked against anyone without $20 million to spend, and in the long run, that’s a problem. I’ve heard fans say they wish someone other than the usual suspects could be competitive. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen regularly without some major changes. The sport needs competitive teams at all levels, and the possibility of a couple going under is not a good sign.
Howell: Change is inevitable in everything. The selling/shifting/swapping of charters should not be seen as a harbinger of bad times ahead. Some might say that it’s actually a sign of future growth; new teams replacing old ones means we’ll see fresh blood and new ideas around the series. Without the ebb and flow of charters, we’ll be stuck with the same teams doing the same things they’ve always done. Change can be a good thing, and I think that’s what these shifts in charters among teams is reflecting.
Martinsville Speedway is on the docket for this weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series. Who’s in the best position to make a statement in their respective Chases?
Henderson: On the Cup side, either Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick is in a good position at a track they both run well at to make a statement to Chase favorite Joe Gibbs Racing that it’s not going to be as easy as they thought. As for the trucks, both Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter need a shot in the arm, and one of them just might find it in Victory Lane.
Howell: It’s now officially go-time! We’ll see Joey Logano punch his ticket to Homestead-Miami Speedway at Martinsville this weekend. On the Camping World side, we’re going to see a shootout between William Byron and Sauter. The NCWTS race just might be the best show on the docket this week.
Pugliese: Truck Series: I’m going to say Christopher Bell. Martinsville bodes well for him — not so much because he’s ran well there in the spring (he didn’t), but because the next tracks look pretty good for him. He won at Gateway Motorsports Park, which kind of has some similarities to Phoenix International Raceway, and he finished fourth at Kentucky Speedway and sixth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Are they Homestead replicas? No, but close enough, given the speed and banking involved. He just needs to not stub his toe at the Paperclip, and he might be able to pull one off here. For the Cup Series, while many would say Johnson or Hamlin given their respective records there, I am going to go with Kurt Busch. The No 41 team has been nothing short of adequate all season long, staying out of trouble, finishing races and not doing anything silly to take itself out of contention. Busch made a great move coming to the line to preserve his Chase hopes, and if he and Tony Gibson can figure out the combination that earned them their first win together here in 2014, it’ll set the stage for Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix nicely.
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