Did You Notice? … This Chase has been the one where nobody wrecked? We’re on pace for the fewest cautions in the history of NASCAR’s playoff, races decided through a handful of restarts and pit strategy spread out over long green-flag runs.
Think back to last year and the title’s defining moments. Joey Logano spins out Matt Kenseth. Kenseth gets payback at Martinsville (and both men pay the price). Jeff Gordon emerges from that mess to win Martinsville. There was also the question of whether Kevin Harvick intentionally started a wreck at Talladega, Danica Patrick getting into it with multiple drivers and a handful of smaller feuds.
This year? We haven’t seen the same type of aggressive contact and drama. Instead, the biggest beefs have come between teammates bickering over strategy; Harvick vs. Kurt Busch at Talladega. Kyle Busch vs. the world at Joe Gibbs Racing for keeping everyone running in a freight train. The Chase has been played like a chess board, crew chiefs worried about solving math problems like what lap to head to the front at Talladega and how many positions (points) they’ll need to move up or down to feel “comfortable” advancing to the next round.
The end result has been multiple clean races where drivers seem to be playing it safe. Check out the record low number of yellow flags compared to previous years…
Cautions Through First 7 Races, Chase History
Talladega and Martinsville, two races defined in past years by carnage saw a total of 11 cautions. Only two drivers combined failed to finish because of a wreck: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Casey Mears. Those races will instead be remembered for two reasons: a group of cars running at the back intentionally for 500 miles (Talladega) and a 30-minute scoring malfunction (what else can you call it?) that occurred at Martinsville Sunday.
Neither outcome produces the type of highlight television that’s going to make primetime news broadcasts, SportsCenter, or a millennial’s daily drift through YouTube. While the action at both tracks was great, the bizarre occurrences in both events tarnished what was otherwise some of the best racing we’ve seen the past two months.
The few times we have seen yellow flags they’ve been for little more than debris on the racetrack. 41 percent of the cautions thrown since Chicagoland have been for something as simple as a piece of metal spotted on the racetrack or fluid from a blown engine.
In a few of those instances, it was obvious to throw the yellow but others could have been avoided, subjective calls from up in the tower. Every time that happens, meddling officials add to the narrative felt by some fans NASCAR has to manipulate the pace of the race in some way to create a more exciting outcome.
How have no wrecks changed the game? I’m not saying fans watch for the wrecks. What I am saying is the clean style of racing makes NASCAR look more like Formula 1 than your local stock car short track. The slightest contact these days could throw off aerodynamics and force a pit stop; one rumpled fender could mean the difference between fifth and 37th. Even Sunday, a crumpled right front for Johnson at Martinsville of all places had critics fearing the No. 48 was done for until a lengthy caution allowed them to tweak the damage.
Formula 1 can get away with no contact; people who follow it understand the sleekness of the cars is built upon millions in engineering and technology. The rise of stock car racing, by comparison was built upon Chevys and Fords that looked like what you drove on the highway.
Now? Engineering-based spec cars can’t touch each other, pass with enough room like they’re in different lanes on the highway and have lost the unpredictability of potentially spinning out. Six of seven Chase races have featured less than 20 lead changes as pit strategy and penalties have played a bigger factor than side-by-side battling for the win.
Will we see a change over the final three races? Perhaps, considering Busch’s recent anger toward JGR’s “teamwork” philosophy. But the damage, developing over a period of years to NASCAR’s product has already been done.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- The strategy of NASCAR waiting on a title sponsor has been explained to me, multiple times. I just don’t buy it. Why wait until now, when your product has already taken a back seat to the NFL, NBA, NHL, and the World Series to decide your title sponsor? Sprint leaving is nothing new; the millions in brand activation its replacement will undertake must happen in just three months. And for the sport to go without a title sponsor in 2017, waiting for the right partner in the midst of these startling trends with ratings and attendance would send a crippling message. If they’re waiting for more money… they’ll be waiting forever. This dealneeds to be done. Pronto.
- The 30-minute caution at Martinsville was also NASCAR’s best example in recent months the wave-around rule needs to go away for good. I’m not saying we need to race back to the caution like the old days; safety concerns have put that to bed. But a race where cars a lap down might actually need to earn their way back? Through racing for one single “free pass” spot or starting on the inside line? Call me crazy, but ratcheting up the competition level rather than the freebies might make portions of the race a bit more exciting.
- Don’t look now, but Kasey Kahne has become the model of consistency. 11th at Martinsville, he hasn’t run outside the top 15 at an unrestricted race since Watkins Glen in August. Add in the strong performance of shopmate Chase Elliott, the Gordon/Alex Bowman success and it’s clear HMS is peaking at the right time while coalescing around title contender Johnson.
- Three of the eight remaining Chasers finished inside the top four at Texas this spring. But you know who might have had the best car? Carl Edwards, who won the pole and led 124 laps before fading to seventh. JGR will be a very interesting place if Edwards takes the second slot at Texas, forcing the other three cars to stop being teammates at Phoenix as only two of them can qualify for the Championship 4.
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