Did You Notice? … Sunday’s Cup Series race at Atlanta had more pit road speeding penalties called (13) than lead changes (nine)? It was only fitting the day’s dominant driver, Kevin Harvick, got slapped with the final ticket, a call that took away a trip to Victory Lane.
The penalties were spread out equally, affecting everyone from underfunded Derrike Cope to the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Two former series champs, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth got caught twice. That tells you there was a systematic problem throughout the field.
How did it happen?
“I think I know why, but I really don’t want to share why,” Chase Elliott said. “There’s something that I think a lot of guys are kind of aware of that goes on on pit road, and that’s something we need to address kind of internally. But I have a pretty good reasoning, and I think why it was, but I really don’t want everybody else to know.”
Other drivers blamed extra timing lines added to Atlanta this year; Hendrick Motorsports thought its calibration might have been off (Earnhardt, Johnson and Elliott all got caught). But the bottom line is the fan base likely will never know what happened. You’ll just have to trust NASCAR got it right.
An outcome put into the hands of officials? That’s always a problem. Elliott’s “I’m keeping a secret” doesn’t help matters either.
For a penalty that was the most important storyline in this race, pit road speeding is difficult to report on because it’s something you cannot see. It’s not like a holding penalty in football, where video replays clearly show a guy’s jersey getting grabbed. By comparison, there’s no shot on FOX with a pointer showing exactly just how fast a guy was going over the limit during his stop.
Nope, there’s simply no visual evidence at all. Instead, what you see is NASCAR calls out a number, the driver gets black-flagged and well, that’s that. It’s like playing bingo from the tower. “I-20, calling I-20, time for you to go a lap down.”
With so many pit penalties, one of which deciding the outcome of the race that allows officials to take center stage and black helicopter conspiracies to run wild. It also robs fans of what they tune in to see the most: racing. The battle between Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski, while intense for the win felt hollow with a guy that could have lapped them, Harvick, taken out of it.
So let’s play TV watcher, shall we? Which outcome do you think fans want to tune in for: a race lost by a last-lap battle, perhaps contact as two cars race to the line or a driver robbed of a trophy because he sped through an extra timing line? Let’s put it this way; fans can go 55 miles an hour on their local highway. They don’t need to see that speed judged on television. Not a soul is tuning in because of the brilliant strategy pulling into the pits adds to the overall equation.
Yet that’s exactly what we’re talking about after Atlanta; a judgment call. It’s officiating, not the athletes themselves making the news.
So let’s hope the action on the race track takes center stage instead Sunday in Vegas. Having to focus on the pits puts a pit in my stomach – and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Did You Notice? … SMI is jockeying for a second date at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? Pending a vote tomorrow by city officials, that long-awaited addition to the NASCAR schedule is all but assured. We’re not sure when the second Vegas date will run in 2018; some have it landing during the Chase, with rumors going so far as to say Homestead could even be replaced as the season finale.
There’s only one fact we know for certain; the sport will not expand to a 37-race schedule next year. The move, then means an SMI track will lose a date and all signs point to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The one-mile oval has struggled to remain relevant, both with on-track competition and attendance in recent years. The Cup races remain unsponsored this season as contraction looms in the distance.
It’s a shame considering the Northeast is already a weak market for the sport. Remember last decade, when NASCAR was trying to build in New York City (Staten Island)? Losing a date at NHMS would cut back the number of dates near there and Boston to just one. Yes, I guess Pocono counts for NYC folks but it doesn’t seem close enough to make a major impact in the country’s largest media market.
Clearly, a second race in Vegas has a lot of plusses attached: more money. Better competition. Perhaps a higher amount of media exposure. Your ticket revenues can only go south for so long before you need to adjust the schedule to where the money is. But losing a date in the Northeast, however bad the track may be makes the switch more of a wash than you may think.
Did You Notice? … Toyotas didn’t lead a single lap at Atlanta Sunday. Sure, it’s still early but Joe Gibbs Racing appears a step behind their its rivals at Penske, Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Rookie Daniel Suarez has had perhaps the sharpest learning curve; the reigning XFINITY champion has yet to earn a top-20 finish. Even a visit from former driver turned mentor Carl Edwards at Atlanta didn’t help. Matt Kenseth, still seeking sponsorship seems the strongest but had to fight back from those two speeding penalties to stay relevant at Atlanta. Denny Hamlin has been bit by bad luck while Kyle Busch? He’s just got a bad temper (see Goodyear, Daytona Tire Compound).
It’s important to note that JGR, along with partner Furniture Row Racing had a ton of off-track distractions this offseason. Hamlin needed to have his contract extension signed, along with sponsor FedEx to wrap up the future of the No. 11 car. Edwards’ retirement threw everyone for a loop and put Suarez in the car earlier than expected. Kenseth, after losing primary sponsor Dollar General has a No. 20 car still seeking replacements.
Over at FRR, the team added young Erik Jones and expanded to two cars for the first time in their 12-year history at the Cup level. That’s not an easy task, especially for a Colorado-based team already facing logistical challenges. Those are the only six viable teams running Camrys; small-time BK Racing, who runs a two-car program struggles to place inside the top 30.
Now compare that with Ford, who brought SHR into the fold this season and who now boast over a dozen teams overall. Chevy, who has long been the largest manufacturer in NASCAR has a whopping 18. Sheer numbers, especially with sponsorship stretched on Toyota’s end could eventually start to catch up with them.
How do you fix it? More teams, more money. But despite a two-race primary deal announced by Kenseth Tuesday (PEAK/BlueDEF) those problems are going to take time to fix.
Could the Camry’s time on top of the sport be short lived?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Harvick has led over 700 laps in the last four Atlanta races but failed to earn a single victory. In fact, the last time he visited Victory Lane there was in 2001 – just his third career Cup start replacing the late Dale Earnhardt. When will he get back over the hump? More importantly, when is the Closer, one of the sport’s biggest names going to stop blowing saves?
- At Daytona, there were whispers Richard Childress Racing engines remained a step behind the other major contenders. Then, at Atlanta, they couldn’t get their cars to stay under power for 500 miles. It’s a hard pill to swallow for a team that was once the best at plate races and whose cars could have easily run inside the top five on Sunday.
- The Cup entry list, for a second straight week shows 39 teams fighting for 40 spots. Is Cup destined to stay underneath a 40-car field for most races this season?
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.