Did You Notice? … NASCAR needs to throw caution to the wind?
It’s been a crazy last day of Silly Season for the sport, but let’s not bury the lead of on-track competition gone awry at Richmond Raceway. The sport was put under fire for not only an ambulance blocking pit road under caution, causing damage to a handful of cars including pole-sitter and playoff bubble driver Matt Kenseth, but also a number of questionable yellow flags.
There was the incident with a few laps left where Derrike Cope scraped the wall out of harm’s way, yet a caution was called that forced NASCAR overtime.
But those moments overshadowed what I considered to be the most ridiculous situation of all. Less than 100 laps into the race, Kenseth locked up his brakes, and within seconds, the yellow lights were flashing.
That call certainly cost Kenseth a stage win and jumbled up the running order… for what, exactly? What’s next? Could smoke from a BBQ in the infield confuse NASCAR? Will a hot dog wrapper in Turn 1 suddenly be considered metal debris? (Whoops, that’s actually happened. Multiple times.)
The bottom line is that NASCAR officials, despite a decrease in questionable debris cautions this year, are still losing credibility within the sport. I thought the stage breaks would be enough to keep their trigger finger at bay but it appears to be a disease they can’t shake.
Instead, using the word safety as a cover, NASCAR is throwing caution flags for issues that wouldn’t faze your 90-year-old grandmother on the highway. That’s paired hand-in-hand with a high number of penalties from before qualifying to after the race, which are well-intentioned but have left the impression that virtually everyone’s cheating.
Insiders know the explanations, and they’re complicated. But for the sport’s avid fan base, it’s hard to think anything else other than NASCAR is desperate to increase competition. On track, the only time we’re guaranteed side-by-side action is with a double-file restart. It’s the only way to jumble up the field during long green-flag runs when even at a short track like Richmond the field is spreading out. At times during the closing stages of that race, Martin Truex Jr. barely had anyone within a football field of him other than Kyle Larson. Aerodynamics make it nearly impossible for someone to pass the leader in that scenario unless something goes wrong.
At Darlington Raceway a week earlier, it was the same scenario, with Truex and Denny Hamlin building up a comfortable advantage over the field as they battled for the win. But in that one, NASCAR let the race play out, keeping the green flag waving in the final moments as Truex limped around the track with a flat tire.
It was all admirable until days later when Hamlin found himself with a 25-point penalty and his win encumbered for breaking the rules. It’s the second time in 26 races that’s happened, an eight percent clip that’s too high for comfort. The explanation was hard for fans to understand, left Hamlin claiming the violation had no effect on speed or handling and clouded what was otherwise a competitive Southern 500.
Then at Richmond, the laps click down with Truex in front and another car limps to the finish. This time, NASCAR throws the yellow, worried about debris, and the No. 78 loses another race.
And you wonder why the regular season champion might be ticked off.
This type of wishy-washy inconsistency from NASCAR has to stop. But it’s deeper than that. All of a sudden, instead of letting races play out, officials have become like ridiculously overbearing parents. You know, the type that won’t let their five-year-old go outside and play in the summer for fear he might get stung by a bee.
It’s difficult to watch and, simply put, that’s why people have stopped watching. In the name of avoiding risks, the sport has become so risk averse that it’s made competition a shell of its former self. It’s a lesson applied to all sports: The more officials get involved, the more fans complain as the final product starts stinking of meddling and manipulation.
So let’s start fixing it.
New rule: A caution only comes out when there’s a real reason. You think common sense would make that easy, but let’s explain ourselves. That means that instead of erring on the side of caution, let’s take a walk on the wild side. See that car that just had a flat? Did it make it to pit road? Was any debris on the racetrack completely out of harm’s way? Everyone can still go full speed.
How about that piece of debris? You know, what you can find on the track at any time? Do you have to use binoculars to see it? Would someone need to drive on the grass to actually hit it? No yellow flag needed.
Now, is there a car out there with smoke? OK. Does that smoke come with oil? No? I think everyone survives. And most importantly, did someone hit the wall? Did they scrape it? Are they still running, similar to what happens at Darlington almost every lap? Keep it green.
The risk, of course, is if you do that, the only time the race slows down is for stage breaks. Why? No one spins out much anymore, and no one blows an engine in a world where chassis, handling and horsepower are strictly controlled. So maybe that’s the next step.
Loosen the reins mechanically a bit.
It’s tricky, because any type of push toward the fastest, most modern technology costs money. If you haven’t noticed, half of the Cup field is barely making it to the track while the rest is simply trying to hang onto their millions. We’d need a way to create fair spending and a salary cap.
But the sport needs to figure it out. No more lip service. Let’s get people the money they need and then push the envelope and the mechanical gray area once more. Set it up to where cars are on the edge of breaking because otherwise you’re not going to contend for the win. Bring back some of the unpredictability we used to see each week.
And for the love of god, fix the aero push. This offseason, force every team that’s intending to compete full-time into a two-week test somewhere. Bring your best engineers and your best people from R&D to test a number of different handling packages. No one leaves until the majority of drivers, owners and manufacturers are happy with the product they’re seeing on the racetrack.
And if that means a few less engineers need to be involved in that final product? Where the new approved chassis are dirtier, require less wind tunnel time and need more driver skill? Take a deep breath and stomach it. Cut costs and give a few engineers some pink slips. It’s tough, I know, but think about all the other people that have been laid off as the sport keeps contracting. Create smaller, more efficient teams with a lower barrier of entry so owners can survive and thrive.
At some point, there needs to be short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s time for NASCAR to throw caution to the wind and stop monkeying around with half-hearted solutions. Make the same type of radical changes to the way you officiate, the cars you approve and the way teams do business financially as you’re willing to make to the points system.
Then, just maybe, after some short-term fallout, you’ll find yourself on solid ground with a new generation of fans. But you can’t dip your toe in the water anymore.
It’s time for NASCAR to find the aggression it lost and go all in.
Did You Notice? … What Richard Petty said in the wake of Smithfield Foods leaving the team? The release this afternoon was damning, as the 80-year-old Hall of Famer let loose his displeasure with this last-minute change of heart.
“Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship,” Petty said in a team release. “I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I’m sad to see this is where we are now.”
For NASCAR’s older fan base, Petty is like the equivalent of God. Not only is he the winningest driver in the sport’s long, storied history, but he was also its most popular. For him to spout this type of negativity in the public sphere, a place where he’s chosen words carefully for decades, is damning.
What it does is spread a narrative to these fans: The sport isn’t what it used to be. And there’s no positive vibe right now to counteract that. You don’t have someone in power stepping up and saying, “No, Richard. It’s OK. The sport is going to take care of you.”
Instead, what we got Tuesday night was the opposite. Smithfield offered a scathing rebuke of The King on their Facebook page, outright disputing his version of events.
“RPM’s claims of a ‘handshake deal’ to extend our sponsorship are unequivocally and patently false,” said Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan. “Smithfield’s numerous discussions with RPM over the past several months focused exclusively around one issue: RPM’s inability to deliver on the track and the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness.”
Ouch! But perception in this case is just as important as reality. With so many fans believing the worst, Petty’s frustration is the quotes they can hang their hat on while walking away.
It puts the focus on NASCAR, newly-minted President Brent Dewar and its marketing department to change the narrative. Let’s hope there’s some magic and a long-term plan up its sleeve.
NASCAR needs it. Now.
Did You Notice? …. Quick hits before taking off….
- Will Danica Patrick keep racing or not beyond this season? I get the sense it’s all about sponsorship after her official announcement she’s leaving Stewart-Haas Racing. There are still some situations that would work for her (Richard Childress Racing? Toyota?), but does she want to keep doing it? I’ve gone back and forth on that question several times this season as, at age 35, she doesn’t have much left to prove. But NASCAR, desperate to keep diversifying itself, appears to need Patrick more than she needs the sport. Can all sides find the right situation for 2018? It’s got to be a competitive ride for her to stick around.
- One other overlooked fact in this Silly Season: it appears highly likely Kenseth and Kasey Kahne remain without rides as the number of available opportunities dry up. Right now, I’m seeing the third Richard Childress car (still seeking sponsorship), the No. 77 Toyota if Furniture Row Racing can find money and… that’s about it in terms of playoff-ready cars. Can they find a way to grab a chair before the music stops? And if they don’t, what does that say about the state of the sport?