A Rose by Any Other Name
Sometimes, it seems NASCAR is just setting themselves up to be ridiculed on purpose. They’ll announce something that leaves even their mouthpiece Kool-Aid junkies in the press muttering, “you’ve got to be ******* me.”
Thus, with no little fanfare NASCAR announced the end of “encumbered” finishes and wins. What is an encumbered finish, some of you might ask? Is it something I’ll find in the sports section or at the salad bar? As it stood for the period from 2017 to, um, 2017, an “encumbered” finish was a win by a driver scored in a car that was then found to be illegal during post-race inspection.
Per NASCAR tradition that driver is allowed to keep the win. He’ll get credit for it in the record books and be handed the trophy. There doubtless will be fines to punish the infraction and a loss of points for both the driver and the car owner, though. Perhaps more importantly (as Joey Logano found out last year) that win does not count towards the postseason playoffs. An unencumbered win all but guarantees a driver a spot but if that win is “encumbered” that’s not the case.
Here’s the interesting part. I don’t think most race fans had any real issue with the word “encumbered,” archaic though it might be. What they struggle with is the concept that a driver in a cheated-up car is allowed to keep the win despite his mount having been found to be illegal. That’s tough to explain to fans and non-fans alike. In the upcoming Olympics, for example, a few athletes will be stripped of their medals because they took an allergy relief pill sometime in the late 1990s. Even if they haul home the hardware that’s no guarantee a year or two from now they might not be stripped of their accomplishment.
That’s the way it works in most sports. Ask the Russians. Ask Lance Armstrong, for that matter.
NASCAR’s aversion to stripping a driver of a win stemmed from Bill France Sr.’s attitude back in the late 1950s. Back then, he didn’t want fans who had attended a race and seen one driver apparently win to find out in the next day’s newspaper some other driver had won. (“What’s a newspaper?” some younger fans might be asking themselves. Yes, nowadays we have the Internet, text messages, message boards, smart phones, Facebook, and dozens of other types of information sharing that an older Luddite like myself hasn’t heard of yet.)
It is likely if a driver was stripped of a win for a rules infraction a majority of fans would know before they even managed to fight their way out of the parking lot. And I think the vast majority of those fans would be good with the concept of a driver losing that trophy. Most of us were bought up by well-intended parents who taught us “cheaters never win.” Unfortunately, they forget to add the corollary that “cheaters never win except in politics and NASCAR racing.” So the powers that be don’t want fans leaving the races to find out later who actually won. Oddly enough, nobody knew who won the first Daytona 500 for several days after the fact and the fellow (Johnny Beauchamp) who was handed the trophy never gave it back to Lee Petty who was ultimately determined to have won the race.
Likewise, NASCAR figured out that a lot of fans didn’t care much for the Chase method of determining a champion. They didn’t fix the system, they just gave it a new name: “the playoffs.” Fans continue to be annoyed by the lengthy delays in stage racing between the end of one segment and the start of the next. No sense in actually addressing the issue at hand, of course. Let’s just call those “timeouts” “beer breaks” and everyone will love them.
Meanwhile, since the term “encumbered finish” has been put out to pasture but the rule still remains. NASCAR needs a new term for the infraction. I’d suggest “Bogus finish.” As always, just trying to be helpful….
The Monster In the Closet
Unless you’ve been living off the grid in a cave (and if you have, is there room for me in there?) you’ll realize over the last couple years there’s been a seismic shift in interactions between the sexes. The rules have changed radically as to what is appropriate in those interactions in the workplace, in general society, in the bedroom, the entertainment industry, and even (gulp) sports.
The Formula One circuit, now under new ownership, announced last week they are doing away with “umbrella girls.” These young female spokesmodels typically somewhat enhanced to conform to an antiquated male idealization of the female anatomy (i.e. hot chicks who have had work done in order to find work). They were a staple of the F1 starting grid even if the spokesmodels tended to speak very little. They did, in fact, also hold up umbrellas to keep the sun from getting the drivers overly warm. Tough work if you could find it….
So F1 gave into rapidly evolving cultural mores (i.e. political correctness). Who might be next? Well, it occurs to me NASCAR’s somewhat reluctant and recalcitrant title sponsor, Monster Energy, sends their spokesmodels to every NASCAR event. It’s typically in a formulaic squadron of one blonde, one brunette, one redhead, and one minority member. Dressed in stiletto heel thigh-high boots, black leather pants, and tight tops that emphasize (Alexa….what’s the politically correct term for ‘boobs’?) OK… mammary glands.
Like most spokesmodels, the Monster girls tend to do a lot more modeling than speaking. If they were all mutes in real life it wouldn’t surprise me. And what are they going to say anyway? “Drinking too many energy drinks while pregnant could cause you to have a kid with two heads or something” or “Am I at the right place? I was led to believe there’d be dirt bikes around here.”
Yes, Monster also sends a contingent of spokesmodels to events run by motocross and other motorsports events they sponsor. (Though I am going to have to go on record as saying busty spokesmodels with long hair and Monster Truck mud rallies is a potentially bad fit. Especially if there’s wresting involved and Monster does seem to like their wrestling… or fighting… or whatever they call it.)
Elements of the mainstream media, the sort who think that the “Daytona 500” are illegal aliens from Cuba being held in prisons awaiting deportation, appear ready to latch on to the fetching lasses who comprise Monster’s marketing initiative and raise holy hell. Where’s Ed McMahon when you need him? Oh, right. I sometimes envy the guy in that regard. So like North Carolinian Cup champions are the Monster Girls an endangered species?
It very well could be and not for the reasons you might think. As it turns out last week, allegations were made that the Monster Energy world headquarters is a toxic place for women to work that makes Bluto’s Delta House look like a cloistered convent. (Let me note that to date there have been zero allegations of any alleged inappropriate behavior involving Monster employees at a NASCAR event, though in their story on the issue ABC news sure did manage to work in a lot of photos of race cars.)
One has to consider the company is going to be trying to jettison anything that might be misconstrued as sexist as rapidly as possible but this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m so culturally naïve that I’d never heard of Harvey Weinstein until the stuff hit the fan and initially I thought he might be the father of Bruce Springsteen’s drummer. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Monster to announce if they’ll move forward with the NASCAR title sponsorship after this season.
Brother, Can You Spare a Short Block?
Sometimes, I actually do understand why NASCAR is making a rule change even if I worry a bit about their ability to make things work as they hope by adding yet more rules.
The cost of competing at the Cup level (heck, some will argue even the cost of competing at your local dirt track as an amateur) has gotten way out of hand. As a result, NASCAR wants to put some sort of limit on the cost of engines for Cup competitors. A new rule this year will state, as best I’ve been able to figure it out, each team will have to run a minimum of 13 engines at least twice in a season.
I need to get just a little technical here so those of you who have a grasp on the mechanical side of the sport can skip this paragraph. When referring to an engine a long-block is the entire engine, minus stuff like the carb, intake, distributor, etc. The short-block is basically the lower half of the engine. It consists of (naturally) the engine block, the crankshaft, the camshaft, the connecting rods, pistons and oil pan.
To bolt together a long block you need to add the cylinder heads, valves, valve springs, rocker arms, pushrods, rocker studs, and probably a few other greasy bits I’m forgetting staring down both barrels of a deadline. Under the new rules the short-block (the bottom end of the engine) will be sealed when it is first presented for competition at a race. Basically, the seals will show evidence that someone tampered with the bolts needed to rebuild the bottom end of the engine and that will be a very big no-no.
It’s natural that a team, particularly one with an engine they know to be wounded (i.e. spun main bearing or something) will try to come up with some way to replicate those seals to circumvent the rules. If the rule has any chance of working, the punishment for such an infraction must be draconian and certain. Even talking about how to replicate the seals ought to get a team disqualified for the rest of the season. An “encumbered” finish just isn’t going to do it any more than a slap on the wrist is adequate punishment for an arsonist.
Even on those sealed engines teams will still be able to work on the upper portion. I’d guess they’d at very least go ahead and change valve springs and seals, perhaps even the valves themselves. That will still be legal.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In order for an engine to be declared as used for a first or second event that driver, car, and engine must complete at least 25% of the distance of a race. And there’s one potential issue. Is that 25% of the advertised distance of a race or 25% of the actual race distance if the event is shortened by weather? (We’re going to assume if there are green-white-checkered laps at the end of a race they won’t count towards the race distance simply because that would be silly.) Oh, and the rule doesn’t apply in the Daytona 500 because that race is unique to itself with the 150-mile qualifying races. It’s never a good sign when a new rule is announced but it doesn’t apply to the first race for which the rule is in effect.
And here’s the part that really sends a chill up my spine. From the actual wording of the rule; “any engine that starts a Race (sic) and completes at least 25% of the laps or at NASCAR’s discretion (subject to section 10.9.9 damage mechanical repair) will qualify as a sealed engine for its next use.”
Anytime that the rules are subject to NASCAR’s discretion or judgment, there’s Trouble in Tiny-Town and there inevitably will be a glaring exception made that will bring howls of favoritism both inside and out of the garage area. We’ve all seen examples of other rules interpreted by NASCAR’s discretion that went badly awry. Like a castle in the corner or a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble but I stay here just the same….
But anyway, the real fly in the ointment comes into place during the penultimate race of the season. If a team that is in the Playoffs cannot meet the sealed engine rule they are disqualified (and presumably encumbered) from the Playoffs. The driver fifth in the standings will advance to the Final Four to decide the title at Homestead.
There’s a lot more fun and merriment involved here that I am admittedly still trying to figure out myself. For instance, if a driver/team wins a race on a first-time used engine, NASCAR will naturally take that engine (and presumably the whole car) back to the R&D Center for post-race teardown. Since that engine won’t be available to the team until NASCAR is through with it, the winning powerplant will count towards the team’s required 13 engines run at least twice even though it was only run once before being rebuilt.
Oh, and for the All-Star Race in May, teams must use an engine that has been raced once prior to the event. For that All-Star Race, the engine isn’t allowed to have the top end (valve springs, etc.) changed out either, unlike the other races on the schedule. That means NASCAR will have to find a way to seal the upper part of the engine as well and do it in such a way it can’t be tampered with. (My guess is they use the oil pan bolts to seal the short block and valve cover bolts to seal the upper part of the engine. Without removing the valve covers and oil pan, there’s no way to effectively rebuild an engine or even measure the wear on it compared to tolerances.)
Part of the new rule (which seems to torpedo it right at the docks) is that the same team doesn’t have to use a short block twice. For instance, a multi-car team that has one driver out of contention for the playoffs could have the non-playoff driver run a new engine out of their allotment and give it to the contending teammates as a “used” version.
Or, if someone were willing to foot the bill, one of the big team owners could partner with a back-marker team just to run a new engine the bare minimum of 25% of the laps at an event at reduced speed (to further limit the chances of damaging it) and pass it along to their partner organization all sealed up real pretty and ready to rock. Aww, but nobody would really circumvent the intent if not the letter of the rule like that now would they, Auntie Em? As a reminder, this is stock car racing, not lawn croquet. And when the food supply is dwindling at the buffet, it’s OK to use two forks and your elbows.
As I’ve started before, the longer a rule or system takes to explain the less likely that rule is to be effective. I doubt I’m even scratching the surface here and questions will come up nobody will be prepared to answer. (Sure would be handy for fans to be able to buy themselves a NASCAR rulebook to study up on this stuff, wouldn’t it? Hint, hint.)
Well, there’s still some stuff to talk about (new five men over wall rule for pit crews unless they need a crew member to service the driver in which case it’s six guys over the wall, or if the team is not fueling the car on that stop in which case it’s four men over the wall…..sigh. Or the fact the NXS cars will be running restrictor plates at Indy, Pocono and Michigan, and the new standardized air guns) but I’m out of time and space this week.
Fear not. Our buddy Darrell Waltrip will be back next week to explain all these new rules on TV with the same concise and enlightening style of discourse he’s famous for… sorry, couldn’t keep a straight face. Be ready to try to siphon a teaspoon out of a tidal wave to once his mouth gets going if you want to know what’s going on.
Happy Daytona Daze, y’all.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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