NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Beside the Rising Tide: Seismic Shifts Ahead

Growing up a hardcore gearhead as a kid, I dreamed of one day relocating to Los Angeles. That’s where all the car guys were, as evidenced by the editorial headquarters of Hot Rod magazine, the automotive pornography I studied more intently than any textbook in grade school.

The girls in L.A. were all pretty and blonde, the Beach Boys assured us (in three-part harmony). And after cruising Friday night in your street machine and riding your dirt bike, on any Sunday, you could hit the beach and surf. (As I mentioned to one friend similarly so inclined, perhaps it would be best he learn to swim before taking on surfing.) There were no winters in L.A. and it was sunny and warm every day. (As I recall thinking while shoveling the family driveway.) Yeah, L.A. seemed like the Promised Land back then.

But as an adult, I’ve never been tempted to relocate to the Golden State. In the ultimate irony, emission laws that ended up crippling the muscle cars of the era originated in California. The cost of living meant the cost of a “fixer-up” shack in the L.A. suburbs equaled that of a nice four bedroom, three bathroom, and two-car garage home in my parts. As of late (and for a long while now) the California politicians all seemed criminally insane.

And of course, L.A. lays in close proximity to the San Andreas Fault. Yep, one day you’d be out waxing your rod, waiting for your buddies to show up in the woody surf wagon. Suddenly, you’d feel a tremble and hear an unexpected loud bang. The next moment, the earth beneath your feet would be shaking violently. Your home would be collapsing while the landscape you’d come to know and love would be radically rearranged permanently.

Nope. I never made it to L.A. But it would seem the sport I’ve come to love and made a career writing about is about to undergo a seismic upheaval of its own that’s going to rearrange the landscape forever. The ways and holes that used to give me shelter….

After spending weeks denying any such thing was possible due to agreements with the RTA (Race Team Alliance) NASCAR spokes-guy Steve O’Donnell admitted this week NASCAR will indeed run the rules package used in this year’s All-Star Race (and three 2018 XFINITY Series events) in at least one, perhaps two, possibly three points-paying Cup races this season. It was nice to see he was so exact and detailed in his announcement, anyway. But this is, after all, classic modern era NASCAR.

The organization (and I’m being borderline sarcastic with that term given the unholy mess the sport’s management has degenerated into. Sorry, Mr. Churchill) loves to float trial balloons. They can then watch from the sidelines and see how much artillery fire the trial balloon draws versus the enthusiastic “Hosannas!” it elicits from the Kool-Aid junkies. If the response is overwhelmingly negative, NASCAR can claim that was “fake news” and they never had any intent on trying such a thing. If the concept is widely applauded, they can bask in their own brilliance at finally coming up with an idea others have been championing for a decade.

As a frequent gunnery sergeant, I can tell you the process can get exhausting from time to time. I’ve got blisters on my fingers this year. To be honest, I haven’t heard from “all” these fans who were given a vote on the new rules package and gave it an enthusiastic, unqualified thumbs up. Maybe it’s like those nine out of ten dentists who recommended Trident chewing gum. I never met a dentist once who advocated chewing gum. Most of them told me gum would rot my teeth, pull out my fillings and make me look low rent. Maybe those dentists were actually given a choice if they’d prefer their patients chew gum rather than roofing tar?

Originally, NASCAR officials had said they could not implement the big drag/pile-up plate package. (They tend to use different terminology, so let’s just agree to call it the “All-Star Package” with awkward grins dripping with irony.) They said it wouldn’t be fair to the drivers or teams who came into the season with the expectation the rules were the rules for the year, having planned their car and engine inventory accordingly. (Though those of you who have been around long enough to recall the near-weekly aero rules changes of 1985, the late ’90s and eventually the Car of Horror design might be chuckling a bit at the idea of NASCAR remaining consistent on the rules. Like Sheryl Crow, they tend to make the rules up as they go and hope you’re strong enough to be a fan.)

They also didn’t want to mess with the package too much because they claimed it would be unfair to drivers to switch horses mid-stream. That’s especially true when it came to rewarding or penalizing drivers who had sorted out the current rules package the best (Four words here: Kevin, Harvick, Kyle, Busch) in the midst of accumulating season-long points toward a title.

That’s quite noble if you overlook that under the current championship system, four drivers arrive at Homestead with an equal chance at the title. Whomever has the best race that one Sunday gets the big chrome hardware and check. This idea would be analogous to MLB deciding games would be more exciting if there were only three bases, batters got five strikes instead of three and the strike zone pitchers aim for was cut in half.

Perhaps NASCAR should have at least waited to see how the All-Star Package worked out in Saturday’s NXS race before making the call to incorporate it into the Cup Series later this year. To use a basic French term, the race Saturday stunk. Nearing the end of the first stage, Kyle Busch had a seven-second lead on the second-place driver and the 10th-place driver was more than 20 seconds behind. (In my mind, once the 10th-place driver is more than 10 seconds behind the leader the race is at severe risk of becoming monotonous.)

What excitement Saturday’s race did offer came when Busch was nailed speeding on pit road and had to restart at the back of the field. I think it took him until the first corner to regain the lead. Well, actually it was a little longer than that, but not much. I think he was toying with the rest of the field the way a cruel kitty might with a wounded mouse.

There was additional excitement there at the conclusion of stage two when a bunch of series regulars tried mixing it up with Paul Menard for the playoff point. Now, Menard is hardly the problem child with big leaguers playing in AAA games. But still, when it comes down to the NXS title that single point no regular earned at Pocono might decide who wins the championship. I just hate that.

Stage three, once Busch reassumed the lead was so bad a robin watching in through my window to see what the ruckus was all about apparently fell asleep and plummeted to its death.

Yeah, if you were looking in the right direction there was indeed some good battling toward the back end of the top five. But in the end, Kyle Busch won (again) and Chase Elliott finished second (again).

You know what would have made for a really good finish to the race? If the Cup Series regulars hadn’t been in the mix, we’d probably still be talking about the race after the boys of summer are gone. And that wouldn’t cost the team owners a dime now, would it? Imagine, better racing through common sense, not half-baked gimmickry.

So what went wrong? Where were the big snarling packs of drivers running three-wide (other than on the first couple laps after the restarts, as always) unable to get away from each other? Where were the frantic slingshot passes and a driver charging from 16th to the lead in a single lap?

Listening to the drivers’ post-race comments sheds some light on the issue. Race winner Kyle Busch, as erudite and well-mannered a lad as there has ever been to grace our sport, described the package as “boring as shit.”

And he won the damn thing!

Other drivers opined in part the package didn’t work because of Pocono’s unique track layout. The three different shaped and banked corners simply wouldn’t allow them to run their foot flat to the floor for an entire lap(s). That’s different than at Daytona or Talladega with their higher-banked corners.

Ummm. Isn’t that what racing is about?  If the plates cut down on the horsepower to a degree every driver can just flat-foot it around the track, is it still racing? Isn’t racing supposed to be about which driver can back up his corner a bit and then get hard back into the throttle in the corner itself without getting loose and hitting the wall? Shouldn’t the guy who makes a kamikaze dive into a corner faster than the others will dare to go make a pass or take the win? If everyone can just keep the throttle buried all the time, is what NASCAR has devolved into just a very expensive and not-so-interesting video game?

So what’s the solution? I fear NASCAR will decide they need to go to an even smaller restrictor plate. They may keep reducing its size until every driver, no matter how skilled or incompetent, in every car, no matter how well-prepared or just thrown together, can keep the pedal to the metal and for an entire tire run. That would certainly create the big, three-wide packs, constant jockeying of positions and unpredictability that seems to be the goal here with the new rules package.

It would also inevitably set off huge, smoking pig piles of wrecks (The Big One) which NASCAR always seems to run footage of in their promotional videos and ticket ads. Sadly, I’m beginning to realize that there are, in fact, some fans who decide what is and isn’t a quality race by the number of wrecks there are. Bonus points come for cars that get airborne or upside down, accidents that involve more than half the field and huge licks of flame.

Throw in a few gallons of cheap tap beer, some post-race pit road fisticuffs and a couple nearby college chicks who get drunk enough to take off their T-Shirts and as far as this sort of fan is concerned, they’ve got everything but a dead cat and a string to swing it on.

How did that happen? Have we really devolved into the Mad magazine stereotypes the “serious” stick-and-ball radio talk show types used to portray us as?

No thanks, none for me, thank you. ‘Cause here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice. (Apologies to Bob Dylan, college chicks, cat fanciers and Sheryl. Ms. Crow, for a lady your age you look spectacular!)

Is it just a coincidence that NASCAR seems to be in a panicked frenzy to make the races more exciting, put more fans in the stands and boost TV ratings right at the same time the France family is putting the whole kit-and-kaboodle up for sale? Isn’t it odd how all the drivers suddenly seem so reluctant to say anything negative about what’s going on here, home on the range where discouraging words are seldom heard when NASCAR is trolling for a big check?

Ironically enough, Sunday’s event with the “old” rules turned out to be the better of this weekend’s events. Oh, it wasn’t perfect by any means and it dragged a bit at times. But given the level of competition this season to date (and over the last few seasons, for the most part) it wasn’t at all bad. Yep, 11 lead changes is a bit light even for a 400-mile race (Pocono events used to be 500 milers) but usually there was someone at least keeping those leaders honest.

Fans saw a rarity on par with Bigfoot doing the Frug in Times Square Sunday when a genuine piece of debris, visible to the naked eye and in fact in the racing groove where it posed a genuine risk to drivers hitting it brought out a “debris” caution. Some drivers and teams chose to pit. Some chose to stay out. It’s also quite rare lately when with 10 laps to run in a Cup race, nobody knew who was going to win absent little green space aliens kidnapping the leader with their transporter beams.

The key issue there at the end, new verse, same refrain, was that once a leader got into clean air, he had a decided advantage over the hounds at his heel. Fix this issue and you’ll have fixed what ails NASCAR racing. For the record, the All-Star Package isn’t going to do that. (See the end of Saturday’s race as evidence.)

You know, left to its own this season could, in fact, produce some compelling competition. Unless you’ve already given up on NASCAR and do the laundry and housecleaning on Sunday afternoons, you’re aware that Kevin Harvick has won five races (though one is “cucumbered” or something) this season and Kyle Busch has won four. What you might not realize is in four instances where one of those drivers won an event, the other finished second. That’s the sort of stats Richard Petty and Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough used to post. The only caveat is that occasionally another driver has to win just for the undecided fans who are “sick of seeing these two clowns win every week.”

Eventually, we’re going to have a race where both Harvick and Busch have equal equipment and similar strategies late in an event. The winner will be determined the old-fashioned way: by which of the duo wants it more and is willing to do whatever it takes to seal the deal. In a perfect world, the title would be decided the same way. Also in a perfect world a third driver, in this case Martin Truex Jr., would serve as a potential spoiler to wrest the title from the No. 4 and No. 18 bunch despite the stellar start both those teams have enjoyed this season. Fans will almost certainly be entertained by the Clash of the Titans though how they feel about the race will likely be determined by which of the two they like better.

That could get interesting. While Kyle Busch has donned the sport’s black hat and most fans find him as cuddly as a cactus, Harvick isn’t universally liked either. Oh, he was a lot less popular when he first entered the big leagues, given the impossible task of filling in Dale Earnhardt’s seat. But he tends to still be whiny and childish at times, though if vile manners were to determine championships, Busch’s name should already be inscribed on it.

Ironically, neither Dale Earnhardt Sr. nor Jeff Gordon were universally embraced early in their careers either. They both had armies of detractors. As a fan, you get to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. You get to cheer for your favorites and wish ill luck on those drivers you don’t care for. In fact, A championship battle between two polarizing drivers is exactly what this sport has been lacking. A lot of fans feel most of them have become pre-programmed, sponsor-spilling automatons with all the personality of a lawn ornament.

But it would seem that the new big drag/pileup plate rules package is now fait accompli. If it proves as successful as the new elimination round playoff systems (and they’ve tried a lot of them), stage breaks or later start times for races, this change could be The Big One. It’s the one that finally finishes off the sport with a whimper, not even a shout as what fans are left head off to enjoy other pursuits.

Save me a seat on the last bus out of the depot. I hear California is nice this time of year.

Los Angeles, give me Norfolk Virginia,
Tidewater Four-oh-nine, (dink-dink)
Tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land calling
And the poor boy’s on the line

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About Matt McLaughlin

Avatar
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.

19 comments

  1. Avatar

    don’t worry matt, the prince of na$car will be on tv every week soon to help be the life boat they’re looking for. people will tune in to hear jr. heck with racing, his rabid fans just want jr.

    i gave up on racing most of this year. i flipped it on and saw who was leading and went back into my 800% humidity induced coma here in GA this past weekend. didn’t watch 5 minutes of it. plates races everywhere is not the answer. maybe a parachute tied to the bumper of the leader of the race so they only have a few second lead vs. a half of track length, is the answer.

  2. Avatar

    At some point smaller engines have to be part of the solution. Full power without plates and less speed. I don’t care if the cars are ‘racing’ at 200 mph or 150 mph. I just want to see competitions where driver skill makes the difference.

  3. Avatar

    Nascar is so desperate to “fix the problems” that they no longer remember that the sport was actually at one time real racing.
    To those of us who are the solid support group, racing is where the best driver, in the best car, should win most of the time
    The real problem is most people aren’t all that much into motorsports, and racing has to compete with many other entertainment options. Nascar can’t please everyone and in attempting to do so, can no longer please anyone.
    I’m tired of this rule of the week, package of the week, attempting to follow the changing landscape.
    I’m tired of the writers of the sport cranking out constant suggestions for even more changes.
    It’s time to kick the tires, light the fires, get out of the way and let them roll.

  4. Avatar

    Excellent article. Expecting fans to travel long distances and spend a lot of money to see if a new rules package works is pure folly. They should have never attempted to fix something that was never broken. Now the hole is just to deep to climb out of. And they know it. How do we know? You don’t remove grandstand seating if you think the sport can come back. Simple as that.
    Another deal. The tv ratings continue to decline. The networks do nothing in an attempt to improve ratings. They give you the same broadcast week after week. And by most accounts the fans are very vocal about it. I watch the race with the mute on. Plain and simple the broadcast team stinks. Booogity has gotten tired. Mike Waltrip acting the buffoon has gotten stale. The interviews are mundane. The young breed they are selling are pre- packaged. The sport has a tremendous need for a Curtis Turner, Dale Earnhardt, Joe Weatherly, Jabe Thomas etc. However NASCAR will not allow it. Ask Newman, Keselowski or Hamlin what happens if you speak your mind? There are now so many things wrong with this sport that it is now impossible to correct them. What a shame.

  5. Avatar

    I dreaded this announcement (I knew it was coming) as much as the announcement of the Chase and the COT.
    One of these days I will wise up and stop watching. The current NASCAR package has gotten so far away from the one I fell in love with that it is an entirely different animal.

  6. Avatar

    If I had 3 wishes,,,

    1 Bruton Smith would buy NASCAR

    2 More drivers would chose to race as much as Kyle Busch

    3 They’d quit paying you by the column inch.

    • Avatar

      Well you’re one third of the way there with your wish list. You’ll have to talk to Bruton or Marcus about wish one and get NASCAR to hand out competition licenses to the criminally insane and socially retarded to get wish number two. If you’ve still got time tell “them” to give me a pay hike. I get paid weekly….very weakly.

      • Avatar

        Bruton killed North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. No thanks. In Southernspeak he’s a scalawag.

        I still stand by my contention that it’s just not possible to have good races on tracks > 1 mile.

  7. Avatar

    Not ALL the drivers are reluctant to say anything negative about the current state of affairs. That vile Kyle Busch says it all the time. “The COT sucks” (after winning). “This package is boring as shit” (after winning). “This isn’t what I signed up for,” regarding pedal to the metal all the way around the track. I do admire him for being equally bitchy after he wins as after he loses.

    Be careful, Matt. You are becoming a Kyle Busch fan without even trying. The two of you agree on almost everything regarding the state of the sport!

    • Avatar

      It would seem the younger Busch brother and I are never going to see eye to eye on the issue of Cup drivers cherry picking in the truck and NXS series though he has agreed to cut it out once he reaches 100 wins….if NASCAR or whatever entity that owns what is now NASCAR in the future doesn’t change the rules first.
      My objection to Busch stems from the incident, I believe it was at Phoenix, many years ago in a truck race. Busch was already a Cup driver for Holy Roller Joe at the time. Ron Hornaday was a full time truck series driver in contention for the title in that series. Early in the event Hornaday got into Busch who just lost it. He decided to extract revenge UNDER CAUTION by plowing into Hornaday’s truck even while his spotter, crew chief and owner screamed at him not to do it. For a non-series regular to purposely take out a title contender isn’t “passion.” It’s “criminal”, “unforgivable” and “low rent.” IMHO Busch should have lost his ride and been suspended for a minimum of one season for the dirtiest move I’ve ever seen on a race track and I’ve been watching this stuff a very, very, long time.

      • Avatar

        The race you refer to was at Texas in 2011 and my initial reaction was, “Wow, that was stupid!” That’s still my reaction. I don’t believe it was criminal or unforgiveable, but then, I don’t believe in the death penalty either. What had Kyle so riled up was the he believed Hornaday was under orders from team owner Kevin Harvick to take Kyle out, as Kyle was racing Harvick for the owner’s championship. Over the years I’ve seen many drivers intentionally wreck another driver at full speed, including Carl Edwards coming out of the garage many laps down for the sole purpose of wrecking Brad Keselowski and succeeding by punting him all the way into the grandstand. Personally, I found that worse than what Kyle did under caution. But Carl always smiled when he pulled something like that, so I guess that made it OK.

        Joey Logano, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and many others have been guilty of the same kind of dirty racing, even resulting in injury and one possible fatality. Use drastic penalties against them all or let it go.

  8. Avatar

    Just my opinion but I don’t believe that the NASCAR hierarchy is neither capable, qualified, interested in, actual racing. I do believe that they are very well aware of the next TV contract falling far short of the billion dollar paydays they have gotten used to and are entering the first stages of pure panic hence the effort to find the market value of the sport. What they have yet to recognize is that with no actual racers making decisions their combined college degree’s don’t amount to squat in finding long, or short ,term solutions to the increasing, not decreasing, issue’s the sport is in the middle of. It seems as if every decision they make tends to make the situation even worse.
    IMHO I believe it’s going to take some really drastic measures to rebuild the actual racing part of NASCAR. Throw away the plates and maybe begin the long costly change to V6 engines, that’s actually a logical decision. Then return to actual manufacturer designed bodies and give the gearing and suspensions back to the crew and car chiefs. Do that and the hated aero junk will go away by itself. I guess what I’m saying is just lets get back to racing. Get NASCAR out of the business of design and control of the race cars, they have proven over time that they can’t do it without destroying the product.
    Oh and by the way, JR is not the cavalry, is not the be all end all solution to any of the current issues that NASCAR has. Lets halt that bandwagon before it begins. His popularity now off the track is far less powerful than it was while he was still active. He can offer his thinking but will NASCAR bother to listen? No! NASCAR is slowly destroying itself from within and until that changes NASCAR won’t and the probability of survival is minimal at best. Sad isn’t it?

  9. Avatar

    I’m already to the point where I DVR truck, Xfinity and Cup races, then peek at Jayski’s twitter feed to see if the race is worth watching. If Kyle Busch dominates or wins, I delete immediately. A boring race? Delete. I’ve got better things to do. (This from a once rabid race fan who scheduled everything around the Cup races.)

    Lately most races ARE boring due to a combination of poor coverage, stage racing, cookie cutter tracks, repaving, and horrible rules packages. They even ruined Bristol, for heaven’s sake. As much as I liked the Dales, I know even Jr. in the booth can’t save NASCAR.

    • Avatar

      Maybe if you found somebody to cheer FOR instead of AGAINST, you could actually be a fan.

  10. Avatar
    Mark "Jerry" Garcia

    Your thoughts and dreams are strangly close to mine with one difference. I lived it. I moved to SoCal in 1980 chasing the hotrod car dream. Ended up working in aerospace during the Reagan build-up era.. Left SoCal 7 years later and moved to Charlotte to follow my NASCAR dream. I couldn’t live on $100 a week. (Before the TV deal that is what teams paid…you did it for the love of it) so I moved onto a normal life back in upstate New York…..boring….! The TV deal hit in the late 90’s and I was back in Charlotte 6 months later. I worked at Tier 1 NASCAR teams for 15 years and made some serious money. I have all the tee-shirts, hats, rings and autographs I could ever want. Wins, Cup championships, Busch championships, Truck Championships….all of it. When the COT was introduced I knew at that very moment it was the beginning of the end. Six years later I found myself along with 200 other team mates walking out the door of a shut down major Cup team. Thanks MW! Two more years at 2nd and 3rd tier teams and I was done. Take my advice. Sell everything NASCAR related you have. The is no saving the grossly mismanaged entertainment circus. It is not a sport. It is done….forever. In my opinion the reasons NASCAR can not be fixed are:
    – there is no RELIVANCE to the current and future generations (fan base)
    – there is no RELIVANCE to the transportation systems of the future. (Pushrod V8s with circa 1980 fuel injection…..really?!?)
    – the business model (profitability) is upside down.
    -corporate American runs away as fast as they can when NASCAR is uttered. Virtually every Fortune 1000 company has been fleeced directly by NASCAR or a NASCAR team.
    – physics can not be altered. A car in clean air will always be faster. Once engineers enterd the game the cars and systems were quickly optimized to operate at 100% of their performance envelope. No more cheeting (gray area rule interpertations) means no more performance advantage opportunities for the 2nd tier teams.
    -Americas love affair with the automobile is over. True love has been replaced with a form of necessary co-exiestance for the sake of the kids. The romance is gone and nobody gives a f…k! A to B transportation is all a car …ah…SUV…is used for now.

    NASCAR is a 20th century business model 18 years too far into the 21st century. How much longer will Mr Hendrick, the Captian and One Eyed Jack continue to write checks to keep this mess aflot? Good businessmen don’t invest in bad business for very long. Time is runing out for the owners in many ways.
    Take my advice……..SELL NOW!!!

  11. Avatar

    I’ve got a message for Brian. You’ve lost that racin’ feeling, if you ever had it.

    And now it’s gone, gone, gone…oh oh oh yeah.