Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
One of the cool things about superspeedway racing is that restrictor plates allow the cream to rise to the top when it comes to driving skill. Yes, plate racing is a skill, and sometimes drivers who struggle at other tracks shine at these events, and vice versa (yeah, you, Jimmie Johnson).
A confident driver can make bold, aggressive moves and make them work, which is what Kasey Kahne did Saturday night. His reward? Nearly an upset win in the process. Leavine Family Racing doesn’t have the resources to run up front most weeks, but Kahne showed that he can get it done when his No. 95 car can match the field. Plus, he was fun to watch as he worked past all his rivals at the front. It was a solid reminder that lack of money does not equal lack of talent in the driver’s seat.
What… is the takeaway from this weekend?
Restrictor plate racing is its own animal, and it’s a hard one to police. That was on display in Daytona thanks to a couple of close calls, one of which opens up a Pandora’s box for the sanctioning body.
It was the call that ended the NASCAR XFINITY Series race that’s still left everyone talking, and all it does is open the door for more questions. The rule is crystal clear: a driver cannot advance his position by driving below the double yellow inside line. It’s a rule that was instituted a couple decades ago at the request of drivers to stop the practice of racing on the apron through the straightaways. People would do that, then try to blend into traffic in the corners, which caused as many wrecks as it sounds like it would.
What was less clear Friday night (July 6) was whether Justin Haley advanced his position below the line as NASCAR said. Haley had the nose of his car ahead of both Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler when his left wheels rolled below the left-hand line, which is how NASCAR defines the violation. NASCAR said he was still advancing his position… but was he?
Sure, Haley might have gained more ground down there, but it’s hard to advance when you’re already the race leader. He had not cleared Larson and Sadler yet, but at plate tracks, it’s not uncommon for the leader to be running side-by-side with other cars. Just look at the finish. Larson was anything but clear of Sadler, though he was ahead of him.
Hence the questions. It has nothing to do with it being the last lap of the race and everything to do with where Haley was on track at the time. Since Haley had the car in front and could, therefore, not advance his position, what happens now? Will the race leader be penalized if he dips down there for a split second, perhaps to pass a lapped car or avoid a piece of debris? Or maybe just because it’s a long race, he had a momentary lapse and gains a fraction over second place?
That’s the Pandora’s Box NASCAR appeared to open Friday. Perhaps that example is an exaggeration, but how, exactly, is it different?
There’s also a bigger issue here than whether NASCAR missed a call.
It’s hard to take the rules seriously when NASCAR will take a win away from a driver for a questionable yellow-line violation but not for failing post-race inspection. A team could build in adjustments that will take the car well out of tolerance during the race, building an advantage on the field. But while they’d lose points and the ability to use a win for the playoffs, they keep that win in the record books as well as the trophy. Yet dip a tire below a line for a split second? That victory goes up in smoke. A mistake costs you a win but a deliberate violation of rules doesn’t.
How can NASCAR justify that to fans? New ones are critical to the long-term health of the sport. But this disparity in the rules is confusing to longtime fans, let alone those just learning about stock car racing.
Where… did Erik Jones come from?
One thing that is appealing about plate racing is that drivers can come from the back of the pack to the front if they have a car that’s handling well and the driver is skilled enough in the draft. Not one of the top-seven finishers, including Jones, started inside the top 10, and Jones came from the 29th starting spot. He avoided major damage in several multi-car crashes to win for the first time in his career on a superspeedway as well as the first time in his Cup career.
It was a bittersweet moment for Jones in that his father, who passed away from cancer two years ago, wasn’t there to witness the moment. But he was quick to credit the man who had helped him start his racing career in post-race interviews. Sophomore driver Jones, who competes for Joe Gibbs Racing, after running his rookie season for Furniture Row Racing, won the Truck Series title at the age of 19. It seems that at 22, he’s got many years ahead of him. Jones has come close to winning on several occasions, but this weekend, he got it done.
When… was the moment of truth?
Good old plate track racing was on display Saturday night, and some of it went very right. At one point, there were several groups of cars on track. One could run another down if they lined up right, but the huge pack was broken up some. However, as is usually the case at Daytona and Talladega, a lot went wrong as well. That included several multi-car crashes, which have become all but inevitable. One involved, to one degree or another, over 25 cars.
Can NASCAR do anything about it? And do most fans really want them to?
The logical solution would be to go to a smaller engine for the plate tracks so that it could run unrestricted at safe speeds. But that would be a huge expense for teams. The last time NASCAR ran a test without plates, lap speeds hovered around 240 mph. That’s far too fast to be safe.
But a lot of fans love the brand of racing at Daytona and Talladega because the finishes are close and the threat of carnage is constant. The crashes are part of the thrill for many, probably for more than will ever admit it. Is there a reason to change things?
Is it real racing? Answers will vary from both extremes here. There are those who’d prefer the races look like they did from the days before restrictor plates closed the field up, even if that meant one or two drivers dominating. Then, there are those who love the idea of the field under a blanket. Driving plate cars is a skill that some have more of than others, just like racing anywhere else. But some of the best are a bit unexpected which adds a new element to these races, a positive for a sport looking for parity.
For now, what we saw at Daytona was typical superspeedway fare. Whether it tastes good is up for debate.
Why… didn’t defending race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pull it off?
The short answer: he was too busy wrecking. Stenhouse instigated at least one incident, got caught in three more plus a spin on his own and still managed to finish the race, albeit a lap down. Stenhouse proved last season that he can race with the best of them at Daytona and Talladega. However, he’s also shown throughout his career he’s a loose cannon. The latter was the Stenhouse who showed up Saturday night.
Stenhouse won the first two stages, so he did a lot right. He was also involved in triggering two major incidents, including a 26-car pileup. His blame for that one is a little misguided. While he did get into Brad Keselowski to set off the melee, Keselowski had checked up a fraction to avoid running into William Byron, who was leading and threw a rather questionable block at the No. 2. It was that rookie mistake more than Stenhouse’s chain reaction that caused the carnage.
He did trigger the next one, though, turning Kyle Busch and collecting Byron and several others. Stenhouse more or less survived the race, finishing 17th.
How well he came through the aftermath of angry drivers might be another story.
How… much should NASCAR micromanage races?
Saturday night’s close call, a violation to Jimmie Johnson for pitting outside the box, was clear cut and the right call by NASCAR officials. Johnson’s front bumper was maybe a foot over the line before the fueler disengaged the can. Frustration for the team stemmed from the fact it happened a lot faster than the video fans saw on TV. It’s a mistake of a fraction of a second that cost Johnson the best shot he’s had at a win in more than a year. Micromanaging by NASCAR? Definitely. But there was a violation, even if it was a few inches and a fraction of a second.
On the other hand, would the same violation even have been seen by a live official instead of a computer? Other than NASCAR cutting costs, has the switch from human officials on pit road making these calls helped the sport?
The human element has been largely removed from NASCAR, from computerized inspection and officiating to cutting teams’ personnel and taking away the choices that teams once were able to use to separate themselves from the pack. For every rulebreaker caught by the computerized system, as Johnson was, there’s a team conforming to the rules and still far behind the competition because they can’t get the car to handle like the driver wants or find a way to coax a little more speed out of the transmission.
Teams used to have a choice on setups they no longer have. They also no longer have the opportunity to ask a NASCAR official in their pit why he made a call. Why? He’s no longer in their pit. Sometimes, he’s no longer a person.
But people also make bad calls. Yellow-line violations are a prime example, as these calls have always been inconsistent and often contradictory to the rule. Does the possibility of a mistake outweigh the positives of human officials?
I’m all for teams having an equal chance to thrive in the sport. But the kind of parity the sport needs doesn’t come from tightly controlling every piece and part or from letting electronics replace people. People and innovation are what made NASCAR. The lack of them are taking it down.