Whatever your tastes and temperament are when it comes to racing, this weekend was a virtual smorgasbord of racing around what Jim McKay used to call “The Wide World of Sports.” Below are some random ruminations on the highlights.
A goodly percentage of NASCAR fans went to bed shortly before midnight Saturday believing they had just watched the Joe Gibbs Racing Armada score a 1-2-3-4 finish at Richmond. While we slept and dreamed our dreams of women and glasses of beer, all was not well in the garage area at Richmond.
Erik Jones‘ Toyota, which had taken the checkers in fourth, was found to be out of compliance with the rules concerning toe settings in the rear suspension. The infraction officially dropped Jones from 4th to 38th (last) place in the running order. It was ultimately almost a death knell for the young driver’s title chances this year absent a win for him next weekend at the Charlotte ROVAL.
I’ve heard from some fans who are more than a bit annoyed by the late night development. They’d seen the race, looked over the finishing order and in many cases were well pleased with how things had turned out. To have a finishing position change and a possible shot at a title taken away from a driver in the post-midnight gloom of the garage area, out of sight of the fans, brings up concerns about transparency and just how egregious the violation in fact was. Rear toe settings are nothing a driver can alter from inside the car during a race. I’d argue that Jones was completely unaware his car had been altered into even the “gray area” bordering the rule book, much less that it was illegal. Likely he’d asked his crew chief and engineers for a little help making the car handle better, which caused the adjustment to be made.
As is usually the case, people with a vested interest in the outcome or fans of the No. 20 car immediately said wear and tear on the car over 300 miles of close contact short track racing had worn some part or parts until they were microscopically out of tolerance. NASCAR teams operate at a whole different level than your typical shade tree mechanic working on a late model under an oak tree in their backyard. If there’s even a minute advantage to be gained by pushing things right to the limit and not allowing for post-race wear and tear, then push they shall. Oddly enough, worn suspension and steering parts never seem to go out of tolerance in such a way that might have made the car slower during a race.
Somewhere you have to draw a clearly defined line of what’s OK and what’s not. A car that is “close to legal” is by definition not legal. In the infamous words of our friend Dean Wormer, “The time has come for someone to put a foot down, and that foot is me.”
You and me might have been asleep and blissfully unaware what was going on, but people who make their living in the garage area were wide awake having just suffered a demoralizing thumping at the hands of JGR. Doubtless they were looking at measurements and trying to discern any tricks the Gibbs bunch had found hoping to incorporate them into their own cars to close that apparent speed gap.
When it comes to post-race inspection, NASCAR almost always has a good hard look at the first and second-place finishers, along with one more car chosen at random. It does indeed seem odd the No. 20 was chosen for increased scrutiny while the third-place car of Denny Hamlin was pushed onto the trailer for the ride home. Yes, the fact a team car was found illegal after the race is going to raise some eyebrows concerning the No. 18 and No. 19 as well. After all, the cars come out of the same shop and there are few secrets between teammates when it comes to finding speed. But the No. 20 team faced a very different scenario this weekend than their teammates. Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were all but guaranteed to move onto the next round of the playoffs. Jones was going to need a very strong finish if he was going to make the cut. Like the old saying goes, “It’s only cheating if you get caught.” The other three JGR teams know now what’s not going to fly in post-race inspection, and they’ve added notes on what does and doesn’t pass. That could come in handy down the road, more likely for them than for Jones as things sit now.
Speaking of teams, team orders reared their ugly little heads at this weekend’s Grand Prix of Singapore. Charles Leclerc is Ferrari’s “New Kid in Town.” In addition to having won the last two F1 races, Leclerc also claimed the pole for the Singapore Grand Prix. Qualifying for Cup races is important, but in F1 it’s 80% of the battle. Most F1 races are won from the pole, and in many instances the pole-sitter never even faces a severe challenge during the entire race.
Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel is rather like F1’s Jimmie Johnson. He’s a multi-time (four to date) champion of the sport with 53 career F1 wins, which puts him third on the list of all-time winners, Like Johnson, however, Vettel is getting on in years and success isn’t coming as often anymore. Prior to this weekend, Vettel hadn’t won a race since Great Britain a little over a year ago. Also like Johnson, Vettel drives for a once dominant team whose rivals (particularly Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes) have caught up and arguably taken top honors from the Legion of the Prancing Horse. In fact, as of late Ferrari has been mounting a comeback of its own, but with Leclerc leading the charge — not Vettel.
But whatever the reasons behind the call were, team orders gave Vettel a clear advantage and a win. Whichever driver was called into the pit first would have the advantage of fresher rubber — a considerable benefit. Vettel got the call first. Leclerc pitted the next lap but the die was cast. Vettel and Leclerc finished 1-2 in that order. After the race, Leclerc was clearly angry and frustrated at what he felt was a win taken from him. He grew more diplomatic later saying it was an outstanding 1-2 finish for Ferrari. In the grand scheme of things, looking at the season-end championship, Sunday’s results don’t much matter. Mercedes’ Hamilton now leads his teammate Valterri Bottas by 65 points with Leclerc a further 31 points behind in third and Vettel in fifth, six points behind Leclerc and a staggering 102 points behind Hamilton.
Speaking of F1, they announced some changes to their schedule for 2020. The addition of the Dutch Grand Prix was no big surprise. Dropping the German Grand Prix from the slate of races surely was, especially with Mercedes currently the most successful team in the sport. Some European media outlets I read this weekend predicted that the German Grand Prix will be spared and the F1 organizers are just trying to squeeze one last ounce of blood out of them before re-adding the event to the schedule.
The real stunner, at least in my eyes, was the addition of the Grand Prix of Vietnam as the third event on next year’s calendar. I’m going to have to admit that I’ve never been to ‘Nam, nor have I ever felt the slightest compulsion to go there. Guys five and six years older than me used to be called up for all-expense-paid trips to Vietnam on Uncle Sam’s dime. Of the guys I’ve known over the course of my life who took that trip, none recall ‘Nam fondly when they choose to remember it all. Good soldiers, bad war, is how I typically hear it expressed. Besides, isn’t Vietnam supposed to be one of the last true bastions of communism? How does the high profile, big dollar, jet-setting lifestyle of the F1 circus coexist with communism?
Team orders are a fact of life in F1 racing despite an occasional attempt to rein in the worst excesses of the off-track shenanigans. Team orders have also come into play very occasionally in NASCAR racing. No owner was as blatant or constant with them than Carl Kiekhaefer’s teams in the mid-’50s. He once ordered one of his drivers to wreck a championship contender out of another shop. Herb Thomas had driven for Kiekhaefer but quit. Thomas was still contending for that year’s title against Kiekhaefer’s lead driver Buck Baker. In an October race in Shelby, NC, Baker was leading but Thomas was closing fast. Under team orders, another Keikhaefer driver, Speedy Thompson, put Thomas hard into the wall. Thomas’s injuries from that wreck were basically career ending. Baker went on to claim the title. Keikhaefer left the sport at the end of the season never to return, despite 52 race wins and a pair of titles in just two years in NASCAR.
Team orders have never been popular with NASCAR fans. I guess America’s Cowboy Culture has fostered an “every man for himself” attitude at times. Even some contemporary NASCAR drivers were vocal in not wanting to be part of a multi-car team, most notably Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip.
The term “Silly Season” is a funny sounding phrase that hides some less than hilarious consequences. As is typical of this time of year, some drivers are lining up new rides for next year (perhaps in a higher division than where they currently compete) while other drivers are finding out their services are no longer needed in 2020. There are only so many seats and there’s more than enough butts to fill them. Watching races, the drivers can become almost like actors on a favorite sitcom, but they are in fact real men and women. In many instances they have spouses and children, a mortgage and other financial obligations. The sudden loss of a paycheck in an uncertain job market isn’t “silly” at all. It’s frightening.
Last week we learned that Daniel Hemric won’t be returning to the No. 8 team next year. It’s widely rumored but not confirmed as this is written that NXS series standout Tyler Reddick will take over that seat. Paul Menard announced his retirement, freeing up the No. 21 team for Matt DiBenedetto, which leaves the seat in the No. 95 car (a satellite operation of JGR) open, possibly for Christopher Bell, who won his seventh NXS race of the season Friday night at Richmond. That still leaves the other standout driver in the NXS series, Cole Custer, looking to potentially land a seat in a Cup race next year. Ford would like to keep Custer in the stable and his dad Joe is a president at SHR (and CEO of their F1 team effort), so that would be an obvious fit, which has to have Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer a bit nervous.
The 2019 IndyCar season came to a close Sunday with Colton Herta (Brian’s 19-year-old son) as race winner and Josef Newgarden as series champion. Newgarden’s second title was the 16th for Roger Penske, including three of the last four.
The IndyCar schedule is a much more manageable 17 races long, roughly half the number of the annual NASCAR Magical Mystery Tour. The open wheelers start their season in March in Florida and have now ended just three races into the NFL’s autumnal juggernaut. NASCAR, in its arrogance, insists on trying to take on football head to head, a fight it’s never going to win even with this whole playoff mess it’s foisted off on us.
IndyCar plays some games of its own. I believe they still award double points for the Indy 500 (Yes they do. Here it is in their rulebook 188.8.131.52. What sort of professional sport posts its rulebook online so the fans can read it for themselves? I mean besides every one other than NASCAR, of course.) Double points for the season finale seems a bit gimmicky to me. While a season as short as IndyCar might not be ideal for NASCAR right now, it certainly is a direction that the powers that be in Daytona need to be looking. Having the season end at Darlington on Labor Day weekend would be an ideal place to start the discussion.