(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

NASCAR Contradictions on Full Display With May 17 Return Looming

Be it in Brasstown, N.C. Thursday night (April 30) or Lancaster, S.C. on Friday (May 1), live racing trickled back this weekend to locations throughout the southeast. For me, where Virginia is still under a stay-at-home order through June 10, there’s not much for a motorsports writer here to do but long for racing to return.

That clock is ticking; NASCAR Cup Series competition is now less than two weeks from returning to Darlington Raceway on May 17. The stakes are high. While I agree with Aaron McFarling’s own assertion in the Roanoke Times this weekend that race would be “the most important sporting event” of his lifetime being hyperbolic, I can fully relate to the emotional overload the sport is creating for its followers. 

It’s a decision that comes with a range of contradicting outcomes. On one hand, there’s the potential for NASCAR, only weeks removed from a nasty episode with Kyle Larson, to take the lead on the return of major professional sports in the U.S. Done right, their comeback could put the 2020 season back on track and spark a ratings bonanza not seen since the 1970s in a nation starved for live competition of any kind. The potential is also there for a sport that, only three races ago, came as close to a driver fatality as it has in the last two decades to become a viral hotbed, the host of an outbreak that could cripple an industry.

In fact, the last week has been so chock full of contradictions that it feels like big-league NASCAR is back, two weeks before the green flag drops at Darlington. For better or worse. 

Case in point, let’s start with a NASCAR Silly Season bomb that saw 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth lured out of retirement. He’ll replace Larson in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car.

There’s no doubt that Ganassi hit a home run with this hire on paper. Past Cup champion, two-time Daytona 500 champion, 39-time Cup race winner, Kenseth is a surefire Hall of Famer. There is a strong argument to be made he is, in fact, “the best driver available.”

That doesn’t change the fact Kenseth is fighting history here. As our own Clayton Caldwell pointed out earlier this week, Kenseth, at age 48, will have to break a decade-long streak of older drivers being shut out of Cup Series victory lane. Not only that, he’ll have to do so without having ever driven the “package” cars being campaigned in 2020, returning in a compressed schedule with races that offer no practice time and in the midst of an ongoing ban on on-track testing. One only needs to look at Jimmie Johnson’s continuing winless streak to know the impact this package can have on the veterans of the sport.

There’s also the contradiction Kenseth’s past has with Ganassi’s statement that his new driver comes with “no baggage” and “stability.” Despite being featured in commercials that literally compared him to a robot, Kenseth was involved in two of the nastiest driver conflicts the sport has seen the last decade. In my opinion, the man was no innocent victim in either. Kenseth was far from stable when he jumped Brad Keselowski from behind in a dark alley post-race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2014, doing his best impression of a thug mugging someone walking home from work. Until Clint Bowyer started taking potshots at Ryan Newman while still restrained in his racecar last season, it’s hard to remember a more cowardly act of violence between drivers off-track.

Then, there’s that little episode with Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway during the 2015 Chase. But Kenseth’s involvement in what were literally championship-impacting incidents appear to have been written off over the years. That their impact has faded in a sport that puts supremacy of its championship over all else is quite the contradiction.

Given the walking dark side Kenseth’s return to Cup racing brings to the garage, it’s perhaps appropriate that he was a face of NASCAR’s controversial (on Twitter, at least) decision to issue waivers that would allow both he and Newman to be eligible for the playoffs despite failing to attempt all Cup races during the regular season. On the one hand, NASCAR’s being consistent here; Kyle Busch was granted such a waiver despite missing 11 races during his 2015 title run. 

On the other hand, NASCAR’s 100% attempt requirement is absurd and absurdly out of date. It’s completely contradictory to the Chase/playoff era the sport has been in since 2004, one that has seen individual races and race wins come to matter more than the whole race schedule. 

The cat’s already out of the bag as far as preserving the integrity of the whole season. Kyle Busch won the 2015 championship despite running 25 of 36 Cup races. Long before Busch’s first title, Johnson’s No. 48 team would routinely “slump” during the summer stretches of the initial Chase seasons. They’d succumb to days with poor handling and engine failures that were simply test sessions for the final 10-race stretch they’d inevitably dominate.

Looking at 2020, this rule forced the sport’s officials to intervene to allow Newman, arguably the feel-good story of the season after his brush with death at Daytona, to remain relevant in a season that’s only four races old. In the (God forbid) event that a driver falls ill with COVID-19 during the return to racing and recovers, the sport will have to intervene again to allow them to stay eligible. 

Interventionism on a case-by-case basis frankly contradicts what NASCAR was largely created to exist; certainty and consistency in a sport that in its early days was permeated with hustlers and swindlers. Why can’t they set a minimum number of races that a Cup driver must attempt to be eligible for the Cup title and leave it alone? Injury, illness, vacation, who cares? Hit that number or no playoffs.

Besides, NASCAR shouldn’t fear losing its monopoly of sorts that sees drivers compelled to run all its events. There’s a reason talented prospects like Christopher Bell and Larson have proven so endearing to fans in recent years… they race everywhere. There should be no fear for the sport to hear a driver like Larson celebrate his Chili Bowl triumph as the greatest accomplishment of his career rather than a Cup win at Fontana. After all, that same driver’s primary focus is contesting the NASCAR playoffs (Well, it was, anyway.)

If anything, NASCAR’s policies that essentially trap their drivers in the Cup garage for 38 of 52 weekends in a year has proven detrimental to their place in the sport of stock car racing as a whole. Case in point? Kyle Busch. His utter dominance in NASCAR Xfinity/Truck Series competition does come from a desire to race that’s not new to big-name talent (the late John Potts chronicled many such tales during his time with us at Frontstretch). But the fact that Busch did so in what are, in fact, minor leagues, in cars that often are the best in the field and with two-to-three times the practice time of many of his competitors, has corresponded with a drop in attendance, entries, etc. for said series. Sure, Rowdy’s 200+ wins will never be duplicated within the sport’s top three divisions. That such restrictive, consolidated scheduling made it happen in NASCAR’s minor leagues have also made said accomplishment insignificant.

Following historical precedent and letting racers be racers makes sense for NASCAR. Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. 

That goes for Cup racing as a whole. Despite the playoff era being a radical departure from said historical precedent, I’m not opposed to the playoff concept, and there’s plenty of reasons why. On a personal level, I started following Cup racing in 2003 and adopted Newman as my driver. That was both out of respect for his engineering background and because his spring Dover race win without power steering while refusing to yield laps back to Tony Stewart remains one of the more impressive drives I can remember seeing in a Cup car. Having said that, if Newman hadn’t been on a tear during the second half of the season, I’m not sure I’d have been as engaged as was in a campaign that Kenseth had wrapped up pretty much a month early.

More objectively, the playoff model replacing the old Latford points championship makes sense because the Cup schedule wasn’t built with crowning a rightful champion in mind. Instead, it focused on ISC and SMI market share. There is no consideration made as to what types of tracks are run, or how they’re sequenced, or which tracks require the most driver skill. There’s calculus of “ISC has X dates and SMI has Y dates, in what cities do they want them?”

Regardless of the system in use, to see NASCAR go back to points racing right now is bothersome. Such a decision forces competitors to return to the track rather than allowing them to make a choice. The decision to add races to tracks that, to everyone’s benefit, minimize travel for race teams (but, coincidentally, are also all owned by ISC and SMI) is now allowing simple geography to impact a “national” championship. Let’s be real here; the schedule NASCAR has released is not a return to normalcy for Cup racing. It’s a money grab meant to generate as much TV revenue as possible before a likely second wave of COVID-19 infections forces states rushing to re-open to close again. Take a look across the pond at Germany if you don’t believe me.

Which begs the question to NASCAR… why not go the invitational route, just as the bullrings from South Carolina to South Dakota that have re-opened, have chosen to do? Such a move solves the qualifying issue; despite announcing their schedule on a press teleconference this past week, NASCAR did so with no plan in place as to how to line up the field for said races. And while that won’t likely be an issue for the Cup cars, seeing as there hasn’t been a full field since the Daytona 500, the same can’t be said for the Truck Series. Such a rush to return to normal competition, and yet said competitive field is likely going to be less than
“open” for at least its minor league participants.…

The same can be said of the situation with NASCAR’s media corps. As of Thursday’s teleconference with its industry partners, NASCAR did not yet have a plan for media access at the track, though the idea of a “pool” was floated. Translation: not all outlets should expect to be able to send representation. 

The idea of limiting outlets to sending, for example, one reporter, makes perfect sense. The idea of picking and choosing outlets to attend is dangerous. Those longtime readers of our site here at Frontstretch know that, prior to my return in 2018, I wrote for the site from 2008-2012, as well. Fortunately, the difference in working relations between NASCAR and outlets such as ours has improved by leaps and bounds since my first stint with the site. But, having said that, I can still remember the days when NASCAR refused outright to credential our site at numerous tracks. And when NASCAR named our site part of its ill-fated “Citizen Journalist Media Corps” without our knowing about it until the press release hit. Always forgive; never forget.

This mention isn’t a personal plea on my part… I’ve got three relatives over the age of 60 in my quarantine bubble at home. The chances of my returning to a racetrack in 2020 are slim. But there’s no getting around the issue here; either allow credentialed outlets to each send one reporter or don’t allow reporters to attend. Picking and choosing who covers a story is tantamount to telling the story. Not to mention there are tens of thousands of empty grandstands at the venues announced on NASCAR’s new schedule. Reporters with a hot spot could sit six rows apart, much less six feet.

As has been discussed ad nauseam on our site and across NASCAR as the return to racing looms, the sport right now is balancing between risk and reward. Despite relying on temperature checks and health screening that are publicly acknowledged as not 100% accurate to keep competitors safe, NASCAR is proving the exception, not the norm, in professional sports going back to work. The same sanctioning body that just this week added additional safety features to their racecars in response to Newman’s ugly Daytona 500 crash.

We’ll see which side of the contradiction wins out.

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13 comments

  1. Avatar

    So, if I understand – a driver championship-winning formula that requires, say a minimum of 25 races, would be something to consider in your view of the future direction of NASCAR Cup racing? Stated up-front, I don’t disagree, but the old-school fans of the sport – how ever many are left – are already feeling abandoned by an organization that has been fiddling with “their” sport for more than 15 years.
    As for “new” fans, there is no low-hanging fruit available in the age of social media and now social distancing. Some among us have been permanently scarred by a fear of large-group interaction that perhaps is irrational to traditionalists, but it fits right in line with the current lifestyle that the “smart” phone has brought us to, where every other thing that truly matters seems to take a back seat to something that just popped-up on a tiny screen, even while dramatic events may be unfolding right in front of them at a race track.
    So, I would conclude it doesn’t matter what official NASCAR does going forward – there’s a struggle for survival of all sports, and NASCAR as well as most all other forms of motorsports are finding an ever-greater challenge in fitting into a world that has been pushed in a direction that puts us at odds with the sanitized societal norms being pushed by public education through multiple generations, now to the point that the equation is fossil fuel = bad – there’s your real social distancing challenge….”we have a right to pure, uncontaminated air to breathe, water to drink…..” and on it goes. Brain-washed lemmings.

    What solutions could NASCAR bring that might endear the “sport” to a base that considers itself more socially-conscious – dare I say “woke” – to the reality of the impact – the “carbon footprint” – of NASCAR, as well as other sports leagues….I know there have been past analysis of this that suggest NASCAR is actually at the lower end of the scale when it comes to this, but what has the sport done to re-affirm that position lately?

    Maybe this down time gives them an opportunity to really assess the future – at the very leasr, fewer total races, and tracks now with 2 events per year operating on a 2 or 3 year schedule of rotation to drop a race in a given year to reduce the total and/or allow other venues (road courses) to gain a spot, while at the same time reducing the total number of points events in a season from the “death march” of 38 races back to a more realistic number, say, between 29 & 34 total, plus an All Star race – IF that is even considered viable today….I consider it frivolous, personally. This isn’t baseball.
    My take on the question of what a Champion would need to accomplish – minimum participation in 25 races in the specific category (Cup) – best 25 finishes used to calculate standings. No “points” – use calcuated “average finish position”, with wins and, if needed, laps led, as tie-breakers. Restricted or NO participation in other NASCAR national series – race all you want elsewhere on free dates. Mandatory participation in specific “Crown Jewel” races as designated by NASCAR. Cup field set to 36 cars except for Crown Jewel races which are no limit.
    Next Gen car – bring it on – center locks, IRS, transaxle, hybrid assist, fuel rig, air jacks, the whole deal. Real car shapes, not the NASCAR “parity” formula. Let OEM’s present their showroom body shapes and figure out the maximum speed bogey that gives all participating brands a reasonable chance of running at the front.
    Race officiating, race length, timed events, stages, tech rules & inspections all need to be on the table for review – transparency in NASCAR has been an issue for a long time, and fans willing to buy tickets deserve an open book when it comes to how the sport operates, what the actual car tech is all about rather than talking points….fans are hungry for that sort of detail.
    And that’s my lay view of NASCAR as an ongoing enterprise, given all of the challenges it faces today – some ideas/comments here may strike a chord with others, some may confirm my disconnect with reality.

    • Avatar

      Bill, You make some great points throughout but the bottom line is NASCAR is in the business to make $$$$$$$. They will play the SJW/Save the planet marketing game if they think money is to be made. Racing probably does create its share of air pollution/fuel consumption compared to ball sports. But with good marketing maybe that can be minimized. They aren’t the only ones to do that.
      And if more people stay in for their entertainment in the future then it all tracks to streaming the races for big money. To stay relevant and generate the most revenue they need to maximize their air time so keeping the most racing exposure possible will be the way to go. I am not saying that is right but from a business standpoint what else can they do. You are right again about fan base direction. Unfortunately that has been a long argument. The new fans are harder than ever to define. but I guess that is why they have marketing people.

  2. Avatar

    Gee imagine that, a once in a century global pandemic which has rocked stability in all facets of society in all cultures is making the NASCAR season uncertain and arbitrary. My first reaction given NASCAR’s history is, “what else is new?”. However desperate times call for desperate measures and for once NASCAR has a great excuse for having to make it up as they go and write the rules in pencil.

    I for one am glad they are making the effort and, while I am sure I will be one of the commenters to point out the foibles in the coming weeks, we should all take a deep breath and give them the benefit of the doubt given the current situation.

    • Avatar

      While trying not to get too deep into the weeds this whole thing brings to mind an old argument. The one about old fans/new fans and the impact of television on the “sport”.

      So now we have Nascar doing whatever it has to do to get the TV money, actual fans be dammed. And since far and away the bulk of the charter teams in Cup are owned by extremely wealthy people they weren’t about to padlock the doors. Employees are hurting yes, but thats no different from the waitress at a local restaurant, or the local band which had all of their events cancelled.

      Interesting times indeed. SO if they don’t need attendance now, why do they need it at all?

      • Avatar

        David,
        They do need attendance. That is the lifeblood for the tracks and, to a lesser degree, the sport itself. If it were feasible to have fans in attendance they would. This is a huge compromise. It allows the sport to continue under the current, less than ideal, circumstances. I doubt many people are ready to be spectators right now anyway (I sure wouldn’t want to sit and interact with 40,000 fans right now). I will also bet the tracks will still get some money from NASCAR and TV. Maybe enough to keep from going bankrupt and their employees from starving.
        I’d love to hear a better idea to get things going again. Got any?

        • Avatar

          Bill
          I disagree about the tracks, and be clear I’m only talking about Cup tracks.The bulk of the TV money goes to Nascar and the tracks.
          Well who owns the tracks? With a few exceptions, Nascar and SMS, so I really dont buy the attendance argument.
          But iit doesnt matter they will do what they will do anyway.

    • Avatar

      Pencil? That’s for the Stone Age.

      Etch a sketch is more like it.

  3. Avatar

    Are all the writers at frontstretch castrated little boys in a man’s body? It would be generous to characterize the description of Kenseth’s actions in this article as hyperbolic. Outright lie is more accurate. That’s shameful.

    Then he goes on to whine about NASCAR possibly restricting media access to events. Under normal circumstances, NASCAR has the luxury of allowing anybody to cover the events, even piddly little insignificant internet rags such as this one. Under current conditions, it is more prudent to restrict access to legitimate media outlets. Want to be included? Quit publishing sensationalist trash such as this piece.

    • Avatar

      I didn’t get to the part about NASCAR restricting access to writers because I quit reading the drivel generated by the “castrated little boy” before I got to that point. I am actually reaching the point where I think our entire social fabric, male and female parts both, is woven from “castrated little boys.”

  4. Avatar

    I look forward to NASCAR returning on May 17 and I hope everyone stays safe and healthy. Here is my issue, this will be the first live sporting event in the USA in about two months. And NASCAR is going to send the field off into turn 1 at Darlington with no practice and no qualifying and the drivers not racing since early March. What happens if they wreck going into turn 1? NASCAR will be a laughing stock. If it is a one day show and the race doesn’t start until 3:30 pm, why can’t they practice for an hour in the morning? Then base the lineup on practice speed.

    I just see a potential disaster by putting these guys in a car and letting them loose after not being in the car for 2 months with no practice and no qualifying, especially with all of America watching.

  5. Avatar

    To me this article is being bitter towards things you don’t like while trying to add “positive” things. This is an opinion article that went horribly wrong. If anything you contradicted yourself multiple times in this article and outright disrespected drivers. The reason NASCAR restricted Frontstretch and possibly would do it again is because a lot of articles are poorly written (this one being the worst) and there are easily more credible media outlets. They have the right to do so. Instead of bashing new decisions and inaccurately pointing out contradictions, research it more and look at changing times and changing fan desires. I like a lot of the Frontstretch writers, but unfortunately this one could have been a lot better.

    • Avatar

      Maybe Frontstrretch isn’t the only internet news entity that has been restricted. Maybe NASCAR is only allowing reporters from major news outlets (CBS, FOX, ESPN, etc,) just because they want to limit the number of people at the tracks. They aren’t allowing teams to bring their usual crews to the track nor spectators in order to limit the numbers, why should the press be treated any differently. Seems more like common sense to me, not some conspiracy. The way to minimize the risk is to minimize the number of people they allow to the event. Sorry but it sounds like internet news outlets didn’t make the cut as “essential”.
      Now, if Frontstretch is the only internet news outlet being restricted then something else is going on. So, in order to support this argument tell us who has been allowed to send reporters to the track. If you all are being singled out then maybe you have a point. Once again, these are desperate times so compromises need to be made.

  6. Avatar

    From the time Joey Lagano wrecked half the field in a CA K&N race to the time he “moved” Matt Kenseth ten years later at Charlotte, he raced like a little boy. It took a man to teach him some respect and manners on the track. Matt Kenseth did at Martinsville what any of us would have done – too bad he didn’t try in at Tallageda….#respect