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.
Quote of the day from @WESCCharlie
"He's the best driver available right now. And he brings something to our sponsors that they need right now. Stability. No baggage. Family man. Daytona 500 winner. Championship winner."
-Chip Ganassi on Matt Kenseth
— 92.5 WESC FM (@WESCFM) April 28, 2020
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.