NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR’s Crap Sandwich

Way back when, in an era when the Earth was still cooling and the war in Vietnam was still heating up, there was a less than charming saying that went, “Life is like a crap sandwich. The more bread you have, the less crap you have to eat.” Of course, the word “crap” was typically replaced with another of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV” also meaning excrement, but as an old guy I still try not go beyond PG-13 in these columns even while profanity becomes more and more common in social and even mainstream media. Call it the South Park Commonality. Anyway, back then, “bread” was a euphemism for money. And the saying indicated that as you acquired more material wealth, you had to accept less and less hardships in life. 

By now, you’re doubtlessly wondering how in Hell I’m going to redirect this column toward NASCAR racing. (And thinking you’d like to have me do it as soon as possible.) Easy there, Cowgirl, this ain’t my first rodeo. I can spin a column faster than Burt Reynolds could turn around a black ’77 Trans Am or Junior Johnson could pull a bootlegger’s turn in the hills of Caroline. 

So yeah, I’ve come to think that NASCAR Cup races are beginning to be much like crap sandwiches. The bread at the top and the bottom of the sandwich is baked a delightfully fluffy and warm brown. It’s what’s in the middle of those races that has become less and less appetizing. 

We’ll consider the opening portions of the race as the top of the bun. In this era of no practice or qualifying, the only practice or testing most weekends is the portion of the race between when the field takes the green and what NASCAR insists on calling the “Competition Caution.” Those competition cautions tend to occur quite early in the race. Even a driver who finds his car came off the trailer handling very badly knows unless his car is completely out to lunch, he likely won’t go a lap down in the first 25-30 laps before he gets a pre-scheduled pit stop to make improvements. (Unless like last week, the reigning Cup champion puts himself hard into the wall on lap 15. Nope, hard to get happy about that.) The competition caution disrupts the flow of and the strategies inherent in races left to play out naturally. Originally, it was stated the competition caution was a safety measure. It would give the teams a chance to inspect their tires to see if any unusual wear patterns were developing, but the teams aren’t required to replace or even take a glance at their tires. So the competition caution has basically become a pre-scheduled commercial break for the presenting network. And they like their commercial breaks. Even if a big name driver crashes out of the race (as seen on the side-by-side coverage box) they won’t cut back to the action. They are so convinced that you want to see commercials telling you when and where next week’s race will be broadcast you don’t give a crap about that day’s event apparently. 

On the other side of the sandwich, you have the other half of the bun, the finish of the race. Admittedly, there have been some highly competitive, exciting and unexpected finishes this season. I mean if you put a grand down on Cole Custer to win the Cup race at Kentucky, you’re probably sitting back at the helm of your new 100-foot yacht sipping on a boat drink while visiting private islands that are for sale. Bet on Austin Dillon to win in Texas (or anywhere else for that matter)? I hope the Aston Martin you bought with your winnings is living up to your expectations. Or maybe we’re grading the finishes of races on a curve since we’re back to real live racing at all. It’s disheartening to recall it was only a couple months ago race fans were reduced to watching what amounted to a glorified video game on Sunday afternoons. The less said about that the better. And there’s still that lingering unease that if the wrong person sneezes in the wrong area of a newly reopened grandstands at a NASCAR race and touches off a super-spreader outbreak, the whole circus might have to be shut down again. Not for months. For years. 

Whether the finishes are actually excellent or they’re just compelling compared to a video game is open to debate. The real question is if it’s worth it for a fan to invest over three hours of their time watching an event (most likely at home possibly wearing a mask) for five minutes of excitement at the end. I tend to think not. But then again, it’s not like we have a whole of entertainment options open to us depending on what state we live in and how under control the virus is in the area. What were you going to do instead? Go to the theater to catch one of this summer’s blockbuster hits? Good luck with that.  

Which leaves us with the crap in the middle of the sandwich and the entire middle portions of the race. Oh, see Denny run! Run Kevin, run. Oh, see Kevin run! Hmm. How long to the next stage break? You think NBC can fit in another 15 minutes of commercials before then? Gosh, I hope so. If not, there’s always the GEICO’s Five Laps Until the Stage Ends Moment. 

When it comes to stage racing, I am hopeful that NASCAR has a Road to Damascus moment and realizes the great harm it is doing to the sport. Pre-scheduled cautions destroy the purity of a race. Whereas from the early days of the sport, crew chiefs, with input from their drivers, had to gamble on pit strategy. The drivers had to guess when those cautions might occur to know how long and hard they could run a fresh set of tires, knowing if abused, later in a run those tires started losing their grip. A fine balance had to be struck between blistering initial speed and long-run lap times, particularly at a track like Darlington. 

Starting at Michigan, NASCAR made another major change to race day procedures, the so-called Choose Cone. The jury is still out on this one, but on first blush it seems NASCAR officials once again hung out in their secret underground lair to come up with yet another answer to a question no one was asking. Up front, I’ll make three predictions about the new procedure:

  1. In an attempt to draw another glass of milk from a warthog by either NASCAR oo the networks, within a month the change to the restart will be named the Baskin Robbins 52 Choice Cone.
  2. Within the first four races using the new procedure, some driver will decide to cut above the “cone” at the last second at the same time a driver to his outside decides to cut down the track to go below it, and will trigger a huge wreck that eliminates half the field under caution.
  3. After No. 2, the fans of the drivers involved will turn on the new rule with an almost scary intensity. 

One partial solution to the crap crises would be to shorten the lengths of some races. Again, if you accept the premise that a lot of NASCAR races today are crap sandwiches, then lessening the amount of crap between the buns is a viable solution. There are only three races annually that I feel have need to have race lengths exceeding 400 miles: the Daytona 500, the World 600, and the Southern-By-Gawd 500. All other races are in play, with an eventual goal of having the average race complete with adequate post-race coverage over in around three hours. Happily enough, 500 kilometers is roughly 310 miles, so if tracks still want to call their races the “Something Or Another 500 Presented by Some Other Firm,” they can feel free to do so. 

I did note in the comments section below some of yesterday’s Frontstrech articles that some fans weren’t happy with the fact Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan lasted only two hours and 10 minutes. Nor did they care for the racing itself. Reminds me of that old joke about two cranky older women at a restaurant. One snaps, “the food here is terrible.” The other replies, “and the portions are so small.”

In an attempt to make up some of the race dates lost to the quarantine, NASCAR ran a doubleheader Cup weekend at Pocono. They ran another one this weekend at Michigan. (Let’s call it the “Michigan and This Again?” weekend.) Another doubleheader weekend is up at Dover on Aug. 22 and 23. Sorry, but having a two-for-one special on crap sandwiches isn’t going to have me pulling up to the drive-thru window. 

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
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.

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24 comments

  1. Avatar

    I hate stage racing. Hate it. Why is Nascar giving points to drivers based on where the are at some contrived point in the race? If second place is the first loser, stage winners who don’t win the race are the first also-rans. And Matt, not only do the stages destroy the purity of the race, they interrupt it’s natural flow. I could go on and on about how much I hate stage racing, but you get the point. Gimmicks and manufactured excitement are the new status quo in Nascar. They should just go on and change their name to American Ninja Stock Car Racing.

  2. Avatar

    I have a few suggestions for you people- Pensacola, kingsport, Montgomery, South Alabama, Huntsville…. I could go on, but I think y’all get it.

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      What channel are the on Mike?

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        Bill B, I’m sorry, I forgot about the t.v. stuff. I am focusing on people in the stands. I’ve never been a big t.v. watcher, but to each his own.

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          Well you didn’t expect me to have to get up off my ass, drive a long distance somewhere, pay for a ticket and then drive back home would you? Geez, what planet are you from? :)

  3. Avatar

    First I will say that you had me when I saw the “crap sandwich” in the title. However my first thought with where you would go with the article based on that title, was that both races were crap from start to finish and since there were two of them back to back, that would make the sandwich (like two slices of bread). You were a bit kinder with your analogy giving props to the beginning and the end of most races.

    There is only one good thing I can say about the stages, they made the “fake debris” cautions extinct. That is shallow praise considering the fake debris cautions shouldn’t have been a thing to begin with. Otherwise I hate them with a passion. They take away so much from the race’s natural ebb and flow, the tension/excitement of not knowing how things will work out. I think if they got rid of the stage breaks I could support shorter races but I want green flag pit stops dammit. The stage breaks should never be less than the number of laps in a fuel run.

    With regards to the choose cone and other changes instituted since the pandemic, I have noticed that all sports are taking the opportunity to try out all kinds of wacky things they’ve had in their back pocket of wishes using the Covid virus as an excuse. If you think NASCAR is bad you should see what baseball is doing. (Note: I am just repeating what I have read in one article and have not researched this personally or even watched a game.) Here are a few:
    – pitchers must face at least 3 batters or make it to the end of an inning before being replaced.
    – designated hitters have been forced on the National League teams.
    – if the game goes to extra innings a runner is place on 2nd base at the start of each inning.
    Talk about taking advantage of a situation. Most of these rules’ only purpose is to shorten the length of the games for the purpose of television and to appease those with the attention span of a 3 year old.

    • Avatar

      Yet if you don’t have fans in the stands (and I find the cutouts of people in the stands ridiculous) than your audience is 100% the TV audience. So that is who they will cater too and understandably so.

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        David – here in atlanta those fans in the stands cutouts go for $25-$50 a pop. apparently teams have done that so people can see themselves on tv.

        just the people that are paying $750 at the onmi hotel at the battery cause you can see the field from certain rooms, just to be able to “watch baseball live”.

        • Avatar

          Janice, thank you for the education! I wasn’t aware that teams were doing that. Makes sense I suppose, and no sillier than what the NBA is doing.
          As for the 750 room, I suppose if you are a true fan and can afford it why not?

      • Avatar

        So maybe since we are giving TV free reign and deferring to them we can have fans call in and vote players of the field. I’d bet TV would love that. Maybe get the Kardashians involved somehow. Maybe move the fences in 50 feet, viewers love seeing home runs but,,,, won’t more scoring make the games longer. What a conundrum. Maybe we will let viewers vote on that one.

        It’s one thing to cater, it’s another to sell your soul. Perhaps we are just haggling over where that line is.

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          F1 has phone-in driver of the race. Maybe NA$CAR could do that too but I bet if Bubba got one vote he’d be “the people’s choice.”

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          Bill B – with how they’re doing drawing for the start, maybe there needs to be a vote so the same person doesn’t get pole or start in top 10 every week.

          it’s just a farce.

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          Bill, you’ve just helped with my point. TV has helped na$car ruin itself- go buy a ticket to some real racing. Support the local tracks. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Avatar

    Really? People have been asking for the choose cone for a while now. And you dislike it?

    I don’t have a problem with the stage breaks, I just dislike that the caution laps count in the total.

  5. Avatar

    NASCAR’a stages do nothing for the race except make the “racing” miles shorter because of the false caution flags. So now, a race is 15 to 20 laps shorter than advertised. It’s B.S.
    You can also add to that fact that they can’t even field 43 cars like they used to.
    NASCAR is a shadow of it’s past, and they earned it by their greed and stupidity.

  6. Avatar

    To top off all the crap comments, NBC broadcasts are beyond terrible. Turned off the broad cast the last two weeks. Screaming about a 10 th place driver that passed someone is too much for me to handle.

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      Yes! Yes! Yes! NBC is more interested in showing their gadgets than they are the race! Flying cameras, in-car cameras, NBC SEE it. Isolated camera shots showing ONE car going around the track, while right behind it, there’s actual RACING going on. And don’t forget “Hey, Rut”! Of course we’re all aware of the announcers already screaming about something before the green flag even flies. Fox is guilty too, but NBC makes them look terrific. I know some of this is required because there’s sponsorship involved, but come on.
      Wanna see a great race? Watch the Snowball Derby, or something similar. A couple of good-‘ol boys chatting and calmly describing the action, while three or four cameras show groups of cars RACING. No contests to see how many different camera shots they can fit into one lap, just RACING.

  7. Avatar

    Sort of the new American way. If your product is crappy, don’t look at the fundamentals, fix it with gimmicks. Stage racing, choose rule, Gieco restart zone, traction compound, inverts, low horsepower high downforce for some tracks, high horsepower low downforce for others, different colors on the cars every week… I don’t even know what I’m watching any more, and two guys engaged in nonstop high pitched screaming doesn’t help.

  8. Avatar

    This “writer” doesn’t know what Nascar is. Lengthen the races back to the original lengths. The problem is that you douche bags can’t get off your cellphones long enough.

    Of course, a part made in 2020 is going to last longer than in 2000…so where are the mechanics–the technical aspects of a 300 mile race (again, becauee you JUST have to pkst Instagram of dinner) are outdone….easily…by a 500 mile race…you have more sponsor exposure time…more chances for action amd more chance for exciting wrecks, mechanical failures, etc….do away with stages, PLAYOFFS (for kitties that never risk their lives) and go back to mid 90s racing…with open rules, no stages…no SHORTENED RACES BECAUSE OF KITTY 22 YEAR OLD SPORTS WRITERS, etc.

    • Avatar

      I can begrudgingly live with a 400 mile race, but a 500k, (312 miles) is just a glorified Xfinity race. One problem, and you’re screwed. I sat through too many of those in Phoenix, which is why I won’t be there for the “championship” race. What a joke!

  9. Avatar

    Janice…really.that stupid? Just do a random draw for the entire field. Problem solved. Let them race like men…not kitties ran by dwindling sponsors.

  10. Avatar

    Ain’t any of you all ever heard “less is more”? 500 miles races are too long. They should be reserved for the “Crown Jewels” along with the World 600. Nothing else should be over 400 miles. Races lasting 4 and 5 hours long is too long for anyone to sit and watch. Hell, if it were a movie at a movie theater there’d even be an intermission for almost any of these 500-mile races. The shorter the races the more a driver must get up on the wheel and get after it. No time to fΩ¢k around, no riding around saving the car, following the leader, all that is what is BS. If they have time to just ride around, then cut it out. I want to see them all go as hard as they can go as soon as they drop that green flag, I want to see them HAVE to go as hard as they can go, push the limits of the car, the driver, the team, the entire race. If that means a significantly shorter race, so be it. You have more chances of people sticking around for 2 hours of something than you do with 4 hours of anything, especially when most of that 4 hours is spent watching the drivers kill time watching the laps tick down until it’s “go time”.

    As far as the stages go, it is getting a little too predictable. I’ve often thought, since the inception of these stages, that the exact lap of the stage end shouldn’t be revealed until within 5 laps or something like that- go by time rather than laps. Much in the way of a 2hr sports car race is or 24-hour race. They are given like a 2 to go signal when they see that time will expire during that 2nd lap. Then it puts some of the gambling back into it for the crew chiefs to have to contend with. They won’t know exactly how many laps are left, or how many there would be at the start of the event or early on. Could make late stage cautions interesting. Whether or not to go for the stage win or to pit, when you can’t calculate exactly how many laps would be left or if you could make it to stage end. Obviously, everyone would have access to the exact time remaining in a stage and could guess how many laps remain- if there were no cautions.

    For instance, I would calculate how long it would take to burn a take of fuel under green, take it 3 minutes longer than that for a stage. Then they can’t just break a stage up in half and know they would be fine. If a caution comes out, they wouldn’t have to pit at all, but if not, everyone will have to pit. So, do you break the stage up in half to get everything out of your tires each half, or do you take the gamble and wait it out hoping for a caution. Oh yeah, and when they give the 2 to go signal to all the teams, they close pit road at the same time. So, you might not be able to wait until the very last minute to pit if you don’t know exactly what lap your last opportunity will be to pit. Say you think it will be this lap but NASCAR hasn’t called it yet but you think they will during this lap, so you pit, but they don’t give the 2 to go signal, one more lap is run before it is given, you’d have had one more chance to pit, then the caution comes out before the two laps are completed. If you had just taken the chance and waited to pit the next lap you’d not have needed to pit at all, the stage would have ended under caution and your fuel would have lasted since not as many laps were run and what was run was run under caution. If you took the chance to wait one more lap and the 2 to go was given before you could make it back around, pits would have closed, you’d be practically out of gas and would run out before those last two laps could be completed under green. You’d have to pit while pits were closed and would thus incur a penalty. (that penalty would need to be more severe than what the negative impact would have been had that team just went the safe route and pitted at the very end of the stage but didn’t push the time limit.)
    If timed stages rather than a specific number of laps that also can totally impact not only the number of laps ran in each stage, but also the number of laps left remaining to run in the final stage, stage 3.

    You could end up with more laps run in the 1st stage than in the final stage if there are a ton of cautions in the 2nd stage. It could totally up end all strategy. You want to get rid of predictable stages, change them to time based instead of lap based. There’s no telling what could happen. It won’t change how long it takes to run a 400 mile race or 500 mile race, or change the number of laps the total race would be, but it would or could totally change how and at what point in the race those stage breaks fall, altering strategy for not only the stage a caution falls, but the last stage as well.