Did You Notice? … The way in which teammates helped each other out at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend (March 20-21)? The most obvious example came in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, where Kyle Busch twice slowed down in the final laps of a stage to let John Hunter Nemechek pass by and win.
In both cases, Busch dominated each stage until “suddenly” slowing in the last two laps of each one. Nemechek wound up leading just 21 laps but collecting 54 total points while Busch tacked up 102 laps led and earned a 4.1-second win in the race itself.
The reason for those team orders was simple: two playoff points. Busch doesn’t need them as a moonlighting NASCAR Cup Series driver; for Nemechek, it could make the difference in a Championship 4 bid. As the owner of Kyle Busch Motorsports, the money for winning the title makes it a no-brainer unless NASCAR officials step in.
Thus far, NASCAR apparently has no problem with the incident; neither Busch nor Nemechek were penalized. Perhaps they feel a teammate slowing is a harder case to prove than someone like Clint Bowyer spinning intentionally, giving teammate Martin Truex Jr. his chance to make the Chase in 2013?
Some might say a single race in the regular season has nowhere near the impact. But what if a single-car team falls two points short of the Championship 4? Should they be forced to invest double the money next year for a teammate fast enough to pull over for them?
Busch’s example wasn’t the only one within multi-car teams playing politics; it was just the most obvious. Kyle Larson cut Chase Elliott a break, slowing at the end of a Cup Series stage to ensure the No. 9 stayed on the lead lap. Later on in the race, it was Larson getting the short end of the stick as Joey Logano fought furiously to stay on the lead lap in front of him. In the process, Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney ran Larson down from behind, then passed him for the victory.
Would Blaney have won the race either way? Larson seems to think so, as our Bryan Gable wrote on Frontstretch Monday. But the No. 22 Ford putting Larson, the leader, in dirty air for laps at a time sure didn’t help.
There’s no question NASCAR views itself differently than Formula One, a series where there’s a clear pecking order within two-car teams. Yet the infamous Bowyer Spingate incident, nearly eight years old, is the last time they’ve stepped in to discourage that type of playoff cooperation.
At the back of the grid, the sport has stepped in after backmarkers tried to manipulate the race in the 2019 Homestead-Miami Speedway finale (Hat tip: Daniel McFadin). The incident was a plot among a group of teams in order to win a season-long bonus for best non-chartered car.
But up front has been a different story altogether as people push into the gray area without any consequences. It’s Racing Human Nature 101, similar to how crew chiefs push the issue in pre- and post-race inspection.
So where’s the line? Is it Stewart-Haas Racing running 1-2-3-4, single-file at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2018 for laps on end? How about Erik Jones hanging back from then-Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway last November? Jones appeared to have a faster car but with a Championship 4 bid on the line, that took precedence.
At the end of the day, fans and other competitors have a say in what’s acceptable and what is not. If people choose not to watch or showcase their dissatisfaction with these moves, NASCAR might step in.
But for now? Team orders appear to be on the rise in what’s marketed as an individual sport.
Did You Notice? … Roger Penske made clear he’s looking to extend Brad Keselowski’s contract?
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said in a Ford media call this week. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure.”
That puts the onus on the 36-year-old veteran, who started the season wrecking with teammate Logano in the final lap of February’s Daytona 500. The two have reportedly mended fences, and Keselowski has bounced back since, earning three top-five finishes in the past five races while rising to fifth in the standings.
He remains the linchpin in how crazy 2022 Silly Season will become. Top-tier rides at both Chevrolet’s top team (Hendrick Motorsports) and Toyota’s top team (Joe Gibbs Racing) look secure, also a reason Keselowski could stick around.
A potential retirement by Kurt Busch may open up a spot at Chip Ganassi Racing while Aric Almirola could be in trouble at struggling Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR would be a good fit within the Ford family if Keselowski chose to leave.
But it’s clear the 2012 Cup Series champ is the big name, and potentially the only major one, dangling out there. If he stays put, Silly Season craziness may hinge on whether new teams like 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing and others choose to expand for 2022.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Mike Massie’s Frontstretch story on Timmy Hill missing tomorrow’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race is a must read. A winner during the COVID-19 pandemic iRacing series last year, defeating heavyweight William Byron, doesn’t even get invited? And now it’s costing them (supposedly) sponsorship and causing them to skip Cup Series races? Owner Carl Long always seems to be on the short end of the stick despite years of consistent dedication to this sport as an underdog. Count me on the #LetTimmyRace bandwagon.
- My growing fear about the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race: ballooning expectations. FOX, NASCAR and the drivers themselves have been pumping this weekend up for months. Watching those commercials, you’d think the sport never raced on dirt before and it’s the most important race of all time. But what if we go no more than five laps without a caution? What if a large portion of the Cup field, with limited-to-no dirt experience, goes and drives like it? Simply going out and establishing a baseline on this track surface is no longer enough.
- There were only six speeding penalties at Atlanta during the 500-mile Cup race Sunday. That’s nearly half what we saw at Phoenix Raceway during a 500-kilometer race the week before. Back to normal? Or did officials back off?
- Kudos to NASCAR working with the White House in helping convince people of all political persuasions to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Lucky enough to get my second shot on Thursday (March 25) and doing my part to publicize that it’s all gone great. So please consider signing up if you’re on the fence. The quicker we as a country achieve herd immunity, the faster COVID-19 recedes into the rear-view mirror and we can all start trudging back toward normalcy.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.