Did You Notice? … Matt Mills got approved to run his first NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday (May 1) at Kansas Speedway? The decision to enter Mills in the No. 55 for BJ McLeod Motorsports comes days after officials denied Jennifer Jo Cobb her first Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway.
Mills, a NASCAR Xfinity Series regular, has been approved to take the next step of his career. The 24-year-old has never led a lap in 79 career NXS starts, finishing on the lead lap just 11 times. He has just one career top-10 finish, at Daytona International Speedway in the summer of 2019, while piling up 16 DNFs in underfunded equipment.
Is that really a better track record than the 47-year-old Cobb, who has 248 career starts in the sport’s Xfinity and Camping World Truck series? She has the same number of lead-lap finishes (11) yet has also led 23 laps, including 16 last fall at Talladega, the very track she wasn’t allowed to race in Cup. Cobb also has one career top-10 finish, at Daytona in 2011, while failing to finish 77 times between the two divisions.
It’s not Mills’ fault he got dragged into this mess; the young driver’s just trying to advance his career, like Cobb. But why does a sport focused on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion choose to give one comparable driver the green light while keeping the other sitting on the sidelines?
NASCAR president Steve Phelps doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he doubled down on the decision, backing his people when asked about it in a Sunday press conference.
“Steve O’Donnell, Scott Miller, Elton Sawyer, these guys have decades of experience in this sport,” Phelps said. “In their opinion, Jennifer did not have the experience necessary in order to run in the Cup race.
“I understand it may seem ambiguous to those outside, but I think that they have their finger on the pulse, and in their opinion Jennifer wasn’t ready to race in this race.”
The trio of vice presidents, all related to competition, made their choice, alright. It just feels like their heart rate’s going through a little arrhythmia. Chad Finchum was approved to attempt the 2020 Daytona 500 with one Cup race to his name and just five lead-lap finishes in 70 NXS starts. Quin Houff was approved to run the Cup level in 2019 after 10 total NXS starts and two lead-lap finishes.
You get the point. If not now for Cobb, a full-time competitor at the Truck level for over a decade … when? And if NASCAR says the issue is they’re getting more stringent on driver approvals, how in the world does a driver like Mills get approved for Cup days later? They better shut the windows in those Daytona Beach offices, ’cause I hear the hypocrisy almost 1,000 miles away.
For Cobb, the move has come with consequences, as she explained in a wide-ranging interview that broke Tuesday night (April 27) with Kelly Crandall of RACER. Unlike Mills, who drives for someone else, Cobb owns her Camping World Truck Series team. It wasn’t the organization she was going to run Cup with (that was Rick Ware Racing) but a public denial of her ability to move up has hurt her weekly search for sponsorship.
“How do I now move forward and ask for sponsor meetings for my truck,” Cobb told Crandall, “Have them Google me and go, the president of NASCAR said this about her, why would we take a meeting? It’s embarrassing.”
You also can’t ignore that, for a sport stressing diversity, the decision was made by three white men. While I don’t think that was an issue in their decision-making, it has to be said when the sport is trumpeting their efforts in this area at every turn.
A solution here is simple: better communication and transparency from NASCAR on the approvals process. The decision of approval in the first place feels like NFL officials making a decision on whether a team’s starting quarterback is good enough to play.
You never want that level of subjectivity entering your sport. So why not put together a clear-cut approvals process? You can’t have it both ways, accepting drivers like Shane Golobic who have zero NASCAR experience in eight years into the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt Cup race before denying one of your regulars with a decade of experience the opportunity to move up. Sure, Golobic has plenty of dirt experience … let the debate begin. But it’s subjective.
And a gray area is not where NASCAR wants to be. Either make a clear, public approvals process with guidelines and boundaries or go, hey, it’s up to the teams to decide who’s capable of driving their racecar. Meddling in the middle never did anyone any good.
Did You Notice? … The 16 winners debate is at a crossroads? Fellow Frontstretch writer Nick Tylwalk made a very compelling case, showcasing a long list of drivers who haven’t won.
But this graphic (hat tip: Mark Kristl) reminds me what I wrote about a few weeks ago, predicting the second coming of the sport’s Big 3.
This time, instead of the Big 3 drivers in Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, we have the Big 3 teams. Nine of 11 drivers who run full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have won. These drivers occupy 10 of the top 11 spots in the current point standings, 11 of the 16 postseason spots and own all but a handful of playoff points awarded.
Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs have collected 76% of top-five finishes this season and 61% of top 10s. With those kinds of numbers, are we fooling ourselves to think their dominance will stop?
Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch still have yet to win from that group. That pushes the total number of winning drivers to 12. From there, whether we get to 16 hinges on how much strength any other organization (Stewart-Haas Racing? Richard Childress Racing?) has to break through this level of dominance.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- There’s no denying Ross Chastain has had a rough start in his first season running for Chip Ganassi Racing. But did you know that when he led 12 laps Sunday at Talladega, that was one less than Matt Kenseth led for nearly an entire season (32 races) in that car? Maybe the No. 42 team fell further behind than anyone thought; after all, teammate Kurt Busch is no longer in playoff position 10 races into the year.
- What a week for the Burtons. Harrison runs 20th in his first Cup start, in position for a top-10 result until the final restart while Jeb wins his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Remember when Jeb jumped too soon to Cup, running for BK Racing, and seemingly torpedoed his stock car career? To have revived it at 28 years old, over-the-hill these days for NASCAR prospects, is a bit of a minor miracle. Yet look at what Kaulig Racing has done the past few seasons, injecting life into AJ Allmendinger while advancing Chastain’s career on his way to the Cup level. Impressive.
- Brett Moffitt has a tough road into the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs after choosing to run for points in that series instead. Missing out on points in the first seven races, he trails 12th-place Brandon Brown for inclusion by a whopping 168 markers. But if the other seven races were allowed to count? He’d be just four points behind. I understand why the rule is written this way, to discourage drivers from running for titles in both series but surprising starts like Moffitt’s in NXS should be rewarded. He earned those early-season finishes; why shouldn’t they count?
- The TV ratings for Talladega complicate Joey Logano‘s push for changes in superspeedway competition (see my CBS Sports article this week for more). When you’re tying the Daytona 500 as the most-watched race of the 2021 season, the fan’s choice in the type of racing they’d like to see is pretty clear.
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