The discrepancy between NASCAR’s fastest and its slowest appeared to be on full display during Sunday’s (May 30) Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
As leaders like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott stormed around the 1.5-mile racetrack, lapped cars like David Starr and Josh Bilicki seemed to be on screen getting passed — or used as picks — every 10 laps.
Before we get into the meat of this column, a disclaimer: In no way is this meant to take any shots at drivers at the rear of the field. Their equipment isn’t meant to compete with powerhouse organizations like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske.
But therein lies the problem. The cars of Rick Ware Racing and MBM Motorsports aren’t in the same league as anyone else in the field. Everyone is running their own race, sure. This, though, is becoming a black eye on NASCAR’s premier division.
How is it that Justin Haley in the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports finished 28th, five laps down, and his nearest competition was Cody Ware in 30th, who finished 11 laps down? (Martin Truex Jr. finished 29th following a late left-front tire failure that presented more issues than the crew bargained for.)
Why are we accepting a six-lap differential between the competition? Certainly, equipment varies from team to team. Most people expect leaders to put multiple cars multiple laps down. However, at this portion of the field, there is such a significant drop in speed from 32nd on back that the question begs asking: Is it time for NASCAR to enforce stricter minimum-speed rules?
The No. 66 Toyota, driven by Starr, finished 31 laps down and was penalized mid-race for failing to meet minimum speed. Remember what I mentioned at the top of the column? That feeling of seeing Starr on screen every 10 laps? Let me correct that: He was getting lapped, on average, every 13 laps.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) May 30, 2021
The disparity was shocking, with front-runners Kyle Busch and William Byron regularly using cars like Bilicki’s as traps to complete important passes in the top five. Those traps about caused leaders to run right over the slower traffic.
Wow we were off tonight. Car was awful over the bumps in 3 and 4 and I was just hanging on. I also want to apologize to the 9 for getting in the way at the end. Didn’t expect to get raced into the corner like that. Should have waited. Looking forward to regrouping at Sonoma.
— Josh Bilicki (@joshbilicki) May 31, 2021
Yet some of the sport’s stars are used to it, including Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion and defending Most Popular Driver.
“As bad as I hate to say this, [it was] pretty normal here in the last couple years, so I wasn’t super surprised by any of it, to be real honest,” Elliott said post-race.
Should NASCAR get involved? Elliott declined to opine, a stance he’s often taken — and perhaps rightfully so in order to avoid getting onto officials’ bad side.
“Man, I can’t answer that. I really try hard to stay out of the official calls,” he said. “That typically doesn’t get me anywhere good, so I’m not sure.”
Larson said he was able to navigate the slow cars with ease, but it was the quicker lapped traffic that complicated things.
“I got stuck behind the [No.] 10 [of Aric Almirola] a couple different times and maybe somebody else one other time,” Larson said. “That really allowed the guys in second to close on me, because I was just stalled out and making things worse by trying to get aggressive to pass.
“With this package and us running up in the PJ1, it was just kind of narrow up there, and you’re just a little bit stuck in their dirty air.”
Slow cars on track are nothing new in NASCAR. That has routinely been a product of the sport’s ease of entry: build a car per the rule book, enter it and compete with it. So much, though, has changed.
The cars that appeared dangerously off-pace were perhaps just two or three of the 43 entries. Now, in a 40-car field at max, the number of slower cars has upped to at least six.
It’s easy to point to the current charter system and question how appropriately some teams are using them in regards to competition, like RWR or StarCom Racing. The drivers — with or without experience — are dealt the machine they’re dealt and have to find a way to somehow stay out of the leaders’ path while knowing they’re a moving road block.
(As a quick aside, kudos to Bilicki for reminding us that perspective on all things matters.)
No question that today was not a good day for us. Pretty upset, until I remembered that I got this bracelet from the parents of LCpl. Jeremy Shock, who was killed in action in 2006. Jeremy rode with on the hood of my teammates car today. My issues aren’t all that bad. pic.twitter.com/UWOYmDXQfq
— Josh Bilicki (@joshbilicki) May 31, 2021
Additionally, the implementation of the Next Gen car in 2022 should erase much of the dramatic gap between a Spire Motorsports entry and a Rick Ware entry.
Neither that nor the charters, though, fix the issue in the now.
The closing rates at many of these ovals present situations that can easily lead to a race-deciding moment where the leader is held up by a car running 20 mph slower than his and losing the top spot.
Again, nothing insinuates this circumstance is brand new. It’s always existed in NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pass on Brad Keselowski at Pocono Raceway in 2014 comes to mind after Keselowski tried to use the lapped car of Danica Patrick to wipe debris off the grille of his car.
But NASCAR has an opportunity to offer in-race solutions, like upping the minimum speed of its competitors.
And if the sanctioning body is serious about safety, this is a conversation worth having.
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