Did You Notice? … NASCAR drama between drivers and executives has been building at a breakneck pace? It all started with last week’s Atlanta Motor Speedway repave announcement from Speedway Motorsports, Inc. President Marcus Smith. After 24 years under the current configuration, the track will be getting a facelift with both fresh asphalt and an altered layout. The track will be narrowed by 15 feet while the banking in the turns gets adjusted from 24 to 28 degrees.
In some ways, the details are irrelevant to the driving corps. Their reaction was fierce, revolving around a central theme: why weren’t we consulted on the project? Kurt Busch was the only one who both admitted he was consulted and approved of the upcoming AMS changes.
The others? Reactions ranged from disgust to disbelief.
“I sure am glad to win the final Xfinity Series race on a real Atlanta racetrack,” Kyle Busch said Saturday to the Charlotte Observer. “Because the next one is just going to be a showpiece, and it’s going to be sh*t.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin vented his frustration on Twitter.
With all due respect. This same group has reconfigured Texas, Kentucky, Bristol with 0 driver input. One of those lost a race, other one we don’t race anymore and last one we put dirt over it. But hey, what do the drivers know 🙄 https://t.co/IRCfVeK79d
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) July 7, 2021
This same disconnect has only intensified over rumors concerning the safety of NASCAR’s Next Gen car. On Thursday (July 8), Chase Briscoe wrote the word “correct” under a Reddit post indicating NASCAR crash dummy testing with the car produced fatal results. That caused an explosion of comments on both sides, from drivers concerned results have been “inconclusive” to NASCAR’s insistence they sent a note to drivers offering to review the data further – only to get one driver (once again, Kurt Busch) coming to them for a detailed explanation. NASCAR remains on the defensive even today (July 13), posting a pointed reaction from NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller on their Twitter feed.
NASCAR Senior VP of Competition Scott Miller on #NextGen chatter:
"There's a lot of fiction out there." pic.twitter.com/Ox1ivfjxTs
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 13, 2021
It’s a little unsettling for the industry to see this type of open animosity on both sides. Less than two years ago, Nate Ryan of NBC Sports wrote a well-sourced article about how the relationship between drivers and NASCAR was better than it had potentially ever been. Among the highlights of what was happening during the summer of 2019 …
- An uncontrolled tire rule was tweaked after several drivers protested how NASCAR officials were calling the penalty.
- Drivers were consulted every step of the way on the PJ1 traction compound used at several tracks to improve the quality of the racing.
- NASCAR listened to driver’s concerns about restarts, becoming more aggressive in penalizing them.
Those positive vibes came despite the sport’s Driver’s Council dissolving during the 2018 offseason. It was also the first full year of the new Steve Phelps regime as NASCAR President after Brian France was removed as CEO following a drunken driving incident on Long Island.
“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships,” Joey Logano said back then. “And we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers.”
Wow. So how did we get from there to open mutiny inside the garage this quickly? Keep in mind most of last season was filled with COVID-19 restrictions as the sport was simply trying to survive. Executives were lauded for the way NASCAR navigated the pandemic, producing a special iRacing series before a return to the track in May 2020. Their off-track time of only two months was far shorter than the stick-and-ball sports; NASCAR’s first event back at Darlington Raceway was watched by 6.3 million people. No driver got seriously sick from the virus and only a handful, including Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon, missed a race after testing COVID positive.
Through navigating those uncharted waters, the sport chose to postpone the debut of the Next Gen car until 2022. It’s understandable considering the costs involved, lost on-track time for testing and need for additional driver feedback. But the idea of the Next Gen car is nothing new. The first test happened in October 2019. That’s almost two years’ worth of time for extensive crash dummy testing internally, extensive Research and Development on what’s one of the most important details of this chassis. Being that far out from the first reveal and not being able to give a definitive answer on safety is concerning.
At the same time, it’s notable that with both the Atlanta repave and Next Gen safety scenario, NASCAR specifically made themselves available. Were drivers not reading all the way to the fine print? If Kurt Busch was able to find executives, twice, why couldn’t everyone else?
I’ve generally felt Phelps has done a great job rebuilding NASCAR’s reputation and long-term goals in the wake of France’s departure. But he’s made some missteps, jumping to conclusions on the Bubba Wallace noose incident at Talladega Superspeedway last June. He may have had the best of intentions, causing a show of unity in the face of racist accusations that remains a powerful moment. But the FBI’s conclusion there was no hate crime committed created a backlash. Remember, it was Phelps who instigated the noose complaint, not Wallace, but his driver has taken the brunt of the negative fan reaction ever since.
In year three of the Phelps regime, the honeymoon is over as there’s also a transition of NASCAR ownership occurring in the sport. Chip Ganassi is out; Roger Penske is 84 years old. Brad Keselowski is on the verge of becoming part-owner, joining celebrity additions this year like Pitbull and Michael Jordan.
These new voices need to feel empowered to have a seat at the table. All sides have to find a way to reach each other and feel heard in a time of great uncertainty. Everyone knows the history of repaves; they often ruin the quality of competition for years, a problem NASCAR’s failed to solve. And while no NASCAR driver has died in 20 years on track, a testament to their safety record post-Dale Earnhardt, no one forgets the 2001 Daytona 500 or even Ryan Newman’s near-tragic incident a year ago.
The person that needs to speak now isn’t John Probst or Miller or Ganassi or Hamlin. It’s Phelps. Public leadership and private conversations, now, are needed to ensure this disconnect doesn’t get further out of hand.
Did You Notice?… The disconnect in stock car racing isn’t just limited to NASCAR drivers and executives? Tony Stewart was vocal Saturday night (July 10) about the way NASCAR has struggled to wrap their arms around SRX.
“It’s frustrating, some of the conversations that we have with those guys and why this seems to be such a thorn in their side, I’m not sure,” Stewart said. “But it’s super frustrating from our side because I love NASCAR. I love participating in NASCAR as an owner. And I would never want to do anything to jeopardize what we’ve got with Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series.
“This is something that’s totally different, totally outside the box that’s meant to be entertainment and a fun series to come drive for six weeks … and have opportunities to showcase their stars, like Hailie Deegan, and show people why she was in the Truck Series and why she belongs. I just wish we could get NASCAR to wrap their arms around it.”
To be fair, Chase Elliott racing the Nashville Fairgrounds seems like an olive branch as SRX continues to impress in the ratings. Their audience of 1.33 million beat the ESPYs in the 8 p.m. Saturday timeslot while producing a larger audience than either the NASCAR Xfinity or Camping World Truck series events.
“We get a NASCAR star that gets to race with his dad next week,” Stewart added. “I think that’s super cool, and I hope … NASCAR is smart enough to embrace that.”
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- I’m undecided as to whether Kurt Busch winning a race makes the playoff bubble better or worse. Now, with a deficit of over 100 for most, it seems impossible anyone will catch Austin Dillon or Tyler Reddick on points. But there’s also a number of drivers building momentum on the bubble, from Ross Chastain to Daniel Suarez. Even Matt DiBenedetto has shown signs of life. Will we see a lot of crazy win-or-bust strategies if these drivers stay close enough to the front?
- Kevin Harvick has won two of the last three New Hampshire Motor Speedway races. It’s not a track the championship hopefuls will be focused on with no real comparable track in the playoffs (Phoenix Raceway, I guess? Feels like a bit of a stretch). If not now for Stewart-Haas Racing … when?
- Speaking of SRX, I’m a little surprised no one gave Doug Coby a shot in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire. He’s already earned a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series opportunity after his SRX season-opening win at Stafford Motor Speedway as the Local All-Star. (Coby is running the Modified Series event the same day at the New Hampshire Xfinity race.)