Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Another Speedway Race, Another Chink in NASCAR’s Armor

Never in my years of being a follower of the sport have I witnessed the state of near-panic that NASCAR is in right now. They’re changing rules that had been in place for half a century, opening the press doors to people they once considered irrelevant, installing suggestion boxes for drivers and practically begging fans to tell them what they want. Never did I ever think I would see NASCAR, or any sport for that matter, dropping its tight-fisted, take-it-or-leave-it guard so quickly and obviously. It brings back memories of the 180 the town of Concord did when Bruton Smith threatened to move his speedway.

But these efforts do little to address much of what ails NASCAR. Chicago was another nearly unwatchable race and venues of its type are a good part of the reason why.

The event was another spiritless display of aero package and track position ruling the day. The combination of the aero push in the current common stock car and the plethora of 1.5-2-mile common-stock speedways has been a lethargic explosive powerful enough to not only knock fans out of their seats but even away from their television sets.

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It’s long been my opinion that the Chase was NASCAR’s biggest mistake of the last 20 years. It’s hard to argue with people that would say it was their worst decision ever. But the more I witness NASCAR in its continuous and steady decline, the more I’m convinced it isn’t any one problem or decision that is driving fans away in droves. Chicago was just one more display of why. The speedways are a big piece of the puzzle that NASCAR is trying to solve.

It’s beyond obvious that with the current NASCARmobile, the leader has a decided advantage in clean air. Even with two fresh tires as opposed to four, a pit crew can win a race for a driver simply by getting him up front at the end. Every race, time after time, the leader pulls away as everyone else fights briefly for position, at least as much as it is possible to pass.

In theory, the lead-lap-cars-up-front restart rule should have changed that – a car strong enough to be in second would now have a chance to overtake the leader, which was one of the main reasons for the imposition of the rule. Yet NASCAR put a key provision in the deal which basically nullified that: you cannot overtake the leader before the start-finish line. In other words, if you see yourself passing the leader as you’re halfway to full speed, you best back off. And so the leader is in front by the start-finish line and most likely pulls away from the field yet again.

No one’s denying that Hendrick Motorsports built a superb machine for Mark Martin to drive last Saturday night and deserved the victory. But he didn’t win the race by fighting through the field during the green. He won by getting out front in the pits and pulling away on the restart, and then benefiting from Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson’s slightly reckless battle. Then he was out in front on the last restart and won the race.

Now, I’ve said that Martin is the second-best driver in NASCAR today. But I also believe that Elliott Sadler could have pulled that off in a car that good and with a pit crew that flawless.

Nowhere is the clean air effect more prevalent than at the speedways. It’s impossible to say who has a superior car, because the leader can lead 100 laps convincingly enough to make the announcers wonder who could catch him, yet as soon as that driver gets dropped in with other cars, he can’t pass anyone worth a damn. Most drivers will tell you that to pass anyone in this car, your machine has to be vastly superior. How much better can a driver’s car be than someone running second or third?

The clean air problem isn’t as pronounced at places like Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol or Dover. It’s hardly, if at all, noticeable. No leader has clean air for long at any of those places. But that’s only eight races out of 36 – and we keep hearing it may be less than that soon.

One of the reasons we’ve had so many race winners this year, aside from Mother Nature’s role, is that track position is everything. The best of the best have all kinds of difficulty passing in the current car. And it was supposedly designed with the opposite outcome.

Add the Chase to this and you begin to see why drivers don’t fight as hard for position as they might. Why wear your car out doing so and even risk wrecking when the important thing is to score as many points as possible? In the position Martin was in before Chicago, he would have been pretty happy with a third-place finish and wouldn’t have risked a DNF going for anything better. And rightly so.

The current rules dictate that that needs to be his main concern right now. It’s often said that we need to add 20, 50 or 10,000 points for a race win, but nothing will eliminate the focus on points racing as long as there is a Chase. (Suppose there is 10,000 points given for a pre-Chase win. Where is the incentive to go for a second win once a driver has one?)

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And so it goes. Right off the bat after the inevitable mess restrictor plates leave at Daytona, fans are immediately subjected to watch-the-leader-pull-away events at Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Just when people start to see some decent battles at Bristol and Martinsville, back we go to Texas.

As more and more speedway races pass by without leaving a mark, the reputation of a follow-the-leader, unmoving auto racing series continues to grow in NASCAR. Were any of the speedway races memorable this season? It’s not that they never have their moments, but they decidedly pale in comparison to Bristol or Martinsville or Richmond or Dover in the quantity of such moments. There is the occasional good finish at some of the speedways, but they are the exception, especially with the current car.

And as snoozer after snoozer like we saw in Chicago piles up, more and more fans lose interest. This sport used to be recession-proof. No longer.

I doubt any of this will come to mind when deciding what track should lose an event for a race at Kentucky or another at Vegas.

But hopefully with their newfound status, the citizen journalists will keep pushing the issue.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • OK, so NASCAR ordered Jeremy Mayfield to take a second drug test after Mayfield contested the results of the first one. And he failed it? That’s like OJ putting the gloves on without a problem.
  • After my prediction about Tony Stewart turned out to be about as wrong as possible, I’m not going to say anything about what will happen with Martin Truex Jr. driving the No. 56 for MWR. But I will wish Michael Waltrip well in retirement. No doubt he’ll be in a broadcast booth somewhere.
  • I also see that Kevin Harvick is unhappy at RCR. I’m only speculating, but it may have something to do with his Daytona 500-winning crew chief being sent over to Casey Mears’s team with little in the way of results. If he had an opportunity at Stewart-Haas, that would seem like the wise choice, even if it sure didn’t seem like it last season.
  • If Danica Patrick is just negotiating her contract as is often asserted, she sure is playing it to the hilt with her visit to the Stewart-Haas shop earlier this week. Unfortunately, while I think she’s a better driver than she is often given credit for, her ability won’t matter. If she decides to try NASCAR, she’ll have a ride and she’ll have it immediately. In times like these teams are going to take the sponsorship dollars and she will bring them.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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