Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: In NASCAR, Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

DARLINGTON, S.C. – NASCAR racing is an inherently dangerous sport with drivers pushing their cars to the limits of control and testing every part on the car — sometimes to the breaking point — for the entire distance of a race. While those drivers focus on running their cars that fast passing other drivers who are running near them in position, they should not have to worry about swerving around cars that are traveling so much slower than that they’re the equivalent of debris on the course.

NASCAR has long had an established practice of requiring drivers to maintain a minimum speed in order to stay on the course during an event. Generally speaking, the rule is applied to cars that have been damaged in accidents and come back out in an attempt to continue logging laps to hopefully pass other damaged cars and gain valuable points.

It is usually a rare occurrence for an undamaged racecar to be subject to the minimum-speed requirements, however NASCAR might need to begin taking a closer look at the minimums and start massaging them before someone has a race taken away by a back marker getting in the way in the heat of the moment.

Having attended two Truck Series races in the last month, I’ve witnessed the problem of slow moving trucks affecting the leaders first hand. It was also very evident during the television broadcast of the Nashville race. At ORP, there were three trucks that were clearly far slower than the majority of the field and their presence on the track forced other drivers to take evasive action on numerous occasions near the end of the race.

This caused a couple of the frontrunners to be unable to make passes because their line was being obscured by a truck that was traveling at a speed that would cause people in the fast lane to lose their cool.

During the Darlington race this past Saturday night (Aug. 14) the actions of a truck a multitude of laps down cost Timothy Peters the only legitimate shot he had at passing Todd Bodine for the lead at the end of the race.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2010 Too Tough to Tame 200 at Darlington

The post-race interviews at Darlington were highlighted by Peters, Bodine and Ron Hornaday commenting on the closing rate of their trucks on the lap-down machines and the precarious positions they found themselves thrust into as a result. Norm Benning was individually called out, particularly by Hornaday, for his continued occupation of the preferred racing line when the leaders of the race were approaching.

Hornaday said that there were going to be several drivers having a talk with Benning about his driving when being overtaken in the future. He also pointed out that he appreciates Benning and all of the effort he’s put into supporting the series over the years.

There is nothing wrong with drivers racing their hardest and trying to stay on the lead lap when the leaders of the race attempt to put them a lap down. It is even acceptable for them to do it to try and remain one lap down in order to stay in contention for the Lucky Dog award. Once a driver gets beyond two laps down, however, the time has come for the slower cars to yield to the lead-lap cars so they’re less likely to have a negative impact on the outcome of the race.

It is common courtesy, when a car is not competitive, for the driver to pull out of the way and let the leaders race. On a track like Darlington, where the groove is so narrow, that can be a difficult task and it is especially important for NASCAR to enforce the minimum speed.

The drivers are informed before the race of the minimum speed for an event and, if they drop below that speed for a period of time, are warned to pick up the pace or risk being black flagged. Unfortunately, in watching the races over the last month, either the minimum speed has not been enforced or it is simply too slow and needs to be revisited. In reviewing the penalty reports from every Truck race this season there was only one time — in the case of the No. 89 of Chris Lafferty at ORP — that the minimum-speed rule was applied. There have most definitely been more offenders than Lafferty this season.

Watching the Darlington race last weekend, Lance Fenton was so much slower than the lead-lap trucks that he barely exceeded the speed the pace truck attained during the pre-race ride along program. When you have a driver who is being lapped every 10 laps on a 1.33-mile track, that driver is either under the minimum or the minimum needs to be raised.

There were 37 laps of caution Saturday night, which means there were 110 laps of full-speed racing. Fenton ended the race 11 laps down in a car that was not involved in a wreck and did not spend any time in the pits or garage for work. That translates into being passed once every 10 laps, which is simply too slow — especially on a track that, at best, has enough of a racing line for two trucks to fit side-by-side.

This isn’t the first time this discussion has been broached. In researching this article, a Track Smack feature on NASCAR.com from March 24, 2004, had a discussion of the same activity which resulted in Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart being involved with a lapped car that cost them during the event.

With NASCAR having to work hard to put full fields on the track, it is understandable that some uncompetitive trucks and cars are going to take to the track. The competitors that are trying to complete the entire event are to be commended in this modern world of start-and-park entries, but they need to be able to post competitive laps on the track and avoid interfering with the legitimate race at the front of the pack.

If they aren’t able, it is only a matter of time before a leading car runs into a backmarker and loses a race it should win because the lapped car didn’t get out of the way. Maybe then NASCAR will look at increasing that minimum speed so that the actions of a few don’t have a negative impact on the event.

Writer’s note: A word of advice to Brian France: You’re always trying to compete with the National Football League. You might want to rethink that approach. The Hall of Fame game last weekend, the first preseason game of the year, where the starters play maybe a series each half, drew a 7.6 overnight rating.

The Daytona 500 this year, the biggest race of the year in NASCAR, drew a 7.7. When your premiere event is just squeaking by a totally meaningless game where the best players on the teams hardly compete, you don’t have a chance to swim in the same pond.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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