Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Passing Out

In the sport of stock car racing it’s incredibly difficult to predict anything yet to happen accurately. It’s that “anything can happen” nature of the sport that makes it so appealing to a lot of us. Look no further than last Saturday’s Nationwide race (March 5) when it seemed Brad Keselowski had the win in the bag coming to the white flag only to blow a tire. Mark Martin looked absolutely stunned to have won the race.

But I have a forecast for this weekend and I will bet the rent money, my Harley, the screaming chicken Pontiac and my Jerry Garcia-autographed copy of American Beauty I am right. This weekend there will be exactly one less legitimate pass for the lead in the Cup Series than there was last week at the Las Vegas Cup race.

And here’s the problem, there is no Cup race this weekend!

That’s right. There was only one pass for the lead I consider legitimate at Las Vegas on Sunday. For those of you who missed my Sunday night column it occurred on lap 13 when Tony Stewart passed Jeff Gordon. Stewart had pitted for fresh tires while Gordon had stayed on track, virtually by himself, to gain track position after a substandard qualifying effort.

Naturally, Stewart made quick work of the No. 24 car moments after the restart. Some readers who commented on the column dismissed that pass as “competitive” due to the lopsided nature of the battle. But my definition of a “legitimate” pass remains the same. It’s when one driver in a faster car overtakes the car leading the race whether it be by hook or crook. Passes for the lead on the last lap are the best sort and the stuff of legends like the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s.

Of course the “official” statistic on passes for the lead is much higher than my count. NASCAR’s latest technique is to lull fans into a coma with a boring race then batter them over the head with meaningless statistics until they believe what they just saw was exciting. In any race where there are extended green-flag runs the leader is eventually forced to the pits to refuel handing the lead to another driver. That new leader in his turn must also pit eventually producing yet another new leader.

Eventually we’re usually left with one car and driver that still hasn’t pitted, some hapless sap well off the pace who stays out just to get the point for leading a lap. In other cases when a caution flies some drivers and teams play it conservative and go with four new tires while others may choose to go with two new tires or even fuel only. Or in Greg Biffle’s case a team might choose to add fuel to the car with a medicine dropper because they can’t figure out the new re-fueling rig.

Strategy is part and parcel of the stock car racing game and bully for the crew chief who figures out a way to get his driver from 12th to first in the pits, then has his gamble pay off with a caution 20 laps later that brings everyone to the pits cementing his driver’s track position. But that’s not what most fans are paying to see. Strategy is great in the game of chess but how many people watch chess tournaments?

It’s balls-to-the-wall passes for the lead that sell tickets in the NASCAR grandstands. Strategy will always have its place in our sport and the more you understand the sport the more you appreciate it, but to me a fuel-mileage race is like finding out you just won a Harley Davidson, only it’s a 1973 AMF-era 100 Baja enduro bike.

I’m not only a big boy, I’m an old guy. I know in racing this sort of thing happens time to time. I’ve seen races where there were no passes for the lead. I’m thinking Jeff Burton led every lap at New Hampshire in the fall of 2001 and Cale Yarborough once led every lap at Bristol in 1973. The most infamous case of a rout I can recall is the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington where Ned Jarrett won by a mere 14 laps.

Of course, that afternoon the big-name Mopar drivers were on the sidelines thanks to the Chrysler boycott of that season, and the factory Ford boys were having a field day until they blew up, or in the case of Yarborough, actually exited the racetrack into the parking lot at the wheel of an airborne Ford.

A lot of the young-uns who aren’t quite sure who Jarrett or Yarborough are (and think Cale had a brother named LeeRoy) like to throw that stat in my face. Yes, there were many races “back in the good old days” where only one or two drivers finished on the lead lap. That’s mostly because in that era the machinery was far less reliable and drivers actually ran wide open all day dicing for the lead until their mounts failed or they wrecked.

For those interested in the norms of that era watch a few episodes of Back in the Day. Looking at the final scorecard some of those races might seem to have been blowouts, but they were actually quite competitive events. If you look at the final rundown for the 1979 Daytona 500 there were only three cars on the lead lap when the race ended but we’re STILL talking about that race over three decades later.

So yeah, every year, this year and in every year the sport is still alive some stock car races are going to be real snoozers. What’s got me and other longtime fans I know upset is the ratio of classics to clinkers which seems to dwindle every year. After two memorable if not great races to start the 2011 season, Sunday’s alleged race stunk to high heavens.

More bothersome still is the fact the reason the race was no good was the same old “dreaded” aero push. (With the NMPA cracking down on writers who break their archaic rules I am now inserting the required “dreaded” before “aero push.” It makes me sound like I should be on TV, right?)

See also
MPM2Nite: NASCAR Media - Ethics or Pathetic?

Most of you know what an aero push is all about because you’ve been following the sport since back in the old days when there was a Cup champion besides Jimmie Johnson. Give me a minute here to talk to the kids. Go check the mailbox. Grab a brew. Take the dog outside and toss a tennis ball for him. We’ll be right back a few paragraphs from now. (Like Tom Petty once said on his CD, we’ll wait just a moment while those listening on LP flip to the other side.)

OK, campers. What is an aero push? All of you have seen a markedly faster car closing in on the car ahead of him suddenly seem to slow down when it gets within four or five lengths of the car ahead. You might have noticed Sunday that after the penultimate pit stop Stewart on two fresh tires was able to drive away from drivers who’d taken four fresh tires which would seem counterintuitive. Stewart had “clean” air on the front of his car.

Here’s what happens. When a car has “clean” (not broken up by another racecar… think of a wake behind a boat only with air not water) the front spoiler works as designed and provides down force on the nose of the car, which increases weight on the front tires, which in turn allows the car to turn at high speeds. But when the car ahead begins disturbing that air there’s less front downforce. With less weight on the front wheels, they don’t grip as well and the car pushes or plows depending on your favorite term.

It’s symptomatic of a race being hampered by the “dreaded” aero push that the leader is two or three seconds ahead of the second place who is in turn 3 or 4 seconds ahead of third place and by the time you get back to 10th place that driver is a half lap behind the leader. Everybody has clean air on their nose and their cars are handling well. When they go into the corners at 200 mph the car turns rather than plowing into the wall and reducing itself to scrap while threatening to break every bone in the driver’s body. Driver’s prefer this.

How can I illustrate the concept to those of you who tend to drive about 10 mph over the posted limit? Let’s do an experiment. Hop in your pickup. (You’re stock car racing fans so I just assume you have one. If you don’t or yours is a Toyota, shame on you.) Head out to the interstate and get her running about 70. Roll down a window. (Real pickups have window cranks. Sissies can use the power window button but be aware it will be harder to hear your Michael Bolton or Kenny G CD with the windows lowered).

Stick a hand out the window, above the rearview mirror fingertips forward. Hold your hand horizontal to the highway. Now dip your fingertips slightly downward. Feel how the wind tries to force your hand downward? Now stick your fingertips just behind the rearview mirror. Dip them downwards again with the mirror blocking most of the air stream. Feel how much less pressure there is forcing your hand downwards? Your hand, in this instance is the trailing car trying to pass the mirror which is the leader.

Aero push is a plague this sport has been fighting over a decade. It began when GM, so frustrated by the more aerodynamic Ford Thunderbirds, petitioned and got permission from NASCAR to run their “funny cars,” front-wheel-drive production car named as rear-wheel-drive racecars that bore little to no resemblance to their street counterparts.

Prior to this, GM had had to develop street versions of the Monte SS Aerocoupe and the Pontiac 2+2 to race the T-Birds and they were the second most ugly GM A-bodies ever produced. They were surpassed in hideousness only by the short-lived hatchbacks of the mid ’70s which were so brutally ugly, aesthetes threw rocks at them in parking lots.

Ford finally threw in the towel and began racing the Taurus funny cars. This, my friends, is when “stock car” racing ceased to exist. In the glory days of “the boxcar” era (when NASCAR race cars actually looked like their street counterparts which all had driveshafts) the last place a driver wanted to be on a superspeedway was leading into turn 1 on the white flag lap.

They’d actually hit the brakes to allow the second-place driver to pass them down the back straight. A driver wanted to be right on the leader’s tail exiting turn 4 at which point they’d use the “draft” or “slingshot” to pass their rival. (Again, see the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s. Sometimes it got ugly.)

Gordon has been the poster boy for the “dreaded” aero push. How many times have you seen the No. 24 car upfront seemingly on pace to lap the field while Darrell Waltrip recited love sonnets and was apparently spanking his monkey? But let that same driver-car combination fall back to fifth or sixth due to pit strategy or a slow stop and all of a sudden Gordon was dropping like a rock, his irritation evident in the rising inflection in each sentence he whined over the radio.

Much of Gordon’s success was from the days when the Rainbow Warriors always found a way to get him off pit road in the lead. Yes, Gordon snapped a 66-race winless drought at Phoenix, but keep in mind prior to that last win at Texas in the spring of 2009, Gordon hadn’t won since Charlotte in the fall of 2007. This from a guy who used to win races in bunches of three and four with such regularity it caused the ABG folks to grind their teeth to calcium powder.

OK, everybody back now?

Cool. Just ignore all the newbies with sprained left wrists. What is worrisome about the Las Vegas race is a great majority of races this season will be run on similar 1.5-mile tracks. Thus we’re likely to see a lot more of the “dreaded” aero push with multi-second gaps between cars and your having enough time to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich before the 10th-place car crosses the line after the finish of the race.

The new front ends of the Cup cars, while more aesthetically pleasing, is apparently not the solution to what ails stock car racing and produces cranky old guys like me. This problem has been bedeviling the sport for decades now and the solution is so simple it’s a wonder the powers that be still don’t get it.

Make the factories race the same body styles they build, cars available in rear-wheel-drive, V8 street versions. If your car isn’t as fast as the other makes, redesign the car and sell it to the public. And if you don’t make a V8 rear-wheel-drive performance street car, go the Hell back to Japan and build some more Priuses (Prii?) for eco-weenies, tree-huggers and Birkenstock wearers. Or race a Lexus.

I for one would be tremendously amused to watch a Lexus stock car use its auto-park function to enter its pit stall in reverse. C’mon people. If you can’t parallel park a car at two mph without electronic assistance what the hell are you doing running at 70 mph on the Interstate dodging semis? Have you at least signed an organ donor card? (And for God sakes, watch for motorcycles even if it means briefly putting down your cellphone.)

Yes, I am cracking wise in the paragraph above, but I am deadly serious about how the “dreaded” aero push is at the heart of the problem NASCAR has providing entertaining racing. NASCAR got off to a good start this year with two feel-good stories at Daytona and Phoenix. Then it was back to reality at Las Vegas. And I have my doubts about the rest of the season.

There’s an old joke about a man who dies and unfortunately finds himself condemned to Hell. He’s met by Satan and told, “You were pretty bad, but not awful. No fire and brimstone for you. You have three options behind these three doors. Let’s have a look.” So Satan opens the first door and inside the room there’s about 50 people standing on their heads on a rough concrete floor. The guy replies, “That’s not for me. I get sick to the stomach being upside down. What else do you have?”

So Satan opens the second door and there’s about 50 people standing on their heads but on a thick shag carpet. “No, that won’t work either.” The man says. “What’s behind door number three?”

So Satan opens the door and there’s about 500 people standing in manure up to their chests but eating doughnuts, drinking coffee and laughing. “Well I guess I’ll get used to the smell because this is better,” the fellow says. So Satan sends him into the third room. At which point the demon in charge calls out “Coffee break is over. Everybody back on their heads.”

About the author


Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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