Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: NASCAR’s Short-Track Silence & Stubbornness

ONE: NASCAR’s Silence On Restarts Troubling

In one of those rare instances at Bristol where the FOX crew seemed fully on top of the race, instead of their on-air personalities or a select handful of drivers, a well-presented set of replays demonstrated that Matt Kenseth in fact beat leader Brad Keselowski to the restart line on at least one occasion while coming close to doing the same on another. The video made it crystal clear.

Yet there was no penalty that ever came down from NASCAR, although it never affected the end result (Keselowski held off Kenseth and won the race).

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This weekend, though, despite clear video evidence of an apparent rules violation, there was silence. One of two conclusions to be drawn here; either NASCAR was just being lazy and quiet, as Bristol isn’t their Floridian jewel facility or race (nor is it ISC property). Or, the sanctioning body took the hours that elapsed between the restart and post-race remarks to craft a rationalization for being asleep at the wheel, as they got caught red-handed for it.

Neither of those scenarios are what could be called desirable.What’s troubling is this fact: the video conclusively proved that the No. 17 car beat the leader to the line on a restart … and didn’t get penalized for it. The broadcasters did their best (and I do mean that) to explain it, and they couldn’t.

Yet until a solid piece of work by Yahoo’s Nick Bromberg got NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp on record stating that Kenseth was “off the hook” because Keselowski allegedly didn’t hit the gas in between the restart lines, race fans were left to scratch their heads.

For me, what’s most troubling of all is that 24 hours of confusion, even more than the explanation itself. It’s especially hurtful for NASCAR after the sanctioning body got off to a strong start during Speedweeks by putting officials in front of the fans (Mike Helton was timely both in discussing the rain delay and the jet dryer episode on broadcasts).

TWO: Enough Band-Aids On a Broken Leg

Despite a reconfigured implementation of timing lines on Bristol Motor Speedway’s unique pit road (it’s the only track where pitting under green or yellow alters the actual pit road the driver must come down), speeding penalties still proved to be an issue on Sunday afternoon, with the most notable infraction costing Dale Earnhardt Jr. a certain top-10 finish.

Sure, adding timing lines as NASCAR did prior to this weekend significantly cut down the distance between them (reportedly from 11 stall lengths to six). But the imprecision of the system remained. There was still the opportunity for drivers to pull the same tactic (albeit not as effectively) and do what Keselowski did a season ago, gunning the motor between lines and slowing suddenly to avoid speeding.

It also left plenty of room for imprecise calls (Earnhardt didn’t seem to be surprised he was busted for speeding, he was merely surprised that NASCAR didn’t bust him where he was going fastest).

This officiating inconsistency has been a standing issue ever since Juan Pablo Montoya’s troubles with pit-road speeding cost him a likely win at the Brickyard. Yet the problem remains. Let’s be clear, this confusion can and would be fixed with a strictly enforced pit-road speed limit (no cushions) and a publicly visible speedometer to track it.

But that’ll never happen. Why would a sanctioning body that’s proven time and time again willing to manipulate their events give up such a means of doing so? Or maybe keeping archaic systems alive is NASCAR’s misunderstood way of trying to stay connected with the past it spent the last decade trying to purge. Frankly, both are believable.

THREE: Complaints About Fan Involvement at Drivers’ Meeting Short-Sighted

Earnhardt and Kenseth were not complimentary in comments made to the Bristol Herald-Courier regarding fan access to the drivers’ meetings, a trend that’s emerging at a number of tracks (Las Vegas Motor Speedway provided extensive fan access during their race weekend, while Rockingham Speedway is promoting the same for their upcoming Truck race).

Both Junior and Kenseth have a valid point that these meetings are hardly for the drivers anymore; Daytona’s amounted to nothing more than a 30-minute introduction of celebrities and Fortune 500 CEOs that showed up.

That being said, it’s not a product of fans having access to the meetings, that’s a product of NASCAR catering way too much to the big names they’re hosting. In their current configuration, one can’t blame Kenseth or any driver for stating that no driver is going to ask a meaningful question about the race or officiating in that environment, because that’s not what the meeting is about.

So to me, the key to fixing the meeting is simple: trim the fat, leave the substance. In this day of smartphones, Twitter and instant media, what better place to pose tough questions to the sanctioning body than in a pre-race meeting, on the field of competition, in front of race fans that had to show enough interest in the first place to get in? It gets harder to ignore or sweep issues under the rug when more people are watching and listening.

So it turns out their criticism has value; it’s just misplaced. Fan access is honestly just the ticket needed to return relevance to the drivers’ meeting. It’s just that if NASCAR’s trying to provide access and make things cool, the worst thing they could do is list a bunch of suits from the exclusive underwater woven basket of their sport.

Call it a hunch, but fans would probably be more interested in hearing about the track, the officiating and the race, not listening to Mike Helton congratulate a CEO of a company they’ve never heard of. And that goes for drivers, too.

FOUR: The Dark Cloud Over Brad Keselowski’s Victory

Keselowski certainly gave a strong account of himself with his fifth career Cup win this weekend at Bristol. It didn’t take pit road tricks, strategy or a bump-and-run to bring the trophy home; Keselowski had a former Cup champion all over him for over 100 laps and flat out beat him.

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What, then, is the only problem for Penske Racing on a Sunday that saw the No. 2 look every bit the master of Bristol it has always been? Let’s just say Keselowski’s teammate in the No. 22 didn’t look like a master of anything. Despite starting on the front row and leading laps early, by race’s end AJ Allmendinger was again an also ran, finishing 17th after spending the better part of the afternoon wrestling with a mishandling car.

Actually, there are two problems here. One: 17th was the best result of the season for Penske’s second car. Two: the entire afternoon went backwards. There was no late charge, no sign of improvement, there was fall back, fall back and hover mid-pack.

Right now life is good for Keselowski and the No. 2, who are looking fully able to pick up where they left off after making the Chase a season ago. And for Allmendinger, there’s no better time than early in the season to struggle.

But for Keselowski and team, there’s got to be concern as to how much the No. 22 car seems to have regressed since losing driver Kurt Busch. Because the second the No. 2 sees the teams around them catch up or has a bad weekend coming off the truck, they’ve got the No. 22, and only the No. 22, from which to collect notes. A car that can’t do better than 17th isn’t exactly what they’re going to be looking for when that situation inevitably pops up.

FIVE: It’s a Shame About Bristol’s Attendance

SMI’s Bruton Smith blamed the weather (early morning rains doused the Bristol Motor Speedway, but fortunately cleared out to allow the race to start on time) for the lack of fans in the stands. Others have speculated dating back to last year that in tough economic times, one of the most expensive race trips on the circuit has fallen victim to such a reputation.

Plus, there’s still the 800-pound gorilla of fan discontent that Brian calls the “Chase.” Whatever the reason, the estimated crowd of 102,000 that was documented on the results sheet still seemed a bit generous, as the grandstands were sparsely filled everywhere around the .533-mile oval.

Sadly, for all those theories, most are pointing to the reconfigured Bristol track, with its multiple grooves and room to race, as being responsible for the loss of fan interest. It has changed the racing, it has reduced the carnage. And frankly, on Sunday it was all for the best. The closing 100 laps, mostly a hard-fought duel between Keselowski and Kenseth, were compelling to watch.

An early Big One removed some of the big guns from contention and opened the front of the field up. Then, there was that teammate squabble between Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt. In my view, despite the lack of cautions there was no shortage of action to enjoy Sunday, even if that didn’t translate into copious amounts of twisted metal.

Despite this reality, Bruton is now talking reconfiguration again, a move that would remove progressive banking and return Bristol to the one-groove wreckfest that it used to be. That’s not to be taken lightly; SMI isn’t going to stand by and watch its Coliseum play to half-crowds.

One can only hope that the reason for fan discontentment en masse at BMS isn’t a product of the multi-groove racing. That the alternative – a return to an ugly crash-fest with hundreds of caution laps would bring fans back – is nothing to applaud. Is that why fans wanted to come here, for the wrecks? It’s a bit disheartening.

So in the midst of all this criticism, let’s not forget something else … the Chase castrated the Bristol night race long before the reconfiguration. Could drivers’ conservatism be at play here more than any other issue that’s been brought up?

Bottom line, I have no problem with fan criticism; they can and should speak with their wallets. I just hope they’re doing it at Bristol for the right reasons.

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