Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Fixing Cautions, Bumpers & Races

ONE: The Double-Edged Sword of Debris Caution Wrongs

Tony Stewart certainly wasn’t the only person upset about losing Saturday night’s race (April 28), and for that matter having Saturday’s 300-mile race determined by a conveniently placed water bottle a stone’s throw from the finish.

Fellow Frontstretch writer Matt McLaughlin has been so kind as to remind the sanctioning body for as long as I’ve been on staff at this site that NASCAR fans aren’t stupid … they’re more than capable of figuring out when the officials in charge are manipulating a finish.

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This one was about as open-and-shut a case of manipulation as has been seen since the Mark Martin/Jimmie Johnson episode in the fall Atlanta race of 2004. While there wasn’t a dramatic storyline that NASCAR was determined to see written this time, the motivation was clear; after two straight weekends of mundane racing on intermediate ovals, there was no way fans weren’t going to see a late-lap battle at Richmond.

Even if, prior to the yellow flag for that dastardly water bottle, the “Action Track” had grossly failed to live up to Dale Jarrett’s promise for plenty of yellow flags made before the start of Friday’s NNS race.

Speaking of that NNS race, check it out. Only three caution flags, the race ended on a 70-plus lap green-flag run and the finish was everything a promoter could ask for; full of contact, decided by inches, something that would do SportsCenter highlight reels and still photos justice for years to come.

Just goes to show that this shouldn’t be a hard lesson to learn. This sport is too unpredictable to think that one can effectively guarantee a good finish. Stock car racing is not entertainment, it happens to be entertaining. It’s just less so when the folks running the show do everything in their power to over-regulate and over-officiate.

TWO: Yeah, That Really Just Happened

Speaking of those overzealous officials, how is it that with literally hundreds of uniformed officials, a scoring tower full of personnel and enough cameras stationed around the track to make a European urbanite feel at home, there is confusion over who is actually leading the race?

The scoring pylon says Carl Edwards is leading. The spotter for the No. 99 car was supposedly told by an official that Edwards was leading. Yet, Tony Stewart’s the one lining up in front in the preferred line coming to the green.

The sad thing is that given the uncertainty surrounding this restart situation, there will never be a conclusive way to figure out right and wrong. Did Edwards’s spotter really get told by an official a mere three seconds before the green flag waved that the No. 99 was the race leader?

Or did he just happen to take a gander at the scoring pylon when faced with a split-second question to answer for his driver? If the No. 99 team was confused as to where they were starting, if they thought they were the leader, why wouldn’t they have been raising holy hell about getting lane choice?

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Frankly, the evidence suggests to me that this error is on the No. 99 team for making a bad assumption and not the sanctioning body. NASCAR’s doing something wrong when it comes down to the driver’s word that his spotter said they were in front. There’s something to be said about conflict of interest regarding that story.

But then again, after thinking further, I can vividly imagine a NASCAR official telling spotter Jason Hedlesky that Cousin Carl was indeed out front because past experience has shown that NASCAR, having scores of officials covering every inch of a facility, has never been strong at communicating the story to them all.

Rewind back to Feb. 2011, the Truck race at Daytona where Michael Waltrip won with his failed rear spoiler. In a span of five minutes, Frontstretch spoke to two NASCAR officials regarding the way NASCAR was inspecting that spoiler and got two completely different accounts of how the inspection was being handled and why.

With any other sanctioning body, I’d think Edwards and crew flat messed up. Then again, this was a NASCAR race.

THREE: What’s in a Name?

A whole hell of a lot. Just ask Ryan Blaney, whose Nationwide Series debut Friday night received more air time than that of X Games athlete Travis Pastrana and became one of the most analyzed first races the Nationwide ranks has seen since Danica Patrick and Joey Logano. It’s not often one can say that about a team like Tommy Baldwin Racing fielding a new prospect.

That being said, take away the name Blaney … anybody out there think even that eighth-place run would have gotten the kind of attention that it did? Ryan’s got a tremendous amount of promise as he’s been a terror on late model circuits across the South, but he’s also a rather quiet 18-year-old and one of about 50 million late model racers out there trying to break into the big-time.

Hell, there was another 18-year-old with ARCA experience that made their debut on Friday night in Tanner Berryhill and he got scarcely a mention over a two-hour plus telecast. As for TV time? Forget about it.

Blaney’s a bad example to make a point with; his dad’s been an upstanding figure in the Cup garage for decades now and hey, wheeling an independent team car to a top 10 in the Nationwide Series these days is an accomplishment for any driver.

But there is a point to be made here. It’s not a level playing field for drivers trying to break through. With old guard and ownership in the booth, directing the play-by-play of NASCAR racing to the millions watching, there’s a tremendous amount of control exercised in the booth as to who makes it and who doesn’t.

Ryan Blaney? He’s a real talent. This kid’s gonna do his dad proud and be around for a while. But the amount of hype, coverage and kudos that were bestowed on him this Friday night make it abundantly clear there’s very powerful people rooting for him. That sucks for guys like Berryhill.

FOUR: The Implications of Bumper-Gate

The Nationwide Series Breakdown from this week went into plenty of detail of just how dramatic the repercussions of likely penalties against Richard Childress Racing and Turner Motorsports for modified bumpers will be come the end of 2012. But the penalties that all but certainly will be handed down on Tuesday … and the appeal that will undoubtedly follow … are going to send just as many shockwaves through the racing community.

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After all, just look at Jimmie Johnson’s C-post episode from Daytona. The penalty went all the way to the Supreme Court of Stock Car Racing, then was overturned, a major coup for NASCAR’s most powerful team in Hendrick Motorsports.

In terms of stature, Richard Childress Racing isn’t too far behind in that regard. And not only is Elliott Sadler’s championship campaign in serious danger as a result of the bumper episode, so is Austin Dillon’s. It’s personal, it’s family for RC and his team. Don’t for one second think that should the appeals process go up the food chain on this one that objectivity will be 100% able to overcome the influence and dues paid by Childress and RCR.

Problem is, should the appeal go all the way to the top only to get overturned again in this case, now the system looks toothless. Two powerful teams getting out of two major penalties isn’t an image the sanctioning body’s going to want a part of.

Buckle up folks, Bumpergate may prove more exciting than a race at Texas. Too soon?

FIVE: An Earnhardt Kind of Weekend

As discussed in point one, it is not possible, no matter how hard the sanctioning body tries, to fix a stock car race. There’s just too many moving pieces. But, when it comes to plate racing, they can certainly push an event in a particular direction. It’s been done before … anyone really think the No. 3 was going to lose when it returned to the track at Daytona a few years back?

Which begs the question … in a real doldrum for the sport that’s seen calm races, no on-track feuds and big-names such as Gordon, Earnhardt, Patrick and Pastrana all making little more than a whimper in terms of highlights, is it so hard to believe that the No. 7 on Saturday and the No. 88 on Sunday might get the mystical bigger plate?

Both will be factors in their respective races. And should they be up front late in the going, take a real good look at how well they can pass and how everyone acts around them. Draw your own conclusions from there.

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