Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: This Ain’t My 1st Rodeo, Cowgirl

So what is NASCAR to do? They got lambasted by their passionate fans after the races at Texas, Fontana and Kansas with folks saying those races were boring. As evidence they cited the lack of caution flags. Late in Saturday night’s race (April 28) on lap 388, NASCAR decided to throw a caution for debris, probably thinking it would help provide the fans with the exciting finish they were demanding.

So what was the debris in question?

Tony Stewart said it was a water bottle laying harmlessly outside the racing groove. NASCAR officials are now saying that it was a piece of sheetmetal in turn 3. Well that’s odd. How is it the guy leading the race never saw this potentially deadly metal chunk? You’d think he’d have had a pretty good view. Oddly enough, the TV cameras never showed whatever bit of debris it was that bought out the caution.

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As a tangent, I think it is incumbent on whatever network is airing a race to clearly show any bit of debris that warrants a caution and the track workers who remove it. They are there to tell the story of the race and Saturday night whatever bought out that caution changed the outcome of the race. That story never got told.

And as a secondary tangent from yer loyal non-linear thinking scribe, if drink containers are going to be sufficient reason for a caution NASCAR ought to fine any driver who tosses one out on the track. Remember the almost full bottle of Gatorade Juan Pablo Montoya hit at Kansas, though apparently it caused the No. 42 car no damage. Maybe the drivers could be forced to hang little recycling bags on their dashes as part of NASCAR’s green initiative.

As for a fan in the stands throwing anything on the track, in my mind not only should they be ejected, they should be arrested for risking a catastrophe, interference with a sporting event, or whatever local statute applies. Of course, I was once hit in the noggin by a thrown can of Budweiser at Dover that didn’t make it over the fence. It stung a good deal.

Earlier in the race on lap 310 they’d thrown another caution after Jeff Burton brushed the wall though the No. 31 car was moving under its own power towards the pits. That particular caution, probably unnecessary, came at an awkward time in the race, near the end of a cycle of green-flag pit stops.

Normally NASCAR will swallow the whistle on throwing a caution at such a point in the race, unless there is clearly an imminent danger as the awkwardly-timed flag will often reset the entire running order and trap some of the best cars laps down, particularly at a short track.

That caution flag left just four cars on the lead lap, though at least 15 cars were able to take advantage of the less-than-loved “wave-around rule” (the topic of another upcoming rant of mine) to get back on the lead lap.

With all the confusion as to who was supposed to line up where the disorder led to the Carl Edwards/Stewart restart fiasco which again probably altered the outcome of the race. It’s ironic perhaps that Stewart was the beneficiary of the one unnecessary caution and the victim of the next.

By and large the fans I’ve chatted with were either annoyed or enraged (in the case of No. 99 and No. 14 fans) by those two bogus cautions. Obviously I didn’t care for them either. In my eyes the one thing worse than a boring but fair race is a artificially manipulated race.

If NASCAR could adhere to some policy about when to throw a yellow flag consistently we could end this debate and the resultant furor, but then again consistency has never been one of NASCAR’s strengths.

Already some drivers, media members and officials are blasting fans basically asking, “What the Hell do you want? You said the races were boring but when we try to add a dash of excitement to the end of the race you’re still crying.”

At the root of the issue is NASCAR still doesn’t seem to get what it is I feel the majority of the fans want. I don’t think fans thought the races they labeled “boring” formed an opinion based on the lack of wrecks.

I am forced to admit, though I denied it for years, there are in fact some fans who go to or watch races to see wrecks but I know of no one who wants to see a driver hurt in one of those wrecks. As Humpy Wheeler once said, “people go to the circus to see the lion tamer stick his head in the lion’s mouth … not to see him get it bitten off.”

I think what fans are responding negatively towards isn’t too few wrecks, it’s too little side-by-side protracted bouts between drivers, neither of whom will yield position without a battle. (This “coop-atiton” Darrell Waltrip applauds is at the root of the problem.

It really frosts my flakes when a driver in the lead yields to a second place challenger without a fight because he’s afraid he’ll damage his fancy little play-pretty car.) They want to see drivers banging fenders occasionally. They want to see drivers occasionally give someone else a shot in the rear bumper to express their irritation or desire to pass another driver.

Occasional plumes of tire smoke and tire donuts left on doors define good hard racing even if both parties are able to drive on without a caution. Why is this concept so hard to grasp for NASCAR? If you review the last few laps of last Friday night’s Nationwide race, I think that’s the sort of action fans are looking for, close hard side-by-side, occasionally ill-mannered racing with both drivers able to finish the race and drive to the garage afterwards.

Kudos to Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin for putting on a show for the fans.

So where has the sort of action the fans lament gone? Fundamentally I think blame lies with the points system. When the race winning crew chief admits that they’re using the first 26 races of the year as a test session for the final 10 races, you can see the problem.

Edwards was candid in his pre-race remarks stating given his tenuous hold on a playoff berth he couldn’t afford to risk wrecking his car in tight quarters racing at Richmond and ruining his chances at a title run. (Though he did seem to get up on the wheel there for awhile there it was impossible not to note the delicacy with which he dealt with lapped traffic while leading.)

Other drivers aren’t as vocal about what’s going on but you can see they’re thinking along the same lines in the way they drive.

Other drivers place blame elsewhere for the lack of on-track action. Brad Keselowski says the current crop of cars have become so aero-sensitive it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to anyone else to make contact either inadvertently or with intent.

If that’s the case it follows that with the cars that are as aero-sensitive as these, the drivers don’t want to risk creasing a fender or bending up a door panel anyway, which helps lead to these processional parades masquerading as stock car races anyway.

So what is it the bigwigs in NASCAR think fans are looking for? Wrecks. Big grinding, fiery, destructive multi-car pileups preferably with a few cars overturned, in the catchfence and on fire.

How do I know this? Have you seen the ads trying to sell tickets to races or the ones FOX uses to promote their TV broadcasts lately? They look like outtakes from the old “And They Walked Away” wreck footage compilations. They don’t show hard, tight racing, brilliant passes for the lead or drivers making great saves. They just show wrecks, often wrecks that occurred at tracks other than the one trying to sell tickets with those ads.

I can only imagine that stick-and-ball sports fans seeing those ads are shaking their heads and thinking, “Those dumb rednecks are still out there trying to kill themselves? Who wins? The last guy with a running car?”

Oddly enough, when FOX tries to promote the baseball games they broadcast they don’t show commercials with batters getting hit in the head with a brushback ball and the resultant bench-clearing brawls.

Why? Apparently NASCAR and the networks still think stock car racing fans are stupid.

NASCAR has always had a paternalistic attitude towards its fans. We’re a bunch of dumb little Bubbas that probably wouldn’t be able to read a rulebook if they allowed us to see one. They know what’s good for us and we’ll accept what they’re serving up without question. If there’s something we’re not fond of we’re supposed to shyly approach them, eyes downcast and ask quietly before them like Oliver Twist asking Fagin, “Please, sir, could I have some more excitement?”

Oh, very well, here’s a late-race bogus debris caution! Are you happy now you bastards?

NASCAR underestimates the intelligence of their own fans at their own risk. A lot of us have been following the sport a long time.

When NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton tried to dismiss the No. 99 team’s complaints about the black flag on a restart as ridiculous as not even worth discussing he forgets some of us were around back when Rusty Wallace got black-flagged for the same infraction and was so vocal in his protests he was fined for what he said after the race and paid that fine in pennies.

Oh, and guess who his crew chief was at the time, and as I recall that fellow was pretty angry as well.

Most race fans I know are pretty sharp and they have long memories. I said after Matt Kenseth was allowed to pass leader Brad Keselowski coming to a restart at Bristol that the precedent set was going to cause controversy, and soon. Now that hen has come home to roost.

If NASCAR thinks that hardcore fans and I are going to fall for a few bogus late-race cautions and accept the outcome as an exciting finish, I’ve got news for them. I’ve been following this sport a while. This ain’t my first rodeo, Cowgirl.

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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