Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Bring Back Racing to the Yellow Flag

*ONE: Scoring Errors Call for Racing Back to Yellow*

Yes, the restart melee that ended up the conclusion of Sunday’s abbreviated Cup race at Pocono was the purest example of mayhem seen on TV since the latest Allstate commercial. That being said, with race cars that are chock full of transponders, TV cameras all over the damn place and officials whose sole job is to manage the ongoing race, NASCAR still managed to create controversy in resetting the running order. Jimmie Johnson triggered the entire wreck and all but spun his car out, yet he got to restart ahead of Greg Biffle, who accurately represented his situation as merely slowing to avoid a wreck. It took nearly a half-hour after the race was red-flagged before NASCAR reset positions 16-19 on the results sheet.

The running order…what is so complicated here? The issue is trying to set the field based on what scoring loops say, incident be damned. Like it or not, no two incidents are the same, circumstances require drivers to do different things, involved in the incident or not…and scoring loops intermittently positioned over a race track aren’t going to be in the right position every time.

Last week I called for getting rid of gray area by throwing the red lines to the wind and having the flagman handle race restarts. This week, here’s another gray area to get rid of…it’s time to race back to the yellow flag. Instead of having officials attempt to abstractly place cars in an order based on inconsistent appraisals of how they recover, how fast they keep moving in the face of an incident, just make it simple. Get back to the line.

Spare me the speeches, safety advocates. Nobody forces any driver to take the track. Just ask John Wes Townley.

*TWO: Speaking of Safety, There’s No Stopping Mother Nature*

It’s darkly ironic to be calling for a nearly decade-old safety initiative to go out the window 24 hours after NASCAR endured a terrible loss…the death of a race fan at the track. I’ve attended over 50 races in the last few years, and I’ve never been more thankful to have been in the press box than I was on Sunday when the second thunderstorm of the afternoon hit Pocono…the weather was thick enough to make the tail lights of traffic leaving the infield invisible to those of us looking down from the tower.

Having said that, it was quite predictable that there’d be people jumping down the throats of NASCAR and the Pocono Raceway on Monday morning, implying that both could have done more to avoid this tragedy. Twitter’s self-dubbed NASCAR weatherman, for example, “took to SB Nation”:http://www.sbnation.com/nascar/2012/8/6/3222550/nascar-lightning-pocono-weather-policy-2012 to describe how not every race fan could know that the storms coming were severe, that NASCAR needs to put uniform policies in place for dealing with weather based on the distance a storm is from a track, that they should have thrown the red flag sooner.

Thankfully, Pocono Mountain Regional Police Chief Harry Lewis delivered the statement that everybody needed to hear: “There are risks that people take to come to these events. You have to be accountable and responsible for your own well-being. We can only do so much to ensure your safety. You’ve got to be responsible enough to seek shelter yourself.”

Let’s be clear. These storms were definitely known to be coming…and everyone in the track, even those of us in the fish bowl that is the press box, saw the weather coming…and it didn’t take radar to know it was a big deal. And let’s be clear, every single race fan that enters the grandstands is taking a risk. Just like with any sporting event, voluntarily becoming one of a throng of 50,000+ people in a wide open space without shelter or any means to move quickly out of harm’s way is a strictly voluntary decision. Racing is the most dangerous spectator sport anyway, with the risk of flying debris and vehicular crashes hanging over every event. Like it or not, risk comes inherent with attending spectacles such as Sunday’s race.

But for argument’s sake, let’s consider Twitter’s weatherman and his plan. Let’s say that NASCAR threw the red flag at 4:12 when the severe storm warning was issued, and fans had 42 minutes to get out and get to their cars. There’s still thousands of people in tents, in trailers, in vehicles, sitting in a wide open field with one two lane road being the only way out. Would that have prevented an individual from being struck by lightning? Possibly. Would it have dramatically made a difference in terms of safety? Let’s see, 50,000 people, in cars and trailers, in a wide-open field, in the face of hail and high winds.

Face it, a storm hitting a crowd this large is always going to be dangerous. The race promoters and track officials cleared the stands quickly, they made information available through numerous means, and they responded almost immediately when disaster struck. All of us should be so lucky to be in that situation, should we be unfortunate enough to be in the stands when nature strikes.

Lastly, my sincerest condolences to the Zimmerman family for their loss. Race fanhood is a true family bond, and it hurts to lose a family member.

Where’s…the flat?

*THREE: Where’s the Flat (Tire)?*

Thinking back to one of the first races I ever covered, I penned a column in March of 2009 describing Jimmie Johnson’s victory at Martinsville in the spring race, one that saw him move the No. 11 car out of the way late to take home a grandfather clock…and how Johnson, for all the mettle he showed in using the chrome horn, refused to cop to it in post-race remarks. Johnson has over the years firmly convinced this writer that his talent behind the wheel is something rare and unique, but he’s done nothing to convince me that he plays the PR game as seriously as he does the racing game.

Having that said that, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that the No. 48 driver screamed flat tire after spinning his car out racing for the lead at the end of Sunday’s event, costing his team a sure top-5 and collecting fellow contenders Hamlin and Matt Kenseth in the process. Problem is, the video replays never showed a flat tire. Crew chief Chad Knaus certainly didn’t sound convinced there was a flat in post-wreck radio chatter. What’s the more likely scenario…a flat tire that nobody on the track or around the track visibly saw, or Jimmie Johnson making a rare mistake and trying to cover for it?

Johnson could hardly be blamed for doing so. The No. 48 was the class of the field for the second week in a row, and was within that one final corner of making a statement win that would have had the whole field on their heels. Instead, Johnson spun out, stumbling with a chance to throw a knockout blow.

In the same form as he was three years ago, refusing to cop to a perfectly executed and perfectly acceptable bump-and-run, this time the error that prevented the No. 48 from blasting was not the product of a mistake, but a cursed blown tire.

Hendrick drivers are as good as they come at driving. They’re even better at staying on message.

*FOUR: Truex is Back: Does it Matter?*

Martin Truex Jr. is fifth in points heading to Watkins Glen. Ever since a disappointing outing at Sonoma, the No. 56 team has climbed from ninth to fifth in the standings, showing the form they had displayed earlier in the season. There’s something to be said about peaking at the right time…especially for a team that’s riding consistency, not race wins, to their place on the charts.

Because when one takes a look at the season’s earlier results, they’ll notice sans Talladega, Truex and the No. 56 team finished no worse than 12th on any of the Chase tracks that have second dates later this season. His average finish across those venues: 9.75, and that’s with a bad Talladega race.

Here’s the rub though. The last (and only time) Truex made the Chase in 2007, his average finish in the first races on Chase circuits was also a top 10 finish. And that Chase saw Truex fade from sixth to 11th in the final standings, a non-factor in the big picture.

Until the No. 56 team wins again, there’s little reason to think 2012 won’t be 2007 all over again.

*FIVE: Parker Kligerman’s Head-Scratching Release*

Rumors about the longtime Penske development project having been fired from his ride at Brad Keselowski Racing for shopping around have been dismissed by the driver himself. Which begs the question…why did a driver in the top 10 in truck points who’s been a staple in the Penske camp since a near ARCA championship in 2009 suddenly get the heave-ho?

Dave Moody did well in pointing out that per Twitter, Kligerman had suggested even last week that his days in the No. 29 truck were numbered. Having said that, there’s questions abound. Why would Penske Racing make such a move in favor of Ryan Blaney, a driver that for all his promise hasn’t done anything that Kligerman hasn’t in his development career?

In this writer’s eye, the larger question comes not regarding the driver change, but the ownership direction. Years at Penske may make one forget this, but Brad Keselowski is the protégé of one Dale Earnhardt Jr. And take a look at JR Motorsports early history of driver changes…Mark McFarland lasted only half a season before he got yanked for Shane Huffman. Huffman didn’t last much longer, giving way to Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself, who then drove his cars and openly admitted that they weren’t as good as he thought they were. To this date, Keselowski remains the only driver to finish a season in a JR Motorsports machine and score a win doing it. Driver development has been surprisingly unsuccessful for a Hendrick-backed operation.

Is it possible that Keselowski is making the same mistake his mentor did early in his ownership days, yanking drivers as part of a misinformed idea of how good the equipment is? Don’t forget that the No. 29 Truck is the only factory-backed Dodge out there, it’s not a powerhouse manufacturer.

Unless something else breaks, this one doesn’t add up.

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