“Curiouser and curiouser” as our old friend Alice might have said during her field trip down the rabbit hole. (And trust me, me and Alice spent a lot of time together during my hard partying years. Go ask Alice.) Even while the races themselves have become as tepid as clambakes at a Tupperware sales conventions outside of Salt Lake City, NASCAR and the presenting network would have you believe we’re in the most exciting era of stock car racing conceivable. What we’re seeing, nay enduring, is a fundamental disconnect between the “product” (the actual racing itself) and the marketing (the Chase).
Let’s look at the numbers. Joey Logano won the rain delayed 500-miler at Charlotte Sunday, leading 227 laps of 334. Had it not been for some contrarian pit strategy, the “race” might have been even more of a rout. The big news Sunday were various troubles that befell three of the title contenders anointed by the Chase (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and to a lesser degree “Pretty In Pink” Kyle Busch). Kenseth had led 72 laps prior to his misfortune. So if my math is correct, two drivers combined to lead 299 laps out of 334 laps. NBCSN tried hard there at the end to convince fans Kevin Harvick was closing in on the No. 22 and there were going to be fireworks once the two drivers who don’t much care for each other were battling for the top spot. Yet, anyone listening to Harvick’s post-race comments knew that Harvick had decided there was no real sense in forcing the issue. Had he chosen to go WFO and run down Logano, my guess is that Joey would have rolled over, played dead, and let him by. Given the troubles suffered by other Chasers, it would have been a wise thing to do, but it wouldn’t have been much fun to watch. Logano’s big reward for his win is an automatic bye into the next round of the Chase. Points wise, Logano now leads Harvick by six points, but it doesn’t matter who’s in second. It matters who’s in eighth.
Am I sensing a trend here? At Dover, Harvick led 355 of 400 laps. Nope, that one isn’t going to make the highlight reels unless you buy the Kool-Aid and think it was an exciting race because Harvick “had to” win to advance. That’s because after leading 216 of 300 laps at NHMS, Harvick ran out of gas. (Yeah, gas, not Sunoco race fuel. You’d only need to know what brand the gas was if drivers had a choice between more than one and one brand might give him or her a performance advantage.) So Kenseth took over the lead with two laps to go and, to a degree, that was an exciting or at least unexpected outcome, though of course it would have been a lot more fun to watch had Kenseth run down Harvick and wrested the lead from him mano-on-mano rather than passing the No. 4 car while it was coasting. Kenseth had led 352 of 400 laps at Richmond this fall, which wasn’t much fun to watch either. In fact going over my notes the last time a race was decided on the last lap was at Watkins Glen. Logano took the top spot after Harvick… errr… ran out of gas. But at least that one had the fans’ blood pumping a bit.
So measured in terms of actual battles for the lead NASCAR Cup racing is in a bit of a nadir, sort of a Bermuda Triangle of competition we’ve been enduring for the past several years. Where did it go? Once again the Chase has contributed to a strategy prevalent in the garage area where a top-10 finish is probably good enough and it certainly beats the consequences of a poor finish resulting from going down guns blazing. And therein lies the true nature of the Chase. It gives some folks (at least the ones employed by NASCAR and NBC) something to talk about when if we were forced to talk about the racing itself, the silence would be deafening.
Race-winner Logano was pretty forthright in his post-race comments. Noting that his “golden ticket” into the next round relieved the stress he’d felt about the upcoming Talladega race Logano said “We’ll get a lot of sleep here the next couple weeks.” Unfortunately its likely fans in the stands and watching at home will as well for the rest of the season while watching these sad sack races going out for Halloween as stock car races.
Yeah, but just wait until Talladega. NBC would have you believe that the Chase drivers are gobbling Prozac by the fistful going into the plate race that determines who makes it to the next round. I went back and checked. There were six cautions in last fall’s Talladega race. The most notable name among the six drivers who crashed out of the race was Tony Stewart, and he wasn’t Chase eligible. And which of the Chasers suffered the worst finish in that race? Earnhardt Jr. (31st), the one driver who doesn’t seem to be having nightmares about the event.
Absent the Chase, likely we’d be seeing a very different type of racing and it would be likely be exciting enough that fans could see it themselves without NASCAR and NBC having to tell them how exciting it was. Under the old points system, it would be down to a two-man race featuring (oddly enough) Harvick and Logano, with the Ford pilot having a 14-point advantage. Logano has four wins and 18 top-five finishes. Harvick has three wins and 20 top-five results, a mind-numbing 11 of them runner-up results. Based on those results, those are the two drivers who ought to be battling it out for the big brass at the end of the year. Two drivers who don’t much like each other, one in a Ford the other a Chevy, one from Roger Penske’s shop, the other competing for a satellite team of the polarizing HMS juggernaut. There’d be no need for hype, dizzying math calculations, or the like. Sunday’s race would have been the death knell for Brad Keselowski and Earnhardt (who’d be 105 and 108 points out), but then they said the same thing about Alan Kulwicki who left Dover in the fall of 1992 278 points behind leader Bill Elliott with six races to go. (As almost all of you know Kulwicki went on to win that Winston Cup title despite being fourth in the standings after that Dover race. And while the internet was in its infancy back then, had it been as widely available as it is now, I’d wager not one of ya’ll would be bitching about how boring NASCAR racing was in the fall of 1992.)
Perhaps this was preordained. I recall seeing a sign in New England years ago that read “New Antiques Made Daily.” If NASCAR was in the business of creating exciting races rather than manufacturing “new excitement” daily likely they’d have adopted the new lower downforce package after the successful test-races at Kentucky and Dover. But we’ll never know because it’s their bat and ball and NASCAR does what they like. But given the tepid nature of racing this season, I’d compare their current strategy to a fellow with a car that had a nasty knock from the lower end of the engine and a slipping transmission whoi decided to just wax and detail it up real nice to see if he could find a buyer. Fixing real problems is more labor intensive than trying to polish a turd.
There’s an old curse (widely misattributed to the Arabs) “May you live in interesting times.” On the face of it that might seem a blessing but think about it. May you always live in a mess of unforeseen circumstances, unpredictable outcomes, and unexpected problems. Yep this year’s Chase is certainly interesting.
Some other quick notes in parting:
You don’t have to follow the sport too closely to have figured out that the teams have found some competitive advantage to flaring out the rear quarterpanel on the right side of the car. The problem is it’s against the rules, so how do you get away with it? Well I find it interesting the last two race winners, both of whom stunk up the show, did such wild post-race burnouts they shredded their rear tires to the point they beat the rear quarterpanels on both cars to shreds. It’s hard to check to see if they were legal when a racecar is that beat up. Sort of like it’s tough to check to see if a racer had an oversize engine when he clutches it and blows it up crossing the start-finish line.
I’m on the fence about these post-race burnouts and donuts. Yeah, it was kind of cool at first, but it’s gotten old. There’s something to be said for driving the winning car to victory lane like you expected to be there all afternoon. But while the problem seems obvious, the last thing I want to see is NASCAR come up with a way to corral it. Remember back when winning drivers used to climb up on the roofs of their cars to celebrate? NASCAR decided that maybe those drivers were trying to sneak their cars through post-race tech but denting up the roof to circumvent a height-check after the race. Thus race fans were treated to the spectacle of two NASCAR officials holding a small “fence” over the window of the winner’s car to keep him from getting on the roof. It was ridiculous. In fact I think it was in the era of the “fence” and when NASCAR started fining drivers for knocking oversize props off the roof of their cars that we lost the sport.
So was there oil on the track after that now infamous restart or not? Earnhardt and Busch were adamant and notably pointed in saying there was. Keselowski had his car get out from underneath him but managed a glove save and a beauty, but then he does that a lot. NASCAR’s Richard Buck says that there wasn’t oil on the track. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to go with the opinions of drivers who went thundering into that curve at 180 mph over that of someone who is sitting nice, comfy and safe behind a desk discussing the issue wishing they’d turn up the AC a notch.
By coincidence, back in the early ’80s I was headed to work in Jersey down a stretch of Philly’s infamous “Sure-Kill” expressway that leads to the Walt Whitman Bridge. In a curve right by the projects, my Mustang got out from underneath me unexpectedly, and while I saved it, it took both lanes and the shoulder to do so and I still ended up 90 degrees to the direction of travel just waiting for an 18-wheeler to knock me to eternity. Accelerating away I could feel the rear tires spinning and in the rising sun I could see a sheen to the road surface despite the fact the temps were in the 60s. Diesel fuel spill, I deduced, and when I got to the tolls I told the toll-taker about the situation. He got on the radio and I heard a bridge cop respond he’d just driven through that section of roadway and there was no issue. So I drove on undaunted and fortunately undented. 10 minutes later I heard on the radio (anyone else remember “Shadow Traffic”?) they’d closed down that section of road because of a big wreck. Hey, I tried.
Another sign of the impending apocalypse? It was hard not to notice that three of four HMS cars finished outside the top 25 on Sunday with Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne claiming two of the bottom five spots. Kahne’s significant other was expecting their first child this weekend. Wrecking out of the race early made sure Kahne could make an appearance at the blessed event if he’d had to.
Yes, it’s pretty well known I’m not a big fan of Japanese cars, so perhaps my perceptions are colored. But I did notice that Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs seem to be the favorite rides of ISIS terrorists even before the news outlets picked up on the story last week. As such I cringe a little watching Toyota’s latest ads of their trucks running wild in the desert amidst numerous dirt bikes and quads. The riff they were going for was probably Mad Max, but I see that ad and the first thing I think it “Syria.”
Resolved: One thing worse than having to watch a boring race is having to wait 16 and a half hours to watch a boring race because of the rain. (Especially for those of you who don’t get NBCSN and had thought you’d see the race on NBC Saturday. Trust me, you didn’t miss much.)
There’s been no official announcement (in fact we’re still waiting to hear about new race procedures at Talladega in two weeks and to get the 2016 Cup schedule) but rumor has it the “franchising” system being hammered out between NASCAR and the RTA will involve teams who have at least attempted every race the last couple years buying “medallions” that will give them a guaranteed starting spot in all of next year’s races despite what the weather or their hapless drivers might do. I’ve heard that only 36 medallions will be issued and NASCAR might cut the size of the field for next year’s races. I need some time to ruminate over the idea but my first thought is the RTA is adopting that old much hated playground attitude “Criss-Cross, applesauce, nobody else can play with us….” Of course if the arrangement allows any one team owner to have more than two franchises I might be the one to take my shoe and beat them until they’re black and blue.
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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