Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Off-Week NASCAR Musings

It’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series off-week No. 2 for 2016, and while drivers and teams have a few days to regroup and recharge, it’s also a good time to take a look at the season so far and share a few thoughts that come to mind.

First and foremost, there will be those who disagree, but NASCAR is obviously committed to making the racing better for its fans.  Nope, it’s not perfect (news flash: it never was and never can be perfect), but it’s a huge step forward from a year ago, and the sanctioning body is still making changes to try and make the races more exciting.  It’s working.  There’s still work to do, but NASCAR seems willing to do it.

What I hope does not happen (and I hope most fans do not expect) is for NASCAR to try to make every race look like events at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, complete with the Big One.  Races don’t have to look like that to be exciting. Strategy and different drivers being able to compete up front are exciting.

Also, there’s a fine line between exciting and dangerous, one NASCAR flirted with a bit at Michigan International Speedway last weekend.  Yes, there need to be a few cautions during races, because it helps keep the field from getting strung out, and those cautions absolutely need to be authentic and not just for debris on the track, especially debris that fans at home or at the track cannot easily see.  Too many crashes or too many drivers involved in them, though, creates their own problems, including that the more crashes there are, the more likely it is that someone will be injured in one.

Besides that, there is such a thing as too much attrition from crashes.  If hordes of fans leave early because their guy is out of the race, it hurts the bottom line for the racetracks — and like it or not, the bottom line is important.  Sure, there are fans who watch for the crashes, but there are more who watch for the racing and to see their favorite drivers try to get a good finish. Too many crashes mar the experience.

So it’s not an easy task NASCAR faces as the sport moves forward. Throwing the kitchen sink at the cars is not an answer.  It could pose a major safety risk, and too many changes at once could prove overwhelming to teams, especially to those smaller teams who don’t have the budget, personnel or resources to make wholesale changes and hit the track in any kind of competitive mode.  Small changes, seeing what works (and admitting when something doesn’t), along with developing a better tire have worked so far this season.

Speaking of those smaller teams, they’re vital to the sport.  It’s human nature to be drawn to an underdog, and when one does well, it brings positive attention to the sport as a whole and to teams and sponsors.  It also gives fans a bigger pool of driver to pull for, and when a smaller team is competitive, it creates a great natural storyline.

Having teams competitive with each other throughout the field also creates better racing.  To that end, keeping the smaller teams competitive within their own peer group is even more imperative than just a feel-good story.  Racing battles don’t have to be for the lead to be compelling.  Good, hard racing is compelling no matter who’s involved, and while a battle for the lead is obviously what everyone wants to see, a dogfight deeper in the field is every bit as exciting and every bit as important to the drivers involved.

Speaking of good, hard racing, it’s a little hard to swallow when a driver calls out another for doing just that. There is a line that crosses into dirty, but racing hard for position and even making a mistake does not cross that line.  When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said earlier this week that he’s still angry with Chris Buescher for an incident at Pocono Raceway, for instance, it sounded a little silly.  Earnhardt said that he was trying to pass an already-loose AJ Allmendinger when Buescher took things three-wide.  Had Buescher been several laps down, then sure, Earnhardt’s complaint would be justified, but Buescher was on the lead lap, racing both Earnhardt and Allmendinger for position. Yes, he made a mistake, getting into Earnhardt, who slid up and collected Allmendinger, but Earnhardt’s comments implied that Buescher should not have been trying to pick up positions from him.

There is a world of difference between a rookie mistake (could Buescher have perhaps set up the move better?  Sure.  Find a driver who never makes a mistake.) and an intentional misdeed.  This was obviously the former.  It’s understandable that Earnhardt is frustrated as he’s had his struggles this season, but his comments seemed off base.

Just like hard, clean racing isn’t really something drivers should complain about other drivers doing, where did this idea that someone can win too much come from?  Really, winning isn’t a bad thing (And I’m talking about Cup drivers in the Cup Series here; Cup drivers in a lower series isn’t quite the same thing). It might be temporarily frustrating for fans of other drivers, but it won’t hurt the sport overall.  NASCAR survived Richard Petty and David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.  It will survive Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch and anyone who comes after them just the same, and when all is said and done, fans will (and should) look at their Hall of Fame accomplishments with reverence, not disdain.

The Cup drivers in the XFINITY and Truck series is another conversation for another day, but I will end with this: it would be truly fun to watch them go toe-to-toe with the regulars a few times a year in average equipment.  It’s not fun to watch them outclass the regulars on five times the budget some of those teams compete with.

And to bring this all full circle: watching racing, for race fans, is supposed to be fun.  Otherwise, there’s no point at all.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Amy, if you REALLY care about the “little guys,” you might try adding some realism to your definition of who they are. Here is a link to an article you may find enlightening.


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