Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … In NASCAR, Timing Is Everything

Did You Notice? … Timing is everything these days? In the past two weeks, we’ve seen when officials throw the yellow flag make a difference. There was the debris caution at Sonoma, thrown at a point where Tony Stewart was able to catch a lucky break on track position. Then, there was the final lap in Friday night’s XFINITY race. If the caution gets called a few seconds earlier? It’s Justin Allgaier, not Aric Almirola who winds up in Victory Lane.

These types of controversies are not unique to NASCAR. You see them in the NFL when an official throws an errant penalty flag, say at the end of the game that gives one team another chance to win. Or in soccer, maybe it’s an offsides call that negates a goal which would have otherwise tied the game and sent it into overtime.

What makes it so difficult for NASCAR, especially in comparison with other sports is the sheer inability to create consistency over these calls.

Sonoma and Daytona, of course can be split into two different situations. What constitutes debris and when should NASCAR throw the yellow flag? Is it a hot dog wrapper? A spring rubber? Why does NASCAR not have specific cameras that can zoom in on reported debris and determine whether or not the track is safe? Does the caution have to be immediate upon discovery of the debris or can there be some type of waiting period to minimize the impact a caution would have on the race?

As for Daytona, the end of the race what constitutes when you throw the yellow flag for a wreck? Is it when a car is hitting the wall? When a car has come to a complete stop on the track? When there is obvious, identifiable debris put in the way of oncoming traffic from said crash? And are the rules different for the last lap? Should they be?

All these add up to unanswered questions even in the latest definition of the NASCAR rulebook. That’s a distinct difference from, say the NHL where you can be given a concrete example of what constitutes high sticking. And the more gray area there is, the more subjectivity lands in the hands of officials whose calls could overshadow the racing.

Look, I do think it’s impossible to 100 percent define the word debris and what constitutes a caution. About 1,000 different items could land on the racetrack; every wreck in racing is ever-so-slightly different. But I do think the sport could benefit from some additional definition than it has right now. Here’s an idea; if the Caution Clock is working so well for the Truck Series, could they institute it in Cup in the name of checking for debris? Or would waiting put too much of a compromise on driver safety? The whole point of calling it, after all is to immediately remove the risk so no one runs over debris, blows a tire and crashes.

Either way, the past two weeks shows the sport should be investigating how they make these decisions in the future.

Did You Notice? … Four drivers in Chase contention have yet to lead a single lap this season? As we head toward the halfway point of 2016, this quartet stands out as typically by now an opportunity, however small should have presented itself for drivers running well enough to contend for the Chase.

Could the format be to blame? Not really; the points are still important for drivers hoping to make the postseason through consistency (see: Ryan Newman). Those extra bonus points, even if you lead just one lap can add up when it counts over a 26-race regular season. No, I’d go with track position as the culprit, even during a season where new rules have made passing easier. Why stay out to earn an extra point, as a crew chief when you think you’ll lose 10 after it traps you back in traffic?

So Ryan Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. remain in this bizarre scenario where they could be labeled a “title contender” under the right circumstances without even leading a race. Blaney’s case is the most surprising; the rookie, driving for the single-car Wood Brothers team, was fifth at Kansas and already has six top-10 finishes. Kahne, whose struggles with Hendrick Motorsports have been well documented, hasn’t led a lap since Talladega in the fall of 2015. McMurray? His streak drags even longer. The last time the No. 1 car fought its way up front was at Richmond, the spring race in 2015 some 44 races ago.  Stenhouse, bringing up the rear has earned more top-5 finishes (four) than laps led (three) since the start of the 2014 season.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • NBC earned 5.7 million viewers for its 2016 Cup debut Saturday night. Compare that to FOX races where no Saturday night event this season collected more than 4.2 million. The Daytona race led to an impressive TV audience uptick, although it’s hard to compare the July event to any recent versions (the race has been plagued by weather problems in the past). I’d also consider it one of the most popular races each season; it was the “crown jewel” of TNT’s six-race package under the last contract. That said, considering the downward audience trend of FOX to close out their portion of 2016, seeing a jump in viewership right off the bat makes you wonder whether fans actually do prefer a particular network — and wait for said changeover before tuning in.
  • 15 races into 2016, here’s a look at the top 15 in owner points in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series. Richard Childress Racing has four cars inside the top 15, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing (three), Rick Hendrick/JR Motorsports (three), Chip Ganassi (two), Jack Roush (two) and Roger Penske (one). You know what’s not listed there? Any independent owner who’s not interconnected with Cup Series ties. Sieg Racing, a small family-owned operation is the best of the independent bunch at 16th in points. That’s how deep the roots are for Cup ownership inside the XFINITY Series and how difficult it’s going to be to undo the damage, convincing other prospective new owners they can be competitive down the line.
  • Chevrolet has earned pretty much every top manufacturer distinction it can win over the past decade. But one track where it hasn’t won? Kentucky. Second place is the best they’ve been able to do in five races with Kahne and McMurray sharing those honors. Keep in mind last year was the race where Joe Gibbs Racing really started inching ahead of the competition on intermediates. Will Saturday night be the race Chevy fights back against Toyota?

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Fox doesn’t listen or care that fans are tired of Darrell and Michael Waltrip. The guy’s in the booth for NBC are more professional can be funny but not silly or goofy like the Waltrips and Kenny Wallace.

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