Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Harvicking, Long, Hot Races and the Road Ahead

ONE: Harvicking is Real

It’s easy and completely justifiable to roll one’s eyes when FOX gets a little too into whatever their theme du jour is during a NASCAR Cup Series broadcast. This past Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the cringe in question was “Harvicking,” the idea that Kevin Harvick knows a line around the worn surface that no one else can run effectively.

(Never mind, for the time being, that “Harvicking” was already a thing with a much different connotation dating back to 2014, as Brad Keselowski will attest.)

The thing is, even if the whole idea was a little too cutesy for you, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t something to it. Harvick simply leads lap after lap every time the Cup Series hits Atlanta, and it doesn’t seem to matter what package is being used or what month the race is held. He’s now won two of the last three races there and “only” managed a fourth-place finish in the other. There’s probably not a stronger connotation between track and driver at the Cup Series level right now, and the rest of the garage has to be grateful that the championship race is not held at AMS.

So yes, it was grating to hear that particular term so many times on TV, but there’s a reason it’s a thing — and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

TWO: Do non-crown jewel Cup Series races need to be 500 miles?

This is a topic that seems to come up for debate on a semi-regular basis, but the question of whether some NASCAR races are simply too long has a different feel in 2020. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we’ve seen more alternatives, like the mid-week Charlotte race a few weeks ago, that feel better, even if the TV ratings didn’t necessarily scream “hey, this is something people are really enjoying.” It could also be that splitting the Atlanta race into three equal stages, each more than 100 laps long, caused some feelings of disbelief while watching. “Wait, they’ve gone more than 150 miles and it’s just the end of the first stage?!?”

At its top level, stock car racing should be a test of both speed and endurance, so finding a balance that tests drivers and teams on both criteria is critical. There’s also something to be said for the comfort in the length of some races, knowing that you can wander off for half an hour somewhere, potentially not miss all that much, and know you can return in time to see the finish.

Even if you support those ideas, though, it’s hard to think of a really great reason for tracks like Atlanta or Texas to be hosting 500-mile races except for historical inertia. Daytona and Talladega, fine. Darlington, of course, and Charlotte gets a special exemption for the Coca-Cola 600. But anywhere else could cut back to 400 miles and the sport would not only be just fine, it might even be better for it.

On a related note…

THREE: Shorter Races Would Also Help Prevent Drivers From Feeling the Heat

NASCAR fans never want to see anyone get hurt in crashes, yet there seems to be a bit of romanticism at times about how drivers put their bodies through hell to finish the longer races. There’s some sensationalism involved in reporting the temperature numbers too, perhaps a little insensitive at times to the fact that there’s a human being sitting in the car for several hours while it’s that hot.

This weekend reminded all of us that there’s nothing at all romantic about racers having to battle dehydration while behind the wheel. Nowhere was that more evident than in the case of Bubba Wallace, who appeared to pass out in mid-interview after Sunday’s race. Whether it was heat exhaustion or dehydration, the conditions took a toll on other drivers as well, including Ryan Newman and Josh Bilicki.

Technology is always finding new ways to help keep drivers cool, but there’s a reason the Atlanta race usually isn’t contested during June. It’s simply asking a ton of these athletes to compete under these conditions, and yet another reason to consider reducing the length of the longest races in all but a few special cases.

FOUR: Tyler Reddick Will (Probably) Be Rookie of the Year

Atlanta wasn’t too kind to any of the 2020 first-year Cup Series regulars, with none managing to crack the top 15. But while the season still has a long way to go and there could be a legitimate four-way battle (because John Hunter Nemechek is very much in this duel too, lest you forget) all the way to the end for top rookie honors, Tyler Reddick has separated himself a bit from the pack so far. Even with more DNFs than Christopher Bell or Cole Custer, he’s opened up a lead of nearly 50 points on both of them.

This is not meant as a slight to Daniel Hemric, who seems to have regained any confidence he lost last year with strong Xfinity Series runs, but making the switch to Reddick for this season immediately perked up the No. 8 RCR team. It took Hemric 10 races to finish better than 18th in 2019, while Reddick has already done so six times, including a stretch of four in a row. He also simply passes the eye test, running in the top 10 fairly often and pulling off some impressive moves in traffic.

If it’s possible to be underrated despite winning consecutive Xfinity Series championships, Reddick was exactly that when the season began. That won’t be the case if he comes out on top in this particular rookie class, something he is well on his way to doing.

FIVE: Now the Real Work Begins

NASCAR deserves credit for the way it handled the current climate of social protests against racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd before Sunday’s race in Atlanta. Everything, from Steve Phelps’ pre-race address to the teams — where he noted, “our sport must do better, our country must do better” — to the video put together by the drivers to the powerful image of a NASCAR official taking a knee during a moment of silence, struck the proper tone.

There was some internal debate among the Frontstretch staff on whether NASCAR would have taken the same actions with the stands full of people, knowing that some of them would feel the racetrack wasn’t the place to discuss these issues. Maybe it’s naive to think so, but yours truly believes it would have.

Fans or no fans, what happened this past weekend was the easy part. NASCAR’s role in providing a platform for meaningful discussion of racial injustices and taking action to help eliminate them is going to be a long-term deal. As athletes in other sports know, the drivers have powerful voices and can reach a lot of people, but it’s going to take a concerted effort from all involved with stock car racing to create the change that Sunday’s messages described.

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