What Is NASCAR’s Respect Problem, & How Can It Be Fixed?

So it’s been a couple of days following the NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas, a very solid race that fell prey to terrible driving habits in the closing laps.

It was exciting, after years of road course racing with little strategy variance, to have that back. Both Tyler Reddick and William Byron had some standout racing for the lead throughout the day; it really seemed for a period of time that NASCAR had found its footing with the new low-downforce package after losing it at this discipline last year.

But then the cautions kept coming. And they didn’t stop coming. The drivers fed to the (lack of) rules and hit every restart running.

It didn’t make sense, and it didn’t look fun. Their brains got smart due to the win-or-nothing point system but their heads got dumb, slamming into each other every late restart going into turn 1.

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It was a very miserable experience watching the triple overtime finish with no onions. Reddick very clearly had the fastest car and had it won. It was just a matter of if he made a very rare mistake or, more likely, somebody behind him wrecked him.

Multiple drivers have complained about the driving standards shown during the race.

And no, it wasn’t just the guest drivers saying it. Plenty of regular drivers were complaining about the lack of steak in their dinner too.

The falling NASCAR driving standards have apparently become a big story in this early season. I’m really only around NASCAR for the big races and road courses now due to my other commitments at Frontstretch on the open-wheel side of things, but even I heard what Kyle Busch said at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week.

So it seems like it might have been time for NASCAR to address its drivers. Driver relationships with NASCAR hit an all-time low last year, but seemed to improve, however marginally, due to more meetings with executives. Surely, said executives will make a strong statement to try and fix these driving standards going forward.

Yeah, remember that time Dale Earnhardt Sr. decided to deliberately miss his braking zone to use Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott as brakes instead? You don’t? Me neither.

It’s such a terrible take to pretend the racing on Sunday was 100% OK when there really isn’t much difference from what Denny Hamlin did to Ross Chastain at Phoenix. And yet, they penalized Hamlin for it because he admitted to it.

If Ryan Preece decided to pay back one of those drivers this coming weekend at Richmond Raceway — some classic short track racin’ right there — is NASCAR going to penalize him for doing so? If the answer to that is “only if he admits to it,” it might be time to plan a hit on the NASCAR vault at Daytona Beach if that’s their standard of guilt.

We have multiple drivers now either directly or indirectly calling out the field every other week. The three main guest drivers were incredibly disappointed coming out of that race. Kimi Raikkonen, who by all accounts had a ball last year at Watkins Glen International and started this weekend off with glowing words about NASCAR racing, ended the weekend mocking it as bumper cars at the airport per Denny Hamlin’s podcast.

Is Raikkonen going to come back? Possibly. But I wouldn’t be so inclined to if I were him. Nor would other potential F1-to-NASCAR hopefuls.

Jenson Button came into the weekend super excited and even hinting at running an oval race at some point this or next year. He came out of this weekend saying that “40% of it kind of felt a bit silly, the amount that we were hitting each other.”

Imagine what’s going to happen when Daniel Ricciardo catches up with Button in May in Miami? What about when Sebastian Vettel phones his buddy Kimi to ask him how it went for him? Those are two very obvious hopefuls to come to NASCAR who are going to get a sour response about it now.

When Raikkonen came to Watkins Glen last year, he was asked before he stepped into the car for practice why he would do it, as a former F1 champion whose legacy and wallet are secure.

“I don’t see any risk,” Raikkonen said at the time. “Why not? What do I have to lose? That I‘ve done bad in a NASCAR race or bad in any race? I don’t care. I do it for myself.”

If these drivers are just here to have fun and compete, and they have to deal with this every single race they are here, suddenly there’s even less of a reason than Raikkonen gave.

And don’t pretend NASCAR doesn’t want to be respected on the world stage. Garage 56 is a huge embarkment for all interested parties and will be a big factor in NASCAR’s global popularity going forward.

No other major race series in the world acts like this. Not even NASCAR’s sister organization IMSA does.

Don’t pretend that statement is a positive. It has not always been like this. You can ask literally any driver who drove more than 15 years ago. NASCAR used to actually have standards with non-corner cutting penalties and — gasp — actually parking people for reckless driving.

Stock car racing has always been a full-contact sport, and it always will be. Half of the NASCAR garage can quote Days of Thunder line-by-line, but apparently none of the sanctioning body’s top brass have ever actually seen the movie.

Wow, look at Rowdy Burns in that clip rubbing into Cole Trickle because of his personal gripes and not, like, outright using him as a brake to advance position. Look at the fans unhappy at the rubbing crossing the line into out-and-out wrecking. What novel concepts there!

It’s easy enough to complain about a topic for a thousand words and end it with some witty statement. But no, there are two actual solutions to this issue that should be outlined here, with either way potentially working out.

The first and most obvious is to police driving. NASCAR’s continued reluctance to do anything regarding reckless driving is a really bad joke. It’s a really bad argument to claim that people complain about too many rules when there are so few and that NASCAR has fallen behind F1 when it comes to the under-50 demographic audience anyway.

F1, of course, is a severely policed racing series with serious penalties if a driver runs foul of an infraction. It’s also a series where teams are gobbling up potential NASCAR sponsors at an alarming rate.

At the absolute least, maybe there should be single-file restarts at COTA and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course? If we’re going with the individual-track-problem angle, that’s not going to be the end of NASCAR to implement. It would also be wise to do that at the Chicago street course, as that race is such a giant unknown right now.

The second would be to update the points system to make winning a little less powerful. Right now, there is no incentive for 20th not to divebomb and potentially go to 11th. If they spin out, they weren’t winning anyway, so who cares? Second place in regular-season points last year (Ryan Blaney) would have missed the playoffs had Kurt Busch not withdrawn.

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I’d increase the number of playoff points awarded to the top 10, while also specifying that the top 10 in points clinch in. We’ve gone from too much point racing under the old system to way too little — there has to be a better balance than what there is now.

There’s also an argument to be made that the higher percentage of points the rest of the field used to have from the winner should be improved. Under the old Bob Latford system, the position that scored half the points of the winner was 25th. That position, before stage points, is now 17th. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

Starting about 10 or 15 years ago to now, there has been a respect that any relevant international driver has given to NASCAR. Tough cars to keep on the road, basically no brakes, heavy cars with big engines. That respect, the respect I think a lot of drivers and teams in the sport are proud of, hopefully isn’t damaged from either the finish at COTA — or the organization’s response to the finish.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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Christopher

It’s a problem NASCAR itself created with its playoff system, green-white-checkers and unlimited tries for a GWC finish. There’s now an entire generation of drivers who have known nothing else.

KU

While I agree with your sentiment you go back to to Robin Pemberton saying “boys have at it”. The stages were to hopefully fix the “debris” caution.
The strongest point you made is how the points are awarded. I don’t like stage points and I would like points for those in the top ten awarded differently, with a clinch to the winner. The playoffs are dumb, but the old systems had their flaws too. F1 awards points for the fastest lap, why not go back to awarding points for leading at the halfway point instead, and get rid of stage point racing. The could keep the stages as a known “break” (but I’d rather not). You don’t need to break for commercials because commercials are happening all the time.
IMHO

jim

Drivers bring the money and the sponsors, and they are under pressure to perform early on or the next well financed driver is waiting in the wings. There is a small window to develop their talent.

John

Well written.

Dawg

I agree that the self-professed, best stock car drivers in the world could do better on Road Courses. But look back to the early days of their road racing. There was a hand full of drivers who actually knew how to do it. With the rest as Ken Schrader said, were just trying to keep on the pavement. Now most drivers have gotten pretty good at it, so now skill really doesn’t separate them.

Single file restarts might help, & I did like the new stage rule.

The thing that really surprises me is the ones who have elected themselves as spokesmen for reason, & respect. Hamlin, & Harvick, & Busch, come on! How much respect did they show when they inserted themselves into someone else’s victory celebration, or blasted someone for “lucking into their wins” when they had one win in a season, & lucked into it. It’s a little hard to forget Harvick intentionally wrecking Elliott to try to eliminate him from the playoffs. But failing to do a good enough job, & then wrecking himself trying to escape retaliation. Or when he needed to pass one more car to reach the final four & knowing that he didn’t have enough time to make a clean pass, just ramming Busch at full speed from behind taking both of them out.

All this just reminds me what they say about glass houses, or casting the first stone.

Kurt Smith

I respectfully disagree that NASCAR needs to police the drivers more. This is a problem of NASCAR’s making, not the drivers. If winning races didn’t take precedence above all else to a ridiculous degree, drivers would care about saving their equipment.

The first thing to fix the problem, and it’s a stupid simple fix, is to put walls in the first turn at road course events. Drivers won’t go six, seven, or eight wide into the first turn if they can’t. Problem solved.

The second fix, as you suggest, is to go back to rewarding consistency with the points system (even though those words always make NASCAR cringe and cover their ears and scream “LA LA LA LA LA”) and stop giving a disproportionate amount of importance on wins.

Yes, wins should be rewarding, but so should consistency…which is really a true measure of how good a driver and team are. When all that matters to win a championship is to win races, there’s no point in saving your car. If you tear up your equipment going for the win, oh well, no big loss in your standings.

Bill B

Yep 100% right. As long as getting one win during the year defines whether you are a success or a failure, this will continue. The half of the field that can’t contend for wins every week have no other option.

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