1. Chase Elliott’s Got Problems, But Alan Gustafson Isn’t One
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer driving full-time, there is little doubt about what job in the garage is the hottest pressure cooker.
That would be the crew chief for the sport’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott. One of the best parts about NASCAR is the passion of its fans, but that passion underscores the fact that fan is short for fanatic, and when a driver has legions of fans, that driver not meeting a perceived expectation stokes emotions of wanting to grab flames, torches and pitchforks.
Alan Gustafson likely knew this would be the deal from day one with Elliott. Heck, he already had a good taste of it given that he was also crew chief for Jeff Gordon.
Win or lose, the crew chief is the face of anything that happens outside the control of the driver, and when things go wrong, the crew chief is the first one to get the blame. It may not be fair, but few things are fair… unless you go to the fair in the fall and eat delectable items like turkey legs and fried Snickers bars.
It’s easy to point to Gustafson as the reason for Elliott’s ills, especially after Sunday’s fuel-mileage mishap. But that decision had to come from somewhere. You can wager that it derived from deliberations and data, possibly by someone not even in the pit box at Watkins Glen International.
In truth, Elliott’s problems Sunday (Aug. 20) began before the race began with a 15th-place qualifying effort. Still, Elliott was not off the pace – he was still on track to finish in the top 10. Up to this point, Elliott has had a season where you have to chalk it up to ‘Maybe it’s just not our year.’ An injury away from the track and a one-race suspension clearly put Elliott behind in pursuit of a playoff spot. But remember, Elliott is now in a span of having won just once in the past year, and that win was at a restrictor-plate track.
Something is amiss with the No. 9 team. And that’s not something that letting go of one of the best crew chiefs in the garage will fix.
2. Drivers Still Are Not Getting NASCAR’s Message On Wrecking Competitors
As usual, the perception of what makes it ok or not for a driver to do something revolves around who is on the receiving end. No stronger case of that was recently shown than on Saturday when Sam Mayer blatantly wrecked Ty Gibbs for the win.
There is no way to gloss over it. The move by Mayer was not about muscling someone aside. It was all about shamelessly hooking Gibbs out of the way at one of the sport’s fastest road courses.
This is not the first time that a driver has taken this tactic recently. Bubba Wallace and Elliott are both among those to have gotten a one-week NASCAR-mandated vacation for deliberately wrecking a fellow competitor at high speeds.
The fact that we are again having this discussion highlights a bigger issue – NASCAR has not gotten driver’s attention with one-race suspensions. And many of these drivers are not exactly living paycheck to paycheck, so a monetary fine won’t resonate.
Mayer’s move on Saturday underscored the fact that drivers know there is a minimal consequence to deliberately wrecking another competitor. If NASCAR wants to be serious about this it needs to add some teeth to these suspensions and make them multiple race suspensions or hit with a huge points fine that won’t kick in until the playoffs.
3. It’s Time to Embrace Daytona’s Date on the Schedule
As I have said in this space before, my earliest memories of NASCAR centered around NASCAR’s July race weekend in Daytona. My first time at the track with cars on the track was at the World Center of Racing, and my first race was the 1996 Pepsi 400.
But times change. And as much of a challenge as it may be to accept change (it’s hard, I know), it’s high time to embrace the fact that racing on the final weekend of the regular season to set the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is a great thing.
Remember when The Chase for the Championship was set in Richmond Raceway? Yes, there were thrilling moments … and embarrassing ones like Spingate, but can you imagine how dull it would be now to decide a postseason spot with the current state of this car on the short tracks?
Contrast that with Daytona International Speedway, where anything can happen – ask Austin Dillon of a year ago about that.
Daytona in late August may be different than what was the status quo for many years, but so are other things – like running races under the lights.
It’s no green flag in the morning during the week of July 4 like it was for many years, but running this race has made Daytona’s secondary race a must-watch for what happens on the track, and that’s a great thing.
4. Are Back-to-Back Road Races Too Much?
For quite some time, there were two road races on the NASCAR calendar – Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway and before that there was Riverside International Raceway.
But with the addition of road courses, separating them became a challenge. You saw that very clearly recently with Watkins Glen being the week after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Minus the winner being a feel-good story at Indy with Michael McDowell compared to William Byron in upstate New York, there was little that jumped out about the past two weeks. There was little to really distinguish the two. It honestly felt like the schedule alignment of a few years ago when Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway ran both races within a window of less than two months.
Sure, this was partly forced by the race being on the Indianapolis road course, but with the regular season nearing a conclusion, the past two weeks have diluted a lot of the late-season drama.
5. Keep Stage Points, But Drop the Stage Breaks to One?
If you despise stage breaks, these past two weeks were for you.
While stage points were earned, there were no planned cautions to end each stage. As a result, two races in a row saw nearly the entire event run under green.
In principle, it seemed like a good idea, but it’s also hard to call a race where one or two drivers check out one that is exciting.
Minus ditching the stages as a whole (which I would not expect to happen any time soon), the only thing that NASCAR could do if it looks to drop stage breaks would be to find a happy medium. Why not still award stage points but have not two, but one stage break before the final stage?
By not having the first stage break, you put more pressure on the teams to have the setup dialed in early, and by having one stage break late, it sets the stage, no pun intended for the final run for the win, similar to the final segment of an All-Star Race.
About the author
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.