Tuesday, July 17, 2018

COMMENTARY: Stewart's Proposal Is Worth The Risk

Tony Stewart says his Eldora Speedway dirt track is ready, willing and able to host the NASCAR Xfinity Series, with the possibility of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series somewhere further down the road.

The Rossburg, Ohio oval hosts NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series tomorrow night, in the sixth annual renewal of the Eldora Dirt Derby, and the sport’s collective attention will be firmly focused on the Trucks; arguably for the only time all season. NASCAR Trucks on the Eldora dirt has become a “can’t miss” affair over the last six seasons, with race fans braving a short night of sleep in order to witness a unique, one-of-a-kind event that happens just once each season.

Stewart thinks he can work the same kind of major on the Xfinity and Monster Energy Tours.

"Maybe one of these days, we'll get an Xfinity or Cup race here," said Stewart on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint Tuesday. "We've proven we can run the vehicles here. And the Truck drivers that have never been here before can get around really well.

“If a Truck can get around here, a Cup or Xfinity car can do it too. Who knows? I never thought we would ever have a Camping World Truck Series (race), so maybe the dream will start to get Xfinity and Cup here, too."

Stewart encouraged fans to get behind the idea, saying, “"Start to think about putting pressure on NASCAR. I think we need to get an Xfinity race here. And if it were successful, maybe we could get a Cup race at Eldora.

“I think that's something everyone wants to see. So, I think we need to pressure NASCAR to get an Xfinity race here, as well."

Stewart wants Xfinity/Cup racing at Eldora
The idea is an interesting one for a sport desperately in need of new ideas, new events and a new way of doing things. There’s not much new in NASCAR Land these days, unless you count the weekly 8x10 sheet of rules adjustments; something that fans long ago announced their distaste for. In recent years, NASCAR’s idea of “shuffling the deck” has been to run the same old races in the same old places, with only minor changes in date.

Unfortunately, a trip to Great Aunt Enid’s house is as painful in August as it is in May. Same plastic-laminated sofa, same slobbery kiss on the cheek, same stultifyingly dull stories about wayward second-cousins you’ve never met, and never will.

It’s time to ditch Great Aunt Enid, head for the amusement park and strap into that new, gravity defying roller coaster.

Xfinity and Cup Series racing at Eldora – or any other short track, for that matter – could be just what the doctor ordered for a sport fighting to maintain the attention of its fan base. It’s different, it’s unique and it’s never been done before; something that absolutely cannot be said for any other event on the 2018 NASCAR calendar, with the exception of September’s debut of the new Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Much like its Truck Series counterpart, an NXS or MENCS race at Eldora would spotlight driver skill over technology, offering a much-needed break from the incessant aerodynamic, Optical Scanning Station and body-tolerance talk that dominates the sport today.

A .015-inch difference in the flare of a fender means virtually nothing at Eldora, and a trip to the wind tunnel is no more valuable than a trip the local Dairy Queen. Snuggle your right-rear tire up against the cushion, mash the gas and turn right to go left.

May the best man win.

There are at least three potential drawbacks standing in the way of NXS or MENCS racing at Eldora Speedway.

The first is a simple matter of financing. With a current seating capacity of just 20-25,000, Stewart will find it virtually impossible to turn a profit on a NASCAR premier series event. Even with the addition of substantial temporary seating, NASCAR will have the dramatically slash its sanction fee to make an Xfinity or Cup Series race work financially. Teams will likely also have to race for a reduced purse

Even if Stewart finds a way to double his track’s capacity, the Rossburg half-mile will struggle to accommodate a Cup-sized crowd.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“Sold out” NASCAR races are few and far between these days; a far cry from the time when tickets to the Bristol Night Race were fought over in Divorce Court and awarded to family members in wills. Having a date on the NASCAR calendar where demand dramatically outstrips supply and the term “get your tickets early” once again applies can only be good for the public’s perception of the sport.

If there are more race fans than seats for them to fill, so much the better.

Of additional concern is the impact of an NXS or MENCS race on the current Truck Series date. The Eldora Dirt Derby is unquestionably the most anticipated race on the NCWTS schedule. The Cup Series has premier events like the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600, while the Xfinity Tour takes center stage during its annual Dash 4 Cash Series.

The Truck troops have Eldora, and only Eldora.  

Expanding the track’s NASCAR schedule should only occur if it does not diminish the standing of the existing Truck Series event.

And finally, there is the question of where an Eldora Cup race would come from. With 36 point-counting events and two exhibitions already on the schedule, NASCAR currently has the second-longest season of any professional sport, trailing only golf. Adding a 39th race is virtually unthinkable, meaning that in order for Eldora to secure a spot on the MENCS calendar, some other track will have to relinquish theirs.

It’s difficult to imagine International Speedway Corporation, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Hulman & Co. (owners of Indianapolis Motor Speedway) or Pocono Raceway’s Mattioli Family handing over a multi-million dollar MENCS race date to Eldora, out of the goodness of their hearts. In order for Eldora to secure a spot on the Cup Series schedule, NASCAR will almost certainly have to take a race from another track, against its will.

That is something the sanctioning body has been unwilling to do in the past.

There is little question that NASCAR needs a serious dose of new, different and exciting. Racing at Eldora would be all three.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spoke for many today when he tweeted, “Hey @TonyStewart, this @XfinityRacing owner would love to have a race @EldoraSpeedway on the schedule. What say you @NASCAR? Let’s do this already!"

The Earnhardt Seal of Approval will almost certainly solidify the opinion of NASCAR fans, who have increasingly become fed up with the same old, same old,
Is the idea of NXS or MENCS racing at Eldora risky? You bet.
There is always a risk in trying something new. Maybe that new gravity defying roller coaster will have us all hurling up our lunch by the end of the day.
But hey, at least we tried.

Monday, July 16, 2018

COMMENTARY: Another Dominant Win For NASCAR's "Big Three"

In NASCAR these days, the rich just seem to get richer.
Martin Truex, Jr. won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in dominant fashion Saturday night, winning all three stages and leading 174 laps en route to his fourth victory of the 2018 campaign. By the numbers, the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is having a better 2018 season than he had a year ago. And yet, the Mayetta, NJ native is only third-best on the win list, behind five-time winners Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
Between them, Busch, Harvick and Truex have rode roughshod over the competition this season, gathering up 14 checkered flags in 19 starts. That’s a degree of dominance unprecedented since the heyday of Petty, Pearson and Yarborough in the 1970s, when less than a half-dozen teams won with any real regularity.
Lately, it has gotten to the point where organizations like Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing -- championship-caliber teams in any other campaign -- are resorting to desperate measures just to keep pace with NASCAR’s new, holy triumvirate.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Stewart Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch were the only drivers to cramp Truex’s style Saturday night, and they did so only by implementing contrarian race strategies; taking two-tires and remaining on-track for as long as possible in hope of catching a fluke caution flag and trapping Truex a lap down.
Truex: Four wins and counting.
Hope, they say, is a lousy business plan. But for anyone not named Busch, Harvick or Truex, hope is about all that’s left these days.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine any of NASCAR’s “Big Three” failing to advance to the championship finale at Homestead. For as dominant as they have been in the win column, Busch, Harvick and Truex hold comfortable margins in playoff points, as well. Behind Busch (30), Harvick (27) and Truex (25), the next-best driver in the playoff points category is Clint Bowyer, with 10. No other driver has more than seven playoff points, meaning that the “Big Three” can have one bad race in every three-race playoff round, and still advance.
Busch, Harvick and Truex have been particularly dominant on the sport’s bread-and-butter, 1.5-mile ovals this season, winning every single start at those intermediate venues. With fully half of the MENCS playoffs contested on 1.5-mile tracks -- including the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 – it’s tough to imagine anyone else crashing their championship party.
Granted, there’s still a long way to go. Seven weeks remain before the start of the MENCS playoffs; ample time for someone to catch fire and insert themselves into the championship discussion. Bowyer, Logano, Erik Jones have all visited Victory Lane at least once this season, and while Austin Dillon has plummeted in the standings since his season-opening Daytona 500 win, his ticket is punched for the playoffs.
There are at least a dozen others – Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney at the head of the list – who could crack Victory Lane before the playoffs begin. And with the memory of the 2011 season still fresh in our minds – when a winless Tony Stewart staggered haplessly into the playoffs, then reeled off five wins in the final 10 races en route to the championship – hope springs eternal.
But someone needs to start showing signs of life, almost immediately, if they hope to unseat Busch, Harvick and Truex from the championship table.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

COMMENTARY: Problems... And Solutions

It doesn’t take a microscope to see that NASCAR has some challenges to deal with these days.

In-person attendance is down across the board, with television ratings for the first half of the 2018 season plummeting 23% from last year; from 3.31 million viewers in 2017 to 2.54 million this season. Neither of these situations happened overnight. They are the result of a series of changes – both societal and within the sport – that have dramatically changed the face of the game.

The sport faces major problems that unfortunately will not be solved by minor corrections in course. And while it’s easy to identify those problems, solutions are tougher to come by.

NASCAR has made a number of rule changes in recent seasons, often bowing to pressure from drivers and team owners, at the expense of fans.

When asked for feedback on this year’s Monster Energy All-Star rules package, the sport’s marquee drivers were almost unanimously negative, saying it made the cars too slow and too easy to drive. Interestingly, drivers who routinely race in the middle and back of the pack had an entirely different take, hailing the new rules package for tightening competition, increasing passing and improving the racing.

NASCAR chose to listen to the frontrunners, waving off further use of the package in 2018, despite speaking glowingly of it just a few weeks earlier and promising to roll it out at least once more before season’s end.

In recent months, we have heard drivers – and in some cases, team owners– utter words to the effect of, “I don’t care about what’s best for the sport, I care about what’s best for me.” That is a dangerous precedent to set, in an era when driver feedback seems to guide the sport’s decision-making process more than ever before.

During his tenure, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. would happily listen to everyone with an opinion. He would then do what he thought was best for the sport and its fans.

Today, NASCAR listens to everybody, reacting (it seems) to those who speak the loudest, whether they are paying customers or not. Fans have long complained about a lack of competition on NASCAR’s 1.5 mile ovals. It is a longstanding problem that has plagued the sport for years. And yet, after discovering a promising potential remedy for those complaints at the All Star Race, NASCAR waved it off under pressure from its athletes.

NASCAR these days is like a restaurant, where the chef loves his lasagna recipe and refuses to make changes, despite frequent complaints and a dwindling customer base. If things continue unchanged, the chef will be alone in his kitchen, wondering where the diners went.

Two decades ago, drivers seldom competed at NASCAR’s highest level until they reached the age of 30. Today, however, drivers make it to the Truck and Xfinity ranks while still in their teens, with many advancing to the MENCS before they’re old enough to drink champagne in Victory Lane.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and William Byron are absolutely NASCAR’s stars of the future. But with a total of one win between them – Blaney’s victory for Wood Brothers Racing in 2017 at Pocono – they are not yet the stars of today.

Promoting up-and-coming stars at the expense of established veterans was a critical miscalculation by NASCAR. It alienated the older drivers – who spend considerably more time in front of the TV and radio microphones – and placed an undue burden on burgeoning drivers who currently lack the experience to win races and contend for championships.

Greatness is not awarded, it is earned. And NASCAR fans are too smart to buy into a group of drivers who are not yet running at the front of the pack, much less contending for titles. NASCAR needs to refocus its marketing and promotional effort on winners, not up-and-comers, allowing its next generation of stars to mature organically, without being burdened with unrealistic expectations.

There is also too much emphasis on parts and pieces these days, rather than on people. NASCAR becomes more techno-centric with every passing day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its fanbase couldn’t care less about self-adjusting panhard bars, computer-based inspection processes and the latest, high-dollar carbon fiber doohicky.

Far too often in recent seasons, Monday morning water cooler talk has centered on pre-race inspection failures and post-race penalties, rather than on racing. Wednesday has supplanted Sunday as the most important day of the NASCAR week, and our sport is worse for it.

Nobody tunes-in to watch technical inspections, and nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire. It’s high time for NASCAR to take the focus off the parts and pieces, and put it back on people. There are some amazingly talented athletes playing the game these days, and some captivating personalities, as well.

They deserve our attention.

While we’re at it, let’s stop talking about how safe stock car racing has become. Nobody wants to see the Flying Wallendas fall to their deaths from the high wire, but the knowledge that it could happen is what draws crowds and sells tickets. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze isn’t so daring when he works with a net, and right now, NASCAR spends entirely too much time talking about the net. 
And finally, it’s time for NASCAR to dramatically re-shuffle the cards and revamp its Monster Energy, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series schedules. With the exception of the Eldora Truck race, most fans cannot remember the last time a new track was added to the agenda. And after a decade or more spent circulating through the same venues – year after year after year – stagnation has begun to set in. 
The fans have spoken. They want fewer “rubber stamp” 1.5-mile ovals, and more short tracks. More road courses. More new, more exciting. Moving old races to new dates is not nearly enough to create a much-needed dose of excitement. 
In order to give the paying customers what they want, it’s time for NASCAR to interject a three or four-race series of short track events into its MENCS schedule, returning legendary venues like Hickory, Nashville or Oxford Plains to the competitive calendar for the first time in decades. First-time venues like Myrtle Beach or Berlin would further sweeten the competitive pot.
Imagine the fun of watching Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and company slug it out on a third-mile short track. Then imagine how just a handful of races like that could re-energize our sport.
Those races cannot happen without some major concessions by both NASCAR and its teams. In order to make Cup Series racing a reality at short tracks with limited seating, NASCAR must dramatically cut its sanction fee, eschewing profit – just a few times per season – in favor of excitement, drama and a dose of something new. Race teams must agree to race for a downsized purse – again, just a few times per season – choosing to do what’s best for the sport, instead of what’s best for their own bottom line.
All of these changes are needed, and all of them are doable, if the will to change is there. We have arguably already waited too long.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Jason Leffler: Not Forgotten

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for "LefTurn" remains one of the most-read articles in the history of GodfatherMotorsports.com, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody

Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember --once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports -- bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will -- happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.
Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

COMMENTARY: Keselowski Calls Out NASCAR On High-Downforce Package

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell confirmed last week that the sanctioning body will utilize its so-called ”All Star” rules package at least one more time this season, and perhaps as many as three.

Brad Keselowski is not a fan.

The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion said Friday at Michigan International Speedway that while the engine and aerodynamic package worked well in last month’s Monster Energy All Star Race, a regular diet would “have a severe long-term negative effect.

“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All-Star Race,’’ said Keselowski said. “A lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers. If you put a package like this out there… on a consistent basis, the best drivers in the world would no longer go to NASCAR. They’ll pick a different sport.

“That won’t happen overnight,” he predicted. “That will happen over time. I think that would be a tragedy to this sport because the best race car drivers want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance. There’s no doubt that you make less of a difference in that configuration.”

Keselowski said NASCAR should “make sure that the best drivers are able to showcase their talent,” adding “I think of three things that I like to see at a race; fast cars… the best race car drivers and… a great finish. I think that (ASR) package achieved one of those three and hurt the other two. In that sense, I consider it a net loss overall.’’

NASCAR’s All-Star package utilized a larger rear spoiler and front splitter, along with a restrictor plate to lower speeds, increase drag and bunch cars closer together. The race was a hit with fans, but the Team Penske driver said he fears the attraction will fade over time.

Keselowski: All-Star package was
" a net loss overall.’’
I saw the videos of people in Charlotte standing on their feet,’’ he said. “Part of that is the legacy that the sport has to have the best drivers. But I think over time, that would deteriorate. We have seen that with IndyCar. A decade ago, if you wanted to see the best racing in the world, it was in IndyCar. They ran three- and four-wide and put on great shows, but long-term it didn’t translate to the fans or better ratings than NASCAR.

“We have to tread very lightly with the next steps of this sport,” said Keselowski. “I like the idea of picking one or two races and running that package. I think that makes sense. But if we overdose on that particular format of racing, it will have -- in my opinion -- a severe, long-term negative effect.’’

Keselowski said he believes NASCAR’s current rules package rewards driver skill, while racing with a restrictor plate equates to a random lottery.

“First through fourth (place) has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent (and) skill,” he said. “From there on back, it is a random bingo ball. The top four or five generally dictate their finish and the rest do not.

Keselowski’s comments triggered a maelstrom of debate, both on social media and within the NASCAR garage. Some observers accused him of forgetting his roots, pointing out that his first career MENCS win came with team owner James Finch in 2009 at Talladega. At the time, Keselowski was a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver with only two wins to his credit, while Finch was winless in approximately 200 Cup Series starts.

Keselowski was an upset winner
at Talladega in 2009.
At the time, Keselowski expressed no misgivings about an engine and aerodynamic package that leveled the playing field and allowed dark horse teams to compete for the win. Today, however, with a top-notch position at Team Penske, the Michigan native seems less interested in spreading the wealth.

That’s human nature, and understandable to a degree. And Keselowski’s comments were supported by NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin and former series champion Bobby Labonte. Given choice between doing what is best for the drivers and doing what is best for the sport, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Single-file racing at 200 mph is appealing to drivers, who cherish speed above all else. Fans, however, don’t seem interested in watching a high-speed, single-file parade. They’ve seen their fill of it on NASCAR’s 1.5-mile ovals in recent years, and have largely opted out, preferring side-by-side racing, two and three-wide, with frequent lead changes and action throughout the pack.

The paying customers have spoken clearly about what they want.

Keselowski is correct when he says that elite drivers come to NASCAR to display their talent. But there’s another powerful reason why the top short track, Open Wheel and sports car drivers in the country come to NASCAR.

They do it because that’s where you cash those big Sunday paychecks. Paychecks that purchase lavish homes, private jets and million-dollar motorhomes.

Let’s assume – for the sake of discussion – that an elite NASCAR driver becomes unhappy with a rules package that tightens the field and produces more race winners. He expresses that unhappiness by announcing that he will defect to another form of motorsports.

Where will he go? To Indy Car, where there are only a handful of winning teams? To IMSA, where the top drivers race for a small percentage of a midfield MENCS driver’s salary? Perhaps he will choose that path. But when he does, he’ll be leaving most of this toys behind.

Keselowski’s take is understandable. If I was one of the five or 10 elite drivers in our sport, I’d also be fighting to hang onto what I have.

But in an era of flagging attendance and plummeting TV ratings, a new debate seems to be developing over what is best for NASCAR’s elite drivers, versus what is best for its fans.

Friday, May 18, 2018

COMMENTARY: Race Teams Need To Do Their Part

There is a power struggle underway in the NASCAR garage.

It’s a conflict as old as the hills, beginning when Glenn Dunaway won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race on June 19, 1949, only to have a post-race inspection reveal illegally modified springs beneath his winning car, handing the victory to Jim Roper.

Since then, NASCAR’s post-race inspection process has evolved exponentially, from tape measures, plumb-bobs and eyeball assessment to lasers and computer-aided scanning devices. What hasn’t changed is the ongoing tug-of-war between the sanctioning body – pledged to uphold its rules to the expressed letter of the law—and the competitors, for whom the slightest advantage often means the difference between victory and defeat.

In recent years, the clash between racer and sanctioning body has become more heated – or at least more visible – to the point where midweek penalty announcements from NASCAR’s North Carolina-based Research and Development Center often generate more headlines and water cooler talk than the competition on the race track.

That has got to change, and that change requires nothing less than a fundamental change in the functional dynamics of the sport.

Templates are a thing of the past.
In short, NASCAR and its teams need to declare a ceasefire in their decades-long game of “us against them” in favor of actually working together – for the first time in history – to save the sport from itself.

Fans say they are ready for that change. In previous seasons, a majority of NASCAR Nation sided with the teams when post-race penalties come into play, accusing the sanctioning body of being over-officious, nitpicky and far too interested in hogging the spotlight. Nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire, after all, and there have been times when NASCAR has lost sight of that fact, in its zeal to police the sport, right down to the letter.

In recent weeks, however, fans seem to have lost patience with the weekly slate of rubber-stamp violations, blaming teams for “pushing the envelope” too far in the same exact areas, over and over again. The teams have done little to combat that perception, often adding to their own credibility gap.

In the opening eight weeks of the 2018 MENCS campaign, a handful of elite teams complained long and loud about the sport’s new spec air gun program, citing “inconsistencies” in performance, up to and including outright failures. Only after weeks of bashing the sanctioning body for an alleged lack of due diligence was it revealed that some teams had ignored manufacturer recommendations by utilizing helium gas instead of nitrogen, over-revving the units and compounding the likelihood of failure.

“Pushing the envelope” seems lately to have morphed into a willful, weekly defiance of the rules, with teams manipulating their cars in ways that Glen Dunaway and Jim Roper could never have imagined. Flexible braces allow rear windows to deform at speed, channeling air to the rear spoiler in a way that adds downforce and improves performance. Illegal suspension tweaks allow rear ends to shift under load, creating on-track “yaw,” increasing side force and adding additional speed.

Teams say they don’t intentionally break the rules. And with the margin between winning and losing now measured in 100,000ths of an inch, crew chiefs understandably feel pressured to push the competitive limits, leaving themselves with little or no margin for error.

An insistence on “playing in the gray area” leaves teams constantly teetering on the window ledge of disaster, and sets the stage for the now-weekly penalty debacles. Each week, NASCAR assesses penalties for the same tired violations. And each week, the garage shrugs off those penalties and re-offends. It’s “Groundhog Day” at 190 mph, and the end result is a North American sporting public that sees NASCAR as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares.

For the record, there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in the NASCAR garage.

Every man and woman inside that fence – crewmembers, team owners, drivers, officials and sponsors – loves the sport of stock car racing. None of them would intentionally do anything to damage the credibility of the game. But in an era where every position in the finishing order generates millions of dollars in revenue, “What’s best for my team” has gradually supplanted “What’s best for the sport” as the Number One priority.

It’s no secret that ticket sales are plummeting and television ratings are at a 20-year low. While those issues are not unique to our sport -- traditional “stick and ball” sports are also struggling -- NASCAR cannot afford to whistle past the graveyard any longer.

Our ship is taking on water, and it’s time for the teams that populate the NASCAR garage to break out the bailing buckets and take their role as the sport’s most visible spokespersons more seriously.

The attitude among some in the garage that “We don’t care if we kill the sport, as long as we win the race” must change, and soon. The damage done by a seemingly endless spate of 2018 tech line violations is real, and it threatens the very future of the game. Each midweek penalty announcement and Friday afternoon inspection fiasco leaves an ugly black mark on this sport; a sport that has been attempting to erase black marks dating all the way back to its moonshiner roots.

Identifying the problem is easy. Solutions are tougher to come by. NASCAR can continue to escalate the severity of its penalties, and pledged this week to do so. But there is another group of individuals within the garage who have the ability to bring these embarrassing rules fiascos to a screeching halt. 

Since its creation in July of 2014, the Race Team Alliance has worked quietly to improve the lot of teams competing on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. While the organization’s membership roles have never been publicly disclosed, current members are believed to include founding members Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart Haas Racing, and Team Penske, along with more-recent additions Leavine Family Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Premium Motorsports.

The owners of those teams are quite literally the movers and shakers in our sport, wielding tremendous influence with the sanctioning body, sponsors and broadcast partners alike. Unfortunately, they have chosen to operate like Sean Connery and his cohorts in the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” working in the shadows while effectively denying their own existence.

That’s not good enough anymore.  

The men who make up the RTA have set NASCAR’s competitive bar for decades. They win most of the races, virtually all of the championships and have the influence and power necessary to end these weekly inspection imbroglios by lunchtime tomorrow.

If Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and their competitive brethren choose to, they can send an immediate, ironclad and indisputable message to their teams and the rest of the garage, as well, pulling them back from the brink for the first time in decades to a mutually agreeable place within the confines of NASCAR’s 2018 rulebook.

It is time for the RTA to step out of the shadows and take its fair share of responsibility for the stewardship of this sport. The organization must make meaningful public, concrete statements – arguably for the first time in its history – about how this sport is going to operate, going forward.

It is no longer good enough to leave all the problem-solving to NASCAR. The teams helped create this mess, and the teams must help clean it up.

Monday, May 14, 2018

COMMENTARY: Time For NASCAR To Toughen Up On Pre- And Post-Race Inspections

It’s time for NASCAR to sharpen its teeth.

In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s most recent slate of post-race penalties, it has become patently clear that the sanctioning body is failing to communicate effectively with its teams by issuing punishments that both penalize the guilty party and discourage others from committing similar violations in the future.

Following the race two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway, three of the Top-5 finishing machines were discovered to be outside NASCAR’s technical guidelines.

Clint Bowyer’s second-place finishing Ford received an L1 penalty for a rear window support that failed to keep the window rigid at all times. That penalty has become commonplace this season, and Bowyer’s Mike Bugarewicz-led team received the standard penalty of a $50,000 fine for the crew chief, a two-race suspension for car chief Jerry Cook and the loss of 20 driver and owner points.

Third-place Daniel Suarez was also busted for wonky rear window supports and received an identical sanction, with crew chief Scott Graves fined $50,000, car chief Todd Brewer suspended for two races and the team losing 20 driver and owner points.

Fifth-place finisher Kurt Busch received a post-race L1 penalty for a loose lug nut (crew chief Billy Scott fined $10,000) and Austin Dillon – the 26th-place finisher at Dover – received a pre-race L1 penalty for a front splitter violation. Crew chief Justin Alexander was fined $25,000 and car chief Greg Ebert was suspended for one race.

One would suspect that penalties of that magnitude would instantaneously capture the attention of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

One would be incorrect.

This past weekend – just days after Wednesday’s announcement – a significant portion of the field failed to clear pre-qualifying inspection at Kansas Speedway. Six different drivers – Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Michael McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto and Timmy Hill – never made it to the qualifying grid, despite the fact that NASCAR delayed the start of time trials by nearly 15 minutes to accommodate repeated inspection failures by those six teams, and others. Three additional drivers -- Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray – made single laps in the opening round of qualifying after repeated inspection failures, then opted out of Round Two, saying they were “uncomfortable” with their cars. At least one of those drivers later admitted that the prospect of starting Saturday night’s race on virtually new tires also played a role in his team’s decision to withdraw.

NASCAR’s response to this continued malfeasance was to hand out the exact same penalties they have assessed multiple times in the past, apparently hoping for a different result.

Last week’s Wonky Window penalties had absolutely no impact on the NASCAR Garage. If you doubt that, just wait until Wednesday, when NASCAR hands down penalties to Kyle Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing team for a set of carbon-copy window supports that failed to do their required jobs Saturday night, just as Bowyer’s and Suarez’s failed to do at Dover. Just as Kevin Harvick did at Las Vegas and just as Chase Elliott’s did at Texas.

That’s five Wonky Windows in 12 races. If flexible rear windows hurt performance – rather than helped it – do you think it would take 12 weeks for teams to solve the problem? Absolutely not. Teams continue to build Wonky Windows for two specific reasons. Because they work (making the race car faster), and because NASCAR has not yet handed down a penalty that even begins to offset the boost in performance those windows provide.

Until those two facts change, conduct in the garage will not improve. And to that end, it’s time for NASCAR to ratchet-up the sanctions ad put a stop to Wonky Window Wednesday.

It’s time for the sanctioning body to take a nostalgic approach, investing in a few boxes of Sawz-All blades and simply cutting off the offending pieces like they did in the old days, before putting the illegal technology on public display for all to see.

Got an illegally modified splitter on the front of your hot rod? We’ll just hack it off – along with a few inches of the front valence, for good measure – leaving your team with the unenviable option of either rebuilding the race car on Friday afternoon, or rolling out the backup.

Failed to make it through pre-qualifying inspection? Instead of slapping your hand and banishing you (and your brand new tires) to the back of the pack for the start of the race, why not do what NASCAR threatened to do a few weeks ago, forcing the offending teams to serve pass-through penalties on the opening lap of the race, leaving them a lap or more in arrears before the event has barely begun?

Come up short in your post-race visit to the NASCAR R&D Center? Prepare to lose everything you earned this weekend -- every point, every dollar and every bit of playoff qualification -- before sustaining additional post-race fines, point penalties and suspensions. You'll even be bringing back the trophy.

And for God’s sake, can we please stop delaying the start of qualifying until the rule-breakers are through messing around? Instead of drawing a line in the competitive sand and refusing to accommodate offending teams, NASCAR sends the exact opposite message.

“Take your time, boys. Break all the rules you want. We (and the fans) will wait.”

As the lengthening list of repeat offenders clearly indicates, NASCAR’s punitive status quo is not working. The sanctioning body’s intended message is not getting through, and our sport continues to be seen as a place where everybody cheats and nobody cares.

It’s time for the boys in Daytona Beach to man up and begin swinging a bigger stick, retaking control of the garage area from a group of competitors that lately resembles a table full of recalcitrant children, refusing to eat their carrots.