Monday, October 09, 2017

COMMENTARY: By Any Means Necessary

Sports Business Journal reported last week that NASCAR is attempting to secure sponsorship for free-agent drivers Bubba Wallace and Danica Patrick, an effort that includes “trying to entice its own sponsors to extend relationships with the drivers.”

NASCAR has traditionally assisted teams in sponsor procurement. In the early days of the sport, founder Bill France, Sr. would often line up local sponsors and “travel money” to assist drivers down the road to the next race. He also vouched for competitors when they approached local banks for loans to finance their racing operations.

Procuring multi-million dollar sponsorships directly, however, is something entirely new, and last week’s report prompted cries of favoritism from some corners of the sport.

NASCAR’s efforts on behalf of Patrick and Wallace (an African-American graduate of the sport’s Drive for Diversity program) are probably unfair, since other drivers do not receive the same level of assistance. But in the 60-odd year history of NASCAR, “fair” has not gotten the job done.

It’s time to do more.

In the year 2017, it is unconscionable that the headline Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has just one woman and no persons of color in the starting lineup.

The Drive 4 Diversity has begun to show signs of life, with Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez now full-time competitors in the MENCS ranks. It has been more successful in producing minority crewmembers, but it has not done nearly enough, fast enough.

The Force sisters are major stars.
Virtually every other major form of motorsport boasts women and minorities in their starting fields on a weekly basis.  Willy T. Ribbs (Sports Cars) Lewis Hamilton (Formula One) and Antron Brown (NHRA) have all won national and/or world championships. Shirley Muldowney, Angelle Sampey and Erica Enders-Stevens are former NHRA World Champions, while Shelly Anderson, Melanie Troxell, Leah Pritchett, Alexis Dejoria and the Force sisters – Ashley, Courtney and Brittany – are all winners in NHRA National event competition. Lyn St. James won twice at the 24 Hours of Daytona and again at the 12 Hours of Sebring, while Jutta Kleinschmidt won the grueling Dakar Rally in 2001.

In marked contrast, prior to Wallace’s four “fill-in” races with Richard Petty Motorsports earlier this season, NASCAR had not had a black face in the starting field since Bill Lester made two fleeting starts for Bill Davis Racing in 2006.

At a time when women and minorities play major, winning roles in virtually every other branch of motorsports, NASCAR’s optics are beyond abhorrent. Is it any wonder that outsiders view stock car racing as an exclusively white-male sport?

We can do better, and we must.

Wallace delivered for RPM
Bubba Wallace deserves a shot at the brass ring. In four 2017 starts at RPM in place of the injured Aric Almirola, the Mobile, Alabama native finished 26th at Pocono Raceway, 19th at Michigan, 15th at Daytona and 11th at Kentucky. He improved in every start, despite racing with a crew and crew chief that he had never met before. His average finish for those four races was 17.8; nearly three spots better than Almirola’s season average of 20.5.

Almirola is expected to move to the elite Stewart-Haas Racing organization next season, with full-season sponsorship from Smithfield Foods. Wallace, meanwhile, saw his Roush Fenway Racing NXS team shut down after just 12 races this season due to lack of sponsorship.

He was fourth in the championship standings at the time.

Patrick has admittedly not been as successful as most observers -- and even Danica herself -- would have liked. But over the last six decades, thousands of white male drivers have been given the opportunity to fail at the highest level of our sport. That opportunity has been extended to less than a half-dozen women.

Did Johanna Long get a fair shot?
When Erik Jones won the 2012 Snowball Derby, that win led directly to a handful of ARCA starts and a seat with Kyle Busch’s potent NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team. When Johanna Long won the same race in 2010, it earned her two part-time seasons with the chronically underfunded ML Motorsports Xfinity Series team and an unheralded exit from the sport.

If that doesn’t bother you, it should. Something, my friends, is not adding up.

Critics say it is not NASCAR’s job to help some drivers, but not others.

“Just wait,” they say. “Give it some time. The sport will integrate itself, eventually.”

Well, we’ve been waiting since 1948. The strategy of patience has failed, and it’s time to take action.

Other teams may react badly to NASCAR’s new, hands-on policy of selective sponsorship assistance, wondering why the sanctioning body never helped them the way they are reportedly helping Wallace and Patrick.

That reaction, while perhaps justified, is flawed. What team owners should be thinking is, “Maybe we should find a Danica or a Bubba of our own.”

After 68 years of exclusion, it’s time for NASCAR to tilt the scales unfairly in the other direction for a while, by any means necessary.



Monday, October 02, 2017

COMMENTARY: An Open Letter To Chase Elliott

Dear Chase –

Tough luck yesterday, young man. It looked like you finally had the brass ring in your hand and were set to become the only driver not named Jeff Gordon to drive a No. 24 car to Victory Lane in a NASCAR Premier Series race.

As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Kyle Busch stole the lead away within sight of the white flag, driving off into the sunset with his fourth win of the 2017 season and his second in as many weeks. It happens. Believe me, it happens.

Was there anything you could have done to stop it? In hindsight, sure there was. You could have chosen a slightly different path through lapped traffic in the final laps. You could have blocked the living bejeezus out of Busch with two to go, or had your boys shave a couple of tenths off every pit stop along the way.

But none of that really matters. You did the best you could, making what seemed to be the smartest decisions you could at the time, then living with the consequences. That’s what racing is. That’s what racers do.

And now, it’s time for another important decision. How do you handle what happened yesterday in the First State?

"Like watching a man perform
his own autopsy."
In recent years, we have all witnessed your propensity for “going hard on yourself” in the aftermath of bad days. Or even good ones. We have seen you heap all the blame on your own diminutive shoulders, criticizing your own performance to the point of microscopic analysis.

At times, it has been like watching a man perform his own autopsy, with his heart still beating. And with all due respect, that’s something you cannot afford to do right now.

You see, Chase, there comes a point where you can simply be too damned hard on yourself. Disappointment in the aftermath of a day like yesterday is both normal and understandable. Self-mutilation is not.

If there is something to be learned from what happened Sunday at Dover – something different to be done or a critical mistake to be corrected -- take that lesson and move on. Don’t dwell on failure, lest you become enveloped in the negativity of it all. In a sport where there is only one winner and 39 losers each week, it’s easy to get sucked into a black hole of self-doubt.

Close, but no cigar.
But your performance yesterday at Dover was spectacular. It was admirable. And it was something to be proud of.

Champions have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize their emotions; avoiding the urge to fly too high on good days, or dip too low on the bad ones. Set your altimeter on the far horizon and chart a steady course. What’s done is done, and yesterday’s disappointment can do you nothing but harm today.

You’re not the first driver to have your heart ripped out at Dover, and you certainly won’t be the last. They don’t call it “The Monster Mile” for nothing, you know.

Right now, we are just a few short days away from the Bank Of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and you and your team are well-positioned to advance to the all-important Round of Eight in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

It’s time to get your chin up, rally your team behind you and refuse to let yesterday’s failure become an albatross around your neck.

You’re too good for that.

Monday, September 25, 2017

COMMENTARY: Freedom Of Speech Must Be Defended In All Its Forms

The National Football League continues to exist in the eye of a social media hurricane, triggered a year ago when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick expressed concerns with alleged police brutality and discrimination against African American citizens by kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem.

Kaepernick’s protest cast the NFL into a tempest that seems to be gaining momentum with every passing week. Last Sunday, players from a number of NFL franchises “took a knee” during the anthem. Others stood arm-in-arm while the anthem played, while others remained in their respective lockers rooms until pre-game festivities were completed.

Those antics drew the ire of many fans, including President Donald Trump, who called last week for the immediate firing of any player who refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Monday, Trump expressed his respect for NASCAR team members, who traditionally stand at attention and honor the flag.

“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans,” tweeted the President. “They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!”

As is often the case with the incumbent POTUS, controversy ensued. Media members scurried to secure opinions on the topic from NASCAR drivers, team owners and the sanctioning body.

Richard Childress sided strongly with the President, saying any RCR employee who kneels during the anthem can “get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over.”

Kaepernick (R) triggered controversy
Fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty went a step further, opining that “anybody that don’t stand up for that ought to be out of the country. Period.” 

Former series champion Brad Keselowski toed a more moderate line, tweeting, “I can get behind trying to make the world a better place, Can’t get behind putting down others; kneeling clearly does both.” 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. quoted former President John F. Kennedy, tweeting, “All Americans are granted rights to peaceful protests. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

For its part, NASCAR remained comfortably out of the debate for a time. On Monday, however, the sanctioning body released a written statement saying, “Sports are a unifying influence in our society, bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together. Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”

In this writer’s personal opinion, you’re either in favor of free speech, or you’re not. The right to speak one’s mind is easy to defend when we’re talking about apple pie, the Boy Scouts and loving your mama. But when the American Nazi Party decides to march down Main Street in Skokie, Illinois, that’s when we find out who really believes in free speech.

No kneelers in NASCAR
Simply put, the free speech most worth defending is the speech you disagree with most. People have the right to say things their neighbors disagree with. It is one of the basic tenets upon which this country was founded, and it is absolutely worth defending.

It would be easy – and incredibly convenient – if every NASCAR fan felt the same way about every issue. It would also be unbelievably boring. But until that happens (and it never will) we must be willing to allow people to say what they think, even when we don’t necessarily agree.

NASCAR crew member Johnny Jackstand has a constitutionally guaranteed right to take a knee during the national anthem at this weekend’s NASCAR race. That right does not, however, preclude him from suffering the potentially negative consequences of those actions.

If Johnny Jackstand turns wrenches for Richard Childress Racing or Richard Petty Motorsports, the decision not to stand and honor the flag during the national anthem could cost him his job. After all, team owners have a right to their opinion, too.

Johnny expresses his views, R.C. and the King express theirs.

God Bless America.


NASCAR fans would do well to heed the advice of RPM majority owner Andrew Murstein, who said Petty, Childress and some of their fellow owners “are all proud Americans who have lived through world wars and turbulent times. While I respect their thoughts and personally I think it’s wrong to kneel, I wouldn’t fire someone for expressing their feelings. I would sit them down and say, ‘It’s the wrong thing to do that” and (that) many people, including myself, view it as an affront to our great country.


“If there is disenchantment toward the President or a few bad law enforcement officers, don’t have it cross over to all that is still good and right about our country,” said Murstein. “The flag isn’t a flag of a few people; it stands for all of America. Yes, there are problems here — but they are nothing close to the problems in North Korea or other parts of the world. We must come together as Americans and respect everyone and everything — especially our flag, which is a symbol of the United States, the greatest country in the world.

At the end of the day, no one can presume to speak for all of NASCAR. Last week’s statement from the sanctioning body was not attributed to any individual. Not Chairman/CEO Brian France, not President Brent Dewar, no one.

NASCAR is a massive community of individuals; officials, team owners, drivers, crewmembers and fans. No one can possibly presume to speak for each and every one of those people. We are far too diverse to be pigeonholed into a singular opinion, no matter how popular

With all its bluster and bombast, the current free speech debate threatens to lose track of its original point. Many of the loudest voices debating the issue today have no memory of the issues that created it, and that’s probably okay. At this point, the righteousness of Kaepernick’s cause has become irrelevant. He – like the rest of us -- has the right to speak and protest on any topic he sees fit; right or wrong.

That is, after all, the American Way.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

COMMENTARY: Junior's Right, It's Time To Put An End To Post-Race Burnouts

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said last week what many of us have been thinking for years; that it’s time for NASCAR to put a stop to the ludicrous practice of post-race burnouts.

Commenting in the aftermath of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott’s penalty for a piece of tape added to his car’s rear spoiler two weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver questioned the logic of penalizing duct tape, while allowing race winners to roll into the weekly post-race technical inspection with their cars “tore all to hell.''
"I have been kind of waiting all this time for NASCAR to eventually say, `Look… we would just rather you guys not blow the tires out,'' said Earnhardt. "They talk about not wanting to be the 'fun police,' but being the 'fun police' is not on the radar of their damn problems.''
Earnhardt’s comments were spot-on and long overdue.
In an era where the difference between legal and illegal is often measured in thousandths of an inch, it makes no sense for NASCAR to continue allowing winning teams to demolish the rear end of their machines with a series of lengthy, tire-blowing, fender-shredding burnouts.
"It doesn't make sense."
The sanctioning body long ago banned swerving on the post-race cool down lap, after teams used the technique to reset their cars’ rear suspensions to a more neutral (read legal) configuration, just in time for the weekly round of post-race, white-glove scrutiny. If a simple swerve is enough to camouflage under-the-car mechanical chicanery, how can a pair of exploding rear tires not accomplish the same nefarious goal?
It’s simple common sense.
In addition to being cliché, predictable and dull; these weekly, post-race donut fests are now entirely devoid of any spontaneity or emotion. They are the motorsports equivalent of celebrating a Kentucky Derby victory by shooting Secretariat.
And more important, they’re no longer fooling anybody.
NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller defended the sanctioning body’s post-race protocol in a written statement last week, saying, “We're confident that our process provides a fair playing field for all of our competitors, while also allowing the fans to enjoy the celebration of the winning driver.
"In addition to the pre-race inspections, every winning vehicle must still go through a full post-race inspection where we expect it to be within the rules set forth by the rulebook.''

No way to treat a winner...
Earnhardt, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it.

He directly addressed the long-ignored elephant in the room last week, acknowledging that winning drivers are intentionally blowing out their rear tires, under the guise of post-race celebration. The resulting damage makes it virtually impossible to take accurate measurements after the event, while also providing crewmembers with an opportunity to illegally manipulate their cars while replacing those smoldering tire carcasses.

In the days when post-race inspections were conducted with a tape measure and the naked eye, drivers had neither the need nor desire to destroy their winning mounts. Burnouts were unheard of, with winning drivers generally taking a nice, slow celebratory lap with the checkered flag before driving directly to Victory Lane.
Carl Edwards might stick the landing on a backflip, or Tony Stewart would occasionally climb the fence. But like Hall Of Fame running back Barry Sanders once counseled his end zone-dancing teammates, NASCAR drivers used to be content to “act like you’ve been there before.”
Today, however, it’s more about covering their clandestine tracks and beating the lasers with a post-race burndown thinly veiled as celebration.
"Until (the officials) tell them not to do it, it's fair game,'' added Earnhardt last week. "It just upset me -- with what happened to Chase and how they sort of got zeroed-in on -- when all this is going on right under everybody's nose.
“It doesn't make sense.''

Monday, September 18, 2017

COMMENTARY: Twitter Wars Now Part Of NASCAR’s Playoff Picture

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski will not be exchanging Christmas cards, again this year.

The Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske drivers are both former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions. Both are ferocious competitors who give no quarter and ask none, whether on or off the race track. And last week, they renewed their longstanding rivalry with a heated Twitter exchange centered on Toyota’s recent dominance of the MENCS.

After Toyota drivers claimed the top four spots in practice Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski sounded the alarm, alleging that Toyota enjoys an unfair technological advantage over its Ford and Chevrolet brethren.

We are all in for a rude awakening. Haven't seen NASCAR let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the 70s,” tweeted Keselowski, prompting an almost-immediate retort from Busch. The 2015 MENCS champion replied with a crying emoji and a four-letter request that translated loosely to “Shut the Front Door.”

Keselowski then accused Busch of name-calling, saying, “It's 2017. When you're about to lose an argument, you call people names rather than face facts.”

Keselowski stirs the pot...
Busch’s JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin, cannonballed his way into the deep end of the conflict, tweeting, "@NASCAR is showing favoritism to @ToyotaRacing? When did this start? #encumbered. Concentrate on your own program bro.”

Furniture Row Racing crew chief Cole Pearn and Sherry Pollex, longtime girlfriend of driver Martin Truex, Jr., also weighed-in with remarks critical of Keselowski.

The Team Penske driver refused to relent, however, doubling-down on his previous remarks and insisting, “(Toyota’s) got a lot going for them right now. You can BS through it any way you want, but it’s there, and we know we’re going to have to out-execute them.

“We need a little bit of luck, because at this point in time, their cars have way more speed.”

Predictably, Busch countered once again, accusing Keselowski of “slapping his people across the face.
...and Busch responds.
“We watched those guys be fast in the beginning of the year,” said Busch. “We’ve watched them be fast in years past, even when the Penske guys were with a different manufacturer. They won a championship, but we didn’t do our complaining on TV. We did our complaining in the shop on Tuesdays and went to work. That’s where it’s all done, and that’s what we’ve done.
"The Penske group was 100% for the no-skew rules and they got what they wanted over the offseason," added Busch. "We were against that, (but) we just went to work.
“If you ask Brad, he can fix the world's problems. The fact of the matter is, nobody else is doing anything. He thinks that somehow, Big Brother is going to come and help him."
Twitter histrionics notwithstanding, does Keselowski have a point? Does Toyota enjoy enough of a technological advantage that NASCAR needs to step in?
Past history indicates that the answer is “no.”

While Truex, Busch and Hamlin have won nine races for Toyota this season, that’s just one more checkered flag than Ford Motor Company and one fewer than Chevrolet. A few short weeks ago, NASCAR garage-area conversation centered on “what’s wrong with Joe Gibbs Racing?” But the team kept its nose to the grindstone and found the speed necessary to compete -- and win – once again, just in time for the playoffs.

That’s what racers do. Momentum ebbs and flows in this sport, and the manufacturer that is riding high today can be scraping the bottom of the barrel by next week.

There is no debating that Toyota rules the roost right now, claiming six of the last nine MENCS checkered flags. But Ford began the season with five wins in the first 10 starts, without any calls for a Congressional investigation.

Penske: "We're a little bit behind right now."
Keselowski’s car owner, Roger Penske, admitted as much last weekend when asked about the war of words between his driver and the Toyota camp.

“Look, I’m not on Twitter,” said Penske. “(That’s not) the way I run my business. I’m not one that decides to talk about my pluses and minuses in the media.
“Brad has his own thoughts that are probably not the feeling of the team at this point. Toyota has done a great job in preparation for the last part of the series. I think we had good cars early on, (but) I think we’re a little bit behind right now.
“We all started with the same set of rules,” said Penske. “Toyota has gotten hot here at the end and we’ve got to acknowledge that. But on the other hand, we’re not going to give up.”
Head games have always been a part of this sport, and few drivers are more adept at getting between the ears of the competition than Keselowski. Few drivers have proven more vulnerable to psychological warfare over the years than Busch; making Keselowski’s recent comments understandable, if not entirely predictable.
Identify the guys you need to beat for the championship, then find a way to get them off their game. All’s fair in love, war and stock car racing, and the temperature will continue to rise as the stakes get higher.

"I'd like to know what Toyota is paying Brad,” laughed Hamlin last week, “because he is our best spokesman. “If you're shopping for a midsized sedan, get the unfair advantage, get a Toyota."

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Petty Reponds Angrily To Smithfield Withdrawal

Richard Petty reacted angrily today to news of the withdrawal of Smithfield Foods as major sponsor of Richard Petty Motorsports.

“We have had numerous discussions with Smithfield Foods regarding the extension of our relationship, dating as far back as February," Petty said. "Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship. I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I'm sad to see this is where we are now.

"This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction," he added. "Losing a sponsor of this magnitude in September is a significant set-back to Richard Petty Motorsports, but Andy (Murstein) and I are committed to moving forward with the No. 43 team. We have a lot of great partners who have expressed their continued support, and our fans will rally around the No. 43. We've been around since 1949, and we'll be around a lot longer."

Petty also confirmed that driver Aric Almirola will not return to RPM next season. Almirola is widely expected to accompany Smithfield to Stewart Haas Racing.

Smithfield In, Patrick Out At Stewart Haas Racing

Danica Patrick is a free agent
Smithfield Foods announced last week that it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at season’s end to join Stewart-Haas Racing as a primary team sponsor. 

No announcement was made concerning which SHR Ford will carry the Smithfield logo, or who will drive the car. An announcement from the team confirmed, however, that a “driver will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup in 2018.”

“We’re very proud to have Smithfield Foods join the Stewart-Haas Racing family,” said SHR president Brett Frood. “Smithfield has activated heavily and successfully within the sport, and we’re honored to be a part of the brand’s forward initiatives and strategy. Although we’re not ready to announce the full details of the program, we look forward to this new endeavor while remaining focused on the upcoming playoffs and putting forth the best effort possible to win more races and contend for another championship.”

Shortly after that announcement, Danica Patrick confirmed that her tenue at SHR will end at Homestead Miami Speedway. 

“It has been my honor to drive for Tony Stewart, Gene Haas and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past six seasons,” said Patrick in a written statement. “Together, we earned a Daytona 500 pole, seven top-10 finishes and we also had some exciting racing along the way. My time driving for them, however, has come to an end due to a new sponsorship arrangement in 2018.


“Sponsorship plays a vital role in our sport, and I have been very fortunate over the course of my career, but this year threw us for a curve. Our amazing partners, such as Aspen Dental and Code 3, stepped up in a big way on short notice this year and I am incredibly grateful. I wish SHR the best of luck with their new sponsorship and driver. Thanks for the memories. Right now, my focus is on the remainder of the 2017 season and finishing the year strong. I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Is Poorly Served By Situational Ethics

Saturday night was a bad night for the umpires.
In its much-anticipated final event of the regular season, NASCAR impacted the outcome of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway with a series of questionable calls that defied both explanation and logic.

The first sign of trouble came on Lap 88, when leader Matt Kenseth locked-up his left-front brake on entry to Turn Three, producing a brief plume of tire smoke. NASCAR threw the caution flag, despite no contact, crash or debris.

Had it ended there, the unnecessary caution would have quickly been forgotten; a simple case of an itchy trigger finger by an official tasked with safeguarding the safety of competitors.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.

On Lap 257, Danica Patrick brought out the fifth caution flag of the evening, spinning in Turn One after contact with Austin Dillon. As the field pitted for tires and fuel, drivers encountered an errant ambulance parked at the entrance to pit road. As competitors braked and swerved to avoid the vehicle, Matt Kenseth ran into the back of fellow playoff contender Clint Bowyer. Kenseth was sidelined with front-end damage and a ruptured radiator, while Bowyer was forced to restart at the rear of the field after pitting for repairs.
“We were all coming to pit road and I saw an ambulance sitting there,” said an incredulous Kenseth afterward. “(Spotter) Jason Hedlesky yelled to stop, that there was an ambulance just sitting there. It was an accordion effect, and I couldn’t get stopped. I’m not really sure why pit road was open with an ambulance parked there, but everybody stopped. I didn’t see it in time and ran into the car in front of me.”
Ambulance dodging on pit road
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller blamed the incident on an ambulance driver who pulled onto the racetrack without permission, then failed to stop immediately when ordered to do so.
“(We told him) `Stop,’” said Miller. “Pretty simple, `Stop!’ He didn’t stop when he was told to.

“It happened very, very quickly. The race director (is) in charge of (declaring) pit road opened and closed and the track services and safety crews are in charge of the other. We didn’t sync up tonight, and we will make sure we don’t let that happen again.”

Many observers questioned why an ambulance was dispatched at all, since Patrick never came to a complete stop during a solo spin that featured no significant contact and no damage.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, the worst was still to come.

With just three laps remaining and leader Martin Truex, Jr., on his way to a dominant fifth victory of the season, veteran Derrike Cope – running 16 laps down to the leaders -- brushed the Turn Four SAFER barrier. The incident did no damage to Cope’s Chevrolet and dropped no debris on the racing surface, but inexplicably triggered a late-race caution flag.

Truex forfeited his three-second advantage, lost the lead to eventual winner Kyle Larson during a dramatic pit-road money stop, then crashed on the ensuing restart after being hit from behind by Denny Hamlin.

“Tonight sucked, plain and simple,” said Truex, who led a race-high 198 laps of 400 laps en route to a crushing, 20th-place finish. “(Cope) really doesn’t belong out there. It’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution as bad as he was running; just riding around there basically just making laps.”

Truex: "Tonight sucked."
Truex’s anger was understandable, especially considering the events of the previous weekend, when he slammed the wall at Darlington Raceway while leading with just three laps remaining. The impact severely damaged his Furniture Row Racing Toyota and dropped debris on the racetrack.

It did not, however, trigger a caution flag.

In the past, NASCAR has been accused of manipulating the outcome of races; making calls (or not) with an eye toward creating the kind of “Game Seven moments” espoused by CEO Brian France. Saturday night’s unnecessary, late-race caution will absolutely amplify those complaints, and justifiably so.

Had Cope’s wall-duster occurred in the middle stages of Saturday night’s race, it would almost certainly have gone unnoticed, with no reaction from NASCAR. With three laps remaining, however, it provided an opportunity for the sanctioning body to avoid a ho-hum, half-lap margin of victory, throw an unnecessary caution flag and create a nail-biting finish.
Saturday night’s call created a slam-bang ending, a come-from-behind winner and plenty of water-cooler talk on Monday morning. Unfortunately, it did so at the expense of the sport's integrity.

Simply stated, if Cope’s incident would not have produced a caution flag on lap 57 – and it most certainly would not – it should not have produced a caution flag on lap 397.

Race Directors, track workers and ambulance drivers are all human beings, capable of human error. No one expects them to get every call precisely right, every single time. Mistakes are part of every game, whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, or NASCAR.

Unfortunately, NASCAR sometimes appears more interested in doing what’s exciting, rather than doing what’s right. And the sport is poorly served by that approach.

Going forward, NASCAR must eliminate the kind of situational ethics that governed Saturday night’s race, concentrating on making the correct call, regardless of how it might impact the quality of the finish.

If Truex’s Darlington crash was unworthy of a yellow flag, Cope’s Richmond incident was most certainly not.

Arguing otherwise does nothing but insult the intelligence of the fan base.

Monday, September 04, 2017

It's "Do Or Die" As Regular Season Finale Looms at Richmond

With just one race remaining in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, it is “Do or Die” time for a number of prime contenders.

The championship picture has become more clear with every passing week, until now, every contender knows exactly what they must do to be a part of the championship field at Chicagoland Speedway in two weeks.

Logano: "We're in this together."
As long as there is no new winner – or Joey Logano does not repeat his earlier encumbered victory at Richmond this weekend -- Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray will qualify for the 2017 playoffs on points. Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray remain winless in 2017, and left the Lady In Black seventh, eighth and ninth in the championship standings, separated by just three points. If a new winner goes to Victory Lane this weekend — or Logano returns there with no technical issues -- only two of those three drivers will qualify for the playoffs.

Logano was once again a step behind at Darlington Sunday, running in the back half of the Top-10 for most of the night before fading to 18th at the drop of the checkered flag. Logano’s Shell-Pennzoil Ford team has never recovered from that encumbered win at Richmond in the spring, and the Connecticut native currently does not appear to have the off-the-truck speed necessary for contend for either a Richmond win, or the MENCS championship.

This is the same Logano, however, who pulled a rabbit out of the hat twice in recent playoff runs, claiming “must win” victories in the final race of a playoff round to keep his title hopes alive. Crew chief Todd Gordon is one of the most aggressive pit bosses in the game, and will absolutely roll the dice on strategy if necessary, to put his driver in position to steal a win.

“We’re going through a little bit of a downturn right now,” admitted Logano last week. “It’s obvious, and it’s something as a team that we haven’t gone through together, But we’ve all gone through it individually before and we’ve all come out of it.

“These are the moments that are a true test of your character and who you are; the way you handle these situations internally in your team. And it’s time to step up and be a leader.

“Is this the easiest time? No. (But) we do this together. We’re in this together.” 

Jones: Poised to play the spoiler
Logano admitted that his Team Penske organization has struggled to keep pace with the Toyota-backed Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing teams.

“Let’s face it, the things that we’ve done in the past to be successful are not working,” he said. “You have to understand what’s going on; take a step back and reevaluate. We have to go back through things to find speed in our cars… compared to the Toyotas.

“Let’s be honest, those are the fastest cars right now, every single week. Obviously, we have to take big steps to catch them. That’s not to say we can’t catch them, we will catch them. Racing goes in cycles, it always does. It’s just a matter of weathering the storm and staying together as a team.

“I feel confident that we will get through this.”

Logano is not the only driver capable of summoning the spirit of Jeremy Mayfield and claiming a last-second playoff berth by winning Saturday night’s regular-season finale. Chief among them is Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones, who followed up a stellar, runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago with an equally impressive fifth at Darlington.

“We had a good car for sure,” said Jones after bringing his Toyota Camry home from a 500-mile bout with the Lady In Black without a scratch. “And for my first time here, I thought we did a good job. We’ll fight hard at Richmond like we always do, and who knows? Maybe that first Cup win will also get us into the playoffs.”

Last chance for Bowyer
Fellow freshman Daniel Suarez had less luck at Darlington, crashing en route to a 38th-place finish. But like Jones, he has shown sufficient speed to win this weekend, if all the cards fall his way. Trevor Bayne, three-time Richmond winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard and Ty Dillon would also contend for a win, with a little luck, as could Clint Bowyer, whose playoff hopes suffered a major blow Sunday when engine issues ended his evening after just a handful of laps.

“It just blew up,” said the Stewart Haas Racing driver afterward. “It’s a pretty inopportune time to have it happen, but it’s never a good time.  Doug Yates and all the guys over at his shop do such a good job of bringing us reliable, good horsepower and it was just my time. It was my turn and there isn’t much you can do about it.” Bowyer now must win this weekend at Richmond to earn a spot on the 2017 playoffs.

“We’re not out of this thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ll just go (to Richmond), do the best we can and put all the cards on the table.

“You come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win, just like we did at the Daytona 500. Richmond is a good track for us. We’ll go there and do the best we can.”

The stage is set for a Game Seven Moment this weekend at Richmond. Now, it’s time for someone to step up and seize the day.