Monday, March 23, 2020

COMMENTARY: eNASCAR Series Was Just What The Doctor Ordered

While Week Three of NASCAR’s unprecedented COVID-19 shut down is upon us, NASCAR got back on track (in a manner of speaking) Sunday with the running of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Dixie Vodka 150.

The iRacing event, contested on a virtual representation of Homestead Miami Speedway, featured an eclectic lineup of drivers that included seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Bobby Labonte and others. They competed remotely from their rumpus rooms, man caves and garages; honoring the self-distancing requests of government officials while still gathering together in the name of competition.

For the record, Hamlin overhauled Earnhardt with a high-line pass on the final lap to win the race, with Earnhardt surviving some last-lap fender rubbing to finish second, ahead of Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and pole-starter Garrett Smithley.

The results didn’t really matter, though. What mattered was what the event did to lift the spirits of NASCAR fans across North America.

Regardless of who won or lost, Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut provided a much-needed boost to the collective psyche of NASCAR Nation. In a time in our country’s history when normalcy is in extremely short supply, NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports banded together to provide 90 minutes of distraction, laughs and competition that can’t help but make the next seven days of self-distancing and isolation a little bit easier to take.

The event combined a level of competitive intensity normally expected from a group of professional athletes with an unprecedented and refreshing dose of “who cares?” With no points to be tallied, no championship to be won and no money on the line – save for the $5,000 Hamlin pledged to contribute to charity if he won – the competitors were looser, more laid-back and more able to simply have fun than we have ever seen them before. FS1 set the tone for the day with its pre-race National Anthem, apparently performed from the singer’s garage in deference to its superior acoustical qualities.

FS1’s usual on-air team of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds did their usual stand-up job supplying the necessary Xs and O’s, with Clint Bowyer – who is rapidly becoming NASCAR’s version of the NFL’s Rob Gronkowski – supplying color commentary and comic relief from an adjoining studio; all while taking part in the event himself.

Early in the event, it became clear that iRacing and actual racing are not the same, as the top stock racers on the planet slogged their way through repeated, multi-car crashes that slowed the tempo of the event. Johnson seemed particularly out of his element, being caught-up in a pair of skirmishes in the early going, despite running at the back of the pack.

But again, that didn’t really seem to matter.

Nine cautions (or was it 10?) slowed the 100-lap, 150-mile event, forcing FS1 to run approximately 20 minutes long and join Horse Racing Nation a little later than originally planned. But unless you were waiting breathlessly for updated odds for this year’s Kentucky Derby, nobody really cared.

It was… in a word, fun. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman tweeted during an early caution, “I have to pee. (My dog) Finn may take over during the next caution.” He then blamed the dog for a crash that ultimately took him out of contention; something you just don’t see every day in big-time, professional motorsports.

On social media, fans reacted with near-100% approval, making the race the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter; supplanting even the omnipresent COVID-19 pandemic as the most talked about topic in the Twitterverse.

That’s a wonderful thing, and it was much needed.

On Twitter, which was almost as entertaining as the race itself, the event was a huge success. With the exception of that one NASCAR media person who hates anything and everything about the sport, the event was received with 100% favorable reviews. They ranged from “Really needed this today. My family and I were on the edge of our seats” to “Brought some normal to our Sunday afternoon!”

When the checkered flag flew yesterday, my own gut reaction was “Wait! We’ve got plenty of time left! Line them up and race them again!”

We need more of that sentiment, and the sooner, the better. There hasn’t been much to look forward to in our world lately. Sunday’s race helped, just a bit.

Hamlin’s win was almost certainly the first time a driver has won a big-time NASCAR race while wearing no shoes, since the early days of Junior Johnson. It was his 31st overall iRacing victory, ensuring that if a second series race is organized in the near future – and it sounds like one will be – his fellow drivers will be spending considerable more time practicing than they did this time around.

They’re competitive professional athletes, after all. And fun only goes so far.

In the last 7-10 days, the sale of new iRacing subscriptions had increased roughly 200%. Will iRacing ever replace “real” racing in the hearts and minds of NASCAR Nation? Likely not. But with the COVID-19 pandemic now firmly entrenched across North America and warnings from the infectious disease experts that the worst may still be to come, it looks like we’ll be staying behind closed doors for a little while longer, at least.

And the longer that lasts, the more we’ll need an occasional hour of distraction to keep us from ripping each other’s faces off.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

NASCAR Mulling Multiple Rescheduling Options


In addition to sickening thousands and killing nearly 100 in the United States, the COVID-19 virus has thoroughly disrupted the lives, careers, educations and leisure activities of virtually every American. NASCAR fans are no different, with the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the sport to take an unplanned (and thoroughly unwanted) eight-week hiatus in the months of March, April and early May.

Scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races at Atlanta, Homestead-Miami, Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover International Speedways have been postponed, with makeup dates still to be determined. The sanctioning body updated the media Tuesday, insisting that their goal is to run all 36 scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races, as well as the non-points All-Star Race. Their stated desire is to leave the 10-race playoff schedule untouched and unaltered, concluding the 2020 season as scheduled at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 8. That will require the sanctioning body to reschedule all seven postponed races within a tight, 17-week time frame, with only two empty weekends (the pre-planned summer Olympic layoff) open for rescheduling between the resumption of competition on May 9 at Martinsville Speedway and the start of the at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day Weekend.

Clearly, traditional Saturday/Sunday scheduling will not be enough to dig NASCAR out of the massive hole left by an eight-week COVID-19 layoff.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps admitted yesterday that there are a lot of things on the table, including some scheduling options that have not been previously utilized. Midweek events seem likely going forward, and while Phelps said that no decisions have been made on whether to reschedule events during the planned, two-week Olympic break, it is difficult to image officials leaving a pair of prime, midsummer weekends open, while simultaneously scrambling to reschedule races on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Depending on the status of the pandemic, NASCAR could see its way clear to return before the anticipated Martinsville date in May, racing in front of empty grandstands. Moving Talladega, Texas or Homestead-Miami – three of the farthest-flung events on the postponed schedule -- into the vacated Dover date on May 3 would make Dover available to serve as the meat in a three-race-in-eight-day sandwich, beginning with the regularly scheduled New Hampshire race on Sunday, July 19, followed by a midweek stop at The Monster Mile and a rescheduled Richmond event on Sunday, July 26 (the first Olympic weekend).

Bristol twinbill? Sign us up!
NASCAR could manufacture an additional open weekend by moving the All-Star Race from Saturday, May 16 to the following Saturday; the day before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While necessitating a Saturday doubleheader with both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series in action, the move would free-up the May 16 weekend for another rescheduled race.

An additional race can be made up the weekend of August 2; the first weekend of the Olympic Games.

Bristol’s postponed event could conceivably be rescheduled in conjunction with the track’s annual Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race on Saturday, Sept. 19. After racing on Saturday night, the Cup teams would simply remain in town and run the rescheduled event on Sunday afternoon, as part of an unprecedented Night/Day Doubleheader. This scenario would obviously impact the playoff schedule, but would allow one of the postponed events to be made up with no more than an additional hotel night required for NASCAR’s traveling teams.

That leaves just one more race to be rescheduled, almost certainly as a midweek event. Wednesday or Thursday night racing is far from ideal, and race teams will be hard pressed to compete three times in an eight-day window. But it can be done, if the will is there to do so.

NASCAR’s Phelps said he is working closely with race teams to ensure "financial viability" until racing can resume. He also announced that all testing – including wind tunnels, shaker rigs and the like -- has been banned until further notice, including driver simulators.

The intent behind the move is twofold. First, it is designed to save teams money during the layoff by keeping them away from the wind tunnels, which rent out at approximately $3,000 per hour. In addition, it further encourages teams to leave their testing and wind tunnel personnel at home, exercising personal distancing, rather than congregating in large numbers to conduct research.

If teams know the competition is not testing, they are much more likely to wave it off themselves.

Phelps said it is too early to tell if the 2021 NextGen race car will be delayed as a result of the COVID-19 virus. A two-day test scheduled for Atlanta Motor Speedway this week was cancelled, and there is no word on when testing might resume. While the specifics of the new car have almost all been determined at this point, more component testing is needed before suppliers can finalize their plans and begin production.

Phelps assured reporters that the sanctioning body is “working diligently to stay on schedule,” but further postponements could result in delays for the new car’s scheduled July rollout.

COMMENTARY: Pennsylvania Tracks Put Profit Over Personal Safety


It’s been an interesting week for race fans in the state of Pennsylvania.

The Keystone State is a hotbed of motorsports activity. Pocono Raceway in Long Pond has been part of the NASCAR landscape since 1971, playing a leading role in NASCAR’s northeast success from the beginning. But the life blood of Pennsy’s motorsports scene is dirt short tracks, with nearly 80 -- count `em – 80 clay ovals spread across the state. From nationally known venues like Williams Grove, Penn Can and Selinsgrove to comparatively anonymous venues like Numidia Raceway and Muddy Run, Pennsylvanians love and support their racing with a fervor than most states can only dream of.

This week, though, their love for racing went quite a bit too far.

At a time when our country – and much of the rest of the world – is face-to-face with the most dangerous viral epidemic in the past 100 years, dirt tracks in the state of Pennsylvania stood in stark defiance of Governor Tom Wolf’s strongly worded recommendation that they close their doors temporarily, allowing their patrons to exercise some much-needed personal distancing and protect themselves and their loved ones from the COVID-19 virus.

At least three tracks; Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Port Royal Speedway in Port Royal and Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg held race events last weekend, inviting fans to huddle close in their grandstands, against the advice of the governor, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Lincoln Speedway: Still racing.
Car counts at Port Royal and Lincoln were reportedly down, with 24 Sprint Cars turning out at Lincoln – compared to an average of 30 in recent weeks – and 33 Sprinters competing at Port Royal, compared to 45 the week prior. One can only hope that common sense and a desire for self-preservation played a role in those downturns. Unfortunately, the folks who inhabit the grandstands quite literally threw caution to the wind last weekend, turning out in strong numbers at both tracks.

Sprint Car driver Anthony Macri likely spoke for many when he told the York Dispatch newspaper, “It doesn’t really scare me much, or obviously anybody else that’s here. It’s unfortunate what’s going on, but it’s just great to at least have something (to do). Everything else is shut down, so it’s nice to get out of the house and do something.”

Alan Krimes, the winner of the 410 Sprint Car feature at Lincoln, attempted to lighten the mood in Victory Lane, saying to the track announcer, “I think we’re too close. Aren’t we supposed to be six feet apart?”

Funny, but not funny, all at the same time.

PA Governor Tom Wolf
On Monday, Governor Wolf ordered a two-week, statewide closure of all non-essential businesses – including liquor stores, bars and restaurants for all but take-out customers – in an attempt to stem the spread of Coronavirus. He said he made that decision “because medical experts believe it is the only way we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed.”

Inexplicably, however, he did not extend the ban to race tracks, specifically allowing track operators to decide for themselves whether to do the right thing, or put profit ahead of public safety. Sadly, most of them made the wrong choice.

“I’m not going to force them to cancel,” said Gov. Wolf to television station ABC27. “This is something that all of us, 12.8 million Pennsylvanians, are in together.” He urged Pennsylvanians “not to expose (each other) to any symptoms that we might have. To not expose ourselves or our family members. We owe that to them.”

He urged track operators to “think not… in terms of what the law is, (but) in terms of what we owe our fellow citizens. This has to be self-enforced,” he repeated. “This is not your government mandating anything. This is your fellow public servants telling you the right way to handle this public health crisis.”

So while Pennsylvania will have public health guidelines in place for the next two weeks – a very short period based on the CDC’s recommendation that people congregate in groups no larger than 10 for the next eight weeks – the guidelines will not be enforced.

On the same day that the President of the United States urged all Americans to stay home and give the medical community a much-needed leg-up on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor of Pennsylvania effectively invited folks to load up the car and head for the race track.

It was colossally weak and ill-advised stance that some of his fellow Pennsylvanians may sadly not live to regret.

Port Royal came to its senses.
Lincoln Speedway put out a written statement last Thursday, saying that “Racing this weekend and for the foreseeable future will go on as scheduled as we monitor the guidelines and recommendations set forth by officials at the local, county, state and federal levels. Should we need to make changes to our schedule, we will do so with the best interest of our fans, competitors and staff in mind.”

It was curious wording, to say the least, since in order to continue racing, track management had to ignore the very guidelines and regulations they professed to be monitoring.

Since then, they have agreed to postponed race events for two weeks; a positive step that was too long in coming.

Port Royal also came to its collective senses, pulling an abrupt about-face and announcing that it will postpone racing activities for the next two weeks, with a stated goal of returning to racing on April 4. Eventually, all three tracks bowed to public pressure and pulled the plug, giving new meaning to the term "too little, too late."

It should not have been this difficult to do the right thing.

As of Monday, the state of Pennsylvania had 76 cases of Coronavirus, with 13 of them diagnosed in a single day. There have not yet been any fatalities in the Keystone State, a statistic that will hopefully continue.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases offered a more bleak assessment, saying, “When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are.”

He warned that the COVID-19 spread is going to continue, adding that there are many people who are currently infected, but unaware of it.

The solution is shockingly simple. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, and work from home if you can. Practice social distancing whenever possible and put your social life on hold for the next few weeks.

And if the people who run your local short track elect to put profit over personal safety by opening their gates this weekend, for God’s sake, don’t go.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Charter and Owner Points Manipulation Begins Anew

Here we go again. 

Just days before the official start of the 2020 NASCAR campaign, the annual outbreak of bamboozlement and chicanery surrounding NASCAR’s Cup Series Charter system and Xfinity Series owner points has once again reared its ugly head.

Originally designed to reward teams who loyally support NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series, the charter and owner points systems have sadly become manipulated to do something they were never intended to do.

In the headline Cup Series, 36 charter-holding teams are guaranteed to start in every point-counting race, from Daytona in February to the season-finale in Phoenix. That’s a nice little insurance policy to have, and teams have traditionally gone to great lengths to procure a charter and guarantee their participation in all 36 races.

In the Xfinity and Truck ranks, owner points are used to fill four spots near the back of the weekly field, after time-trials set the bulk of the starting grid. In the opening events of the season, owner points from the previous season are used to fill-out the field. As in the Cup garage, Truck and Xfinity Series teams have become extremely creative over the years, in an attempt to acquire the Owner Points necessary to guarantee participation in the opening events of the season.

When the system was first instituted in 2016, Cup Series Charters were awarded to teams that “showed a long-term commitment to the sport by attempting to qualify every week for the past three years.” As part of the system, team owners are allowed to transfer Charters to other organizations for a season, once every five years. There have also been instances of “selling” a Charter to a cooperative fellow owner, with the understanding that it will be sold back the following year.

And there, my friends, is the rub.

While well-intentioned, the sanctioning body’s Charter and Owner Points systems have slowly been manipulated to the point where instead of rewarding teams for long-term loyalty, they sometimes benefit
teams that have never turned a lap in NASCAR National Series competition.

That will once again be the case in 2020.

Ragan has a Daytona insurance policy.
In the Cup Series, three charters appear to be on the move this season. After downsizing from four cars to three during the offseason, Front Row Motorsports will transfer a charter from its now-inactive No. 36 Ford to its No. 38 Mustang driven by Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate John Hunter Nemechek. That move is clearly within both the letter and the spirit of the law, since both the No. 36 and 38 cars attempted every race last season.

Front Row’s No. 38 charter will transfer to Rick Ware Racing this season; after either a direct sale, a one-year lease, or a paperwork shuffle to enter the car as a defacto FRM Ford at Daytona. Ware will have at least three (and likely four) Cup entries on track at The World Center of Racing next week, with David Ragan driving the organization’s No. 53 car (conveniently re-numbered 36) in a one-off effort, Joey Gase wheeling the No. 51 car, JJ Yeley in the No. 54 and a No. 52 entry with driver still TBA.

Ragan reaps the benefits of that Charter shuffle, coming to Daytona as a guaranteed starter, even though the team for which he will drive finished 39th in 2019 Owner Points.

That’s not what NASCAR had in mind.

There is also some maneuvering going on in the Xfinity garage.

Hattori Racing has NXS Owner Points
GMS Racing will not compete in the Xfinity Series this season, with its Owner Points transferring to the new No. 02 Our Motorsports team, which will field a full-time entry for Andy Seuss, Brett Moffitt and others this season. That acquisition virtually ensures that Our Motorsports will race in next weekend’s season-opening NASCAR Racing Experience 300 at Daytona, despite never taking the green flag in a NASCAR National Series event, ever before.

Hattori Racing will also compete in next Saturday’s race, using 2019 Owner Points from Motorsports Business Management (MBM). The two teams worked together to field NXS entries under the Hattori banner in only three events last season; Daytona in July, Bristol and Indianapolis.

Confused? Just wait. It gets much worse.

The Jimmy Means Racing NXS team has peddled its 2019 Owner Points to Mike Harmon Racing, improving Harmon’s chances of making the first few races of the season. Means then acquired Owner Points from Stewart-Haas Racing with Biagi-DenBeste, which will not field its traditional No. 98 Ford this season.

Means: Maximizing his chances
Nonsensical as it appears on the surface, the Means-Harmon-SHR shuffle actually makes competitive sense. Both Means and Harmon dramatically improve their standing in the event of an early-season qualifying rain out, virtually ensuring that they will begin the 2020 campaign without a costly DNQ.

And finally, consider the curious case of JD Motorsports.

Veteran team owner Johnny Davis played the Owner Points system like Liberace played the piano this offseason, executing an in-house points shuffle among all four of his Xfinity Series teams.

Owner Points from JDM’s No. 01 car will move to the team’s No. 6 this season, with points from the No. 0 transferring to the No. 4 car. Owner points from Davis’ No. 15 jump to the No. 0, with points from the No. 4 car now residing with the No. 15.

Why, you ask?

Simply to put the maximum amount of Owner Points – and their accompanying security on qualifying day – behind his youngest, least experienced drivers, maximizing JDM’s chances of getting all four cars into the starting field.

The owners are not to blame here. They are simply exploiting loopholes in the Charter and Owner Points systems to their full advantage.

That’s what racers do, they exploit legal loopholes to find an advantage.

NASCAR is also well-intentioned in its effort to reward teams for making the maximum effort in previous seasons. But the current system continues to have some serious – and readily apparent – flaws that require attention.

A significant number of this year’s Charter transfers are nothing more than transparent paper shuffles designed to prevent organizations from failing to qualify, due to underperformance.

NASCAR’s current Charter agreement expires at the end of the 2024 season. Hopefully, the sanctioning body will see its way clear to close the loopholes before then.


Monday, January 20, 2020

COMMENTARY: There's Enough Larson To Go Around


Social media is in an uproar today, after Kyle Larson once again dared to mention NASCAR and the Chili Bowl in the same sentence.

The Elk Grove, California native carved out another chunk of history for himself Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, overhauling rival Christopher Bell with a testosterone-rich, high line pass that carried him all the way to Victory Lane in the country’s premier indoor midget race, the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.

The win earned Larson his first Golden Driller trophy and reversed a pattern of “close, but no cigar” Chili Bowl performances that have repeatedly denied him a shot at Victory Lane in recent years.

“It’s a pretty different range of emotions,” said Larson, who came out on the short end of a late-race, wheel-banging battle with Bell in last season’s Chili Bowl. “365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out.

“I’m sorry NASCAR. I’m sorry Daytona. But this is the biggest f’ing race I’ve ever won.”

Those comments triggered a veritable firestorm of reaction, with NASCAR fans leaping to defend their piece of the motorsports landscape against Larson’s perceived insult, while dirt track fans hooted in delight.

The debate continues at maximum volume today, with the two fan factions – dirt vs asphalt, big-time vs grassroots – lobbing digital insults at each other in a misguided attempt to prove that their form of motorsport is the best form of motorsport.

There are obviously plenty of differences between the Daytona 500 and the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

The “Great American Race” tops 100,000 in attendance each season and is watched by millions more worldwide on FOX. The Chili Bowl plays out before a somewhat cozier in-person crowd of roughly 15,000, with thousands more watching on MAV-TV.

Both events do tremendously well. And while undeniably different, the Daytona 500 and Chili Bowl Nationals share identical roots. Both showcase the very best that our sport has to offer, galvanizing legions of supportive fans to pack their respective grandstands, clad in a rainbow of apparel that pledges allegiance to their favorite driver.

That’s a good thing, my friends, regardless of where your motorsports allegiance lies. And before the rising tumult drowns out any remaining semblance of rational thought, here are a couple of points, for what they’re worth.

Kyle Larson has never won the Daytona 500. He did go to Victory Lane in an Xfinity race there – the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 in July of 2018 – but until he does, Saturday night’s Chili Bowl win should indeed rank as the “biggest f’ing race” he’s ever won.

Perhaps a Daytona 500 win – if it comes -- will change his perspective. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s fine.

The contention in some corners that Larson has short-changed his NASCAR career by giving so much time, attention and emotion to his Sprint Car and Midget program is difficult – if not impossible – to prove. Easier to determine is that with 20 NASCAR National Series wins in eight seasons, the 27-year old has experienced far more success than the vast majority of drivers his age.

“Yung Money” has been a Top-10 points finisher in four of his six NASCAR Cup Series seasons, and since going full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014, he has finished above his respective teammates (Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch) every year but one.

It is difficult to measure the success of a driver against competitors who drive different equipment; either better or worse. Has Larson won enough to rank with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano on the talent scale? That’s a matter of opinion.

But the facts show that he has been the lead horse in the draft at CGR, just about every step of the way.

Larson clearly loves driving race cars; either full-fendered or open wheeled. He demonstrated that affection by showing up for last week’s Chili Bowl preliminaries with the whites of his eyes tinted an eerie mixture of purple, red and black; the result of an end-over-end, eggbeater midget crash at a dirt track in New Zealand late last month.

He didn’t have to tape his eyes open, Ricky Rudd-style. But Larson’s dedication to the game was on full display in Tulsa last week.

The current debate over Larson’s “Sorry NASCAR” comment is like cats fighting over a favorite toy. There’s enough of Kyle to go around; enough for us all to share from Daytona to Tulsa, Watkins Glen to New South Wales.

Larson is a walking, talking throwback to a bygone era in our sport when drivers like AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney jumped from stock cars to sports cars to Sprint Cars to midgets – sometimes in the same weekend – and earned our undying respect by doing so.

It’s time to cut Larson some slack.

Let him race what he wants, and love it all.



COMMENTARY: MLB Controversy Provides A Valuable Lesson For NASCAR


Major League Baseball finds itself earlobe-deep in controversy this week, after it was revealed that the Houston Astros used technology to steal signs from opposing teams during their 2017 World Series championship season, as well as in 2018.

The controversy first came to light in November of last year, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich of The Athletic that the team had utilized a center field video camera to steal opposing teams' signs and communicate pitches to batters. Following an MLB investigation, the Astros were fined $5 million and will forfeit their first and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.

General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch were suspended by MLB for the entire 2020 season, before subsequently being fired by the Astros. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora – who helped orchestrate the sign-stealing scam while serving as bench coach for the Astros in 2017 – was also dismissed, as was newly hired New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017.

The sanctions were the most severe ever handed down to an MLB organization for in-game misconduct, and they provide a valuable lesson for other sports – like NASCAR – about the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the game.

Cheating is not unique to baseball. NASCAR has long grappled with the concept of “superior interpretation of the rules,” dating back to its moonshining roots. In the past, when faced with cheating scandals of its own, NASCAR and its fan base have often responded with little more than a wink and a shrug.

The consensus of opinion among many in this sport is that “If you’re not cheating, you’re not competing;” an attitude that has done little to aid NASCAR’s effort to be seen as a major league professional sport. In fact, NASCAR is often viewed in the stick-and-ball world as the sport where everybody cheats, and nobody cares.

The sanctioning body has taken steps recently to alter that perception. NASCAR announced a year ago that it would begin disqualifying teams found to have broken the rules, penalizing them to last place in the finishing order. Joe Gibbs Racing was the first team to feel the impact of that new attitude, when driver Erik Jones lost a fourth-place finish to a post-race Optical Scanning Station failure at Richmond Raceway in September of 2019.

The current Major League Baseball controversy provides a valuable opportunity for both NASCAR and its fans to honestly evaluate how casual observers have long viewed our game. As we look down upon MLB and the Houston Astros today – collectively shaking our heads and harrumphing in disdain – we understand at long last how the rest of the world has viewed NASCAR through its myriad rule breaking scandals.

With the benefit of a little distance, NASCAR and its fans now have a unique opportunity to see the forest, rather than just the trees. We have an opportunity to see – from a comfortable distance -- just how damaging the concept of widespread, systemic cheating can be to a sport, its teams and its players.

There is a lesson to be learned here, if we’re smart enough to learn it.

Unfortunately, the reaction of many in NASCAR Nation has been indifference.

“I don’t care about baseball,” they huff. “That has nothing to do with NASCAR.”

Well, it has everything to do with NASCAR.

Baseball’s current state of upheaval is no different than what NASCAR went through in the aftermath of the 2013 Michael Waltrip Racing “Itchy Arm” scandal, when drivers Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and others intentionally manipulated the outcome of the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway, in order to allow teammate Martin Truex, Jr., to advance to the playoffs.

Like the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, what happened in NASCAR that day was a systemic, organization-wide plot to manipulate the outcome of a major sporting event. And like the current MLB controversy, the events of September 7, 2013 cast a shadow over our sport that may never completely dissipate.

For those among us who are not NASCAR myopic -- who recognize and understand that there are other sports out there that do not involve screaming engines and squealing tires – how has your opinion of Major League Baseball changed in the last few weeks?

Has this latest controversy – combined with the still-lingering taint of the Steroid Scandal – sullied the sport in your eyes? Does the realization that cheating in Major League Baseball is widespread and largely condoned make you less of a fan? And does the knowledge that the Houston Astros (quite literally) stole the 2017 World Series title make you think less of them as an organization?

Of course it does. As it should.

And that’s why NASCAR needs to watch, listen and learn from what Major League Baseball is going through right now.

Integrity matters.

Reputation counts.

And once it’s gone, it’s difficult to regain.






Monday, November 18, 2019

NASCAR's Phelps Charts A Course For 2021


NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with the media yesterday, just hours before Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, delivering an annual “State of the Sport” address that hailed the 2019 campaign as a positive one for the sport.
“Our competition right now on the intermediate tracks and superspeedways… is the best we’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ll start with myself as a fan. I love watching and am super excited when we get to the intermediate tracks and superspeedways, (for) the type of racing we are going to see.
“The results from the competition side are working from a consumption standpoint,” he said. “Our (television) ratings are up 4% this year. All of sports is down 9%, we’re plus 4%. There are fewer people watching television in all sports, obviously, (and) fewer people watching television overall. So when they were watching… they were watching more NASCAR. We’re taking share from someone else, which is important.”
While declining to name names, the NASCAR president said there is strong interest from other manufacturers in joining Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota in the sport, once the new NextGen race car comes online in 2021. Published reports had executives from Honda in attendance two weeks ago at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, and Toyota Racing Development President and General Manager David Wilson said he had a lengthy conversation with that unnamed manufacturers last week, answering questions about the requirements and hurdles associated with fielding a new NASCAR brand
“We had some folks in Phoenix that were interested in coming into the sport,” Phelps said. “It’s important for us. We are working hard to try to determine kind of the timing of that, what that looks like, and what that partnership would look like moving forward bringing someone in.
“The world is a lot different than it was. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to have an OEM come in, plug in, and start to compete on the racetrack.”
Phelps confirmed that hybrid technology will be a part of NASCAR’s engine plans, calling it critical to the sport’s effort to attract new OEMs. He assured, however, that full electrification in not a part of the sanctioning body’s plan.
“This engine is going to sound significantly the same as the current engine,” Phelps said. “We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That’s not what this is about. It’s about having a relevant engine to our OEM partners; Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as the new OEMs that we’re looking at.”
While hailing the impact of the sanctioning body’s new rule package on intermediate tracks, Phelps admitted that more work is needed to resurrect the sport’s short tracks and road courses. NASCAR originally proposed that the new package be used only on tracks longer than one mile this season. Team owners resisted the idea, saying that two packages would create a financial hardship. NASCAR elected to implement the package across the board, a decision that negatively impacted competition on short tracks and road courses  
Phelps revealed that despite his promise to make no additional rule changes in advance of the NextGen car’s projected rollout in 2021, changes will indeed be made next season.
“Do I think we need to work with our industry, Goodyear, our race teams and OEM partners to improve what we’re seeing on the short tracks? I do. We’re going to do that in the off season, for sure.”



Monday, November 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: For Hamlin, This One Feels Different


Denny Hamlin remembers.

He remembers the seasons when he entered the NASCAR playoffs as a top bet for the title, only to have bad luck, twists of fate and frequent lacks of focus send the championship trophy home in the hands of others.

He remembers the 2010 debacle at ISM Raceway in Phoenix where botched pit strategy cost him an almost-certain trip to Victory Lane and most of a 60-point championship edge over Jimmie Johnson.
He remembers a stunning early crash in the 2010 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway that ended his championship hopes and handed a historic fifth-consecutive title to Johnson.
Those failures loomed like thunderclouds on the horizon Sunday; less than a week after a stunning, solo spin at Texas Motor Speedway dropped the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from a relatively secure 20 points above the playoff cutline to 24 points below, setting the stage for another potential playoff collapse. The signs were all there; another “here we go again” opportunity for Hamlin to let victory slip through his fingers when it matters most.
This time, though, it was different.
This time, the Virginia native exorcised the demons of seasons past with a championship-qualifying win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Despite a late-race caution caused by John Hunter Nemechek’s bout with the Turn Four wall that set up a three-lap dash for all the marbles.

Despite a decision by crew chief Chris Gabehart to take just two tires on a decisive final pit stop, leaving Hamlin in the crosshairs of teammates Kyle Busch and Truex, both of whom had bolted on four fresh Goodyear Eagles.

Despite a desperation attempt by Ryan Blaney to snatch the lead away and steal Hamlin’s ticket to Ford Championship Weekend.

This time around, there was no disappointment. No excuses, no “what ifs,” no “what might have been.”

Just an opportunity to finally remove his name from the list of Greatest NASCAR Drivers Never to Win a Championship.

“I can't believe it,” said a stunned Hamlin in the aftermath of his sixth win of the 2019 campaign and the 37th of his career. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there.  I put them in a bad hole last week. I told them today in the meeting, ‘I'm going to give everything I've got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ That's all I got.”

The Fed Ex Toyota driver led a race-high 143 laps Sunday, surrendering the lead only once in the final 146 circuits; then only during a run of green-flag pit stops. He built a lead of more than 12 seconds at one juncture, wheeling what he called “one of the best cars of my career” through a minefield of lapped traffic without so much as a momentary glitch.

On the final restart, with former champions Truex and Busch set to relegate him to the “close, but no cigar” column yet again, Hamlin was perfect, stiff-arming the competition and pulling away by .377 seconds down the stretch, leaving Busch to wonder aloud how two tires could perform so much better than four.

With the win, Hamlin joins JGR teammates Truex and Busch in Sunday’s title tiff, along with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. There is no clear favorite for this year’s title, but Hamlin and Gabehart seem to have everything its takes – including the proper mental outlook – to finally grab NASCAR’s brass ring.

"I've been through so many playoffs,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “So many things that went wrong. This year, I'm waiting for the right next thing to happen. I can't thank this team enough. I don't have words yet. I'm going to have to do a little bit more donuts… then go to Homestead."

Everyone talks confidently at this time of year. Everyone likes their team and their chances. Hamlin has said all the right things before, only to come up empty when the chips were down.

This time around, though, things feel different.

The Chesterfield, Virginia native seems more confident, more focused and more confident in a crew chief who has helped him exorcise his demons; a man whose confidence level is so high that he chastised his driver via e-mail last week for saying that their season would still be a success, even without a championship.

With 37 MENCS victories in his column, it’s time for Hamlin to take the final step in his career; the step from “winner” to “champion.”

And this time around, he seems ready to do exactly that.