Monday, February 25, 2013

COMMENTARY: Blame The Pilot, Not The Airplane

Disappointed in the lack of side-by-side racing in Sunday’s Daytona 500?

Don’t blame NASCAR’s new, Generation 6 race car.

Much of Sunday’s 2013 season opener was spent in single-file formation, with drivers huddled passively against the outside SAFER barrier, logging laps, playing it safe and attempting few – if any – passes. A number of drivers expressed unhappiness with the race’s “better safe than sorry” tempo, with Jeff Gordon complaining via in-car radio, "I think we're fast enough to get past a lot of these cars. If (someone would) step out with us, we could make it work."

Eventual second-place finisher Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sang a similar tune, telling crew chief Steve Letarte, “Nobody wants to go with anybody.” Clint Bowyer groused in a midrace Motor Racing Network radio conversation, “I’m getting antsy. I keep asking (crew chief) Brian Pattie, `Can I go yet? This is boring!’”

And yet, no one broke from the rank and file until the final 20 laps, when a ho-hum Daytona 500 suddenly turned into a no-holds barred nail biter. Finally off his leash, Earnhardt busted out the first in a series of scintillating three-wide moves, catapulting his National Guard Chevrolet through the middle of a snarling pack of race cars en route to his second runner-up Daytona 500 finish in the last four seasons.

While Junior hammered away in Daytona's dangerous middle groove, Jimmie Johnson staked claim to the supposedly unworkable inside line, gathering up a handful of drafting partners and overhauling leader Brad Keselowski in the last of 28 lead changes on the day. Johnson held off his hard-charging Hendrick Motorsports teammate by a car length at the line to claim his second career Daytona 500 victory, and even he executed his post-race victory burnout, unhappy fans clogged social media with complaints and demands for major rule changes.

“Why couldn’t they do THAT all day long,” they asked. “Why were the first 180 laps so boring?”

The answer has nothing to do with rules, and everything to do with intent. The final 20 laps of Sunday’s race proved beyond all doubt that NASCAR’s new car can compete side-by-side, if the drivers elect to do so.

So why did they wait so long to release the hounds Sunday?

In the aftermath of a savage Nationwide Series crash that rained debris into the grandstands and sent more than two dozen fans to area hospitals a day earlier, a certain degree of discretion was perhaps understandable. Veteran Mark Martin gave voice to that sentiment, saying, “I was happy we were able to race and not have a huge accident.”

In Victory Lane, Johnson indicated that the scarcity of parts for the new, Gen-6 cars may also have played a role, saying, "When we were running single file, we were just trying to get to the finish. We've all crashed so much. I believe a lot of competitors wanted to get to the last pit stop and then race for it, instead of tearing up their equipment."

Bottom line? The drivers could have raced harder yesterday, but chose not to. Blame the pilot, not the airplane

Earnhardt attempted to calm the fan base after the checkered flag, saying, "The car is doing everything we hoped it would do. The package is really good. The (track) surface is still relatively new. If we had the old surface with this car, it would have been an incredible race, people sliding around and wearing tires out.

"We're headed in the right direction," he said. "Today, for some reason, it just felt like we're on the right track as a sport. That's got me really excited.”
NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver said a few minor “tweaks” – a little more rear spoiler, perhaps– could produce spectacular racing in the circuit’s next restrictor plate race, at Talladega Superspeedway in June. Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski agreed, saying Earnhardt was “spot on” with his favorable assessment of the new car.

A minor rule change may ultimately be in order, but a better, more competitive attitude on the part of the drivers will help even more.

When the desire was there Sunday, the drivers could race.

They just needed a little more “want to.”


  1. Ian Schrader10:34 AM

    Amen brother. The drivers have been the cause of the lack of action at Talladega first and then Daytona since the re-paves. The tracks are so smooth that they can just line up and eat away laps without risking anything. When the track surface is rough, they are forced to try different lines and strategies to get through the race. We saw after one restart that cars could race and pass the leader, but no one wanted to risk losing positions or an accident so they lined back up again. Time will fix it as the tracks age.

  2. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Well they won't be putting butts in the seats and eyes on the TV's if this is how racing is going to be.

  3. Michael Hill11:10 AM

    Why should they want to race earlier? What advantage does it get them? In restrictor plate racing, everyone catches up eventually, especially after a caution. As NASCAR has designed this "sport" there is really no reason to watch any race until the last 50 miles or so.

  4. Michael in SoCal12:34 PM

    Part of the issue with the single-file racing was the need to be there at the end of 200 laps to compete for the win. Hence parade-racing for 180 laps, then a mad dash to the end. Maybe the race is too long?

  5. Anonymous2:05 PM

    What's worse is the guys who wanted to race got shuffled to the back in most cases. It was pretty frustrating to watch.

  6. We have gone from pack racing to tandem racing to pack racing now we've got single file. Nationwide and truck races were the best of the weekend by far!

  7. I have to disagree to at least some extent, Dave.

    Certainly excessive caution by drivers after the Kyle Larson crash had a role in the lack of passing, but that should not have been that prevalent. By race morning it was clear injured spectators were going to recover fully and were already being discharged from hospital; it was also clear specifically what went wrong - the fence held up fine; it turned out to be the crossover gate that created chaos.

    The lack of passing in the 500 predated the Daytona 300 - it showed in the Shootout, in January testing, and in all Cup practices. The lack of parts for the Generation Six car certainly hurt, and that's an indictment of NASCAR for the slapdash nature of its program to build it. But by being about poor handling instead of stability, the Generation Six car is its own impediment to passing. Anytime handling is more important than the draft - and this applies to the "cookie cutter" tracks as well because they have a history where the draft was effective even though not to the same extent as the plate tracks - then passing is stifled. And it wasn't a safer race as there were several multi-car crashes.

    The small rear spoiler and the stubby rear deck are a total joke; the ugly top-heavy sedan design is no different from the COT; changing the underside of the cars to take away downforce (450 pounds of it from what I understand) wasn't a good idea. Contrast with the Truck 250 and the Nationwide 300 - the Trucks had some spirited battling up front while the Nationwide 300 was by far the best race of Speedweeks, because that Nationwide package is about the draft and the tandem draft, not handling.

    The car needs more than a slightly taller rear spoiler - NASCAR needs to give up on trying to stifle tandem drafting; go back to a 6-inch spoiler with wicker on top, make it out of clear material like on many local Late Models and Pro Stocks so drivers can see through out the lead car's windshield, give back underside downforce, give back cooling strength to the radiators, and add back the small roof blade last seen on the Nationwide cars at Talladega in 2010. We know such combos have produced near-unlimited passing.

    Certainly the pilots do deserve some criticism for the dearth of passing in the 500, but the Gen-6 car and NASCAR's rules myopia should not be given the benefit of the doubt.

  8. If the rules prevented side-by-side racing for the first 180 laps Sunday, who changed them with 20 to go? Because the cars looked pretty racing at the end.

  9. you could have at least credited the gunslinger....

  10. If there was no action...


    I saw plenty of action on Sunday!