Monday, February 16, 2015

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Serving Multiple Masters

NASCAR finds itself with its head in a vice again this week, in the aftermath of a group qualifying session last Sunday that was simultaneously exhilarating and exasperating.

Jeff Gordon claimed the Daytona 500 pole with a fast lap at 201.293, followed closely by Hendrick Motorsports teammate and outside-pole qualifier Jimmie Johnson. On most days, the final Daytona 500 qualifying effort of Gordon’s illustrious career would have stolen all the headlines.

Sunday, however, it was reduced to sidebar status by an on-track crash involving Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer that unleashed a torrent of criticism on NASCAR and its new group qualifying format.

Admittedly, there was plenty to dislike in Sunday’s group qualifying session. The event featured as much waiting as actual racing, with drivers repeatedly backing onto pit road and sitting idle while the clock ticked away, awaiting the arrival of the proper teammates to execute their drafting plan. The lowlight of the session came when Reed Sorenson threw an ill-advised block on Bowyer and Justin Allgaier, triggering a multi-car crash that was immediately blamed on… the sanctioning body.

"It ain't (Sorenson’s) fault," said Bowyer, just moments after demolishing his second Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota in as many days. "It's NASCAR's fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing.

"There's no reason to be putting on a show, trying to make something out of nothing that doesn't need to be," he said. "These cars are just destroyed, for no reason.”

Tony Stewart dubbed the new format “a complete embarrassment,” while defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick said, “It sucks that 56 years of tradition at Daytona --where fast cars ruled -- has ended.”

As a result of all that unhappiness, NASCAR finds itself faced with a series of multi-billion dollar questions today, for which there may be no correct answers.

Unfortunately, what’s best for drivers and teams is absolutely wrong for fans and broadcast partners. FOX and NBC will spend $8.2 billion to broadcast NASCAR racing over the next 10 years, and they want drama for their dollar. Group qualifying features all the drafting, strategy, drama and intrigue that make the Daytona 500 itself so captivating, and is infinitely more entertaining than 2.5 hours of mindless, solo circling.

There is an associated risk, of course. Wrecked race cars, the potential for driver injury and the ensuing torrent of negative, post-qualifying commentary can’t possibly be what NASCAR had in mind.

“If it’s better for the fans, then it’s definitely good for all of us,” admitted Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards Sunday. “(This system) creates some storylines. It definitely stirs things up. In some ways, it might be more entertaining. But it is a heck of a way to qualify for the biggest race of the year, because there’s so much chance for a problem or something keeping you out of the race.”

So what is a sanctioning body to do?

NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell
NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said Sunday that “minor adjustments” made to discourage on-track blocking failed to bear fruit Sunday, as evidenced by Sorenson’s crash. “We don’t want to see wrecks,” he said, “and if there’s a way to avoid that, we’ll take a look… and see what we can do to make adjustments. We've got a really good track record of making adjustments where we need to, so we'll certainly evaluate what took place."

Here in NASCAR Nation, our memories are mercifully short. We forget the days of single car qualifying at Daytona and Talladega; 2.5-hour Sominex commercials that did little more than set the field for the more volatile (and exciting) Budweiser Duel heat races to come. We also forget the day at Talladega Superspeedway when drivers – faced with a 100% guarantee of rain on qualifying day -- went all out in a thrilling, mass-melee final practice, knowing that the fastest lap would yield a pole-position start on Sunday.

Drivers bubbled over with excitement that day. Fans were effusive in their praise, asking, “Why can’t we do this all the time?”

NASCAR listened, and now, they’re paying the price.

The sanctioning body cannot be blamed for the mass twiddling of thumbs on pit road Sunday. Teams plot qualifying strategy – not NASCAR -- and despite shortening each round to just five minutes, many of them elected to wait for the bitter end to get busy. That’s on them.

The allegation of “unfairness” from some quarters is also unfounded. Group qualifying may have been unfortunate for Bowyer and company, but it was not unfair. Just as they will in Sunday’s Daytona 500, each team had an opportunity to devise and implement its own qualifying strategy. Each driver chose when to join the fray, who to draft with, who to block and when to make his move in search of a fast qualifying lap.

Every driver had an equal opportunity to succeed Sunday. Some made more of that opportunity than others.
The outcry over wrecked race cars also seems a bit disingenuous. Drivers have risked life, limb and equipment in the Budweiser Duels for nearly 60 years, without significant complaint.  Wrecking in group time trials is no worse than wrecking in a heat race, and absolutely no riskier.

“We were bitching then, and we’re bitching now,” said six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson with a grin Sunday. “It must be racing.

“At some point in time, in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, ‘Yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we (wrecked).’ If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things.”

Perhaps one day, NASCAR will learn how to serve multiple masters, allowing everyone to achieve their goals while remaining both happy and safe.

Sadly, Sunday was not that day.


  1. As usual-great perspective

  2. Anonymous11:49 AM

    Funnily enough, the TV networks signed big contracts before the sport became the WWE. Close, competitive racing and interesting drivers is drama enough for most fans.

    Unfortunately, the emphasis is off track antics and comments which is exactly what NASCAR wants. For those of us who don't care for that crap, it makes NASCAR irrelevant as a form of competitive motorsport. Furthermore, today's new fan will grow up on a form of competition that always chases rabbits, looking for the next gimmick. That fan will be turned off, because the sport will cease to have an identity with that fan. A sport that doesn't know itself will always leave fans with the thought "what am I watching?"

    I believe issues like this and the new Chase format will make fans sizzle out on NASCAR. Fans will soon realize that the closeness in points and the desperate attempts to create drama both on and off the track will translate into a sport that is makes NASCAR disingenuous and fake. Fans will choose to stay home with TVs off unless NASCAR gets "real" again as a relevant, wholesome competitive endeavour.

    1. Good points. Nascar has jumped the shark with group qualifying at the superspeedways and the Chase.

    2. Coudn't agree more "Anonymous"..... NASCAR needs to return to racing and stop trying to entertain the short attention span fans they have now....

    3. Anonymous6:33 PM

      well said! applause for your comment.

    4. The gimmickization of NASCAR is a major problem - personified by the fraudulent Chase format, exposed as such by the fact a winless driver was contending for the title in the final race - but the criticism of group qualifying ignores that the old one-car-per-time format had worn out its relevance. It took awhile to get used to this new approach, but overall it has proven something.

      The real issue with group qualifying is the annoying habit of gaming the system instead of going out and doing your best - a problem this shares with Indianapolis 500 qualifying and the preposterous refusal of the 500 to ban wave-offs and thus make teams qualify in one fell swoop.

      Also annoying is the habit of drivers, shown in Bowyer's criticism, of blaming something else when they should be holding themselves accountable. Sorenson did a dumb thing and it led to a crash; that's all Bowyer should have criticized. The hindsight criticism of Bowyer and Tony Stewart shows them to be two-faced.

      As Anonymous notes, off-track antics have usurped the racing, but I disagree that NASCAR wants it that way, because the off-track antics are boorish. Aric Almirola got torn up in the Saturday night shootout and we heard nothing from him about it - it's called professionalism, and clearly Richard Petty has imparted a level of professionalism to Aric that the hot shoes need to learn.

  3. Anonymous12:05 PM

    What "fans" want this type of qualifying? I don't know anyone that likes it. There was absolutely NOTHING wrong with the old way!

    1. Anonymous6:32 PM

      I didn't see a lot of fan support for this new qualifying format on Sunday. I agree that there wasn't anything wrong with the old syste when the fastest car took the pole instead of the current CF method that NASCAR & TV has imposed. Let's face it yeah there is a lot of $ in those TV contracts but ratings haven't gone up no matter what silliness NASCAR has tried to use to "fix' their system. NASCAR has become a laughingstock and a joke. Once upon a time, the sport & the fans were derided as "rednecks" but we had fun and liked our sport. Now I hate to admit that I follow it.

  4. Dave, I couldn't disagree with you more and I totally agree with everything Clint Bowyer said. The fan experience, mine, and I don't think I'm in the minority, was tainted and I was left with a jaundiced view of qualifying at Daytona, eased only by the fact that my guy is on the pole. Group qualifying at Daytona and Talladega is totally misconceived and is, pardon the pun, an accident waiting to happen. And as far as the mass thumb twiddling goes, if your butt was parked in a car or on top of a box, what would be YOUR strategy to win the pole?

  5. Anonymous1:10 PM

    I think they should qualify 3 cars at a time sending them out at 20 second intervals for 3 laps. When the third car passes the pit road exit on their 3rd lap, the next group of 3 start. If a caution comes out the cars on track get a do-over at the end of qualifying, that way their engines get a chance to cool off. This way there would be no waiting on pit road and there would be something to watch contently. I'm sure Nascar could figure out the intervals better than me! :-)
    JustPlaying @playingjust14 (on twitter)

  6. Anonymous4:41 PM

    NASCAR can certainly control when the cars leave pit road. That would be a start. If you don't leave when the official tells you to leave, you park until the group is in turn 2. That would be a start.

  7. Qualifying is and was completely fair. Everyone starts with the same rules and the same chances.

    That being said, there are things that can and should be better.
    First off, no parking on pit road except in your stall. It's weird and dangerous. A simple rule - minimum speed on pit road on all tracks.

    Secondly - don't make drivers compete against drivers who aren't on the track with them. Group 1a sends 12 drivers to the second round and group 1b sends 12 drivers to the second round. Even without a red-flag just a cloud on a sunny summer day can make a huge difference.

    1. Anonymous1:44 AM

      how can one say same chances...regarding plate qualifying????? Please explain?

  8. You can keep the 5 minutes of time, and require the drivers to complete a total of 4 laps at race speed before the 5 minutes has expired. If a driver fails to to complete the 4 Lapa they do not get a timed lap. If you complete the 4 laps in the 5 minutes you will get credited with your fastest lap

  9. Anonymous1:42 AM

    I am hard pressed to understand the validity that everything has to be "boom" and "confetti"? Nascar starting with the stupid Chase has catered too much to fans who don't seem to know a lick about racing. Since when does qualifying have to be exciting, other than the unrealistic snow job they made to the broadcasters saying "billions will tune in"??????? No it wasn't fair, isn't fair regarding restrictor plate quals. Other tracks I actually don't see "the excitement" but I do like it, will I scream if they take it away, not at all, I could care less. Nascar is selling it's soul. And it is pretty obvious the people who make their paycheck in this business will not speak the truth.

  10. Anonymous9:06 AM

    What in the wide,wide world of sports was that on Sunday?? Nascar certainly didn't cater to the fan in me with this qualifying! Ellen,JJ's girlfriend

  11. Anonymous9:42 AM

    Anytime in racing when the goal is to be last, there is a problem. Your pole stter and his front row companion went out last, stayed last and soul have been 11th and 12th in a 12 car heat. Anytime being first is a penalty, there is a problem. The first that had the guts to go out, who led the pack the entire way ended up 12th. If NASCAR is trying to emulate F1, they are failing. In group quals in F1, if a driver gets anywhere near another one, or impedes another one, they are DQd and their time is disallowed. Group qualifying actually works pretty darn well in NASCAR on most tracks, but not on plate tracks.

  12. Anonymous10:10 AM

    As much as I love Hillbilly Clint's perspective he needs to ask himself why he was stuck in the middle of a dummy sandwich in the first place.

    The one thing I garnered from that qualifying session is that the Penske cars and Ryan Blaney are on an island by themselves. The press corps can espouse all they want about who are the favorites this year but it's blatantly obvious who the actual competitors think has the upper hand. The 2, 21 and 22 might as well have had the plague they were so alone out there.

  13. The group qualifying was boring and idiotic last year. It's like watching paint dry waiting for the drivers who are running out the clock FINALLY take to the track and the on - air commentators try to fill the dead air and talk about something other than than the view of the cars just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there. The difference is now more fans have finally noticed how bad it is because the new format was applied to the 500 qual.If this increased attention is what it finally take to get rid of this new qual format, I'm all for it. Qualifying in NASCAR is NEVER going to be like our local dirt short track as those quals take place within hours of the actual main event - not 1 or 2 days later. Even at the dirt track, a lot of fans don't show up until after quals or heats. Most people only care about the actual race. They could just take the quals and practices off the air and work on improving the race product.

  14. Anonymous4:44 PM

    Single car, 4 lap average for the front row only. Duels to determine the rest of the field. Four laps will keep the crew chiefs from taping it up too much and the car will have to handle. No one watches it at the track anymore, anyway.

  15. Anonymous6:10 PM

    I think they should all put their names in a hat, and let 2 fans pick 1 name each to set the pole and outside pole.

    This crap is a waste of time. The best part about the qualifying that I saw was drivers slamming NASCAR and the B.S. they tried to force feed fans.