Monday, March 19, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Made The Right Move To End Pre-Qualifying Debacles

Last Friday, 13 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams failed to pass pre-qualifying technical inspection at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. As a result, those 13 teams – fully 1/3 of the field -- did not make qualifying runs, relegating themselves to the rear of the field for Sunday’s running of the Auto Club 400.

That sounds like a significant penalty, but it’s not.

In a 400-mile marathon event, a 100-yard disadvantage is negligible, at best. And on a track like Auto Club Speedway, where tire falloff begins virtually at the drop of the green flag, the ability to start the race on new tires – rather than tires with a minimum of six qualifying laps on them – is seen by many observers as an advantage.

Polesitter Martin Truex, Jr., was candid in his assessment Friday, saying that unless a driver was starting in the front two rows, it would be advantageous to start at the rear of the grid, on new rubber.

Dealing with what former NASCAR official Jim Hunter affectionately called “bamboozlement and chicanery” is nothing new. The winner of NASCAR’s first sanctioned race in 1949 was disqualified for utilizing non-stock suspension components, and the technological tug-of-war between racers and officials has continued unabated, ever since.

NASCAR's Miller: "Too many illegal cars."
But at Auto Club Speedway, a two-mile oval where aerodynamics are critical to a car’s performance, the temptation for teams to grab every possible advantage was apparently too much to resist. Team after team tested NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station Friday, failing multiple pre-qualifying inspections in an embarrassing sideshow for both them and NASCAR.  

“This is one of the more aero-dependent tracks on the circuit,” explained NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. “So it’s no surprise that they would be pushing the limits on that. The faster the race track, the more important the aerodynamics are.”

Asked whether there was an issue with the OSS system, he replied tersely, “Too many illegal cars.”

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford, went a step further, telling Sirius XM NASCAR Radio that he believes some teams intentionally failed pre-qualifying inspection Friday, in an effort to start the race on new tires.

“The problems in inspection were not procedural problems,” said Gordon. “They were, to some extent, intentional problems.”

Late Friday evening, NASCAR responded to its latest rules controversy, announcing that drivers who had made qualifying attempts would be allowed to bolt-on new tires for the start of Sunday’s race.

The following day, the sanctioning body went a step further, telling Xfinity Series competitors that teams failing pre-qualifying inspection would be required to pit on the opening lap of the event for a “pass-through” penalty, leaving them at least one lap down to the field.

Not coincidentally, every NXS team passed pre-qualifying inspection, with flying colors.

While altering procedures in the middle of a race weekend is not ideal, NASCAR can be forgiven for shuffling the deck at Auto Club Speedway. The sanctioning body should never allow teams to profit from creating – intentionally or not -- the kind of debacle witnessed at Auto Club Speedway last Friday. And they should never reward teams for giving anything less than their best.

The sanctioning body’s new “first lap pass-through” policy is expected to continue this weekend at Martinsville Speedway and for the remainder of the season. Hopefully, the new sanction will convince teams to arrive at the speedway with legal race cars and race them to the best of their ability.

Monday, March 05, 2018

COMMENTARY: Moffitt's Vegas Traffic Issues Are Part Of The Game

Brett Moffitt was an unhappy camper following Friday night’s Stratosphere 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.

Despite being passed for the win in the late going by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series invader Kyle Busch, Moffitt expressed no animosity toward either Busch or the NASCAR policy that allows Cup regulars to drop down and compete in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Moffitt’s unhappiness stemmed from difficulty navigating lapped traffic in the closing laps, including a door-banging session with Michel Disdier that allowed Busch to slip past and claim the lead.

“I respect Kyle a lot with everything he’s done,” said Moffitt after a disappointing third-place showing. “It’s fun to race door-to-door with him. People don’t like him coming and racing in the Truck Series, but I love it. Being able to run with him and learn off him is really good for my career and helps me out.”
He was critical of lapped drivers, however, saying, “It’s fun racing with (Busch) because he can drive. Half of them can’t.”

Moffitt’s unhappiness stemmed from a pair of scuffles with lapped cars in the final 25 laps. The first involved Myatt Snider – who had just returned to the track after serving a pit road penalty and falling two laps down -- and Michel Disdier, who banged doors with the leader while being lapped.

Moffitt (16) hounded Busch to the finish.
“When (Snider) pulled out from the pits a couple laps down and side drafted us for the lead, it allowed Kyle to close in,” complained Moffitt afterward. “I tried to go to the bottom of a lapped car (Disdier) and he turned down into us.”
Moffitt’s bid to regain the lead ended when Norm Benning – multiple laps down after being black-flagged by NASCAR for failing to maintain minimum speed earlier in the evening – crowded the runner-up’s line and broke his momentum.
“It’s frustrating because when you’re out of the race, you shouldn’t get in the way of the leaders,” said Moffitt, who locked himself into the NCWTS playoffs with a win two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “It’s just a bittersweet race.
“It was just uncalled for.”
While Moffitt’s anger is understandable, incidents like those experienced Friday night are not uncommon in the Camping World Truck Series.
Brett Moffitt
As the lowest of NASCAR’s three national divisions, the Truck Series attracts drivers with less big-track experience than their Xfinity or Monster Energy brethren. At your local short track, the closing rate between leaders and lapped cars is relatively low. On a smoking-fast half mile like Las Vegas Motor Speedway, however, the difference between the “haves” and “have nots” can be as much as 20 mph.
Combined with a lack of experience, those sky-high closing rates can (and do) result in some anxious moments for race leaders; some of whom are also relatively low on the experience ladder.
In the aftermath of Friday night’s race, it would be easy to overreact. Some observers have done exactly that, calling upon NASCAR to black-flag all lapped machines with 20 laps to go, clearing the field for race leaders to compete unimpeded for the win.
Others have advocated for the sanctioning body to immediately disqualify any vehicle unable to maintain minimum speed; parking them for the day after a single infraction.
At the end of the day, however, no major changes are needed. Part of learning to race at the highest levels of the sport is learning how to deal with lapped traffic, and how to conduct oneself as a lapped vehicle.
Those skills don’t come from a rulebook. They are learned firsthand, on the race track.
And sometimes, mistakes are the best teacher.