When Sprint Cup practice ends Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, inspection bays will open (10 minutes early, no less), and NASCAR’s most important ongoing referendum will be renewed.
This isn’t about the laser-guided machines that will be under extra scrutiny after a qualifying debacle at Atlanta Motor Speedway that resulted in 13 drivers – including past champions Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson – failing to complete a lap.
It’s about the man who ostensibly oversees the controversial contraptions that have made some teams livid via the rigid pass-fail standards with zero tolerance used to enforce NASCAR’s 2015 rulebook.
While the inspection process has garnered most of the attention, what actually is being tested is Richard Buck’s reputation and whether he successfully can make the transition into the ultimate authority overseeing the technical specifications that govern performance in NASCAR.
The Sprint Cup director is in his second season as the de-facto garage boss, but this is his first in the public eye. After supplanting John Darby, ending a four-year search to replace a man who’d ruled NASCAR’s technical inspections for 12 seasons, Buck spent much of 2014 hidden behind the curtain.
He has become a much more prominent figure since Speedweeks this season, leading drivers meetings for the first time at Daytona and then Atlanta.
And though it isn’t listed in the job description for his position, Buck crossed another important milestone last weekend at Atlanta.
Crisis management is an essential part of being a Sprint Cup director, and last Friday night, Buck was front and center for the first time in the Atlanta media center trying to explain how qualifying had transpired without the participation of four superstars.
It was a solid debut for Buck, who deftly tried to straddle the line between defending his regime’s practices without overtly calling out competitors.
“Our job is to treat everybody fairly and give them an opportunity to come through that inspection room,” Buck said. “But their responsibility is to come through there right to the limit. So I think that’s what you saw today was everybody pushing the limits.”
But in subtly deflecting blame and shifting it to some of the teams at Atlanta, it also roiled the seas of the sport’s movers and shakers. Many weren’t pleased by some of his answers, and it isn’t the first time there’s been some dissent in the garage this season.
At Daytona, the execution of group qualifying was a mess, generating mass headlines with unhappy stars. But some of the friction was more subtle.
During the first practice of the season, Tony Stewart was yanked off the track (and subsequently angered) because he hadn’t weighed in yet. It seemed almost as if Buck and company quietly were flaunting their power in a passive-aggressive style that will be necessary until they can wield the influence that Darby built over more than a decade.
If Hollywood were doing the screenplay, imagine Gary Cole in a NASCAR inspector uniform while channeling his Bill Lumbergh character in the cult classic, “Office Space.”
“Hey crew chiefs, what’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.”
This isn’t an entirely a laughing matter, though. At the heart of it is one of the most important issues in NASCAR: Improving the racing on the 1.5-mile tracks (such as Las Vegas) that comprise the bulk of the schedule.
It’s been hailed as a collaborative effort between there sanctioning body and teams to enhance competition, but a weekly field of 43 cars fosters a boiling cauldron of countless opinions.
NASCAR has a 67-year track record showing an iron-fisted approach generally can work as sound governance.
It’s Buck who currently is gripping that hammer. Will he have the clout to enforce his will?
That’s what will bear watching every time the garage opens for business.