NASCAR America Championship Roundtable: Debating driver code, playoffs

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NASCAR America on NBCSN will host a special Championship Roundtable at 7 p.m. ET tonight, putting myriad issues before NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton, Ray Evernham, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty.

For more than three hours on a set in Charlotte, N.C., the quartet addressed the hot topics in the Sprint Cup Series entering Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, where the field of four will be set for the championship finale Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The panel will make its picks for the championship as well as sharing some personal memories (such as their first cars).

The discussion gets started at 7 p.m. on NBCSN and also is available via the NASCAR stream on NBC Sports. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you plug in that information, you’ll have access to the stream. Click here at 7 pm ET to watch live via the stream.

A sneak preview of how some of the conversation went:

  • Will we see another driver make a move as Ryan Newman did on the last lap last year and knock aside a car for a point or position?

Burton: “They praised it (at Kansas). They said Joey Logano did the right thing. It was quintessential NASCAR. He wrecked the leader, and the head of NASCAR says that’s OK.”

Evernham: “Well, he wrecked the leader, but also the leader was blocking. Both guys have to have some responsibility in that accident.”

Burton: “But still, the head of NASCAR said it was quintessential NASCAR. That’s what he said. If you need to spin the leader out to take that spot, it’s OK. I think there is no rule. If you intentionally wreck a guy and you’re 10 laps down, (there’s a penalty), but if you’re second and wreck him, there’s no penalty coming from that.”

Petty: “There appears to be one set of rules if you’re a Chase driver, and one set if you’re not. What’s on the line right now is there’s only one winner. Everyone else is racing for points. What if you see the same thing that happened last year for 10th or 12th? How will they react after everything leading up to this? Everything is on the line for those seven guys. There’s a lot on the line because there are seven guys on that line. Some guys have to win, others can point their way.”

Burton: “What happened if Kevin Harvick has a problem and is two laps down and there’s a car in front of him that needs to go away? Then what does NASCAR do? It’s not for the lead. It could be for 25th. Then where is the line? This thing about, ‘The drivers know where the line is,’ I don’t think they do. I think your morality will be tested in certain situations.”

  • Is “quintessential racing” only for the lead or can you do it to advance yourself?

Petty: “There’s not a rule. I look at what Matt and Joey did at Kansas, that could have happened in the second race of the year, the 10th race, the 15th race of the year, but I think Brian France would look at it and say ‘quintessential NASCAR racing.’ We’ve seen guys lean on each other for a win (and) move a guy for a win. When we go to Martinsville and talk about a line, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that. I’ve been around a long time and to see a car that was laps down eliminate the leader of a race. I’ve never seen anything that blatant in my life. Ever. Not that many laps down that took out a leader. I saw Richard Petty and Bobby Allison go at it like you wouldn’t believe. I saw Cale (Yarborough) and (David) Pearson, and we can talk the history of (Dale) Earnhardt and Rusty (Wallace).

“The thing with Carl (Edwards) (wrecking Brad Keselowski at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 2010) was the most blatant that I’d ever seen. NASCAR sat on their hands and didn’t do anything. That was an opportunity to do something, and they didn’t do anything. So here we end up years later, and it just keeps escalating and escalating and escalating. Somebody doesn’t step in and rein it back in, and they let it go, let it go. I look at Matt two ways. It was wrong. At the same time, NASCAR should have at some point in time reined someone in, we watched something happen that should never have happened. In that way, Matt Kenseth is a martyr to a lot of fans because people are applauding what he did because they’ve been told it’s quintessential NASCAR racing. Competitors believe the same thing. This accident is far more reaching and broader than what happened on the racetrack. It’s what competitors and fans believe is right or wrong. Is there a rip in the NASCAR fabric? What old fans and new fans believe are two totally different things. I talk about The King and how those guys raced, the one thing they never lost for each other was respect. They respected the equipment and the other people. There seems to be a lack of respect for each other on the racetrack sometimes on whether you help or hurt a guy. We’ve gone to a different place.”

Burton: “That’s the difference is NASCAR has stepped away from it. In the interest of the ‘Boys, have at it’ mantra, we’ll step away and let you guys handle it. And letting those guys handle it is OK until the line gets crossed. It’s from years of NASCAR wanting the action and excitement on the track and willing to float in this area here where there is no rule. Matt Kenseth knows it was wrong. But in the environment that’s been created because NASCAR wasn’t willing to step in, Matt Kenseth had a reasonable expectation that he was going to be in trouble, but he never considered he would be penalized that way. His penalty should have been no more than Jeff Gordon’s penalty unless NASCAR stepped in and said, ‘Look, it’s different.’ And they had time to step in and say it’s different, and they didn’t do it. So Matt Kenseth messed up, no question about it, but NASCAR messed up, too. This is a chance for the whole NASCAR community learning how to operate with this points structure. It’s never happened before, and it’s so much pressure.”

Petty: “Let’s go back in time. Richard Petty has this reputation of never getting upset. I can point out 15 drivers who say he has the longest finger in the world when he talks to you. When he got to the garage area, I can’t tell you how many times I’d follow him to another driver’s truck to talk to another driver. That’s the way it used to be done. Tweeting, texting, phone calls. BS. If I’ve got a problem with you, we should man up, sit down and talk about it. Forget social media.”

Letarte: “This isn’t Matt Kenseth against Joey Logano, it’s Roger Penske against Joe Gibbs. Matt Kenseth didn’t go into Martinsville saying I’m going to wreck Joey Logano, because if he did, he would have wrecked him the first time. Instead, Penske messes with the restarts. I heard the radio, ‘I got dumped by (Keselowski).’ So my point is there’s this big pile of dry hay, and instead of the crew chief or the team or the spotter trying to put water on it, they’re over here striking matches instead of trying to put a little water on it. No one, top to bottom, in the organization tried to defuse it at all.”

Petty: “If you talk to NASCAR, they cited video of (Kenseth’s) team high-fiving each other, which meant it was the whole organization that felt like they had been wronged, not just the driver.”

Burton: “That culture has been created by the culture of ‘Boys, have at it.’ I agree 100 percent. Someone should have stepped in and said, ‘Look Matt, you have a long career. These things have a way of washing themselves out. Chill out, be cool.’ No question that should have happened. But if you lay the scenario out of here’s what is going to happen two months ago, what’s the penalty going to be? You think anyone would have said a two-race suspension? Nobody. That feeds the culture. If people knew – crew members, team owners, sponsors – that NASCAR isn’t going to tolerate this, it would have never happened.”

  • Can you explain what a driver code is?

Burton: “There is a driver code. If there are 43 drivers, there are 43 codes. I’ve been part of the group for years, and I have yet to find a book that says here’s the way you behave. Everybody drives the way they think is appropriate. Some drivers are more willing to push buttons than others. What one guy thinks is perfectly acceptable, the other guy thinks is way out of bounds. I’ve heard a lot the last several weeks about this driver code, but the fact of the matter is everyone looks at it differently. If you sat 30 drivers in here, you’d have 30 opinions. I don’t buy this driver code thing.”

Petty: “It’s so abstract. Everyone has their own way. Part of your code comes from your parents, your grandparents, how you were raised. It’s parallel to what your moral code is. What are you willing to do for something? But it’s a different time, too. … The (veterans) taught you how to race. The Allisons learned from Ned (Jarrett) and Lee Petty. It was passed on. You got to the sport later in life, in your mid- to late-20s. You’d spent time running with guys who taught you. Now we’ve got kids coming out of simulators straight into a Cup car. Where is that code? Where is that learning period? That time? If I don’t spend a lot of time understanding what real racing is, if I’m just iRacing, how do I learn to race? They learn a different route than the way I came. We’re at a place where we have two different roads that get us to the same place, so the code can’t be the same for everybody.”

Burton: “Multi-car teams have completely changed how young drivers came into the sport. I had to reach out to Mark Martin and Davey Allison. You don’t have to do that today. As long as you have teammates, you have someone to talk to, you have information coming, you have probably way more information than my generation ever had. So you don’t need other people in the garage. Part of what has changed from a philosophy standpoint is when a young guy used to come in, you couldn’t piss the older guys off. They had to respect you. Today, you just have to have your buddies. As long as your team says, ‘Hey, we’re going to help him,’ you don’t need the other guys. That really matters.”

Evernham: “In some ways, you want to see drivers stick up for themselves. But I’m from the old school. I want to see a driver stick up for himself by walking down there and punching that guy in the nose, don’t wreck my race car because guys work too hard on that and it’s too expensive. I think part of the problem is race cars have become so expendable. Cars used to mean something to people. We named our cars. There’s a lot of work and time; they weren’t built on an assembly line. I’m a fan of a driver sticking up for what he feels is right and needs to set that example to the group. I’m not a fan at all of using a race car to get it done. To tear up a car or use cars to settle the score, I’ve never been fan of it.”

Letarte: “I’m from the new school in that cars have no identity to me. None. If Jeff Burton was my driver and went out and tore the right side off the car proving a point to somebody, I would support him. It doesn’t make it right, but I’m from a different generation than Ray. The way these cars are built, templated and inspected. If we win a race and don’t hit anything, the first thing we do is come home and cut the car completely apart. If my driver tears up my car while trying to race or putting a bumper to somebody, I’m OK with that. … It really comes down to the car isn’t the point, it’s the racing code that does or doesn’t exist.”

Petty: “Talking to Donnie Allison, Richard Petty and those old guys, they condemn (Kenseth’s wreck of Logano at) Martinsville. They all thought (Kansas) was straight-up racing. That’s the old guys. You think Donnie Allison or Richard Petty knows what quintessential means? That is racing. They look at it as racing and the proverbial catch-all phrase: One of those racing deals.”

Letarte: “The issue I have with what Matt Kenseth did is after he was out of contention for the win, he then chose to change the outcome of the race. I have no problem that he wrecked Joey Logano. The problem is Joey Logano didn’t wreck Matt Kenseth saying, ‘I’m going to wreck Matt Kenseth.’ Joey Logano said, ‘I’m going to stand my ground. He’s going to come down, I’m going to give the bumper because I’m going to win the race.”

Burton: “And don’t forget for the entire Joey Logano career, there were people (telling him) ‘Go take care of yourself. You need to learn how to defend yourself.’ Part of the driver code book, somewhere in some chapter, it says if you have an altercation and you came out the winner, you might want to take a little bit of time, even to disagree, to look Matt Kenseth in the eye and say, ‘Look, dude, here’s the way I see it. You blocked me. I felt I had the position. You took it from me.’ Just have a conversation. You could leave there swinging at each other.”

  • Is this new format a good way to decide the champion and how has it changed NASCAR?

Letarte: “The biggest issue I have with the Chase is this: I’m fine with 10 weeks. I’m fine eliminating some of the field. I just don’t like that a sport that has such a huge variety of playing fields has the same 10 (tracks) in the playoffs. I think Jimmie Johnson hand-picked them. I’m not taking anything away from Jimmie. So then, this might still be called the Chase, but this is nothing like the 10-race Chase. This is truly a bracket playoff system.”

Burton: “This is what NASCAR wanted from Day 1. I believe the original Chase, they wanted it to look like this, but it was just too radical that they stepped into it. They made the radical change and then the next change. This is the format they wanted from Day 1. I love the NCAA and NFL playoffs because you win or go home. It creates a tremendous amount of pressure for the teams, but it makes it fun to watch. I like the intensity. I like that you have to perform every single week. I don’t think I’d have been successful with it. This didn’t suit who I was as a driver. I like it. It’s completely changed the sport.”

Petty: “It’s made the sport different. I’m not going to say better. The emphasis on winning in this format is there and greater. But I always kind of fluff that off because I think the emphasis was great on every race you went to; I thought that was the whole point you went to the racetrack was to win races. When they say we’re going to make winning important, where have I been all these years? I thought it was important. I agree with Jeff that this is where they wanted to be. This is a huge departure from the old way. Think about how fans would have reacted if he went from that to this.

“The one thing I don’t enjoy about this system — I enjoy the competition, and the intensity – to me, it’s a sports game of survival. Sometimes the strong teams get eliminated. I hate to see a full season, and right now, arguably with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Brad K., you’ve got four or five of the strongest teams in the sport that might not have a shot at a championship. That’s the piece of it that I don’t like. It’s not unfair. I just don’t like the way it plays out sometimes.”

Burton: “All those teams are really good teams. Under the format 15 years ago, only two or three of them would still be eligible for the championship, at the most.”

Evernham: “It’s what sports have evolved to, and even though it’s not football, we compete against football, basketball and those other sports. This is compelling to our audience. Generations of fans have changed, too. This is exciting to them. The traditionalist in myself doesn’t really like it. I think, ‘Oh, I want to see the guys who have been strong all year, he deserves to be champion.’ But under this format, it doesn’t always happen. It’s interesting. I get more emotionally involved in the race watching it under this format than any other time. I’ve got that heart rate up again because of this format.”