Remember when talking about NASCAR rules was fun?
No, really fun. Hours of endless debates and discussions about driver rivalries, team animosity and manufacturer intrigue.
Fun. You can’t beat that.
In the 1990s, Camp NASCAR might not have been a fun place to live (or officiate), but it was a beguiling place to observe.
Much of that was the megawatt personalities of the drivers, but some of it was attributable to the constant wars over how many inches of spoiler help Ford or Chevrolet was lobbying for and often getting.
This was an era in which the bodies were more distinct, and the rulebook was much smaller. It was undoubtedly a weekly headache to administer with the long line of agitated drivers and owners raising holy hell at the NASCAR hauler after every race.
Two decades later, that delightful complaining has been replaced by impenetrable complication.
Talking about rules isn’t fun in today’s heavily legislated and officiated world of big-league stock-car racing.
It’s no longer a debate about the famous and iconic brands (Chevy, Ford, Toyota) that pour a few hundred million dollars annually into NASCAR.
It’s become the domain of pinion shims and window support braces. The in-the-weeds stuff. There is room for that in NASCAR to showcase its technical appeal and technological ingenuity.
There’s no room for that in SiriusXM NASCAR Radio banter, though. Or in the other national media platforms that primarily drive the narratives that make NASCAR a mainstream sporting entity. Those should revolve around the stars and cars of the Cup Series and their most relatable backstories – not the intricate parts and pieces that propel them to victory lane.
For example, a 46-year-old former champion returns after an unwanted 11-race layoff to start the 2018 season. And he re-enters NASCAR’s premier series precisely as his longtime contemporaries are crowing about regularly drubbing the band of ballyhooed Millennials that threaten to oust them from their rides in the same way.
That sounds like a good story, no?
Unfortunately, Matt Kenseth’s intriguing comeback at Kansas Speedway this weekend has been muted because of Wednesday’s latest avalanche of midweek postrace penalties from Dover that sucked all the oxygen from competing topics with the subtlety and pleasure of a 2X4 to the forehead.
Eradicating midweek penalties has been suggested ad nauseam the past few years, and it’s well documented why they still are happening (the level of necessary inspection scrutiny is available only at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord).
Kevin Harvick made an impassioned case for why this wasn’t such a hot idea (among many issues he raised about the penalty after his Las Vegas victory). Even NASCAR officials have shown a desire to get out of the business of issuing points deductions and crewmember suspensions three days after a race.
It doesn’t matter how this gets addressed. It’s a situation that needs to be fixed, stat.
So how about going back to the future: Find a way to shrink the rulebook and open up the manufacturer competition again.
Refocus any competition discussions on spoiler heights and driver styles (“who is best suited for this type of handling package?”) instead of obtuse conversation stoppers like planar mating surfaces and flat splitters.
Like everything in racing, this is easier said than done. It certainly will be harder for NASCAR, whose officials would return to the ear-splitting days of listening to nonstop lobbying (i.e., whining) for more parity among makes.
But it might be worth the effort, money and time spent if it results in keeping the attention most prominently on the stars and the cars they drive.
That sounds fun.
NASCAR found itself in an unwinnable situation at Dover International Speedway near the end of the first stage Sunday.
With a dozen cars close to running out of fuel and only about four wreckers to help push them back to the pits (how would you like to make that decision on which drivers benefit from NASCAR’s largesse?), vice president of competition Scott Miller explained Monday why the pits were opened almost immediately after the stage instead of waiting for a commercial break per normal.
It was the right call given the alternative – if several cars had run out of gas, the furor would have been much greater and the implications are more unfair. But this is something that must be done extremely sparingly.
It burned Denny Hamlin’s team, which pitted the No. 11 Toyota instead of limping to the pits (as it could have) because it rightfully expected the pits would open much later.
“I didn’t know they were going to open the pits early,” Hamlin said on an episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that will be released next week. “I would have ran another lap. That’s a little frustrating. The crew chief was telling me I could make it to the checkered but not the pit open.”
But it turned out if Hamlin had waited a lap, he would have had enough fuel (and an extra five stage points from keeping his spot).
“I had some talks with Miller and (Steve) O’Donnell about it,” Hamlin said. “If I would have known you’d open the pits, I wouldn’t have pitted early, and I think a lot of people based their strategy off that.
“But I also see their point of what happens if there are six cars out of fuel on the apron? Who gets the tow truck and push first while you have someone sitting on the apron for three laps, and then they’re pissed off? I kind of see where (NASCAR) is going there. But at some point, teams will make decisions on where to pit, and it’s kind of on them.”
There always are circumstances similar to these during a race – for example, NASCAR often must choose between a red flag or running out many laps under yellow in the event of a wreck that requires a long cleanup – so it’s unavoidable. The key is managing it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the natural flow of a race.
As Dustin Long detailed exhaustively in last week’s Friday 5 feature, the time to question the lagging results of the new Camaro has arrived. Chevrolet’s new model hasn’t shown much potential for pure speed, aside from the performance of Kyle Larson.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is sort of this year’s version of 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who was far ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas last year in the rollout of the 2018 Camry. But that’s where the apples to apples comparison ends.
Nearly a third of the way into last season, it was obvious the new Camry had speed. Though Toyota won only twice in the first 11 races, its drivers led the most laps six times. The lack of victories was because of JGR’s circumstances instead of a lack of performance.
This is less true with the Camaro, which has a last-lap win in the Daytona 500 and has led the most laps only once (Larson at Bristol Motor Speedway). At Dover, the highest finisher was Jimmie Johnson in ninth, and Alex Bowman drove the only Camaro to lead laps (26 of 400).
It might be a case where the struggles are less about the new model and more about the teams running it. Aside from Chase Elliott, lead Chevy team Hendrick Motorsports struggled in 2017, and the four-car team still seems to be finding its footing this year with a less experienced lineup.
The departure of Stewart-Haas Racing, which is side by side with Team Penske for top Ford team, also might be hurting Chevrolet more than a year later.
A sidelight to the Chevrolet struggles is that it also has hampered the development of the 2018 youth brigade with Elliott, Larson, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillon (who made his feelings known Sunday night) trying to excel in the Camaro.
On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, analyst Dale Jarrett made that point (along with evaluating whether Ryan Blaney has reached “success” yet) and also noted that the hype around the marketing of the young drivers (editor’s note: plead guilty) would have been better balanced with a focus on the older set.
That’s good advice for the future and also good context for Kevin Harvick’s incessantly delightful jabs at the next generation.
One positive of this week’s midweek penalties?
Well, it did steer the discussion away from a topic that no one in Charlotte or Daytona Beach wanted to highlight.
That said, Harvick’s comments Tuesday night about a potential NASCAR sale were notable, and it will be interesting to see what else is said this weekend at Kansas Speedway.