Friday 5: NASCAR’s moves increasing chance of conflict on, off track for drivers

0 Comments

NASCAR’s recent changes to the schedule, rules that tighten the competition, and a new car designed to close the gap between teams have put drivers in an ever-tightening vise that could lead to more contact on the track and conflict off it.

Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is the latest example of NASCAR’s push in this direction. The exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum marks the first time Cup cars will race on a quarter-mile track since 1971. Some drivers believe mayhem will result.

For fans, this could be entertaining. For drivers, it challenges their personal code of what’s acceptable and what’s not while racing in close quarters. It’s an issue drivers have faced more often in recent years. 

“NASCAR has put us all in a position to make challenging decisions on what is right,” former champion Joey Logano said. “I’ll be 100 percent honest with you, a lot of times you don’t know what’s right.”

That leads to disputes. 

Denny Hamlin interrupted Alex Bowman’s victory celebration at Martinsville and expressed his displeasure with how Bowman drove late in last year’s playoff race. 

Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick confronted each other after the Bristol playoff race last season. Their feud carried on to the Charlotte Roval — where Harvick wrecked Elliott. 

Conflicts gain attention. Such is part of the allure of short-track racing. The Clash at the Coliseum has been compared to Bowman Gray Stadium, a quarter-mile track inside a football stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bowman Gray Stadium has hosted races since 1949.

Of course, the track is better known as the “Madhouse” for its racing and disagreements. 

“We’re racing, wrestling and religion all kind of combined together,” Gray Garrison, promoter at Bowman Gray Stadium, told NBC Sports. “We race. They have some discussions like they do in wrestling. We have such a loyal fan base, that they all kind of sit in the same seats like they do in church every Sunday.”

It’s a formula that works for that track, which often fills many of its 17,000 seats, if not all of them, on Saturday nights throughout the summer. 

NASCAR seeks to give fans more of that Saturday night feel.

Since 2019, NASCAR has added three road course races, put dirt on Bristol for its spring race, moved the Clash from Daytona to the LA Coliseum and taken five races from tracks 1.5 miles or longer — where cars can get spread out. The motive is to put cars on tracks where they are more likely to run closer together. That creates more chances for contact, leading to more drama and entertainment. 

More changes are coming.

It seems only a matter of time before Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, a 0.596-mile track, is added to the Cup schedule, giving the series another short track. If the Clash proves successful, it could continue at the Coliseum or move to different venues.

“The one gauge that we have as a sport, and it never fails, is our fans,” Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports. “The fans have spoken loud and clear the last few years that they want short tracks and they want road courses. … “You really don’t know just want to expect (at those tracks). It may not be white-knuckle exciting all the time, but you’re anticipating something, and I think that’s what you can get at places like that.”

2. Moving closer to the edge?

No one knows what the racing will be like this weekend at the Coliseum, although many drivers predict plenty of beating and banging. 

“You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do,” Logano said. “It is something that I think all of us drivers will think about a lot, and the Clash is no different.

“You look at the way they’ve designed this racetrack, not just the fact that it’s small, but the way they put the curbing on the bottom. It just seems like it opens the door for more contact and sliding it down in there, so we will have to wait and see.”

But is it worth it to upset fellow competitors to win an exhibition race with the whole season ahead? It depends on the driver. For some, the answer could be yes.

“We want to put our best foot forward and try to win on Sunday because that sets the tone for the rest of the year, so that is important to us,” William Byron said. “But it is a little different event because it is a non-points race.”

Martin Truex Jr. is not known as a rough racer. His duel with Logano in the 2018 playoff race at Martinsville is an example of how Truex seeks not to make contact while racing for the lead. Of course, Truex lost that race on a bump-and-run from Logano. Such a move has become an accepted way of winning. It’s simply called short-track racing.

Even so, Truex admits every decision a driver makes has its risks, especially Sunday.

You definitely don’t want to start off the year in an exhibition race with a bunch of people mad at you,” he said.

These are the types of things drivers have to ponder with the potential for more contact throughout the season. With six short tracks (less than 1 mile) and six road courses on the schedule, a third of the 36-race season features those types of venues. That’s where beating and banging is most likely. 

“For me, the (altercations) are something that I don’t really like being involved in at this point anymore,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports. “I’d rather just go out and race and do my job with my team and try to get the most out of it, but sometimes that just happens when you’re on the racetrack. … You just kind of take it as it comes and deal with it as it goes.”

The feud between Harvick and Elliott spiced last year’s playoffs. Elliott was upset at Harvick for contact that led to a cut tire and cost Elliott a chance to win at Bristol. Harvick was upset with Elliott for impeding him in the final laps there, allowing Elliott’s teammate, Kyle Larson to pass for the win. 

The issue lingered for a few weeks before the series raced at the Roval. Harvick knocked Elliott into the wall. Elliott overcame it to advance in the playoffs and made it to the championship race. Harvick was eliminated from title contention at the Roval.

Afterward, Elliott provided arguably the quote of the season, saying: “As far as Kevin goes, just want to wish them a merry offseason and a happy Christmas.”

3. The new car

While much has been made about the larger diameter wheels, the new steering package, the bigger brakes and even the rearview camera for drivers with the Next Gen car, a key element of this vehicle is its composite body. 

“I think the composite body brings opportunity to maybe take a little bit more risk,” Cup rookie Harrison Burton told NBC Sports. 

Previously, Cup cars had sheet metal bodies and drivers complained that it didn’t take much contact from another car or the wall to damage a fender and cut a tire.

The Xfinity Series began using composite bodies for all its races in 2018. It allowed drivers to run closer together and not worry as much about modest contact with another vehicle or the wall. 

Cup drivers hope the same will occur with this car, so they aren’t penalized by a cut tire as often in tight racing.

NASCAR Production Days
Kyle Busch notes that drivers still have much to learn about the Next Gen car. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I feel this body, hopefully, will have a chance to compress and then come back … so that will alleviate some of the tire rubs and that will allow for a little bit of side-by-side contact here and there, some fender banging,” Kyle Busch told NBC Sports. 

That’s just one of many areas in which drivers will be seeking to learn more about the car at the Clash and in coming weekends. With learning come mistakes. 

“When I was kid, everybody looked at me like, ‘All he does is crash too much,’” Busch said. “True. Sometimes you’ve got to overstep that line to figure out where that line is at. 

“With this car, me being an older age, I’ll probably work my way up to the line, and hopefully, not cross over too much. But, obviously, you’ve got to find out how hard to you can push these things and put them in situations in order to fine tune that perfect spot.”

Another key element to the car is that its parts come from vendors instead of being built by teams. With organizations having the same pieces, NASCAR looks to close the gap between teams. That gives smaller teams hope that they can run well at more tracks instead of just Daytona, Talladega and some short tracks.

The effect already is felt in the sport. Corey LaJoie, who finished 29th in points for Spire Motorsports last season, said this week that he looks to Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum as an event he could do well in. 

“I’m not going in with just the hopes of making it,” LaJoie said of the Clash. “I think if we don’t finish in the top seven, I feel like I would be pretty disappointed in myself and our abilities.

“This is only the first event where me running to our maximum ambition gives us a chance that we know we might see some fruit on the backend, because we are going to have a lot better relative speed than we probably had last year or years previous.”

If the competition for each position is more intense, then the chances for more issues on and off track increase. 

4. Tight racing quarters 

Daniel Suarez smiles as he thinks about the three times he ran at Bowman Gray Stadium in what was then the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

“You knew you were going to have contact,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “You knew you were going to have a little fight with someone, at least, and you knew you were going to have some drama.”

Suarez saw nearly all sides of it, finishing last in a 22-car field there in 2012 after crashing and placing second to Ben Rhodes in the 2014 race there. 

Tim Brown, who won his record 11th modified championship last season at Bowman Gray Stadium, has witnessed much of the drama at that track and been in the center of it at times. 

He’s faced the challenges of racing on a tight track lap after lap after lap and often with contact. 

While he’d rather win the pole, lead every lap and easily win the race, he knows that’s not what will draw fans. It’s why Bowman Gray has drivers who qualify for the race then do a blind draw to pick their starting spot. It’s why the track had a choose cone, as many short tracks did, well before NASCAR instituted it. 

Such rules are meant to keep the competition close and the fans interested. The result is that drivers must fight each other harder on the track for position. 

“We’re entertainers,” Brown told NBC Sports. “We entertain. If people don’t come and get entertained, they won’t come back.  … With the road courses and short track races, I think NASCAR is starting to see that that type of racing is way more entertaining than all these cookie-cutter racetracks of the same shape just in different states.”

LaJoie knows the feeling of winning on such a track, taking the checkered flag in the 2012 K&N Pro Series East race at Bowman Gray — a race that saw Bubba Wallace place second, Kyle Larson fifth and Chase Elliott sixth. 

A decade later, LaJoie sees how the sport has evolved and how demanding the racing is for each position. 

“If you don’t want conflict, you chose the wrong career path,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It’s inevitable. You’re racing against somebody week in and week out. You’re going to rub fenders and be at odds with somebody. 

“At the smaller racetracks you race at, Martinsville you’re going to run into everybody, Richmond, LA Coliseum, Bristol, you’re going to rub fenders and be pissed off at somebody.”

It’s often when drivers are angriest that the crowd is loudest.

5. What’s next?

If all goes well, the Clash could find a home at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The three-year agreement includes options for 2023 and 2024. NASCAR has 90 days from Sunday’s race to decide if to return to the Coliseum in 2023. 

A successful Clash also could turn the event into one that moves to different locations. 

“We’ll all sit down as a group and talk about what went well,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, about how the sanctioning body will decide its course of action after the Clash.

“What we could possibly tweak. If we want to go ahead there for an additional year, or there’s other areas we may want to explore, domestic or even outside of the U.S., as well.”

NASCAR Production Days
Corey LaJoie thinks the home of the Dallas Cowboys could be a venue for NASCAR to consider running at in the future. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

LaJoie suggests AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys as a possible venue. Or even the Superdome in New Orleans if the dimensions worked to put a track inside that facility.

Such venues are enticing to NASCAR because it makes it easier to draw fans instead of asking them to venture far from downtown to a track. Auto Club Speedway is 47 miles from downtown Los Angeles (and 51 miles from the LA Memorial Coliseum). Homestead-Miami Speedway is 32 miles from downtown Miami. Phoenix Raceway is 20 miles from downtown Phoenix.

“As much as I love our racetracks and they’re great, they need a lot of space – not just for the racetrack itself, but for camping and for everything that goes along with it,” Logano said. 

“It’s a different environment than if it’s in the middle of a city, like a football game or a baseball game. If (the Clash at the Coliseum) works, this gives us the ability to go downtown anywhere, and that’s a whole different fanbase that I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential in yet, so if this works it’s great for our sport.”

O’Donnell also hinted NASCAR could go in a different direction with the event.

“We’ve got a lot of old school tracks around the U.S. that you could take some things to,” he said. “If we can pull this off, there are some other markets that we could go to that definitely aren’t LA but go back to the roots of our sport as well.”

Could that mean a Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina? South Boston Speedway in Virginia? Or Bowman Gray Stadium?

Gray Garrison would be interested in hosting a Cup event at Bowman Gray. The facility recently underwent $9 million in renovations, which included repaving the track and upgrading concessions and restrooms.

“I think it would be great,” Garrison said. “All these guys come from short tracks somewhere. … They’re all professionals. They’ve done pretty much everything. I think you could turn them loose in a Wal-Mart parking lot and they could put on a good show.”