LONG POND, Pa. – With the de-facto dissolution of its Drivers Council this year, NASCAR might have taken a step forward by adhering to an axiom well known in Corporate America.
Scheduling fewer meetings often can result in more effective and productive communication.
Last week underscored several examples of NASCAR implementing concepts, competitive elements and rule modifications after its stars petitioned for changes in a looser and less structured environment than the past four years.
–For the second consecutive race, drivers were heavily consulted on the application and placement of PJ1 traction compound (which made its debut at Pocono Raceway and at least offered an option of outside passes).
–Vice president of competition Scott Miller said it was a “prominent” driver who originally championed the idea of inverting the field to start the second half of a Pocono twin bill in 2020.
–The tweaking of what constitutes an uncontrolled tire (which seemed to have an impact on at least one Kyle Busch pit stop Sunday) after lobbying from Denny Hamlin and others.
–On Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway, defending series champion Joey Logano met with series officials to discuss restart gamesmanship – which NASCAR then addressed in drivers meetings the next two days (and penalized Daniel Suarez for laying back Sunday).
Logano believes the cause-effect relationship suggests the demise of the Drivers Council was timely.
“The council is maybe not as existent, but the old-school way of going into the trailer and talking to leadership of the sport seems to be effective,” Logano said. “It used to not be. That’s why we needed a council.
“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships, and we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers. Now they might not always do what the drivers want, because sometimes what the drivers want is wrong for the sport. But there’s certain times it really is the right thing that only a driver would know that’s inside the car.”
In that vein, NASCAR still is holding formal meetings with drivers a few times this year, but the invite list won’t be limited to the 10 or so drivers who were selected annually via a regimented election process that ensured equal representation for experience and manufacturers.
Spearheaded by Hamlin, the council was formed in 2015 to great fanfare, but it often seemed to be bogged down in minutiae and paralyzed from a lack of consensus. By a year ago, it had become so superfluous that Kevin Harvick openly admitted he was skipping meetings in part because of frustration with the panel’s efficacy.
Over the offseason, the council quietly lapsed as other channels of communication have grown. Since replacing Brian France (who attended roughly a dozen races annually), NASCAR CEO Jim France has become an omnipresent presence at the track along with his executive team (president Steve Phelps and vice chairman Mike Helton were at his side last weekend at Pocono).
A few dozen Cup drivers are on a text chain with NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell, who provides updates and explanations on hot-button issues (such as why NASCAR elected to call the Daytona race early).
“I would say I have more communication and more talks with NASCAR now” than in the Driver Council era, Hamlin said. “I’m constantly in contact with the testing team on applying the PJ1 at all these racetracks.”
Said Harvick: “Denny has kind of spearheaded a lot of the PJ1 evolution from the driver’s side. It becomes easier when there are one or two guys, and he’s really the guy that is communicating to get things moving forward. You can just throw out your two cents in the group chat, and he can compile all the information because everybody looks at it differently.”
The discourse also has improved likely just because there is no topic that touches a third rail in NASCAR as much as when the 2019 rules still were in flux last year.
Now it’s settled law. Though some still harbor reservations about the lower horsepower, high-downforce combination, it’s pointless to have contentious debates about an overhauled package that Phelps recently called “the path forward” in Cup.
The resistance to more full-throttle racing from some big names might have brought more compromise in other areas from NASCAR, which has been welcoming feedback the past decade after largely iron-fisted rule through its first 60 years.
“They deserve a lot of credit in the last 10 years for listening more than they ever have in the history of the sport,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I think we’ve overreacted on both sides where we had to have committees and so many people on committees.”
Johnson said a problem was that the structure invariably included some drivers who would “drop a grenade and walk away” during meetings vs. those who were “very diligent to help drive the sport forward.
“I think we’ve narrowed it down now to a core group of guys who really do care and are willing to see it through,” he said.
Ryan Blaney, another former council member, likes that the information is free-flowing even for those who are less engaged. Various text chains also allow “always having open discussions on ideas.
“Whether they apply that or not, they’re always asking for our feedback,” he said. “From NASCAR, the tracks, the drivers, teams, I think we work pretty well together. Sometimes you’d like to see things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day it’s their call.”
Pocono’s Cup races on consecutive days next season was well vetted among drivers, who gave it mostly rave reviews as a showcase during a 2020 schedule already hailed for its revamping.
“I like mixing things up,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’ll be one of the events as a driver and fan that you’ll circle and say, ‘I can’t wait to see how this works out and what it looks like.’ I think it’s a bit of the spice of life having a few changes in the NASCAR season for us.”
Said Clint Bowyer: “It’s time to shake a lot of things up in this sport. You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and over; you have to reinvent yourself every single time for a fan. That goes for any event. Whether it’s a country music festival, a football game or a race. We’re all up against having to reinvent ourselves over and over and over to stay appealing and relevant to a fan that’s looking for something new. They expect to see something different or something they didn’t see the last time.
“How do you entice them in and bring them year after year? I’m a big advocate of you better fill their day up with content. These are race fans, they want cars on the track and people putting on a show, and certainly they’re going to have that with that schedule.”
There are a few lingering questions, namely how the inversion of the starting lineup for the second race might encourage sandbagging in the final 50 miles of Race 1.
Why not aim for the end of the lead lap for a better starting spot — and a stage points grab — in Race II? (Blaney suggests having the winner of the first race draw a pill in victory lane to determine how many cars are inverted.)
There also are many details to be nailed down, namely the length of Saturday’s Cup race, which is tentatively 350 miles. The issue is a rigid six-hour TV window, which needs to incorporate the Cup race preceded by a 200-mile truck race (which would be the series’ longest yet at Pocono; the track would prefer to keep that distance but could consider shortening).
And let’s not even consider what might happen if it rains (which tends to happen now and then in the Pennsylvania mountains). If there’s a spate of inclement weather Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling four races across three series on a Monday seems nigh impossible.
But if the Pocono experiment is deemed successful, it almost certainly would be considered elsewhere.
“Certainly, there are some tracks that would be great candidates for it,” Hamlin said. ‘Off the top of my head, Dover and tracks that are one-off and really, really different. If it’s a possibility, I’d vote for it. Our season is very very long and very very saturated. If you can condense but still give the same amount of races, I think it’s a good thing.”
One idea absolutely to consider, whether by Pocono or a NASCAR sponsor: Paying a bounty for a sweep of the races, as suggested by Kyle Busch (particularly if he’s willing to accommodate a bargain rate for his services).
There wasn’t total consensus on Pocono’s revamped 2020 format.
“Eh,” Bubba Wallace said when asked about the makeover at the track where he made his Cup debut in 2017 and escaped serious injury in a vicious crash last year. “I’d like to see no races here honestly. What do we do around here? Nothing. We sit here and do absolutely nothing all weekend. … I don’t know if it puts on the best show.”
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes Indianapolis Motor Speedway is less deserving of a date on the schedule than Pocono but also believes the latter’s rural locale is a detriment.
“We’re 45 minutes from any city,” he said. “There ain’t nothing to do.
“I’m looking at it for the fans, and if fans aren’t in the seats … I haven’t paid attention to the crowd here, but it’s way too big of a track for us. I feel like the racing isn’t that great.”
Wallace concedes his dream schedule “would piss off everybody. Probably a ton of short tracks and no road courses.”
And no Pocono (a point reinforced by his Tuesday tweet evaluating Sunday’s race).
Despite higher downforce, a thick swath of “sticky stuff” for extra adhesion and cars that are “easier” to drive, there were seven backup cars in the past two races because of practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said.
There are a few theories, but it essentially boils down to the cars being “edgier” as drivers and teams try to find the limits of their setups.
“You’d think they make a lot of downforce and a lot of grip, and they’d be easier to drive, but with that downforce and grip and load on the car, the tire had to get harder, so the tires become a little difficult to chase in certain situations,” said Alex Bowman, who wrecked at New Hampshire. “And the (traction compound) is like a layer of slime once you get out of the groove. It’s just like a lot of circumstances are playing into it.
“Everybody talks about how this package isn’t hard to drive. Well, it’s really hard to drive right now. For whatever reason. You make a 6-inch mistake, and you’re backward in the fence before you can even catch it.”
GoFas Racing’s Corey LaJoie said even with lower downforce, last year’s cars were more forgiving.
“You were more out of control generally, but when you had a moment, it was like a long lazy moment, and you’d (recover),” LaJoie said. “Now as soon as you slip a tire, you lose all of it. The cars are evil when they get out of shape now. You’re still going to see guys get out of shape because they’re going to figure out how to make the car less stuck to the racetrack. The less stuck, the faster it goes.”
NASCAR has critical meetings with its Cup manufacturers over the next month about the course of its Gen 7 rollout amid concerns the car might not hit an aggressive 2021 target date.
There remains much to hammer out on the parameters of the car, and a prototype probably needs to ready by early fall for a legitimate shot at a 2021 debut (that at least one team owner has said is mandatory). Testing began earlier for the Car of Tomorrow (which was on track more than 18 months ahead of its staggered rollout in 2007) and the Gen 6 (which underwent three years of planning and R&D before its 2013 debut).
Multiple sources (who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly) told NBCSports.com that switching over fleets to the Gen 7 would incur a one-time cost that averaged about $4-5 million, according to independent studies commissioned by Cup teams.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps told reporters earlier this month that “the majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that ’22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what that’s going to be, and that’s what we’re working on.
“Everyone has their own ideas, and it gets to self-interest pretty quickly, about the timing of different things and how they’d like these things happening. We’ll continue to work with our teams and OEMs to make sure everyone is aligned on what is the correct date to do that. The positive thing is we’re not just going to plow forward with a decision without getting everyone on board.”
Matt DiBenedetto has yet to be guaranteed a 2020 return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Here’s the full context of what he said Saturday when asked if he needed to begin looking around to protect himself for having a ride next year.
“I’ve had to fight and claw so hard, now that I’m in a good, quality ride with a great team that I love, I’m just 100% focused on performing,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s the awesome part. These top fives, top 10s. I know that anyone, not to sound arrogant, but they’d have to have their heads examined if they get rid of me. Because nobody will do a better job in my car than myself.”
Closing with a lighthearted chuckle, he also spoke firmly and with no animosity, which is why DiBenedetto shouldn’t have felt the need to backpedal Monday. Yes, the words might come across strongly when read in the absence of inflection, but they aren’t out of context. He bluntly expressed faith in his ability to drive in Cup and detailed the mental toughness that earned him the ride.
No apology necessary from DiBenedetto, who also said he had “not a single conversation at all” about whether LFR would pick up his option for 2020.
Team owner Bob Leavine also confirmed DiBenedetto’s uncertain status Monday. With LFR as the only current Toyota option for potentially resolving Joe Gibbs Racing’s dilemma of fielding Cup rides for Erik Jones and Christopher Bell next year, DiBenedetto’s fate likely will depend on the actions of others and not necessarily on where he finishes – though results probably should be the determining factor.
There was nothing wrong with sharply pointing that out.