Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
Eddie Gossage with spring 2012 pole winner Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
Defending race winner — and Ford driver — Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Fords need Texas to get back in the mix
Carl Edwards may have won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway, but he won it primarily on track position and pit strategy. Since then, 2013 has been a season of catch-up for teams in the Ford camp.
Look at it this way: in 1,983 laps turned in 2013's six races of competition so far, Ford has led just 312 laps or 15.6 percent. Distilled further, Ford has led just 14 laps in the two races so far at the intermediate tracks most similar to TMS in Auto Club and Las Vegas.
By comparison, Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevrolet, has led more laps than all Ford drivers combined (21.7 percent).
Can this weekend in Texas be the perfect antidote? History is on the side of the Blue Oval gang in Fort Worth, as 11 of 24 races have been taken by a Ford. Nine of those have come from Roush Fenway Racing drivers, including last year's race won by Greg Biffle.
4. Has Hall of Fame nominee Bruton Smith hit the campaign trail?
One new nominee for this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class was speedway magnate and renowned racing pot stirrer Bruton Smith. The chief of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., was nominated for his career of building racing facilities, track promotion and a litany of other contributions to the sport.
Thursday, if only subliminally, Smith seemed to be hitting all the right lines and making all the right proclamations for a guy hoping to become a first ballot Hall of Fame entrant. This is a guy, after all, who once threatened to "move" Charlotte Motor Speedway only to later have the road in front changed to honor him. A little bit of sly posturing isn't entirely out of the question.
First, Smith told reporters he was "delighted" his name came up and that if he was inducted he would "do whatever I can to help the grow the (Hall of Fame) facility in Charlotte" as well as the sport. Smith, who in 2005 was listed by Forbes being worth north of $1.5 billion, carries some significant clout in the Queen City.
Later, Smith found out that another Charlotte event — the annual pit crew challenge during the week of NASCAR's All-Star race — had been canceled for this year after Sprint opted to switch sponsorship to the preseason exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Quickly, he vowed to find a sponsor and host it at his still-new zMAX Dragway next to CMS.
Knowing how Smith works, that will likely happen. What isn't clear is if his benevolence is merely coincidental.
5. Truck Series returns to Rockingham for second year of track's comeback
A story not getting near the same attention it did one year ago is where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be racing Sunday.
For the third time this season, the trucks will take the green flag when Rockingham Speedway hosts the series for just its second NASCAR national series event since the venerable facility was shuttered amidst race realignment in 2004. Kasey Kahne won last year's event, but isn't entered to defend his title this year.
For the sake of what's good in NASCAR — and let's make it perfectly clear that racing at Rockingham is about as good as NASCAR gets, no matter the series — I hope Kahne's reluctance to return isn't indicative of what Sunday's crowd will look like. Track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg has poured plenty into reviving “The Rock,” and with a flood of nostalgia the track was an extremely popular stop last year.
More importantly, though, was that the on-track racing was great. There were multiple grooves, tire wear and drivers forced to manage their equipment in a way too often cast aside in today's NASCAR. Sunday's race will come early after the late night 500-miler in Texas, but it'll be well worth watching.
by Geoffrey Miller Check back each Thursday to get Geoffrey’s take on what to watch for in the upcoming NASCAR weekend. For daily insight, follow Geoffrey on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Confusion in Richmond, Debris Cautions, Changes at Bristol and Pastrana’s Impact
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart at Richmond. (ASP, Inc.)
Confusion in Richmond, Changes at Bristol and Pastrana’s Impact
NASCAR officiating, Bristol’s changes and the debut of Travis Pastrana. It was quite a week for the sport and created a lot of topics for members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council to debate.
With so much to discuss, no need to delay things. Here’s a look at how NASCAR fans saw these issues:
WAS THE DEBRIS CAUTION LEGITIMATE LATE IN THE RICHMOND RACE? NASCAR called a debris caution with 13 laps left in Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond with Tony Stewart leading. Stewart said the debris was a water bottle. MRN announcer Dave Moody tweeted that he saw a “big hunka metal” on the track. TV did not show the debris. Fan Council members were asked if they thought the caution was legitimate.
65.7 percent said Yes 34.3 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Well I can’t say it was legitimate, but I did see them pick something up. It was right in front of where my seats were.
• I have listened to the NASCAR Officials Channel on SiriusXM enough to know that they do not throw phantom cautions and they are legit. If there is something out there, and especially if they cannot identify it, they will throw a caution.
• Absolutely not! Evidently NASCAR has brought in Vince McMahon as a consultant, and decided to add artificial drama to race(s) that needed none. It turned a great race, that Tony Stewart had earned the win of, into a tire-changing contest. Let the racers race!
• I have to trust NASCAR, but this is easily avoidable — SHOW THE DEBRIS. We don't have to trust officials in other sports because foul balls are shown to be foul, touchdowns are shown to be touchdowns. Just show the debris, and all is solved.
• Since the fans have been complaining and the press has picked it up about no drama we had plenty of it at RIR. Jeff Burton tweeted “it looked like a can to me. It was on the exit of 2 it was about 1/3 up the track.” And Matt (Yocum of FOX) tweeted “robin p told me on the plane last pm that it was a can not water bottle. Mid turn 2 like u said MkJ” And from what others said it had been there for a bit and Carl was the one screaming about it the loudest.
• NASCAR has been VERY good about not tossing out phantom cautions this season — I think that there is no reason to not believe them.
• Phantom cautions are a problem in NASCAR. There is no reason why the reason for the caution can’t be shown to us. It should be mandatory.
• This is unbelievable. One week fans are complaining about lack of cautions and NASCAR needs to do something. This week they are calling the caution bogus.
• With all of the HDTV cameras, why can't the race producer show us the debris for every caution? They could show us the GEICO roof camera during the GEICO side-by-side commercial and the 5-Hour roof camera during that side-by-side commercial. They show us the replays for a wreck from these roof cameras, why can’t they try to help NASCAR be legitimate and show the debris?
• If David Hoots says "Put it out,” it's legitimate enough for me.
DID NASCAR MAKE THE RIGHT CALL IN PENALIZING EDWARDS FOR HIS RESTART? With less than 100 laps left in Saturday’s race, NASCAR penalized Carl Edwards for jumping the restart and passing leader Tony Stewart too soon. It happened as there was some confusion with Edwards’ team if he was the leader or not. Fan Council members were asked if NASCAR made the right call to penalize Edwards for jumping the restart.
75.0 percent said Yes 25.0 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• I really don’t see the debate here. From the replay it showed that Carl jumped the restart before the restart box. Even IF he was the leader, he still jumped the restart. NASCAR made the right call. I don't see why everybody is so up in arms about it, because that's always been the rule, regardless. End of story.
• If he jumped the restart, and there is a penalty for the infraction, then YES. Having said that, I think a black flag is a stupid penalty for that infraction. Just wave it off and make them do it again. That is WAY too harsh.
• Absolutely not!!!! I was at the race and listening to his channel, his spotter came over the radio and told Carl NASCAR said 99 is the leader, and the scoring tower called him the leader. There was obviously confusion so why didn't NASCAR call off the (re)start and get it fixed like they have done a million times before? Tony spun the tires bad, and Carl simply got a great restart like he had done all night. I think NASCAR just made themselves look terrible Saturday with two bad calls, and the only explanation was basically “sorry bout your luck.”
• Once again, I believe in NASCAR and its integrity … though I will say that in that particular situation it would have made sense to go one more lap under yellow to make sure there was no confusion.
• Clear as day. He jumped the start.
• Tony clearly spun his tires on the restart. That was a bad call.
• It was blatant. Props to NASCAR for having restart lines visible on the wall, this was a black and white call to me, no gray area.
GRADING SATURDAY NIGHT’S CUP RACE AT RICHMOND
55.6 percent called it Good 23.0 percent called it Great 16.7 percent called it Fair 4.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Loved it. I’m so glad I blew off my Saturday night plans to stay home and watch TV.
• NASCAR has a HUGE problem on their hands. I’ve been critical all year of the boring (nature) of the racing, and after seeing this race in person I gotta say it’s not the drivers being too cautious, it’s the fact that they don't get a chance to be aggressive. There is not much passing, there is nobody charging up through the field, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all in the car. The dictatorship of NASCAR has to loosen up the rules a bit. Every car is the same, therefore they just get strung out and basically run a fast-paced parade. If NASCAR doesn’t make some changes real quick, they are going to dig a hole that will take years to recover from.
• The Jimmie Johnson pit crew penalty, Carl Edwards jumping the restart and Tony Stewart’s debris caution added needed drama to this race. Without these three events, it would have been a rather dull race overall. Short track racing is always better than the 1.5- and 2-miles tracks. This Richmond race did have some long green-flag runs, but short tracks always have active racing because 43 cards don’t get spread out well at a 3/4 mile track. The restarts were some of the best moments of the race, including the last restart with about 10 laps to go.
• I saw more passing this week; some interesting pit road incidents (!) and penalties that spiced up the situation.
• For all the people that say it is boring, these past few weeks have been for the most part about how well the teams can make the best changes and compete in mostly green-flag racing. THAT is what racing is all about to me.
• Boring. I was there and it was boring. Restarts were the only exciting parts and I'm only giving a “good” rating for them.
• Another solid good race, not spectacular but kept my attention throughout.
YOU GOING TO BUY BRISTOL TICKETS AFTER THE CHANGES TO THE TRACK? Last week Bruton Smith announced plans to grind Bristol’s top groove to take away the advantage of that line. He said it also will narrow the groove, forcing the cars to run closer together, which could lead to the beating and banging often associated with racing there. The move was made after a decline in attendance for the spring race. Fan council members were asked if this was enough to make them want to buy tickets to the August night race there.
81.6 percent said No 18.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council member said:
• I am going regardless.
• Hoping it makes a difference … Will wait to get tickets again though until next season though.
• Actually, I’m skipping the Bristol race this year. I really didn’t find anything wrong with the racing as it was but with the economy as it is right now I’m just going to see what happens with this one.
• I like the progressive-banked Bristol because I’d rather see guys run side-by-side for 75 laps without hitting each other instead of just plowing in the back of someone to pass. Not a fan of Keselowski or Kenseth but their battle in March was epic.
• Hey Mr. Smith, instead of grinding the top groove to “help” bring fans to Bristol. How about giving $50 gas cards to those that purchase a ticket from the BMS ticket office. In addition, the hotels that increase their rates race weekend, how about pay the difference so the race fans pay the normal rates? Because the bottom line, Mr. Smith, (is) “we the race fans DO NOT HAVE THE MONEY” with the increased cost of living.
• BMS was on my bucket list, so I am going no matter what — I am very anxious to see what happens under the lights in August!
• This is going to help bring back the racing we all love so much there! Can't wait to see Bristol back to being the special place that it's always known to be! Go Bruton!
• The racing at Bristol was fine as it was. I’m not going to get more interested in any particular race because of a gimmick.
Travis Pastrana (ASP, Inc.)
WERE YOU INTERESTED IN TRAVIS PASTRANA’S NATIONWIDE DEBUT FRIDAY AT RICHMOND?
54.6 percent said No 45.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• He seems like a genuinely nice guy, but I really don't care that he is here. I don't think our sport needs the X-Games fans anyway. We don't need to let A-D-D generation take over. They'll be gone tomorrow anyway. I was much more interested in Ryan Blaney’s debut. That kid is a wheelman!
• I love Travis Pastrana because he is a fun personality. I hope he does well and was excited to see him be solid.
• He seems to have a very genuine interest in the sport. He certainly is knowledgeable and appears to want to learn. I think he's good for the sport.
• I read on Twitter that after the race, Travis Pastrana went into the grandstands to sign autographs, mingle with the fans and even gave his shoes away to a fan. He returned to the infield in his socks.
• I am interested in drivers who have proven themselves and earned their opportunities. He is a male version of Danica, and, although they bring attention to a sport I love, right now they are nothing but field fillers. I do not or go to races to see field fillers.
• I couldn't have cared less. Until NASCAR people started talking about him, I didn't even know who he was. I despise when people from other forms of racing come to NASCAR. They need to just go back to where they came from.
• NICE To see new faces coming into our sport.
• I met up with a friend on Saturday afternoon and he asked, “How’d Travis Pastrana do in that race last night?” My friend doesn't follow NASCAR, so at least he was interested. I was no more interested than I would be in any other NASCAR Nationwide Series event.
• Really aggravated me when he kept making mention of “beating the girls.” Shows still what a long way we have to go when comments such as his (and a couple other male racers) were made. Why can't we just focus on driver and not gender?
• Not really interested in him or DP. More “cult of personality” courtesy of ESPN and NASCAR. I was much more interested in Johanna Long and Ryan Blaney, two real racers with under-funded teams finishing ahead of the much-ballyhooed TP and DP.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.
As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Did Kentucky Speedway do enough to appease dissatisfied fans after its Cup debut disaster? And how will this affect its future on the circuit?
Kentucky Speedway fought for years to land a coveted Sprint Cup Series race, only to be blocked with every shot it took. So when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the venue, then awarded it a date formerly housed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a slam dunk, a Bluegrass bonanza for hardcore Southern supporters who waited over a decade. But for 100,000 ticketed fans, their dream come true turned into a hellish nightmare on July 9, 2011. Traffic flow and infrastructure shortcomings plagued the inaugural Cup date to the point that Kentucky Speedway may hold the title of having hosted the most disastrous major sporting debut in history. Traffic was so bad some estimates claimed as many as 20,000 people never made it to the speedway, while others sat idle for up to seven hours, then parked three miles away to get in.
SMI’s response? An apology two days later and a ticket-exchange offer to any of the remainder of its 2011 dates (including upcoming Truck Series and IndyCar events at Kentucky Speedway) or free admission to this season’s Kentucky date.
Did that heal the wound? Not even close. What SMI CEO Bruton Smith failed to understand was that for many, that weekend was it. That was the vacation, the time off from work, the hotel reservation, the gas money, the time, effort and planning … that weekend — not one seven weeks later at Bristol — that many hard-working fans saved for and invested in.
Perhaps it's hard for a billionaire to comprehend. Regardless, Smith offered no ticket refunds in a rambling, bizarre press conference the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he laid blame on everyone from the state and local police, the company hired to direct traffic in the parking areas, local and state officials who did not bend to his roadway demands, local residents who parked cars on their property to — get this — the fans themselves for not planning properly!
The scary part of this mess was that Smith had traffic and parking issues at his Las Vegas and Texas tracks on opening Cup weekends in the past, plus Kentucky track officials had concerns going into the July date. Did SMI know what was coming? Would it allow a debacle on this scale to unfold simply to force state officials to invest in roadway reconstruction around the track? It certainly felt that way.
As to how this will affect Kentucky’s future events, it’s impossible to foresee. SMI has made improvements to the facility with expanded parking areas, additional restroom facilities and plans to widen the interstate and ease incoming traffic to the track itself. Time heals all wounds and, obviously, NASCAR did not yank its 2012 date. However, 100,000 fans were treated not like paying customers, but more like pawns in a multi-million dollar game of chicken, pitting SMI against the Kentucky state legislature. Let’s hope no one — even those who did not suffer that day — forgets that.
What steps should NASCAR take to curb start-and-park efforts?
In 2009, NASCAR referred to start-and-park teams as a “passing phase.” But as we enter year four of the collect-a-check experiment dominating the back of the Sprint Cup pack, it’s clear these profiteering teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the practice is only getting worse. As many as eight cars pulled in early during races last fall — that’s nearly 20 percent of the grid showing up with no intention of competing.
And why should they? In the last three years, Joe Nemechek has only finished five of his 97 starts but collected a cool $7.8 million in purse money. While saving on engine, pit crew and chassis costs, the only penalty the driver/owner may get is an occasional teardown as being selected for post-race inspection. Even then, a rebuild three or four times a year isn’t enough to wreck the profit margin. It’s become a big enough business that those who were initially putting up an honest effort, like Robby Gordon’s No. 7 outfit, have decided to join in.
That disturbing trend is why NASCAR needs to act. Either come up with a system of paying on a per-lap basis — reducing the profiteering of these teams — or simply reduce grid size to represent the number of cars showing up to compete. Dropping from a field of 43 to 36 increases the purse for each participant, ramps up the qualifying competition (maybe drop from 35 to 25 locked-in spots?) while better reflecting the number of fully funded cars. You can always expand back over time, as the NASCAR economy improves, right?
The question, of course, then becomes whether the sport’s television deal allows it to do that — a question that’s been disputed for years and whose answer lies within a contract no one’s allowed to see.
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