Saturday, February 22, 2014

What NASCAR Has To See To Gain Back Credibility

This was initially published February 17; it has been updated

MRN's Dave Moody notes the angry reactions to Austin Dillon's Daytona 500 pole in RCR's renewal of the number 3, a convenient "feel good" story of the kind racing fans stopped trusting long ago. That distrust of the sanctioning body is so prevalent has been well known for some time, and that it has come out with a vengeance after Austin Dillon's pole run is hardly surprising. Moody notes the absurdities of conspiracy-mongering in accusing Dillon's pole run of being manipulated by NASCAR. To add to his point, qualifying produced several surprises - Martin Truex on the front row, a rebound of Roush Fenway Fords coming off a subpar season, promising efforts by Richard Petty's cars - notably the #43 of Aric Almirola, now wrenched by Trent Owens, whose birth father Randy Owens was Richard's brother-in-law and one of his crewmen, struck down by a freak water tank explosion at Talladega in 1975 - and the curious back seat to which the Hendrick and Stewart/Haas cars were shoved almost from the opening of practice.   And to top it off was Denny Hamlin's win in the Busch Clash Saturday night where Chevrolets - normally favored at Daytona - were noticeably left behind by the Fords and Toyotas.

Conspiracy thoughts have long permeated the sport and NASCAR has no one to blame but itself, because it insists on giving itself the most control over the racing perhaps of any sports sanctioning body.   The officiating tower in NASCAR has been given more control than anywhere else over the years, to where it controls when pit road is opened - the rule closing pit road came into being in March 1989 and has steadily seen additional pit restrictions that did not exist, and weren't particularly needed - how fast drivers can enter or exit the pits - leading to nonstop pit speeding violations as dubious as most civilian traffic tickets - and at Daytona and Talladega it controls where cars can and can't race - its yellow line rule has done nothing but lead to numerous dubious calls and non-calls, the most infamous remaining the 2003 Winston 500 win by Dale Junior passing on the apron of Turn Three and the 2008 Diehard 500 win by Tony Stewart when Regan Smith was flagged for his last-lap pass below the line at the stripe, this after Ramsey Poston of NASCAR made comments to the effect that such a pass was in fact legal.

Distrust in the sanctioning body was nowhere close to as pronounced in years past, to where legitimate controversies over the legality of some race wins did not harm the sanctioning body long term.   Among them was the 1973 National 500, where Cale Yarborough's Chevy won but postrace inspection revealed probable violation of engine size; engine builder Robert Yates acknowledged in the Tom Jensen book Cheating that the engine wasn't legal.  The controversy led Bobby Allison to file a lawsuit he soon withdrew after a lengthy meeting with Bill France Jr.   Other controversies have been the 1984 Firecracker 400, which oddly didn't become particularly controversial until the infamous 1995 "The Call" magazine article questioning NASCAR's level of control of the racing.   There were also controversies over the spacer penalty to Mark Martin in 1990 - that one was a controversy defending Martin against NASCAR - and the legality of Junior Johnson's racecar in 1991 after a major engine size penalty in May and a dubious inspection of the car's fuel capacity in October; Larry McReynolds stating he saw the pumps and they showed Junior's car taking in more than the allowed 22 gallons of fuel. 

There is also the lingering bitterness in some fan circles over NASCAR's treatment of Tim Richmond, which may never go away.

NASCAR has begun to make changes to try and win back fans via better racing.   The first test in the Busch Clash was a good start, though by no means a complete start; spoiler changes to improve racing at intermediate tracks still await live-fire competition, though Charlotte testing showed some promise.  

But the goal of reestablishing credibility remains one where NASCAR must act via letting go control of the racing.   Fewer templates, opening up areas of the racetrack for the racers (i.e. no more yellow line rules), liberalizing pit road rules to allow the racers control instead of the officiating tower, and the officiating tower putting the flags away a la NFL referees in playoff games - those are areas NASCAR needs to seriously explore.    And Saturday's Daytona 300 Busch Series race illustrates how far NASCAR has to go between the foolishness of trying to police tandem drafting - it bears repeating that the practice was evolving in 2013 to where, as shown in the Talladega 250 for the Trucks, tandem drafts could pass but didn't just stay together, the second-place vehicle bailed on the leader and passed, while conventional drafts were able to keep up and catch up; it was a perfect mixture of styles that produced 29 lead changes in 250 miles - and the absurd penalty on James Buescher combined with NASCAR's on-air admission to not being able to catch all infractions. 

Fans have justly beein upset with NASCAR over how the Busch Series race developed, and Speedweeks 2014 has seen some very good racing - notably the Clash, the first Twin, and the Nextera 250 Truck race, while the Regan Smith win in the 300 was amazing - but also illustrated that NASCAR has to go further in letting go.

Austin Dillon's pole would not generate the controversy it has if NASCAR ran a tight ship and eliminated conflicts of interest.   If Aric Almirola or Martin Truex or someone less known than the sport's "stars" like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon wins the 500, that will help weed out conspiracy buffs - and it's worth noting the 500 isn't far removed from the wins by  darkhorses Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.    Running a tight ship where there isn't conflict of interest and the racers instead of the officiating tower are seen to have the control is the biggest way to weed out the conspiracy mongers.    James Buescher and Regan Smith offered some more proof of this.

No comments: