Saturday, May 16, 2015

Charlotte And NASCAR's Never-Ending Rules Dilemma

Note: originially published May 16, this has been updated on June 13:

The NC 200 for the Trucks at Charlotte began as a thoroughly forgettable rout by Erik Jones, the latest young phenom out of Joe Gibbs Racing's orbit. Driving one of teammate Kyle Busch's Toyotas, Jones qualified second but started last (he missed the drivers meeting) with polesitter Kasey Kahne (sent back there for unapproved changes), in a Dale Junior Chevrolet. It took Jones all of 26 laps to make a mockery of the Truck Series' competitive depth and he led 79 laps, but a yellow in the final 30 laps set up the finest battle NASCAR has seen on a non-plate track in years, as Kahne sidedrafted to Jones and the two fought nose to nose for lap after lap, interrupted by two more yellows. The green-white-checker finish was the wildest finish in years as Jones and Kahne sidedrafted and both crossed up noticeably before Kahne got him by inches.

The best race in years comes amid the never-ending rules dilemma NASCAR faces as it prepares for 2016's rule package, a source of friction among drivers and seemingly everyone else as Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart have been vocally critical of NASCAR's 2015 package of reduced horsepower and reduced downforce, a package whose weaknesses were on display yet again in the subsequent All Star Race at Charlotte where there was almost nothing in the way of passing and Denny Hamlin stopped a rally by Kevin Harvick by making Harvick's Chevy run in his Toyota's dirty air, which in effect pushed back Harvick's car.

The Trucks make the discussion  more interesting because they also have less horsepower, more drag, and pretty much the same downforce, and the last few seasons they have seen some spirited battles for first on intermediate tracks, notably Kansas in 2013 and 2014 as well as recent years at Homestead and Atlanta.   "If you're wide open and not lifting, I don't know how you're going to get around that car in front of you," said Bowyer a few weeks ago, while NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell vowed not to "make change for the sake of change."

The whole idea that "Our sport is based on guys manhandling the cars" (Edwards) and "we've gone father and father away from that because of all the knowledge, engineering, and dependence on aero" would sound true except that people seem to continue ignoring that dependence on aero has never been a new concept - running wide open on intermediate tracks wasn't uncommon in the Petty-Pearson-Cale-Allison-Isaac era; there was controversy in 1976 when NASCAR went to smaller carbs six races into that season and drivers reported going flat out at Atlanta in the first race with them; as late as 1995-6 Charlotte famously saw racing in the All Star Race and the 600 where drivers were so surprised at how effective the draft had become again that it became a lengthy talking point on the telecasts (see see 10:05 of this clip as an example).  

The Truck 200 at Charlotte again illustrates how all the talk can obscure that solutions are simpler than one might think.

NASCAR will fast-track a further reduction in downforce later in 2015.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

NFL Punishing Success And Promoting Parity Still

Originally published May 7, this piece has been updated on June 12, on June 19, and again on July 29:

The new Ted Wells report on "Deflategate" is out and as with his hit job in favor of Jonathan Martin, the more one reads it the less credible it gets.   The first response came from Brady's agent Don Yee, and initial reaction suggests Brady will not accept whatever punishment Roger Goodell may hand down.

Given Roger Goodell and Ted Wells' history, he shouldn't.

The Wells report's conclusion uses the term "more probable than not," lawyerspeak for tacit admission that the case he was trying to make is not supported by evidence.   This is in keeping with Wells' approach to his attack on Richie Incognito at the behest of Jonathan Martin, further illustrated by Wells' disregard of what referee Walt Anderson said about how the gauge he used for measuring football PSI showed no evidence of tampering.   Yee notes Wells all but ignored Brady's testimony to him, which was an issue earlier in the investigation where there was media speculation about whether investigators even spoke with Brady.  There is also the angle where the league ostensibly is angry because Brady didn't turn over his cellphone to investigators - something Stephen Gostkowski also did, and which the league had no right to ask them to do to begin with. 

And the premise of the investigation - illegal tampering with footballs during a game, this despite the physical impossibility of such (a fact nowhere credibly disputed in the Wells report), to go with the forgotten January 2007 NFL rule change that allows quarterbacks to customize their footballs - is slipshod to start with.   The only real evidence the piece has is text messaging between two ball attendants; nowhere does the piece show any rule was broken by anyone, and it basically takes ordinary football-customizing - universal in the game - and presents it as a conspiracy.

It's been in keeping with Roger Goodell's maliciously ignorant approach to the game over which he lords (further reflected in a grossly inaccurate letter from NFL VP David Gardi to the Patriots on January 19).   Spygate happened because Bill Belichick showed up Goodell on what his own rulebook says, and Goodell reacted as a thin-skinned bully fearing for his legitimacy to hold his job as commissioner would do - he reacted violently and got his pound of flesh.   He reacted this way again against the New Orleans Saints in Bountygate, treating a legitimate player practice - side bets for clean hits - as an assassination program, in the process ignoring more questionable hits at that time by the Tennessee Titans, which at least earned some public protest as opposed to the wholly manufactured crisis hitting the Saints.   Here Saints players fought back - and won; even so Goodell got a pound of flesh by smearing and suspending coach Sean Payton. 

That the entire controversy is about punishing success and promoting parity - as Spygate was - shows in that the report not only shows Goodell's never-ending insincerity and amateurism, it is basically a gift to the Indianapolis Colts, who made the first protest and have reacted as losers do - self-servingly moralizing about a team they can't beat, and basically haven't since the 1970 merger. New England's history with the Colts has been wholly one-sided since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, and it's been best illustrated whenever Patriot-Colt playoff meetings sandwich between meetings with tougher opponents - 2003 famously saw co-MVPs Steve McNair's Titans and Peyton Manning's Colts come to Foxboro for the playoffs after rip-roaring regular-season games; McNair played like an MVP coming up a dropped Drew Bennett catch short, while Manning played like Ryan Leaf and got embarrassed. 2014 then saw it again as John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens fought it out and lost 35-31, while the Colts were summarily dismissed 45-7.

The Wells report's credibility started deteriorating as soon as it admitted Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft were not guilty of anything - that should have set skepticism going right away to what it did conclude.   But it's about punishing success - other teams don't want to define success up, as the Patriots have done.   They want to define it down and use Goodell and Wells as their hatchet men.

POSTSCRIPT: The league handed down a four-game suspension for Brady, and fined the Patriots $1 million and two draft picks, this despite officially exonerating the team and coach Bill Belichick.  Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive VP, said in his official letter, that Brady did not cooperate with investigators, a fact already refuted by writer Jerry Thornton.   There is also the issue of NFL Officiating VP Dean Blandino, who lied about his knowledge of the scandal.

AEI - which debunked the Bountygate smear against the Saints - has provided a lengthy analysis supporting Brady. Sally Jenkins in May first refuted the league's argument about Brady's cellphone - which further discredits Goodell's unctuous verbiage about Brady "destroying" his phone and then shows how the AEI analysis further paints Roger Goodell to be a liar. Further proving the league to be frauds is what Ted Wells told Brady about his cellphone - "Keep the give me documents that are responsive to this investigation." In short Goodell's position on Brady's cellphone is a crock and as such the NFLPA has appealed Brady's suspension.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

2015 Winston 500 Shakeups, Winners, And Losers

The Winston 500 - this year debuting Geico sponsorship after thirteen seasons under the aegis of the Aarons lease-to-own retailer store chain - opened with the promise of some of the best racing of the 2015 season.   It ended with a popular win by Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it also ended with some oblique criticism of NASCAR's rules package - as old a story as one can find, yet one that remains relevant given that it seemingly doesn't end.

The weekend began with two off-track stories - the announcement that the GoDaddy internet registrar company will withdraw its longtime sponsorship of Danica Patrick, another disturbing sign that NASCAR sponsorship's expense and return are not working to the sport's benefit (and also a subtle indictment of Patrick's value as a sponsor symbol), and then comments from Kevin Harvick advocating a shakeup of the NASCAR schedule - basically yet another forum to advocate adding the Iowa Speedway to the Winston Cup schedule.

That NASCAR has been in need of shaking things up has been true for a long time, and it showed again in the Winston 500.  The schedule, though, is the least in need of shaking things up - the only changes that are needed for the schedule are dropping the All Star Race (with Atlanta's 500 being moved into its stead in mid-May), going back to 500-mile distances because they remain fundamentally superior tests of racers and cars, putting start times back to just after 12 PM Eastern/area time instead of 1:30 PM - late start times are a myth pushed by TV networks, mostly ESPN, claiming later start times mean larger audiences; on the contrary what experience has proven is later start times have hurt attendances - and dropping night races, which have accomplished nothing.

Real shaking up for the sport lays in competition areas.   For the larger issue of NASCAR, the most immediate change that remains needed is to drop the exclusivity deal with Goodyear and allow Firestone and Hoosier to supply raceteams with tires and engineering help.   The objection that "tire wars" are unsafe ignores the lack of improved safety with Goodyear's monopoly and oversells the risk factor when tire competition occurred; the real legacy of tire wars has been upsurges in new and different winning drivers and teams. 


There are of course other issues long debated, such as the Chase format and a points system that obstinately refuses to reward what warrant the largest reward - winning and most laps led.   They relate to Talladega as well, where the immediate shakeup in need remains tackling the rules myopia of the sanctioning body.   Rusty Wallace's oblique on-air criticism of the rules package for the plate tracks to discourage push-drafting rang screamingly true in the weakest Talladega race in ten-plus years, and even rang true in the Xfinity Series Winn Dixie 300 on Saturday; there was noticeable tandem drafting at the end - something noted after July 2014's Firecracker 250 at Daytona - and it produced excellent racing highlighted by the Logano-Almirola-Sadler-Yeley-Dillion push-draft showdown over the race's final quarter, even amid the frequent spoiling of momentum due to numerous yellows - and yet there simply wasn't enough push-drafting.   The contrast with the 500 was too graphic to ignore, and it showcased anew that NASCAR really has no business policing against push-drafting, the strongest power to pass that racing can ever see.  

For a race just four years removed from blasting past 80 official lead changes to be stuck at 27, and no one able to make any move at the end because the draft simply wasn't going to work, remains an indictment of NASCAR's rules myopia.


The 500's winners were limited to just one team - Hendrick Motorsports.  The Junior/Johnson Chevrolets finished 1-2 and Dale Junior thus grabbed his sixth Talladega win and first since 2004, this after Hendrick's cars led nearly 170 laps.    It was so one-sided that even excellent finishes by Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers, Martin Truex, Sam Hornish Jr., and the completely unnoticed top-ten of Josh Wise and the Curb Motorsports team registered nothing.

The losers were aplenty, led by Ford.    While Sam Hornish finished good, his Richard Petty teammate Aric Almirola had to settle for fifteenth despite a good rally from the early Turn Two melee; it nonetheless was a huge improvement for the #43 after a totally forgettable Speedweeks.   That Petty, the Woods, and Curb all had respectable finishes made the dismal finishes of Penske Racing all the more surprising, and made the abysmal runs of the Roush bunch all the worse.

The Toyotas didn't acquit themselves much better.   Denny Hamlin led five laps and finished ninth, and his JGR teammates were almost in Witness Protection during the day other than a brief run to the top five by Matt Kenseth and a surprising effort by Carl Edwards that got thrown away at the finish and has produced just one top ten for the #19; one has to wonder again whether signing on Carl Edwards was a good idea to begin with.  

RCR, despite two cars in the top ten, didn't have much to write home about with several engine failures, with a pit fire for Ryan Newman tossed in for good measure. 

It all added up to the most disappointing weekend of the season so far, coming at the place that's supposed to be better than that.