Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Let’s face it, the Daytona 500 was sleep inducing. All the worst parts of NASCAR’s modern era were on display.

There were way too many cautions- including for debris and for “competition reasons”. Frankly, if NASCAR is worried about some competition issue- code for “tires”- have Morgan Sheppard go out and run twenty hard laps in a back-up car at noon. Don't stop the race for 7-9 minutes (10 green flag laps) for this nonsense. Do your knitting your own time.

And the number of debris cautions has got to be cut back- if stuff falls off an undisturbed car more than once in a season, that car has gotta be fined fifty competition points. It isn’t so much the race stoppage, it is the endless time it takes the field to loop around a super speedway three/four times under said caution. At any two mile plus track, for any minor incident, one lap to collect them, one lap to sort them, then race again.

And yes, forget the pit stop. There is zero drama in yellow flag stops at restrictor plate tracks. Track position doesn’t matter at plate tracks until the last fifteen laps.

And of course, these late starts force a dependence on weather. Starting at 3PM reduces the window you have to get five hundred miles in- particularly when you are committed to running a regime that features a dozen caution periods a race.

In my humble opinion, the two biggest changes in NASCAR this decade have been anti-racing: the new point system that rewards months of effort to simply make laps running ninth and the increased emphasis on safety. Now, I am not anti-safety. But be honest, it does effect the product detrimentally- and needs to be compensated for.

For one thing, NASCAR has a hockey helmet problem. The NHL mandated helmets to protect players’ heads- and "surprisingly" stick fouls and injuries to the head sky-rocketed. Putting the helmet on players’ heads removed the collective responsibility to police your stick to keep your peers from getting hurt. If you are increasing safety, while decreasing responsibility to keep one another safe, you aren’t advancing anything.

NASCAR’s never ending emphasis on safety has achieved a similar effect. They’ve made everything ostensibly “safer”- and accidents are through the roof. Every race now has ten cautions for people running into each other. Not too long ago they were able to run places like Talladega and Bristol with one or two (or zero). Drivers knew craziness could get them hurt or dead.

The wreck Junior caused this weekend was because of the safety improvements- not in spite of it. He can do something incredibly risky and dumb- because there is no consequence for it past a torn up race car. These guys simply don’t race with that respect generated from fear anymore. So you need to replace that fear with something else- taking big points from guys for causing repeatedly accidents.

Daytona isn’t marred by endless crashes because of the plates or competition- but by the fact these guys don’t think they can get hurt. You wouldn’t see half the craziness, the running with wounded, ill-handling cars- if these guys thought they could get seriously injured. I don’t want to bring back “guys getting hurt”- but I want to restore the incentive for racing without crashing. A good point docking would help get them there.

That being said, I’m inclined to give Junior a grudging pass- although I acknowledge the national press is not so kind (here and here and here). He is simply not a dirty driver- just not a very good one- and he had made a mistake. Frankly, he makes that sort of mistake all the time. His issue is not equipment or talent- but his focus over lap after lap, race after race. In the middle of July, at a routine stop on the tour, you know Jimmie Johnson is going to hit his marks again and again. Junior can go races just sort of being there- for all the hype, he is a pretty boring competitor- because he goes week after week making a concentration mistake or two and quietly running thirteenth.

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