By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
The NASCAR industry is an especially reactive one.
For ways both good and bad, it knee jerks to everything from safety matters (generally good) to the (mixed results) endless competition related conversations across the ether on a weekly basis. This season alone has seen the last-minute knee-jerk to a lower downforce configuration for short tracks and road courses, following a winter banning the ‘Hail Melon’ and incorporating a universal choose rule.
No motorsports sanctioning body in the world is as reactive to its competitors and audience as NASCAR — a generally well-meaning approach.
And naturally, come this Monday morning, the online chatter once again turned to a slew of would-be rule changes for the competition committee at 550 Caldwell St. to ponder over in the coming weeks.
- The removal of stage breaks across the schedule
- Reducing overtime attempts
- Track limits
- Policing driver ethics
Everyone take a deep breath, anchor those jerky knees solidly in place, and consider the actual source of all the problems for the NASCAR Cup Series over the course of 45 minutes of green-white-checkers on Sunday, in the form of the drivers.
One caveat: Senior NASCAR officials past and present warrant a degree of responsibility in creating a weekly race and championship format that places such an incredibly high value on earning playoff points and winning races, but that is hardly the problem at hand when three-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor’s biggest takeaway from him Cup debut is how often he was getting thrashed running 30th.
“I have never honestly seen anything like that in my whole life,” Taylor said. “If someone came over to the Sports Car side and did that, they would be ejected immediately. I probably should have expected that from watching races over the years, but when you’re in the car getting smashed around, it’s a much different experience.
“You’re out there battling for 29th, and they don’t care, they’ll use you up for 28th. Just a different form of racing I was used to and probably should have expected.”
There are no playoff points available back there. It’s just total disrespect. It’s a dynamic that was literally just brought up literally last weekend by Kyle Busch at Atlanta.
“Nobody gives two shits about anybody else,” said the two-time champion. “That’s where the problem lies. We’re are all selfish, granted, but there was an etiquette that we once lived by here.”
It clearly fell on deaf ears.
So, the race format, and championship format, while it encourages such cutthroat decision making, is not where responsibility lies for what is happening with greater frequency. It’s those behind the wheel.
They don’t have to go 10-wide into an already sharp and narrow Turn 1 at Circuit of the Americas. They don’t have to go full bowling ball from the bottom after the choose rule from the back of the pack. They don’t have to adopt the eight tires are better than four mantra, much less the 32 tires are better than four equivalent for that matter.
Unlimited overtimes, or overtime in general, is a noble concept from a fan engagement standpoint. Does it devalue the entirety of a race? Oftentimes, yes. Does it encourage the anything goes mentality of the modern NASCAR Cup Series? Absolutely, yes.
But in this moment, at this stage, this conversation needs to be about race craft and sporting etiquette because only a scant few are driving like professionals four rows back of the leaders during overtimes every week.
And it’s unfortunate that on a day after the Cup Series featured its greatest modern day international starting lineup, one that featured a seven-time NASCAR champion, two Formula 1 world driver champions, and a three-time IMSA champion across two categories, that all of them came away feeling as the discipline were a joke rather than something to be taken seriously.
Certainly, another international champion (Supercars) now plying his trade in IndyCar was certainly laughing.
But NASCAR, replete with its cartoon graphics and silly grid walks, is currently portraying itself as a comedy than the drama it should be. And there are a lot of folks who need to spend some mirror time figuring out why that is.
Instead, we get …
“Are you not entertained?!?”
SUPER SHOE, PLAYOFF CONTENDER
It’s no longer a small sample size to ponder the playoff potential of Corey Lajoie and the Spire Motorsports No. 7 team.
Through six races, Lajoie is 15th in the championship standings with a 15.2 average finish, having shown the ability to run inside the top-10 on a variety of race tracks.
There are a few caveats here, of course, in that the Hendrick Motorsports drivers have been penalized or are currently out with an injury. So, you could make the case that Lajoie is actually 19th in the sport but that’s still a vast improvement from last year when the Ryan Sparks team was 31st in the final standings.
It’s not just a very good, underrated driver and his very good, underrated crew making significant gains on the second-year racing platform but also the increased support from Hendrick Motorsports.
Lajoie suspects he’s going to have to win to make the playoffs, but that’s no longer a pipe dream, something that’s most likely on the super speedways but maybe under a unique circumstance at a downforce track too.
“Man, it’s freaking hard, six races in,” Lajoie said. “Where a team like ours gets buried is in the week after week preparation. We’re struggling to keep cars out of the door, where larger teams get three or four weeks to massage on it. I’m hopeful the meat and potatoes of the season, the dog days of summer, that we can maintain this level of preparation.
“We’re getting some help from Hendrick in terms of underwing scans and some setup help and hopefully that continues to translate. And honestly, I have a lot of confidence right now and that means a lot too.”
Without a win, and given all the likely Hendrick drivers who are going to win before the end of the season, Lajoie is going to have to get inside the top-10 of the championship standings to remain in the playoff picture.
But this season can absolutely be a success with this team and driver staying in the conversation into those dog days.
SUNDAY WAS GREAT UNTIL IT WASN’T
It’s legitimately a shame that we have to have this conversation about ethics and race craft because the 45 minutes of overtime negated one of the best races in recent memory to that point.
There was so much to enjoy about the EchoPark Grand Prix through the end of regulation. And really, it’s remarkable and a genuine relief that one of the right two drivers won that race, because it would have been a greater shame if all the tomfoolery at the end denied Tyler Reddick or William Byron victory lane.
They earned it, even if only one of them was ultimately able to win it.
There was one point late in the race where Byron chose to take the outside front row instead of second car on the bottom behind Reddick. For one, the data says under a traditional restart, that selection had a higher likelihood of netting the lead than inside second row.
But really, it was a decision by Byron to try to wrestle the victory away from Reddick the right way. Lining up behind him really only had two merits — either trying to force him into an error that didn’t seem likely from the stronger car or it was a decision to run flat into the back of him to try to win the race that way.
On a day where we are spending so much time talking about the lack of respect deeper in the field, there was a tremendous amount of it shown by Byron and Reddick throughout the race. The same could be said for Kyle Busch too, who always races clean in these late and close situations.
Circuit of the Americas produced a really compelling old-school road course race, the decision to eliminate stage breaks creating multiple strategies and a constant shuffling of the deck, and almost producing a fuel mileage race to the end.
It was a reminder that NASCAR finishes don’t have to be overtime slugfests to be entertaining. It just requires a little bit of patience and strategic handholding from the broadcast booth to help fans get to end on.
All told, the decision to eliminate stage breaks from road courses felt like the right thing to do and the case could probably be made for short tracks too, which is entirely reasonable considering that these tracks have their own unique rules package.
Intermediates and superspeedways probably benefit from stage breaks, but it’s worth having the conversation in the aftermath of the Texas Grand Prix.