Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

TORRES: A Graduate Level System in NASCAR Needs A Closer Look

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Ever wonder how NASCAR would either benefit or become a detriment if they have a graduate level system to where performance and actions defines a competitor’s future in the sport?

That’s what I got from Brad Keselowski’s comments following Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Following a ninth-place finish, Keselowski had a lot to say about NASCAR needing to police drivers, making it pretty obvious he was referring to Quin Houff, on whether or not they’re capable of competing in the sport’s highest level.

The Texas Sized Subject of Interest

In a gobsmacked incident very reminiscent of J.J. Yeley at Charlotte in 2006 that took Mark Martin out of championship contention, Houff was going to make his scheduled green flag stop on Lap 307, but the execution in the eyes of many (including myself) was facepalm material.

Houff attempted to make it to pit road in the middle of lead lap cars, slamming into Christopher Bell, who ended up having right side damage. Houff got loose and then ran into the right front fender of Matt DiBenedetto, who had a top-10 car for much of the race. The contact sent Houff straight towards the outside wall, destroying his brand new No. 00 Permatex Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.

No question, the chaos brought out a game changing eighth caution period, which eliminated Ryan Blaney (who won the first two stages) from the fight.

“There’s nothing you can do about it in the situation, just something you have no control over, so there’s no point in dwelling on it and what happened,” Blaney on his latest sour grape. “(I) just (have to) be proud of the effort that the team made and now that you had a really fast car.”

Whether or not it led to Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick scoring a 1-2 finish is up to you, but that was a cold case example of a rookie mistake from Houff, and a pretty poor execution at that.

“Nobody can argue that it was a poor decision,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Monday. “We do review every incident of every race. We didn’t speak to (Houff) last night, but we will before we get going again at Kansas. (StarCom Racing) got to do better than that.

“Things are going to happen. Every decision that’s made on the race track is an instantaneous spur of the moment decision, but nobody can argue that wasn’t a poor one.”

The Plaintiff’s Explanation of the Incident

Houff, who’s currently 34th in points, admitted his spotter mirror fell off his car and from his perspective, played a role into his fifth DNF of the year.

“I didn’t caught off in time and the guys committed underneath me were already there and it’s my fault,” Houff on the accident. “I had a spotter mirror that we use in the window on the left side on the car and it had fallen off, so I couldn’t see out of that. Rookie mistake and it’s one of those tough learning instances.”

While I appreciate his sincerity, the blame is 50-50. The spotter should deserve equal or as much blame of not being aware of his driver’s competition. I sure hope Houff reminded his team about the mirror before making a stop. Otherwise, that won’t be a great look because if a competitor knows the issue, shouldn’t they warn the crew in advance?

That way, the spotter would be aware of navigating Houff onto pit road at a different lap when there’s no cars in his path. Houff could’ve also looked at the main driver mirror as well and I’d imagine he might’ve, but we’ll never know.

The Need of Having a System That’ll Judge Drivers

Keselowski said there’s an entertainment and professional side, with the latter being its driving force of his comments because a guy like him appeared to be on his way out of NASCAR in 2007.

That was until Ted Musgrave made a point to Bobby East in a Truck Series race at Milwaukee that landed Keselowski a one-off ride with Germain Racing at Memphis. The rest was history as he got a ride with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the now-known Xfinity Series, and has a Cup Series championship under his belt.

“(I) had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it and would like to think that those efforts have created a spot for me in this series to be joined with peers of similar talent levels,'” said Keselowski. “I have nothing personal against anyone that has an issue like that because they do happen from time to time, but there are certainly a handful of drivers that kindly I wonder exactly how they got to this level.”

Keselowski continued his explanation by saying the rules package made it difficult for NASCAR to see who has what it takes to be in the sport’s highest level.

“When you’ve got this rules package with cars that are super-easy to drive by themselves,” said Keselowski. “It’s very hard for NASCAR, I think, to be able to tell who’s got it and who doesn’t. So it kind of puts them in a box until you actually get in a race.”

He has a point because we’ve seen races where the brake pedal isn’t necessary when the package is meant to go full throttle. Kyle Busch has been vocal about it in the past because it has taken the skill out of a driver.

Then comes the biggest takeaway from Keselowski’s comments and that’s having a graduate system in NASCAR. Think sort of like Road to Indy and junior formula categories with a FIA Super License as the cherry on top.

“I would like to see drivers be able to graduate into this level and equally I’d like to see them be able to be removed from this level when they have repeated issues,” Keselowski on the idea. “I can’t speak enough to (Houff about) that issue today, but I have seen in the past where drivers that have had this issue multiple times somehow are still here, where I think they should effectively be placed in a lower series or asked to go back to a more minor league level to prove their salt.

“But that’s ultimately not my decision to make. It’s what I would like to see, but it’s not my decision to make and until it is, I guess I should probably just shut up, but I certainly think there’s some merit to it.”

Keselowski Isn’t Alone About the Matter

Clint Bowyer felt the sport has always had a graduate process, but is mindful the process has been getting lax as some owners’ purposes of entering cars and how certain drivers received an opportunity is a far cry from 10-15 years ago.

“Just because you have money or whatever else, you shouldn’t be able to just buy your way onto the racetrack. And I’m not saying that whoever that was, had that happen,” said Bowyer. “But nonetheless we’ve been doing this, what, 15 years or so. I know my competitors on that racetrack. And every year there’s a new one or a couple new ones and I know what I’m up against.

“I don’t like having guys that just show up and race every now and then at this level of racing. That’s not right. You don’t just show up and line up against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. You shouldn’t be able to do that against Stewart-Haas Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing or anything else. That’s not a knock to them.”

I’d imagine everyone applauding his rightful comments. Albeit the comparison is run of the mill due to the fact both levels of competition are the same, but I see Bowyer’s meaning.

Some guys have their purposes and if guys break through where they out perform the equipment provided (ex. Front Row Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek throughout this season) or deliver in top rides (ex. Alex Bowman filling in for Dale Jr. in 2016), they’ve earned it.

“I think if you do a good job with your graduation process of graduating, I don’t think you have to worry about ever knocking anybody down,” said Bowyer.

How I See The Landscape of Drivers with Questionable Reputations

There’s guys with backing that honestly had no purpose of being on any national touring level like former Truck Series driver Cody Coughlin, whose JEG’s family money replaced and ultimately ended Cameron Hayley’s career in 2017.

After one year, Coughlin flopped and was out of the ThorSport Racing No. 13 truck in favor of a more competent Myatt Snider, who has since shown potential with both Richard Childress Racing and RSS Racing in Xfinity this year.

Then there’s Cody Ware last year, who might’ve cost Alex Bowman an earlier maiden Cup win at Kansas and embarrassed himself during Friday Cup practice at Sonoma. When the FOX Sports commentary begin using puns and even ridicule you, then it’s time for a new career path.

Ware was recently let go from his daddy’s ride known as Rick Ware Racing. Maybe sports car racing is where he can be serviceable instead of being a constant road block in the eyes of folks.

Busch was extremely pissed at Garrett Smithley last fall at Las Vegas which led to the infamous “late model wins” comment.

Smithley might’ve played a role in Ryan Blaney tangling into Kyle Busch at Pocono. Busch tried to go low to lap Smithley, but Blaney came in hot and led to the incident.

I could go on about other drivers, but I’d imagine those examples are guys Bowyer might be thinking of and hopes Houff doesn’t end up being a guy that shouldn’t belong in the sport.

“I guess that’s my point and that (he) need(s) to do a better job of making sure we’ve got the right guys on the racetrack and if you do a good job at that, you’ll never have to remove them,” Bowyer concluded.

Moving On from Texas and How the System Could Result Conflicts

I’d like to see Houff improve from this misfortune beginning this Thursday at Kansas (7:30 p.m. EST on NBCSN), and start earning respect from his competitors and the sanctioning body.

Time off from social media helps, but people have made up their minds. They feel he’s not ready for the top level, especially when StarCom Racing wasn’t a team prone of high crash rates.

Landon Cassill ended up having the lowest crash rate last season. Yet, he got the boot and sadly is now known as the Blue-Emu iRacing guy. There’s no shame in that, but if he’s done a nice job for a young team, why change?

I’d imagine money like many drivers that come into the sport these days and that’s the biggest flaw of having such system.

Say NASCAR implemented the system where multiple incidents leads to relegation. There’s some guys who sponsor the driver, not both parties. Lose a driver, the team may struggle unless they promote another paid guy who is eligible.

It’ll get very messy from a team’s financial standpoint and the RTA (Race Team Alliance) will have an absolute field day about it. Thus, such vision may not come into fruition.

However, I’d welcome the concept under one certain element which is deducting points similar to the Super License and look no further than Formula One’s Sebastian Vettel.

At one point, the Scuderia Ferrari driver he was on the verge of having a multi-race ban due to nearly reaching the 12-point deduction of his Super License. Yes, a four-time F1 World Champion could’ve been benched last season.

Although different from relegation, but it would be a neat feature to really know who may need to be sat down and face the consequences.

It’ll probably lead to a Noah Gragson either on the verge of or already relegated (even suspended) due to his run-ins with Snider, Justin Allgaier, Harrison Burton and Riley Herbst this season alone. As you’d expect on social media, the majority put the blame on Gragson.

That being said, it’ll give the drivers a wake-up call. If multiple guys or gals are upset with the way you’ve either got the ride or race certain drivers, then be careful. It’s up to the drivers and their awareness level to decide how to go about it, but we’ve reached that boiling point.

Conclusion

Change is necessary and I see why both Keselowski and Bowyer had to be vocal because it’s become an alarming concern. Such incident like Houff at Texas shouldn’t have happened, especially when the spotter mirror had fallen.

Now, Houff’s reputation all across the board is anything but positive.

At the same time, there’s some conflicts that would prevent it from happening, but certain implementations would become serviceable. Right now, Houff is under hot water and needs to move on from it with a essential takeaways so he doesn’t get chastised again.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.