Monday, July 19, 2010

On Carl v. Brad, Part 2

It's two days after the fact and people are still buzzing about the latest Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident at Gateway. Just like the Atlanta incident, people are digging in to support their driver with Edwards' fans saying Brad had it coming and of course Brad's fans saying Carl over-reacted.

Is there a middle ground?

Possibly. But who cares? This brewing rivalry - or is it a festering rivalry - is by far the most entertaining thing to happen on the track in NASCAR racing in years. The fact that these two drivers genuinely dislike each other is fine by me.

That's not to say there isn't blame to go around for what happened on the final lap at Gateway.

Brad's dad, former ARCA champion and NCWTS winner Bob Keselowski, had it pegged on ESPN: Carl flipped out. Now, we had the benefit to replays to see what happened with the nudge in turn one and it's fairly plain to see that Brad's car had a wiggle before banging into Carl. That's what happens when you're racing hard, and Carl has done that more times than one could count. I recall him bouncing off the curb in the Truck race at Martinsville so many times in the fall of 2003 that he had to apologize to virtually the entire field after the race. So while Carl was the "victim" in one sense on Saturday night he's not completely innocent; he's moved his fair share of people out of the way either on purpose or just by driving in over his head.

There's no way being moved up the track calls for hooking someone in the right rear down the straightaway. It is a huge over-reaction, and the crash that it caused destroyed not only Brad's car but several others as well including another Roush Fenway car driven by Colin Braun. Now chances are Braun won't go after his pound of flesh, but Shelby Howard sure should. And, undoubtedly, Brad Keselowski should too.

After the Atlanta race when Brad ended up on his roof, the talk of the NASCAR Nation was how the little punk kid had it coming and afterwards the two drivers settled their differences and patched things up. I never bought it. Sure the two smiled and played nice, but there is some genuine angst between the two and how could there not be? They've scraped fenders several times, and while the incidents at Talladega in 2009 and Atlanta in 2010 that left Edwards with a wrecked racecar were as much his fault as Brad's, it's understandable when he wants to exact his payback. But Carl has gone well past the line of paying another driver back.

Brad has raced Carl hard, which is what he was hired to do. If there is contact, make it an eye-for-an-eye. Carl has over-reacted twice now, crashing Brad at Atlanta at the point on the track where the speeds are at their highest. Remember, even if Brad was 100-percent at fault for that Atlanta crash, the contact was made in the center of the corner where speeds are 50 to 60 miles per hour slower. Sure, Carl went up and over at Talladega but that was his fault - he chose to block Brad who at that point as as far down as he could go and already partially alongside Carl. Brad owes Carl for Atlanta, and now he owes him for Gateway.

While Carl is in victory lane celebrating and talking about how that pesky Keselowski needs to learn his lesson once and for all, Brad isn't saying anything other than what he needs to. But somewhere down the line, that debt that Carl has racked up with two huge crashes will come due. It could come as Carl is trying to solidify his position in the Chase. It could come as Carl is trying to take over the Nationwide points lead. It could be both. It could be somewhere farther off into the future, no one except Brad knows.

The chances of Carl just taking it and moving on are slim to none. And that's okay too, because that means this rivalry will carry on well into the future. Just like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. And Allison and Darrell Waltrip. And Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine. The sport has gone without a major rivalry for the better part of this decade and maybe even longer, despite every beat writer trying to force a rivalry upon us every time two drivers scrape the paint of each others' fender somewhere.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On how to fix the Nationwide Series

The talk centering around the Nationwide Series race at Daytona last week focused mainly on one subject: the new-generation racecar and how it helps the struggling second-tier series build its own identity.

There are myriad reasons why the Nationwide Series needs its own identity and just as many ways to make it happen. It needs its own racecars, drivers, and tracks and it needs to be separated from the weekly second-fiddle status at Sprint Cup events.

One only needs to look back to the end of the 1990s to see what a healthy Nationwide Series can be. In 1998, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s first championship season, there were 11 stand-alone races on the 31-race schedule. Tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds Raceway, Hickory Speedway, Nazareth Speedway, Pikes Peak International Raceway, the Milwaukee Mile, Myrtle Beach Speedway, South Boston Speedway and Gateway International Raceway held stand-alone races. Other tracks like New Hampshire and Watkins Glen that also held Cup races had stand-alone Nationwide races.

Fields were full of drivers that gave the series its own personality. Earnhardt was on his way to Cup superstardom, as was Matt Kenseth. But a strong contingent of full-time Nationwide-only drivers could run with the Cup Series invaders. Jeff Purvis, Buckshot Jones, Randy LaJoie, Phil Parsons, Hermie and Elliott Sadler, David, Jeff, and Mark Green, Jason Keller, Mike McLaughlin, Tim Fedewa, Dick Trickle, Andy Santerre, Elton Sawyer, Shane Hall, Glenn Allen, Jr., Stevie Reeves, and Joe Bessey were just some of the drivers that gave the series its identity with race fans.

Of the 43 drivers that started in the series opener at Daytona in 1998, just seven would run in the Daytona 500 the following day as a full-time Cup driver. Two of those drivers were in cars they owned themselves, including race winner Joe Nemechek. Just five cars were owned by Cup owners: two by Jack Roush, one by Joe Gibbs, one Bill Davis, and one by Dale Earnhardt. Fast forward to 2010: twenty of the 43 cars were owned by current or former Cup team owners or drivers. Thirteen drivers would also run in the Daytona 500. Just 18 of the 43 starters had less than a full season’s worth of Cup experience.

So how can NASCAR rebuild the Nationwide Series’ identity?

It starts with the cars, although the move to the Cup chassis makes this a lot more difficult. Different body styles are essential, although the talk from Daytona is that Ford and Dodge would consider running the new Mustang and Challenger in the Cup Series if allowed. If there is little to no cross-over from Cup to Nationwide, then there is less reason for those Cup drivers to use Nationwide races as test sessions. Preferably the cars wouldn’t look “similar” to their street counterparts but “identical,” but that is another column for another time.

The second component is the schedule. It’s a fallacy that Nationwide races can only succeed if the field is full of Cup drivers. It is essential to separate the two series on a frequent basis. Tracks that don’t host Cup races need to be on the schedule much more frequently. It might be impossible to add the Hickorys and South Bostons of the world back to the schedule, and NASCAR’s France family bought and then shut down places like Nazareth and Pikes Peak. But there are tracks out there that fit the bill, some ovals and some road courses. The recent success at Montreal and Road America prove that road course racing can be a profitable and exciting component to the schedule and there are plenty of short tracks that could be added in exchange for a combo race somewhere. NASCAR also needs to make these stand-alone races geographically distant from the Cup races so much so that it’s difficult enough that no Cup driver would decide to fly in to race.

Cost containment is also essential. There is no reason why it should cost $7-8 million to run a Nationwide season. The participation by Cup owners has inflated the costs dramatically and chased out long-time Nationwide owners like Bill Baumgartner, Clarence Brewer, Frank Cicci, Gary Bechtel, Doug Taylor, and Bill Papke. One of the things that made the series affordable in the late 1990s was the 9.5:1 compression ratio V-8 engines that replaced the V-6 engines that dominated the early part of the decade. These engines were durable and relatively inexpensive to maintain. NASCAR made the change to 12:1 to bring the Nationwide Series engines more in line with the Cup engines and it drove the cost up dramatically. A return to the 9.5:1 engines and a commitment to stay with them would lower the costs and could eventually bring in new ownership to the sport.

In the absence of the above, NASCAR has other options. Limiting the participation by Cup drivers would help. Cup drivers have always ran Nationwide races, but only recently have they decided they would run for both championships simultaneously. That isn’t a healthy thing for the long-term viability of the series. So what NASCAR should do (and they can do this in addition to the above ideas as well) is limit the number of races a Cup-licensed driver can run in a season through new licensing requirements.

Starting in 2011, a Gold license holder (Cup Series) should be able to enter a total of 55 NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series events. That gives them the entire 36-race Cup schedule plus 19 other races in either the Nationwide Series and/or the Camping World Truck Series. A Silver license holder (Nationwide) could run a total of 35 races – which oddly enough is the exact same number of races on the Nationwide schedule. The Bronze license (Truck) would be good for, you guessed it, 25 races – also the exact same number of races on the Truck schedule. If a Truck driver would like to also run some Nationwide races or a Nationwide driver would like to jump up and run some Cup races, he or she can buy upgrades for one, five, or 10 races but at no time could a Gold license holder buy more starts in a lesser division.

Crew member limits could also be imposed. NASCAR could eliminate the need for specially-trained over the wall crews by a hard limit on the number of team members at a race. Once you have reached your limit, you can’t sign in anyone else to work on your car or go over the wall. No team should need more than 12 people at the track working on a racecar, and that also gives you plenty of people to go over the wall and service it on pit stops.

It is important that NASCAR’s developmental series succeed. Soon, within the next five to ten years, the drivers and even the owners we see racing on Sundays today are going to be at the end of their competitive careers. Where will the drivers that replace them come from? Right now, there isn’t a place for them to race because the Nationwide Series is crowded by Cup drivers and owners. When Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs decide they are done with NASCAR and retire, who will replace them? When Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton call it a career, who is waiting in the wings ready to take over? The owners that have raided the Nationwide Series for race wins and championships have sacrificed the long-term health of the sport as a whole for short term gain.