Monday, August 2, 2010

On the secret penalties and fixing phantom cautions

It’s been almost a week since NASCAR’s “secret” fines to Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman were announced. In that time, I’ve spent quite a few hours formulating my thoughts so I could coherently express myself. I hope I am able to do that in this posting.

First, I still love NASCAR. Despite disagreeing with the sanctioning body on numerous points, they overall do a good job of running the sport and keeping it moving in the right direction. I also believe that they truly do think the decisions they make are for the betterment of the sport, even if the reality of their decisions don’t make anything markedly better.

Second, I hope the recent flap started by these fines leads somewhere. It could simply be that the NASCAR Foundation has an influx of cash and that’s the end of it. Or, NASCAR could take the comments made by both drivers to heart and make some concrete changes that actually do make the sport better.

Newman has had several major accidents throughout his career, any one of which could have had a seriously negative outcome. Should he be opinionated about restrictor plate racing? Yes. Should he air his dirty laundry in public? Probably not, but drivers have been complaining vociferously about restrictor plate racing since at least 1988 (the year the plates were implemented; coincidence?). Not once in over 20 years of racing in a huge pack has NASCAR shown any real initiative to do away with them and make the racing at Daytona and Talladega less crazy. So can Newman be faulted for speaking out to the media?

Hamlin touched on a subject that thousands of fans – if not millions – have grown weary of in recent years. It’s long been suggested that NASCAR will call a caution when it needs to tighten up the competition for entertainment’s sake. They will poll their spotters around the track and see if anyone can spot any debris. Now, they may actually have good intentions – no one will argue that there should be debris on the track, and no one will say they love to see racecars spread out at one second intervals with no racing throughout the field.

However, perception is reality and NASCAR’s audience perceives these cautions to be bogus, and Hamlin called them on it.

So what can NASCAR do?

When they make the inevitable move to fuel injection they can ensure the drivers have enough throttle response at Daytona and Talladega that they can actually let off the throttle in traffic instead of riding the brakes as they do now. There are other changes, aero changes, that would really help but that is a good first step.

And NASCAR can also do away with the phony debris cautions and still liven up the show. All they need to do is institute, in the rule book so it is there for everyone to see, competition cautions at regular intervals specified at each track. For instance, at superspeedways it could be 100 miles. At short tracks it could be 100 laps. At road courses it could be one-third distance. For example, a competition caution at Bristol would come out only after 100 consecutive green flag laps. The window for a competition caution closes with 50 laps/miles to go. Therefore, if the field goes back to green after a crash with 125 miles left to run at Daytona, there will not be another competition caution since it would come out with 10 laps to go.

All of the possibilities would have to be considered and worked through to make it fair while keeping the race itself entertaining. Old school fans would hate to see the possibility for a caution-free race to go away, but has that come close to happening recently?

At least this way, the teams and fans would both know that if they haven’t seen a caution after a certain number of laps one will be coming out. There will be no conspiracy theories to postulate since the timing of the caution would be mandated by rule. And it might just urge those spotters around the track to only call debris when it is actually seen.

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