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Takes On Free Passes, Hip Checks, Bad Ice Cream

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 12 2014

The Chase's final-four setting race turned out to be game of follow the leader. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

Four quick thoughts (cut down from 10 because of the new elimination format) from last Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway:

1. The Sprint Cup series will  not roll into South Florida with the winds of excitement at its back. While Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway produced the Final Four drivers in its new elimination format, it produced very little excitement for fans who wanted to see a good race. Kevin Harvick took the lead 44 laps into the thing and that was it. Only caution flags kept him from lapping the field. If Cup cars were allowed to have 100-gallon fuel cells, Harvick would have lapped Harvick.

His leads would get so embarrassingly large that the resultant boredom made the endless television commercials interesting. It’s clear NASCAR still is facing aero problems with its Cup cars. Clean air has become more important that horsepower, mechanical grip and race management. The quest to field vehicles which are capable of running side-by-side lap after lap, to “slingshot” for leads, to, you know, keep viewer interest dates back to the Car of Tomorrow.

Wings didn’t do it, front valences didn’t do it, brick-like body shapes haven’t don it, endless tire fiddling hasn’t done it, track reconfigurations haven’t done it. Next up is engine de-turning and the breath-holding in the Daytona Beach offices continues.

The guess here is that Brian France and his folks will be purple in the face before the problem gets solved. Good racing is what the fans want but not necessarily what the pointy-headed team engineers want. Those dudes have been a step ahead of the rules for a couple of decades now and there are not only more of them in the shops and garages, but improved versions.

2. It’s time to re-examine the beneficiary (free pass) and wave-around rules. It’s socialism and for the already wealthy. Those rules artificially manipulate the outcomes of races and championship runs by giving teams and drivers and who, often through faults of their own, have succumbed to on-track Darwinism. Had the free pass rule been retracted before the race at Phoenix, the four-driver lineup in Sunday’s Championship Race would be radically different. Both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano fell off the lead lap at PIR because of tire problems and a pit-lane screwup respectively. They seemed to be being passed by Harvick after every third television time out and when you do the math on that, that’s a lot of passes.

Time was, falling off the lead lap was all but impossible to overcome – as it should be. Now, falling two, three, even four laps off the pace because of bad driving, bad pitting or bad luck can be overcome just by hanging around and and waiting.

The beneficiary rule was implemented in 2003 under the guise of protecting drivers by preventing racing back to the start/finish line when caution flags waved. The wave-around was adopted under the guise of helping fans – it seems the thought was that having lapped cars restart races in between the leader and the pace car was proving baffling to people in the grandstands and on couches.

Some skeptics – those rats – have asserted that both rules were implemented more to help big sponsors, television ratings and NASCAR’s bottom line.

But, well, that’s show business.

3. ESPN can’t be real thrilled with the final four line up. It just doesn’t include any true A-listers. On the contrary, it’s packed 100 percent with some really boring people – talented as those four guys may be.

See, all are good drivers. A couple even better than that. The teams for whom they drive, with perhaps the exception of Richard Childress Racing (no victories in 2014), are top tier.

But star attractions? Let’s put it this way – none would have made it into the Championship Race had the final field been decided by a popular vote. Unless, that is, the Championship Race field were to be expanded to 20 drivers. The field is not just vanilla, it’s low-fat and sugar-free.

Then there is one driver still having a chance at winning the championship without winning a race in 2014.

On Tuesday, ESPN threw a lot of people and resources at the sport to buff the shine of its Sunday stars. The network dispatched talent and crews to the bustling Charlotte shops of the Chasers and aired long “scener” type pieces with drivers and crew chiefs in an apparent blitzing attempt at character development. ESPN turned the big bag of broadcast-news tricks upside down and inside out trying to get sports fans to care about these guys.

Nope.

There is simply nobody in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Champions who can inspire the kind of love or hate that turns good events into great spectacles.

Here’s hoping the racing is good.

4. Newman’s hip check to Kyle Larson on the final lap at PIR was similar to Brad Keselowski’s banzai move on Gordon the week before in Texas. Except it was different.

Like Keselowski, Newman viewed himself in a have-to-do-what-must-be-done situation. Newman, fully aware that he need to get past Larson in order to make the Chase finale, went low under the rookie, moved up-hill and squeezed the kid into the turquoise SAFER Barrier in Turn 4.

As did Keslowski’s move the week before, Newman’s shunt ruined Gordon’s day and hopes for a fifth Cup championship.

So why no round-house-producing brawl in the pits and garages after the race? Why no blood spitting? Why no cries of vendetta? Where was the mass sturm and drang of the week before?

Probably because in both cases, the ruckus was more about the “who” than the “what”. Ryan Newman’ rap sheet is just that; a sheet. Keselowski’s is as thick as a Russian novel. He has a volume knob that is set to 11 all the time. His tone knob is always set to extra shrill. It starts with his on-track moshing and continues on to what some other her drivers perceive as Keselowski’s footlight-illuminated Gen Now hipster schtick.

Newman, on the other hand, is a codester. He’s viewed to be intimately and respectfully attached to the sport’s sacred traditions. His dues ledger is readily available and often cited: Midwestern guy (yes, as is Keselelowski) who grew up knot-holing Indiana short tracks. He took the pro forma Midwestern route of sprint cars and, the forma nouveau route of moving south after IndyCar committed suicide in the ’90s. The whole way, Newman did it with quiet reserve and cultural deference.

After getting out of his car on Sunday, he seemed more emotionally inconsolable than did Gordon, who was indirectly edged to the sidelines by Newman. Newman’s tone wasn’t; tough shit. There was a smile when he tugged his helmet off, but a quivering smile.

The line that said it all, the one that differentiated Newman from Keselowski the week before (and several other times over the years), came 18 seconds into Newman’s television interview: “I wasn’t proud of it”, he said of his Chase-continuing pass.

And that was kind of refreshing.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 12 2014
One Comment

One Comment »

  • sal says:

    Amen to ditching the Free Pass. I liked it when the lap down cars started on the inside lane and had to race their way past the leader. It would also take away the automatic advantage of the leader always starting in the ‘preferred lane’.

    I’ll be interested to see how ratings and ticket sales are in Dayton without the ‘benefit’ of well publicized pit road brawls on people’s minds. See if the lottery/crapshoot keeps anyone interested during the first 33 races of the season or not.