Rules Hamstringing Racing In Cup

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 21 2017

Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevy thought he had a shot at overtaking Kyle Busch in the 18 of of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but, Johnson said, he was doomed by NASCAR’s rules. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CONCORD, N.C. – For several years, I have maintained NASCAR has over-regulated the sport and as a result, the racing has suffered. Jimmie Johnson supported my theory Saturday night after the Monster Energy All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed,” Johnson said after finishing third in the race. “You can’t pass running the same speed.

“The short run when the tires are cool, how the car acts and behaves, two to three laps, it’s where the race is won or lost now. It’s just the environment we’re in. It’s a credit to the garage area being smart, not in a negative sense, but the damn rule book is too thick.”

Johnson believed he was poised to win the event when the 10 drivers who made the cut for the race’s final 10 laps lined up for the restart. Brad Keselowski was leading on old tires due to a rule interpretation. Earlier in the race, Keselowski’s crew had put softer compound tires on his car. He scuffed them, then returned to his pit and exchanged them for the regular compound tire. The team’s intention was to use the softer scuffed tires later in the race. NASCAR ruled that wasn’t allowed; once the tires came off, they couldn’t be used again. That left Keselowski without new tires for the final 10 laps.

Johnson was second with new regular compound tires and lined up on Keselowski’s outside. Kyle Busch, also on new tires, lined up behind Keselowski in third. When the green flag waved, Busch rooted his Toyota under Keselowski and shot into the lead. He was never challenged the rest of the way and easily won his first All-Star race in his 12th start by 1.274 seconds. That’s the most All-Star starts by any driver before finally winning one. The old record was 11 by Tony Stewart. It also was Busch’s first Cup event victory at Charlotte. In giving Toyota its second All-Star victory, Busch became the second Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win the race. Denny Hamlin was the first in 2011.

Kyle Larson, who won the race’s first two stages, passed Johnson, who was the third stage winner, with about two laps remaining to claim second.

The restart was only one of two exciting racing moments Saturday night. The other came in the Open when Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones raced three wide on the frontstretch. Jones daringly tried to pass on the inside of Elliott, who was in the middle, and caught the grassy apron in a move reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt on Elliott’s father, Bill, in the 1987 All-Star race. For a brief moment, the daring exploits that made the All-Star race memorable existed.

Unfortunately, those moments are now far-and-few between and probably for many reasons. Among them are financial reward, the cars’ equality and the track’s size.

When the All-Star race made its debut in 1985 the winner received more money than in any other stock car event. Drivers didn’t receive guaranteed multi-million dollar salaries. Now, it’s more of a “pride” event than one where the financial reward is essential to paying the bills. Today, many teams use it as a test for the Coca-Cola 600 the following weekend.

NASCAR’s regulations have left the teams with little room for gaining an advantage. The teams no longer can choose any gear ratio they want. Instead, NASCAR tells the teams which gears they may choose from. Talented fabricators once crafted a car, working their magic on the sheet metal. Those days are gone. NASCAR also has severely limited what can be done to the cars, placing them in the engineers’ hands.

And then there is the track. When the All-Star race began there were only two 1.5-mile tracks in NASCAR’s premier series and Charlotte’s was a unique design. Atlanta was the other 1.5-mile track, but its design wasn’t the same as it is today. In 1985, Atlanta was comprised of long, sweeping turns and short straightaways. No frontstretch dogleg. Today, there are eight 1.5-mile tracks and those speedways often produce dull, even boring, events.  

When the All-Star race was initially announced at the 1984 awards banquet in New York City, the plan was to rotate it among the tracks. That changed, however, after the 1986 debacle. The All-Star race was scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend at Atlanta. It was a rude awakening for the sport. There were no campers in the infield and one could count the fans in the grandstands. It was immediately shifted back to Charlotte where it has remained.

Larson said he thought the All-Star race should move to a track on the West Coast, but would the event become the fiasco that it was in 1986? The only way to know would be to try it. But can the sport risk such a debacle at this time when NASCAR and track promoters are working desperately to get fans to the track?

Like the teams, NASCAR often uses the All-Star race as a test. Such was the case Saturday with the two different compound tires. The softer tires were an advantage for a brief time, but they didn’t work as officials had hoped in providing more intense racing. Perhaps it’s because an on-track test hadn’t occurred; instead, only simulation work. Clint Bowyer’s team tried what gave Richard Petty his October 1983 Charlotte victory, when softer tires were illegally placed on the car’s right side, thus providing more grip. For Bowyer, however, his legal move didn’t work.

There is no single solution to the problems facing the All-Star race and the sport, but the best place to start would be with deregulation.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 21 2017
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