Common Sense Prevails
September 19, 2003 | 10:33 A.M. EST
So why the sudden change of heart amongst NASCAR officials? Well, as noted above, the situation Sunday was hardly unique and there have been other close calls and bad accidents while cars raced to the caution in the past. Drivers have been calling for a rule change for years. The row over Jeff Gordon passing Matt Kenseth at Texas coming to the caution at Texas to keep Kenseth’s Roush teammates a lap down caused some loud debate and even a rare “mea culpa” from the powers that be over their decision to intervene and tell Gordon to get back behind the 17 car. The situation at Sonoma where Robby Gordon passed his teammate Kevin Harvick racing back to the yellow caused internecine squabbling amongst the RCR camps. And then of course there was that near miss at New Hampshire as Casey Mears slid wildly out of control trying to avoid the 88 car.
But my guess the sudden change of heart has more to do with the ascension of Brian France to the post of NASCAR CEO, a move that surprised no one but alarmed many. The rap on the third generation France was that he was out of touch, perhaps badly out of touch, with the competition side of things having spent so many years working on the marketing side of the sport. In his comments Sunday after the news story leaked, France quickly noted that racing back to the yellow was something the sanctioning body was looking at as it was the topic de jour last weekend. It was pretty much a no-brainer from there. France could show he had his finger on the pulse of the competition side of things with a move that would be widely applauded in the garage area, amongst fans and in the media. (Even if the most cynical added, “It’s about damn time.”) By having Mike Helton make the announcement France could show despite rumors to the contrary there’s no rivalry or ill feeling between him and Helton. Everyone is on the same page. Under new management NASCAR is ready to act quickly to protect the “core product” which I believe is the actual racing, not diecast cars.
But as with several announcement Brian France has been involved with, the announcement was long on flash and a bit short on specifics. Even the announcement Nextel would take over title sponsorship of the sport from Winston became a bit of a comedy when the press release from NASCAR and the release from Nextel couldn’t agree on the name of the racing division. (The NASCAR release called it “NASCAR presents the Nextel Cup” while Nextel went with the pithier “Nextel Cup.” Either name is simpler than “Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered By Ford” which is what CART is now officially called.)
The announcement there would be no more racing back to the Cup noted competitors would be told prior to the races what exactly the new rule meant and that the rule might require a little “tweaking” to perfect.
Since “tweaks” are open for discussion, I’ll add my two cents. It would be a shame if a driver in a strong car who happened to have a lengthy pit stop or a flat tire that caused him pit out of sequence lost any chance at all of winning the race. It doesn’t happen often but occasionally circumstance allows a driver who is a lap down to rally back and win the race. That said, even if going a lap down eliminates a driver’s chance to win that is better the current system. Safety must take priority. But other sanctioning bodies have used a rule that the first car a lap down automatically gets his lap back without having to race the leader to get by him roaring towards the yellow flag. By adopting such a rule, the sanctioning body not the driver who is leading awards the driver a lap down his lap back while eliminates team tactics. And the rule also eliminates judgement calls on whether the driver a lap down “was in contact with” the leader.
Even that rule might need a little tweaking to work correctly in Cup. If only one car is going to get a lap back in the event of a quick caution after a restart the lapped cars are going to get up there and have their own little battles interfering with the ability of the lead cars to race amongst themselves. Since Cup fields contain 43 cars it might be wise to allow the first two cars a lap down back on the lead lap if a caution flies.
Whatever is decided and whatever their motivations I applaud NASCAR for adopting this new policy which will save needless tragedy and with any luck at all speed up the response time of rescue crews after a wreck. But as long as we’re going to quickly implement common sense rules, I’ve got a few more pages of suggestions starting with not allowing a race to end under caution except when weather ends the event prematurely. It’s worked in the truck series. It’s worked in other forms of racing. It would help eliminate teams gambling on fuel economy rather than racing for a win. It just makes sense. And it’s about damn time.