Friday, May 18, 2018

COMMENTARY: Race Teams Need To Do Their Part

There is a power struggle underway in the NASCAR garage.

It’s a conflict as old as the hills, beginning when Glenn Dunaway won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race on June 19, 1949, only to have a post-race inspection reveal illegally modified springs beneath his winning car, handing the victory to Jim Roper.

Since then, NASCAR’s post-race inspection process has evolved exponentially, from tape measures, plumb-bobs and eyeball assessment to lasers and computer-aided scanning devices. What hasn’t changed is the ongoing tug-of-war between the sanctioning body – pledged to uphold its rules to the expressed letter of the law—and the competitors, for whom the slightest advantage often means the difference between victory and defeat.

In recent years, the clash between racer and sanctioning body has become more heated – or at least more visible – to the point where midweek penalty announcements from NASCAR’s North Carolina-based Research and Development Center often generate more headlines and water cooler talk than the competition on the race track.

That has got to change, and that change requires nothing less than a fundamental change in the functional dynamics of the sport.

Templates are a thing of the past.
In short, NASCAR and its teams need to declare a ceasefire in their decades-long game of “us against them” in favor of actually working together – for the first time in history – to save the sport from itself.

Fans say they are ready for that change. In previous seasons, a majority of NASCAR Nation sided with the teams when post-race penalties come into play, accusing the sanctioning body of being over-officious, nitpicky and far too interested in hogging the spotlight. Nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire, after all, and there have been times when NASCAR has lost sight of that fact, in its zeal to police the sport, right down to the letter.

In recent weeks, however, fans seem to have lost patience with the weekly slate of rubber-stamp violations, blaming teams for “pushing the envelope” too far in the same exact areas, over and over again. The teams have done little to combat that perception, often adding to their own credibility gap.

In the opening eight weeks of the 2018 MENCS campaign, a handful of elite teams complained long and loud about the sport’s new spec air gun program, citing “inconsistencies” in performance, up to and including outright failures. Only after weeks of bashing the sanctioning body for an alleged lack of due diligence was it revealed that some teams had ignored manufacturer recommendations by utilizing helium gas instead of nitrogen, over-revving the units and compounding the likelihood of failure.

“Pushing the envelope” seems lately to have morphed into a willful, weekly defiance of the rules, with teams manipulating their cars in ways that Glen Dunaway and Jim Roper could never have imagined. Flexible braces allow rear windows to deform at speed, channeling air to the rear spoiler in a way that adds downforce and improves performance. Illegal suspension tweaks allow rear ends to shift under load, creating on-track “yaw,” increasing side force and adding additional speed.

Teams say they don’t intentionally break the rules. And with the margin between winning and losing now measured in 100,000ths of an inch, crew chiefs understandably feel pressured to push the competitive limits, leaving themselves with little or no margin for error.

An insistence on “playing in the gray area” leaves teams constantly teetering on the window ledge of disaster, and sets the stage for the now-weekly penalty debacles. Each week, NASCAR assesses penalties for the same tired violations. And each week, the garage shrugs off those penalties and re-offends. It’s “Groundhog Day” at 190 mph, and the end result is a North American sporting public that sees NASCAR as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares.

For the record, there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in the NASCAR garage.

Every man and woman inside that fence – crewmembers, team owners, drivers, officials and sponsors – loves the sport of stock car racing. None of them would intentionally do anything to damage the credibility of the game. But in an era where every position in the finishing order generates millions of dollars in revenue, “What’s best for my team” has gradually supplanted “What’s best for the sport” as the Number One priority.

It’s no secret that ticket sales are plummeting and television ratings are at a 20-year low. While those issues are not unique to our sport -- traditional “stick and ball” sports are also struggling -- NASCAR cannot afford to whistle past the graveyard any longer.

Our ship is taking on water, and it’s time for the teams that populate the NASCAR garage to break out the bailing buckets and take their role as the sport’s most visible spokespersons more seriously.

The attitude among some in the garage that “We don’t care if we kill the sport, as long as we win the race” must change, and soon. The damage done by a seemingly endless spate of 2018 tech line violations is real, and it threatens the very future of the game. Each midweek penalty announcement and Friday afternoon inspection fiasco leaves an ugly black mark on this sport; a sport that has been attempting to erase black marks dating all the way back to its moonshiner roots.

Identifying the problem is easy. Solutions are tougher to come by. NASCAR can continue to escalate the severity of its penalties, and pledged this week to do so. But there is another group of individuals within the garage who have the ability to bring these embarrassing rules fiascos to a screeching halt. 

Since its creation in July of 2014, the Race Team Alliance has worked quietly to improve the lot of teams competing on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. While the organization’s membership roles have never been publicly disclosed, current members are believed to include founding members Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart Haas Racing, and Team Penske, along with more-recent additions Leavine Family Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Premium Motorsports.

The owners of those teams are quite literally the movers and shakers in our sport, wielding tremendous influence with the sanctioning body, sponsors and broadcast partners alike. Unfortunately, they have chosen to operate like Sean Connery and his cohorts in the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” working in the shadows while effectively denying their own existence.

That’s not good enough anymore.  

The men who make up the RTA have set NASCAR’s competitive bar for decades. They win most of the races, virtually all of the championships and have the influence and power necessary to end these weekly inspection imbroglios by lunchtime tomorrow.

If Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and their competitive brethren choose to, they can send an immediate, ironclad and indisputable message to their teams and the rest of the garage, as well, pulling them back from the brink for the first time in decades to a mutually agreeable place within the confines of NASCAR’s 2018 rulebook.

It is time for the RTA to step out of the shadows and take its fair share of responsibility for the stewardship of this sport. The organization must make meaningful public, concrete statements – arguably for the first time in its history – about how this sport is going to operate, going forward.

It is no longer good enough to leave all the problem-solving to NASCAR. The teams helped create this mess, and the teams must help clean it up.

Monday, May 14, 2018

COMMENTARY: Time For NASCAR To Toughen Up On Pre- And Post-Race Inspections

It’s time for NASCAR to sharpen its teeth.

In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s most recent slate of post-race penalties, it has become patently clear that the sanctioning body is failing to communicate effectively with its teams by issuing punishments that both penalize the guilty party and discourage others from committing similar violations in the future.

Following the race two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway, three of the Top-5 finishing machines were discovered to be outside NASCAR’s technical guidelines.

Clint Bowyer’s second-place finishing Ford received an L1 penalty for a rear window support that failed to keep the window rigid at all times. That penalty has become commonplace this season, and Bowyer’s Mike Bugarewicz-led team received the standard penalty of a $50,000 fine for the crew chief, a two-race suspension for car chief Jerry Cook and the loss of 20 driver and owner points.

Third-place Daniel Suarez was also busted for wonky rear window supports and received an identical sanction, with crew chief Scott Graves fined $50,000, car chief Todd Brewer suspended for two races and the team losing 20 driver and owner points.

Fifth-place finisher Kurt Busch received a post-race L1 penalty for a loose lug nut (crew chief Billy Scott fined $10,000) and Austin Dillon – the 26th-place finisher at Dover – received a pre-race L1 penalty for a front splitter violation. Crew chief Justin Alexander was fined $25,000 and car chief Greg Ebert was suspended for one race.

One would suspect that penalties of that magnitude would instantaneously capture the attention of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

One would be incorrect.

This past weekend – just days after Wednesday’s announcement – a significant portion of the field failed to clear pre-qualifying inspection at Kansas Speedway. Six different drivers – Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Michael McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto and Timmy Hill – never made it to the qualifying grid, despite the fact that NASCAR delayed the start of time trials by nearly 15 minutes to accommodate repeated inspection failures by those six teams, and others. Three additional drivers -- Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray – made single laps in the opening round of qualifying after repeated inspection failures, then opted out of Round Two, saying they were “uncomfortable” with their cars. At least one of those drivers later admitted that the prospect of starting Saturday night’s race on virtually new tires also played a role in his team’s decision to withdraw.

NASCAR’s response to this continued malfeasance was to hand out the exact same penalties they have assessed multiple times in the past, apparently hoping for a different result.

Last week’s Wonky Window penalties had absolutely no impact on the NASCAR Garage. If you doubt that, just wait until Wednesday, when NASCAR hands down penalties to Kyle Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing team for a set of carbon-copy window supports that failed to do their required jobs Saturday night, just as Bowyer’s and Suarez’s failed to do at Dover. Just as Kevin Harvick did at Las Vegas and just as Chase Elliott’s did at Texas.

That’s five Wonky Windows in 12 races. If flexible rear windows hurt performance – rather than helped it – do you think it would take 12 weeks for teams to solve the problem? Absolutely not. Teams continue to build Wonky Windows for two specific reasons. Because they work (making the race car faster), and because NASCAR has not yet handed down a penalty that even begins to offset the boost in performance those windows provide.

Until those two facts change, conduct in the garage will not improve. And to that end, it’s time for NASCAR to ratchet-up the sanctions ad put a stop to Wonky Window Wednesday.

It’s time for the sanctioning body to take a nostalgic approach, investing in a few boxes of Sawz-All blades and simply cutting off the offending pieces like they did in the old days, before putting the illegal technology on public display for all to see.

Got an illegally modified splitter on the front of your hot rod? We’ll just hack it off – along with a few inches of the front valence, for good measure – leaving your team with the unenviable option of either rebuilding the race car on Friday afternoon, or rolling out the backup.

Failed to make it through pre-qualifying inspection? Instead of slapping your hand and banishing you (and your brand new tires) to the back of the pack for the start of the race, why not do what NASCAR threatened to do a few weeks ago, forcing the offending teams to serve pass-through penalties on the opening lap of the race, leaving them a lap or more in arrears before the event has barely begun?

Come up short in your post-race visit to the NASCAR R&D Center? Prepare to lose everything you earned this weekend -- every point, every dollar and every bit of playoff qualification -- before sustaining additional post-race fines, point penalties and suspensions. You'll even be bringing back the trophy.

And for God’s sake, can we please stop delaying the start of qualifying until the rule-breakers are through messing around? Instead of drawing a line in the competitive sand and refusing to accommodate offending teams, NASCAR sends the exact opposite message.

“Take your time, boys. Break all the rules you want. We (and the fans) will wait.”

As the lengthening list of repeat offenders clearly indicates, NASCAR’s punitive status quo is not working. The sanctioning body’s intended message is not getting through, and our sport continues to be seen as a place where everybody cheats and nobody cares.

It’s time for the boys in Daytona Beach to man up and begin swinging a bigger stick, retaking control of the garage area from a group of competitors that lately resembles a table full of recalcitrant children, refusing to eat their carrots.

Monday, March 19, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Made The Right Move To End Pre-Qualifying Debacles

Last Friday, 13 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams failed to pass pre-qualifying technical inspection at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. As a result, those 13 teams – fully 1/3 of the field -- did not make qualifying runs, relegating themselves to the rear of the field for Sunday’s running of the Auto Club 400.

That sounds like a significant penalty, but it’s not.

In a 400-mile marathon event, a 100-yard disadvantage is negligible, at best. And on a track like Auto Club Speedway, where tire falloff begins virtually at the drop of the green flag, the ability to start the race on new tires – rather than tires with a minimum of six qualifying laps on them – is seen by many observers as an advantage.

Polesitter Martin Truex, Jr., was candid in his assessment Friday, saying that unless a driver was starting in the front two rows, it would be advantageous to start at the rear of the grid, on new rubber.

Dealing with what former NASCAR official Jim Hunter affectionately called “bamboozlement and chicanery” is nothing new. The winner of NASCAR’s first sanctioned race in 1949 was disqualified for utilizing non-stock suspension components, and the technological tug-of-war between racers and officials has continued unabated, ever since.

NASCAR's Miller: "Too many illegal cars."
But at Auto Club Speedway, a two-mile oval where aerodynamics are critical to a car’s performance, the temptation for teams to grab every possible advantage was apparently too much to resist. Team after team tested NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station Friday, failing multiple pre-qualifying inspections in an embarrassing sideshow for both them and NASCAR.  

“This is one of the more aero-dependent tracks on the circuit,” explained NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. “So it’s no surprise that they would be pushing the limits on that. The faster the race track, the more important the aerodynamics are.”

Asked whether there was an issue with the OSS system, he replied tersely, “Too many illegal cars.”

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford, went a step further, telling Sirius XM NASCAR Radio that he believes some teams intentionally failed pre-qualifying inspection Friday, in an effort to start the race on new tires.

“The problems in inspection were not procedural problems,” said Gordon. “They were, to some extent, intentional problems.”

Late Friday evening, NASCAR responded to its latest rules controversy, announcing that drivers who had made qualifying attempts would be allowed to bolt-on new tires for the start of Sunday’s race.

The following day, the sanctioning body went a step further, telling Xfinity Series competitors that teams failing pre-qualifying inspection would be required to pit on the opening lap of the event for a “pass-through” penalty, leaving them at least one lap down to the field.

Not coincidentally, every NXS team passed pre-qualifying inspection, with flying colors.

While altering procedures in the middle of a race weekend is not ideal, NASCAR can be forgiven for shuffling the deck at Auto Club Speedway. The sanctioning body should never allow teams to profit from creating – intentionally or not -- the kind of debacle witnessed at Auto Club Speedway last Friday. And they should never reward teams for giving anything less than their best.

The sanctioning body’s new “first lap pass-through” policy is expected to continue this weekend at Martinsville Speedway and for the remainder of the season. Hopefully, the new sanction will convince teams to arrive at the speedway with legal race cars and race them to the best of their ability.

Monday, March 05, 2018

COMMENTARY: Moffitt's Vegas Traffic Issues Are Part Of The Game

Brett Moffitt was an unhappy camper following Friday night’s Stratosphere 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.

Despite being passed for the win in the late going by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series invader Kyle Busch, Moffitt expressed no animosity toward either Busch or the NASCAR policy that allows Cup regulars to drop down and compete in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Moffitt’s unhappiness stemmed from difficulty navigating lapped traffic in the closing laps, including a door-banging session with Michel Disdier that allowed Busch to slip past and claim the lead.

“I respect Kyle a lot with everything he’s done,” said Moffitt after a disappointing third-place showing. “It’s fun to race door-to-door with him. People don’t like him coming and racing in the Truck Series, but I love it. Being able to run with him and learn off him is really good for my career and helps me out.”
He was critical of lapped drivers, however, saying, “It’s fun racing with (Busch) because he can drive. Half of them can’t.”

Moffitt’s unhappiness stemmed from a pair of scuffles with lapped cars in the final 25 laps. The first involved Myatt Snider – who had just returned to the track after serving a pit road penalty and falling two laps down -- and Michel Disdier, who banged doors with the leader while being lapped.

Moffitt (16) hounded Busch to the finish.
“When (Snider) pulled out from the pits a couple laps down and side drafted us for the lead, it allowed Kyle to close in,” complained Moffitt afterward. “I tried to go to the bottom of a lapped car (Disdier) and he turned down into us.”
Moffitt’s bid to regain the lead ended when Norm Benning – multiple laps down after being black-flagged by NASCAR for failing to maintain minimum speed earlier in the evening – crowded the runner-up’s line and broke his momentum.
“It’s frustrating because when you’re out of the race, you shouldn’t get in the way of the leaders,” said Moffitt, who locked himself into the NCWTS playoffs with a win two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “It’s just a bittersweet race.
“It was just uncalled for.”
While Moffitt’s anger is understandable, incidents like those experienced Friday night are not uncommon in the Camping World Truck Series.
Brett Moffitt
As the lowest of NASCAR’s three national divisions, the Truck Series attracts drivers with less big-track experience than their Xfinity or Monster Energy brethren. At your local short track, the closing rate between leaders and lapped cars is relatively low. On a smoking-fast half mile like Las Vegas Motor Speedway, however, the difference between the “haves” and “have nots” can be as much as 20 mph.
Combined with a lack of experience, those sky-high closing rates can (and do) result in some anxious moments for race leaders; some of whom are also relatively low on the experience ladder.
In the aftermath of Friday night’s race, it would be easy to overreact. Some observers have done exactly that, calling upon NASCAR to black-flag all lapped machines with 20 laps to go, clearing the field for race leaders to compete unimpeded for the win.
Others have advocated for the sanctioning body to immediately disqualify any vehicle unable to maintain minimum speed; parking them for the day after a single infraction.
At the end of the day, however, no major changes are needed. Part of learning to race at the highest levels of the sport is learning how to deal with lapped traffic, and how to conduct oneself as a lapped vehicle.
Those skills don’t come from a rulebook. They are learned firsthand, on the race track.
And sometimes, mistakes are the best teacher.

Monday, February 19, 2018

COMMENTARY: Time For Dillon Bashers To Call It A Day

Perhaps now, Austin Dillon will finally get the respect he’s due.

The Welcome, NC native, grandson of legendary NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, has spent most of his adult life dodging allegations of nepotism leveled by those who believe his place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series owes more to genetics than talent.

“Born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” they say. “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

Those critics willfully ignore the dozens of formative wins Dillon claimed on dirt tracks across the south.

They discount his seven Camping World Truck Series victories and his 2011 Truck Series championship.

They overlook his eight NASCAR Xfinity Series wins and the 2013 title.

None of that matters, they say. It’s nothing more than a handout from a deep-pockets team owner to his spoiled, rich-kid grandson.

In the aftermath of Sunday night’s career-defining victory in the 60th annual Daytona 500, it may finally be time for the Dillon bashers to pipe down.

Dillon’s Daytona win was his second as a MENCS driver. The first -- in last year's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway – was a fuel-mileage win, allowing the critics to persist in their view that Dillon had not earned his place at the NASCAR table. But with wins in two of the sport’s most prestigious events now on his resume, the outgoing Dillon has all the ammunition he needs to tune-out the Negative Nellies, once and for all.
"I did what I had to do there at the end," said Dillon of a chaotic final lap that saw leader Aric Almirola spin after attempting to block Dillon’s fast-closing Dow Chevrolet in Turn Three. "I hate it for (Almirola's) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.”
While some viewed Dillon’s last-lap tactics as underhanded, Almirola was not among them.
"It was the last lap and we're all trying to win the Daytona 500," he said, after limping his damaged racer home in a disappointing 11th-place. "It's the biggest race of the year and it's a career-changing race, so we were racing really aggressively. I used every move I knew to try and stay in the lead. Unfortunately, I just wasn't able to hold on.
"I saw him come with the momentum, and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn't going to just let him have it. He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. He's not driving too aggressively, he's trying to win the Daytona 500, just like I was.”
Dillon acknowledged his critics during a raucous Victory Lane celebration, saying, "My grandfather has done everything for me. Everybody knows it. There is a lot of pressure on me to perform… but I like that pressure. The same with the No. 3. There is a lot of pressure behind that.
"But I'm willing to take that and go with it. I'm just thankful for all the people that support us along the way; Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family for letting us bring this number back. It comes full circle. I just can't thank the Lord enough for this opportunity."
Sunday’s Daytona 500 triumph – authored 20 years to the day after the legendary Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove Childress’ iconic No. 3 to Victory Lane in the Great American Race – should be enough to finally extinguish the bonfire of second-guessing that has plagued Dillon from Day One.

Sure, “Pop Pop” has provided the best possible equipment to both of his racing grandsons over the years. But what grandparent would do anything less? Don’t we all devote every resource at our disposal to help our children and grandchildren succeed in their lives and careers? Devotion to family should be applauded, not condemned.

A driver who has now won major races in all three NASCAR National Series – and championships in two of them – deserves better treatment than Dillon has received to date from the sport’s often-overcritical railbirds.
Austin Dillon has earned his place. At a level of the sport where every top contender enjoys world-class equipment and technological support, Dillon has won races. 
The records do not lie.
And as Dillon posed for a series of celebratory photos with his jubilant team and the Harley J. Earl Trophy Sunday night, he had the satisfied look of a man who had finally answered his critics.
Silver Spoons no longer required.

Monday, January 29, 2018

COMMENTARY: When It Comes To Marketing, Busch and Blaney Both Have Points

NASCAR rolled out its annual Preseason Media Tour in Charlotte, North Caroline last week, and it took Kyle Busch approximately 20 minutes to ignite the season’s first controversy.

Last Tuesday, Busch lambasted NASCAR for its marketing strategies, saying the sanctioning body is giving too much attention to young, unproven drivers, at the expense of established veterans like himself.

"It is bothersome,” said Busch of what he called a “stupid” marketing campaign. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else. All (NASCAR is) doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on.

“I wouldn’t say (it’s) all that fair... but I don’t know. I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
Busch’s comments drew an immediate response from both the sanctioning body and his fellow drivers. Kurt Busch quickly jumped to his younger brother’s defense, saying young drivers are getting “a free pass” to stardom. Speaking on The Domenick Nati Show, Busch said, “…there is ‘zero’ in the win column for a guy like Chase Elliott, zero for Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones (and) all those guys.

Busch: Dont ignore established stars
“Larson’s out there; he’s young and he’s winning. They need to push him. I see him as a future champion. I think what Kyle (Busch) is saying is these guys have been given a free pass, so to speak, to become a superstar and we haven’t seen the success on track translate to what’s being shown to the world.”

NASCAR’s younger drivers were less supportive, with 24-year old Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney placing the blame directly back on Busch.

“If some drivers were more willing to do these things, they’d get asked more to do it,” he said “The reason why I get asked to do a lot is because I say ‘yes’ a lot; because I think it’s good for the sport and myself. I can tell you personally, (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so they don’t ask him.
“That made me upset, how he bashed that part of it. But, to each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”
Rookie contender Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., was more direct, calling Busch’s remarks “stupid. I love Kyle to death, but, dude, come on. He was in the same spot we are. He had some of the same treatment we went through.
Blaney: There's always more you can do
Like Blaney, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver accused veteran drivers like Busch of giving the cold-shoulder to appearances and promotions, saying “when certain drivers get to a certain level – and if I ever get to this level, you can pinch me and bring me back down – they stop doing stuff.”
In an exclusive interview with Sirius XM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer Steve Phelps defended the sport’s current marketing efforts.

“It’s about our drivers, our crew chiefs and our crews and everyone that makes this sport go,” Phelps 
said. “Hall of Fame drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano… are such an important part of everything that we do. And they should be. 

"But we are also need to expose these young drivers, so our fans understand who they are. 
They’re authentic, they want to win on the race track and they’re fantastic drivers.

“It’s a mix of veterans and young guys.”

Phelps admitted, however, that drivers like Busch may have gotten the short end of the stick at the start of their careers, due to an abundance of older, more established stars at that time.

Wallace: "Dude, come on..."
The Busch brothers, Blaney and Wallace all have valid points. With established stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth all withdrawing from the sport in recent years, NASCAR has understandably begun to look for its next batch of superstars. Drivers like Larson, Blaney and Chase Elliott are clearly ready to fill that void, whether or not they have yet visited Victory Lane.

While popular, NASCAR’s new stars do not yet command the massive fan base enjoyed by frequent winners and former series champions like Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to name just a few. Kyle Busch is correct when he says that the sanctioning body cannot afford to ignore its established stars, in favor of the Young Bucks.

Blaney and Wallace are absolutely right, however, when they accuse some older drivers of doing less than they should to help promote the sport.

While running (and winning) multiple NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events each season, Kyle Busch seldom makes the customary Monday media appearances asked of those event winners. Instead, the former MENCS champion routinely passed those duties off to his NXS and NCWTS crew chiefs.

Veteran drivers may have more demands on their time than younger competitors, but it is hypocritical for Busch to complain about not being adequately promoted, while routinely declining promotional opportunities

Blaney has quickly established himself as a fan favorite, largely through hard work and extra effort. His “Glass Case of Emotion” podcast on has developed a large following. He has made guest appearances appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” lent his voice to “Cars 3” and will soon be featured on an episode of NBC’s “Taken.” He takes time to interact with fans, as evidenced by his impromptu Texas Motor Speedway “pizza party,” where he purchased and handed out pizza to fans attending a recent MENCS test session.

When’s the last time you saw an established star do that?

“I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of great chances from NASCAR,” said Blaney. “And I’ve always been very open to do a lot of things they want. I think it is really important to have -- not only young drivers -- but all NASCAR drivers be pushing to get new demographics of the world… into the sport. I think everybody should be a little more open to helping the sport out.
“If I have to sacrifice time, it’s just time,” he added. “It really doesn’t mean much to me, personally. I’d rather do something meaningful to the sport than just sit on my couch because then I just don’t feel like doing anything.
“There’s always more you can do. You are never maxed out on your potential to make somebody’s day.”
With an aging fan base and a dwindling market share, Blaney’s approach makes perfect sense.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR's Charter System Headed For Slippery Slope

God help us, it’s happening again.

NASCAR’s Charter System, which guarantees qualified teams a starting spot in each of 36 point-counting races each season and pays enhanced purse and point fund monies to charter-holding teams, has begun to be manipulated in much the same way its predecessor was in prior seasons.

Go FAS Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire announced recently that he has purchased an ownership stake in Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing. Circle Sport fielded cars for Jeffrey Earnhardt last season -- in concert with TMG Motorsports – before parting company during the offseason. Go FAS Racing will now use the newly-acquired Circle Sport charter on the #32 car driven by Matt DiBenedetto this season.

After acquiring the Circle Sport charter, St. Hilaire then sold a percentage of his Go FAS organization to Wood Brothers Racing, allowing them to assume control of the charter he used a year ago, for use on Paul Menard’s No. 21 Ford this season.

Let’s review…

Joe Falk owns most of Circle Sport Racing, but not all of it.

Archie St. Hilaire owns most of GoFAS Racing, and now, and a little of Circle Sport.

The Wood Brothers own most of Wood Brothers Racing, along with a little bit of Go FAS.

Confused? Join the club.

Based on the newly announced Wood Brothers/Go FAS “partnership,” it now appears that a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team owner can pay a small amount of money – theoretically as little as $1 -- for a partial ownership stake in another organization, thereby assuming control of that team’s charter.

Much like the insanely complicated glory days of NASCAR Top-35 system, when owners bought, sold and traded owner points with dizzying regularity and few (if any) guidelines, the sanctioning body’s new Charter System has now been manipulated to the point where it no longer resembles what it was expressly designed to be.

Under guidelines hammered out by NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance prior to the 2016 season, 36 teams were granted charters that guaranteed them automatic entrance into every race for the next nine years. The idea was to reward teams for longstanding, full-season support of the series by giving them a tangible asset that could be sold, should they eventually elect to exit the sport. Charter holders were allowed to lease their charter to another team just once in a five-year period, should they elect not to compete themselves.

Despite no announced changes to the Charter bylaws in the last two years, it now appears that an new option has been added; the option to transfer a charter by selling a minority ownership stake to someone else.

As a result, a team owner without a single career start in NASCAR’s top series could – theoretically, at least – acquire a charter simply by purchasing a 1% share in a charter-holding team, instantly assuring himself of a guaranteed starting spot in every race.

That is categorically NOT what the Charter System was designed to be. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of what NASCAR and the RTA had in mind.

The original wording of the Charter bylaws included no mention of “co-ownership.” Either you owned a charter, leased one, or went without.

In addition to muddying the competitive waters, the concept of “co-ownership” strips all semblance of value from NASCAR’s 36 existing charters. Why would a team owner ever again pay six figures for a charter, when he can receive the same financial and procedural benefits by purchasing a tiny percentage of another, charter-holding team?

While it is tempting to point an accusatory finger at the parties involved in last week’s machinations, it would be short-sighted to do so. Falk, St. Hilaire and the Woods simply did what racers have always done; manipulating the gray area to their own benefit, without actually stepping outside the rules.

Falk found a way to protect a charter he was unlikely to use in 2018.

St. Hilaire laid his hands – in whole or in part – on no less than two charters, paving the way for his planned expansion to a two-car organization in 2019.

The Wood Brothers secured a guaranteed starting spot in every race this season, along with the beefier purse and point-fund checks that come with being a Charter holder.

Everyone wins, except for the sport, which once again finds itself sinking into a baffling morass of “how did THEY get a charter” puzzlement, the likes of which we hoped to never see again.

Hopefully, NASCAR will quickly draw a new line in the sand, adding language to its Charter bylaws to eliminate this “co-ownership” malarkey, once and for all.