Brave New World

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Sometimes it sounds as if major NASCAR races have established an entirely new lexicon. The vocabulary has suddenly grown.

Half of the first 14 races went into “overtime.” What? Does each team get an extra time-out?

Throughout the races, caution periods end with “double-file restarts.” Wait a minute. Didn’t they already restart in rows of two?

A dozen cars were “waved around” to the lead lap. What’s this “wave around”? They just got the “lucky dog” straight in the grandstands.

A late yellow flag set up a “green-white-checkered finish.” Isn’t that the way it was always supposed to work? Oh, wait. A maximum of three “green-white-checkered” finishes is allowed. In other words, that would be a “green-yellow-green-yellow-green-white-checkered finish.” (Don’t laugh. It’s happened.)

Oh, yeah, one more. Spoilers are back. Wings are no more.

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Sprint Cup (and Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, for that matter) have adopted the look of game shows, full of all sorts of doors, boxes, bells and whistles. When a driver gets a “free pass” to the lead lap, there ought to be bells ringing.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! It’s the Daily Double!

On the other hand, that’s an awful lot of dinging. Casinos come to mind.

What’s more, NASCAR officials announced they would let drivers “police themselves.” They want drivers to “be themselves.” The hands-off policy – sort of like the American government’s policy toward BP in the Gulf of Mexico – became linked to the words of NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton before the season: “Have at it, boys, and have a good time.”

Presumably, the races are going to be easier to police than before. That’s because, in terms of behaviour, NASCAR isn’t policing at all. But, as SPEED TV’s Mike Hembree wrote, “Give a driver and a team a rule change to ponder, and they're going to ponder it to death.”

The changes are the equivalent of the words “new and improved” on a box of cereal or detergent. NASCAR officials, obviously concerned with declining attendance and television ratings, felt compelled to jazz up their sport … even more.

The goal, according to NASCAR chairman Brian France, is “to make very, very good racing, better.”

First let’s look at some results. The Aaron’s 499, won by Kevin Harvick at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on April 25, established an all-time record for lead changes, 88. It also stretched 12 laps (31.92 miles) past its scheduled distance and became the first race to require three of the aforementioned “green-white-checkered” finishes (note the plural use of “finish”) to complete. Even without the full complement, the Kobalt Tools 500 (Atlanta Motor Speedway, March 7, won by Kurt Busch) stretched along for 16 extra laps (24.64 miles).

Hence the use of the term “overtime.”

Though not every race goes into overtime, it does fall into a similar pattern. For the first time, fans talk about NASCAR races as if they were professional basketball games. The almost universal pattern is roughly three hours of relatively uneventful (some would call it sane) racing, followed inexorably by a crash-filled 15 to 30 minutes.

In the Age of HAIB (“Have at it, boys”), rivalries are on the rise. Teammates – Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – have traded words and sheet metal. With vendetta coursing through his veins, Carl Edwards intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Keselowski’s Dodge sailed through the air and tumbled end over end. Edwards got off with “probation,” which, in NASCAR, doesn’t even involve having to meet regularly with officials.

Though staunchly praised and defended, the new policies haven’t caused an accompanying uptick in crowds and ratings.

Do the drivers like this new world of frontier justice? Many prefer to change the subject by turning to a tried-and-true explanation: “It’s all about the fans.”

The term “double-file restart” refers to a format in which all restarts are started in the same manner as the race’s beginning: The cars are lined up two abreast in order of position. Previously, one line was formed with lead-lap cars, the other with cars a lap or more down. The lapped cars thus had an opportunity to race their way back on the lead lap, which is now virtually impossible.

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“I didn't expect anything any different when it was implemented,” said Gordon. “Fifty percent of the guys out there are going to like it; 50 percent of them are going to hate it.

“It changes how we have to race one another. We have to pick and choose how aggressive we're going to be, whether you're on the inside or outside. … It's exciting, man. It's putting on a heck of a show.”

A corollary to double-file restarts is “the wave around.” Lead-lap cars pit before lapped cars. If they all pit – and lapped drivers then elect to remain on the track – the lapped cars are “waved around,” meaning that they pick up a lap. It’s a common practice. Twenty-two cars returned to the lead lap in a span of two caution flags and 12 laps early in a race in Richmond, Va., on May 1. Sixteen took advantage of the rule at Pocono (Pa.) on June 6. This in addition to the rule, dating back to 2003, that automatically puts the first car (by position) back on the lead lap during every caution period. That driver is informally known as “the lucky dog.”

Struggling teams routinely use “the wave-around” as a strategic trick.

Front Row Motorsports enters three Fords in each race, though none is notably competitive. Its general manager, Jerry Freeze, cited the rule as a crucial factor in the team’s ability to survive without a single top-10 finish in the season’s first 14 races.

“For our team, the best example is the wave-around,” said Freeze. “I don’t think anybody keeps track of it, but I guarantee you our ‘34’ team has taken advantage of it and gotten back more laps from the wave-around than anyone else. We’re in a position where we can gamble on that. The crew chief has to be strategic on when he does it. For us, it’s a good gamble all the time, because it gives us a chance to get back on the lead lap or pick one up. We’re willing to take that risk. If someone is higher up in the points, it may be a gamble that’s not worth taking for them.”

“I don’t think we would’ve ever beaten Scott Speed for the top 35 (2009 owner points) with John Andretti if not for the wave-around. We did it all the time, and they rarely ever did it. They wanted to give him a shot (to win). There were races where we didn’t deserve to beat them, but we did. We’ve used it to our advantage whenever we can because we’ve got to be strategic.”

NASCAR officials like the statistics that show more cars than ever finishing on the lead lap, thus bolstering, albeit artificially, the contention that the racing is more competitive than ever. Never mind that, had there been wave-arounds in, say, 1969, many more cars would have finished on the lead lap then, too.

At Richmond, after his driver (Kyle Busch) won, crew chief Dave Rogers responded to a question as to why no lead-lap driver remained on the track (it was the second caution period in a brief span) to block the use of the wave-around. His response was memorable: “It would have been great to keep that many cars a lap down, but it would have been selfish. Everybody behind us was going to pit. If we stay out, we keep all those guys down.”

Would have been … selfish? To keep a guy who might beat you a lap down? Not even golf – or … chess – is that sportsmanlike. The remark seemed inexplicable. On the other hand, Rogers’ driver did, in fact, win the race in question, no thanks to unselfishness.

NASCAR’s gamble, in making unprecedented changes over a short period of time is that its safer, generic cars can withstand the increased danger that comes with “tricking up” the rules. Why are there more crashes at the end? One reason is that many more cars are in seeming contention in spite of the fact that they have no business being there.

While hoping it will also increase the quality of the racing, the switch from wing back to the older (some would say ancient) instrument of rear downforce, the spoiler, was made in part for cosmetic reasons.

“I think NASCAR changed it because the fans didn’t like the look or the appearance, more than the driver,” said driver Greg Biffle. “And I really felt they did double-file restarts because the fans love that action on the restart.”

“They got a lot of criticism, like ‘It doesn’t look like a stock car. We want a spoiler back on it.’ NASCAR consulted us on what our opinion was, and we thought we were OK with the spoiler and thought the car might be better with the spoiler, so they pursued that and were obviously determined to put it back on the car, but I think it was driven from the fans and the popularity. That’s what people want to see.”

It is wild, however. It is exciting.

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“I think it’s just who’s going to be the nice guy and who’s not going to be,” said the season’s four-time winner, Denny Hamlin. “I think, if you have a ‘green-white-checkered,’ more than likely it will go to three ‘green-white-checkereds,’ simply because we could wreck every lap into turn one if we don’t give the position up to whoever is around us, if someone is on the inside or the outside.”

“No one is going to give anything. Sometimes I just wonder how we’re going to make it without crashing.”

Frequently these days, they don’t.

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