|Harvick and Logano sporting "Mad Max" flares|
I’m not talking about the weekly episode of NASCAR Drivers Gone Wild.
It probably didn’t seem like much at first. Just a little tug on the lower front opening of the rear wheel well.
No big deal. Except now it could have a major impact on the outcome of the Chase.
And it’s symbolic of a bigger problem. NASCAR has been losing control of the garage area, where it once ruled with an iron – if sometimes ham-handed – fist.
The most visible evidence of the loss of control can be seen on every Sprint Cup car after the first pit stop during a race, the flared bottom of the rear quarter panel, in front of the wheel opening.
The flaring rose to prominence in the opening race of the Chase, Chicagoland, when the winning car of Brad Keselowski featured pronounced flaring of its rear skirts. No problem, ruled NASCAR, probably just the result of contact on the track or running down on the apron, which happens a lot at Chicago.
But those in the garage knew better.
Presented with high res video evidence that the “flaring” occurred as part of carefully choreographed pit stops when a crew member nonchalantly reached down and gave the fender a tug to improve the car’s aerodynamics, NASCAR elected to turn a blind eye towards future violations.
“You can only go so far until it doesn’t make a difference anymore,” Robin Pemberton, senior vice president of Competition, said of the flaring. “Right now, the rules are what they are. We’ll continue to run out the season policing areas that we police the way we do and areas that we don’t police the way we don’t police them.
“It’s not anything new. It’s just something that there’s more evidence out there than ever before. I can’t remember when it hasn’t been done. Everybody starts the same and that’s our goal.”
The flaring escalated at each subsequent race, sometimes with comical results, the side skirting occasionally being completely pulled away. A perfectly pulled skirt now resembles something out of the Road Warrior, a tire shredding weapon that would make Mad Max proud. Ironically, while it was contact with Keselowki that cost Jeff Gordon at chance at winning at Charlotte, it was shredded tire, very likely caused by the flared skirt, that cost Gordon a spot in the Chase.
“It is definitely getting a little bit out of control,” Gordon said of the flaring before Phoenix. “NASCAR is probably looking at it as 'OK, we have two races left. Let's address that next year.’ I don't think they are really in a position to address that right now.”
The fender flaring, however, is just the most visible indication that NASCAR has lost control. Crabbing also has crept back in the picture.
“The amount of cheating going on in the garage has reached new levels,” said one NASCAR insider. “It’s out of control.”
He pointed to NASCAR’s new management team that has been moving into position during the past two years, as facing a steep learning curve.
‘They’re good people, they’ll get a handle on it,” he said. “But at the moment, they’re overmatched.”
Brent Dewar, a former sales and marketing exec at General Motors, took over as NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer at the start of the year. At the same time, Richard Buck was named managing director of the Sprint Cup series replacing John Darby, who had held the position for 12 years. Buck was vice president of racing operations for the International Motor Sports Association, and he held several NASCAR technical positions prior to that. He’s also a former Indy 500 winning crew chief.
Meanwhile, NASCAR’s well-respected and longtime leader in the garage area, Mike Helton, has taken on an increasingly lower profile.
In a move to shift top management closer to the action, Steve O'Donnell, the heir apparent to Helton, was recently named executive vice president and chief racing development officer and is moving his office moving to Charlotte, where he has also assumed management of the Research and Development Center.
Gene Stefanyshyn, another former GM exec who joined NASCAR in May 2013 and is responsible for the Racing Development and Innovation group, now reports to O’Donnell, as does Pemberton. Both men previously reported to Helton.
All of which should help – next year.
For now, NASCAR is facing two nightmare Homestead scenarios.
First, Ryan Newman is the top finisher and is crowned NASCAR champion, without winning a race all season.
Second, someone loses the race as the result of a shredded tire from a flapping fender flare.
“Everyone is taking advantage of what is there as they should,” Said Joey Logano, one of four finalists. “I don’t blame anyone. Obviously the consequence is you touch each other and you can get a flat tire, but that’s all part of it. We all know it. We can see it. We know if we touch each other we’ll have an issue because of everyone being so aggressive in that department, but that’s the name of the game right now.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.