NASCAR has a problem with Austin restarts, but does it really care?
OPINION: Sunday’s race at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas showed the best and worst of the NASCAR Cup Series on road courses, but do the powers that be actually care about the crazy contact-filled finish to the racing?
When Brad Keselowski’s Ford Mustang pulled off with no power in the Esses with 12 laps to go, it unfortunately spoiled what would’ve been a fascinating endgame over who had sufficient fuel to make the finish to a thus-far excellent stock car road course race.
Could anybody beat race dominator Tyler Reddick – who had the fastest car but was clearly managing his pace to save fuel? Last year’s Sonoma winner Daniel Suarez was on an absolute tear, chasing him down, just as the race went yellow for Keselowski needing a tow.
But what happened next over the remaining race distance was a really disappointing ending for any purist of the sport, one that Denny Hamlin – both a driver and (race-winning) team boss in this event – labelled on his Actions Detrimental podcast as a ‘S*** show with no respect’.
Hamlin rewatched the race and decided to “call out the people who don’t get enough attention for being dumb ****s at the end”. He further clarified it as drivers “who were coming into the pack with reckless abandon and not giving a shit about anyone else around them”.
He was clear to make sure they were the cause of the contact, not being pushed from behind.
Hamlin pointed the finger at Austin Cindric, Kevin Harvick, Ross Chastain (twice!), Joey Logano and Chase Briscoe as being late-race wreck initiators. Of his own approach, he explained: “I try my best not to be on this list of idiots being responsible for wrecks, but if you get the shitty end of the stick you can decide you’re not going to be the guy getting used up next time.” Hamlin later admitted he was ready to wreck Jordan Taylor if he’d got the chance!
Drivers line up at COTA in the restart zone
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
After the race, Formula 1 interloper Jenson Button – who Hamlin rated as the cleanest driver out there – summed it up well: “I have to say I enjoyed the race... 60% of it. The other 40% of it was silly. The amount we were hitting each other in Turn 1, it feels we can do better.”
Hamlin concurred: “I think it’s a bad look. It shouldn’t take an hour to run the last 10 laps of the race. We can’t be trusted, clearly. Kimi [Raikkonen, who returned to the series for his second Cup start] said at the airport ‘it’s stupid, it’s bumper cars, it’s ridiculous, I don’t like it’.
“I thought it was an Indy Road Course problem, but it’s anywhere you have an extended distance from the restart zone to Turn 1, which is a stop [heavy-braking zone].”
How to solve this in future? Firstly, Hamlin suggested adopting single-file restarts for the final 10 laps, with NASCAR having done that at the inaugural Bristol dirt race when that event threatened to go off the rails.
Now, I’m not sure that is an ideal solution; if anything I think it would probably cause even more desperate, high-risk lunges. But his second idea of moving the restart zone, between Turns 19 and 20, so it’s a slower approach to that initial turn, I think that’s a good plan to spread out the field a little more.
Or, simply, why not move the restart zone, positioned towards the back of the F1 grid spots, forwards to begin at the finish line, at the bottom of the hill, to shorten the distance and that first braking zone?
Joey Logano leads a pack at Turn 1
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
These problems don’t happen so much at Sonoma, Watkins Glen or even at the tight confines of the Charlotte Roval, and I believe it’s that extra distance – coupled with the tight apex – is what promotes the unnecessary contact.
But there’s another important point to consider here: With NASCAR’s ‘have at it’ stance towards driving standards, isn’t this just what you get when you don’t have rules to keep drivers in line?
Back in the day, you’d have a paddock enforcer who’d cool the heels of any over-aggressive upstarts – but we’ve gone way beyond that now. As Kevin Harvick pointed out, the NASCAR driver code "is not what it used to be".
Hamlin brought up the point of penalising drivers who transgress: “What does NASCAR want? If they’re happy, they’re going to keep this. At what point do they tell people ‘you were responsible, you’re going to the back’? That would stop it.”
NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, Elton Sawyer, spoke on Tuesday to SiriusXM and basically confirmed what we thought – they are happy: “We didn’t see anything that crossed the line. Our DNA for 74-plus years has been aggressive driving.
“There is a line. The teams and drivers understand for the most part where that line is, and if we see something that is blatantly obvious then we’re going to get involved, but we want the drivers to be able to handle that.”
Tyler Reddick celebrates his win
Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images
The initial start, and three earlier restarts, were all very sensible – with even four- of five-wide groups of cars able to negotiate their way around the tight left-hander with little more than a harmless rub of body panels.
The Truck Series and Xfinity racers were also fairly sound at doing this too. It proves they can do it – just that when it gets to the end of the race, desperation takes over as scores are settled, new fires are sparked… and repeat!
And perhaps here is where NASCAR should consider stepping in, and hand out in-race penalties for, to use Hamlin’s neat phrase, “reckless abandonment”.
Get a former driver up there in race control, who has access to a quick replay of the excellent overhead camera angles that FOX had of that first turn. If there was a ‘bowling ball’ to blame for knocking over too many pins, send them to the rear of the field.
NASCAR did enforce track limits in the middle of the Esses in the race, insisting that cars kept some rubber on the kerbing, so it’s not completely against a form of ‘Big Brother’ enforcement. What it could do with here is a similar deterrent when it comes to these late-race serial wreckers.
But clearly NASCAR doesn’t want to. As they say, cautions breed cautions, and that means more potential for TV advertising breaks for your broadcast partner…
William Byron leads at the start
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images
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