Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NASCAR gets it all wrong and all right at the same time

If there's anything that can be said about NASCAR's handling of the events that took place at the end of Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix is that the organization was all wrong and all right.
And just how might this be possible?
They made mistakes in their late race calls to not throw cautions, but those mistakes also upped the drama meter significantly, and maybe even more than NASCAR could have ever imagined.
The first caution that should have been thrown was when Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer tapped each other, eventually sending Gordon into the wall. Normally, that's enough to cause a yellow, but Gordon managed to keep his car going and since it was late in the race, NASCAR may have been hoping for the race to stay green the rest of the way. But once word  began spreading over the Bowyer team radio that Gordon was waiting for an opportunity to wreck him, NASCAR should have thrown the caution.
And well, as you've probably heard or seen many times now, the result was the big fight (see video at right) between the Bowyer and Gordon pit crews in the garage area. Some are saying that Gordon was at the bottom of that big pileup, but the replays appear to show him being held back by three crewmen at a tool box next to where the melee broke out. And then of course there was Clint Bowyer's sprint from pit lane to the the melee. While the sprint was impressive, it was as if his arrival would bring some sort of conclusion to the fracas, whether it be negative or positive.
So, mistake No. 1 resulted in something better than any reality TV show could ever dream of. Once the action started, it was impossible to change channels. Just what NASCAR wants.
Then there was the final two laps of the race. Danica Patrick was minding her own business while going for a top 20 finish, when Jeff Burton apparently slipped from the apron to the center of the fourth corner and tapped the No. 10 car, sending Patrick into the wall. Again, a fairly significant hit with the wall almost always brings out the caution. But it didn't this time. That left Patrick leaking oil on the track and to give her credit, she did her best to stay out of the way, driving next to the inside wall that separates pit road from the frontstretch. But her spilled oil left cars slipping and sliding all over the place as they came to the finish line, including Patrick, who was limping slowly across the start-finish line when she took a big hit. NASCAR said after the race that the smoke coming from Patrick's car could have been caused by a tire rub. Any veteran NASCAR observer knows from where the smoke was coming from and how slow she was going, it could have only been from oil leaking not a tire rub.
But here's the rub on error No. 2: It gave us a crazy and dangerous finish. Just what the ratings doctor ordered for NASCAR.
But NASCAR wasn't done making mistakes.
Monday it was announced that Gordon would receive a $100,000 fine and 25 point penalty for his role in the final accident with Bowyer. By all rights, and going by history of past judgments , Gordon should have been suspended for this Sunday's final race at Homestead-Miami. But that would take away one of the big storylines of the day Sunday, to see if Bowyer will retaliate. And by not suspending Gordon, NASCAR is sending the message to Bowyer that if wants to extract some revenge on the No. 24 car, go right ahead. NASCAR can say what it wants about the penalty being fair etc., but to believe the powers that be didn't know a revenge scenario would help add to the drama Sunday would be naive. Some have suggested that since Gordon is a four-time champion and drives for Hendrick Racing that he got preferential treatment from NASCAR. And while being a high-profile driver helps in these situations, this time it's all about getting more eyes to tune in to ESPN Sunday.
So, miscue No. 3 gives us the possibility of even more drama.
But we're not done yet.
During the Bowyer-Gordon crew melee, NASCAR red-flagged the race for 15 minutes (well, it was actually 14 minutes, 58 seconds for those your snoring at home). That was the right call by NASCAR. But during the red flag, points leader Brad Keselowski took his phone out and sent and answered a couple of tweets on Twitter. He did the same thing at the start of the season at Daytona, during the great Jet Dryer Fire red flag, and Keselowski become an instant social media star. But this time Keselowski took the big hit, in a $25,000 fine for having that kind of electrical device in his car.
In this age of social media and the public's want for instant information, Keselowski's tweeting, at Daytona and Phoenix, was a stroke of genius. Instantly, you've got more people interested in the sport because they can actually communicate with a participant before the event is over. It's a connection that makes NASCAR, or at least Keselowski, unique and someone who is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Now, with a fine for tweeting, Keselowski's popularity will only grow more. In trying to discipline Keselowski, they may just raise him to hero status.
And really, that's good news for NASCAR, too. They have plenty of stars in guys like Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But if Keselowski keeps his 20-point lead over Johnson to win the title Sunday, he may become NASCAR's next superstar.
And make no mistake about it, that could be a very good thing for NASCAR.

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