Friday, November 16, 2012

NASCAR's Phoenix Debacle

Last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway had one of the wildest finishes of any NASCAR race I can remember in a while. Some would say it was too wild, others would say it wasn't wild enough. My opinion is kinda in between these two extremes, but I did have two problems with the whole mess.

NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough. Photo by Ted ...
NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough. Photo by Ted Van Pelt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before I get into that though, let me say that I like NASCAR's whole "have at boys" policy. It reminds me of the '70 and '80s, when I first started following NASCAR racing. Heck, if it wasn't for the fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, NASCAR might have never taken off and reached the heights of popularity it did a few years ago. A height that I believe NASCAR is currently steadily falling from.

The first problem I have with the ending of the Phoenix race involves the whole deal with Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Personally, I feel that if those two want to "have it" every race all year and tear up each others cars every week, then that's fine by me. The way I see it is that is between them, their car owners, their crew and other team members who build the cars every week, and their sponsors. If they want to write the checks and put in the man hours to build the cars, that's their business. I figure it will just keep Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the various beer companies supplied with plenty of scrap metal for making beverage cans. However, this particular incident went too far for a couple of reasons :
  1. Gordon's insubordination - In order to wreck Bowyer at the end of the race, Gordon ignored the "black flag" given to him by NASCAR. For those unfamiliar with NASCAR and the various flags that the officials may wave during a race, if a driver is shown the "black flag" he or she is required to bring their car to pit road within five laps for inspection. It could be because NASCAR officials believe their car is leaking fluid causing a safety concern for other drivers, they are not maintaining the minimum speed, or that they have committed some violation. If a driver has not reported to pit road within those five laps, NASCAR stops counting the laps they run, basically disqualifying them. Oftentimes, a driver will stay out for 3 or 4 laps after receiving the black flag hoping to catch a caution flag and be able to enter pit road without losing a lap or two. In Gordon's case, he had been given the black flag after hitting the wall after the tangle with Bowyer, but he chose to ignore it in order to retaliate against Bowyer and wreck him.
  2. Collateral damage - Joey Lagano was an innocent victim of the skirmish between Gordon and Bowyer. When Gordon retaliated against Bowyer, running him up into the wall, Joey Lagano was caught up in the wreck and sent into the wall, too. As I said before, if Gordon and Bowyer want to spend the entire season wrecking each other, that's fine, but once they start wrecking other drivers in the process, they've gone too far.
They incident spilled over into the garage area leading to a brawl between Gordon's and Bowyer's crews. NASCAR penalized Gordon 25 championship points and fined him $100,000. In my opinion, these penalties are a pathetic joke. Why ? First, Gordon disobeyed a direct order from NASCAR to get his butt on pit road. Second, Gordon's insubordination led to Joey Lagano getting caught up in something he had nothing to do with. Third, Gordon's actions had a direct impact on the championship standings. If he doesn't take out Bowyer, Bowyer is still mathematically in the hunt this week in Homestead. Instead, he's out of it. Since Gordon's won four titles of his own, he should understand how hard it is for a driver just to be in contention going into the last race of the season. He should not have taken Bowyer's opportunity away from him.

English: Jeff Gordon's car on display at Hendr...
English: Jeff Gordon's car on display at Hendrick Motorsports. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
NASCAR should have hit Gordon with much stiffer penalties. I think they should have parked / suspended him for the last race of the season and for the season-opening 2013 Daytona 500. That would have sent the message to both him and all the other drivers, including brats like Kyle Busch, that orders must be followed whether you like them or not. Additionally, a rule or policy change should be implemented that if you and another driver want to "have at it," that's fine. However, if you wreck each other intentionally and other drivers get caught up in it, then you're parked for two races. Any driver parked for two races would basically be eliminated from championship competition. Furthermore, if you intentionally wreck a driver who is in The Chase during the last 10 races of the season, you are suspended for the rest of the year. That would put an end to such foolishness and resulting collateral damage.

The penalty handed out to Jeff Gordon was completely meaningless. A $100,000 fine levied on a guy that makes millions every year accomplishes nothing. Additionally, taking 25 championship points away from him means nothing, either. He was out of the hunt a few weeks ago. He could care less. My concern with NASCAR leniency towards Gordon is that it sets a dangerous precedent. It tells the drivers that they can get away with intentionally disregarding NASCAR's directives with no consequences. This will lead to more such incidents and chaos. It could lead to drivers and others being injured, maimed, or killed at the racetrack unnecessarily. What if it led to something bad happening to a fan ? A monumental lawsuit would result. As looney as this country is about other stuff, I can already hear people screaming to "ban NASCAR."

The second problem I have with the ending of the Phoenix race is the way NASCAR handled the situation involving Danica Patrick. Jeff Burton hit her car in the left-rear corner panel spinning her out. She sat in the middle of the racetrack in turn three for a significant length of time. No caution flag was thrown. When she finally got her car going, she had trouble getting traction and went slipping and sliding through turn four and down the frontstretch. The rest of the cars continued racing toward her at 120+ MPH. As she continued spinning her tires down the front stretch, a number of drivers collided behind her coming to the checkered flag. One piled into the back of her car nearly turning her over.

NASCAR says that driver safety comes first, yet they let Danica Patrick sit in harm's way at Phoenix. In my opinion, NASCAR's failure to throw the caution and slow the field down put Danica in harm's way unnecessarily. She could have been seriously injured or even killed. Now before someone says, "Oh, you're biased because you're a Danica fan." That is not true. Anyone that has read this blog for any length of time knows I'm an Earnhardt man - period. However, in all fairness to Danica, I think that of all the women who have given NASCAR a shot, she's the only one who has had the potential to compete for wins and possibly championships one day. She has the skills. She just needs some time to learn and get the feel for the cars.

Personally, I believe that the failure to look out for Danica's safety on Sunday is due to a deeper problem. I think it shows that NASCAR still has a significant gender bias. It is still ravaged by sexism. Don't think so ? Have you listened to the announcers covering the races Danica has raced in ? In my opinion, they have an obvious bias toward her as a female driver, including Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, and several others. Every time she gets caught up in a wreck, they unduly place the blame on her. I watch a lot of races,  and I have not seen Danica in but one, maybe two wrecks at most, that were her fault. However, Waltrip and the other talking heads blame her week in and week out. It's wrong. If it continues, it will cost the sport female fans. Mark it down.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick (Photo credit: insidetherace)
I've also noticed Danica treated unfairly in other ways. The drivers do not show her the same respect on the track as they do other drivers. If she goes in a corner two or three wide with the male drivers, they expect her to back off the throttle. They never do. Furthermore, if she needs a driver to give her a little extra room to negotiate a corner, they don't, but yet they will for their male colleagues. They know if they don't, then the next time they need a little break, they won't get it, either. In my opinion, Danica needs to treat the male drivers like they treat her. Put a few of them in the fence and ruin their day. Then, they might give her some room next time.

I think Danica Patrick will be successful in NASCAR if she's tough enough to not let the guys run her off. She has the skills. She's going through a learning curve now, but I believe she will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. The male drivers and others in the sport need to do the right thing and treat her just like they would any other driver. Don't give her anything extra - just the same opportunity as everyone else. I think that's all Danica expects.

I've never been a big fan of Jeff Gordon. I can take him or leave him. I did have some respect for him, though, until the Phoenix debacle. With the season finale at Homestead on Sunday, it looks like the Sprint Cup is Brad Keselowski's for the taking. The big question is - will we see more fireworks ? Is the Gordon / Bowyer feud over ? 
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