Bob Pockrass, Sportingnews.com
1. Jason Leffler’s Fatal Crash Needs To Be Thoroughly Investigated
Can’t people just call Jason Leffler’s fatal crash last Wednesday a freak accident and move on?
Accidents happen. Tragedies occur daily on the open road.
There’s no reason for Leffler’s death, other than a part on his sprint car just happened to break at the worst possible place and at the worst possible time.
It was his time. Why does there need to be an investigation?
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Maybe Leffler’s death in a crash at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J. was the result of an unfortunate, unpredictable broken part and he hit the wall at high speed at an angle with such force that nothing could be done.
But no one can say that without taking a further look, without investigating the crash and analyzing what happened.
It is tempting to just say this was fate, that tragic events occur in racing, let’s celebrate his life and drop the next green flag.
But doing nothing might lead to more unfortunate events. Investigating the crash can lead to potential improvements to the cars, safety equipment and the racetracks.
It might seem burdensome that the New Jersey State Police, which has jurisdiction and licenses New Jersey racetracks, is investigating. But the police investigation should be welcomed – and it should be something copied by other states.
It’s certainly better than what recently occurred in Daytona, where more than 30 fans were injured in February by flying debris and there is no outside investigation. Any details of what happened beyond video evidence will become public only if lawyers can force Daytona’s hand.
In both these cases, detectives and lawyers are the ones digging into the accident while the racing world lacks any formal investigative process. Hopefully the information will produce insight. Without it, racers could be doing the same thing all over again – hurting inside and solemnly talking about the passion of a driver and fans.
The state police detectives are not racers but they have people who understand vehicle dynamics. They can provide an impartial analysis compared to someone from a race team or racetrack. They have no allegiances to protect a parts company. They have no personal feelings to protect the legacy of the driver.
The New Jersey legislature sets standards for racetracks, so they have a responsibility to propose changes they feel will keep their constituents safe in the stands as well as the drivers on the track.
Drivers need to know which car part broke, how long it had been in use and the materials used to make it. They need to know an estimate of how fast the car was going, how it hit the wall and how the car reacted.
They need to know what type of medical care was provided after the car came to a stop. That way, drivers and racers have a better idea of why Leffler died, what they could do to their racecars to prevent a similar accident and what policies or rules should be questioned.
Without crash data recorders and possibly no significant video footage of the crash, there might not be any solid conclusions. There most likely will be unanswered questions.
There will be more questions after the state police investigation is done. Those who made the safety equipment in the car hopefully will get a look at their equipment at some point to analyze it.
Hopefully most of the results of this investigation by the police – and anyone else – eventually becomes public. Look what happened after the detailed Dale Earnhardt crash investigation: Safety improvements were drastic, and no racer has died in a NASCAR national series race since that 2001 Daytona 500. That’s not a coincidence.
Way too often, nobody wants to discuss why a driver was injured after an accident. They don’t want to say something that might make a team or a manufacturer liable. When a driver is injured, many of those around him don’t want to say how hurt the driver is because they don’t want to impede his potential return.
NASCAR often is mum on anything it learns in these situations. It will not publicly release crash data and we’re often told after a driver injury that the safety equipment worked as designed but not without much detail, leaving the public left to wonder.
Take Kyle Larson’s Nationwide crash at Daytona, which sent car parts and debris flying into the grandstands, injuring fans.
There is no outside investigation. It is up to NASCAR and the track to do the investigation.
So far, the only information released has been measures they have taken to strengthen fencing at Talladega and Daytona.
They have not said why the crossover gate buckled. Was it just hit too hard? Was it not installed properly? Was it old?
They have not said whether the nose of Larson’s car was sheared off because the gate buckled and then hit the post or whether it was just the force of the impact.
If the same accident happens again, what would NASCAR and the track expect to occur based on their new tethers and cabling system?
We have asked those questions and have gotten nowhere, probably for liability purposes. But shouldn’t any track with a crossover gate know the answers? NASCAR and track officials say that the information is being shared, but there’s no way to know for sure.
Sometimes the results and answers to these questions are stuff people don’t want to hear. The answers could be painful and increase scrutiny of how people build products or do their jobs. Proposed changes could alter how people race. It could cost money.
But it’s better to know than be ignorant. It’s better to evaluate and have an idea. By combining the minds of racers with those with general knowledge of automobile accidents, as should happen in the Leffler crash (and any racing death for that matter), there could be something that helps another driver.
So please don’t say that there doesn’t need to be an investigation. You can say not to jump to conclusions, but the only way not to jump to conclusions is to have a clear designed to find the answers.
That way, maybe a driver not as well known as Leffler won’t die in obscurity with little outpouring of support for his family. That way, maybe another 5-year-old boy gets to hug his father for longer in life.
2. Round The Track: Eldora Truck Race Won’t Be Cure-All For NASCAR
NASCAR will race this week at a track that holds legendary status for the style of racing that is its bedrock.
The track isn’t necessarily built for NASCAR, but a series visit there generates excitement because every time the green flag drops on a big event, it’s a special day.
Why does NASCAR race there? Because many people believe it adds legitimacy.
No, this is not about Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will play host to its 20th Brickyard 400 this weekend.
It’s about Eldora Speedway, Tony Stewart’s famous dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.
Eldora, like Indianapolis nearly 20 years ago, will be packed Wednesday night with a sold-out crowd for the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.
But if the Brickyard 400 at Indy has taught NASCAR a lesson, it is that a great idea might not be all that it seems.
The truck race at Eldora is being billed by NASCAR as going back to its roots, a way to reconnect with longtime, diehard race fans. The race has the full force of the NASCAR and Fox Sports PR machine behind it. It has banked on enthusiasm generated by social media, which highlights the feelings of the most passionate fans but not necessarily the pulse of the everyday fan.
It will be a great event, but it won’t be the cure for the sport’s ills or the greatest thing to happen since NASCAR last raced on dirt in 1970.
It’s a bit strange for this race to be championed as a return to NASCAR’s roots considering that NASCAR has never raced at the track built in 1954. And even with its second-tier Nationwide Series, NASCAR doesn’t want 18,000-seat venues to become the norm. Its primary focus is asphalt tracks near big metropolitan areas that can handle big crowds.
To host a race in one of NASCAR’s top two series, NASCAR primarily requires tracks to go over the top in fan convenience (including mobile device accessibility) and provide opportunities for hospitality and corporate sponsors.
NASCAR’s fan of the future doesn’t want an experience so authentic that they have to wash their clothes twice to get the dirt out. They want to be able to tweet a Vine video of the cars racing and not worry that the video is clouded by dust.
The race at Eldora Wednesday night will generate enthusiasm and the atmosphere will be electric for the truck series, which rarely is the prime focus of a race weekend. It will be a great event no matter the outcome because it is different.
But it would be foolhardy to guarantee that this will be a great race with a big impact on the sport.
There’s a reason only two Cup drivers – Ryan Newman and Dave Blaney – are entered. No Kyle Busch. No Clint Bowyer. No Kasey Kahne. Not even Tony Stewart, who owns the track.
Truck teams don’t have enough spare trucks or the money to pay a Cup driver to compete in a race that is expected to be treacherous.
The teams have had to alter the trucks for the Eldora race and the trucks are expected to still bottom out and spin despite not having a front splitter.
“I don’t know – I like Dirt Late Models (but) I don’t know that trucks on dirt is going to be very much fun,” Busch said when asked why he isn’t racing. “They’re too heavy, they’re too bulky and everything else.
“We’ll see what the first year looks like and see if it’s any fun. Maybe the second year.”
As series points leader Matt Crafton said about his test on dirt: “It started off good, then went to worse and then horrendous and ended up decent.”
Why? Because the trucks aren’t made for dirt racing. The rear suspension is not designed to turn the way a normal Dirt Late Model turns. And yet this is a points event that plays a role in the championship race, not an all-star event as fans will perceive it with so many non-regulars on the entry list.
While the race has generated interest from a few road-course aces and other NASCAR veterans such as Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace, it also creates a tremendous hurdle for truck series drivers whose championship hopes could be on the line. With only 30 starting spots, and just 20 guaranteed, some young drivers – such as Max Gresham, Brennan Newberry and Brian Silas – are not guaranteed a spot even though this is a series designed to promote young drivers and young talent.
It’s not like NASCAR will run a Sprint Cup race on dirt anytime soon unless there’s a big change in its economic model. In fact, there’s a big question of whether the Eldora race will be worthwhile financially after the initial enthusiasm wears off.
NASCAR is trying to make it successful for the track, but anyone who thinks that the track is going to be bathing in cash or hoping for a Cup race in the future, forget about it. The economics plus the infrastructure and amenities needed for a Cup race make the prospect of a Cup event on dirt not feasible.
Which raises the question: Why even race a developmental series on dirt when it doesn’t prepare a driver for a Cup race on dirt?
The answer: Because NASCAR is desperate for something to connect to its roots. And having its first national series race on dirt since 1970 is something that connects to the races of yore.
For some reason, NASCAR couldn’t make that connection with the asphalt tracks in its history when finalizing the 2013 schedule. And, frankly, the interest generated by Eldora has probably eclipsed what NASCAR could expect from racing at historic tracks like Hickory or South Boston or Greenville-Pickens.
NASCAR has raised the energy level for a series that badly needs it. Stewart and his employees at Eldora should be commended for their hard work in trying to upgrade the facility to NASCAR specifications while also trying to do something for the good of the sport with no guarantees they will make big money.
But no one should look at the race Wednesday night as a cure for many of the sport’s ills. No one should look at the race as a place where they will see great dirt racing.
This has all the potential of being like the Nationwide race at Montreal in the rain – a cool event for about 15-20 minutes but one that eventually left people scratching their heads wondering if this is the right thing.
Maybe this isn’t a gimmick and instead turns into an annual pilgrimage to Eldora. But many who hoped for the same thing when NASCAR first raced at Indianapolis in 1994 now often wonder what is wrong with NASCAR racing at Indy.
A truck race in Eldora, while exciting for the moment, doesn’t seem like the answer.
3. Round The Track: Dillon Boys And Nepotism Talk Will Never Fade
If Austin and Ty Dillon worried about pressure or whether people thought they deserved their rides at Richard Childress Racing, they probably wouldn’t drive cars with a slanted 3 logo made famous by Dale Earnhardt.
But while they probably don’t worry about it, Saturday wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that they will have that accusation thrown at them.
In the heated moments following a wreck Saturday with Ty Dillon during the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville, Kevin Harvick, who has driven in Cup at RCR for the last 13 years, called them “punk-ass kids” and cited them as the reason he will leave RCR after this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.
“They’ve got no respect for what they do in this sport and they’ve had everything fed to them with a spoon,” Harvick said.
Those comments no doubt will frustrate them and thoroughly tick off their grandfather, team owner Richard Childress. He will vow that they have sponsorship, that they have won races and competed for championships. They have proven their worth to go on to the next step (Austin to Sprint Cup next season and Ty to the Nationwide Series), and at times Childress has even held them back when other owners have talked about putting them in cars.
Childress won’t – and shouldn’t – apologize for giving his grandsons opportunities to race at NASCAR's highest levels. It’s his money. It’s his team. He can put the focus on his grandkids if he wants.
Blood is thicker than water. Childress wouldn’t be human if he didn’t want his grandsons to win more than others. But he also has a bottom line to think about, and he knows that if his grandsons don’t win championships, he’s better off if the winner comes from within his organization. For his grandkids to meet their potential, they’ll need the help of strong teammates.
So he has incentive to have a strong program around his grandsons. But anyone who doesn’t like the fact that they will be the focus probably should get a resume ready. Or leave. If Harvick truly feels that way about the Dillons, then he absolutely did the right thing in making the decision to go to SHR next year.
The fact is that without the grandkids, there is no RCR, and Childress is instead spending time out on his ranch or on some hunting excursion. The grandkids remain the reason that he is still around, still has the enthusiasm and the fire for a sport where he hasn’t won a Cup championship in nearly 20 years.
The Dillons are not the first drivers labeled as punks by a competitor. The Busch brothers have heard it. Brad Keselowski probably has been called a punk. Joey Logano has faced similar accusations. Whenever a young driver comes on the scene, he typically will race hard enough to ruffle some feathers and annoy the veterans.
The Dillon boys do have the luxury of knowing granddad owns the team. They know he will give them time to develop, that they don’t necessarily race for their future with every green flag.
They do have the pressure to prove themselves, but they know they are not auditioning for other team owners. That means they can be a little more bull-headed on the track, if necessary, not really worrying about whether they anger another driver or team. They know their grandfather is old school and if they wreck while racing, while being aggressive, it will be looked at as a learning experience, at least for the time being.
They have the respect of many in the garage in how they handle themselves, but they also probably have a little more of a license to be themselves. If that means walking around with a cowboy hat and a little bit of a strut, so be it. If that means warning another driver after getting wrecked on the final lap, then so be it.
What has to irk Childress the most is the perception that RCR could suffer with Harvick’s departure, that his grandkids won’t bring back the glory days of the organization. The truth of the matter is that Childress hasn’t won a Cup championship since 1994. He was able to continue after the death of a seven-time Cup champion. So while Childress might wish he had Harvick next year, it’s not as if Harvick’s departure should be seen as something that will shake the foundation at RCR.
The bottom line is that only one way exists for RCR to prove that the Dillon boys are not the only focus. That’s for drivers not named Dillon to win races and finish higher in the standings than those named Dillon.
And there’s only one way for the Dillon boys to prove they are deserving of their rides. That’s for them to win races and finish higher in the standings than those not named Dillon.
4. Round The Track: Danica Patrick Would Justify Ride With Top-20 Finishes
Danica Patrick messed up Sunday and ruined a chance at just her second top-10 finish of her rookie Sprint Cup season.
No matter how one looks at it, Patrick has not had a good season. She sits 28th in the series standings. She has only finished better in her second trip to a track at three of the 10 tracks where the series has run twice this year.
She should have shown more progress. Maybe we miss the little things and there will be more tangible signs of progress next year, but it definitely is not easy to see. She does get better during a race weekend, but week-to-week progress appears minimal.
Patrick is learning. She needs to get better. She needs time to get better.
She will get that time. She has a sponsor in GoDaddy, whose CEO told The Associated Press last week that “She's going to be with us for an awful, awful long time.”
The question isn’t just how much time, but how much better does she need to get for her to gain the respect of the NASCAR fan base. What will it take to have more fans believe she deserves to have one of the 43 seats every weekend?
It’s not rare that a rookie will not be great right out of the box.
Of the 13 drivers in the Chase this year, four finished in the top 10 their rookie seasons, 11 in the top 20. The only one outside the top 20 was Kurt Busch (27th), who failed to qualify for a race at Atlanta. Kevin Harvick, in his second season, was 21st while missing one race.
Patrick did make history this year as the first pole winner for a Cup race ever. She also posted the best finish ever for a female in the Daytona 500.
But the fact is that Stewart-Haas Racing is not a place for a 28th-place driver.
As long as she has sponsorship, she’ll have a ride. So if she runs as well as, say, Paul Menard, is that OK?
Menard is family-funded and he is 16th in the standings. For the last three years, he’s been top 17 in the standings. For his first four years, he was no better than 23rd.
He is not considered the elite of the elite, but isn’t a top-20 finish on an annual basis good enough to keep a ride?
It should be. Not every driver is Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch or even Greg Biffle. If her funding allows people to have jobs building and working on race cars, does it really hurt the sport all that much?
She can’t run 28th every year, but no one should expect her to be even where Ryan Newman is right away. Newman has five wins with two top-10 points finishes and an average points standing of 13.4 over the last eight years (including his current spot of 11th this year).
Yes, she made a mistake on pit road Sunday, but many drivers make mistakes on pit road. Kyle Busch made one on Sunday, too.
If Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti prove anything, it’s that the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR is extremely difficult. Patrick needs to be given more time.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica’s boyfriend, won back-to-back Nationwide crowns and won eight Nationwide races in 2011 and 2012. He’s 19th in the Cup standings with just three top 10s this year.
So it’s not surprising someone less accomplished in stock cars isn’t running even close in a rookie season.
If Patrick is still 28th two years from now, then GoDaddy and SHR should consider whether she’s still worth the investment.
But there’s nothing wrong with allowing her to learn on the Cup level. It’s not as if SHR has the door being knocked down with drivers with full-time sponsorship who can finish in the top 25 in Cup.
All sports teams are limited by a salary cap where they have role players and fill-ins. Not everyone is a star.
Patrick gets the star-like treatment because of her popularity. That won’t change. What needs to change is the result each week. It doesn’t need to change to that of champion, just a driver who can run more consistently in the top 20 than getting lapped in the first half of the race.
5. NASCAR Sets Dangerous Precedent By Adding Jeff Gordon To Chase
JOLIET, Ill. – NASCAR did the fair and nice thing for Jeff Gordon on Friday.
It also did the most difficult thing, changing the fabric of the Chase for the Sprint Cup by adding a 13th driver to the mix.
NASCAR easily could have ruled that the Chase includes only 12 drivers. The rulebook says 12 drivers and yeah, Gordon probably got shafted but, hey, that’s the breaks.
NASCAR could have delivered the message: Life ain’t fair. Sorry Gordon. Sorry Drive To End Hunger. Sorry Rick Hendrick. Have a good time racing for wins over the last 10 races and think about winning the title next year.
Instead NASCAR looks good in the sense that it tried to right a wrong. It has a heart. That’s why there’s that clause EIRI – Except In Rare Instances – in the rulebook. NASCAR Chairman Brian France can do whatever he wants at any time for the good of the sport, so he swooped in and righted a wrong.
But it doesn’t make it the right decision.
In its quest to be fair, NASCAR risks looking like a sanctioning body just making things up as it goes along. It puts its credibility and integrity at risk when it has to make judgment calls on the fly in an effort to be fair.
What will it do in the future? Will it side with a four-time champion and one of the sport’s most powerful teams? That will be the perception the next time a competitor is put at an unfair disadvantage and NASCAR doesn’t address it or fix it.
NASCAR is risking its reputation by changing the rules of the Chase less than 48 hours before the Chase begins. It is an unprecedented move. Other sports leagues don’t change the number of postseason participants just because they feel a team or competitor missed the playoffs because another participant committed a questionable act.
And if NASCAR says it can’t prove that Clint Bowyer spun on purpose last week at Richmond and it can’t prove that there was a deal between Joey Logano and David Gilliland to help Logano make the Chase, why is it taking such drastic measures?
It’s not like there weren’t other times this season when people made intentional moves that impacted the Chase. Drivers wrecked other drivers. Teammates helped each other, especially at restrictor-plate races.
If Gordon wanted to avoid being involved in such a situation Saturday night, he easily could have – he could have just won a race during the year. He could have performed better in the previous 25 races. The Chase does not come down to one race.
The problem for NASCAR was that there was not enough time after Bowyer spun with only seven laps remaining for other drivers to control their own destiny. And then there were at least two others instances where it appears drivers gave up spots on the track to help other drivers. NASCAR levied heavy penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing for trying to manipulate the race.
But since NASCAR can’t go back and run the race again, France felt he had to do something. He called these circumstances unprecedented.
They are unprecedented but now NASCAR’s action has set a precedent.
It remains to be seen whether it’s a precedent for changing the rules whenever it wants or whether it truly is just trying to be run a benevolent dictatorship and steward of stock-car racing.