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Third Place
Kelly Crandall, PopularSpeed.com

NASCAR’s Caution Clock Wasn’t Easy to Embrace

It started with denial …

For those familiar with the five stages of grief, NASCAR’s recent decision to implement a caution clock in the Camping World Truck Series triggered that process within my own psyche. For the past week, I’ve battled each emotion on the way to making peace with how the series has evolved through the years.

Denial was my immediate reaction. It was hard to accept such a rule existing in racing simply because it contradicts the traditions of what the sport used to do on a weekly basis.

When the circuit rolls into town every weekend, it’s with the expectation the green flag will drop and whatever happens between that and the checkered flag is naturally occurring. That’s called racing, but not anymore.

Now the Truck Series will race for 20 minutes and stop, line back up and go for another 20 minutes. Just writing it sounds unrealistic and even a bit shocking.
So I denied, denied, denied that this was actually going to happen. Just as I’ve denied several other changes throughout the years. This most recent one, however, feels as though we’re now in a scripted production of 20-minutes each.

I began to wonder why other storylines in the series, such as the Chase or the tons of talent ready to take center stage this year, should even matter. All we’re going to watch is a clock now while looking forward to the drama set break out on the ensuing restart.

I realized I had reached the second stage, anger, when I began to question all of this. For those who have ever gone through the five stages of grief, anger is said to be necessary in the process of healing.

It also may be aimed at someone or something.

It certainly felt good to get all of my anger out and there should be no surprise at who it was aimed at. Why NASCAR, did you feel this was necessary? In 23 Truck events in 2015, this rule would have seldom been used. Which makes it feel unnecessary and only served to fuel my fire further. This is a series where cautions happen more often than not, so NASCAR shouldn’t feel as though they need to force the issue.

Plus, why is there always a need to change things or add new rules? The Truck Series certainly has its hiccups – purse size and small field sizes chiefly amongst them – but it keeps surviving.

Thickening the rulebook in this manner won’t solve any of these issues.
So yes, there was a lot of anger. But I tried not to stay angry too long because it wouldn’t do me any good. Bargaining probably wouldn’t either. There was nothing I could offer NASCAR that would make them take the caution clock back. The decision has been made, and we will race with this policy regardless.

With nothing to trade away, I became immersed in the “if only” and “what if” questions. What if there were fewer complaints about phantom debris cautions, would NASCAR have not felt the need to validate them with a new policy?

If only there weren’t such a need to constantly criticize the sanctioning body with questions of how certain races unfold.

That is all in the past, though. The present brings on depression because of how much the Truck Series has evolved. It’s depressing enough that we’ve already lost a series that was supposed to be a throwback to years gone by, noted by its strong personalities and veteran presence.

It always could be counted on for natural and exciting races, often the most exciting on-track product in all of NASCAR.

Today the Truck Series is nothing more than a stepping-stone in the NASCAR ladder system. It’s treated as a proving ground for teenagers rather than the veterans of the past.

I had become to like the Truck Series of the old days that I’m constantly told to let go of.
I guess a Chase format and caution clock might finally bring that time. Consider it acceptance, the final stage of the grief process. Acceptance of this new rule, however, doesn’t mean I agree with it. I don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.

But it would only be fair to go into the 2016 NASCAR season accepting that NASCAR believes this will improve the nature of competition so I should give it a chance — that a caution clock will help the younger drivers make the necessary adjustments on their trucks to contend.

In the end, maybe having worked through this process will be the key to enjoying this next era of the Camping World Truck.

Chase Format Underlines XFINITY Series Flaw

NASCAR, we have a problem.

Six races into the XFINITY Series season a regular has yet to win a race. Surprising? No. The role of Sprint Cup drivers in the series is a long-running and passionate debate. The elephant in the room, however, is that now more than ever before it is imperative that a series regular wins a race and wins one soon.

It’s simple: the Chase.

By implementing a Chase format in all three national touring series it makes the hype around the ‘win and you’re in’ guarantee tremendous. Broadcast and digital media do their part in reminding fans how important an Erik Jones or Brendan Gaughan or Daniel Suarez running near the front is. The implication is clear, but it only momentarily takes the focus away from the real problem.

Regulars aren’t winning.

Again, this is not news, but it’s become harder and harder to get behind a playoff system that is supposed to be about winning when Cup drivers take home a majority of the trophies. For example, in 2015 Cup drivers won 23 of the 33 races. Fortunately, the eventual champion, Chris Buescher, did win twice and saved the series from having to crown a winless champion for the second time in three years.

As for the idea behind the creation of the Chase, it was to reward winning. Then, once you’re locked in the Chase and the assumption is the pressure to win goes away. That in turn should translate to teams taking chances because they have nothing to lose.

We’ve got the opposite going on right now in the XFINITY Series. Winning is where the problem lies because the only reason teams are taking chances is so they can attempt to keep up with the Cup drivers and perhaps steal a good finish. We’re more likely to hear drivers talk about good point days than how close they came to victory.

But let’s get back to the format. How do we keep promoting a championship playoff and what a great opportunity it’s supposed to be for those in the series if the chance of winning is slim.

Because a Cup driver has won every race so far, no regular has locked in and the point leader, Suarez, has yet to win a race in his career. The bigger story concerning a driver like Suarez is when – and if – he’ll eventually break through. Even then, the Chase almost takes a backseat because the attention will be on what a great accomplishment it is.

Of the current 12 drivers who would make up the Chase, six of them have won races in their careers. While half the field looks good on paper, when you break it down, only four of those drivers have proven they can win more than once.

If XFINITY Series drivers are already having a tough time winning races as it is, and you add Cup drivers to the equation, how does implementing a Chase make things better? All we’ve done is made it even more apparent when an XFINITY Series regular doesn’t win.

And it’s not to say a regular won’t win at all this year but starting the season with six straight wins by Cup drivers has drained the energy needed around this format.

So yes, we have a problem when it comes to buying into a format where those participating are not the ones in Victory Lane.

Stewart Deserved a Better Sendoff

More or less, Tony Stewart’s full-time NASCAR career has ended in a hospital bed, and that’s a damn shame.

Just two weeks before what was supposed to be his final Daytona 500 and 18th and final NASCAR season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Stewart has a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, which required surgery.

It’s an ugly end to what has been a rough few years for the 44-year-old, both personally and professionally. Granted, some might say Stewart did it to himself with the situations he put himself in, but it’s hard to argue he deserved a better sendoff.

He deserved more than an apparent accident in California to delay what was supposed to be a 36-race going away party — regardless of whether he wanted it or not.

Stewart is expected to make a full recovery and return to his No. 14 Chevrolet, but it won’t be the same. And now the narrative of his final year will be marred by the January 31 accident instead of being a full year of watching Stewart one last time and giving him a fond farewell.

He deserved that much because Tony Stewart is leaving behind a legacy.
When Stewart kicked open the NASCAR door in 1999, there was no doubt Stewart would be a force to be reckoned with. Many probably didn’t realize just how big a force that would be. From the very beginning, he appeared to be out to prove something and that attitude consistently brought him in Victory Lane and to his first of three championships in 2002.

Now 590 races, 48 wins, 15 poles, 12, 783 laps led, 300 top-10 finishes and three titles later, Stewart should have certainly have been given his due. He should have been able to bask in the thank yous, pats on the back, even gifts and tributes.

While his accomplishments weren’t always pretty because of the side of sassy Stewart threw out there, somehow many ended up embracing it. Jabbing at a reporter, throwing a helmet, providing a smirk and snarky answer was “Tony being Tony.” It developed an aura around him because he made you want to know what he would say or do next.

In a way, Stewart is the quintessential blue-collar American who works hard, plays hard, and the politics of it all don’t matter. That made him relatable while drawing in the fans that hold the same attitude about life.

Simply put, he is the badass many of us want to be.

But life for Stewart means living it to the fullest, which doesn’t include sitting at home where it’s safe. It makes him just like Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards or any driver injured away from the track. Live life to actually live it. Unfortunately, three of those times in the last four years have drastically changed Stewart’s life.
But when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series there’s no denying that Stewart, like Gordon before him and the many to come after him, leaves a void. On the racetrack his talent makes him enjoyable to watch. He’s something special – often lauded as one of the few racecar drivers in the world who can drive anything he sits in, Stewart has a resume many can only envy.

Away from the track, often his charity work goes unnoticed because Stewart doesn’t do it for the recognition or with photographers in tow. He’s the man spending his time riding tractors at the Chili Bowl and in Eldora not because he has to, but because he wants to give back to his profession. Make sure there is a place for other racers to come from while ensuring race fans can always have a place to get their fix.

What makes this even worse is that Stewart appeared ready to go out guns blazing this season. A new crew chief was put in place during the offseason, a lower downforce package will be used in the series, and Stewart has spent time getting in shape. Not just because he needed to feel better, but to make it clear 2016 wasn’t a throwaway year.

This year, he said, was all about having fun while being as successful as possible.

Which maybe makes it a bit ironic that this is how it ends for him. Stewart having fun before heading to Speedweeks, only to have fate intervene. He was doing what he wanted, though, as always.

But it’s still a shame.