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NASCAR Drivers Find Their "Comfort Zone"


Comfortable (adj.)Providing physical ease and relaxation; comfy; cozy; free from stress or fear

When people speak that word, it’s most likely in reference to the summer vacations we’ll take within the next few of months. Comfortable is what we hope to achieve at our jobs, financial security that affords us to do the other things we want in life. In a cruel twist of irony, we watch sports to get comfortable, relaxation afforded after a long day on the job.

But when it comes to entertainment, “comfortable” is the antonym of competition for athletes who make a living through sports. Who wants to watch someone “relaxing” for two hours? Brett Favre may have had that feeling on the football field, but once the ball was hiked his display of talent could hardly be described as “relaxing” by defenders. The NBA Finals aren’t a bunch of players sitting on the couch; I’d hardly say Rajon Rondo was walking down the court, sipping a mojito during a 44-point performance against the Miami Heat. For a sporting event, the worst adjective you could have applied to describe yourselves is “comfortable.” That’s the equivalent to not trying hard enough, the type of “stroking” fans can pick out even from Row 100, half-a-mile up the stands at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Welcome to NASCAR 2012, where drivers feel content to stay within reason. Check out Denny Hamlin’s post-race press conference at Charlotte, after a second-place finish following an event criticized for not enough passing and too much, well … “hanging out” on-track. Wrecks do not define stock car racing, but you’d think through 600 miles you’d have at least one. After all, pushing it to the limit typically results in the occasional mistake.

Not this time.

“Bottom line, I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays, you know if you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you're going to take 10 races to get that back,” he said when asked about a 600-mile event that had one minor wall scrape and one pit road spin. “I think everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts, as crazy as that sounds. It's just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago Everyone is minding their Ps and Qs, trying to get the best finish out of their day, knowing the one thing you can't overcome in a race is a crash.”

And so it goes. Drivers stay off each other, resulting in an event where, for long stretches, the top 15 would race in place with limited (if any) passing for position. I experimented at the track Sunday night, writing down the top 15 at the beginning of a 30-lap stretch to compare the beginning and end. Only one driver —Brad Keselowski — made passes during the stretch, jumping up three spots while everyone else stayed in place. It seemed everyone was comfortable to stay in their own little spot on the racetrack without taking risks.

“You could put a lot of cars up front and they'll run there for quite a long time,” continued Hamlin. “Track position means so much in our sport now, you run around the pace of the guys around you.”

The driver we’re referring to represents the top tier of competitors in the sport — second in the standings with multiple wins under his belt. Unless an asteroid hits his No. 11 car or Kim Kardashian finds Hamlin within the next few months, making the sport’s “postseason Chase” is virtually a guarantee. Hamlin, along with a half-dozen others in the same spot then become the Colts a few years ago once they clinched the NFL’s top seed: how do you handle the second half of the regular season? Do you show all your cards, or hang back and “test” for when the racing really counts in September, October and November? And when you’re running fifth, what incentive is there for you to go the extra mile and earn one extra, meaningless point?

Certainly, a little extra cash for fourth won’t help. With no rookie “sticking” in the Cup Series since 2009, the bulk of the Cup field is made up of longtime veterans who have already made their millions and tasted Victory Lane. The “young guns” who once pushed the veterans have disappeared, because they’ve turned into the thirty-somethings getting married, starting families and getting comfortable with their careers (there’s that word again). With mission virtually accomplished for many by May, certain races over the summer will consist of riding around, gathering information and focusing on the playoffs.

There’s a second tier of drivers, from Carl Edwards to Sunday winner Kasey Kahne, who don’t have that luxury. “On the bubble,” their next 14 events will supposedly consist of running hard for victories that will ensure them a postseason spot, either as a “wild card” or one of those sneaking in on points. But even Kahne — arguably the hottest driver out there with six straight top-10 finishes — knows the limits of taking risks. The point system rewards consistency, not bravery; sticking your neck out for an extra position, only to wind up in the wall or gambling on pit strategy that falls short hurts you more in the end with the postseason as an ultimate goal.

“I guess, you know, you have to be consistent in this sport,” Kahne shrugged. “It’s how the points are. You have to finish races. If you’re crashing, you’re not finishing, you’re losing points. So I don’t know. The Chase is what it’s all about.”

Of course, not everyone can make the Chase. There’s only 12 spots for 43 full-time drivers on the grid. But even the back of the field is getting comfortable with their situations. In the sport today, economics (or contraction — take your side in that debate) mean only about 35 cars are running the distance each week. The battle for a “locked in” position, making qualification meaningless for the first 35 cars in owner points is no longer a competition, as the gap between 35th and 36th is already all but insurmountable. So with no one challenging their spot on the grid, these back-marker teams, already strained for resources can stay comfortable and race within their means. Twenty fifth may not be pretty, but it’ll get ‘em to the next race and keep everyone in their on-track cubicle, grabbing a paycheck and putting food on the table.

What about the drivers? Don’t they innately have a desire to win, frustration occasionally causing failure as hard competition takes its toll? Not exactly. “Boys, have at it” had its boundary created in a Texas tangle last November that nearly cost Kyle Busch his job. The parking? Warranted. But the overreaction seems to be everyone else, with Busch’s sponsor Mars/M&M’s nearly pulling out of the sport feels crossing the line may cost them their job. Busch the Younger has been Busch the Boring so far in 2012, politically correct to a fault, while the rest of the competition just hasn’t been angered enough to play into TNT’s upcoming “We Know Drama” coverage. You know what it seems like? Everyone is comfortable with the cars and competition around them.

Surely, you say, the crew chiefs, the masters of innovation, can find a loophole to give us at least a little extra differentiation of speed out of these Cup vehicles. But they know better, as years of penalties and point deductions that could keep their car out of the Chase as a likely consequence. Why risk it when the postseason is the ultimate goal? NASCAR’s strict rules keep everyone inside a box, and the mechanics have grown comfortable with the way in which these cars are put together. Wind tunnel time and computer simulation results in parity; innovation puts them smack in the penalty box. With millions at their disposal and dozens of engineers, which path would you choose even though the latter, if you play with a gray area, earns you an extra half-a-second?

Turns out there’s a whole lot of people comfortable with Sprint Cup racing these days. Heck, even the fans got comfortable during the Coca-Cola 600, describing to me in vivid detail what they’ve done for many of the races so far in 2012.

They took a nap. Those TVs still tuned to the program may help NASCAR in the Nielsens, but in terms of growing the sport? I wouldn’t be too comfortable with that.

by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:@NASCARBowles