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NASCAR’s Cookie Cutter Crisis


Denny Hamlin began Thursday playing the role of NASCAR Chase contender. How’d he end it?

Trying to avoid the label of tragic footnote.

Smashing his car into the Turn 1 wall at a reported 202 mph, a test at the repaved Kansas Speedway turned into a headache—literally—as Hamlin fought dizziness to the point he made a second trip to the infield care center for further evaluation.

“It was the first time I really had some dizziness after a hit,” Hamlin told ESPN afterward. “Usually I’m sore or your jaw hurts from clenching your jaw. This is the first time I really got dizzy.”

His car was totaled, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team forced to pull out a backup for Sunday, but that was minor compared to the possible head injury this track had given a second title contender in less than two months.

Hamlin, who claims he’ll be fine for the race, was showing signs of concussive-like symptoms, ones that will be monitored closely the next 48 hours as NASCAR is suddenly making the NFL’s measures look tame by comparison. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered head injuries after a 40 G impact during a tire test Aug. 29 at the same track that will keep him out of the No. 88 car for the second straight race. As the show goes on, amd with virtually the entire field shattering Kansas’ qualifying record of 180.856 mph in testing, record speeds are leading to serious concerns about both the tire compound and the ability for drivers to race effectively.

Sound familiar? Welcome to NASCAR’s Cookie Cutter Crisis, 2012, a drama-less disaster of parade laps, aerodynamics and injury risk that’s threatening to suck the life out of what once was the second-most popular sport in America. Kansas is the latest example of one of these, an “intermediate track” at 1.5 miles in length whose shape and size reflects the majority of ovals the series competes on. Five of the 10 Chase races are at intermediates (add Charlotte, Chicagoland, Texas and Homestead) while a whopping 14 of 36 races overall take place at facilities 1.5 to 2 miles in length. It’s the highest percentage for any track type on the circuit, a tough reality considering they don’t deliver enough excitement to keep a local librarian awake.

Example No. 1? Last weekend’s Charlotte’s race, which was so focused on fuel mileage that cars were dialing it back, running at 80 percent throttle for up to one-third of the race in order to conserve precious Sunoco. It was taking the gas game to a new level, slowing down in between multiple pit stops because teams felt the only way to reach Victory Lane was not to pass, but stay conservative over a long, green-flag run. The result? An ugly series of parade laps where every car ran slower than race pace, hesitant to challenge cars in front while crossing their fingers in hopes that less time on pit road would give them the position instead.

The winner, Clint Bowyer, was really the fifth-fastest car but used that strategy—plus the 20-second “I’m out of gas on the backstretch” drama of Brad Keselowski in front of him—with 58 laps remaining to “coast” to the victory. He beat fellow Chaser Hamlin, both of them more concerned about the points lost for running empty themselves that they’d probably have drafted up on each other, nose-to-tail rather than taken any sort of side-by-side risk to fight for first place.

Imagine if you’re trying to explain that race to a possible new NASCAR fan on Monday.

“Hey, what’d you do Saturday night?”

“Watched the race.”

“How’d it go?”

“Oh, just waited to see if cars were going to run out of gas for an hour and a half.”

Who other than your single, middle-aged aunt who hangs on every word you say is going to find that conversation exciting? Sitting on a hill watching cars drive around your local highway might be a better option; no wonder why, halfway through the postseason, we’re on track for the least-watched Chase since the inception of the sport’s playoff format in 2004.

Boredom wasn’t always the norm with NASCAR’s intermediate ovals. A decade ago, Charlotte was one of the sport’s signature tracks, every bit deserving of its hometown label as three different grooves often turned the sport’s two races, plus the All-Star event, into “must see” TV. But then track owner Bruton Smith, inciting a trend that’s hit far too many tracks of late, began a repaving process that changed the way drivers race the facility. New asphalt meant record speeds, putting the pressure on Goodyear’s tires to the point holding up under a long green-flag run was simply impossible. Even the best engineers, when dealing with the science of physics, can’t find a way to outfox nature. In the end, there’s a limit to how fast cars can go while turning left.

Sadly, NASCAR and its longtime tire company found out the hard way as the crisis peaked in an Oct. 2005 event that was nearly cut off early from tires blowing virtually every 20-25 laps. Ever since, steps have been taken to keep speeds in check while Goodyear’s tire compound has been made more conservative than a Rick Santorum stump speech.

Why does that matter? It means no wear over the course of a run, leaving every driver to run the same speed on new asphalt that makes the track “easy” to drive. Let’s review: similar engines among the top teams, no way to beat someone through managing your equipment and it’s difficult-to-impossible to “outbrake” someone in the turns when you’re, well, not doing much braking in the first place.

No wonder drivers are banking on fuel mileage. It’s the best way to gain spots.

Higher speeds have led to other unintended consequences, making the sport far too predictable and prosaic. As technology evolves, pinpoint engineering has left these cars sleek but sideways the second they get close to another car around them, a phenomenon known as “aero push.” The second you’re underneath another car, handling goes from a 1 to a 10 on a scale of difficulty, making it even harder for drivers to adjust since they’re not fighting the car as much in clean air. The result has been some horrifying wrecks (see, Jimmie Johnson last fall) that will come under greater scrutiny in the wake of Earnhardt’s concussion problem. When the risk is your health, drivers these days are willing to take a step back and preserve it.

Perhaps that explains why, over the course of 11 intermediate races this season, we’ve seen an average of just over two cautions for wrecks. If you take out the 10 yellows from the repaved Michigan Speedway—where Goodyear again struggled with the correct tire compound—that number drops to an astounding 1.6. Those low numbers have occurred during the same time equipment is holding up better than ever; with millions spent on fine-tuning parts, engine failures among the top teams have almost disappeared within the course of a 500-mile race. The result is long green-flag runs spreading out the field, forcing NASCAR to try and engineer mystery debris cautions in order to keep the racing close enough where more than a handful of cars wind up on the lead lap.

But manufactured excitement can only go so far. Drivers have caught on to the only ways they can win at these ovals: track position, gas mileage and keeping their nose clean. Even double-file restarts now sort out quickly, as drivers hold their position and wait for pit stops to come so they can pass cars quicker than being stuck behind them for 20, 30 or 40 laps on end. The risks come from the pit box now, not on the speedway, as Cup races on intermediates now resemble a game of high-speed chess.

Don’t get me wrong, chess is a fine hobby, but that also raises two major concerns. One: chess is not a game you see people spend $300 million annually to televise. Two: the average chess game doesn’t typically last over three hours. Even in a shortened race, like Kansas’ 400-mile affair this Sunday, you can’t expect people to wait that long to see if their driver simply runs out of gas or uses a late-race, two-tire stop under a debris caution to gain the track position needed for a top-5 finish.

No, to solve NASCAR’s “cookie-cutter” crisis big swings are needed, a way to slow down the cars further, eliminate the aero push and bring a tire compound that’s more competitive and on the ragged edge, yet doesn’t put a driver’s health at risk. Oh, and did I mention NASCAR must make the cars difficult enough to drive so handling comes back into play?

It’s a complicated physics problem, one that has no easy answer and that the 2013 car can’t possibly solve in one fell swoop. But as the pressure heats up on the sport from all fronts, it’s one NASCAR can no longer ignore if it wants to keep the fan base paying attention.

by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:@NASCARBowles