Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Geoffrey is at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where a batch of storylines lead the series up to the season finale Ford 400. Among them: NASCAR CEO Brian France amending the sport’s domestic violence policy, NASCAR’s changing tune (again) on winning versus consistency, Kevin Harvick’s championship mind games and Carl Edwards’ last ride with Roush Fenway Racing.
France: NASCAR amending domestic violence policy
A little more than a year ago, Travis Kvapil was arrested in North Carolina after assaulting his wife in their Mooresville home. He was held overnight in jail and eventually agreed to a plea deal in the case — admitting that he had, in fact, assaulted his wife.
Kvapil both raced the weekend after his arrest and never faced further punishment from his team or NASCAR after the plea agreement.
Kvapil’s case was brought to light again this week after fellow driver Kurt Busch was accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend. Busch has vehemently denied the accusation and hasn’t been charged by police handling the case in Dover, Del., but the incident has sparked discussion about sanctions from NASCAR as the legal part of the process plays out in the wake of the NFL’s handling of domestic violence cases earlier in the year.
According to NASCAR CEO Brian France, that external pressure has led NASCAR to revise its policy for drivers involved in such incidents.
“What’s not lost on us by any stretch is the rightful heightened awareness on domestic abuse and violence,” France said. “You can expect our policies to reflect the understandable awareness that that’s not going to be tolerated.”
In other words, NASCAR has seen the backlash the NFL took and decided that now is the time to hold drivers accountable if they assault wives or girlfriends. For Kvapil, timing is everything.
France also insisted that NASCAR would wait for more in Busch’s case before acting — despite a U.S. representative in California issuing a statement Friday criticizing NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing for not excluding Busch from participation after last week’s accusations.
“We ought to have a process that gets to the bottom of the facts before anybody does anything,” France said.
NASCAR changes tune on winning and consistency
It’s hardly a secret that Ryan Newman’s presence at Homestead-Miami Speedway as a championship-eligible driver is a thorn in NASCAR’s early season “winning-is-everything” mantra. It was just 10 months ago that Brian France announced the radically overhauled Chase for the Sprint Cup that was supposed to make the championship all but out of reach for drivers who post consistent finishes but don’t win.
“This is different,” France said of the new system in January. “Everything is focused around winning, and that is exactly what our fans want.”
Newman hasn’t won a race in 2014, yet is a 400-mile race away from winning the season championship should be beat the combination of Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to the finish line. France was asked about Newman’s opportunity during a rare press conference Friday at the track and dialed back the party line.
“The question is do we have the right balance, and I would say unmistakably that we do,” France said. “I think that wanting to win events has taken on an undeniable importance. At the same time, there ought to be room for teams that do it every week and be consistent.”
Based on how hard NASCAR pushed the idea that winning is the only thing that matters early in the 2014 season, any concession otherwise gives the appearance that the sport’s officials are more happy to follow the sport’s current winds than acknowledge that a new system isn’t working as originally hyped. France did say that more tweaks to the title fight for the 2015 edition aren’t out of question.
“We reserve the right if there’s a modest thing that we might make an adjustment on,” France said.
Harvick has plan for championship success
Kevin Harvick started in with some mind games at the first opportunity this week, critiquing Joey Logano for his assistance of Brad Keselowski at the finish of last month’s Talladega race. Harvick was adamant that moves like that — Logano blocked for Keselowski heavily on the last lap — would be rectified with some sort of on-track karma.
But Harvick, a prohibitive favorite in Sunday’s race with Logano an equal or close second, insisted that he’s not aiming for Logano in Sunday’s race. Instead, he’s got a plan that involves only the efforts of his No. 4 team.
“I’d plan it out by just kicking their butt all day and not having to race anybody,” Harvick said. “I’m hoping for just like last week.”
Harvick dominated a week ago at Phoenix with an untouchably fast car. His win sealed his route to Homestead. But is there a driver that his team has singled-out as the one to beat in order to win the title?
“Oh, that’s a good question,” Harvick said, smiling and seemingly aware of the weight his next words may carry.
He treaded lightly.
“I think right now it’s just about doing what we have to do ourselves,” Harvick said. “I think if we do what we need to do ourselves, that puts us in a better position than worrying about who else we need to beat.”
The weekend started to plan. Harvick qualified fifth for Sunday’s race, better than all of the other Chase drivers.
Gordon proposes Chase drivers use alternate point system
Jeff Gordon won the pole for Sunday night’s race with a lap 180.747 mph in Friday night’s three-round qualifying session. Had he earned a single point more than Ryan Newman in the third round of the Chase, it would have been a significant feather in the four-time champion’s cap as he vied for the title this weekend.
Instead, Gordon is out of contention. As a result, he’s uniquely qualified to discuss the merits of the new Chase format. He was asked what he’d do differently.
“I think it’s a good system, number one,” Gordon said. “I like how important it is to win, how that moves you from one round to the next.”
But he also offered a tweak: Use a point system for Chase drivers that ranks them independent of non-qualified drivers.
“This would not have moved me to the final round, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s system would essentially offer points to drivers in the Chase relative only to other drivers in the Chase. For example, in a 16-driver Chase the top-finishing Chase driver would earn 16 points, second-best in the Chase would earn 15th, third would earn 14, and so on. It wouldn’t matter if the best-finishing Chase driver won and the second-best finished 20th — it would only matter how each Chase driver finished among the others who were qualified.
“You should be racing (Chase drivers),” Gordon said. “Not those guys and all of the other competitors out there. I think you’ve earned that right.”
Gordon would maintain the rule that drivers who win get advanced to the next round — a reward for winning — and the elimination points.
Edwards set for final drive with Roush Fenway Racing
Sunday marks the end a relationship spanning over a decade for Carl Edwards and longtime team owner Jack Roush. Edwards, 35, is leaving Roush-Fenway Racing’s No. 99 car for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 in 2015.
“This has been such a great ride,” Edwards said. “I made a lot of great friends, and basically Jack has made a NASCAR career for me. I want to honor that by performing well.”
Edwards made his first NASCAR national series in the Truck Series in 2002 for Mike Mittler, but found full-time work with Roush’s truck team starting in 2003. He won the 2007 Nationwide Series championship driving for Roush and lost the 2011 Sprint Cup title on a tiebreaker after finishing even with Tony Stewart. Before Sunday’s race, Edwards will have tallied 669 starts for Roush and scored 67 total wins and 262 top-5 finishes.
Edwards isn’t the only driver facing a final green flag with a team this weekend. Trevor Bayne (moving to Roush Fenway Racing) will make his final start with Wood Brothers Racing and Marcos Ambrose (returning to native Australia and the V8 Supercars Championship) will drive for the last time in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 9.
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