ADVISORY: Welcome to The Traffic Cop, an "advice" column about motor sports, mainly NASCAR. If you would like to waive your right to remain silent on racing's hottest or not-so-hot-button subjects, email me here. To fire up the engine for our first installment, we now present some examples of how we'll roll throughout the season.
The names of the readers this week are obviously fictitious, but the questions are serious and rated on a scale of most pressing (red light) to least (green). Your future submissions may be edited for clarity or brevity or simply because we've got nothing better to do.
I am a cable television personality of some renown. Recently, I went on the air and offered an opinion about NASCAR’s decision to indefinitely suspend Kurt Busch on the eve of the Daytona 500 after a Delaware family court commissioner said that the former Sprint Cup champion probably committed an act of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, the defense contractor Patricia Driscoll. I framed my opinion in black-and-white terms, literally.
Some of what I said: “Where’s the public outcry? Where’s the story circulating for days upon days upon days at a time? …
“It’s the level of fervor that comes into play when one of these black athletes are put out there front and center for alleged transgressions. I think it should be the same across the board and there should be a healthy uproar no matter what, and I just didn’t get the sense that this existed here with Kurt Busch.
“It seems to be highlighted when black folks get themselves in trouble, but when other people get themselves in trouble, we don’t hear the same kind of noise. Then black folks who have never committed any kind of domestic violence whatsoever get painted with a negative brush because of how they sound.”
Was this an unwise course?
—Spielin A. Spin
That depends, Spielin. Where are you on the television personality spectrum? Are you more of an explainer or an entertainer? If it's the latter, it might be hard for your audience to take your argument seriously—even if it has merit. (We’ll get to that bit later.) While you are right to point out that there wasn’t a steady drumbeat of coverage on L’Affaire Busch before the commissioner’s decision—well, not much beyond this web site at least—you should also realize that NASCAR, for all of its major league pretensions, is still a niche sport that the commentariat does not drop in on nearly as frequently as it does tennis or golf or hockey—sports that can reasonably expect to draw column inches in an outlet as far afield as The New Yorker. (Jeremy Stahl made this point at Slate.)
Really, the only time the commentariat engages with it motorsports at all is during times of controversy like Busch’s domestic violence dispute or times of crisis like the accident that Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, was involved in on Saturday. (We’ll get to that later, too.) At those times, NASCAR is gawked upon and rubbernecked the way the WNBA is whenever a player dunks, but the gapers tend to clear out within a couple of days. Certainly, controversy doesn’t disappear as quickly in football, basketball or baseball. (Though, keep in mind: controversies will vanish just as quickly in those sports too if there is any disseminated video or photographic evidence for us to feign outrage about.) But to single out a person's race as the reason for this phenomenon is to willfully ignore the fact that football, basketball and baseball are the most popular sports in this country bar none.
So why not make a policy argument instead? The NBA and NFL both have language in their rulebooks that specifically address the issue of domestic violence; Major League baseball hopes to amend its policy before Opening Day. Meanwhile, the NHL and NASCAR held off on passing any domestic violence-related amendments, believing that the powers vested in them by their personal code of conduct provide enough latitude to take action on these issues.
Why? Because, as one pro sports league official explained the logic to the Traffic Cop, they think it would open Pandora’s Box if they did more. They’d have to outline policies “for murder, for kidnapping ... when a sports league has these things, it's because it's rampant.” Or, at least, more rampant than, say, betting on the competition. Never mind if one out of three woman is likely to experience domestic violence in their lifetime (according to the CDC), a population far greater than that of the athletes who bet on their sport.
“You don’t spell [the DV policy] out,” the official continued, “unless you have a public relations problem.”
Go here first, Spielin, and maybe, just maybe you can go there.
I have in my possession tickets to this weekend’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Kyle Busch’s crash into a concrete infield wall at last week’s Xfinity race in Daytona has given me pause about potentially witnessing a similar scare. What, if any precautions is the Atlanta track taking to keep drivers safe?
—Real Gearhead of Atlanta
We should start by saying that Daytona officials could not have handled that accident better. First responders converged on Kyle within seconds, extricated him from the car and put him in an ambulance bound for Halifax Health Medical Center, where he had surgery on his broken right leg. On Tuesday, he flew back home to the Charlotte area and had surgery on his broken left foot the next day. There’s no clear timetable for his return. But the fact that a return is even possible—whether it comes at the end of this season or the beginning of the next—is a credit to how seriously the issue of safety is taken in this sport.
Like Daytona, which reinforced the impact zone and other concrete areas with tire packs and pledged to cover every inch of the track (aside from its “hottest” areas) with SAFER barriers, Atlanta is augmenting its safety standards, too. Near Turn One, the protective wall at the exit of pit road will be extended; near Turn Four, a tire barrier will be added along the inside of wall. The installations, AMS said, will add 130 linear feet of added protection for this weekend’s races. Does that set your jangled nerves at ease?
I was recently tapped to replace a Sprint Cup driver on a top team. How should I reasonably be expected to perform?
—Regan (or is it Ragan?)
Mike Forde, NASCAR’s resident statsmeister (aka Loop Dogg), was kind enough to pass along a few names for context. To wit:
• Kevin Harvick: The reigning Cup champion famously replaced Dale Earnhardt Sr. after the Intimidator’s fatal 2001 crash at Daytona. Harvick won two races and had 16 top-10 finishes in 35 races that season.
• Brad Keselowski: The 2012 Cup champion made one of his own earliest career breaks in the truck series in ’07, landing on the pole and finishing 16th while starting in relief of the suspended Ted Musgrave. The performance landed him an Xfinity (then-Nationwide) ride with JR Motorsports and, well, you know the rest.
• Jamie McMurray: Already signed to drive for Ganassi in 2003, the '10 Daytona 500 titlist started in Cup the previous year as an injury fill-in for Sterling Marlin, scoring a win and a top-10 in six races.
• Robby Gordon: Before he was the king of The Double attempt, he replaced the injured Mike Skinner in ’01 and won three races, including two on road courses. The next year, Gordon started his own team.
• Dale Jarrett: The man still never seems more than a text message away, and with good reason. After subbing for the injured Neil Bonnett in ’91 and winning one race, at Michigan, Jarrett won the first of three Daytona 500s the following year. In '99, he won the series championship.
• Jerry Nadeau: After Ernie Irvan suffered a career-ending head injury in an Xfinity (then-Busch) race in ’99, MB2 Motorsports called on Nadeau to drive the last 12 races. He didn’t post a top-10, but he did gain valuable seat time that helped him in his next job—at Hendrick Motorsports.
• Marvin Panch: The 17-time winner was the Manu Ginobili of NASCAR’s formative era. The racers he’s subbed for could fill a Hall of Fame. One of them, Richard Petty, even took over for Panch in the 1966 World 600 (back when pitcher-style substitution practices were legit, after his own car dropped out of traffic with engine trouble) late in the race and drove on to victory. (Panch was credited with the win, his last.) That gives you an idea of just how strong a reliever he was.
• Regan Smith: Before drawing emergency assignments at Stewart-Haas—which he has handled fairly well (after placing 37th at Watkins Glen in ’13 because of engine troubles, he finished 16th at Daytona)—Smith scored a top-10 in two relief appearances for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in '12.
• Kenny Wallace: The colorful broadcaster is also cool in a jam. In '94, he scored a top-10 at Martinsville while subbing for the injured Irvan. In 2001, Wallace finished second at Rockingham (after leading 101 laps) sitting in for the injured Steve Park.
• Darrell Waltrip: The three-time Cup champion took rookie Steve Park's seat—at age 51—in 1998 and posted one top-five and two top-10s in 13 starts. Two years later, Waltrip retired.
• Ted Musgrave: After Kenny Irwin’s sudden, violent on-track death at age 30 in 2000, Musgrave became the next man up at Ganassi. Though he struggled in that role, posting no top-10s in 12 events, he eventually found his groove in the truck series, winning the championship in ’05.
Loop Dogg was quick to caution against considering the above as a “definitive” list. If there’s anyone you feel deserves a shout-out, let the Traffic Cop know in the comments section. Right off the rip, Jeff Burton (a recently retired Cup winner who made two relief starts for Michael Waltrip Racing and two more for Stewart-Haas) is probably a guy who deserves to be in that conversation.
I am the kind of sports fan who is a slave to the future. I simply cannot live in the "now." After watching Joey Logano win the Daytona 500, I wonder: How does this project for the rest of his season? Or, to ask my question another way, does this mean he’ll win it all?
—Cut to the Chase
Daytona, while a great race, is not the best predictor of future series champions. Some of that has to do with the fact that it is one of four restrictor plate races on a 36-date schedule. And some of that has to do with the fact that throughout the course of that schedule, teams will be forced to reckon with a bevy of mechanical rules changes that were not in effect for Sunday’s race.
But that doesn’t mean that winning Daytona can’t do anything for a racer. Hall of Famer Bill Elliott thinks its effect is mostly psychological. “It seems like your year revolves around how things go through this whole week,” he told Traffic Cop. “It kinda sets the momentum for the year.” And that psychic boost can be downright dangerous in a special racer.
Since Awesome Bill last win at Daytona, in 1985, only two winners have finished the season in the pole position in the standings: Jeff Gordon (in 1997) and Jimmie Johnson (in 2006 and ’13). Before ’85, only Richard Petty recurred as a consistent wire-to-wire winner (in ’64, ’71, ’74 and ’79.)
How much stock does Logano take in all this? “It's definitely not a bad thing that we won tonight,” he told Traffic Cop last Sunday. “It doesn't mean we're not gonna win the championship. It doesn't really ... we've got a long ways to go in the season. We've got a completely different package that we're racing [at Atlanta]. So it doesn't really show what cars have the most speed consistently throughout the year yet, and I think that's why you may see that. But when guys like Jimmie win, or Jeff win, you know they're gonna be good throughout the rest of the year.”
All the same, keep an eye on Logano. He could make this a trend worth watching.
● Danica Patrick’s team received a written warning after last Sunday’s race for racing with an unapproved left-side driver heat shield—likely, an unintended consequence of having to compete with a backup car. (She finished 21st.) Interestingly, her violation falls under the same section of the rule book as Busch’s:
Section 12-1: “actions detrimental to stock car racing.”
● Bill Maher did a bit on his HBO show last Friday comparing the Oscars swag bag to the Daytona 500 swag bucket. Proceed only if you have a healthy sense of humor.
● The New Yorker, too, had jokes for NASCAR. In their Feb. 23 issue, they ran a Shouts & Murmurs column called “I’m an Assassin, and I’m in Love.” A choice line: “I’m just a girl with a big heart and a bodysuit that makes me undetectable by radar. I’m sensitive, OK?”
● Genuine moments aren’t easily found at a news conference. Perhaps that’s why the foot-in-mouth moment that Logano produced while speaking to the media after winning his first Daytona 500 sticks out. Logano, who married longtime girlfriend Brittany Baca during the off-season, notably lost his wedding ring soon after saying "I do." When asked, essentially, what he was going to do to keep the new 500 championship ring he was sporting safe, his lead-foot stepped right in it:
Logano: "This one is harder to replace, I think. Well, I take that back. I screwed up, didn't I (laughter)?"
Crew chief Todd Gordon: (smiles) "Insert foot here."
Logano: "What I meant to say, she's still here with me, it's just a symbol. She would be impossible to replace. That's how you redeem yourself (smiles). I'm going to stop. I feel like I came out neutral on that one."
Phew, that was a close one.
Enjoy Sunday's race, people!
PLACEAtlanta Motor Speedway1.5 mile oval
TIME AND TV1 p.m. ESTFOX
MOST RECENT WINNERKasey KahneAug. 31, 2014
WATCH FORJeff GordonThe five-time winner will be running his last race on the track where debuted in the Cup series 22 years ago.
OF NOTEJoey Logano will be trying to open the season on a two-race win streak; NASCAR will be enforcing its amended aerodynamic and performance standards.
— Andrew Lawrence/Traffic Cop illustration by Noah Ginex