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Hallman: NASCAR gets it right and wrong in 2018

November 25, 2018

The stock car racing season divided the sport’s fans into two camps. Was this the season in which NASCAR got things right once again? Or was this the season in which NASCAR just couldn’t get things right?

The clear answer to both: Yes.

The competition itself was about as good as it gets. No legitimate racing series is 100 percent thrillers, but NASCAR’s drivers gave their fans an impressive run of scintillating events — just what sponsors want for the millions they pour into the teams.

However, NASCAR and its officials managed to make enough missteps to draw attention away from the on-track success. It doesn’t take much to dampen the enthusiasm of this sport’s fans — as many empty seats and anemic TV ratings attest.

NASCAR deserves credit for some good moves. Let’s get right to one of the bad-then-finally-good things the sanctioning body managed — the timing of its final postrace inspections.

Inspections in any top racing series race are complex and complicated. Elton Sawyer, who was a star racer in Virginia years ago, runs the NASCAR inspection process with a even-handed toughness. Good for him.

But standard procedure for years has been to haul the winning auto and a few other cars from the track, wherever it is, back to the NASCAR Research & Development center for final scrutiny — engine teardowns and the like. The results of said scrutiny are not released until Tuesday or Wednesday.

Twice this year, the winner’s car — in both cases it was Kevin Harvick’s Ford — was found to be illegal. Slightly illegal, one might say, but illegal nonetheless. Harvick was not stripped of his victories, but his team was fined, team members were suspended, points were deducted.

Such penalties, doled out midweek, cast a pall over every victory lane celebration. Is this win legit? Are these guys cheating, too? Guess we’ll know in a few days.

You don’t get that kind of late whistle in Formula 1 or the IndyCar series. It’s a NASCAR specialty.

Asked why NASCAR can’t carry its R&D tools to the track and wrap up its inspection process immediately after the race, Sawyer pointed to the long hours put in prior to the race by NASCAR inspectors. They can use the opportunity to catch their breath and clear their minds before the final scrutiny, Sawyer said.

But after the season’s final race last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sawyer and his inspection team buckled down and got it done in a few hours. They looked hard at the Ford of winner and new champion Joey Logano. Engine, suspension, gearbox, aerodynamic elements — all in compliance, thank you very much.

The race result was official, the season complete. No need to hold your breath until Wednesday afternoon. The relief was apparent.

Let’s hope the lesson for NASCAR was apparent, too.

That’s the way inspections should be handled every race, not only for the finale.

Enough about my pet peeve. On to other examples of things NASCAR should do.

Develop a sense of timing.

One of the most exciting races of the year was NASCAR’s Cup Series debut on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “Roval” road course. Ryan Blaney shot through to win after Jimmie Johnson’s last-turn attempt to win proved unfortunate for him and leader Martin Truex Jr.

TV ratings were up for the race. Social media conversation was as positive as it ever gets for NASCAR. Fans were looking ahead to the rest of the playoffs, talking about the success of the switch to the road course.

And NASCAR chose that week to release its 2019 rules package — highly technical changes.

The racing world’s focus swiveled from the just-completed event to arcane speculation about which teams would benefit from the new rules and whether they would favor one manufacturer.

Next time NASCAR has an event like the inaugural Roval race, officials might want to let the positive buzz run its course.

Put the rules-package notice back on the shelf for another week or two. How hard is that?

Most important of all, the sport needs a clear vision of its future and its leadership.

In August, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France was stopped for running a stop sign and arrested for driving with double the allowed blood-alcohol maximum.

France took a leave of absence and issued an apology. He has not had a public presence as his case crawls through the court system. His uncle, Jim France, stepped into the leadership role. Jim France, whose hands-on approach to the sport is appreciated by NASCAR drivers, has been a very quiet presence at the track.

Is Jim France a permanent replacement? And is the France family ready to sell NASCAR? This spring, the company reportedly explored a possible sale of the sanctioning business. This month, NASCAR made an offer to buy the related International Speedway Corporation, the company that owns Daytona International Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway and 10 other tracks.

Is this a move to assemble a better package for a possible sale? Or is it a sign that with Jim France at the helm, the France family is in it for the long haul, consolidating its position in the sport?

Race teams and their multimillion-dollar sponsors need to know.

After a sputtering 2018, the sport is poised to put pedal to metal. If you’re going to take advantage of things you’ve done right, NASCAR, clear the track.

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