NASCAR

Where’s all the drama gone? I’ll tell ya

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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You know, after Sunday’s race in Phoenix and all the pushing and shoving and wrasslin’ in the garage and drivers retaliating against each other, it was all so reminiscent of a sport that I used to be a part of – a sport that was full of unexpected things happening all the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t about the fights – I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about how back in the day we had dramatic situations to deal with almost every single week.

You can’t orchestrate a race. I think you can over-officiate a race, and I think we are a bit guilty of that. I’m not saying that NASCAR isn’t better today than it was back in my day, the sport has learned from its mistakes like teams and drivers have done, but there’s some things officials have done that have taken away the drama of the sport.

Let me give you a few for instances:

Freeze the field: Let me ask you something, you’re a race fan, I’m a race fan, what’s exciting about “freezing the field?” Do you want to see the field frozen? No! I don’t want to see the field frozen, I want to see emotion man! I want to see them moving! I want to see something happening!

There’s nothing exciting about freezing the field, but that’s what happens now when a caution flag comes out.

Racing back on a yellow: Back in the day, not so long ago, you had to race your way back to the start/finish line when the yellow flag came out. In racing, ever since I’ve been around, the start/finish line is king. That’s where everything starts, that’s where everything ends, that’s where everything happens. So when you start putting artificial start/finish lines all the way around the track so you can freeze the field when the caution comes out ... well, it just doesn’t work for me. It never has.

If you’re going to put these lines around the track, how about actually painting them on the track? Make them so I can see them so that when you tell me that you froze the field, I can see exactly where I am and know if I beat a guy or didn’t. That way I can look at it and say “You’re right, I got beat to the line.” But NASCAR doesn’t do that – it just kinda hides them in the track and uses the transponders on the cars and looks at the computer screens to decide where people are when it freezes the field so there’s not a whole lot you can argue about – you’re at the mercy of whatever the transponder tells you.

I’m not too happy about all that.

And not racing back to the start/finish line when the caution comes out. Now I know, timeout, you’re going to say that it’s dangerous to do that. Really? It’s dangerous? Oh my gosh, let’s see if we can eliminate ALL the dangers. Let’s see if we can make this squeaky clean and as safe and easy as we can.

Folks, let me tell you, back in the day sometimes the most dramatic part of the race was the race to the stand when the caution came out. You’re a lap down because you had an unscheduled stop or some sort of problem – do you know how hard people drove to get that lap back, especially when you had to beat the leader when the caution came out? Do you know how many chances people took to get back on the lead lap?

Boy, I can remember being a lap down and racing the leader as hard as I could hoping that caution came out because when it did I’d feel like I won the race if I beat the leader and earned my lap back. It was a turning point in so many races. Do we do that anymore? Nuh uh. We freeze the field, figure out who the “lucky dog” is, and then we go all over again.

Lucky dog: Now we got this lucky dog thing, but thinking back to the guys I raced with – if you had told them they were going to be the “lucky dog,” they would not have been real happy about that. They would’ve said “I don’t want no wave around, and I don’t want to be a lucky dog. I want to race my way back the hard way. I want to do it the right way.”

Wave around: Back in the day, if you said something about a “wave around” it meant one driver pointed to another driver and waved his finger around in the air as if to tell him “You’re getting ready to go for a wave around ... you’re going to go for a ride as I spin your butt out.” But now, it means everybody who’s at the tail end of a lap but is in front of the leader after pit stops during a caution gets to come all the way around and restart the race just like they were never a lap behind.

So now, when people say “Oh, we have more cars on the lead lap at the end of races than there’s ever been before,” it’s because NASCAR makes it easy. You can get a few laps down, but you get the lucky dog and take a few wave arounds and it’s like you never had any problems – you just have to be at the right place at the right time.

The lucky dog and the wave around are the only ways you can get your lap back nowadays because NASCAR freezes the field when the caution comes out. And I understand why it does that – but it’s just not very exciting.

Now that’s not to say the way the way NASCAR does it now isn’t right or wrong, but back in the day it was more exciting – and that’s what we need, more excitement

About the Yellow-line Rule at Daytona and Talladega: Back in the day, “out of bounds” was the grass in the infield. You went where they weren’t – on the track, on the apron, wherever.

Sure, there were times when you could say, “Wow, that was treacherous.” But it was exciting! It was racing!

Just think about it. At Daytona and Talladega you can’t go below the yellow line, but you can go to Phoenix and run into the infield going down the back straightaway and that’s perfectly legal. At the mile-and-a-half tracks, you can drop down to the apron down the front straightaway and it’s perfectly legal. If it’s good for one track, it should be good for all of them.

Pit road speed: Another thing from back in the day, there was no pit road speed.

OK, here we go again, “Whoa, but no pit road speed is dangerous DW.” Listen, these guys run into each other on pit road today with the speed limits we have.

You talk about wanting a thrill, watch a guy come off the corner at Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte or anywhere and turn into pit road running 180-plus mph, then whoa her up and slide into the pit box, get work done, then get out of there. That’s some drama right there folks, and that’s what we used to do.

Restarts: Going back to earlier when I was talking about wave arounds and lucky dogs, the restarts have become so convoluted nowadays – it’s almost as convoluted as swapping out owner points.

It used to be so simple – before the double-file restarts, the leader restarts the race and you couldn’t pass to the right. The guy on the inside of the leader was a lap down, he couldn’t restart ahead of the leader – it was that simple.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of double-file restarts. But it’s turned things so convoluted with all the things you have to do to restart the race. Now you’ve got a restart box and the leader has to go before this point on the track but not before that point. You’ve got this area where you have to go, and if you don’t as the leader then the flagman restarts the race – but you still can’t beat the leader to the line. You’ve got lines on the wall, you’ve got lines on the track, you’ve got a box, you’ve got to make sure you don’t beat the leader, if you go too soon you’ll get black flagged ...

It’s a mess. It’s just a mess. Let’s make it simple – two guys on the front row lead the field, they come down and the starter restarts the race. Let the flagman do it, that’s what we always did before. You’d sit there holding your breath waiting, watching that flagman holding the flag behind his back and then when he started to move you went. That’s the way it used to be and that’s when it was exciting.

Now, again, I’m a fan of double-file restarts. But we’ve made it a bit too complicated.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup: Then of course there’s things that have changed the sport a lot like the Chase. Ten races for 12 guys to decide the champion.

To me, the Chase is OK. If you want to do it that way it’s all right. But to me the best part of the Chase is the last race before it begins at Richmond and then the finale at Homestead. In those races, there’s things to be gained and lost. I like the introduction of the wild cards – that’s a good thing and adds to the drama in the last race of the regular season.

But drama – it’s not any one of these things that necessarily has taken the drama away from the sport. A little drama here, a little drama there – it’s the sum of all the parts that robs some of these races at some of these tracks of some really dramatic racing. We’ve had exciting finishes because of the combination of double-file restarts, late cautions, fuel mileage and all those things. But some of these things we’ve eliminated during the race have taken away a lot of the drama I think.

That’s just my opinion. NASCAR may say “DW, we don’t agree with that,” and that’s its opinion. But this is how I feel about things right now.

Different time, different era, different circumstances, I understand all that. But some of these things we’ve eliminated to make racing safe and easier has also drained the sport of a lot of its excitement and drama.

I’m not knocking NASCAR, it has made these cars and tracks the safest they’ve ever been, these drivers are more protected than they’ve ever been ... we ALL want that, we don’t want to see anybody get hurt. But we have gone so far to be sure nobody gets hurt and nothing bad happens that we’ve taken a lot of drama out of the racing. And me, being an old guy and being a fan for my whole life, I kinda enjoyed the unpredictability and the drama that unfolded every week.

So, I guess you can say that this is a bit of a rant on my part, but after watching the race Sunday and seeing how people reacted to that, I kept thinking “Yep, you know, that’s not all that different from how it was back when I was racing.”

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