Tryin' to 'splain NASCAR to my friend

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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.

Well, folks, the Charlotte weekend is over. That was interesting. What a bizarre Busch race on Friday the 13th! All kinds of weird things happened, and they really created this article. This weekend, a friend called me and asked, "Would you mind 'splainin' to me what went on in Charlotte?" "Sure," I said. "What's your question?"

Freaky Friday

"On Friday night, how could the No. 42 car have been ahead of the No. 60 car when the 42 made a pit stop and the 60 didn't?" "Well, they've got these flashing light things that drivers are supposed to watch. Maybe Casey Mears wasn't watching the flashing light thing leaving the pit, and he took liberties with the rule that requires drivers to stay below the yellow line until he got to the back straightaway. He must have blended in right in front of the leader. NASCAR has these line things around the race track for computerized scoring, and those line things are hidden in the track. You don't really know where they are, and they pick up these transponder things on the back of the car. It helps them figure out how to line up the cars. Apparently, there was some confusion with the light thing flashing and the lines hidden in the track that tell them what to do." So that's just a really simple thing to explain, and my friend was totally overwhelmed with my knowledge of the sport. "Then, of course," I said, "there's the lucky dog." "Lucky dog? What's that?"

Charlotte photos
PHOTOS: Cup race

PHOTOS: Busch race

"Well, NASCAR doesn't call it that. They call it 'the beneficiary,' which is kind of freaky to me. But the beneficiary was Matt Kenseth, and he got this thing they do — this free pass thing. If you're the first car a lap down, then you get that lap back, and you're back on the lead lap. You've got a second chance. So Kenseth got it with just 13 or 14 laps to go, which meant he had to start at the tail-end of the longest line." My friend asked, "Well, which line is that?" "Well, that's the line with the most cars in it. There were only seven or so cars on the lead lap so that meant he had to line up behind the cars on the inside even though he was on the lead lap because he got that free pass/beneficiary thing. But if it's inside of 10 laps to go, then there is no free pass or beneficiary so no one gets it. There weren't 10 laps to go when he got it, but then they rode around because the things hidden in the track were providing bad information. While they were dealing with the confusion, the race went under 10 laps so the lead cars were in a line by themselves, but Kenseth got the free pass before he got inside of 10 laps so he had to start at the end of the longest line. That's how that all worked out." Anybody who follows racing knows this stuff. I was trying to explain it to my friend so he would see how simple NASCAR is and how it all works. In order to understand all of the things that happened on Friday night, my friend watched the Nextel Cup race play out on Saturday night.

Saturday skull session

Of course, I forgot to tell him that Saturday night's race might be just as bizarre as Friday's because the tires were too hard, and the track was cold. With hard tires and a cold track, there's not a lot of grip, particularly on a short run or on a restart. Early in the race, my friend called and asked, "What the heck is going on? It seems like these guys are crashing on every restart." "Well, you've got to understand something," I said. "They've got the small fuel cell. They have a fuel cell that used to be 12 gallons, but after a few races, it got to be 13 gallons. Now, it's up to 13 1/2 and maybe even 14 gallons. They started using a small fuel cell to keep the tires from blowing out." My friend asked, "Well if the tires are too hard, why would they blow out?" "Well, they won't," I said. "But they had these fuel cells, and they needed to use them so they just stuck with them to make racing more interesting. It seems like the pit stops are the most exciting part of the races these days. People are running over each other in the pits. Crew members are getting knocked down. People are rolling tires out in the grass, leaving lug nuts loose and taking equipment out of their pit boxes, like a gas can or a wrench or something. Sometimes, there's a small fire, maybe a gas fire. You never know what's going to happen in the pits. Obviously, you want to capitalize on that excitement by pitting as many time as you possibly can. You can get caught speeding coming in. You've got a commitment line, another one of those lines around the track. You can sort of see this line, but you can't really see it because it's just marked by a cone."

Chase for the Cup photos
Race 5: Charlotte

Race 4: Talladega

Race 3: Kansas

Race 2: Dover

Race 1: New Hampshire

PHOTOS: Chasers on Letterman

I think my friend got it so I continued, "While you've got to be careful not to speed coming in, you've also got to see that light flashing. If that whirlybird thing isn't flashing green, and you pit before it turns green, then you're going to get penalized so you've got to watch the line and the light. You've got to get committed before you get to the line that's marked by that cone, and then you can make a pit stop." As I was trying to explain all of these things to my friend, I think he was getting it because there were obviously a lot of pit stops. But he wanted to know about a debris caution. He asked, "If they've got all of these 'built-in cautions' — so to speak — what's a debris caution?" That was pretty hard to explain because he couldn't ever see the debris. I didn't want to confuse him so I tried to explain it the best way that I could. I said, "When you've got debris on the track, and a caution comes out, the first thing that happens is NASCAR freezes the field." He went over the top with that one, asking: "Freeze the field? Does that mean everybody just stops where they are?" "Well, not exactly, but sort of," I said. "They stop racing and stay right where they are. They've got those hidden lines in the track. If you don't slow down, or you pass somebody when you're not supposed, officials see it because they've got all of that sophisticated technology to make sure it doesn't happen. Then, of course, once you freeze the field, you've got to ride around behind the pace car until the pits are open. That's that green-light thing, commitment line and everything that I mentioned earlier. When the pits open, everyone on the lead lap can pit, except for the beneficiary, or lucky dog driver. He can't pit until the next time around, and then he gets back on the lead lap. "You've got to be careful when you come in the pits because you can pit outside your pit box. That's that little square for the cars. If you pit outside of it, it's a penalty. I already talked about taking equipment out of the box, and you can't have too many men over the wall. All told on pit road, you've got seven crew members for each team, which is 301 people, and you've got one or two NASCAR inspectors in each pit or about 50 total. With so many people, it can get pretty confusing. But you've got to be sure to get all of your lug nuts on tight. An official is watching your crew to make sure you don't do anything wrong because we don't have surveillance cameras just yet." But my friend wanted to know, "What's that little camera hanging over each pit box?" I said, "Well, I know you probably think that's some sort of surveillance camera, but it's really not. The teams record their pit stops so they can learn from their mistakes. Or if NASCAR says they did something wrong, they've got video proof that they did or didn't do it. It's not surveillance; it's just for the teams." Then I explained to my friend about leaving the pits. "You've got a speed limit of 55 mph so you can't speed." He wanted to know where the speedometer is. "Well, we don't really have one," I said. "But we've got a tachometer, and within five mph, you guess about what rpm you need to be running and try not to exceed it or risk getting caught speeding. You've got to be careful because there are more hidden lines on pit road so you don't want to exceed the speed limit. Then, as I mentioned after the Busch race, you've got to stay below the yellow line until you get to the back straightaway. That's another little rule that you can't violate." Oh, by the way, they had to ride around a few extra laps and close the track, which was a little bit confusing to my friend. He saw those big blower things out there and wondered what was going on. I said, "Well, they're cleaning the track. Sometimes it gets a little dirty, and they like to clean it up for the guys. Keep it nice and sanitary. Don't want to get debris, dirt and stuff all over the car. Ha, ha! That's a joke." After blowing the track and riding around for a while, NASCAR finally gave the teams the "one to go" signal. With one to go, the cars go double-file. My friend couldn't quite understand why the fast cars were on the outside and the lapped cars were on the inside. I just told him that's the way we've always done it. It's served us well through the years, and it's one of the few things we haven't changed so we're just going to leave that alone. "With one to go, everybody is in his proper position," I said. "The green flag waves as the cars approach the restart line, which isn't really a line. It's sort of a place. It's hard to explain because we've got all of these lines, lights and stuff, but you just need to be in the vicinity of this line. You can't go too soon. If you do, you get penalized. You can't go too late. If you do, you get penalized." I think he had a handle on it, but I'm not sure. "When the green comes out, you've got to be really careful because you can only pass to the right," I continued. "If somebody in front of you isn't taking off like he should — for example he spins the tires or misses a gear — you've got to hit him. You can't go around him because you've got to pass to the right, and he's protecting the right. Obviously, you can't go to the left because that's illegal so there can be problems on a restart." My friend didn't understand the restart rule, but he just accepted that that's the way we do it. As I was trying to keep all of this stuff straight and get my friend up to speed about how a race is run, some safety trucks were on the back straightaway when the green flag came out on a restart. He thought that was a little dangerous and wanted to know why the drivers were going so fast when trucks were still out on the track. I said, "Well, apparently some of those lines, lights and officials overlooked the trucks sitting on the back straightaway. It hardly ever happens. As a matter of fact, it never does happen. But that was one of those things that was an accident." So I told him that occasionally there's a miscommunication between the teams and NASCAR, but they corrected it before anything serious happened. It really bothered my friend that there was a foul-up of that magnitude with all the technology, officials and everything watching the race. I told him that they have a "good hands" award every week, and the person that pushes the button to turn on the green light for the restart probably didn't win it this week.

Ask DW

By the end of the race, my friend was pretty confident that he had a good understanding about how a race was run and why it would take so long, some 3 1/2 to 4 hours. At about 11:30 p.m., we finally turned off our televisions, and he said something that I had known all along. "You know DW, drivers are really smart. I never realized all the things you had to keep up with." I told him, "Yeah, it's a lot for the drivers to keep up with, but obviously there's a lot for other people to keep up with as well." Week in and week out, it'sso obvious to me that the more rules you have and the more things you try to control, the more complicated racing becomes and the harder it is to interpret. Ultimately, it becomes less interesting to watch. NASCAR tries to control everything with too many rules, and it creates a lot of complications.

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears

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