Drivers seek clarity on new rules
Following the controversial conclusion to last month’s Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR introduced a new rule – known as the 100 Percent Rule – that didn’t generate a ton of chatter in the weeks that immediately followed.
With Talladega Superspeedway on tap Sunday, folks are talking again.
At the heart of the discussion is how the rule – which states that competitors must give their best effort to achieve the best possible result in each race – applies to Sunday’s sixth round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Known for big packs and multi-car crashes that can literally turn a driver’s title hopes upside down in a split second, Talladega is the only Chase track where some drivers actually try to ride in the back – for a certain period of time – in an effort to avoid the infamous ‘Big Wreck.’
So, should competitors fear incurring a penalty for violating the 100 Percent Rule if they deliberately drop to the rear at some point during Sunday’s 188-lap affair?
“That question had come up at Chicago (Chicagoland Speedway) when we did our original meeting with the teams, and Mike (Helton, NASCAR President) answered it quite well,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com. “That’s just part of the strategy – teammates drafting with each other, teammates going to the back at certain times of the race. At Talladega that is one of the key strategies there.”
From driver Jeff Burton’s perspective, there is no ambiguity with how the rule applies to Talladega or Daytona – the other restrictor-plate track on the Cup schedule.
“This 100 Percent Rule has opened up a big can of worms, because people don’t know what NASCAR’s saying,” said Burton, a 20-year veteran of NASCAR’s top series. “What they’re saying is that you give 100 percent to make sure that you and your team get the best finish that you can get. … So, if I decide this weekend at Talladega that I’m going to ride around in the back because ultimately that gives me my best chance of winning or finishing as high as I think I can, then there’s no problem doing that. Since this rule came out, everybody has tried to get their microscopes out and create all these scenarios, but this rule is to prevent the extraordinary from happening.”
The extraordinary being a situation like the one that went down in the regular-season finale at Richmond, where Clint Bowyer deliberately spun in the closing laps, and Brian Vickers followed a team order to make an unnecessary pit stop – all in an effort to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase.
Burton says riding in the back at Talladega is completely different, however, because a driver doesn’t do this to help another driver at his own expense. Dropping to the rear is a strategy customarily used with the goal of avoiding the multi-car wrecks that are so common at the 2.66-mile, high-speed track.
Slugger Labbe, crew chief for Paul Menard, has no issue with drivers playing it safe.
“Well, they’re still racing,” Labbe said. “I guess they’re running 100 percent of their plan. There’s a difference if you start to race and you’ve got a plan and you execute that plan 100 percent – that’s one way to look at it. But if you don’t run 100 percent and do something that benefits somebody else, that’s another way to look at it.
“But the thing about it is they’ll run 100 percent when it’s time to, so there’s a lot of ways to read into that (rule), and I think the message of the 100 percent is well-understood. And I think NASCAR understands the 100 Percent Rule at Talladega and Daytona, as it applies.”
Pemberton says that if anyone is unclear on exactly how it applies this weekend, NASCAR will be more than willing to talk.
“People process things in many different ways, and I think everybody knows that we have one of the better open-door policies in all of sports at the (NASCAR) R&D Center and our office trailers at the track,” he said. “All of us are there week in and week out, and that was about five weeks ago that we had talked about 100 percent. There has been some questions about it from time to time, but I would hope that if anybody is a little vague on what that means, that they just come and talk to us and get some clarity on that.”
While there seems to be a decent understanding of how the 100 Percent Rule will apply at Talladega, at least one driver – spring Talladega race winner David Ragan – is unclear on how exactly NASCAR views the often-related issue of teams making deals.
It is not anusual at Talladega or Daytona for even rival teams to negotiate about their drivers drafting together for the mutual benefit of both. However, since the last restrictor-plate race, NASCAR has set new parameters on exactly what kind of deal-making it considers acceptable.
NASCAR placed both the No. 22 Penske Racing team of Joey Logano and the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team of David Gilliland on probation the rest of the year after the two teams were heard negotiating a deal at Richmond for Gilliland to let Logano – a Chase contender – pass him in the closing laps.
Gilliland is Ragan’s teammate.
“I do not understand when it’s OK to make deals,” Ragan said. “Maybe it’s OK to make deals if everyone’s making deals. Maybe it’s OK to make deals only at superspeedways but … that’s part of the deal where the more rules you create, the more rules you’re going to have to create on top of that to just govern them. So, I’m not a big fan of some of that. NASCAR will make things, I’m sure, pretty clear. Maybe Talladega will be a good drivers meeting to sit in.”
Burton, meanwhile, says he feels comfortable making deals with drivers from other teams at Talladega, but believes the deal-making line would be crossed if a driver ever purposefully let a teammate or another driver win.
“If it’s so clear that that’s what happened, I think, yes, you would risk being penalized,” he said. “If you intentionally don’t win the race and say, ‘I’m not going to win the race so somebody else can,’ yes, I think that would be considered to be something you shouldn’t do. And if somebody intentionally tried to not to win a race to help somebody else win a race, I don’t think that’s the essence of what NASCAR’s about.”