NASCAR Cup Series

Racing product, driver qualifications among major questions after O’Reilly 500

6 Mins read
Credit: Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Among NASCAR Cup Series fans, Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway can probably be described as the following: boring race, great finish.

Although the O’Reilly 500’s final stage was chaotic with numerous wrecks to set up an overtime finish that ended with Austin Dillon‘s first win since 2018, social media was not happy with the race’s first two segments. A similar sentiment was shared during last Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, which was criticised by fans for its poor product until the final restart when Cole Custer pulled off a dramatic pass to win his first race.

Questions during and immediately after the event revolved around the on-track product and whether NASCAR should be more restrictive in allowing drivers compete at the Cup level.

Poor racing product?

Much of the race’s criticism focused on the race’s 501-mile length, the usefulness of the PJ1 traction compound, Texas Motor Speedway’s reconfiguration in 2017, and a more general disapproval of the rules package used throughout the 2020 season.

Like its sister tracks Charlotte Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway is a D-shaped, 1.5-mile oval. All three circuits host Cup dates with races of at least 500 miles (with Charlotte hosting the 600-mile Coca-Cola 600), but Texas is the only one with multiple such races; the second race, the AAA Texas 500, is a playoff round.

The three tracks, along with other similar 1.5-mile circuits (typically lumped together under the “cookie cutter” label), have seen unimpressive races in recent years, a concern that NASCAR attempted to resolve with a package that emphasised high downforce and low horsepower. This setup has been scrutinised by many since its introduction, with many noting it has resulted in Cup cars being slower than their Xfinity Series counterparts as it sacrifices speed for closer racing.

“Good thing @NASCAR decided to put huge spoilers on those race cars and take away all the horsepower to make the racing better and closer on the track,” tweeted former NASCAR owner/driver Chad Finley. “Paying huge dividends lately.”

During the race, ESPN writer Ryan McGee tweeted only three races on the Cup schedule should be 500 miles or more: the Coca-Cola 600, the Daytona 500, and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The three races are among the most iconic on the NASCAR schedule, with many dubbing them the Crown Jewel races. The 2020 Cup schedule prior to its shuffling by COVID-19 featured eight races with such a distance.

Hall of Fame driver Mark Martin voiced his doubts about the PJ1, tweeting “it works good under optimum conditions but it is so temperamental to heat, dirt and marbles. I love watching guys run up by the wall too and that doesn’t seem to happen much when it’s used.” PJ1 provides grip with the hope of creating an additional racing groove, but it has seen more liberal usage in recent times to mixed results.

Ex-NASCAR racer Justin Marks centred on 1.5-mile tracks and NASCAR’s over-reliance on aerodynamics in a three-tweet series. However, he also added his curiosity with the Next Gen car, scheduled to début in 2022.

“1) Gotta remember that when all these new 1.5’s were built, no one could’ve possibly seen what the trajectory of engineering and technology would be in the next 2+ decades in the sport. Its been an enemy of entertainment value at high speed venues,” he began. The cookie cutter track boom began in the 1990s as a way to attract both NASCAR and IndyCar Series racing, while the configuration provides sight lines regardless of where one sits.

“2) @NASCAR is trying all the time to create an environment of competition and I think doing a very commendable job. Short tracks and Road Courses are great racing because they use a little less of the technology”, he continued. Short track and road course races have been commonly seen as fan favourites.

“3) Which is why I’m a big fan of the NextGen concept for 2022. This concept is going to put the competition back in the hands of the people. Wanna win? Drive harder, strategize better, pit faster. We don’t want CAD and Sim dictating race outcomes.”

Although he clarified that he believes “the utilization of technology is perfect for automobile racing”, Marks added that “NASCAR as a business has seen that utilization lead to decrease in interest.”

Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Unqualified Cup drivers?

Another hot-button topic focused on a lap 306 wreck involving Quin Houff, Matt DiBenedetto, and Christopher Bell.

Houff, a rookie who has never run a full schedule in NASCAR’s Xfinity or Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series prior to 2020, attempted to pit while running on the middle groove, seemingly unaware of Bell’s car on his inside. The two made contact, with Houff then colliding with DiBenedetto to send the former into the turn four wall. Houff would finish thirty-fourth, while DiBenedetto salvaged the incident to finish seventeenth. Bell ended his day in twenty-first.

DiBenedetto eventually called out Houff on Twitter, saying “This guy having zero awareness ruined our day. Had a very fast car at the end. Lovely”.

“We were trying to get to pit road and I didn’t get called off in time and the guys that committed under me were already there and that’s my fault,” Houff explained. “I had a spotter mirror that we use in the window on the left side of the car and it had fallen off so I couldn’t see out of that.”

Facing a wave of criticism, Houff followed up by tweeting a photo of the broken mirror.

Bob Leavine, who owns Bell’s Leavine Family Racing team, noted in a tweet that StarCom’s “spotter came down to ours and said the crew chief told him to pit. Well you just can’t do a left turn from the middle of the track, lol.”

Houff’s inexperience and qualifications to race at the top level have been in question even before the 2020 season began, with some expressing confusion at his StarCom Racing team’s decision to replace Landon Cassill with him. Cassill, who has 324 career Cup starts since 2010, ran the full 2019 schedule with the team, during which he only suffered two retirements for crash-related reasons.

The rookie is currently thirty-fourth in points, the worst of all full-time drivers, with a beat finish of twenty-third. Kyle Larson, who lost his ride during the spring after just four races and remains suspended by NASCAR, is still ahead of Houff by 33 points.

Brad Keselowski was asked about the matter in a post-race interview, during which he suggested a “graduation” programme in which drivers work their way up the NASCAR ladder but can be ejected if they are involved in too many incidents. Such a concept is prevalent in other forms of motorsport, including FIA-sanctioned series and the sanctioning body’s licence system.

“I think there are two ways to look at it,” he began. “There’s the entertainment way to look at it and say that probably created a more entertaining finish, so if you like chaos, then that was good. I think on the other side of that there’s the, ‘Hey, I’m a professional race car driver that’s worked my entire career to get here. Had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it and would like to think that those efforts have created a spot for me in this series to be joined with peers of similar talent levels.’ I have nothing personal against anyone that has an issue like that because they do happen from time to time, but there are certainly a handful of drivers that kindly I wonder exactly how they got to this level.”

The 2012 champion partly attributed the effects of unqualified drivers to the aforementioned package, which some have noted made the cars easier to drive.

“Part of it plays into all the rules. When you’ve got this rules package with cars that are super-easy to drive by themselves, it’s very hard for NASCAR, I think, to be able to tell who’s got it and who doesn’t. So it kind of puts them in a box until you actually get in a race.

“But one thing I would like to see, and I think I’ve been pretty consistent with this, is I would like to see drivers be able to graduate into this level and equally I’d like to see them be able to be removed from this level when they have repeated issues. I can’t speak enough to the gentleman that had that issue today, but I have seen in the past where drivers that have had this issue multiple times somehow are still here, where I think they should effectively be placed in a lower series or asked to go back to a more minor league level to prove their salt.

“But that’s ultimately not my decision to make. It’s what I would like to see, but it’s not my decision to make and until it is, I guess I should probably just shut up, but I certainly think there’s some merit to it.”

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