Ryan: Disband the Drivers Council? Here’s why the timing seems right
BROOKLYN, Mich. – The new boss from the old guard, a central figure in one of the season’s biggest stories, was there.
The proposed 2019 rules, a persistent flashpoint for stoking controversy and debate this year, were on the agenda.
The forum was set for an open dialogue about the myriad challenges facing NASCAR and how to address them.
But when the 10 members of the Drivers Council met at Michigan International Speedway last Friday, there was an extremely notable absence.
After winning Sunday at the 2-mile oval, Kevin Harvick copped to watching football and playing video games with his son, Keelan, two nights earlier while critical discussions on instrumental issues were taking place a few hundred yards away.
“I had no interest,” said Harvick, who attributed it to there being “so many politics and things happening” in NASCAR now.
Here’s a weighty topic that maybe would pique his interest.
Should the Drivers Council be disbanded?
If one of the most strongly opinionated and outspoken veterans of the Cup Series sees so little usefulness and utility in meeting with NASCAR brass and his peers to hammer out the hard choices shaping the industry’s direction, how can the group be taken seriously?
If attendance isn’t compulsory for perhaps the most important meeting of the season, particularly with new interim CEO Jim France in attendance, how can anyone say with a straight face that these meetings aren’t a waste of everyone’s time?
After being created three years ago amid the hoopla of new rules packages and a collective approach to “fixing” the racing, the Drivers Council feels to be an idea whose time has run its course, particularly with last week’s change in the sanctioning body’s leadership.
Though he has a much more low-key style than his older brother and father did when they ran NASCAR from 1948-2003, Jim France will bring more of their method of governance. When he stepped into a similar role nearly 20 years ago (for a few months while Bill France Jr. battled cancer), his consigliere was Mike Helton, who also was at France’s side this past weekend at Michigan.
Helton wields enormous respect within NASCAR because he is the most tangible and visible link to the iron-fisted rule of Bill France Jr., who likely would have scoffed at the attempts of embracing consensus-building over the past three years with drivers, tracks and teams.
That era of widespread “collaboration,” a well-intentioned concept with earnest objectives but flawed execution, needs to mercifully end.
Dumping the Drivers Council would be an effectively symbolic way of conveying that message while also ending the charade of its efficacy.
This also goes for similar gatherings between racetrack leadership and NASCAR. At least one high-profile track president skips those meetings on the regular, too, for the same reason as Harvick – a lack of discernible productivity.
A fair point can be made that Harvick’s truancy Friday has much to do with his style. When the 2014 champion goes into title-contending mode, he mostly shuts off the outside world a la LeBron James’ abstention from social media during the NBA playoffs.
But being put off by “politics” – which Harvick clarified at Ford’s Mustang unveiling last Thursday was related to the debate over the 2019 rules – reinforces that star drivers hardly possess the dispositions for navigating the inherent messiness of plotting long-range courses for rules and strategy. Those “politics” will be pervasive in any meeting about such big-picture topics in NASCAR.
Racing demands that drivers are wired selfishly – and justifiably so.
There is no incentive for worrying about the greater good when trying to beat a few dozen other highly competitive opponents every Sunday. And drivers’ views understandably will forever be compromised in evaluating rules that could help or hinder their performances depending on wide-ranging circumstances.
According to those who attended Friday’s Drivers Council meeting, there was a predictably discordant tone about next season (revolving around proposals of whether to use the “drafting package” from the All-Star Race in anywhere from a handful of 2019 races to more than a dozen). Every piece of drivers’ feedback will be tainted to some degree by the vested interests in their own results.
This isn’t to suggest they should be dissuaded from having opinions or expressing them.
Harvick has his own forums – notably, his weekly SiriusXM Satellite Radio show in which he regularly leverages a national platform to champion his ideas for change whether it’s overhauling stages on road courses or building a better schedule. He has been deliberate weighing in on major topics there every Tuesday.
He undoubtedly believes his public voice carries as much or more weight than behind the closed doors of the Drivers Council.
There’s nothing much more that needs to be said there.
Michigan’s results again underscored the importance of having an in-house Optical Scanning Station to mimic NASCAR’s inspection process at the track, and how some teams greatly benefited from preseason decisions to make six-figure investments in the elaborate systems of high-definition cameras and computer scans (it’s been estimated the cost of an OSS is at least $300,000).
Among the first teams to have an OSS were Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, which accordingly have accounted for 19 of 23 wins this season.
“I don’t see how you can race without it, to be honest with you,” crew chief Rodney Childers said about the OSS after his team’s series-leading seventh victory.
NASCAR allows teams to access an OSS at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, but the logistics and time required of schlepping cars there precludes it as an efficient option. An OSS is needed to help optimize cars at multiple junctures during the building process, making it a necessity for more than just powerhouse teams. During a NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode in April, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said his team was considering an OSS for next season.
Hendrick Motorsports took delivery on its OSS in May, and its results notably have improved over the past month – enough to catch the eye of Kyle Larson, whose Chip Ganassi Racing team still lacks its own OSS.
"(Hendrick has) finally been able to learn where they can push the limits on things,” Larson said. “So, it sounds like maybe we have (an OSS) coming, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully we can get it up and running before the playoffs start.”
With no top fives or laps led in the last six races for Larson (who started and finished 17th at Michigan), it can’t come soon enough.
Larson’s fade since finishing second at Chicagoland Speedway has cast serious doubt on which Chevrolet team (if any) has the best chance of emerging as a playoff threat.
After winning at Watkins Glen International with Chase Elliott and posting career-best finishes by Alex Bowman and William Byron at Pocono Raceway, Hendrick seemed to experience a backslide at Michigan, where only Elliott (ninth) finished in the top 15.
Meanwhile, Richard Childress Racing had two of the top three finishing Chevys in Austin Dillon (who finished fourth after running second to Harvick for much of the final 50 laps) and Ryan Newman (13th despite a spin after starting sixth).
It would be reductive to proclaim RCR as the lead Chevy team off one race. But Elliott said Friday he viewed Michigan “as kind of a gauge where we stack up” for the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the other 1.5-mile tracks (Kansas Speedway in the second round and Texas Motor Speedway in the third) that are coming up.
Larson’s admission he was keeping his mouth shut about moonlighting in the Knoxville Nationals was a reminder that his family’s love of dirt racing rubs some the wrong way. In January, he said the Chili Bowl was bigger than the Daytona 500, and his father, Mike, made a similar comparison about Knoxville last week.
Larson and his family shouldn’t have to apologize for embracing their roots, particularly at a time when NASCAR is emphasizing the importance of short-track racing at regional tracks. As the self-proclaimed “last true racer,” Larson admirably has tried to build a bridge between NASCAR and dirt racing. It’s unlikely to bring many crossover fans to NASCAR, but good relationships certainly help more than poisonous sniping between series.
There’s some hope that resistance could diminish under new management. Jim France has a known fondness for sports cars (helping guide IMSA’s current structure) and motorcycle racing. He presumably understands that racing’s biggest challenge is relevance across the board, and it helps if everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction.
If sports cars and the 24 Hours of Le Mans really are in the long-term future for Kurt Busch, then either his current home of Stewart-Haas Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing would make sensible options as the 2004 champion mulls his future.
Busch has emphasized (particularly in this NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode) that his Ford ties are critical in pursuing sports cars. Stewart-Haas Racing has been Ford’s lead team this season in NASCAR. Ganassi fields Chevrolets in the Cup Series but races Fords in IMSA’s GT class (two years ago, the team delivered Ford’s first win in 50 years in the 24 Hours of Le Mans).
If the aim is the best NASCAR fit for Busch, though, it’s Richard Childress Racing that would seem the most logical. RCR has made a run at the 2004 series champion before, and Busch often has said he has worked best with old-school crew chiefs – whose philosophies are embodied by RCR (starting at the top).
If Gene Haas is to be believed that 2019 likely will be Busch’s last season in Cup, it would be a good fit for the team, too. RCR could use a driver with Busch’s talent to benchmark its cars, and if the plan is for Ty Dillon eventually to join his older brother at RCR, Busch would be a first-class stopgap.
While Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated drivers Ryan Preece and Christopher Bell deservedly are popping up in conversations about future Cup rides, there’s another Toyota driver who should be on radar screens – the 2015 Cup Series rookie of the year Brett Moffitt.
Moffitt just turned 26, and his four victories in the Camping World Truck Series with underfunded Hattori Racing have proved he deserves another shot at NASCAR’s premier series. The Grimes, Iowa, native made 45 Cup starts between 2014-17 and had a best finish of eighth with Michael Waltrip Racing in March 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.