Melillo’s Mind: What in the world is going on?!?
Following the conclusion of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 on Sunday evening at Texas Motor Speedway, I think I can safely say that a lot of us were left with a sour taste in our mouths about what was witnessed.
In the 30th points paying race of the NASCAR Cup Series NEXT Gen era, and the fourth in the 2022 Playoffs, things all seemed to unravel throughout the race.
Tyler Reddick went on to take the victory, a week removed from being eliminated from the playoffs at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Round of 16 conclusion that perhaps was a race not too different from the most recent one, even if the tracks are completely different.
It was another instance of chaos, especially seemingly for the leader. The race seemed to have endless storylines crop up every few laps. On the surface, it’s now been four straight NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races without an eligible Playoff driver taking the win for the auto lock into the next round. Below that, a myriad of differing topics to discuss, maybe even too much for one sitting.
I jokingly sent out a tweet before heading off to sleep on Sunday night – After reading my Twitter feed and the various topics all firing off at once, I couldn’t decide which one was louder. It was an engagement tweet, and it sure did get some attention, a lot of people begging for a fifth option – All of the Above.
While the tweet was more of a meme than anything, it got me thinking in the middle of the night – ‘what in the world is going on?’ is probably the most prominent thought in my head.
Between the venue, the tires, the officiating, the upset drivers, and the racecar itself, NASCAR finds itself straddling the line between its entertainment value and absolute chaos.
NASCAR NEXT GEN
To me, the most glaring issue that has to be addressed is the racecar, the NASCAR NEXT Gen machines that debuted this season at the beginning of the year.
Many veteran drivers have sounded off about the car in recent weeks, from Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr commenting on ‘crappy parts’ to Denny Hamlin tweeting seemingly every thought that’s going through his owner-driver mind.
What needs to be addressed? Well, it sounds like everything, to be honest. From safety concerns, random part failures, and the race-ability of the cars, this new car looks to be hitting failing marks on a lot of these categories.
Sure, there are 19 different points-paying winners on the season, and we’re one away from breaking a record from most different winners in a single season. That’s great, and surely does show off some of the perks of the car in which more people can win on any given Sunday… but is that number justified in the competitive nature of the car?
A term used in gaming – RNG – which stands for random number generation, is a way to describe some of these failures seen throughout the season. Last night alone, if you were the fastest car on the track and leading the race, there was seemingly a bit of an RNG factor in play.
If your ‘number’ was rolled, it meant disaster. Ask Chase Elliott, Truex Jr and Harvick who all wrecked while leading. You could also talk with Cody Ware who took an absolutely nasty hit during the race, resulting in a lengthy trip to the infield care center.
Thankfully, Ware would be ok minus some ankle discomfort, per a Rick Ware Racing statement. The wreck was jarring, and while we’ve seen worse in either the lower series’ or with the previous Gen 6 car, the way that this car wrecks and affects the drivers is a huge talking point this season.
Yes, the car is providing more racier numbers on paper – granted the 36 lead changes among 19 drivers on Sunday is highly skewed due to factors like caution periods and the various strategies that evolve from them.
Parts failures have always been a part of racing and that likely won’t go away, but when the parts could be better, and when it causes less of a safety concern, it should be entertained. How many loose tires alone have we had this year? Some human error, yeah, but any error by a lesser part needs to be discussed.
The racing still doesn’t pass the eye test at some facilities, namely the short tracks, and the ‘dirty air’ – a term used for aerodynamic effects on cars in traffic – is still large and in charge. ‘Clean air’ is still king and track position is still too important.
You can also ask Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Christopher Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr about their nights at Texas and the Goodyear tires that came off of their cars following their wrecks.
Looking at Buescher specifically, the tire that the NASCAR on NBC on USA put on our screens was not a tire you’d expect to find in a normal wear situation. That tire looked like it had been shot from the inside out by a cannonball… but why?
Goodyear Director Greg Stucker was adamant post-race that many of the issues are team related for pushing the numbers too close to the threshold. That’s a fair and valid point, but at the same time, it still has to be on Goodyear to provide a tire that can be pushed to its limits where the end result is not catastrophic.
I’m no engineer or expert when it comes to the physics of tires, but one thing that keeps getting brought up is the ‘load’ being put on these tires.
Between the mechanical grip, the aero grip, and the agents on the track such as resin or PJ1 providing even more grip, these new wider, 18″ rimmed Goodyears with no inner liner really haven’t been put to a test like this before.
Whether it’s the car, the tire, the track or all of the factors combined, it’s been more than clear in the last few weeks that this isn’t working, and we may end up with a champion at the end of the season that had the best survival rate rather than the most outright speed.
This is more of a broader topic, but I bring it up because of one specific incident from Sunday night that seemed preposterous in the moment and even worse post-race.
Coming towards the close of the event, Denny Hamlin and William Byron were trading paint for third when Truex Jr blew a tire while leading and the caution flew. Byron, by his own admission, was not going to take the hard racing from Hamlin.
As the field slowed down, a on-board video on Byron’s shows him gassing it up and tagging Hamlin on the front stretch. That resulted in Hamlin losing all of his track position as NASCAR stayed quiet on the subject. Hamlin and his team fought to either get his spot back or at the least, see Byron get a penalty for his actions. Neither happened.
Hamlin definitely showed his displeasure back under the same caution, mind you, an almost equally unsafe scenario. In general, the caution period should not be the time to pay someone back as there are vulnerable safety crews around the track on the time cleaning up whatever mess that put them under the yellow.
Post-race, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller stated that what happened between Hamlin and Byron was missed during the race. I don’t know if I’m buying that, but that’s what was stated nonetheless.
There was also an incident caught by Twitter user @PaducahBazooka where Ty Gibbs and Ty Dillon made contact on pit road and Gibbs made the situation more dangerous by sharply turning left into Dillon as they were passing live pit crews in pit stop progress. Nothing was done about that either.
NASCAR has set precedence on wrecking intentionally under caution, granted those wrecks were way more dangerous and implicative.
Said precedence has seen drivers immediately parked and suspended for a race. I highly doubt NASCAR does that given the playoff implications, but where is the line drawn?
What about practice? This is more of a general NASCAR decision for the entire season than anything that specifically happened on Sunday night, but while many of their calls have been “cost saving”, it doesn’t feel cost-effective to be wrecking or crashing every other week due to things that might have been caught if there was more practice.
TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
With everything else happening, Texas Motor Speedway almost escapes the weekend as the good guy in all of this. Reconfigured back in 2017, the venue just hasn’t been the same since. In efforts to fix the track, it seemingly made things worse as PJ1 and resin have been applied.
Basically, the track was ruined in the reconfiguration and before it could possibly have a chance to become what they’d hoped it could be, it was ruined further with multiple sticky compounds. Now, the scuttlebutt is that the track is in trouble after it was announced that there would only be one race date on the 2023 NASCAR calendar.
Ironic, by the way, that Texas may begin its demise as North Wilkesboro comes back from the dead to take the All-Star weekend from their grasp. How the tables have turned.
While the NASCAR NEXT Gen has arguably been a racing success at 1.5-mile tracks this season, Texas is the Lone Star State standout. Other reporters spent the days leading up to the race asking drivers about their thoughts on making the track better. Most, if not all drivers were adamant that anything would be better than what is currently in place.
Maybe it’s the fact that all of these issues happened at a track that’s been so universally loathed in the last few years that might be amplifying it all.
Regardless, NASCAR is in a tough spot here. The longer they continue to downplay these issues, the louder the concern grows. It can’t be a good look that many of these veteran drivers have gone to Twitter to express their concerns.
I love NASCAR. I love everyone and everything about this sport. It hurts so much to see all of this, to feel all of this, because editorially speaking, this is arguably the greatest form of motorsport in the world. I want it to be entertaining, but I also don’t want to be concerned about the things I’ve written today.
Only six races are left in 2022, and while it might be too late for this season, hopefully it’s not too late to see things improve for 2023.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
Justin Melillo View All
Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com
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