BRISTOL — Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne believe NASCAR is on the right track to restore fans’ faith in the sport after one of its most embarrassing weeks ever.
In the aftermath of a cheating scandal at Richmond, first caused by Clint Bowyer’s intentional spin with seven laps to go, and Michael Waltrip Racing parking two cars before the end of the race, NASCAR responded with big penalties including a $300,000 fine to the Waltrip organization and warnings to its competitors that enough was enough.
New rules were implemented this past weekend at Chicagoland to discourage any further manipulation of a driver’s finishing position.
Smith and Bayne, who participated in a Nationwide Series tire test at Bristol Motor Speedway on Tuesday along with Paul Menard and Drew Herring, know it’s not the first time teams have tried to bend and even break the rules, just to that extent.
“It’s a tough situation because it’s not happened to the extreme that it happened at Richmond,” said Smith, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. “There are things you do as teammates, like let a guy lead a lap or back in the day, there was the controversy when guys would let teammates go when racing back to the caution flag.
“Fans didn’t appreciate that and it was a safety hazard. There’s always going to be stuff that happens, but I like the steps we’re taking as a sport to correct it and make sure it doesn’t happen to the extreme it happened at Richmond.”
Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Ford, pointed out that Bowyer wasn’t the first driver to spin out on purpose to bring out a caution. He also pointed out what made it different was when it happened.
“There were different circumstances with the Chase on the line, and possibly the championship on the line,” Bayne said. “I can promise you other drivers have spun out before to bring out a caution. People remember Dale Jr. here at Bristol a few years back. He spun out and stayed on the lead lap, but it was in the middle of the race and it didn’t change the outcome. They aren’t the first ones to do it.”
Smith, who won the 2011 Southern 500, didn’t like the way Michael Waltrip Racing was so open with the plans. He believes NASCAR got it right by replacing MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase with Ryan Newman, who looked to be on his way to victory before the Bowyer spin. He also agreed with the decision to add Jeff Gordon, also a victim of the Waltrip shenanigans, to the Chase.
“As a competitor what bothered me was how blatant it appeared to be,” Smith said. “That’s why the fans were in such an uproar. I commend NASCAR for what they did, what they did with Jeff’s situation. I know it’s odd to have 13 (drivers) in the Chase, but when you look at how that race was going to play out, he was going to make it anyway.”
This past weekend, NASCAR addressed the other controversy at Richmond with race winner Carl Edwards beating leader Paul Menard to the starting line on the final restart. The sanctioning body implemented a rule for the Sprint Cup Series that the drivers can now go as soon as the green flag is displayed.
“There are parts of it I like, and Paul wasn’t too angry since he did spin his tires,” Smith said. “But at the time the rule read you can’t beat the leader to the line. Even if he spins the tires, aren’t you supposed to check up? Unfortunately when he spins the tires, that makes it a judgement call. Anytime you have a judgement call, things can happen.”
Bayne has been on both sides of that call. David Ragan was penalized near the end of the 2011 Daytona 500 for an early jump which gave Bayne the race lead. He parlayed that into his biggest career victory. However, he was also penalized by NASCAR officials for a questionable restart call earlier this season.
“Restarts are chaos,” Bayne said. “Earlier this season, I was black-flagged once for pulling out of line even though I didn’t make a pass until I passed the line. Really, they just want to see everybody play by the rules, give 100 percent and do the best they can. When people intentionally do things wrong or jump the start, that’s when NASCAR gets frustrated. When you get a situation like the Richmond Nationwide race when the No. 2 car (driven by Brian Scott) missed a shift, and (Brad) Keselowski beat him to the line, then NASCAR should let it go. Implementing this rule, you still have to have some guidelines and not just let the second-place guy take off early. If the leader takes off and you beat him to the line, that will be OK.”
Even with the new rule, there will be judgement calls. It’s routine at short tracks around the country for restarts to be waved off when a leader jumps it. In NASCAR’s case, there will be times a driver is black-flagged for going too soon.
Smith actually liked the previous rule and the way it was generally enforced.
“I guess I’m a little of a purist and believe the leader should have an advantage,” Smith said. “If you take two tires or do other things to gain track position, you should have that advantage. Yeah, it might jam the field up, but that’s just my take on it. The race Friday night, I watched the final two restarts and scratched my head. You just hope it goes to your advantage. We’ll see how the new rule plays out. It sounds like a free-for-all, and if that’s the case, we’ll just have to take advantage of it.”
Bayne believes the drivers just need to follow Helton’s proclamation of the drivers racing 100 percent and the sport will put the events of this past week in its rearview mirror.
“We just have to go out put on a good show, have good racing and everybody gives it all they can,” Bayne said. “That’s what I do as a driver every weekend when I sit behind the wheel of the No. 6 or the No. 21 in the Cup Series. There’s never a moment when I’m not giving 100 percent, and I think that’s what every driver has to do to put on good races and not do anything to jeopardize our sport.”
Bristol Dragway hosts its Street Fights program on Thursday with gates open at 5 p.m. and racing to start at 6 p.m.
The DER Bracket Series has qualifying scheduled for Friday night with additional qualifying and racing slated for Saturday.
Dillon Bassett of Winston-Salem won this past Saturday night’s Model City 150 for the UARA Series at Kingsport Speedway.
It was the 16-year-old driver’s second straight UARA win at Kingsport and he increased his series point lead over third-place finisher Garrett Campbell of Asheboro, N.C.
Track regular Daniel Pope of Smyrna finished second for his best ever finish on the UARA tour.
In the preliminary classes, Kenny Absher of Kingsport won the Pure 4 feature, Jon Pittman of Harlan, Ky., was victorious in Rookie Pure 4. Derek Lane won a family battle in the Legends division, beating his brother Trey and his father Jerry in a 1-2-3 finish.
The season-ending “Friends of Coal 125” for the NASCAR All-American Late Models is scheduled for this Saturday with the race only open to drivers who haven’t won a NASCAR-sanctioned event in the past five years.
The Pure 4 and Legends divisions will also be in action. Grandstands open at 5 p.m. with qualifying set for 6:45 p.m. and racing to start around 8 p.m.