Commentary

Competition's not the problem in Cup

Updated: June 12, 2009, 12:36 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Weekly mail check, while sitting at the kitchen table, wearing BabyBjorn, complete with screaming daughter inside, while my son chucks a plastic bowling ball directly at my coffee cup. I AM a Will Ferrell character. Oh, joy.

Marty,

With the town hall meeting NASCAR had it seems they actually want to try to listen to the drivers for once and make the sport better. What do you think would be the best way to improve competition?

-- Jarrod Workmann, Phoenix

First of all, Jarrod, your initial point is exactly right -- the biggest thing that came out of that meeting is the fact NASCAR held it at all. It's a polar opposite change in philosophy. Rather than 'our way or the highway,' it was, 'OK, the teams are pretty dang smart. Let's banter.' It's an excellent first step to improving the overall product.

Now, about the competition -- I don't share much in common with folks who think it stinks. That's the truth. A lot of my industry buddies say they don't turn on the race when they're not working. I do. I watch every lap, and I think it's pretty good.

And, as I've said before, anybody who thinks 1985 was better -- or 1975 or 1995, for that matter -- is delusional. Was it great back then? Hell yeah it was. It was awesome. But there are more good cars today than there were then. The competition is tougher. Granted, there's no question the COT has improved with time.

Was the racing better in 2003, with the old car? Hard to tell. All I ever heard was drivers complaining about aero-push.

Jeff Burton told me this week that the past two months have produced better competition than any other two-month period in his career. There are several reasons why -- mainly the racetracks on which the Cup Series has raced and Goodyear working so much harder to produce good tires. They needed to improve the product and they have.

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It just doesn't get better than the last 10 laps at Dover. Or the All-Star race. Darlington was awesome.

Now that that's on the table, there are some things I'd like to see change. Mainly, I think the vast majority of the races should be shorter. Very few races should be 500 miles. The Daytona 500? Sure. Coca-Cola 600? Absolutely. Darlington? By all means.

But racing 1,000 miles in Pocono, Pa., in a seven-week span is asinine. Sheer insanity. And I don't mind Pocono. I mind 500 miles at Pocono.

Three-hundred miles there would be just fine. Leave 'em wanting more. Why is the Truck series so awesome? Because there's no time to mess around. Get your rear end to the front right now.

Also in the "leave them wanting more" department, shorten the season.

I love the idea of having 30 races, but with 36 now the concept of contraction doesn't seem feasible. It wouldn't be easy, certainly. So keep 36, start in mid-February and run through Labor Day. We aren't football. Why battle the NFL?

In that shortened schedule, include some Wednesday night shows during the summer. Most nights in July there's nothing on but "Survivor: Albuquerque" anyway, so why not try to steal some rating points from Jack McCoy, Lennie Briscoe and, my personal favorite by a landslide, the lovely Abbie Carmichael.

Look, drivers and teams are running around all over the country midweek, anyway, testing. Why not make it count for something?

The big issue there, of course, is at-track attendance. The tracks are so big, catering only to the local market wouldn't work. I don't have an answer there. That's probably the biggest reason it's never been seriously looked at. I get it.

And how about this hair-brained idea: Break the race into periods. Auto racing is the only sport without scheduled stoppages. Other sports have quarters or halves or periods. What about NASCAR implementing several prescheduled stoppages to bunch up the field and work on the cars? It'd change the strategy, certainly. It would likely also bolster the argument from any WWE conspiracy theorists. I'm not saying I'm for it. I'm just saying it's an intriguing concept.

OK, enough. Your turn.

Marty,

GREAT, GREAT story on Carl Long. You always make space for the underdog. So cool. Man, he stuck it to NASCAR! I've never heard anybody criticize NASCAR like that! And I think he's right about a lot of what he said. It probably made NASCAR mad, with him calling out Brian France and Mike Helton like that.

But here's my question -- remember the T-Rex car Jeff Gordon won in the All-Star race with? That thing was illegal and NASCAR didn't penalize him. What's the difference? It's still a non-points race, so why slam Long like this?

-- Sterling Langston, Galveston, Texas

I know where you're going with this, Sterling, and in fact a buddy of mine e-mailed me precisely the same point after reading my "Long goes nuclear" piece.

But there's a critical difference -- the T-Rex car was technically legal.

Rex Stump massaged every minute crevice of the Cup series rulebook, and built a spaceship that basically clowned NASCAR. I wasn't in the sport then, but I'd bet the farm that then-Winston Cup director Gary Nelson was so dang mad he had to laugh.

Stump got him. Just flat schooled him. It didn't warrant a penalty, merely the instruction to never, ever bring it back to the racetrack.

As far as Long is concerned, I wish NASCAR would have let this ride. It's a black and white issue -- I understand that. But I wish they'd have made gray. I fully admit NASCAR can't win. Folks want to bury France and Helton and Robin Pemberton for enforcing the rules. I'm as guilty as any fan. I admit to speaking out of both sides of my mouth on this. I've long been frustrated by NASCAR's ability to manipulate the rulebook to penalize teams in gray space. And here, in this instance, I want gray space.

I base that opinion mainly on the horsepower that Long's engine produced. The 1988 Nissan pickup truck my grandmother drives to the grocery store and the bank makes more horsepower than Long's Dodge did. My grandmother is 95 years old. Long's motor was big, sure. But Gran has a better chance winning the Sprint Showdown than he does. To me it's a common sense equation.

Oddly -- and unfairly, I reckon -- if this was Carl Edwards and not Carl Long I wouldn't mind the penalty so badly. Roush and Hendrick and Gibbs have every resource to ensure their stuff is right. They all build their own motors and have brand-new, pristine stuff every time out. Long bought a third-hand motor from Ernie Elliott to run Daytona, then, according to Elliott, converted it to an open motor for the Showdown. Therefore, Elliott claims no responsibility. He has every right to do so.

I'm a bit taken aback by the fan reaction to this penalty. A bunch of folks want to donate to the cause. Long owes NASCAR $200,000. He can't afford $200.

Long wants to fight this further. I fear he may become the Jon Bon Jovi of NASCAR: Shot down in a blaze of glory.

Marty,

At the Dover race last Sunday, did Dale Jr.'s car have a Texas flag above the driver's side window, by his name?

-- Sam, Indianapolis

Negative. It's a North Carolina flag. He's done that forever, I think since the Busch Series days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. It started a trend, in fact. Martin Truex Jr. puts the Jersey flag beside his name, too.

Marty,

Double-file restarts will be awesome! I'm so glad NASCAR decided to put that in. How will it change the racing?

-- Timmy Newsome, Johnstown, Pa.

I agree. Excellent move by NASCAR. All any fan needed to see was that 10-lap shootout in the All-Star race.

It will also create more opportunities for finishes like last weekend's at Dover. What Jimmie Johnson did -- coming from ninth on the restart to win the race -- was ridiculous. It showed how awesome that car really was. Used to be when a team came out of the pits 10th, they were really 20th, given the lap-down cars on the inside. Now they're a legitimate 10th and racing cars at or near their level.

It will also change strategy, how crew chiefs call races.

"It's certainly going to impact strategy, and that's what fans are going to get, at least for this first few months," Greg Biffle said Wednesday on "NASCAR Now." "There's going to be all kinds of twists and turns, with where we're running on the racetrack. Maybe in the middle part of the race I want to run fifth instead of fourth. If the caution comes out I'm not going to start on the outside lane, or vice versa. Pit strategy, too."

Marty,

I was wondering your thoughts on who is the bigger disappointment this year so far in the Roush stable -- Carl Edwards or David Ragan? Why the underperformance?

-- David, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Ragan by a landslide, David. Edwards had Texas won before his pit crew let him down. He had Talladega won before becoming a victim of circumstance, turned around backward and stuffed in the fence. He's run among the top 10 nearly every weekend, and finished in the top 10 nearly half the time. His worst finish of the season -- 32nd at Darlington -- came after he got tangled up with teammate Biffle. He was running sixth at the time.

Ragan, meanwhile, hasn't been close. I said he'd be the breakout story of 2009. I was wrong. He's 31st in the point standings, having finished on the lead lap just four times in 13 races. To his defense, Roush has been down a bit. Asked what the problem was two weeks back at Lowe's Motor Speedway, its signature trio were at a loss.

Matt Kenseth said there's no one specific variable on which they must improve, making that improvement difficult. Biffle mentioned concern about organizational mediocrity, and said Roush has a gap to close on the competition.

They're making gains, it seems, and still have 13 races before the Chase starts.

Hi, Marty!

I hope I make THE SIX this week! At the start of the Coca-Cola 600, pole-sitter Ryan Newman moved from the inside to the outside lane before the race started. I have two questions about this: Does the pole-sitter always have the choice of starting inside or outside, or was this just a special deal for this race? And if the pole-sitter does move, do all of the other cars behind P1 and P2 have to switch lanes also?

-- Laura, Cincinnati

The leader always has the option to start on the inside or outside, Laura, and the decision only impacts the front row -- P1 and P2 simply change places.

Marty,

I heard you say on "NASCAR Now" that the Coca-Cola 600 is the more prestigious race on Sunday 'cause it's the sport's longest endurance race. It is, except for the Dakar Rally, the Baja 1000, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Petit Le Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours at Spa, the Bathurst 1000, and the 1,000-kilometer races at Silverstone, Monza and the Nurburgring. Other than those, it is definitely the longest race.

-- Esteve Mendez, hometown unknown

Hilarious, Esteve. Fair point, too. Those races are indeed more grueling physically. But, just for clarity, last I checked don't each of the drivers competing in those races have teammates? Just sayin …

Marty,

I would like your take on whether Indy driver Sarah Fisher has what it would take to drive in NASCAR. In my opinion she is a better driver than Danica, she just has inferior equipment.

-- Pete in Oregon

She tried it once, Pete, back in 2005. She hit the Grand National West tour as part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, signing to drive for Bill McAnally as part of a development project with Richard Childress Racing. She logged four top-10 finishes in 13 starts, then headed back to open wheel.

That's my time this week. No Pocono for me. I'm taking my bride to see my boys Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley tonight in Charlotte. Might just get a little sideways.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.