LEMASTERS: Push Comes To Shove With Lapped Traffic

Ron Lemasters Jr.

CONCORD, N.C. — Push has come to shove in NASCAR these days and it leaves one to wonder: How did we get here?

I am referring to the early instances of “road rage” at the start of the 2019 season, in which drivers were angry with each other about racing hard, specifically laps-down cars versus drivers in contention for the victory.

Which side you come down on regarding this particular issue often has to do with the apparel you wear: If you are a fan of one or the other driver involved, your loyalties are going to reflect your opinion (in most cases, that is).

But, without rehashing all of the early incidents, maybe it’s time to ponder the philosophy behind them in the first place.

First, any driver on the track wants to win. Check.

Second, only one of them can. Check.

Third, and perhaps most important, what is proper etiquette for lapped cars at the end of races?

Time-honored practice indicates the laps-down driver should do all he or she can to get out of the way of the leaders. This is for good reason, as promoters and fans alike do not want the outcome determined by a driver off the pace of the leaders.

It’s about now that you’ll remember that not everyone gets what they want.

The way the races, in NASCAR and other series, are structured is, there are different points of emphasis to maintain competitive racing. Stage racing, in NASCAR’s case, is designed to keep it fresh and interesting throughout an event that lasts in the neighborhood of three hours.

The installation of the free pass, issued to the first driver one lap down during a yellow flag, is another one of those points of emphasis. It’s a good rule, too, because it promotes hard racing for more of the field. Say your favorite driver has a tire problem and loses a lap as a result. Following a pit stop for fresh tires, the driver gets back out on the track and is just flying.

It’s fairly rare that anyone unlaps themselves by passing the leader at speed, so the Lucky Dog offers a chance for a fan favorite to get back into the battle and, perhaps, contend for victory.

That said, there are often several races within the race going on at the same time, and drivers trying to get back on the lead lap aren’t worried about etiquette; they’re worried about moving forward. When the leaders are coming in the rearview mirror, it’s time to do some driver stuff and stay ahead of the frontrunners.

In the closing laps, however, lapped cars can mess up the show if they are a bit too hard-line on moving over for the leaders. No driver worth his salt is going to meekly pull down out of the way without offering at least a fight. When it becomes time to succumb to the inevitable and leave the leaders to settle things, that’s when it becomes a problem.

As the sport evolves, the old rules sometimes get refined. Mark Martin was held up as the Emily Post of racing etiquette and he schooled the new kids on what you do and what you don’t. If you didn’t, you’d get a visit from him or another veteran and that would solve the problem. Otherwise, you and your team would have long hours in the fab shop fixing the results.

It’s not the same today. Drivers are racing harder because the box they’re in, aerodynamically, is tight enough that inches are the coin of the realm and a spot is a spot. If you want to keep the ride, you keep getting spots. Pressures on all drivers are ratcheted to a fever pitch and it’s not easy getting a driver locked in a battle for position — even if that is a lap down — to move over for a driver on the lead lap who is, ostensibly faster than the lapped cars. The feeling is, if you’re faster than me, pass me; if you’re not, you might as well wait until you are.

This will be solved eventually, usually on a one-to-one basis between drivers. For now, however, it remains an interesting sideline to what goes on after the race and in the periods between race weekends.