Ryan: Squelching social media isn’t solution for improving inspection

Nate Ryan
NBC Sports

The content was so compelling, the engagement was so widespread, and the stakes were so high.

There was so much resonance rumbling through the myriad feeds of NASCAR Twitter, it had to get someone’s attention.

And it did.

Of course we’re talking about NASCAR being named a finalist for best use of Twitter (the #NASCARPlayoffs hashtag) in the Cynopsis Sports Media Awards.

Wait, did something else happen last week in the realm of NASCAR social media?

Oh, right.

At the same time the hottest driver in NASCAR was fingering social media as the source of his penalty after winning at Las Vegas and subtly upbraiding NASCAR executives for whiling away too many hours on Twitter, other NASCAR staffers were cheerily hailing the sanctioning body’s appearance five times on the Cynopsis list.

Besides the Twitter accolade, NASCAR Digital Media also picked up a nomination for best podcast series (The Glass Case of Emotion, co-hosted by Ryan Blaney), and even Harvick was represented in best radio program (for his Happy Hours show on SiriusXM with Matt Yocum, which is up against heavyweights Dan Patrick, Jim Rome and Dan Le Batard).

The point of this is to note that while Harvick’s points about the impact of social media on NASCAR officiating are fair (particularly as it relates to high-ranking decision-makers who spend chunks of their days interacting with fans), there also is no putting the genie back in the bottle and pretending that Twitter and its pervasive tentacles can simply be ignored.

NASCAR is craving that input. Many of its strategies for future audience growth and retention are predicated on leveraging social media to the hilt. Its Fan and Media Engagement Center in Uptown Charlotte is monitoring what fans are saying on the Internet in real time with an Oceanic breadth and precision.


The Reddit detectives are here to stay, and God love them, because it actually is good to have that level of interest from a sophisticated segment of the fan base. NASCAR actively is promoting its STEM initiatives in attracting younger fans; what better example of how engineering principles are being applied in the viewing experience.

No, the answer to how NASCAR can improve its officiating won’t be found in constraining social media, whose rise can’t be untethered from the technology that also made Harvick’s Las Vegas penalties possible. In the era of high-definition TV and digital images transmitted instantaneously, rival teams and NASCAR were seeing potentially incriminating evidence of the No. 4 Ford ahead of anyone on Twitter.

In the 21st century digital age, the best solution is to stop evaluating and announcing postrace infractions on a late 20th-century timetable. NASCAR needs to find a way to do postrace inspection expeditiously and exclusively at the track.

Harvick alluded to this in praising Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip, who said in a SiriusXM interview last week that postrace inspections at the R&D Center (which opened in 2003) should be informational only. During a January appearance on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Harvick suggested a similar approach with the advent of the Optical Scanning Station, which he hoped would transform postrace inspection. “You’ll see cars taken back (to the R&D Center) not really to be relevant of whether you won or lost or are getting a fine, but if something’s happening and moving and to say, ‘This can’t happen,’” Harvick said.

After Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory last year was tainted by a Wednesday penalty, there seemed serious momentum for limiting the shelf life of a Cup penalty to Sunday night. Somehow, that got sidetracked before the 2018 season, leaving NASCAR vulnerable to the negative optics of last week’s controversy. It’s never good when the main storyline four days after the race is whether a winner was legal.

The best option is simple: NASCAR needs to get out of the business of R&D Center teardowns two to three days after a race. Not because of social media but because it’s inevitable that teams always will be ahead of NASCAR inspectors and increase the odds that a midweek teardown will uncover something pushing the boundaries, as Jeff Burton explained on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast last fall.

“They have to get to a place to where you roll through tech postrace (at the track), you’re good,” Burton said. “You can’t not have postrace (inspection), but some of it, they’re just going to have to give up on.”

That isn’t as large of a concession as it might seem. Surely, if there’s an instance during a race in which a winner appears to be benefiting from a questionable part, it can be given closer scrutiny afterward.

Social media is hard-wired into NASCAR’s existence and can’t be eradicated. It’s best to figure out how to incorporate it (with efficiency) instead of excluding it from inspection.

Asked why his team wouldn’t appeal Harvick’s penalty, Tony Stewart answered with a question. “How many appeals have you seen overturned?”

Maybe more than “Smoke” thinks.

According to NASCAR research from the past 20 seasons (when appeals records have been kept consistently), there have been 202 appeals heard. Including both levels of appeals (which initially are heard by a three-person panel and then can be sent to the Final Appeals Officer), 67 percent have been upheld. There were 33 percent that have been adjusted, including 49 that were reduced and 14 were overturned completely (7 percent of the full total).

The most recent appeal “win” involved a shock infraction against a K&N team at Phoenix International Raceway in November 2015 that resulted in the elimination of a six-month probation.

So maybe the odds weren’t stacked against Stewart’s team as much as it seemed – though NASCAR also has rewritten its rulebook in recent years for clarity that enhances the chances of penalties being upheld. It also looks at issuing penalties the same way federal prosecutors do – they won’t bring a case unless they believe they have ironclad evidence to win at trial.

Danica Patrick’s name hardly has been mentioned, but it’s easy to spot the subtext of the best start in Stewart-Haas Racing history: Patrick’s departure after five seasons is being viewed as a positive by the team.

Harvick intimated as much during a postrace interview Sunday (video above) with NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast (“It’s elevated the 10 car (Patrick’s former ride) to make it relevant in our organization; it was irrelevant for several years because it didn’t perform”), and he already took a subtle dig at Daytona International Speedway last month about the productivity of Patrick’s feedback (“You have to have the input to help build your team going forward, so some of those things fall short possibly from maybe not getting the input that the team needed to push the cars in a good direction.”).

Stewart, who also hasn’t been shy about pointing a finger partly at Patrick for the struggles of her team (noting its personnel was overhauled at her behest), said Sunday that “it just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of.  It just seems like this group of these guys really work well together.”

The implication is clear: Patrick was the weak link replaced by Aric Almirola.

What impact might it have on Patrick’s brand or legacy in NASCAR?

Probably very little, as she wraps up her racing career with the Indianapolis 500 and focuses her attention on clothing lines, fitness books and cooking show concepts. But if SHR continues to excel, it will undoubtedly be hailed as validation by her detractors in NASCAR.

After his third consecutive victory, Harvick joked that Gil Martin, his crew chief from 2009-2012 at Richard Childress Racing, intentionally tried to fire him up to produce better results.

Sunday’s gleeful celebration showed why it often works for a driver who admittedly thrives on controversy and stirring up trouble. So why not make Harvick angry all the time?

Because it doesn’t always work.

For every instance in which he has delivered a playoff moment after getting ticked off (e.g., Dover 2015 when he remained upset with Jimmie Johnson for a collision in the playoff opener), there have been others in which he has come up short (e.g., Dover 2010 when he finished 15th after a garage confrontation a day earlier with Denny Hamlin, who had questioned the legality of RCR’s cars).

Any rival knows there is nothing to be gained with “Happy” by poking the bear, but the anger doesn’t automatically translate into transcendent performances. With a fast car and a foul attitude, there is no one better, but the former also can matter as much as the latter.

Harvick will stay squarely in the spotlight even before the garage in Fontana, California, opens this weekend. The Bakersfield native will be racing Thursday night just a few hours up the road at his hometown track of Kern County Raceway in a K&N race (that will be broadcast at 11 p.m. ET March 20 on NBCSN).

The 2014 series champion spoke eloquently about why the grassroots outreach was important and how it had gone missing in recent years.

Here’s a good example of what he meant: Before NASCAR’s 1997 inaugural race at Fontana, there was anticipation that short tracks such as nearby Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino would benefit from Southern California’s first Cup race in nine years. During Riverside International Raceway’s heyday, stars such as Bill Elliott often would show up to run a Late Model at Orange Show the night before the main event

But when the Cup Series returned, the stars didn’t come to the short tracks. If Harvick, who singled out Elliott’s son, Chase, as a prime candidate for following his footsteps, can start a trend at Kern County, it’ll be a good one.

If winning felt like a playoff moment for Harvick, finishing second might have felt the same way for Kyle Busch – but not for the right reasons.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver now has finished second in three of the past five Cup races dating to last season’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just as when he lost the 2017 title to Martin Truex Jr., Busch’s No. 18 Toyota seemed faster than Harvick’s Sunday (leading a race-high 128 laps).

At Miami, it was an inopportune caution flag that wrecked Busch’s chances to beat Truex. It was strategy again Sunday, but this time it was more self-inflicted (as noted by Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Monday’s NASCAR America) with a curious decision to wait on pitting under green and then a botched stop.

“Had a couple guys pit a little bit before us,” Busch said. “I don’t think that hurt us too bad, but the jack dropping certainly did. We lost the race on pit road today. There’s been races where I’ve won it on pit road, too. We’ll just have to go into next week and see what we can do there. “

Crew chief Adam Stevens prepares championship-caliber cars, and Busch brings all-world talent. But the persistent struggle at closing out wins (evidenced by how long it took for a breakthrough to happen last season) has to be eating at the team at some level.

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