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Driving Today

Conspiracy Theorists: Start Your Engines

Jimmie Johnson’s “speeding ticket” looks fishy to some.

If you were a conspiracy theorist, you could have a field day with this one. It’s late in the race at Martinsville, N.J., and five-time Spring Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is in a position to pull out yet another victory. But NASCAR’s TV ratings are down, and a lot of people are blaming it on the fact that Johnson wins too much. So as Johnson gets ready for one of his patented late-race runs, he is stunned to learn that he has been assessed a penalty that will put him well back in the pack. Instead of tying a record held jointly by NASCAR superheroes Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, Johnson falls out of the top 10 in the race, ending his streak of top 10s at 17. Johnson can’t believe that he was speeding in the pits, at least where he thought NASCAR was clocking him, and he says so after the race. NASCAR says, yes, Jimmie, you were -- but we’re not going to release all the pit road speeds, nor are we going to flash them as they occur, the way Major League Baseball flashes the speeds of various pitches these days. Why not? folks ask. Because we don’t want to, NASCAR replies.

Conspiracy junkies, make of this what you will. Did NASCAR really mess around with the numbers just so it could assure that bland, boring Jimmie Johnson didn’t win? Did it pick its spot in trying to put a bullet in his chance for a sixth consecutive title? Goodness, we certainly hope not. As cynical as some race fans may be about NASCAR in these troubled times, we would hate to think the organization would do something like that. Finding “debris” on the track late in the race to bring out a yellow and bunch up the field? Oh, we could probably believe that. But singling out a driver for a fictitious penalty? Even Johnson doesn’t feel that was the case -- at least publicly he doesn’t.

But lost in the whole controversy is the simple fact that, if pit road speeds are supposed to be held very low for safety reasons, why let all the drivers and their teams game the system by driving fast when they think they can and obeying the limit when they think they are being watched? If you want safety, make the entire pit road a speed trap and get radar shots of all the drivers multiple times while they are entering and exiting the pits.

If NASCAR thinks its racing is more exciting because one driver zips through the pits at 34.9 mph while another has to take a lap because he was caught at 35.1 in a special segment of the pit road, they are sippin’ somethin’ strange. So make it safe, make it sane and make it transparent. A simple concept: It’s called fairness.