NASCAR: Current Replacement-Driver Rule Is Risky Business

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /
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Does NASCAR’s current rule open the door for there to possibly be some shady business between drivers and replacement drivers?

That’s the question NASCAR fans had to be asking themselves after it was announced that Tony Stewart would be able to hand over his ride to Ty Dillon at Talladega and still be scored with the victory if Dillon happened to win. While Dillon did ultimately fail to capture the much needed victory for Stewart, NASCAR still needs to understand that the rule could be exploited by drivers.

Now I am not going to pull out the tinfoil hats or anything like that. Heck, I’m not even going to say that this will ever happen. The issue though is that it could happen and why have a system in place that opens the door for such occurrences?

The rule in question, which grants the driver that starts the race a Chase spot if his or her relief driver is able to win a race in the regular season, was apparently never considered for revising when NASCAR officials revamped the Chase in 2016 and now leaves an interesting loophole open for drivers and teams to potentially game the system.

I’m not trying to imply that Stewart was trying to game the system at Talladega, especially given the respect he has for the sport of auto racing, but that doesn’t mean another driver (or team) wouldn’t try to if they had the opportunity to do so.

Let’s say for example NASCAR is heading to a road course and the start of the Chase is only a handful of races away. What if a team has a driver who is inside of the top-30 in points but has never fared well on the road courses. Might that team consider bringing in a driver like Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya or someone else who has won on a road course before?

Is that scenario too devious for you?

How about if NASCAR is heading to the same road course and the same driver has been suffering from the flu (or some other ailment) and cannot race that weekend. Suppose the team then brings in someone who they feel gives their team the best chance and they switch out with the sick driver on the first pit stop and go onto win the race.

Is that dirty pool?

Again, I’m not saying that Tony Stewart took advantage of the rule on Sunday, especially given the safety concerns from his recent injury. But what would have been the feeling had Dillon won that race and put Stewart into the Chase. What would be the feeling if some other team had to pull their driver out of a car during the race (planned or not) and the backup driver won the race and put them into the Chase?

If Dillon had won in Talladega (and Stewart gets into the top-30 in points) and put Stewart into the Chase it would mean that another driver would not be going. Is that far to that driver? If a driver like Ryan Blaney or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. runs well enough to be the last car in the Chase on points but ends up getting bumped for Stewart, is that right?

How should NASCAR go about changing the rule though?

Well, the first thing they need to do is make sure that the driver who is using the relief driver rule is actually unable to compete in a full race. Yes, this would eliminate drivers like Tony Stewart using it as a safety precaution, but it is also a way to make sure that the rule is being used by those who absolutely need it and not as a way to game the system (assuming someone would ever try such a thing).

NASCAR also needs to make sure that they clarify what will constitute as a reason not to compete in a full race and what will not. For example, will handing the car over to a relief driver due to a flu virus still count as a reason not to race or what about if another driver doesn’t want to compete in a full race due to safety concerns? These are the questions NASCAR officials need to ask themselves and sort out before it’s too late.

After that, NASCAR needs to limit the kind of relief driver that teams can use. For example, a team should not be able to hand over the wheel to a road course specialist at Watkins Glen and Sonoma (a specialist being someone who has won there before). Either that, or NASCAR needs to eliminate the rule at tracks like Daytona and Sonoma. A NASCAR team also should not be able to hand over the wheel to a driver that has more than two wins at the track.

Lastly, NASCAR should make it where a driver using the relief driver rule needs to finish higher in the standings than a driver that won on their own. While this may not sound exactly fair, especially after Kyle Busch won The Championship after finishing in the top-30 in points, raising the expectations for drivers using this rule would be a good way to eliminate fluke teams from making the Chase and utilizing the loophole.

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Will it work? Who knows, but anything has to be better than NASCAR opening themselves up to being taken advantage of by drivers. If anything, these additions to the rule should help curtail some of the negative media attention that it has already gotten from fans and also make a team work just a little bit more in order to guarantee themselves a Chase spot at the end of the regular season.

NASCAR could also just make it so that wins count for the driver who is behind the wheel at the time of victory. I know this might seem like an easier solution than what I mentioned about but when was the last time NASCAR took the easy route?