Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday August 30, 2013
It won’t be long now. Summer is rapidly coming to an end, and it’s a mere 12 weeks until the engines quiet for the last time in 2013. It seems as though it was just turning to spring and NASCAR’s Chase was barely a blip on the radar. There was plenty of time then: time to turn the luck around for a title run, time to founder in the water. Both have happened before our eyes, and now just two weeks remain until everyone knows which side of the Chase fence they’re on.
And that Chase is a story, there’s no denying that. NASCAR made it so with the inception of a playoff of sorts, and on that end, it could be deemed a success. The media talk about it practically from the opening practice session at Daytona, and even the most casual fan is aware that it’s about to begin. But that’s where its success ends. It’s still a poor system in practice, and most fans still want to see it tossed out with yesterday’s dish water.
It’s easy to see why NASCAR wanted this type of championship system. Playoffs are highly successful in other sports, grabbing the TV ratings and packing the venues. Even the most diehard fans might not remember the score of a game two weeks into the season, but almost everyone knows who won the Super Bowl or the World Series, what the score was, and how the game went down.
But NASCAR isn’t like other sports. There aren’t just two teams playing at a time. Every single one of the best teams in the league is out there, all at once, and still they can be knocked out of victory lane by an underdog if the stars align right. At all except its very top levels, racing is about the moment, about the hunt and the win. At most local tracks, sure, a track championship is nice, but how many wins do you have? That’s the question that’s important to fans and racers around the country. And that’s what NASCAR isn’t seeing.
How about one easy way to put the focus of everyone in the garage back on winning races? Take the multi-million dollar season point fund and reallocate every penny to race purses. Give the champion team an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas for championship week, that pretty silver trophy, and…nothing else. Shift the money and the PR hype to each and every race and teams would again have incentive to try and win each and every week. That would make for more exciting racing. Yes, you’d still have a champion, but you’d have fans buzzing all year long, hearing about one race and tuning into the next to see what the hype is about.
Now, enough about the Chase, because goodness knows there will be plenty of Chase talk from now until November. But there’s still plenty to talk about as the season steams toward its close.
For one, Bobby Labonte is getting the shaft. He’s not the problem at JTG-Daugherty Racing and never was. Until the team makes other significant changes, they’re not going to improve to the level of say, Richard Petty Motorsports. It’s good to see AJ Allmendinger get a chance (and like Labonte, he’s a better driver than the team around him), but don’t expect miracles.
And while it makes sense now that Labonte is out of the car anyway due to broken ribs suffered in a biking accident (See, Tony Stewart naysayers? You don’t need to be in a sprint car to get hurt and miss races.), what was the team thinking replacing Labonte in the No. 47 at Atlanta? Last time I checked, AJ Allmendinger wasn’t the winningest active driver at Atlanta Motor Speedway—but with six trophies, Bobby Labonte is. Even if you don’t have a winning car, wouldn’t it stand to reason that you’d put a driver with that kind of record in the seat. The decision to snap Labonte up for this one probably took Phoenix Racing, oh, about three seconds. If they were slow.
However, after Labonte’s accident, he’ll be replaced in the No. 51 by Mike Bliss. Really? Mike Bliss? That was the best they could do? Bliss is an excellent Nationwide Series driver, but he’s never really cut it in Cup. With the Nationwide Series in town along with the Cup cars, surely there were options.
Speaking of getting the shaft… You do have to feel for Ryan Newman’s fans, because they did get the runaround when it comes to the truth from Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s one thing to be told your driver is out of a ride due to lack of funds for the team to expand. It’s another to find out that the team decided to expand anyway…and the whole thing is being funded by the team owner. Add in that the driver getting that ride is one that many fans openly dislike, and well, it’s easy to see why those fans are upset.
But on the other hand, racing is a performance based sport. Kurt Busch has outperformed Ryan Newman over the course of their respective careers, with more race wins and the 2004 title. Newman, a former Rookie of the Year (a feat made more impressive by the fact that he won the honor over Jimmie Johnson, who had what was arguably the finest rookie season of any driver in the modern era), was expected to win a title, but never lived up to the promise he showed in his first two seasons. On the other hand, he’s been good for about a win or two a year, so he’ll end up somewhere. If that somewhere is Furniture Row Racing, coupled with the team in its second year of an alliance with Richard Childress Racing that’s every bit as big as SHR’s with Hendrick Motorsports, and that team could continue its ascension into NASCAR’s elite ranks.
While we’re on the subject of driver replacements, it may be easier to go in-house, but is Chip Ganassi jumping the gun? By like, a year or two at least? And didn’t Ganassi learn anything about bringing a driver into the Cup ranks too soon from the last time he did it? Kyle Larson is a huge talent, and has the potential to go far in NASCAR’s top series. But you could have said the same thing about Casey Atwood. You could also have said it about Ganassi’s own teenaged phenom, Reed Sorenson. Both had won races in other cars, Atwood in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s second tier. Both got thrust into Cup cars with relatively little NASCAR experience because of their obvious talent…and neither ever won a single race. Sorenson is currently racing in the Nationwide Series for a backmarker team and Atwood is racing late models in Nashville.
Perhaps Ganassi should have taken a page from Richard Childress’s play book. Childress ran Austin Dillon for two years in the Camping World Series and two more in a Nationwide car before moving the promising young driver to the Sprint Cup ranks for 2014. Childress is doing the same with Dillon’s younger brother, Ty. While it still remains to be seen what they’ll do in the Cup ranks, they’ve been brought there the right way.
Ganassi is in a position where, with proper sponsorship, he could expand. That means he could have put a veteran driver, like Newman in the No. 42 to replace Juan Pablo Montoya and added a third car for Larson in a year or two. And if Larson’s talent is the real thing, he’d probably be successful in finding sponsors with a Nationwide title under his belt. He could, of course, slide into a Cup car and win—Joey Logano has, though the learning curve has been far, far slower than Logano expected. But with two flops to that one success, Ganassi might have thought a bit more about those odds.
There’s much to think about as the season grinds towards the Chase. The championship is heating up as the weather itself is cooling down, and the feeling of the inevitable ending is in the air—another summer, another season. The magic of the summer moonlight will give way to the chill reality of autumn nights, and what might be will become what was, or what might have been. But there’s a lot to think about as the heat fades, and a lot to look forward to. If anticipation is part of the thrill, then there’s still plenty of thrill to be had.
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