Amy Henderson · Wednesday January 29, 2014
Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and to produce a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, from NASCAR’s Media Tour down in Charlotte Amy takes a look at some numbers that should come to define this season in stock car racing.
The return of the No. 3 car to the track has been discussed and debated since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the driver who will forever be linked to that number more than a decade ago. After thirteen years of “retirement,” it’s back on track in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon. And while some say the number should be retired from the sport for good, NASCAR isn’t in the practice of doing that. Instead, the car that’s being renumbered is the one that was renumbered all those years ago, during a time when nobody could bear to see Earnhardt’s number on track without the driver.
Things have changed since 2001, though. The cold, hard truth is that by now, someone else would be driving the No. 3 even if that fateful day in Daytona — so long ago now — had never happened at all. And Earnhardt knew that, was ready for it. He and Childress had discussed passing the number on one day, and after Earnhardt’s death, Childress decided that the No. 3 would only return with an Earnhardt or Childress family member behind the wheel. Some thought that should be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; however, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is his own person, forging his own path. Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon is just starting his Cup journey by comparison, and the number is just as special to him and to his family. Add the fact that NASCAR, not RCR owns the number and another team could have requested it, something that nobody really wanted down the road, and you have a decision made in the best interest of all parties involved.
After Dillon topped the speed charts in testing at Daytona earlier this month, all eyes will be on him as the Daytona 500 draws near. Can Dillon rekindle a little of the old magic, as “Earnhardt” did so effortlessly with restrictor plates? The next chapter for a storied car number is beginning… as it has for others in the past. The way the story unfolds is all up to Dillon.
Seven is another number that will forever be inextricably linked with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. It’s the number of Cup championships the Hall of Fame driver had in his career, the same number of titles held by Richard Petty and a mark no one has come close to matching… until now. Should Jimmie Johnson win another Cup title, he will tie the mark set by that duo, forever etching himself into a record most thought would never be approached. And while Johnson is deserving — he’s the best driver of his era and makes a strong case for being one of the best ever to sit in a stock car — many fans don’t look at it that way because Johnson’s titles have all come in the Chase era.
That’s unfair to Johnson for a couple of reasons. One, his team — every team — would simply not have approached the season the same way had the Chase not been in place. Also, Johnson didn’t make the rules; he simply played the game he was given. So did Earnhardt and Petty, whose titles came under different point systems in different eras of competition.
Like it or not, Johnson is looking history square in the eye this season.
Johnson and any other would-be champions may have to work under a new championship format in 2014, one that could ultimately come down to four teams and just a single race. Proposed changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup include taking 16 drivers who win races, with season points only coming into play if there are more than 16 different winners. It could include eliminations and a points reset before the final race, essentially giving the championship to the driver who can come up big at Homestead.
This concept could be dangerous territory for NASCAR. Many fans are vehemently opposed to the latest ideas. And if fans see a 10-race run for the title as making the championship mean less than a full-season points tally would, a single race ultimately deciding the champion could make that perception of a cheapened title grow among fans. While whomever does win will have won under the current rules, those same rules could mean a winner that ultimately confuses fans. If the proposed format had been in place in 2013, David Ragan would have made the Chase. And if teams raced according to a new format, he might have even won the title… when, instead he finished 28th in points. If Ragan had won, yes, he’d have done the best he could with the rules he was given. He’d deserve the title by virtue of that. But would that fly with race fans?
Should 35 weeks of hard work come down to just one race? The ironic part is that it already does in series without the Chase format. The Nationwide title, as an example was decided in the final laps of the final race… but NASCAR didn’t change the rules to make that happen. They may want a “game seven moment” every year, but reality is that even sports with a game seven don’t have a single great, defining moment each season. And that’s OK with the fans of those sports. Will a one-race title generate enough new viewers to justify the fans who may not watch at all?
That’s the age that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will turn on his next birthday, in October. The driver who had to grow up seemingly overnight and in front of our eyes is now just ten years younger than his father was when he lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His father, if alive would likely be retired, enjoying the fruits of his labor at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and the driver known mostly as just “Junior” would be carrying on the family name.
Instead, with Earnhardt gone, a once-promising young empire crumbled (and the last vestiges are now gone, as Teresa Earnhardt sold the remaining shares in the race team her husband had started years before). Earnhardt, Jr. moved on to Hendrick Motorsports, choosing a better chance to chase the title everyone once felt was only a matter of time until he owned. But it’s never happened.
There’s no clear reason why Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t won more races or a championship. He doesn’t lack talent — no driver who lacks talent wins 19 times on NASCAR’s biggest stage. He doesn’t lack equipment, enjoying the best in the sport at HMS. Earnhardt, Jr. should be winning races. Yes, there are drivers out there who are simply better, with Earnhardt’s own teammates possibly among them. But there are other drivers winning who can’t match the talent of the top two or three on the circuit, so that’s not the whole story. Some have questioned Earnhardt’s drive, but he’s worked harder than ever in his career the past few years, making that theory questionable. Is a title meant to be for Junior? If it is, he’ll have to capitalize soon. The driver says he doesn’t feel 40…but he soon will be, and the odds of a title decrease dramatically at that age. Losing crew chief Steve Letarte after this season will only make the journey that much harder to achieve.
It’s been several years since the Sprint Cup Series had a field of Rookie of the Year candidates with the potential to really make people sit up and take notice. 2014 changes that. There are eight rookie candidates to date (Austin Dillon, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier, and Ryan Truex). While a few of them aren’t going to contend, mainly due to inferior equipment, there is a lot of talent in this group. That means there’s a potential for a great ROTY battle as well, particularly between Dillon and Larson.
Dillon is the reigning Nationwide Series champion and has been groomed for the Sprint Cup Series for the last four years. Larson, by comparison is the young phenom who has impressed with his talent from day one. It could be a close battle — while Dillon has a slight edge in his Richard Childress Racing equipment, Larson has a small advantage in raw talent. As for the others? They’re not quite on the same level as these two, but the remaining six drivers in this freshman class all have the ability to grab Rookie of the Race honors throughout the year. For some of them, that means valuable exposure for their smaller, underfunded teams.
This rookie crop—the strongest the sport has seen since 2006—bears watching in 2014. The battle should be a good one, and more importantly, fans have lamented the dearth of new talent in the sport in recent years. Well, here it is, in force and ready to stick around the sport’s top level. With many of NASCAR’s stars aging, these youngsters represent a new era… and with a new era will come a new star, an heir apparent to Jimmie Johnson. Who will it be? Only time will tell, but 2014 will give us a glimpse.
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