The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: The Junior Rule, Wishing For a Short Track and Stenhouse Jr.'s Future by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday May 24, 2011

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ONE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Made the All-Star Race…Was It Really That Hard?


The fans wanted to see Dale Jr. in the All-Star Race, NASCAR guaranteed it.

There really wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that NASCAR’s most popular driver by miles was not going to race in Saturday night’s All-Star Race. The fan vote this season, with Earnhardt still riding a long winless streak and over a decade removed from his All-Star triumph as a rookie, was decided before it began. That wasn’t the only insurance policy that NASCAR took on the Showdown rules though; a little publicized rule change altered the fan vote, requiring the winner no longer be on the lead lap, but simply to have a car deemed race worthy by the race director (Absent a rule book, there were plenty asking rhetorically, or not so much, does that mean the car the fan vote winner started the race with? Or the other one they’ve got chilling in the hauler?)

But why was this so much work? If NASCAR really wanted to make sure that Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the show, all they needed to do was to reverse an asinine rule change made several years ago, one that put a 10 year expiration date on a previous All-Star win guaranteeing entrance into the big show (right around the time Geoffrey Bodine and Mach One Racing took an automatic berth). Take that 10 year cap off, and boom, Jr.’s back in the field, without cheapening his spot in the race (read, the fans put him in) or without adding more gray to an already invisible rule book.

Besides, it’s not like the Shootout in Daytona has lost any luster because Bodine fielded a No. 93 entry a few years back that was nearly 20 mph off the pace, or with Derrike Cope woefully off the pace in his No. 64 this past February. Both of these drivers have big-time wins on their resumes, even if they’re decades removed from them. That they’re driving subpar cars in 2011 doesn’t cheapen the races they did win in their primes. And NASCAR obviously doesn’t seem to care that much about the luster of the Shootout anyway; the new formats that race faces every season define absurdity.

TWO: Speaking All-Star Race, It’s Time to Move to a Short-Track

And not just because the overblown commercials of Western style shootout and violent fisticuffs proved to be all sizzle and no steak when the green flag dropped Saturday night at Charlotte. It certainly was a tame night of racing when compared to the fireworks seen at Darlington or even Richmond in the past few weeks, but since when has the sport been measured in terms of scuffles, among actual race fans anyway?

Saturday proved that the mad dash for cash type of racing that the All-Star Race prides itself on no longer is able to work on a 1.5 mile oval. With parity increasing and the importance of clean air trumping all on a track that still utilizes rock hard tires which give next to nothing up over the course of a run, the chances of the smaller field getting strung out even in short segments are great—as they realized Saturday night again and again and again.

The format that is oft-romanticized is the one the drivers cut their teeth on racing Saturday nights at their local bullrings. That would work, well, on local bullrings. There’s no way for the field to get strung out, fans would see an emphasis on driver far more than race car, and, for those lusting for blood, there would be no way to avoid contact on the tighter confines of a short track.

If aero is taken out of the equation, making side-by-side racing with contact far more likely, only then may the best driver win.

It’s sad to see Charlotte Motor Speedway struggling to put on an event worthy of the memory of the “pass in the grass,” but those days seemed farther away than ever on this Saturday night.

THREE: Elimination Racing?

Last point on the All-Star Race and its many intricacies/absurdities. Perhaps the best suggestion heard all weekend in the media center leading up to Saturday night’s race was the idea of an elimination format. Make it a 50 lap, 100 lap race, whatever, but every few laps park the last place car. Proceed until the field is gone.

Suddenly, there’s absolutely no incentive to ride around. The battles at the back of the pack immediately become those of life and death. Talk about having a reason to keep the leader in sight! Let them get away, and when it comes down to the final 1 versus 2 spot in the race, there is no time whatsoever to make up for having stroked it.

Would this work all season long? No. Such a format could very well penalize those that have fantastic race setups but qualify poorly on ovals where the current car configuration have made passing in the middle of the field on back immensely difficult (like CMS, for one). But for All-Star Racing, for a night where a premium is placed on urgency, on throwing calculation out the window in place of go hard from the drop of the green flag, it rids all the need for gimmicks, for mandatory pit stops, for segments, etc. Go or go home would never be more literal.

FOUR: What’s Next for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?

It took 12 races, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finally put a tally mark in the good guys’ column, becoming the first Nationwide Series regular to win one of their own races in 2011, holding off Cup regulars Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski to score his first career win at Iowa. 11 races in, as deep into the season as it is, actually proves only to be the median for how long it’s taken a full-time Nationwide Series regular to win their first race since Kevin Harvick started the trend of Cup champions in the series back in 2006. Justin Allgaier won last season when the campaign was only four races old. On the other side of the spectrum, Paul Menard scored his first win of 2006 at Milwaukee when the campaign was 17 races old and halfway over.

2010: Justin Allgaier, Bristol, race #4
2009: Mike Bliss, Charlotte, race #11
2008: Brad Keselowski, Nashville, race #15
2007: Stephen Leicht, Kentucky, race #16
2006: Paul Menard, Milwaukee, race #17

Looking at that list of names proves one other point; that first Nationwide Series win ultimately does little to guarantee a bright future. Brad Keselowski has gone on to win a Nationwide Series title and is now a full-time Cup driver, while Stephen Leicht has started only 14 NASCAR national touring series races since the 2007 season. The most prevalent trend here? Three of the five drivers listed above, including the last two, started the season following their win with a new team.

With the Wood Brothers Racing seat now apparently in flux, maybe there’s something to be said for these stats when forecasting the future of the Nationwide Series’ newest winner.

FIVE: Frank Kimmel’s Top 10 Finish as Good as a Win at New Jersey

The sixth place finish posted by nine-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel at New Jersey was not his career best road course finish, nor was it a career best at New Jersey Motorsports Park in particular. What it was, however, was a statement race following the bitterest of disappointments at Toledo one weekend ago. Leading the race with under 15 laps to go, Kimmel was spun out by points leader Ty Dillon in a move that had numerous drivers in the ARCA garage crying foul.

There’s no disputing that Dillon has been red-hot ever since winning the last two ARCA races in 2010 and winning two of the first five races this year (Dillon finished eighth at NJMP in his first career road course start on Sunday). And despite Kimmel’s resume, Dillon and his RCR backed team entered 2011 as the prohibitive favorites for the series crown.

But for Kimmel, there’s a streak of luck running this season that has seemingly evaded the champ since starting his own race team. Not only did he top 10 the only road course on the ARCA slate this year, he top 10’d both plate races as well, the first he’s done that since 2008. Now, the only specialty races left on the slate are the dirt fairgrounds of Springfield and DuQuoin, the rest of the schedule Midwestern bullrings and superspeedways that are hardly new to the ARCA ranks.

After starting the season with two plate races and a road course, Kimmel sits only 90 points out of first. Adjust the points to remove the spin incident at Toledo, and that margin goes down to only 45 markers. With those kind of numbers at this point in the season…Advantage: Kimmel.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Carl D.
05/24/2011 08:31 AM
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I like the 10-year cap on previous winners being given a free pass into the all-star race. I want the best cars in the race. I hate to see guys with no chance to win allowed into the race and then just run at the back. The same goes for past cup champs. Earn your way in or be a spectator.

I like the idea of running the event on a short track, or even Darlington. At least there would be a good chance that the actual race would live up to hype.

upstate24fan
05/24/2011 09:29 AM
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The only change I would make to All Star eligibility would be give a life time exemption to guys who have won the Big-3 (Cup Championship, Daytona 500 and the All Star Race) as long as they are top-35 in points. It would be interesting to see the All Star race at a short track, but that won’t happen. I’m sure they will tweak the format again to make it more interesting again. It’s an exhibition race they can do what they want to liven up the show.

Johnboy60
05/24/2011 12:53 PM
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Ty Dillion is another spoiled little rich kid just like Kyle Bush, except he is riding grandpa’s coat tails and it won’t be long before someone takes him down a notch….I think they all learned with kyle what happens if they don’t!!

Andy
05/24/2011 11:17 PM
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They should run the All-Star race up the road at Bowman Gray in Winston-Salem. A real short track, and close enough that the drivers can still sleep in their own bed.

THEN we’ll have the race that they keep promising.