The Frontstretch: Five Points To Ponder: Who Is Making Noise Halfway Through The Year? by Danny Peters -- Tuesday July 2, 2013

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ONE: Half Way Home


The Sprint Cup Series returns to Daytona International Speedway this week, heralding the halfway point of the 2013 season.

This upcoming Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway will mark the halfway point in the 2013 Sprint Cup season. As always for me, this point arrives quicker than I expect especially given the gargantuan length of the season. So, what have we learned so far?

The Gen-6 car seems pretty racy, an enhancement on the previous iteration but not perhaps as significantly as NASCAR might have hoped as evidenced by Kenseth’s no-tire, clean air gamble on the final stop this weekend. Crowds are still down, TV numbers are flat, we continue to have far too many ads in the broadcast and Jimmie Johnson, despite some re-start snafus, is still the driver to beat. Matt Kenseth has won four races, Kyle Busch a couple and Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle amongst others have also picked up wins. In short, things are pretty much as you might expect; the two exceptions being Martin Truex, Jr. finally winning again after the longest stretch between a first and second win in the history of the sport and the champ Brad Keselowski’s relatively tepid winless first half.

Although folks have taken me to task on this point in the comments sections of previous columns, I still expect Brad to make the Chase and run strongly in defense of his title. That being said, here’s hoping for a better second half of the season than the first. The sport needs it, no question.

TWO: Big Mac

Jamie McMurray’s second place finish on Sunday was his first top-5 in 67 races (2011 Bristol night race). The result couldn’t have come at a better time for the pint sized, popular veteran who needs to knit together a solid season to prolong his 6-win, 383 race 12-year top level career.

“Overall, I felt like it was a very good day,” said McMurray post-race. “I didn’t feel like we ran significantly better today than the past ten or 12 weeks. We were able to get the finish out of it.”

Despite the encouraging signs for both McMurray and EGR teammate Juan Pablo Montoya after a couple of “pathetic” years for EGR (to quote team owner Chip Ganassi,) it has been finishing out the deal that has been the problem. It’s a point McMurray echoed in his post-race comments.

“We’ve been really quick. Had really good cars. It’s just the last ten percent of the race, something has happened each week. Michigan, blew a tire; Dover, something fell off a car and went through our radiator; Charlotte, the radiator broke; last weekend, had a flat tire with, I don’t know, 30 laps to go or whatever.”

With an extra jolt of confidence from a great finish, expect McMurray to challenge for the win this Saturday night at a track he knows and loves.

THREE: The Race to the Chase

Apparently we are now in a section of the 2013 season called the “Race to the Chase.” In case you’re unaware, these are the ten races that directly precede the big shebang itself: the actual ten race Chase. Now I understand it’s a long season (a very long season) and NASCAR needs all the marketing gimmicks they can get, but this is one promotion I’ve never quite understood.

If it does anything, it highlights just how much the composition of the tracks in the actual Chase needs to be changed. You need to have a preponderance of different types of tracks in this pre-Chase ten race stretch rather than one interminable cookie cutter after another in the final ten races. But we all know NASCAR isn’t going to make any serious changes to the make-up of the Chase anytime soon, and that intransigence just hurts the people that count the most: the fans.

But hey, what do we matter when instead we can have a (cough) terrific marketing idea that no-one really needs? Good times, folks, good times.

FOUR: Still no top-10’s for Stenhouse

Seventeen races in and back-to-back Nationwide Series Champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is still to pick up his first top 10 of the season. His better half has one more than he does; Danica finished eighth in the season opening Daytona 500. And a quick glance at the standings reveal plenty of other drivers in far less capable equipment have also picked up top-10’s: Regan Smith has two in six attempts, Vickers has two in seven while Michael McDowell, Scott Speed and JJ Yeley have one apiece. Even good old Mikey Waltrip has managed one – a 4th place finish at Talladega.

All of this comparison is not to suggest that Stenhouse is anything other than a supremely capable driver; it just reinforces how competitive it is at the Sprint Cup level. It must be a little disheartening for a driver who in his last two full seasons (67 races) in the second echelon won 8 races and picked up an impressive 35 top-5’s and 52 top-10’s.

“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the racetrack,” said team principal Jack Roush prior to the start of the season. “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport.”

Despite the results to the contrary, I certainly believe this is the case. He just needs to pick up his first top-10 and then the rest will start to follow.

FIVE: Not Quite So Wide Open at Daytona

And finally this week, we’re off to Daytona this weekend for the penultimate race in TNT’s six race stretch and perhaps, given the TV contract renewals, their penultimate race in NASCAR for a while. This year, however, the Wide Open coverage has been tweaked. After six years of featuring national ad breaks in a split screen format with the on-track action, TNT will break with tradition and only televise the final 30 laps of the scheduled 160 lap distance without commercial interruption.

As the Turner Sports press release on the issue noted, “This approach ensures our viewers will continue to see all the action at the pinnacle moment of the race.”

On the one hand, this feels like something of a step back, but the reality is the real action in plate races typically happens in the final few laps so it does make much more sense. One thing is for sure, what TNT has done – in conjunction with the sponsors – with Wide Open is the template for future NASCAR broadcast coverage but widespread adoption seems like a long shot.

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Sal
07/02/2013 07:39 AM
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Was anyone else put off by the announcers beating the audience over the head with their ‘There are no cookie cutter tracks’ statements? Yes, fans know that all 1 1/2 mile tracks don’t require identical setups. What they DO is produce the same sort of racing…the leader in clean air runs away from the rest of the field, and restarts give 99% of the ‘action’ on the track. Hmm. Maybe it’s not the fans that are stupid.

Michael in SoCal
07/02/2013 11:17 AM
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Okay, there’s no cookie cutter racetracks. BUT, there are a whole bunch of ‘Dull Ds’ out there that put on putrid races. Is that better announcers?!?

Rufus
07/02/2013 02:33 PM
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Stenhouse is a flop, and Roush made a huge mistake giving him the 17 ride over Trevor Bayne.

Zackary Shawn
07/02/2013 07:23 PM
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“In short, things are pretty much as you might expect; the two exceptions being Martin Truex, Jr. finally winning again after the longest stretch between a first and second win in the history of the sport and the champ Brad Keselowski’s relatively tepid winless first half.”

So Martin Truex’s win was less expected than David Ragan’s even though he should have won 2 or 3 races last year and probably at least one other this year? I disagree. I do agree about Keselowski though.

Ken
07/02/2013 08:25 PM
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There are a lot of people panning Stenhouse. I have to agree that he needs to be taken out of the 17, and Trevor Bayne would be a good choice to replace him. But, I firmly believe his head is not in the game. And that I blame on his relationship with the pit road Bimbo! At the next organizational meeting at Roush, when the meeting is over, Edwards and Biffle should take the young man out behind the shop and smack him silly until he smartens up and dumps her!

DoninAjax
07/02/2013 08:36 PM
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TNT will break with tradition and only televise the final 30 laps of the scheduled 160 lap distance without commercial interruption.”

Unless, of course, there happen to be some (debris) cautions during the last 30 laps. Or rain.

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