Danny Peters · Tuesday July 30, 2013
ONE: Six to Go
Six races remain until the 2013 Chase begins and in the next month and a half, the Sprint Cup circus will visit a wide array of tracks. First up is the two-and-a-half mile triangle at Pocono; then, it is on to the road course “wild card” at Watkins Glen. A second trip of the season, to the high-banked two-mile track at Michigan follows the visit to upstate New York before a tremendous trio of races at Bristol, Atlanta and finally the cutoff race at Richmond. With just 41 points separating Greg Biffle in eighth place and Joey Logano in 18th, there’s sure to be significant movement in the standings during this time and many a twist and turn before the checkered flag flies after race 26 of the season. In years past, the race to the Chase has tended to feel a little bit prosaic but this year is anything but. Wins, of course, will be at a premium, although with such a small tranche of points separating eleven drivers, consistency might just be the key to that all-important Chase spot. Whether you like the playoff and “wild card” system or not, the race within the race for the Chase berths these next few weeks should be absolutely compelling.
TWO: Bye-Bye Burton
Only four drivers have the unique honor of starting all twenty NASCAR races at the Brickyard: Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. For the latter, it was truly a race to forget with the 21-year veteran of some 675 races finishing dead last in 43rd place.
Prior to the “off week,” Burton sat 17th, a very manageable 25 points out of 10th and there was genuine optimism from the driver and team with regards to making the Chase. Sadly for Burton, that optimism evaporated with a broken part on Lap 82, midway through the event.
“It was a tough day for the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet team. We were hanging around the top 20 when something in the transmission broke and sent us to the garage area for repairs,” said Burton. “I’m not sure what happened, but I’m proud of the team for getting the car back out there. This team never gives up. We just need to stay positive and know our Chase [for the NASCAR Sprint Cup] hopes are still very much alive.”
The math would, however, suggest otherwise with Burton falling three positions in the standings to 20th; that’s some sixty points (essentially a race and a half) out of tenth place. And while wins – and likely multiple wins – could still do it, Burton hasn’t scored a victory since the Charlotte Chase event in 2008, some 169 races ago. It would be great to see Burton make the postseason, but to say those hopes are “very much alive” seems little more than hyperbole.
THREE: NBC The Home of Racing
A staggering ten-year, $4.4 billion TV deal has secured NBC the rights to the final 20 races of each Cup season from 2015 through 2024. The deal also includes the final 19 Nationwide Series races for each of those ten seasons. With the addition of NASCAR to go alongside their coverage of every Formula One race, along with the bulk of the IndyCar Series (13 of 19 races), NBC is firmly establishing itself as the future home of racing. “This is a major step for motorsports in North America. A single network, NBC Sports, acquired rights to NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar, allowing them to promote the sport as a whole,” noted Zak Brown, founder of motorsports marketing agency JMI. “The fact a major network invested substantially and long-term in motorsports is a marker of confidence and commitment in the platform.” The flip side to this argument is that with NASCAR no longer on ESPN, will the worldwide leader in sports really promote racing in any way, shape or form? My guess would be no, no and three times no. That being said, such a huge deal – in addition to the one Fox signed through 2022 – is a huge positive for the sport as it provides a platform and a safety net for a solid decade. In this crazy world of ours, that’s no bad thing.
FOUR: Six Pack
A poor final pit stop for Jimmie Johnson and a good strategy, two-tire gamble from crew chief Matt Borland enabled Indiana’s own Ryan Newman to kiss the bricks on Sunday. But make no mistake; the second-place finisher is absolutely the driver to beat going forward. The five-time champion leads the standings by a colossal 75 points and is tied for the most wins (four with Matt Kenseth), the most top 5s (9 with Kyle Busch), the most top 10s (14) and the most laps led (1,093). For a driver that doesn’t normally get fully started until the Chase begins, those are worrying stats to the chasing pack. Add in that Johnson could and should have won at Dover, Kentucky and Michigan, along with Indianapolis Sunday and you have a recipe for dominance. This weekend, we return to Pocono where he controlled the first race, qualifying on pole and leading 128 of 160 laps, so don’t be surprised to see win number five on the season. What’s more remarkable is that Johnson is flashing this speed in an era of extremely close competition, where on-track passing is still absolutely at a premium. At the rate, the only thing that stops Johnson winning title number six is mental errors on track or pit crew miscues. Yes, Matt Kenseth has run impressively but Johnson, as he has so often before, appears to be in a class all his own.
FIVE: Pocono Part II
Finally this week, we take a look ahead to this weekend’s race, the second trip to the tricky triangle: picturesque Pocono Raceway. As mentioned above, the last trip was a bit of a snoozer. Qualification was washed out and Jimmie Johnson then did likewise to the competition.
“That was the best car I’ve had in a long, long time,” Johnson said post-race. “What a race car and engine. I had plenty of horsepower. I could do what I wanted around other cars.”
Unfortunately for those watching, no one else could and for much of the day, the race was a 200 mile-an-hour procession.
“It was frustrating. I really wish we had qualified because you think 400 miles would be enough time to get up there and it really wasn’t… It was just so hard to pass today,” said Joey Logano, who won the first race at Pocono last year.
With that in mind, I would expect more of the same this Sunday unless Jimmie has a brain fade in qualifying. At least it’s only 400 miles of likely Johnson domination rather than the full 500.
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