The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Chasing The Chase And Pocono Thrills by Danny Peters -- Tuesday July 30, 2013

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ONE: Six to Go

Pocono leads the last six races that will determine who is in the 2013 Chase.

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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07/30/2013 08:05 AM

So now we’re learning that it was BSPN and TNT that ditched Nascar. That says a LOT doesn’t it?

Hmmm….The Chase, the COT, “FIVE TIME!”, debris cautions…all while on BSPN (the worldwide bleeder of sports).

That really helped grow the sport didn’t it Mr. France?

07/30/2013 09:00 AM

TV contracts and which channel the race is on won’t have any effect on my watching habits.

What will affect it though, is follow the leader parades around boring tracks dominated by the same 2-3 cars every week. I do think it’s good to have the big boys as a benchmark to compete, but when every week you can count on one hand the teams with a legit chance to win, that isn’t good racing. This season it has felt like the Gen6 car, while it looks better, is an absolute dog on the racetrack. There is very little racing, and clean air is more important than ever. I don’t want crashes, I want to see some action. Be it slamming fenders or drivers utilizing multiple grooves (California, Atlanta come to mind), I just want to see a little action. Not riding around for 450 miles then complaining the car is no good in traffic near the end.

Carl D.
07/30/2013 09:09 AM

I agree that Jimmie Johnson is the guy to beat for the championship; that’s pretty obvious. I still think it can be done, though. The points will be reset, and if another team peaks at the right time, and if Johnson falters even once, we could have a battle.

I don’t think it would be good for the sport for Johnson to run away with another title, but that ain’t his fault. His job is to win races and that’s what he does. Yeah, I hate to see him win so often, but it’s not personal… in fact, I have a measure of respect for Johnson despite the fact that I think the 48 team’s success is more the result of Chad’s cars than Johnson’s driving. One thing I really admire about Jimmie is that he rarely steps down into the Nationwide series to beat up on the minor league teams. I wish all cup drivers felt the same way.

But I still hope he never wins another cup title.

07/30/2013 09:17 AM

Ha, that puts the shoe on the other foot, doesn’t it? ESPN & TNT weren’t interested in renewing – maybe because they, like the fans, aren’t getting enough bang for their buck.

I agree with Hank and Carl D’s comments as well.

Pocono will hardly be a thrill. Honestly unless it is pouring rain, I’ll be out doing something else, not inside watching another parade. We have tickets to Dover for September but I honestly would rather NOT go based on the borefest that track puts on these days.

07/30/2013 09:41 AM

short tracks (a mile or less), and road courses make for good racing. The rest, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. I agree with Hank. I don’t want to see a ton of wrecks, just some good tight racing. As usual, Indy was a joke.

07/30/2013 09:52 AM

NASCAR will pay even less attention to its fans now, if that is even possible. What does NASCAR care now that the TV deals are signed? Did
NASCAR get the last laugh on us fans? Something doesn’t add up for me about the TV deals. Both Fox and NBC paid substantial price
increases for the TV rights. I was under the impression that both track attendance and
TV viewers in the past several years was either flat or on the decline.
I would have thought this would have driven the price down and not up.
Can someone explain what gives here?

Bill B
07/30/2013 11:19 AM

Honestly, with each passing race the incentive to DVR it increases. Something tells me that this will only get more obvious in 2015. With higher dollar tv contracts come more commercials. It’s pretty sad when you can watch a 4 hour race in 2 hours if you just skip the commercials and BS.

Trying to explain the logic of tv companies is as futile as trying to explain the logic of the government.

07/30/2013 12:22 PM

I’m a little skeptical of ESPN and TNT now coming out and saying they didn’t want NASCAR period. I find it hard to believe they didn’t put a bid in. NBC would not have negotiated that huge a price against just themselves. Sounds more like the tv sports version of jilted lovers.

07/30/2013 01:22 PM

I’m with you on that. I don’t see any reason why NBC would pay such a substantial amount for coverage if ESPN and TNT didn’t want in. I think they probably presented a peanuts bid to get coverage for cheap, hoping no one else would jump into the ring. NBC decided they want back into nascar, so now ESPN and TNT are saving face by attempting to show a lack of interest on their behalf.

07/30/2013 02:33 PM

The manufactured “The Chase” has a negative impact on the overall experience for the viewer at home. Let them race till Homestead. By getting rid of it, racing might improve, some might “go for it” more, its point racing and its boring. Once “The Chase” is in full swing it is unbearable to listen as all you hear is “The Chase” about a billion times. They do not have a clue, sadly. I also think there is a negative impact in regards to sponsors. Oh the list goes on about “The Chase”, it actually makes us sick because it robs us of racing we used to enjoy, but there are many things that are not enjoyable about Nascar for some time now.

07/30/2013 04:55 PM

The chase has eliminated what used to be about 20 weeks of points racing, and created 36 weeks of points racing.

In years past, drivers would really gun for it early in the year to get a win or two to postion themselves, knowing that they had the rest of the year to catch up. Now it’s all about “Who’s in and who’s out” before we even leave Daytona in February. Not to mention once the chase starts 31 teams better not even come near a chase car or they’re labeled mavericks who shouldn’t be on the track. 13th in points for a middle of the road team used to be considered somewhat decent, but now it’s a failure and the driver might as well pack his bag and get a new job.

07/30/2013 06:06 PM

I don’t think it matters which stations cover the races, with poor competition its hard to cover a race anyway. But if NASCAR wants more people watching the races, then why would NBC have most of the races on their cable station? It will probably cost more on cable than it would on the local station. Same goes for FoxSports I, its gonna cost more to get it. And I think I’m fed up with it, so I’ll probably be done watching it then! But as long as NASCAR is quaranteed the money for next ten years, do they really care?

07/31/2013 01:58 AM

Hank, right on perfect. The Chase has created a cottage industry of sheep that think if somebody doesn’t “Make the Chase” well they are just the most horrible driver to strap into a Sprint Cup car, a misconception that could not be more wrong. A few weeks of you being caught up in anothers mess or a few blown tires..hell they are ready to tar and feather ya..when it wasn’t even your fault…let them race till Homestead..a more fair and accurate picture of one’s season overall! And if a driver gets in a tangle with a “Chaser” well..that is a whole nasty can of worms..its not fair to the sport all around!

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