The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Titanic Teams And The Deaththroes Of A Network by Huston Ladner -- Tuesday May 14, 2013

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Darlington is a bit of an anomaly in regards to the Cup schedule. It proves a unique challenge to drivers, due both to its layout and its surface. But besides those features, there’s not a whole lot that transfers anywhere else on the circuit. Some drivers and teams have the track figured out, while others don’t and seemingly never will. Because the series visits there only once a year now, the emphasis on the Lady In Black may not be what it was — which is further dictated by how little success at the egg-shaped track relates to others. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be gleaned from the latest visit, though.

There’s one thing about 2013 we can say for certain: JGR has got the Gen-6 figured out!

ONE: Is Joe Gibbs Racing Pacing The Field?

Consider that JGR has five wins already this season out of 11 contested, a 45.4 percent clip. Consider that Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are the season’s lap leaders, with more total (1,521) than the next seven behind them on the list. Consider that the almighty Hendrick Motorsports teams could not keep up with JGR at Darlington. Add all these things together and it sure looks like the three-car organization has figured out the Gen-6 chassis more than others.

Anyone watching the race at Darlington had to feel that Jimmie Johnson was just biding his time. As the laps clicked off, he kept pace in the top three; but then, we got a surprise. When he raced Busch for the lead, late in the going he never managed to get by. In fact, Johnson failed to lead a lap ever. Only Jeff Gordon represented HMS at the front of the field and that was short-lived, as Busch blew by him without much effort before Matt Kenseth assumed the point following the late-race tire fade.

Aside from the battle between the JGR and HMS titans, what does it mean for the rest of the teams? Well, it’s not good. It sure looks like these two are distancing themselves from the rest of the field. Where was Roush, Childress, or Penske at Darlington? Being lapped. And the funny thing about the ones that seemed to keep pace, Waltrip and Ganassi, is that they both have alliances with the teams leading the pack. It’s clear the Gen-6 pecking order is taking shape.

TWO: Was Matt Kenseth Hamstrung At Roush?

In his 13 years racing for Roush, Kenseth accumulated 24 wins. Certainly decent. In his first season with Gibbs, though he’s already got three. At first, making a comparison between the two teams is problematic. It’s not like Kenseth has never started strong, especially when he won the Daytona 500 and followed it up with a win at California in 2009. But there’s something that’s different about this season.

Kenseth seems like a man that has benefited from the proverbial change of scenery. He’s rejuvenated and comes across like he’s driving possessed with a sense of purpose. One of the things that he might be benefiting from is a sense of security with regards to sponsorship. Somehow, Roush appeared to struggle selling the real estate on Kenseth’s car, but at Gibbs he’s locked down with Dollar General and Home Depot, no longer having to worry about that issue. Now, the wheelman can put his focus on driving, and with almost one-third of the season over, plus a crucial Kansas appeal in the rear-view mirror the 2003 champ is looking like the one to beat a decade later.

THREE: 500 Miles

The Southern 500 at Darlington brings with it an almost mythical lore. Sometimes, however, lore is best left to the past. Did anyone else notice that for the race’s incredible pace, and only five cautions for 25 laps, that it still took just over three-and-a-half hours to complete? Think about it; Kyle Busch was running away from the field and making a mockery of things, for all but 20 laps, and it still took longer than your normal football game. That’s a loooong race.

As NASCAR must address its place in the sporting landscape, along with how to maintain fans, races like this one are an example of the difficulties it faces. Traditionalists (and track managers) want 500 miles, because that is their comfort zone. The next generation, though doesn’t have the wherewithal to endure such a marathon. The Pocono races, thankfully, got shortened, in response to the drawn-out, 500-mile, all-day affairs. Maybe it’s time other races did the same.

FOUR: Tires

OK, it’s not a new topic and it’s getting a bit old. Tires, tires, tires. At Las Vegas, Texas, and Kansas, there was little to no dropoff, paired with little to no passing. The failure in degradation also brought about little in the way of strategic moves during the race — remember that at Kansas, Kenseth changed left sides only twice. But at Darlington this past weekend, the track chewed up Goodyears and teams were forced to consider different tire strategies, with two notable moves: Denny Hamlin taking just right-sides in the middle stint and leading cars going for four with just a handful of laps remaining. That helped make the late stages more competitive after Busch laid waste to the field.

Still, those types of finishes are reliant on pavement, plus pressure on Goodyear to be perfect with their compound. So rather than leaving tire management up to having a surface that eats them, how about considering what the open-wheel brethren are doing? What if teams were given an option of what tires they wanted to run? Sure, the idea seems anathema to NASCAR, but perhaps having the option of different types of compounds would encourage some more of that thinking outside the pit box.

FIVE: The Promos

Did anyone else notice the FOX Sports 1 promos that ran throughout the race on Saturday night? There’s irony at play here. FOX Sports is trying to sell NASCAR fans on the advent of their new network — which is what any emerging enterprise would do. But isn’t it a bit comical to be selling the “new” changes to racing fans during the race?

Remember Fox Sports 1 is, in essence, shuttering SPEED TV. So racing fans are supposed to get excited about the launch of a network that is going to lessen the amount of racing coverage? Isn’t one of the key concepts of marketing to “know your audience?”

Eh, whatever. Who needs to care about that kind of stuff? We’re FOX! We haven’t really cared about racing fans in while. Why do you think that the Waltrip Brothers both have jobs?

Boogity boogity blah, indeed.

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JP
05/14/2013 08:21 AM
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In todays world there should be few, if any, races lasting longer than 3 hrs. Most folks, especially the young, won’t sit that long. And knowing that most of the real action will come towards the end of the race, most will not bother with the start.

It is SO refreshing to see a team, ANY team, be able to REALLY compete against Hendrick. I just hope Nascar leaves them alone to do so.

Gromit45
05/14/2013 09:09 AM
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While shortening the races, how about mixing about the length? 425 miles on this track, 444 on another, and so on. It causes more team strategy.

Cory
05/14/2013 09:14 AM
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If everybody wants to shorten the race, why not make heat races out of the day, dirt track style. Oh, better yet, for fans who crave destruction, let’s put 4 stop signs at random intervals on the race track, and have ramps that randomly pop out of the racing surface. Yeah, that’d be entertaining.

Carl D.
05/14/2013 10:47 AM
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I think the majority of fans would consider it a blessing if Nascar shortened the races at most of the cookie-cutter tracks, but they should leave some races alone. The Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, Daytona 500… the length is part of what makes these races iconic.

Sherri T
05/14/2013 11:06 AM
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I’m with Carl D!

john
05/14/2013 11:40 AM
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I’m a traditionalist, and I constantly point out that the races are too long. That’s why I love the Truck series; 200 miles here and there, a couple of hours… Short enough to be exciting and to have the drivers fighting for position the WHOLE race, but long enough that there’s still 2-3 pit stops and strategy.

As far as I’m concerned, long races should be special, they should be marquee events. Daytona 500, obviously. Coke 600, obviously (it should be the “big endurance race.) I hate the racing at Indy but if it’s there, it must be 400 miles. The fall race at Charlotte, 500 miles. Southern 500, 500 miles.

But the rest? Yeah, definitely shorter. Mix up the formats, why not? Have heat races instead of qualifying at the short tracks. Have an open 60 minute qualifying session for the road courses, like old F1 used to. Keep the races shorter, keep the racers RACING, and it will keep fans interested.

Upstate24fan
05/14/2013 12:08 PM
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It’s probably not a good idea for safety to either have multiple tire compounds on ovals or another “tire war”. If I’m not mistaken I think in IndyCar they only bring one type of tire to oval tracks.

I agree on race length. 500 miles is ok for Darlington and the Daytona 500. The Coke 600 is tradition, but beyond that no race should be beyond 400 miles (short tracks excluded). It makes the big races more special and usually provides a solid 2.5-3 hours of racing.

Charles
05/14/2013 12:13 PM
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You mention the tires in this article and whether they shold allow for more than one compound to be used. Actually, NASCAR once allowed that. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, teams were allowed a choice of tire compounds, and could change the tire compound during the race. In fact, the 1969 Daytona 500 was decided that way as LeeRoy Yarbrough’s team, led by Junior Johnson, chose a softer compound on their last pit stop, while Cotton Owens elected not to change tires with about 15 laps to go on Charlie Glotzbach’s final pit stop. That put Glotzbach abou six or seven seconds ahead, but Yarbrough closed fast and passed Glotzbach on the final lap to win the race.

But the are problems with that idea, which came to a head in the 1972 Talladega 500. In that race, the teams with heavier backing all ran a softer compound tire, while the independent teams, which couldn’t afford to run a softer tire, chose the harder compound, and that was the hot ticket that day. While guys like Petty, Allison, Pearson, and the others ran faster with the softer tires, they also had to make 2-3 pit stops for every one the teams rnning the harder tires did. As a result, James Hyton, driving his own car, beat Ramo Stott, driving Junie Donlavey’s car by one car length. Bobby Allison, who was third, was five laps behind, and Richard Petty, who finished seventh, was 11 laps behind at the finish, despite haveing faster cars.

Here’s a look at the top 10 finishers and number of laps behind at the finish of that race:

1. 48-James Hylton
2. 90-Ramo Stott
3. 12-Bobby Allison (-5 laps)
4. 97-Red Farmer (-8 laps)
5. 67-Buddy Arrington (-9 laps)
6. 76-Ben Arnold (-10 laps)
7. 43-Richard Petty (-11 laps)
8. 19-Henley Gray (-13 laps)
9. 47-Raymond Williams (-15 laps)
10. 56-Jim Hurtubise (-17 laps)

Of course, not all that was because of tire problems, but it’s startling how far behind Bobby Allison and Richard Petty were in much faster cars because of the number of pit stops they had to make during at race. So sometime in 1973 (after the Winston 500, because multiple compounds were allowed in that race), that practice was outlawed, and every competitior had to use the same tire compound.

Can you imagine a race today with many of the top drivers 6, 8, 10, or even more than 10 laps down due to having ot make multiple it stops because of tire compound and having to change it during the course of a race. No, what they have now is better. And remember that a pit stop costs eve the leader between 1-2 laps, depending on the track, except for the longest tracks, such as Pocono, Indy, and the road courses. And remember that the last time a driver lapped the entire field in a Cup race was during a tire war. But if they used diferent compounds, you coul see races with the winner 2 or 3 laps ahead of everyone else, even today because of the increased number of pit stops some would have to make, but not others.

Wayne T. Morgan
05/14/2013 12:18 PM
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Back in the days before half the fans were born the 500 miles meant to test car and driver. Now everybody wants it to be over in an hour or two and go do something else. Shorting the races would work i guess but are the tracks and NA$CAR going to Shorten the prices? Right keep thinking that! Just as soon go to WoO events and get my dollars worth from the get-go! And the local track as well.

Randy
05/14/2013 12:34 PM
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I agree with your comments about the FOX Sports 1 promos. All I could think about was how they would be chopping out a lot (all?) of the current racing coverage and shows. Of course I don’t watch all the stuff on Speed, but at least there was a channel devoted to racing and car related shows. Now, we’ll just have another ESPNlike channel that won’t give a damn about auto racing. There’s progress for you. Not!

ginaV24
05/14/2013 02:27 PM
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I agree with Carl D on this.

It is ironic that Fox is trying to sell it’s “new” network while it continues to provide such a dismally poor product to the current fans on its regular channel.

I used to watch Speed Channel ALL the time because the programming was just that good. Racing of all forms were presented with knowledgeable people in the booth. I enjoyed it. Then someone decided to turn it from a racing channel to “reality” shows. Well, folks, I’m not interested in tow truck wars, some of the really dumbe and dumber shows. I wanted to see racing and related programming. Programs like Nascar 360, Beyond the Wheel, Inside Winston Cup – they were fun to watch. these days I seldom turn Speed on, the only show I still watch is racehub. I am sorry for the folks who have worked for speed who will lose their jobs so Fox can have it’s “new” shiny network.

I don’t plan to watch the new station since it sounds like an ESPN wannabe and quite honestly I don’t watch much ESPN.

Ken
05/14/2013 02:55 PM
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If you think race attendance is down now, wait until they shorten the races. How many people will drive hundreds or thousands of miles and spend the large sums of money for food and lodging if a race is only going to last for two or three hours? It might increase the TV viewing but it will kill the crowd at the track.

peter
05/14/2013 03:00 PM
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I think that some tracks like kansas, pocono, dover,new hamshire and michigan should not have two races, while others like darlington deserve two. I also think that Iowa,Nashville,Rockingham and VIR deserve a race. Also the Las Vegas race should not be so early in the season and it should be at night

Rufus
05/14/2013 04:45 PM
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Peter, There is one very good reason why Michigan should have two dates. More than 50% of that crowd are “foreign”. That race is well attended by Ontario race fans, as it is so close to the border that someone can get to the track and make it home from the race in good time, even with having to cross the border, so they can make it to work the next day. It’s the same with Watkins Glen. New Hampshire gets a lot of people from the Canadian Maritime provinces too. As for Quebec, well, don’t get me started on politics.

Doug
05/14/2013 05:10 PM
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“Welcome to the circus they call NASCAR” says John Roberts on trackside last Sat. afternoon. Now that about says it all!

john
05/15/2013 01:46 PM
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Ken: I would definitely haul to a track to watch a shorter race—because the solution is to fill the day with other racing series, just like your local short tracks do. If the Cup race is only going to be 2 hours, run qualifying right before it, or run a feeder series (like the Trucks or Modifieds) before it, depending on the track.

Wayne: I agree completely that 500+ miles was always a “test of man and machine.” But just like Formula 1 decided to go with 2.5 hour racers back in the 80s, so too should NASCAR, because the cars are now so ridiculously reliable compared to the old days, there’s no reason to see how they “endure.”