Huston Ladner · Tuesday May 14, 2013
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.
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.
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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