The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: The One to Watch, New Rules, and the Lead Change Bonus by Mike Lovecchio -- Thursday October 20, 2011

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Who is the one driver to watch on Sunday?

Without a doubt the one driver to keep an eye on this weekend is Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion suddenly finds himself on the outside looking in after a crash at Charlotte dropped him five spots in the standings (now 35 points out) with five races remaining. Heading to the first of two wildcard races – a re-configured Phoenix being the other – Johnson is now in desperation mode. If it were any other driver in Johnson’s position you may be quick to write him off, but he’s proven doubters wrong time after time throughout his championship run and many are wondering if that will be the case again this season.

One thing is for certain though…if Johnson is to contend for the championship, he needs a top 5 this weekend, at least, and a little help. It will be interesting to see the No. 48 team’s strategy as Johnson, who typically races conservatively on the superspeedways, may have to race for maximum points by leading laps early and often and contending for the win. If the two-car tandem plays out as we’ve become accustomed to there’s nothing Johnson can really do in terms of laps led, but if we see some more pack racing than previous plate races it will be interesting to see if he tries to stay out front. He’s had some success at Talladega in the past with two wins and nine top-10s, but this could ultimately be his biggest race there.

Will the new rules package make for better racing?

While the tandem racing is not going to disappear this coming weekend, some of the older-style Talladega pack racing may well return courtesy of the new restrictor plate.

This weekend marks the first restrictor plate race with the new rules package that NASCAR implemented just a couple of months ago. The goal is to limit the amount of two-car tandem racing that has bothered drivers and fans. While introducing a larger restrictor plate and making changes to the pressure relief valve settings will limit the amount of two-car racing, it will not eliminate it.

A perfect balance of two-car tandem racing and large pack racing will certainly make this weekend’s race a must-see. The larger plate should also make for more passing and will make the final lap more of a crapshoot than we’ve seen in a long time. Faster speeds, more passing and a balance of the two plate race styles we’ve seen in recent years could make for a classic and will certainly turn the Chase on its head. Anything earned or lost in the first five races can be made up or lost in one race. It’s sure to be a good one.

Will promotion cause a stir?

One of the other stories this weekend is the promotion intended to encourage more racing upfront at Talladega. The speedway is offering $100,000 to the driver who leads the most laps, if there are 100 lead changes – a NASCAR record – throughout the 188-lap race. What seems like a harmless promotion is sure to raise a couple of eyebrows, however, after the promotion gone wrong that ultimately claimed the life of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last week.

The timing is poor, although the speedway did release the details a few weeks ago. Still, more than a few fans are going to hear of Sunday’s promotion and instantly reminisce about the horror we watched unfold last Sunday. Personally I don’t think these types of promotions belong in racing, but in comparing the two there are few similarities. Wheldon was racing for $2.5 million, and another $2.5 million for a fan and was forced to start from the back of the pack on a track the series wasn’t used to competing on. It was a large sum of money that put one driver in a very bad position. What we’re going to see on Sunday will not do either of these. $100,000 is not an unbelievable amount for drivers who make much more than that, and the minimum of 100 lead changes will more than likely not change the way most race.

Who has the most to lose/gain from Talladega?

Talladega is sure to produce a number of highs and lows for Chase drivers and its wildcard nature is sure to jumble the standings. The one driver who has the most to gain is the aforementioned Jimmie Johnson. He could also fall on the list of most to lose too because a poor finish will eliminate his chance to win a sixth championship. But the one driver who may have the most to lose is the one Chase driver that could be considered a favorite on Sunday: Kevin Harvick. Harvick’s recent success at superspeedways has been well-documented. He has four plate race wins and a staggering 26 top-10 finishes at plate tracks, in addition to one win and six top-fives at Talladega. Harvick currently sits second in points, five points out, so he has some margin for error, but this is one race he is supposed to have an advantage over his close competitors as the intermediate tracks are largely favorable to the Chase field. He could finish in the top-five on Sunday and it wouldn’t be widely celebrated, but a poor finish and suddenly Harvick would be in hole with four races remaining.

Contact Mike Lovecchio

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Shayne Flaherty
10/20/2011 10:59 PM

I guess nobody remembers when RJ Reynolds (Winston Cup) had their No Bull promotions. Nothing wrong with sweetening the pot. In this case, NASCAR believes a huge amount of lead changes equates to great racing, which most of us know isn’t true. Maybe 5 Time won’t disappoint the mainstream media this weekend by wrecking himself. Jimmie and the other Chase drivers should ride in the back and go racing when there’s 10 laps to go. Afterwards, there’ll be be 3 or 4 driver’s left with a real chance to win the championship. I’ll set the DVR and give NASCAR 20 minutes of my time. That’s 15 minutes more than they deserve.

10/21/2011 07:33 AM

How long are we going to have to refer back to Dan Wheldon and does everything “scary” need to cause concern? Sheez. These guys are racers and know the risks.

If it is too difficult to write without having to go to the same old well for a story maybe one should consider a different profession.

Bill B
10/21/2011 07:40 AM

I don’t think anyone knows what effect the changes NASCAR made will have on the race. I’m still betting that NASCAR wimps out and changes the restrictor plates back to their previous size after they see practice speeds.
I agree with Shane. The number of lead changes doesn’t make a good race. After the first 20 laps of seeing drivers take turns leading even the most novice fans realize it doensn’t mean anything. NASCAR must think that fans are stupid. I also agree that a lot of the chase guys and some non-chase guys will spend a good part of the race riding at the back. They too know that leading the race doesn’t mean anything and that you can’t win the race if you aren’t on the track at the end.

doug from eastern NC
10/21/2011 08:27 AM

I’m sure 5 time is going to expect Junior to give him a push for the win. Just like last time, and Jr will most likely do it again. He’s such a dumb@ss

10/21/2011 03:49 PM

I think a clarification is in order here. The promotion bonus is not for the driver who leads the most laps. It is for the driver who is responsible for the most lead changes, provided there are at least 100 of them. This is not necessarily the same driver who may have lead the most laps.

For instance, a driver could lead the entire first half of the race, and that would only count as one lead change. What they are counting are passes for the lead.

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