The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions At The Brickyard: Indy Favorites And Lame Duck TV Partners by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday July 26, 2013

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The off week is over, Eldora has come and gone, and the big boys of the Sprint Cup Series are ready to spring back into action. Yes folks, its Indianapolis week, and this Sunday, the stars of NASCAR will take to the Brickyard to contest the second biggest stock car event on the planet: the Brickyard 400 (I refuse to call it by whatever ridiculously wordy name they have bestowed upon the race this year). Despite the perceived loss of luster over the years, the Brickyard 400 still stands tall as one of the biggest, most prestigious, and most important races of the year, no matter what anyone says or thinks, and as such, the sport will garner far more attention this week than it usually does. Can the race live up to it’s annual hype? I’ll address that and much more in the wall of text listed below.

Could this year’s Brickyard 400 restore the race to its former glory?

For a very long time, the Brickyard 400 was a huge deal in the world of sports. When I attended this race back in 1999, enthusiasm for the event was at an all time high, and there was a real sense that the Brickyard was not only one of the biggest events in NASCAR, but one of the biggest events in all of sports. Among the drivers, teams, and even parts of the media, that prestige still remains, and those who have been to Indianapolis and have bathed in the track’s history can likely attest to that prestige as well.

Yet, unfortunately, the race has lost a great deal of its former luster over the years in the eyes of general fans, which is a shame given how much pageantry used to surround this event. The race began to lose its mainstream appeal right around the time the COT debuted. Up until 2008 (the first year of the COT), Indianapolis generally put on a fine show with the Generation 4 car, and was regularly the most attended race of the year. The Generation 5 COT car, however, was totally ill-suited to the track. The COT was too boxy, too-intensive on the right-front tire, too bulky, and lacked the right aero-format to put on a good race at Indianapolis. In turn, for 5 years (2008-2012), Indianapolis staged joke-worthy races that ruined the track’s reputation for putting on good NASCAR events.

There is hope, however, that the Gen-6 car can bring competitive racing back to IMS. A major Goodyear tire test was conducted in mid-July, and every single one of the drivers raved about how the Gen-6 car, coupled with a new Goodyear tire for this weekend’s race, drove on the track. The general consensus among drivers was that Goodyear finally nailed a tire combination that wore out well enough to bring back competitive racing to the speedway. Couple this enthusiasm with the new Gen-6 car, a very drafty and downforce-heavy car that is actually quite well-suited for the tight turns of Indianapolis, and suddenly there is a real possibility that Sunday’s event could be a much different race than we are accustomed to at Indianapolis.

All told, this year’s Brickyard 400 is looking to be a much better event than iterations of the race that permeated the COT years. A softer tire that wears out correctly is a recipe for more comers and goers, while the aero package of the Gen-6 car is such that the cars will actually be able to suck up and pass each other on Indianapolis’ long straightaways. Could this be the year that Indy regains it’s favor with race fans? The answer could very well be “yes.”

Who are the favorites heading into the weekend?

Can anyone beat out Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to keep them from winning a fifth race at The Brickyard?

Indianapolis is undoubtedly one of the three or four most difficult tracks on the circuits. It tests every single aspect of a team. The driver is incredibly important at Indianapolis, as the track’s four tight, technical turns are insanely hard to nail lap after lap due to how narrow the groove is coupled with the incredible corner entry speed (up to 212 mph is expected). On top of the technical nature of the turns, the drivers also have to deal with another unique challenge they don’t usually have to worry about: draft. The long straightaways of Indianapolis make it such that a trailing car can get a massive pull on a lead car, which can lead to some hairy moments when a driver is in deep traffic. As such, draft and traffic management are more important here than at most tracks, which is yet another challenge for the driver.

The engineers are more important at Indianapolis than anywhere else as well. With how fast and aero-intensive Indianapolis is, aerodynamics and horsepower become absolutely paramount to success here, more so than any other intermediate-style track. The pit crew must also be on point, as a bad pit stop or a fueling miscalculation can spell disaster given how large Indianapolis is. If a driver runs out of fuel, they likely won’t make it back to the pits.

As such, given the sheer number of challenges Indianapolis provides, only the very best teams and drivers succeed here. You can probably see where I’m going with this. This weekend has Team 48 written all over it. Johnson and Co. have won the Brickyard 400 four times, and given how strong both driver and team have been thus far in 2013, one can safely assume they will be a threat to win an unprecedented fifth time at Indianapolis. Matt Kenseth also figures to be a threat. His No. 20 team has shown more speed than anyone else on downforce tracks this season, and given that Indianapolis is the ultimate downforce track, it only makes sense that he will be the main threat to topple the No. 48’s shot at a fifth Indy victory.

Is this Juan Pablo Montoya’s final shot at a Brickyard win?

It may not be completely fair to say that it is do or die time for Juan Pablo Montoya, but unfortunately for the talented Colombian driver, I’m afraid it is reaching that point. The former F1 standout has had a rough go of it throughout his foray in NASCAR, and considering the fact that his contract with EGR runs out after this season, the murmurs that his NASCAR days are numbered grow increasingly easier to believe. It doesn’t help that EGR development driver Kyle Larson is knocking on the door of the Cup ranks either. As such, Montoya enters Brickyard 400 weekend, and the rest of the season as a whole, on something of a hot seat.

As for Montoya’s efforts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they have been something of a microcosm of his NASCAR career as a whole. Twice, Montoya has had by far the best car in Indianapolis, only to be robbed of wins due to unfortunate circumstances. In 2009, a questionable pit road speeding penalty cost Montoya the win, and in 2010 a bad strategy call by then crew chief Brian Pattie led to a series of events that led a lightning fast No. 42 car into a wreck at the back of the field. Lots of speed, very little luck, and a great deal of overdriving: that has been Montoya’s career in a nutshell.

Given the raw speed that Montoya has displayed this season, coupled with his previously shown acumen for the Brickyard, Montoya figures to be a factor in the race he so desperately has dreamt of winning once again. Should Montoya win the race, it will likely save his ride, his sponsorship, and perhaps even his future with NASCAR. But if Montoya has another late race collapse like he had in 2009 and 2010, it could very well be the nail in the coffin of what has been a largely underwhelming NASCAR career.

Will ESPN’s coverage quality sink now that they are a lame duck?

A major piece of the puzzle that is NASCAR’s future was put into place on Wednesday. NASCAR announced that a massive 10 year, $4.4 billion dollar deal had been struck with NBC Sports which stipulates the final 20 races of each Sprint Cup season be broadcasted by the Peacock Network. Seven of those races will take place on NBC’s conventional over-the-air network, while a whopping 13 would be placed on the cable-based NBC Sports Network. Frankly, the deal does not look to be a very smart one at this stage of the game, as NASCAR is simply too large, too popular, and too important to be relegated to such a relatively unknown cable network for so many races, and I fear that the sport will stand to lose much more than they will gain in this deal. But that’s a story for another column.

The most immediately relevant consequence of this announcement was the fact that ESPN / ABC would no longer be producing coverage for anymore NASCAR races from 2015 – 2025. By extension, this means that ESPN will essentially be a lame-duck TV partner for this year and next year, and that could spell disaster for the production quality of the races ESPN covers this year and next. When NBC was in a similar lame-duck position in 2006, its coverage quality absolutely tanked, much to the chagrin of the millions of fans who watch the sport on a weekly basis. Sunday’s race at the Brickyard ought to give us a pretty clear picture of what sort of broadcast experience fans can expect out of ESPN for the next year and a half as they transition away from the sport. If ESPN’s Sunday coverage is rock-solid like it has been the past two years (ESPN seriously amped up their quality in 2011, and objectively took over as the top race broadcaster in the sport), then there is reason to believe that the coverage will probably stay that way through the end of the contract. But if the coverage is suddenly poor, it could be a telling sign that ESPN is pulling resources away from NASCAR now that it sits in a lame duck position. It is certainly something you will want to keep a watchful eye on these next few weeks.

All told, losing ESPN as a broadcast partner is a rather short-sighted decision on NASCAR’s part, given the fact that with the loss of ESPN, NASCAR will lose a great deal of exposure and clout among the general sports community. We will see on Sunday if ESPN is willing to maintain a high quality of coverage despite all of this. If the coverage proves to be poor, it could be a long rest of the season for fans who watch the races from home.

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sal
07/26/2013 06:35 AM
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Is it possible for ESPN to back burner Nascar more than they do now? Other than a few distainful interviews on their ‘mainstream’ talking head programs from people who obviously know little or nothing about racing, they haven’t done much to promote racing as a legitimate part of their programming. Their lone Nascar related program, ‘Nascar Now’ has been dumped to a time slot that is so changeable it’s like trying to catch eels bare handed. Hard to remember they once led the charge for racing on TV.

JP
07/26/2013 08:06 AM
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BSPN has never given a flip about nascar. Indeed, their TRUE colors may come out on the TV broadcast. In fact, I hope it does.

This is why I love listening to races done by PRN. They aren’t afraid to speak up.

Having races on NBC is not the issue…the issue is that Nascar races are still just that. I mean, consider where the race is this weekend. You think that will be a great race?

Greg
07/26/2013 08:42 AM
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I hear fans attending the race will see an ad for legalizing pot.

Great for the whole family…..right?

Bill B
07/26/2013 08:47 AM
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I agree with JP. All a network has to do is to make a deal with PRN/MRN to have an audio feed and then the network can just provide the picture. If the picture and the commentary don’t match, oh well. We’d be better informed and still have something to watch. Too many times the tv guys don’t cover everything happening. The radio guys cover everything, all 43 drivers. Otherwise, each network sucks in it’s own way. None of them have nailed it.

babydufus
07/26/2013 08:56 AM
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former glory? i don’t remember much glory. hype yes… i’m not holding my breath.
favorite? jj will win and remove all hope of “former glory”
jpm? last shot? i think it’s more the car and less the driver and certainly not if the target people like his ethnicity. i hope not as he brings his “drive” every week even if the car doesn’t.
ESPN? i think all of the networks fall far short of “good race coverage.” i’m not really sure who sucks the most.

GinaV24
07/26/2013 11:54 AM
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You make a good point that the racing was better before the COT. Will the Gen6 really race better there, I guess we’ll see on Sunday, although I’m not holding my breath and certainly won’t waste my entire afternoon in front of the TV.

I doubt that ESPN can treat NASCAR any worse than it has since they won the contract back. SC makes fun of NASCAR on a regular basis. The regular Nationwide races are bumped for everything under the sun – little league playoffs for instance. I like Bestwick as the PXP guy, DJ is a nice guy but pretty bland to listen to, I actually like Andy Petree the best. Rusty & Brad – total waste of air time.

Lucky NASCAR fans, we have Fox with the Waltrip Brothers show, ESPN with their suits and scripts and chase, chase, chase ad nauseum.

Hopefully NBC will bring a better broadcast to the fans, but I agree that having it on an obscure cable channel won’t help ratings. I had to search to find it so I could watch the races they do show now, but they do a great job.

janice
07/26/2013 12:30 PM
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oh no…..if johnson gets 5th win sunday at indy it will just seal the deal. i read story this week where knaus is fueled by fear of never winning again. how about if we give the field less the 48 a 5 lap head start and see how long it takes the 48 to take the lead?

indy has never been an exciting race. in my opinion it’s rarely lived up to the hype, well in 1995 when earnhardt won was great (i was there!). indy is a track not built for “taxi cabs”. remember the gen 6 car is suppose to be good on all tracks this year and what result have we ended up with?

i wonder what the weather forecast is for indy on sunday?

Dan
07/26/2013 12:36 PM
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Thank goodness for DVR. Not going to waste a perfectly good Sunday afternoon watching the “Chad and Jimmie Show” set another record,yawn.If someone else wins I’ll watch the recording. If the 48 wins it’s the delete button.

midasmicah
07/26/2013 01:50 PM
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Anybody else see the nationwide entry list. There are six cup drivers listed. Hey nas$car. I quit watching that series because regulars have very little chance of winning. As for the cup race, if it turns into the chad and Jimmie show, I will just switch channels which I’ve been doing more and more of. As for BSPN, they don’t hide their disdain for nas$car.

Earner
07/26/2013 02:35 PM
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I Don’t know what ESPN broadcasts you’ve been watching but espn has had Nascar on the back burner for years (think they were po’d when they wern’t the (discounted) “choosen ones & have never treated Nascar as more than a sideline …Also not everyone has espn as were I’m pretty sure I can call my satilite provider & get NBC Sports…

Matt Stallknecht
07/26/2013 02:54 PM
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As fat as ESPN goes, yes, the way they treat NASCAR on shows like SportsCenter and PTI and such is often deplorable. A lot of that is unfortunately just a result of their anchors lack of NASCAR knowledge as opposed to outright disrespect of the sport. Same thing happens with hockey, soccer, and tennis on the network.

What you guys are missing is that NASCAR’s very presence on the worldwide leader n sports means something. Even though the coverage is usually subpar, NASCAR still gets covered in some fashion on every episode of SportsCenter and NASCAR ads permeate the network like crazy. All of this keeps NASCAR in the minds of the mainstream sports community and allows it to be held in the same breath as other sports.

Without ESPN, NASCAR loses that sheer exposure, it loses some legitimacy as a competitor to the stick and ball sports. NASCAR needs the casual sports fan, and without ESPN your going to have a hard time getting any casual fan to take notice.

NBC Sports? It’s an invisible network. Who cares how good the coverage is if its a small time network that can’t help grow the sport? The average kid sitting at home watching TV on a Sunday, the one NASCAR hopes will stumble upon a race, doesnt flip on NBC Sports Network hoping to find something new. He flips on ESPN.

Some of the old school hardcore guys may not see this like I do, but being a 20 year old college guy who has grown up in a male culture that watches nothing but ESPN all day, you can see why I would be troubled by the loss of this broadcast partner for our sport.

Ken
07/26/2013 04:21 PM
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Janice, Chad Knaus’s fear isn’t fueled by the fear of losing his job or never winning again. His fear is that, one day, all his “tricks” will catch up with him and his felonious car owner, and NASCAR inspectors will finally do their job and crucify the jerk! After all, one day, The Felon won’t have Brian in his pocket anymore! If this divorce mess he (Brian) is finding himself involved in gets any worse, Brian might just step down as CEO and run away and hide to avoid alimony payments! We can only hope!

And if you think I’m kidding about Hendrick having Brian in his pocket, I suggest you read “Arrogance And Accords”. The book is about the Honda scandal back in the 80’s and 90’s. Hendrick was paying off Honda managers to get what he wanted. Well, a leopard doesn’t change its spots, and Hendrick is a ruthless scumbag who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, which in this case is the total domination of NASCAR. And since Brian France is all about money, and he has no morals, you can bet that there is some “green exchange” between him and The Felon! It wouldn’t surprize me in the least!

Fed Up
07/26/2013 06:23 PM
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Brain Farce and Helton only care about how much they can bank. If they cared they would have guidelines for the networks for viewing and representing our sport. The ratio of racing to commercial minutes should be defined at a palatable rate for fans. The Frances have given the keys to the entertainment suits and the sport is doomed.

janice
07/26/2013 06:39 PM
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ken…i despise hendrick. when jr went to that team i saw he made a deal with the devil. hendrick saw how jr, regardless of how he races, is the cash cow in merchandising.

being the cynic that i am….i’ve always wondered about the amazing recovery from cancer hendrick had after he avoided jail time and bought a pardon from clinton.

na$car isn’t like it was in the 60’s to mid-90’s. the birth of the multi-car teams was the beginning to the end.

just way too money driven now.

SB
07/27/2013 07:31 AM
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Indy is still a very difficult place to get around in anything that’s not low-slung, light and loaded with downforce; in short, everything that a stock car is not; so I’m not expecting a miracle but should be a more bearable race than in years past.

Would be awesome to see Juan win it. I’ll cry if Johnson gets it again.

JP
07/27/2013 11:49 AM
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Having Nascar on BSPN the last several years has done NOTHING to improve the ratings or to grow the sport.

Nascar is still nascar no matter what station it’s on. The racing is what it is and it’s still the “Hendrick Cup” series.

jerseygirl
07/27/2013 03:36 PM
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Matt, do I understand you to say that you are a 20 yr old college student?

Also I don’t think any of us are missing the point. Having ALL of the current TV partners disrespect the sport and the fans is a big part of why ratings has fallen off.

ESPN may be the WWLOS based on the fact that they have managed to corral as many sports as possible. That also means that they try and dictate $ for cable fees, etc. The only time I watch ESPN is if there is a NASCAR race on or if I happen to be somewhere that SC or other ESPN programming is endlessly running.

For me, BETTER coverage on another network works out as a win for me since it makes me angry to see the sport I really like treated so poorly. ESPN would not do the same thing if this were the NFL.

I’m with Dan on this, too. I won’t be sitting around watching the race. I’m tired of the chad and jimmie show already this season.

DonMei
07/27/2013 08:54 PM
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The solution to another boring race is staring NASCAR right in the face, but nobody has the sense to do it. Use the damn road course, make it 400 kilometers so the length will be about the same time wise and we would have a good, exciting race with some of the lesser teams having a real shot at the win. Also adds another road race to the program.

phil h
07/29/2013 01:25 AM
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Matt
the 400 was still joke-worthy.