Matt Stallknecht · Friday August 2, 2013
The Sprint Cup Series’ second trip to the polarizing Pocono Raceway is upon us, and despite the fact that the season’s first trip to Pocono was only a mere seven weeks ago, the track will be a much different animal this time around. Meanwhile, there has been plenty to talk about in the NASCAR world this past week, with everyone and their grandmother deciding to weigh in on what plagued last week’s Brickyard event. Tony Stewart even gave us one of his patented rants, delivering the now infamous line “passing is not racing.” And of course, points leader Jimmie Johnson quietly and efficiently expanded his points lead… just like he’s done nearly every week since our last Pocono trip. The more things change, the more they stay the same I suppose.
We push on to this weekend’s storylines to watch…
1. It’s going to be another snoozer, isn’t it?
I guess the answer to this question lies in the eye of the beholder. The June race at Pocono was widely panned by the NASCAR fan base as long, dry green flag runs with “aero push” becoming the defining characteristic of the event. A rash of cautions at the end spiced up the show, but by and large, the overall lack of passing and excitement for the first 2/3rds of the June event have many concerned that they will once again be bored to tears this Sunday afternoon.
Assuming you were one of those who didn’t enjoy things in June, well, you will probably be bored again on Sunday. The rumored aero changes that NASCAR is toying with haven’t been implemented yet, and the tires will be the same ones used the first time around. As such, the style of racing isn’t likely to be much different. Aero difficulties will spread the field out after about 10 laps, and the lack of tire wear will prevent much movement throughout the field. The only real variable going into the weekend (and it is, admittedly, a big one) is how much the teams have improved their cars for this track. Other than that, the only saving grace I can offer for the Pocono-haters is that races sometimes have a weird tendency of having groups of cautions in spurts, due to overly aggressive driving on the ensuing laps after restarts — especially at the end of the race. If such a thing happens, you can expect some serious excitement, as Pocono’s restarts are truly one-of-a-kind.
If you are one of the few people, like myself, who enjoy “big track” racing enough to look past these realities, you may enjoy Sunday’s race. If “big track” racing in itself doesn’t get you fired up (which is the case with most fans) then Sunday’s event will likely be rather disappointing for you.
2. Can Kasey Kahne finally capitalize this weekend?
If I ever had to pick which NASCAR driver has the worst luck in the garage area, that honor would undoubtedly go to Kasey Kahne. In fact, 2013 has been something of a microcosm of Kahne’s career. I’ve watched Kahne dominate races ever since his rookie year, only to have tire failures, exploded engines, reckless drivers, or other unusual circumstances rob Kahne of potential wins. 2013 has been something of a bad joke for Kahne in this respect, especially on the big-intermediate tracks, such as Michigan and Pocono, where Kahne has had more speed than anyone not named Jimmie Johnson, only to have his days ruined by bad luck.
Taking a look at the past three “big-intermediate” events, you can see this trend in action. At the June Pocono event, Kahne was forced to the garage on Lap 1, then returned to the track many laps down…running lap times that were fast enough to place in the top 3. A week later at Michigan, Kahne possessed one of only two cars in the field that were good enough to pass, and easily worked his way to the lead midway through the race. Not long after inheriting the lead, Kahne experienced a tire failure and crushed the wall, ending his day once again. Then finally, last week at Indianapolis, Kahne had the fastest car on the race track during the final two stints of the race, but ended up finishing 3rd after other teams outwitted his squad with pit strategy. A big improvement over his last two “big track” outings for sure, but given the fact that Kahne is ensconced in the Wild Card hunt, its win or bust at this point.
What does it all mean for this weekend’s event in Pocono? Kasey Kahne will once again be a factor, and is perhaps the only driver capable of hanging with Jimmie Johnson on the downforce-intensive intermediate tracks. But if he is going to be any sort of a factor heading into the Chase, he’ll have to capitalize on races in which he has the car to beat. Pocono is one of the #5 team’s best chances to score an elusive 2nd win before the Chase starts. Thus it will be interesting to see if he and his team can finally seal the deal on a week in which they have the speed to compete for a win. If his team lets him down once again, it could be the deciding factor in whether or not Kahne makes the 2013 Chase.
3. Will the future of Phoenix Racing finally be revealed?
It’s been a full two weeks now since James Finch announced the sale of his team to an unnamed investment group. Finch suggested that an announcement on the side of the investment group would be made a few days after Finch’s announcement of the team’s sale. Well….here we are two weeks later, and no announcement has been made.
This raises some questions as to who is actually involved in this group as well as what their plans are going forward. Popular opinion among insiders is still that Harry Scott of Turner-Scott Motorsports is the lead investor, which would likely be a boon to the cash-strapped team as TSM has the resources to elevate the team to the level of weekly contender. But as each day passes without an announcement, it raises some concern as to the long-term stability of the team going forward. Surely a well-financed and well-positioned investment group, one that has all of its plans ironed out, wouldn’t take so long to reveal itself and its plans if it were really on solid footing for the future, right?
Keep your eyes peeled for news this weekend surrounding Finch and the team. Given that this is supposedly the first race under new ownership, it would only make sense that some sort of indication of who the owner is would at least leak out this weekend. If not, it opens up a boatload of negative speculation as to what is really going on at Phoenix Racing.
4. Could the start and park phenomenon be on the decline?
Curiously, on the heels of NASCAR’s announcement of a landmark TV deal with FOX and NBC that will bring untold amounts of money to every facet of the sport, we witnessed the first race since 2008 in which every single car finished the race. More importantly, not a single car in the field pulled a “start and park,” the all-too-familiar-as-of-late phenomenon in NASCAR in which cash-strapped teams pull their cars to the garage early in the event due to a lack of funds to go the full race distance. Last week’s race was the first non-Daytona 500 in recent memory that didn’t feature a single instance of starting and parking. Could the influx of money that is about to come into the sport have anything to do with the sudden disappearance of start and parks?
Perhaps, but it’s important to note that start and parks as a whole have been down significantly from 2012. Its always hard to tell what qualifies as a true “start and park” and what is an actual mechanical retirement, but the subjective average for S&Ps in 2013 races is somewhere in the range of 3 or 4 cars per race, and nothing more, whereas in 2012 you could often see 7 or 8 cars start and park every week. Contrary to what many of the doom and gloomers will tell you, the sport has begun to rebound a bit financially. Sponsors are beginning to come back, certain teams are looking into re-expanding their fleet (see: Richard Childress Racing), and TV ratings have been up over 2012 four weeks in a row. This slow increase of money coming into the sport seems to have trickled down to the small teams. If you’re looking for evidence of this, look no further than last year’s Brickyard event compared to this year’s. The 2012 Brickyard 400, traditionally one of the highest paying races of the year, saw a whopping five cars start and park. Compare that to this year’s running which saw not a single start and park, and it’s easy to see that the overall financial picture of the sport appears to be improving.
All this being said, it will be interesting to watch and see how many cars start and park this weekend at Pocono, given the fact that not a single car parked last week. Pocono is one of the lowest-paying events on the schedule and one of the least attractive races for sponsors. If S&Ping is going to happen anywhere, it will happen at Pocono. As such, it would be wise to add that to your list of things to watch this weekend.
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