The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: Revving Into Richmond With Crashes, Sponsorship, and Drivers On The Mend by Summer Bedgood -- Thursday April 26, 2012

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Heading into Richmond this weekend, NASCAR remains abuzz with several major storylines. Will another short track bring an end to the long, green-flag runs we’ve seen in recent weeks? Can Michael Waltrip Racing make its long-awaited breakthrough into Victory Lane? And can Denny Hamlin harness his recent momentum and carry it straight into his hometown track? It’s all captured within the Four Burning Questions I have heading into race number nine of the Sprint Cup Series season.

ONE: Does the mantra that fans only tune in for wrecks hold some truth to it?

No, it doesn’t, but I’ll delve into this question a little bit further to explain. A recent trend in the races this season has been a lack of on-track incidents. In three of the last four events, totaling over 1,000 miles of competition there’s been exactly one isolated spin that’s brought out a caution flag. (Martinsville was the lone exception; but even there, incidents were down as just two of the seven yellow flags were for multi-car crashes). Of course, “contact” doesn’t have to always mean caution; but even with side-by-side action under green, drivers are staying off each other. There has been a lack of bent up sheet metal and drivers “having at it;” instead, they’d rather “have at” a top-10 finish.

Parade-like stretches of the last two races at Texas and Kansas have fans displeased…and for the right reasons.

With that said, fans have been complaining about boring races this season and how there is a lack of action. They talk about parade laps and long green-flag runs that end mercifully with a blown engine or debris (whether it’s there or not) and typically not a crash. In fact, both Fontana and Texas were races that ran entirely wreck-free.

For some reason, other media outlets have decided to start taking shots at fans over such “boredom” and accusing them of only caring about the crashes. Though they aren’t denying the races have been nap-worthy at times, these journalists somehow have the audacity to accuse NASCAR’s core fan base of doing the sort of thing only those who tune in every so often — aka, the “casual fans” — are known for.

Who do they think they are? And, more importantly, are they stupid?! Are they missing the bigger picture and blowing a non-story out of proportion?

The fact is, the fans are right. Though in my opinion the races haven’t been awful, there have been some grueling long green-flag runs where literally nothing interesting happens for a good couple hours. It sucks, and is so mind-numbing to sit through, I’ve caught myself as a member of the media completely tuning out from the race at hand a few times. Sadly, when it happens I never miss anything.

Single-file, keep-your-distance competition is not fun to watch, and it’s not cautions fans are asking for. It’s action. Hard racing. Side-by-side passing. All of that aggression leads to wrecks, yes, but that’s not the ultimate ending that fans are asking for. The ideal race is one with lots of excitement and consistent action without a ton of cautions; however, it’s difficult to have one without the other. Side-by-side racing by definition means that the drivers are in close proximity to one another, meaning one mistake can cause a domino effect of damaged race cars. Do NASCAR’s fans want to see it? No, but they want to see the kind of action that can lead to it.

I’d like to think I’m pretty close to the truth here, but only the fans themselves can say for sure. Let me know in the comments section if you’re as irritated by the accusations as I am, or if they are right.

Now, will this trend come to an end at Richmond this weekend? It’s not as likely as you think. In this race last April, the first 107 laps were run without a yellow while just a few years ago, Denny Hamlin dominated by leading over 380 of 400 laps. So while the track, at times, remains one of the most competitive on the circuit, it’s how aggressive the drivers want to be which will determine the amount of contact we’ll see.

Hopefully, they’ll keep us awake.

TWO: What does Michael Waltrip Racing know that the rest of the motorsports world doesn’t?

You know those aggravating “NAPA Know How” commercials that are made fun of at several times a week on this very website? If you’re like me, you just want them to go away sometimes.

Well, that’s not going to happen. NAPA has a rich history in this sport dating back to the late ‘70s and has been with Waltrip since 2001, sticking with him through good times and bad. Likewise, Aaron’s has been a part of MWR since it’s very, very humble beginnings and some have certainly wondered why. In three years as the full-time sponsor with David Reutimann, the company had just two victories to show for their efforts and has never made the Chase.

Will their loyalty finally be rewarded in 2012? Now that it looks like the team is becoming a competitive force, it’s pretty amazing to look back on the past several years and see what the team has gotten through. In a time where their cars were struggling to make races — let alone be competitive — they were able to maintain two multi-million dollar race deals that General Manager Ty Norris even admitted were what kept them afloat. Now, 5-Hour Energy has expanded to a near full season sponsorship and it looks like this team is all set.

How is that possible, when even some of NASCAR’s biggest Cup Series teams admit to struggling to compensate for a full season? Even this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth, remains without a primary sponsor for several races later this summer. MWR didn’t start earning consistent, solid numbers until this season, and there’s no guarantee their spots in the Chase will hold. But in the marketing department, they seem to be doing just fine.

I’m not trying to ignore the fact that MWR has lost a few sponsors and went through some tough times financially, but look at a couple of other long-running sponsors who left perfectly capable drivers. DuPont cut back on sponsorship with four-time champion Jeff Gordon after running full-time seasons for over a decade, and DeWalt left champion driver Kenseth in 2009… followed by Crown Royal two years later.

Sure, you can blame the economy for some of that, but what is MWR doing differently? The crapload of TV commercials and the fact that Waltrip has a tendency to overexpose his sponsors might help; however, you know there’s plenty of people inside NASCAR’s garage, including me who would like to take a look at MWR’s marketing department and find out for themselves.

Meanwhile, will Richmond be the weekend this organization finally makes a breakthrough into Victory Lane? Clint Bowyer has won here in the past, in the Spring race of 2008 and is known as a short-track expert. Martin Truex, Jr. doesn’t have the strongest track record, with just one top-5 finish in 12 starts but comes in red hot after a runner-up finish at Kansas. And then there’s Mark Martin, who’s won only once here but has four top-5 finishes in his last eight races at the track. MWR comes in with the marketing, money, and momentum… so this weekend could be as good a chance as any for it to happen.

THREE: Has Denny Hamlin “recovered” from his 2010 loss yet?

I think we’re far enough into the season to be discussing this issue (yes, I AM the ultimate authority on this one, thank you!), and Sunday at Kansas I noticed an aggressiveness in Hamlin’s driving and confidence in the way he carried himself that hadn’t been there since 2010. With two wins in eight races this season, he’s displaying a readiness to compete for this championship again. It’s still early in the season, yes, and there is still plenty of time for him to fall flat on his face. But I’m not judging this off of just his performance, but in his mannerisms.

Through most of last season, Hamlin was pretty down in the dumps and other than a few strong performances here and there, he wasn’t really “all there” mentally. Heck, it was even hard to get him to crack a smile on Twitter — I mean really, Denny, how hard is it to type “:-)”?

Regardless of how his season finishes, though, I truly believe Hamlin is back to old form and will eventually compete and win a Sprint Cup Series championship. He just needs to hope that dastardly Jimmie Johnson person doesn’t chase him down first. And there’s no better place for Hamlin to go for two in a row than Richmond, his hometown track where he’s won twice and led more laps – 1,188 – than at any other speedway in Cup during his career.

FOUR: Which of the winless “big names” will get to Victory Lane first?

Drivers like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Jimmie Johnson stick out as a small handful of drivers who have remained surprisingly quiet this season. While I highly doubt it will stay that way (Kyle Busch? Quiet? Never!), it will be interesting to watch them and a couple of others (Earnhardt, Harvick, etc.) to see who emerges as the frontrunner. It will be about halfway through this season before we get a clearer picture of who might make the Chase or not, but I guarantee once we hit “crunch time” these guys will be on it.

Well, at least you’d think so, right? Maybe not. Johnson struggled through most of last season, Edwards might be experiencing some of that infamous runner-up curse, and Busch just might have finally calmed down after last season’s fiasco.

But, no! These guys couldn’t possibly go all season without a win! …Right? This weekend, the odds seem to favor Busch: 12 top-10 finishes in 14 career Richmond starts, he’s the defending champion in this race and badly needs a boost to a Chase bid that could depend on a “wild card.” But don’t count out Johnson, who’s clicked together a number of top-5 runs in recent weeks and has had luck, more than anything keep the car out of Victory Lane.

Contact Summer Dreyer

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midasmicah
04/27/2012 10:47 AM
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My take on the boring races thus far this year. It isn’t just the lack of cautions that’s the problem. It’s the lack of drivers’ actually willing or wanting to mix it up. Yea, it’s the lack of real racing. Ain’t point racing fun? Not!

nc1fish
04/27/2012 11:34 AM
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Another take on decline of nASCAR. Look at the drivers and their body language. All decked out in those suits and designer glasses and arms crossed as to say I can take on Mike Tyson. None of them look like anyone you might think has ever done a real days work. Not the same man that got into his car with a white t-shirt and a bike helmet and would drive 500 miles with no power steering. Todays drivers and their paper doll blondes are more of a disco scene than a race.

just talking
04/27/2012 01:29 PM
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OH MAN!!!

Thank you so very much “nc1fish”

Take those damn sunglasses off! Look people in the eye. Basic respect is all it is.

RickAtNyte
04/27/2012 02:29 PM
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I personally do NOT want more wrecks… I want to see good racing… not riding around. There are too many of the same type of tracks, Goodyear makes tires tough enough to go to the moon and back, most drivers don’t want anyone racing them hard, and you can’t tell a Chevrolet from a Toyota. It’s RIDICULOUS!!! I’d surely like to see NASCAR bring STOCK & RACING back to the track and with a little cooperation from the two major track owners & Goodyear, it’s possible to resurrect NASCAR. It will NOT survive like it is now. Tracks and drivers do not have any personality or character. Everyone is extremely worried about the corporate point of view and they all forget one important element… THE FANS!!! Give the fans what they want, not something that NASCAR & the corporations dreamed up in a boardroom somewhere. When they ruined Bristol I stopped watching EVERY race, now I TiVo the races and watch them if I have time or it might be worthwhile. Don’t give me more wrecks… Give me drivers that want to race, cars that I can identify (STOCK), tires that a driver & his crew will have to manage & some tracks with character. It’s really simple… We want to see racing the way it should be. If we wanted to see a parade, we’ll wait until Thanksgiving and watch Macy’s on TV and see what kind of rating that gets.

SB
04/27/2012 03:47 PM
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Summer, you’re right on about the ‘they just want wrecks’ attitude. Thank you for knowing the difference when fans say we want intense action…which does not mean wrecking! When 90% of the passes come from pit stops, as do lead changes, it’s not going to keep fannies in the seats. The fact that the ‘chase’ has made for irrelevant stroking during the first 26 races hasn’t helped, either. Again, thank you for being on of the few who can tell the difference, and not insult the fans (who pay the bills, by the way) by calling names.

Brian
04/27/2012 03:48 PM
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Part of the problem of “boring” races is the TV coverage. IF the TV is not showing the racing that is happening and focusing on the 56 car and the 11 car 2 seconds back and the 48 another 4 seconds back but ignoring any actaul racing for position then yeah it gets boring. The cars have gotten too engineered and to alike. Now next year hopefully NASCAR keeps their nose out of the cars and lets it be a little more run what you brung. NASCAR started shooting itself in the foot with “rules” to make the cars more “even”. Chevy is the biggest whiner in the country. Back in the late 90’s Ford had something figured out and had a whole pile of teams racing under the Blue Oval. HMS was still winning the Championships.

Jesse
04/28/2012 04:29 AM
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Why does southbound traffic on I-77 slow when there is a wreck on northbound I-77? People are drawn to car wrecks. They are these big, powerful machines we all drive, and they are capable of spectacular carnage. We need to admit, we are fascinated.

Auto racing is suspenseful. At any moment anything can happen. A driver can have the fastest car but on any lap he or she can crash and end it all.

When there is a wreck, everything changes, everything starts over. The pit crews scramble to improve track position. The leader’s lead disappears — now side by side with the second pace car.

We all drive cars, but the reason we don’t drive at 180 mph is because it is dangerous. People doing dangerous things – whether it is a trapeze act or an astronaut – thrill us.

I enjoy green flag racing. I hate it when some lap car wrecks and changes the complexion of a race. I don’t judge my experience watching a race by the degree of carnage, but I know the caution flag mixes everything up.

Shawn
04/29/2012 08:00 PM
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Summer, you couldn’t have explained it better in terms of the new “boring” nascar! I’m SO SICK of the condescending media types (especially the hosts on Sirius/XM Nascar’s “The Morning Drive”) who berate us fans for daring to speak out against the current product on the track! Everyone can have their own opinion but don’t rip me apart cuz mine’s different than yours. When it’s all said & done, these so-called nascar purists (snobs) won’t have a job, if we the fans stop going to races!!!

ARMCHAIR-nASCAR
04/29/2012 10:11 PM
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nASCAR would botch a game of horse shoes.