The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Family Favoritism, Biting The Hand That Feeds You, And Statistical Silliness? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 4, 2008

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Did You Notice? … That halfway through the regular season, not a single person in the Top 12 in points is a first-time Chase participant? We can expand that out to individual teams, too, as each of their car owners has been Chase bound as recently as 2006.

Here’s a breakdown of the numbers by team:

Joe Gibbs Racing – 3 (Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch)
Hendrick Motorsports – 3 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon)
Richard Childress Racing – 3 (Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick)
Roush Fenway Racing – 2 (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle)
Gillett Evernham Motorsports – 1 (Kasey Kahne)

Right now, there’s just three drivers in the field who weren’t Chasers in 2007: Kahne, Biffle, and Earnhardt, Jr. And Kahne’s candidacy appears to be tenuous at best, as he’s holding the 12th and final slot in points by the skin of his teeth; should he lose out to 13th place David Ragan in the coming months, we’d have our first Chase rookie but lose the only car owner who wasn’t involved in the title hunt last year in the process.

Why do I bring these statistics up? It’s because fans are always enthralled by the prospect of new competition each year. Think of all the young rookies and drivers making an impact in other sports; but as the focus begins to shift from individual races to making the Chase in the season’s second half, that portion of the intrigue appears to be left off the drama. Ragan is the only first-timer who looks seriously capable of making the field, and the closest car owner within striking distance of breaking through as a newcomer would be Chip Ganassi Racing – and they’re a distant 17th (Juan Pablo Montoya).

Once again, we touch on a consistent theme here; while the influx of open-wheel talent these last few years was supposed to lead to greater diversity, instead it’s been increasingly the same old talent behind the cockpit who’s dominating at the front of the pack. How can you root for the underdog when the underdog isn’t around? That, my friends, is the million dollar question that continues to go unanswered.

Did You Notice? … That after listening to Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip these last few years, we should make a new rule forbidding sports announcers from talking about any relatives participating in the athletic event they’re covering. In racing, we’ll make three exceptions if the athlete:

  • Is about to win the biggest race of his career (I.E. – Ned / Dale Jarrett – 1993 Daytona 500)
  • Looks like he could be injured on the race track
  • Addresses his announcer relative by name through an in-race radio conversation

But under any other circumstances, the announcer related to said driver should never speak about them, letting the other analysts in the booth handle any situation – positive or negative – in which they’re involved.

Why am I on this latest kick? Twice now in the past month, Darrell Waltrip has defended brother Michael with little or no evidence on FOX, initially claiming his brother didn’t hit someone on the race track when – just seconds later — replays showed clear as day he was 100 percent responsible for an accident. The most recent example came at Dover; after a wreck that involved Joe Nemechek, D.W. exclaimed there was no way Michael’s No. 55 car could have been the cause – even when camera shots zoomed in on a crumpled left front bumper on his NAPA Toyota. Sure enough, subsequent replays showed Waltrip tapping Nemechek’s No. 78 and turning him into the wall; and while the wreck was unintentional, big brother’s comments certainly didn’t make either one of the Waltrips look all that great.

Combine that with Rusty Wallace’s continual conversations surrounding son Steven on ESPN – already well documented these last 15 months — and it’s clear that it’s hard for family members to remain unbiased. And don’t take this the wrong way, because I think you can’t blame these announcers for that. After all, if it was your younger brother racing on national television, would you be the one ready to criticize him on every turn?

However, sometimes those criticisms have to be made – because it’s the job of the announcers to point out missteps and mistakes. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason to speak about something if everyone knows you’ll be biased. But something tells me this won’t happen anytime soon…

Paul Menard has improved in his sophomore season on tour; he’s currently a workmanlike 27th in the standings after Dover.

Did You Notice? … What just about was the save of the year for Paul Menard at Dover? During the Monster Mile’s traditional multi-car melee on Lap 19 – one that engulfed 11 cars – Menard made some of the riskiest avoidance maneuvers of all. While everyone focused on Denny Hamlin failing to put the brakes on heading down the back straightaway – a move that destroyed his car while he barreled into Elliott Sadler – Menard was in the same boat, only he pushed just that much harder to the left. Careening towards the inside of the race track, Menard somehow kept his car under control at high speed, fish-tailing the wall as he snuck between a fast closing hole between several cars sliding down the banking. The minimal damage from the wall graze was enough to slow his day – Menard finished 22nd, four laps down – but it surely could have been a whole lot worse for the No. 15 Chevrolet. It’s yet another example how the sophomore driver is known for doing what it takes to take care of his equipment; in his 52-race Cup career, Menard’s only crashed out twice.

Did You Notice? … How to calculate a Driver Rating? Since this stat is brought up frequently, I’ve tried time and again to figure out how it works, and finally looked at a full-scale explanation offered by nascarmedia.com. I got the answer I wanted, but it’s still left me scratching my head – I’d reprint the whole thing here, but it was three pages long. Three pages! See, this is NASCAR’s problem with statistics; you don’t ever see anyone in baseball taking three pages to figure out what makes an RBI. Statistics can prove suspect if the common citizen doesn’t know how to calculate them, and a formula in which you need to fractionalize a driver’s finishing position, average running position, average speed, and fastest lap within each race and then work with the numbers is just too much for the common fan to understand. I’m a big time stats guy, but NASCAR’s going to have several problems making their loop data understandable until they make these things far easier for all of us to figure out.

Did You Notice? … That in the midst of several prominent figures criticizing Pocono Raceway – most recently Jeff Gordon – NASCAR is no closer to building a track in New York City than it was this time one year ago.

That means right now, this track is the closest thing anyone’s got to the coveted number one market in the U.S. Yes, the races may be too long, and parts of the facility itself may be outdated; but be careful to bite the hand that feeds you without a real solution to put in its place.

The bottom line is, Pocono is not only unique in track design but marketing purpose; and as long as it remains that way, you can guarantee its place on the schedule for some time to come.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Mike In NH
06/04/2008 08:01 AM
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The top teams are by and large loaded with veteran drivers, since they can afford them, which is why the top 12 is full of veterans. Right now the youngster crop isn’t really all that good by and large – the move towards open wheelers hasn’t produced a lot of good drivers. Of the five teams listed in the article, the only youngsters (some are not even rookies now) are Ragan, Mears, Hornish and maybe Bowyer – four seats among eighteen total for those teams. While Bowyer and Ragan are making an impact, Mears doesn’t appear to be improving, and the jury is still out on Hornish.

With the open wheel fiasco ending, the situation will correct itself soon – Joey Logano, Marc Davis, Austin Dillon, Jeffrey Earnhardt and a few others are in the CW and Nationwide Series driving for the big teams and should make an impact; there are others coming up that should wind up on the other teams too and make their presence known.

This whole discussion leaves out one big team without a top 12 racer and a couple of young drivers – DEI. They have Aric Amirola, Regan Smith and Paul Menard in their stable of drivers (really, Mark Martin is the only seasoned vet). With such a young crew (Truex is no old man either) perhaps it’s not surprising that DEI is out of the top 12 right now, but on the other hand, if these young drivers (and eventually Jeffrey Earnhardt, and perhaps Jesus Hernandez) get the experience – and equipment – to refine their talent, it could bring DEI back to prominence in Cup.

As for NYC – the only hope for a track anywhere near the city would be the Meadowlands in NJ, and it’s questionable if they could get enough land to put a track there either. Pocono is about 2 hours with no traffic (which never happens) from Manhattan. Dover is about three. Loudon is about five. So, NYC really isn’t any worse off than a lot of areas in terms of having multiple tracks nearby – better than most areas of the country, actually. Maybe NASCAR should just concentrate on doing more advertising in NYC for the races at these tracks, it’d be cheaper than building a new track – though being from the area, I understand that a lot of New Yorkers think anything not within a few miles of the city limits is not worthy of being important enough for them to notice, hence NASCAR wanting a track near the city anyway.

mindcrime
06/04/2008 12:34 PM
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I don’t see why the same teams being in contention for the Chase is that surprising. In all other sports the same teams seem to advance to the playoffs every year. I’ll bet you the Patriots and the Colts make the NFL playoffs as will the Yankees and the Redsox. Why should NASCAR be different?

HankZ
06/04/2008 12:59 PM
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Menards swerve at Dover was awesome!

Brian
06/04/2008 05:34 PM
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Te 6 car made the same move but being slightly farther back had more time so did not hit the wall. Still fit through the small closing hole however.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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