Thomas Bowles · Thursday March 31, 2011
This and yesterday’s column marks Tom Bowles’ post-Clapgate return to writing. Catch him every Monday and Wednesday from here on out here on Frontstretch.com, as well as doing spot appearances for Athlon Sports. He’s still looking for other opportunities, too while hitting the reset button; if you have one, he can be contacted by clicking here.
Did You Notice? … There’s no clear-cut dominant driver so far in Sprint Cup? We’ve got five races, five different winners and fourteen men capable of taking the championship lead out of Martinsville – more than double what we had at this time a year ago. Certainly, drivers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson have flexed some muscle but the battle at the top of the points is clearly still taking shape. After all, remember where Denny Hamlin stood at this time last year; without a top-10 finish, he looked as likely to challenge for the championship as the guy blocking your view at the movie theater two rows in front (bad experience).
So in my mind, this season has developed as one where title contenders are falling by the wayside early instead of standing out. Here’s a few seasons clearly in the “danger zone,” many of which caught us by surprise in 2011:
Joey Logano. – After a 7-6-5-4-3-slice Montoya in half finish to 2010, many thought the third year would be the charm for the sport’s supposed next superstar. Not quite. So far this season, the driver of the No. 20 hasn’t even snagged a single top-20 finish while blowing his engine once, leading exactly zero laps and wasting three top-10 qualifying efforts. The latest kick in the pants came at Fontana, where an ugly penalty for passing prior to the restart left him the last car on the lead lap in 25th. It’s been that type of year for the 20-year-old, filled with uncharacteristic handling and mental miscues one shouldn’t be making with oh, about 150 starts under his belt in NASCAR’s top three series.
Recovery Chances – Logano is a whopping 64 points out of 10th place five races in. He ran second in the Martinsville race one year ago, but has never made the Chase, let alone learned how to climb back into contention for it. He’s easily the least likely of the struggling crowd to turn things around, leaving a tough decision for sponsor Home Depot. They’ve invested so much into this young “prodigy,” but after three years, there needs to be progress. Most drivers today don’t get half that long… could Gibbs need a new sponsor after the season?
Jeff Burton – The veteran leader of Richard Childress Racing had an ugly Chase last season, wrecking twice in the final four races and winding up dead last in the 12-car American Idol competition. 2011 offered up the same type of sloppy start, an engine failure at Daytona followed by yawners of 26th, 21st, 20th, and 15th. With just five laps led, all in the Great American Race Burton’s the Great American With A Dad As His Sponsor has lapped the RCR field instead; Paul Menard’s seventh in points while Burton’s sitting 25th.
Recovery Chances – Let’s put it this way; Burton hasn’t gone this long without a top 10 to start the season since 2005, his first year with Richard Childress Racing where he never came close to making the Chase. In one sense, a veteran driver and team could easily build a foundation this weekend, a track where Burton nearly won last April before a cut tire derailed his Denny Hamlin upset bid. The problem is so many contenders already have a head start, and lately his career has been about consistency, not knocking off chunks of points by grabbing multiple wins. Every superstar can’t make the Chase every year, right?
Brad Keselowski – Taking over the No. 2, Miller Lite Dodge colors was supposed to hold the ticket to stardom for the 2010 Nationwide Series champ. Eh … not exactly. He’s got just one lead lap finish in five races, a best performance of 15th and no real bad luck to blame for it… just bad handling. In the meantime, he’s made wrecking a work of art over in Nationwide, spinning four times in five races while failing to finish twice.
Perhaps the “Sunglasses At Night” guy can get an audition?
Recovery Chances – For the Chase, not good. Considering the quality of his sponsorship, this season may become one where Keselowski is forced to fight for his job. Verizon, under the guise of Dodge lettering wasn’t all that concerned about 25th or so in points (Kes is 23rd right now) – they were on the way out anyway. But for a company that’s used to championship contention? Mediocre, mid-pack finishes just won’t cut it.
Denny Hamlin – Ah, the talk of the town these days … for all the wrong reasons. Last year’s championship runner-up is this year’s second-place hangover, one top-10 finish through five events while suffering through the same engine errors that have resulted in one DNF apiece for each of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars. But the problems run deeper; this team and driver just haven’t looked competitive from the start. With only 31 laps led in three races, just one top-10 starting spot it’s getting harder to believe continued assurances that last year’s championship failure didn’t affect him.
Recovery Chances – Relatively decent, considering he’s only 21st in the standings and heading to a track in Martinsville that jumpstarted his run to the title last year. But it’s important to note that in 2010, Hamlin had the added benefit of lower expectations and lofting above a health crisis to keep him mentally focused. There’s no outside boost coming this year, and JGR continues chasing an unconfirmed problem with motors that could contribute another costly DNF or two. What’s the verdict? At the beginning of this year, I labeled Hamlin as a borderline Chase contender but nowhere near someone who could knock off Johnson; right now, there’s no evidence on the table to change that theory.
Did You Notice? … In many ways, we’ve started off with the most competitive season in several years. Just one of five races has been won by the driver leading the most laps (Jeff Gordon – Phoenix), which adds an air of unpredictability back into the proceedings. Every winning pass so far has been made with 25 laps or less left in the race, and between new blood (Trevor Bayne) and old favorites (Gordon) entering the Winner’s Circle, there’s apparently something for everyone.
Yet in this world, looks can be deceiving, as the seemingly upward momentum in the sport has tailed off as of late. Looking back, we all overplayed the TV rating gains in the first three races because in 2010, you had two mitigating factors: a giant pothole that delayed the race for hours (Daytona) plus a U.S. Olympic gold medal game that captivated the nation in ways we hadn’t seen in decades (Las Vegas). Of course those races were going to bounce back; the numbers for each couldn’t have been much worse the year prior.
Looking closer, not one 2011 race has beaten its 2009 numbers while the Bristol attendance, atrocious by that track’s lofty standards signal something is still not connecting with the American public. How do we fix it? Right now, with Fontana ending in two hours, thirty-nine minutes last weekend the prevailing school of thought seems to be “make the races shorter.”
Huh? I still don’t think that’s addressing the real problem. Fontana was 195 laps of boredom followed by five laps of white-knuckle excitement; would you rather have 95 and five instead? Those ratios aren’t going to be changed by shorter races but by addressing the way in which the drivers themselves are competing.
Here’s my take: 500 miles fifteen years ago used to be a test of man and machine. Those watching never knew which engines would go the distance, whether a dominating leader would blow his tire out of turn four or if one maladjustment on a pit stop could send a car spiraling back five, ten, even fifteen positions over a course of a green-flag run.
Compare that to now, when advances in technology have led to greater levels of mechanical perfection and the mileage has become virtually meaningless. Combine that with the driving side of things, where one bad mistake in the past could leave you fighting to get your lap back, up front the rest of the race. Instead, we’ve set things up like a short track sprint, with anything from the Lucky Dog Rule to the wave around to just plain changing the scoring system in order to get every car back on the lead lap by race’s end. Add in the overall parity – even during a long green-flag run at California, you still had over 20 cars remain on the lead lap – and it’s near impossible to deal with adversity during the race without getting an “autocorrect” by the 50 laps to go mark.
All of that isn’t lost on the drivers, who have turned the sport into “survival mode” until the last 100 miles, when they know either a caution will come out to bunch up the field or it’s time to actually compete for positions, not cruise. Add in the mechanical certainty of most parts and pieces – Joe Gibbs Racing engines notwithstanding – and the first half of these races have lost a large part of their luster.
My solution to that, right now is not shorter races but making the first three-quarters more meaningful. For starters, can we get rid of the Make-A-Wish Foundation correcting every driver’s mistake? In our rush to correct things like making sure cars don’t start in front of the leader, we’ve made things way too easy; I didn’t see fans stop paying for tickets because there were cars positioned at the tail end of the lead lap. I would go back to the Lucky Dog rule, end of story and if cars want to try and get their lap back? They can stay out, be positioned just in front of the leader and see if they’re capable of holding them off. NASCAR fans have higher than a second grade intelligence; they’ll be able to figure out who’s in first place and who’s not.
For the drivers, you need to offer some sort of monetary bonus (points are too tough to follow) for running inside the top 5 at certain portions of the race. You want to borrow from football? How about a $50,000 bonus for the leader at the end of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters. Get one of the 7,000 NASCAR-sanctioned sponsors to support it each individual week, right? Something, somewhere has to be changed to adjust the early race doldrums… otherwise, people at the track won’t stick around for that fantastic finish.
And as for the mechanics. I know the new car encourages parity, but giving them more freedom also encourages risk, the “pushing the envelope” mentality that encouraged NASCAR’s growth in the first place. Giving all the cars the same parts and pieces leaves everyone, well, stuck in place.
And no matter how much you want to try, you just can’t stop moving forward. Otherwise, Father Time catches up with you … and it doesn’t end well.
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