Thomas Bowles · Wednesday March 21, 2012
Did You Notice?… The quirkiness of the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule? This weekend marks the third time in the first five weeks of the season that NASCAR is within the Las Vegas – Phoenix – Los Angeles area. Just 321 miles separates Auto Club Speedway from Phoenix, a five-hour drive and a little over six hours from L.A. Las Vegas, which just held a Cup race in mid-March is even closer to ACS: 239 miles and four hours. Considering the proximity of those events, if you were living in that triangle why would you spend the money to go to all three, within a month of each other? Yes, the absolute diehards might consider it, but even most normal NASCAR fans would limit their attendance, especially in this economy. Add in that Auto Club Speedway has the worst racing of the three, by a landslide, and that puts their attendance figures in unnecessary peril for the coming weekend.
Some people think that with the weather in most of the Eastern United States, there’s no choice but to head West this early in the schedule. I disagree. We could even fix things without adding back Rockingham into the mix… here’s my proposal:
2013 Sprint Cup Schedule
February 9th – Bud Shootout
February 17th – Daytona 500
February 24th – Homestead-Miami
March 3rd – WEEK OFF
March 10th – Phoenix
March 17th – Texas
March 24th – Talladega
March 31st – OFF (Easter Sunday)
April 7th – Bristol
April 14th – Martinsville
April 20th – Richmond
April 28th – California
May 5th – Kansas
May 11th – Darlington
And so on…
A couple of quick fixes would happen here. Number one, the Daytona rain debacle of 2012, where teams were strapped for time to make it to Phoenix would never happen again. Your next race is still within reasonable range, down in Homestead-Miami, so there’s no 3,000-mile expedition if you crash three cars in the 500. Plus, Miami is the one time you can get away with two races happening in the same state within a week of each other. The Daytona 500 is such a specialty event – people travel from all over the country to see NASCAR’s Super Bowl – a large portion of your attendance won’t actually be from Florida. Plus, for those who do come locally you could offer special discounts and tie the two races together. “Floridians, like what you saw down at Daytona? Well buy a ticket to the 500 and get one the next week at Homestead-Miami for half price!” That track has struggled to put butts in the seats for its one date, the season finale, unless there’s a white-knuckle battle for the championship like last year. So give Homestead a chance to survive long-term, and get those nasty weather and travel problems out of the way.
Number two, this schedule would make the West Coast trips bearable for small and large teams alike. No longer are there back-to-back races, 3,000 miles away from the Charlotte shops. You’d have a full week off before preparing for Phoenix, and an extra day before trucking off to California at the end of April. Just as important, it would give fans options instead of squeezing three race dates all into slightly over one month’s time.
Number three, you put the season finale where it belongs: Las Vegas. NASCAR already has the banquet there anyway, so why not make the whole finale a two-week spectacle in the one place that knows how to pump up entertainment: Sin City. You’re not radically changing anything within the Chase (1.5-mile track versus 1.5-mile track) and you’re adding one of the more fan-friendly tracks (traffic aside). If you hold the banquet right after the race, say the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, you’re all done with your season and out of the news cycle you never slot back into anyway when your wrap-up occurs during NFL primetime in early December.
Number four, check out the intrigue with a few of these rearranged Spring dates. Homestead offers you a better chance than Phoenix to hold momentum the week after the 500; its multiple grooves have often led to better racing. Then, you make Talladega a month earlier, putting one of your best events before the off week towards the end of March to leave fans scintillating over an almost guaranteed fantastic finish. It leaves them wanting more; and then, after the Easter Break, you give it to them with a reconfigured 2013 Bristol. That starts a three-week short track swing, with Martinsville and Richmond back-to-back during an opening where NASCAR can capitalize in the midst of post-Opening Day Baseball hysteria and before the NHL and NBA playoffs. If you’re trying to win your audience back, you’ve got to hit them at the right times and these fixes would do just that.
It’s not NASCAR’s job to listen to journalists; my idea should carry the same weight as yours. But I hope they listen to someone, somewhere because this silly West Coast swing is going to bite them unnecessarily in the next few years – especially at Fontana. Why try even harder to kill that poor racetrack off? The competition is ugly enough there as it is.
Did You Notice? … Some famous drivers seriously struggling just four races into the season? Each of the following superstars is sitting outside the top 20 in points, which means they wouldn’t qualify for the Chase as of now no matter how many wins they’ve racked up. Yes, it’s still early but in this age of parity let’s take a look and see if anyone should be concerned:
Points Position: 23rd
2012 Finishes: 40th at Daytona (DNF – Engine), 8th at Phoenix, 12th at Las Vegas, 35th at Bristol
The Skinny: The magic between Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson has hit a wall, similar to what happened with the Gustafson – Mark Martin pairing for Hendrick in their season two. At Phoenix and Vegas, while teammate Jimmie Johnson was running circles around the competition Gordon was complaining so badly you’d think he was running 30th. Bad luck has played a factor – Gordon had a fast car at Bristol before that “racing deal” with Junior – but he’s also led just five laps all year. When Dave Blaney has been up front for more, well… you’ve got a problem.
Worry Level: MEDIUM. Right now, considering the strength of drivers ahead of him making the top 10 in points will be harder for Gordon than it looks. Also consider one of those drivers is teammate Johnson, who will inevitably take one of those ten spots. But Gustafson and Gordon had enough speed last summer to win races at will. Even if bad luck keeps biting them, you’d have to think Four-Time puts it all together at one of his best tracks, even a road course like Infineon to have a victory or two heading into the Chase. Will that be enough if, say, he’s 15th in the standings heading to Richmond? Considering Keselowski is 13th, right now with a victory in hand that’s not a completely safe bet.
Points Position: 26th
2012 Finishes: 34th at Daytona, 18th at Phoenix, 37th at Las Vegas, 17th at Bristol
The Skinny: As I mentioned last week Allmendinger just seems to be putting way too much pressure on himself. As a result, he’s putting himself in positions to lose: a pit road incident at Daytona magnified by getting his nose in a crash at Phoenix one week later. Every time Allmendinger speaks, you could tell just how badly he wants this dream opportunity; after all, the former open-wheeler used to worship Penske over on that side of the fence. But there is something to wanting it so badly you make mistakes; I think that’s what’s behind the mysterious dropoff of the No. 22 Dodge after leading Bristol Sunday. The driver was focused so much on getting to the finish first, he forgot the feedback needed to get there… is it possible to pump in an anti-anxiety pill on a pit stop?
Worry Level: HIGH. I know this prediction won’t make the ‘Dinger feel much better, but when you haven’t made the Chase, ever, with zero victories to your credit, it’s hard to make a charge from this far back. I know Keselowski did it, but he had a far more accomplished resume and a growing power within Penske Racing. For A.J., 15th in points, with a victory and aiming to keep his ride for 2013 may be a more realistic goal.
Points Position: 27th
2012 Finishes: 39th at Daytona, 15th at Phoenix, 35th at Las Vegas, 18th at Bristol
The Skinny: Simple: Busch is finding that driving B-level equipment is a whole lot harder than it looks. Wrecks at Daytona and Vegas haven’t helped his cause; throwing the water bottle after the latter was a sign of his growing frustration. I think Busch is trying very hard to make good, and reports are he really does like this team. But adrenaline can only do so much for lack of horsepower.
Worry Level: MEDIUM. Busch was always a longshot to make the Chase anyways with a single-car organization. But they could still do it by maximizing their opportunities to win. You’ve got Talladega, where restrictor plates equal parity; Infineon, where road courses equalize equipment and where Busch has been successful in the past; and Dover, a one-miler with a possible fuel mileage finish where Busch won just last year. This team takes two out of those three, then sneaks into 20th in points they have a chance to overcome it all. But Busch, as has been said 1,000 times, needs to keep that temper in check.
Points Position: 32nd
2012 Finishes: 29th at Daytona, 34th at Phoenix, 19th at Las Vegas, 37th at Bristol
The Skinny: Wreck, wreck, wreck, wreck. No way to describe this man’s season better than that. Kahne’s shown speed at times, winning the pole at Las Vegas but he and crew chief Kenny Francis have struggled otherwise. Yes, bad luck plays a role but Kahne can also be blamed for some of those, like hitting the Phoenix wall on his own after being a little too aggressive.
Worry Level: EXTREME. It took Kahne and Francis, as good as they are, a full year to get up to speed at Red Bull. By the time they did that, at Hendrick the regular season would be over and the Chase would be lost. Not to mention the deficits here in the points are already extreme: 100 off the lead, 66 off 10th place and a whopping 37 outside the top 20. The No. 5 hasn’t exactly been superb lately, either, with Mark Martin going winless the final two seasons in the car. Tough road to hoe…
Did You Notice?… Some “C”-level (in the wake of the Johnson appeal… so should we call them “C-Post?”) quick hits before we take off:
- How must Elliott Sadler be feeling? Yeah, he’s won two of four Nationwide Series races to start the season. But on Sunday, he had to sit and watch Brian Vickers run fifth in a No. 55 Sprint Cup ride that should have been his. Remember, Vickers doesn’t have that chance at all unless Sadler was told by someone to run full-time in the Nationwide Series, period, which negated his deal with Waltrip a day after it was announced at Phoenix.
Could Sadler have done as well? Sure, Vickers can drive on his own merit but Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole has been lights out this season. Plus, Sadler’s got great history at Thunder Valley, winning his first career Cup race there in 2001. And if there’s one thing Vickers could even tell you after his Martinsville debacle last Fall, which set deep into the minds of car owners, Sadler needed a Sprint Cup top-5 finish in the worst way. Right now, no matter how many Nationwide races are won, the only Sadler “accomplishment” stuck in important people’s minds is that disastrous wreck of Jimmie Johnson and Danica to start the 2012 Daytona 500.
When will Sadler’s chance for Cup redemption come?
- Owner Bruton Smith asking the fans for feedback, done in the wake of the Bristol mass attendance exodus is a giant step in the right direction. In case you missed it, you can email the speedway at email@example.com and tell them why you’re no longer going to the races. It puts the speculation and research right out of the reporter’s hands and directly into yours; once and for all, we might get factual evidence if it’s the economy, hotel prices, the “new” Bristol or a combination of all of the above that’s keeping you sitting at home.
So please, if you’re critical of the speedway be sure to drop them a line. I know it’s on them, in the end to win you back; but if they don’t know what’s wrong, then you’re not giving them a chance to fix it.
Editor’s Note: Wondering about Tom’s reaction to the Jimmie Johnson appeal? Check out his column on Athlon Sports later today.
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