Thomas Bowles · Wednesday January 9, 2013
Did You Notice?… The snoozer of a NASCAR offseason to start off 2013? Of course, last year’s circuslike atmosphere (Kurt Busch’s firing, the resulting musical chairs, Kasey Kahne’s breastfeeding “boo boo,” Greg Zipadelli joining old buddy Tony Stewart) comes around oh, about once a decade. But this time around, even with the new Gen6 car there’s been more excitement surrounding the girlfriend of a college football quarterback in the sporting world than stock car racing. You can bet number two on the list of New Year’s Resolutions for Brian France (behind “find some way, any way to keep my divorce records sealed) is for some giant piece of news to pop out of the sky between now and Daytona Speedweeks.
I don’t see that happening. Right now, there’s a list of 35 teams testing for Daytona in a couple of days and all of them smell of “been there, done that.” Sure, there are going to be a couple of intriguing new partnerships that will be getting a head start on 2013: Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano and Penske Racing. But there are no “new teams,” per se other than Austin Dillon’s part-time, No. 33 effort at Richard Childress Racing. And even with these combinations, other than establishing a communication pattern between driver and crew chief how much is there to learn? The drafting with the new, Gen6 car, while an adjustment is not going to be radically different in the end; controlled parity, from 1st to 43rd will remain as restrictor plates always make strategy, not speed the ultimate decider over 500 miles. So how many headlines will this test churn out?
The answer is “not much.” In fact, some of NASCAR’s smaller teams, recognizing the limited advantage this track time gets them in the sport’s Super Bowl have chosen not to make the trek at all. Swan Energy LLC’s No. 30, perhaps the sport’s biggest offseason question mark in terms of team restructuring after the “prize” signings of former big mechanics Tony Eury, Jr. and Steve Hmiel won’t be making the trip. BK Racing, whose driver Landon Cassill just got married is sending a “test driver,” David Reutimann in his place.
Sorry; no one likes to be a Debbie Downer. It just seems that, following a year where TV ratings and interest declined significantly in the second half, for the fourth time in five years there’s no “hook,” as of yet to get people paying attention. Perhaps that’ll change over the next couple of weeks, but at this point it looks like the sport will have to hang its hat on a stronger-than-expected 500 or a surprise, breakout performance to generate news early in 2013.
Did You Notice?… The few offseason moves you should be paying attention to? Here’s a quick guide for those who have been busy with the NFL and other pursuits…
- Travis Pastrana’s signing with Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series. The full-year deal, one initially reported here in November puts the former X Games champ in top-tier equipment for the full schedule as he goes for the championship. (By the way: a source told me the reason for the holdup in the final announcement had to do with some of Pastrana’s contracts outside NASCAR, specifically his rally racing deal.) Certainly, like those before him the transition into stock car equipment and the grind of a weekly schedule will be tough. But Pastrana has proven to be a quicker study than most thought. He led six laps in Atlanta last September, battling with a middle-class RAB Racing car and old tires; the next week, he stepped into an RFR car (in a one-race deal) and qualified fifth at Richmond. Compared to Danica Patrick’s first nine starts, Pastrana has a higher average finish, more top-15 results and a greater level of consistency. Plus, he’s got a quality teammate, Trevor Bayne, on the other side that’s sure to be building a championship resume with the No. 6 Ford. Does that mean Pastrana’s a threat to win? Not yet. But he’ll make noise and that, combined with a unique personality that brings in a new type of eyes (specifically, an 18-34 crowd that’s passed on NASCAR over the last decade) makes his 2013 season a “must see.”
- AJ Allmendinger will get himself a second chance. The driver, suspended for a failed drug test last summer in what became the last straw in a Penske Racing nightmare will drive a limited schedule for James Finch. Finch, who is running JR Motorsports’ Regan Smith in the Daytona 500 will then transition to Allmendinger for about two dozen of the 36 races on the schedule, giving the hungry Californian a chance to reprove himself. While I do think open-wheel opportunities could still lure this driver away, expect him to make things interesting in a world where too many drivers are comfortable. Unfortunately, the equipment isn’t good enough that we’ll see a Brian Vickers-like renaissance, where every time the ‘Dinger steps in the car he’s a threat to pull off an upset win. But if the parts and pieces hold up, a handful of top-10 performances on intermediate tracks aren’t out of the question and, once again you’ve got an engaging personality mixing it up and making it interesting within a group of drivers who will be “pacing themselves” for the Chase.
- The “Bud Shootout,” brought back to its original format in 2013 (for pole winners only) has now been renamed the “Sprint Unlimited.” The reasoning is simple: rival Coors backs the Pole Award each week so there’s a conflict of interest there. Supposed “fan participation” perks will accompany this race reorganization, perhaps a ploy to sell tickets as the Shootout typically draws a fraction of the full 500 weekend – especially with qualifying no longer as important as it once was.
- A bunch of people saw their NASCAR probation “expire.” In other news, a recent study revealed wrist-slaps across North America are reduced by 50% during the “stock car offseason” of December and January.
- NASCAR’s new qualifying rules for Cup, bringing back the old provisional system (and, in theory making it easier for new teams to qualify) has done little to entice owners to make the jump. A total of zero new Cup teams have been announced for the coming season – zero. (If you want to stretch, you can say David Stremme’s No. 30 and Brian Keselowski’s No. 92, running a limited schedule are so completely revamped they’re “new.”) Also of interest: a replacement sponsor for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also known as the sport’s Most Popular Driver has not been found for AMP Energy, which is reducing its primary load in 2013. We’re getting pretty late in the game for that, the latest sign of how funding problems have paired with a lack of interest from potential owners who are viewing the NASCAR climate as too expensive. I talked to an investor the other day that has chosen specifically to go the open-wheel route, even with the upheaval surrounding the ouster of CEO Randy Bernard because it’s more cost effective. That’s an issue the sport needs to address, one our NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski even brought up to me last month in an interview that’ll be out in the 2013 Athlon Preview Magazine. (Shameless plug.)
Did You Notice? … Some odds and ends before we take off for the day. Know this column is back, up every Wednesday afternoon between now and the start of the season:
- News came out this morning that Guy Roofing has signed to sponsor Phoenix Racing and driver Regan Smith for the Daytona 500. Good to see them get backing considering at the end of last season, Finch said he’d fold his operation without proper funding. Smith, with the direct Hendrick/JR Motorsports connection and a solid restrictor plate history (remember his win taken away at Talladega a few years back?) should be on top of your list of Daytona darkhorses.
- So Jeremy Mayfield wants his NASCAR career back — just without doing any of the reinstatement work required? My answer to the bizarre call-in, in the middle of a Brian France interview where the driver asked directly to get back in the NASCAR game: sad. Just sad. Because Mayfield said, after years of a once-believable story reduced to rubble over several methamphetamine felony charges, “Pretty please let me back in, but I’m not going to do rehab.” That’s like saying, “I committed a heinous crime, three years ago but can you just throw me a not guilty plea and we can all pretend it never happened now?”
No, Jeremy. No you can’t.
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