The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Land Of The Same Opportunities by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 12, 2013

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Did You Notice? ... The Land Of The Same Opportunities

Thomas Bowles · Wednesday June 12, 2013


Did You Notice?… NASCAR continues to struggle with its rookie class? While Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has shown flashes of potential this season, as well as consistency, he has yet to score a top-10 finish. Danica Patrick, by comparison, has one, along with a pole at Daytona, but has yet to impress beyond that. Posting an average finish of 26.5, she has just two more lead-lap results and hasn’t run better than 24th since Martinsville in early spring.

Those numbers, to date pale in comparison with some of the rookie seasons registered by the greats like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Kevin Harvick. Here’s a quick comparison as to how they panned out, along with some of the better rookie seasons in recent memory…

Harvick: 2 wins, 6 top 5s, 16 top 10s (ninth in points)
Stewart: 3 wins, 12 top 5s, 21 top 10s (fourth in points)
Johnson: 3 wins, 6 top 5s, 21 top 10s (fifth in points)
Earnhardt, Jr.: 2 wins, 3 top 5s, 5 top 10s (16th in points)
Davey Allison (1987): 2 wins, 9 top 5s, 10 top 10s (limited schedule)
Joey Logano: 1 win, 3 top 5s, 7 top 10s (20th in points)

With both Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. having sub-par 2103 runs, where is the next NASCAR talent going to come from?

Notice I snuck Logano in there, although his first-year performance is far from legendary. He’s struggled to become a superstar, despite once labeled as the “torch” for NASCAR’s next generation, so if Patrick and Stenhouse are far behind his curve, that doesn’t bode well for their futures. How could the duo become breakout stars, attracting new fans when they have yet to “break out” on the racetrack? Both are in safe situations, where long-term sponsorship should dictate patience and multiple years to prove themselves.

But this type of struggle, to cultivate new talent at the top level is hurting NASCAR. Even next year’s supposed top rookie, Austin Dillon, has no finish better than 21st this season in four starts. That leads to no TV time, which leads to no media attention, an ill-timed equation that doesn’t result in new fans. The Gen-6 struggle has made things hard enough; marketing the same people running near the front like Johnson, Kyle Busch and others only lasts for so long before it turns stale. That’s especially true when none of them really hate each other; they’re just empty rivalries that fail to grab national attention. A topic for another day…

This tough performance by first-year or “new” talents trickles all the way down to the Chase. A few months ago, it looked like we’d have a few new postseason entries, with Aric Almirola and Paul Menard sticking around. But if the season ended today, the number of first-time Chasers would be… zero. Again. There’s nothing worse than selling the same product, year after year, with no changes. We sit it all the time with TV sitcoms; eventually, the product wears out and you lose your audience, no matter how talented your main players are. NASCAR has to find a way to take their talent, like Jeb Burton in the Truck Series, get them on a track to move up, and hope they can one day be competitive with Harvick, Johnson, et al. Those guys still have another decade to be competitive; and if it’s just them, for the next ten years that’s a difficult marketing challenge to overcome.

Did You Notice?… How Michigan is the land of opportunity? In the past three years, it’s been a place where drivers who are struggling to reach Victory Lane have found redemption. There was Brian Vickers, taking the checkers in August 2009, in what would amount to his only win with Red Bull Racing. You had Denny Hamlin, in the midst of a horrible season score his lone victory there in June 2011. And, of course, who could forget Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s coronation, just his second win in the last five years recorded last June.

With the repaved racetrack, resulting in higher speeds, Sunday could result in some major upsets. One guy to keep an eye on is Juan Pablo Montoya, who was eighth in this race last Spring. With Toyotas dialing their horsepower back, that puts Hendrick engines on top of the charts and Montoya has built some momentum from near-misses at Richmond and Dover. I’d also keep an eye on Greg Biffle, who wound up winning the race last Fall. Roush Fenway Racing has been dominant in the past here; Biffle has three of his 18 career wins at Michigan. All it’s going to take, in this current logjam between ninth and 20th place is one surprise win to put yourself a step ahead of the pack.

Finally, there’s Earnhardt, one year removed from his win. He’s led just once, for one lap in the last dozen races but still is driving for the best organization in the business. With the inconsistency he’s showed as of late, up until Sunday’s third-place finish at Pocono a victory would be a nice Chase cushion, some much needed breathing room atop the top 10 in points. Expect the No. 88 to be in the mix.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

- Make no mistake, come Sunday AJ Allmendinger is starting a five-race audition to potentially take over the No. 47 car next year. There’s no guarantees he’ll want the chance; Penske’s open-wheel ride, or a full-time Nationwide Series effort over there would still be far better than a middling Cup team. But don’t sell JTG short. With the right funding, just a few short years ago they finished top 20 in points with Marcos Ambrose. The only surprise in making this move, to try and figure out if the driver’s the problem for their three-year slide, is that they didn’t bite the bullet and make it sooner.

So what’s to come for 49-year-old Bobby Labonte, “replaced” midseason and clearly in the twilight of his career? This weekend’s race at Michigan, where he’ll drive the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevy, will be a big test. That team has been a top 20 car on the intermediates this season and even scraped up a pair of top-10 finishes. If the 2000 Cup champ struggles, failing to crack even the top 25, you’ve got to think car owners will give pause when thinking towards 2014. Stating in his press release that JTG has not re-signed him, a small-car outfit like Phoenix may be Labonte’s only chance to stay in the sport if he doesn’t want to end his career start-and-parking.

- Joyce Julius’ latest report of the top 10 drivers mentioned in Cup Series broadcasts supported what we talked about above. Sure, Danica Patrick wasn’t in the top 10 in on-air “mentions” but she’s there in interview time… that gives the impression, correctly NASCAR is trying to market her more than others who consistently finish back in the 20s. The top three drivers in that mention category, meanwhile are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson. They’re also the three drivers who have led the most laps this season; it showcases FOX’s tendency to focus on who’s running up front. Again, as we spoke about above there are really no “new” names on the list, with Joey Logano fifth only because of his earlier in-season rivalry with Denny Hamlin. All of the drivers atop the list are contending for Chase spots and none of them are new to the circuit. Same old, same old…

- It’s one thing for the Nationwide Series to go to Iowa with around 40 entries; after all, it’s a standalone event. But just 38 cars entered for Michigan? With the Cup guys in town? That’s a problem, with the number of funded cars dropping like flies at this point in 2013. Once again, future ownership remains a concern as you wonder when or if NASCAR can convince new blood to enter the sport.

- That was a big win for Trevor Bayne at Iowa. Driving for the reigning championship team, he’d been all but invisible in the Nationwide Series and inching ever closer to “one-hit wonder” status. The title chase is too far away, but a couple more wins would be nice as Jack Roush tries to position this kid to enter Sprint Cup in 2014.

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06/12/2013 05:00 AM

Ironic that you talk about Labonte’s career twilight and then call Bayne a “one hit wonder”. He’d be a “NONE hit wonder” if not for Labonte.

Michael in SoCal
06/12/2013 11:01 AM

I don’t think my junior high english teacher would find anything ironic about that.

There is an interesting connection between the two, but that’s a mere coincidence based on Labonte pushing Bayne to the checked flag at the end of a particular Daytona 500.

06/12/2013 11:43 AM

All of the points you make are reasons why NASCAR has lost so many fans. It simply isn’t compelling to watch – not on any given Sunday or in the Nationwide or trucks.

Total domination is great for the team doing the winning but rivalries are what make it fun. Think Big E vs Gordon? Or Wallace vs Big E? They were competitive with each other and it wasn’t always a runaway like the races are so often these days.

As far as the rookie races, the last few seasons, along with this one have been “who cares”?

06/12/2013 12:04 PM

The whole Daytona thing with Danica was bogus and everyone knows it. It was obvious she was given a bigger plate and that why she got the pole.

Still amazes me how NA$CAR screwed up what was once a good thing.

06/12/2013 12:38 PM

Hey Tom. UNLESS it’s a stand alone race, I don’t watch the nationwide series anymore. If I want to see cup drivers race and dominate, Ill watch a cup race. And the favoritism nas$car has shown to the Hendricks cup racing team has caused me to turn away from the cup series. Who the hell wants to watch a race where nas$car’s “chosen one” leads approximately 80% of a race? Hey France. That noise you hear that keeps getting louder is the sound of moving feet. Fans are getting so disgusted of this crap that they’re stomping, not walking away. Michigan sucks. I’ll return when they go to Sonoma. Since brainfart france and moron mike took over this series, it’s went from the penthouse to the hole below the outhouse. As I’ve stated before, I’ve been a nas$car fan (once a fanatic) for 30 years. It’s been sad to watch this once great series become so irrelevant.

Michael in SoCal
06/12/2013 02:17 PM

Totally agree with Midas – standalone races for the lower series are the way to go. Buschwacking is lame.

06/12/2013 07:43 PM

“From the penthouse to the hole below the outhouse.” Good one Midas, that sums up the whole mess quite well.

Steve K
06/12/2013 11:44 PM

The downfall of NASCAR rookies has been greatly exaggerated. In the next two or three years the Cup series will be adding Larson, Bayne, and both Dillons. Burton and Elliot may not be far behind.

In a sport where you can race into your 40’s, how many rookies do you expect to see each year? Danica was always a joke as soon as she got out of the IndyCar. Stenhouse may be disappointing so far, but remember he hasn’t been terrible either and Ford/Roush has been behind with the Gen 6.

In the next five years we will be seeing a large movement amongst the big teams and there drivers. Labonte, Martin, Burton, Biffle, Earnhardt, Gordon, Kenseth, Montoya, Stewart, McMurray, Ambrose, Harvick, and Johnson (13 full-time rides) will all be over 40. Many of them won’t be racing for the big teams anymore and most will even be out of the sport. Someone will replace them and someone will win every race. It’s all cyclical.


Contact Tom Bowles

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