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)
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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