Thomas Bowles · Wednesday June 19, 2013
Did You Notice?… Daytona grandstand seating, once at 168,000 five years ago, will decline to 101,000 by 2016? It’s all part of NASCAR’s grand plan to renovate the 2.5-mile tri-oval, announced Tuesday by ISC and track President Joie Chitwood, III. The revitalization, expected to cost $400 million, will take two and a half years and include 11 fan concourses, each with different areas for people to congregate and enjoy the action. The centerpiece of them all, entitled the “World Center of Racing,” will celebrate the best moments at the historic facility through the years. (For those longtime fans, think Daytona USA for the 21st Century). Breaking ground during the Coke Zero 400 weekend in early July, officials expect all improvements should be complete by the 2016 Daytona 500.
To willingly cut seat capacity by 40%, as a part of these changes, seems to be a bit against the grain when you’re making things better. All of the backstretch grandstands, a huge portion of the facility, will actually be ripped out and thrown away for good. But here’s why that also makes sense. Number one, the tickets simply aren’t selling; even the Daytona 500 hasn’t filled capacity in recent years. Number two, what we’re seeing here by ISC is a gamble that will determine future investments. So many stadiums around the country these days are focusing on increasing the level of fan experience, making it “worthwhile” for them to spend their hard-earned money rather than picking up MRN, TV, or whatever makes them comfortable to watch the race at home.
Executives have seen independent Pocono Raceway, with President Brandon Igdalsky, keep the fans coming through the turnstiles with a variety of off-track enhancements: free concerts, better facilities, children’s entertainment… anything to make the overall weekend, aside from the race, worth traveling to. By fixing the speedway, offering up these extra “perks” as the price of admission they’re hoping fans will still make the trip even if the racing itself is in the bit of a down year. It’s clearly putting their eggs in one basket, nearly $400 million committed to the project out of $600 million committed by ISC to use for these types of projects through 2017.
If it doesn’t work? Then ISC is in serious trouble; I still believe competition, above all, will determine whether people show up to the racetrack. (Pricing is second on the list, location third, off-track experiences fourth). But with this price tag, the project, still pushed through even though the State of Florida declined to help subsidize it, is a realization by key parties that NASCAR needs to change something. The status quo, in the form of flunking ratings and attendance, is unacceptable, and the only way you’re going to fix this stuff is through big money.
At first, that cash was thrown towards repaving the racetracks; we’ve seen how well that worked (see: Phoenix, Kansas, Michigan et al.) Money’s been thrown at the cars to make them better, a Gen-6 chassis NASCAR still hopes will develop into a competitive vehicle everywhere. Improving the off-track experience is the third step in the equation… but on this one, the sport can’t fail. Three strikes and you’re out, says the baseball ump even as America’s pastime is threatening NASCAR in the ratings tally once again…
Did You Notice?… How virtually every underfunded team is employing a road course ringer this weekend? Just 43 teams are scheduled for Sonoma; of those, only 35 come equipped with their full-time driver. Who are these guys? Let’s give you a crash course, because if there’s ever a year for a breakthrough with these teams it’ll be 2013. With the new Gen-6 chassis leveling the playing field in terms of notes, combined with underdogs like Phoenix Racing overachieving, there’s no better time and place for the stars to align. Since TV might not introduce them…
Driving: No. 33 Circle Sport Chevrolet, replacing Landon Cassill
NASCAR Experience: 23 Cup Series starts, almost all on road courses from 1995-2011. Fellows has finished runner-up twice, in 1999 and 2004, although both of those were at Watkins Glen. He also has six career wins, all on road courses, in NASCAR’s two other main series, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.
Analysis: For Fellows, on the tail end of his career – at 53, he’s turning his focus towards track ownership and promotion in Canada – this ride could be one of his last, best chances. Falk’s team, which gets a little Richard Childress Racing support, has been improving as of late, qualifying 21st at Dover, and will easily run the distance without breaking. Fellows has always been weaker at Sonoma, running no better than seventh here, but is motivated to do well, seeking the Sprint Cup win that has just barely eluded him. Used to simply stepping into these cars, the Gen-6 chassis should be like taking candy from a baby in terms of adjusting. Anything less than a top-15 finish, for one of the most experienced “ringers” would be a huge disappointment.
Driving: No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, replacing a rotating cast
NASCAR Experience: Villeneuve, 42, has seemingly been trying to break into the Cup Series forever but has just three starts to his credit, none on a road course. His best was 21st during the Fall 2007 race at Talladega as part of what would be a failed purchase of Bill Davis Racing. He’s done better in the Nationwide Series, collecting four top-5 finishes in nine starts, and has nearly won races at both Montreal and Road America.
Analysis: Phoenix Racing has overachieved this year, collecting a handful of top-10 finishes and was third in this race last year with Kurt Busch. The challenge for Villeneuve will be aggression; he tends to overdrive inside a stock car. Beating and banging with the big boys will often get you beat up over here; he needs to be patient and not get in the wrong situation early. But the equipment alone makes him a darkhorse, and contending for the win would do wonders for his continued push to land within NASCAR’s top division. Remember, James Finch claims he’s selling this team come summer…
Driving: No. 32 FAS Lane Ford, replacing a rotating cast
NASCAR Experience: 45 starts in Sprint Cup, including two top-5 finishes; only one of them, though was on a road course. Said’s got a handful of top 10s at Sonoma, the last in 2010, and has also won a pole there. He’s earned a victory apiece in Nationwide and Camping World Trucks, the last occurring in Montreal three years ago.
Analysis: Now 50 years old, Said Heads have a touch of grey as it seems that the opportunities for this Californian to run full-time have officially passed by. The guy can still wheel it, judging by his rivalry with Greg Biffle that’s still red hot from a few years back, and he could drive to the front with the right equipment. The question is whether the No. 32 car will hold up. Frank Stoddard’s team has found simply running inside the top 30 to be a challenge; every week, they’re the slowest or second-slowest car in the field. Can you go from that to top-10 contender in just seven days? Said might be a test of how much the driver still makes a difference inside NASCAR’s Gen-6.
Victor Gonzalez, Jr.
Driving: No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet, replacing JJ Yeley
NASCAR Experience: The Puerto Rican has seven career Nationwide Series starts, posting a best run of 14th at Montreal four years ago, and will be making his Sprint Cup debut.
Analysis: Gonzalez, who has tried to make in-roads into NASCAR, will become the first Caribbean driver to ever start a Cup Series event. Used to underfunded equipment, he’ll play it safe with TBR, simply hoping to make it through in one piece. Experience is limited, so it’s hard to say what happens here, but Yeley did just take this car to a top-25 finish at Michigan. The right combination could produce similar results.
Driving: No. 52 Go Green Racing Ford
NASCAR Experience: Harraka ran as a rookie in the Truck Series last year, struggling with four DNFs due to wrecks in 11 starts. He ran out of money and was released; since then, he’s made spot starts in Nationwide and will make his Sprint Cup debut with this small-time team.
Analysis: Harraka becomes a historic start, of sorts, as NASCAR’s first Drive For Diversity graduate to climb the ladder to Cup. Unfortunately for this 23-year-old, a lack of experience for both him and the team will make things tough. Harraka has run Sonoma before, finishing second in the K&N West Series, but he’s about to find out this level is a whole different type of beast altogether.
Driving: No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet, replacing Dave Blaney
NASCAR Experience: Sprint Cup debut. However, Marks does have eight starts in Nationwide, along with 43 in Camping World Trucks; he won two poles there, but never finished higher than eighth.
Analysis: Two years removed from his last NASCAR start, in a lower series, it’s going to be difficult for Marks to jump in and adapt. TBR as a whole has underperformed; so far this season, there’s not a single run by them inside the top 15.
Driving: No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota, replacing Joe Nemechek
NASCAR Experience: The California native crashed in this race last year while driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing in his only career Cup Series start.
Analysis: Drissi, now 54, has competed in the Grand-Am Series this year, posting a best finish of ninth, which is not exactly a breathtaking resume. Driving arguably the weakest car on the Cup circuit, without the track record of success in virtually any stock car-based series makes him a huge underdog. Finishing should be the goal.
Driving: No. 19 TriStar Motorsports Toyota, replacing Mike Bliss
NASCAR Experience: Kennedy has 15 career Nationwide Series starts, coming home a respectable 15th at Montreal last year in Joe Nemechek’s car. Just 21, he’s looking to build sponsorship and make a go of it in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions (Sunday will be his Sprint Cup debut).
Analysis: Kennedy has been trumpeted as a talent whose future is bright. Unfortunately, he has yet to climb behind the wheel of equipment that matches the hype. Running with a most-of-the-time start-and-park outfit is hardly the way to change that, although getting his name on TV will be perhaps the lone thrill of a difficult weekend ahead.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
- After a hot start, both Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drivers have fallen outside the top 20 in Sprint Cup points. That means there’s no guarantee, should Juan Pablo Montoya or Jamie McMurray even win a race, that they’d be eligible to sneak into the Chase as a “wild card.” Meanwhile, EGR’s Kyle Larson just had one of his best Nationwide Series performances, coming in a solid second to Regan Smith at Michigan. Is the plot thickening for a possible driver change after all?
- After Michigan, the scales have tipped the other way for Denny Hamlin. How many more struggles before both he and Joe Gibbs Racing make a mutual decision to let him heal up further? Should they? There’s a point at which this becomes a lost season, and with a possible fourth car down the road, wouldn’t you want to see if Elliott Sadler could still get the job done? Or has the organization given up on Sadler to Cup, period, after an awful weekend in Kansas and an underachieving year in Nationwide?
- People are looking at Montoya and Marcos Ambrose for the steal this weekend. Well, what about Jeff Gordon? One of the sport’s best road racers, he has five career Sonoma victories, the last in 2006, and is overdue. The No. 24 would love to have that safety net of a win considering the roller-coaster luck they’ve experienced in 2013; keep an eye on him Sunday.
Connect with Tom!
Contact Tom Bowles
©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!