Thomas Bowles · Wednesday July 31, 2013
Did You Notice?… What this season reminds you of? You don’t have to search far to find a year in which three drivers, in particular dominated up front the way Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth have. The trio has led 3,124 laps of a possible 5,709, turning racetracks into their own personal playground. That’s an astounding 54.7 percent – more than the rest of the field combined – while capturing ten of the 20 races run.
Those numbers sound remarkably similar to 2008, just five years ago where it was Busch, Johnson and Carl Edwards at the front of the pack. By the end of the season, that group had combined to win 24 of 36 races, lead 4,914 laps and decimate their closest competition. Heading into the Chase, that year it was clear each driver stood head and shoulders above the pack; aside from a brief “Cinderella” challenge, in the form of Greg Biffle winning the first two postseason races no one else really stood a chance. Unfortunately, neither did Busch; a crash at Loudon, followed by a blown engine at Dover ruined his championship dreams before they started.
Fast forward to 2013, and Busch has a chance to put those nightmares to bed. But his team, Joe Gibbs Racing has had Toyota engines pop to pieces one too many times this year. All it will take is one blown motor come September for he and Kenseth to drop out of contention; it’s easy to believe, even with some recent reliability that would happen. Should it, then Johnson has the edge to run away with things and not look back. In ’08, that’s exactly what happened as the No. 48 spent the final few races on cruise control. If not for a few fuel mileage finishes, where Edwards could close a bit of the gap it would have been the first time the title was clinched at Phoenix, not Homestead under the Chase format.
So when people are going around saying Johnson’s the heavy favorite this year, despite two months of near misses there’s a reason why. History has a habit of repeating itself, Johnson knows how to close the deal, and NASCAR’s Gen-6 has made it tough for those behind the curve to catch up. That’s a tough pill to swallow for the competition…
Did You Notice?… The ratings for NASCAR’s second-biggest race are no longer backing up the hype? Yes, this year the Brickyard 400 is up nine percent in the Nielsens, posting a final number of 3.6 as of Wednesday morning. No matter how much people criticize the racing, with only one (debatable) on-track pass for the lead there’s no denying more people were watching compared to 2012.
But even when you absorb the increase, due in part to the fact the Olympics were no longer direct competition the audience itself still ranks far down the list of races this year. A total of 5.4 million tuned in, fewer than any of the races FOX broadcast on network television. Beating the Daytona 500? Hardly; Sunday’s race ranked behind the Great American Race and the July 4th event down in Florida.
So did the Brickyard always rank this low? Not exactly. A look at the numbers shows in 2004, near the peak of NASCAR’s popularity it ranked No. 4 in terms of television viewership. Only the Daytona 500, naturally, the Spring race at Talladega, and the season finale at Homestead, during the first year of NASCAR’s Chase ranked higher.
This season, the Brickyard will be lucky to rank within the top 15. So to call an increase in viewership a “ratings win” is far from the truth. The prestige no longer matches the popularity; it’s a trophy drivers want to capture but fans no longer want to see. The solution, it seems is for Goodyear and NASCAR’s R&D to come up with a long-term answer to make tires that wear, without blowing and drivers regaining confidence to pass. Remember, most of the field today, with rookies grinding to a halt was around for the “Tire Gate” of 2008. Since then, the modus operandi to winning at that racetrack has been playing it safe; the engineers aren’t the only mentality who has to change.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off this week…
- In a slow news week, much has centered around how Ryan Newman’s Indy win may keep him in the sport come 2014. Really? Where? Last I checked, you needed to have cars available in order to earn one. There’s just two open rides remaining, in a Silly Season that’s felt more like “Status Quo” – are at Richard Childress Racing and perhaps a second car at Furniture Row. Both of those require sponsorship, not victories so the most important thing Newman needs right now isn’t an extra trophy on the mantle. It’s a signature from the CEO of Quicken Loans.
Look, I’m not saying a win at Indianapolis is zero help. But gone are the days where stats alone earned you a ride in NASCAR’s top series. There aren’t enough owners, or dollars around to allow that. Scuttlebutt says Quicken was already signed on board with the driver, win or not so don’t romanticize Sunday’s victory. So treat it for what it is… a great moment for a man who deserves to be judged on merit. Just don’t expect him to be, because modern day NASCAR, along with corporate boardrooms won’t allow it.
- Since my little “summer vacation” from writing on the site, the biggest news has been NBC’s $4.4 billion dollar deal to cover the sport, beginning in 2015 – along with ESPN and TNT’s brazen desire to walk away. The fact stock car racing got a network to pay nearly 50 percent more, when in the end no one else was bidding on the package smells like a shady car salesman finding his latest victim.
But I’m going to take an optimistic view on this whole situation. What’s done is done. And over the long run, don’t you want a network who wants to cover the sport? It’s clear NBC, through its myriad of sports properties is looking to be the future long-term home of motorsports. They now have most of the “minor” NASCAR series, Formula One, IndyCar… the list goes on. A decade of stability, combined with a fresh approach could be exactly what this sport needs to jumpstart their product. The money, too from this deal could also be used wisely in order to keep everyone afloat in the interim. It’s just whether NASCAR executives will do the right thing and spread the wealth.
- Reporting on the Denny Hamlin story is getting tiresome. It’s the same story, different deal every week; the back hurts. Surgery is needed. People think he should be out of the car. Hamlin refuses, this week even claiming his importance to remain a proper representative for his sponsor. But the results, with pain continuing to mount just don’t justify him continuing in the car. Fed Ex knows their sub options are limited, with Brian Vickers on his way to Michael Waltrip Racing next season and only able to commit to a limited schedule. But at this point, wouldn’t you take a deep breath, give your driver a call and tell him it’s OK, that Vickers, Elliott Sadler and Mark Martin can handle this one? The Chase is all but impossible now. The only thing they’re giving up on is a chance of serious injury.
- A quick look at the Chase, as of now showcases it’s a two-sided affair. Hendrick Motorsports would put all four of its cars in the field, along with close ally Tony Stewart, who gets his engines and chassis from the company. Spots six and seven would be filled by Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, who as we spoke about earlier have dominated the year along with Jimmie Johnson. Just three other teams are even eligible: Roush Fenway Racing (two cars), Michael Waltrip Racing (two) and Richard Childress Racing (one).
I mention that because we’re running out of time for someone else to step up. It’s hard to imagine Clint Bowyer, per se starting to win races come September when he’s spent the first six months of the year leading only three. It doesn’t matter that he’s second in the standings; after all, second is the first loser. Pocono is hardly a prime opportunity for change, as Hendrick cars have won three of the last five races there. Just this June, Johnson dominated to the tune of 128 of 160 laps led.
But these guys need to try something. Anything. Maybe a fuel mileage strategy will work this Sunday. Otherwise, their Chase participation will consist of nothing more than a nice attendance ribbon and a handful of cheesy consolation prizes from Wal-Mart.
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