Thomas Bowles · Wednesday October 2, 2013
Did You Notice?… A quote from Denny Hamlin that speaks volumes as to the current state of the sport? In an interview with Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press, updating his back injury last weekend Hamlin let slip he’s not getting the best equipment out of his race shop.
Hamlin said he’s had to give two of his best cars to Kenseth and Busch as they prepare for their title run — same as Logano had to do when he drove for JGR — and that all new cars off the assembly line go to the two Chase drivers.
It seems like a rather innocuous paragraph, couched within the greater story over when – and if – Hamlin will be healthy again should he avoid offseason surgery. It’s also information that should come as no surprise. Winning the championship would mean millions in bonus money, national exposure, and prestige for Hamlin’s employer, Joe Gibbs Racing. Helping the ailing veteran win one race, or finish 20th in points under the current structure of NASCAR does little to nothing by comparison. Why wouldn’t you put all the eggs in the basket of your two main title contenders, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth? It’s a move that, regardless of fairness makes total business sense.
But Hamlin’s revelation of inner-team hierarchy, in the wake of learning NAPA offered a $6 million bonus to Michael Waltrip Racing for making the Chase, are carrying some extra meaning this Fall. How would FedEx, assuming they’re paying the same amount as fellow Joe Gibbs Racing sponsors M&M’s, Home Depot, and Dollar General, like to know they’re only worth the third-best cars that organization has in the stable? Turns out their bank account keeps working hard, alright; to get another driver and a rival company extra TV time.
We don’t know, of course if FedEx has a contract that fluctuates financially based on making/missing the Chase. (Hopefully, the team isn’t dependent on it like MWR was with NAPA’s money… part of the problem in the first place that caused the infamous Richmond “Spingate.”) But if FedEx doesn’t have those guidelines now… expect it to change, and quickly after someone in corporate reads that article. You see, NASCAR’s missive for all teams to try “100 percent equally” falls flat when equipment, chassis, and resources are only tilted towards those competing for the championship. Hamlin may be giving 110 percent effort, but the cars that he’s driving are down on speed enough the No. 11 Toyota won’t be a threat to pass his two title-contending teammates.
The bigger problem? Hamlin’s not alone. Three races into the Chase, the drivers who aren’t involved in it have been lifeless, posting just six out of 30 possible top-10 finishes. Sunday at Dover, history was made as for the first time in NASCAR’s playoff era, all those who ended the day inside the top 10 were Chase drivers competing for the championship. Jamie McMurray, who ran 11th was the “best of the rest;” he also holds the lone top-5 finish from this group, during the playoffs thus far with a fifth at New Hampshire earlier this month.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for these teams, already suffering from a lack of TV exposure after losing their chance to challenge for the championship. However, their ability to battle back, building momentum for 2014 has been increasingly stifled when you look at past history…
Non-Chaser Performance, Through Three Races
2004: 0 Wins, 6 Top 5s, 14 Top 10s
2005: 1 Win, 3 Top 5s, 12 Top 10s
2006: 1 Win, 8 Top 5s, 17 Top 10s
2007: 1 Win, 5 Top 5s, 15 Top 10s
2008: 0 Wins, 1 Top 5, 7 Top 10s
2009: 0 Wins, 2 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s
2010: 0 Wins, 3 Top 5s, 12 Top 10s
2011: 0 Wins, 3 Top 5s, 11 Top 10s
2012: 0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 10 Top 10s
2013: 0 Wins, 1 Top 5, 6 Top 10s
As you can see, to date it’s the weakest showing by the non-Chase portion of the field since NASCAR adopted the playoffs in 2004. And it’s happening, by and large during a year where just three of 13 Chase contenders themselves are in realistic position to win the title. What does that mean? Storylines get stale, as the cream of the crop gets every opportunity possible to keep pace up front. And sponsors of those “other” cars find themselves off the radar screen, consistently for two-plus months in a downward spiral that makes it easier for them to move elsewhere the following year.
Can you prevent it? Probably not. NASCAR could do the unthinkable, forcing multi-car monopolies to break up but that’s borderline impossible. They have too much power. A better idea would be a cash bonus for the “best of the rest,” making their drive for 13th/14th in points more viable … but will that money even hold a candle to what the team makes winning a championship?
It’s a problem with no easy solutions. Yet somehow, someway if they’re going to keep the Chase NASCAR needs to think of a parity fix before those numbers start getting even worse. With just a handful of multi-car teams, in the Chase each year and running up front the cars that don’t make it will spend the last ten races with the worst equipment; keeping them a step behind. Why bother to have them even on track, then, during the playoffs?
Did You Notice?… The TV times are a-changing? It’ll be interesting to see what ESPN does, in 2014 with Marty Reid released by the network. There’s just a tad over one season left on the NASCAR contract; after that, it’s just IndyCar and NHRA left on a sports schedule that will increasingly evolve away from racing. You’d think, considering the options the network will go in-house, with one of their top pit reporters (Vince Welch?) or even go back to Dr. Jerry Punch one last time as a way to “fill out the string” before moving on.
The Reid moment, though allows us to look ahead to the uncharted landscape that is 2015 and beyond. With NBC taking over the NASCAR schedule, in the series’ second half an opportunity for new blood in the booth is at stake. Can new voices lead to new audiences? We saw, in the 1990s how important a trio with booth chemistry like Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, and Ned Jarrett can be to building an audience. FOX, right now believes they have the same thing in the form of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Larry McReynolds. Some critics might beg to differ; however, the Nielsen numbers truly tell the tale of consistency. NASCAR’s audience has suffered during the second half of the season, not the first while FOX’s have held up fairly well by comparison through the most recent TV deal.
I wouldn’t expect FOX to make any changes for ’15, as even DW, at 68 will likely want to keep going. But Reid’s final year at ESPN, marked by lack of chemistry in the booth regardless of what you thought of his announcing should serve as a warning for NBC. They need to think long and hard about what types of personalities they’d like to put together covering this sport; maybe retread isn’t the right way to go. Getting a new, effective trio is incredibly important, in both establishing credibility for a network that’s been away from the sport and building a connection with the fan base. And if NASCAR’s going to connect with the 18-to-34 crowd, what better way to do it than by going younger and riskier in the booth? Even drivers like Ricky Craven and Jeff Burton, who fans are more likely to have seen race would be solid options, in their 40s than going for a driver analyst who’s been retired for decades.
And as for play-by-play? Reid, with a brilliant career had been a part of the sport, in various ways for over four decades. It’s fair to say that when the ratings aren’t going in the right direction, with that type of lengthy track record it’s OK to turn away and say, “We’re going for something new.”
NASCAR is in need of change, in all aspects of the sport to give it a boost. We’ll see if NBC is watching and listening to what trends transpire now and over the next year.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off…
- There’s absolutely no way – zero, zilch, nada – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was backing off to let Jimmie Johnson win that race at Dover. You could see it on the track, in his voice following the checkered flag and in the way the No. 88 team strategized in those final laps. But the fact even a single fan is thinking it is the result of NASCAR’s “Spingate.” It’ll take a long time, if ever for these conspiracy theories with multi-car teams now to go away — especially during the playoffs.
- Germain Racing, announcing a move to Chevrolet Tuesday hopes they’ll be next year’s Furniture Row Racing with Casey Mears. There’s a certain degree of merit to that; they’ve grown slowly and steadily since putting Mears at the helm a few years ago. But is RCR, still considering an expansion to four cars with Martin Truex, Jr. spreading itself too thin with all these alliances?
- Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has now gone 14 races since he last was outrun by girlfriend Danica Patrick in a race. More importantly, he’s shown the signs of growth you want to see from an inexperienced rookie on the circuit. Heading to Kansas this weekend, a track where the No. 17 car was in contention to win this Spring don’t be surprised if the Roush Fenway Racing driver scores his first top-5 finish.
- With a dearth of talent available, for some of these open rides in Cup and Nationwide I’m wondering why no one is looking at Camping World Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton. I mean, the guy is sitting there with a 41-point lead in his own title chase… a longtime veteran of the series, it’s now or never for him. At 37 years old, he’s no spring chicken but would have a decade of potentially solid results ahead of him under the right situation.
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