The Frontstretch: Bowles-Eye View: More Questions Than Answers While NASCAR Refuels by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday July 31, 2005

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Phew! After racing for seventeen straight weeks, Nextel Cup took the weekend off, the last time we’ll all get a breather before the Nextel Cup season winds itself down at Homestead on November 21st. But as the series revs up for its final sixteen weeks of racing, there are plenty of plotlines left unanswered that will shape not only the remainder of the season, but 2006 and beyond. So, while we have a minute to catch our breath, let’s discuss some of the most important stories surrounding the rest of 2005 that will be answered before the year is out.

Who will make the Chase?

The most obvious question at the moment, we’ll know for sure six weeks from Sunday who the ten (or more) drivers will be that go after the Championship. With Jimmie Johnson already 427 points ahead of 10th-place Dale Jarrett with six races remaining (and Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart close behind the 48), it looks unlikely at best that the 400-point cutoff for making the Chase will allow more than 10 drivers in. If that’s the case, let’s use the “Alan Kulwicki” formula for a quick analysis of who’s left with a chance of cracking the Top 10. For those of you that don’t know, Alan was 278 points out of 1st with six races to go back in the 1992 season, but was able to come all the way back to claim his only Cup title by a mere 10 points. Using that system, we’ve got nine drivers within 278 points of 10th-place Jarrett heading into this week’s race at Indy: Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, and Michael Waltrip.

Of those nine, it seems proven veterans Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Nemechek, and Kenseth have the best shot of bumping themselves up into the Chase. Earnhardt, Jr. has finally corrected a season of mediocrity with his surprising win at Chicago, and with two short tracks among the final six races, he’s a strong shot to win at least twice in the next month. Meanwhile, Gordon and the “Rainbow Warriors” find themselves the defending champions at Indy this weekend, a track Jeff has won at four times in eleven tries. A win there and at Watkins Glen next week (Gordon dominated Infineon until his transmission blew out), and the 24 team will find themselves staring the Top 10 right in the face. As for Nemechek and Kenseth, they’re darkhorses who have run well enough the past two months to make the Top 10; but since they’re both over 200 points behind the leader, they’ll have to win at least once and hope for others to falter in the final six to have a shot.

As for who’s on shaky ground among the drivers currently above the Chase cutoff, Jeremy Mayfield, Elliott Sadler, or Jarrett run 8th, 9th, and 10th in points and are the most likely to be bumped. Mayfield & Jarrett have yet to win this year and are high in the points due to finishing races, not running up front, and Sadler is reeling after a month of bad luck that has dropped him from third to ninth in points. However, both Mayfield & Sadler’s programs stepped up their performance the month before the Chase, with Mayfield winning Richmond and Sadler winning California on their way to locking down Top 10 slots. It was Jarrett who struggled down the stretch in 2004…only time will tell if this year is a different story.

Who will retire?

After a wacky year of ups and downs, there’s no telling which veteran drivers will and won’t be back in 2006. Rusty Wallace seems the most likely to hang it up, taking the time to re-announce his retirement at the end of the season on the heels of Mark Martin likely extending his “Salute to You” tour to race the 6 car one more year for Jack Roush. Even though no quality driver appears available to run the 2 car, look for Rusty to stick to his guns in the face of mounting pressure to stick around.

But there’s many more drivers with careers in the balance that haven’t been discussed in this space. Ricky Rudd has yet to renew his contract with the Wood Brothers, and there’s increasing speculation he’ll quietly retire after the season despite having a solid year broken up by several “bad luck” wrecks and mechanical failures. It’s hard to imagine Ricky walking away when he’s only been reunited by favorite crew chief Michael McSwain for just one year, but if Rudd feels like the Wood Brothers is a hopeless cause, he won’t get a ride anywhere else, and it’s no secret that Jon Wood is going to be in the 21 sooner rather than later.

Sterling Marlin has been released from Chip Ganassi following the season, and with all the rides he’s been offered for 2006 in Nextel Cup mid-pack contenders at best, there’s a strong chance he’ll take a development deal to stay with Ganassi and retire from Cup full-time, although the most likely scenario has him racing for Petty next season. Bill Elliott has struggled with his part-time Cup effort this year with Evernham, and while Ray has said Elliott will race with him as long as he wants to, one has to wonder if Bill wants to put in the effort to start over in another car with his current team going full-time in 2006. Also, not to be forgotten is Ward Burton, who has yet to be seen at a racetrack this year; you have to wonder how much longer he can stay on the sidelines without having to admit he’s hung up the helmet for good. Even Michael Waltrip is a question mark after not re-signing with DEI, although he’s too media-friendly to sit on the sidelines without a sponsor or a ride.

It’s almost certain Martin will un-retire, but with all those veterans in limbo, it’s a near-impossibility Wallace will be the only one leaving the tour. Look for a surprise announcement by a veteran like Elliott or Rudd in the next few months.

What will the next TV deal be like?

One thing not being talked about much in the past few weeks has been NASCAR’s new TV deal. Long-time fans will remember the current six-year deal was signed more than a year in advance, and with the TV contract set to expire in 2006, the direction NASCAR is headed should go public within the next few months.

While all indications are Fox and NBC are again the frontrunners for the deal, ABC/ESPN appears to still be in the fold after losing Sunday Night football to NBC. Certainly, NASCAR can’t be happy about NFL games possibly interrupting and/or interfering with the second half schedule of races, and with the long history ESPN and ABC have with the sport, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the network get something back.

Along with the networks comes the issue of money. Of course it’s likely the TV contract will be even bigger than the one signed in 2001, with NASCAR races generating twice the ratings they were in 2000. But with the networks claiming they’re still losing money on broadcasts, how much bigger can it be? How will the money be distributed? And will there be any changes in either announcing booth with the new contract coming into place? Benny Parsons is rumored to be retiring when the current contract runs out, and don’t be surprised to see Rusty Wallace takes his spot for 2007. But how many other changes will there be? Expect Fox to be a lock for the Spring, securing full-time rights to the Daytona 500 in the process; but if the strong ratings for the Chase carry over to 2005, you can bet NBC will have some strong competition for that second half contract.

What will NASCAR do about the current rules package?

Speaking of changes, NASCAR’s new rules package for 2005 is up for review, and with tires and cautions exploding onto the track at a record pace, it’s likely we’ll see changes for 2006. While the new tire rules have caused a lot of the problems for teams on the track, rumor has it the relationship with NASCAR and Goodyear is getting testy, and a tire war isn’t out of the question, with several companies supposedly taking a look at entering the sport.

As for the handling of the racecars, several drivers have complained about the loose setup, something that has caused an above-average number of single-car crashes this year by drivers who simply lost control of their cars. But NASCAR may be hesitant to make too many changes in a different direction with the car of the future ready to be debuted in 2007. One thing that may be refined, however, is the “impound” schedule, which has worked well at times but hasn’t allowed for the entire race weekend to be shortened from three days to two. If NASCAR listens to the drivers, that change will happen next year.

That’s just a look at some of the stories everyone should be trying to follow in the next few months. And hopefully, as writers, we’ll soon be able to provide the answers…but for now, enjoy that last breath of fresh air. The roller coaster ride that is this sport is about to start up once again.

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