With the adoption of the 36-race Cup schedule some years back, the World 600 now ends the first of three 12-race segments that make up the season. And while it may be an even split, each portion comes ripe with its own agenda. At the start of segment one, teams arrive full of optimism at Daytona each February, confident they’re going to win races and compete for titles. But those first 12 races of the year help separate the contenders from the pretenders, turning dreams into nightmares for teams who struggle to simply keep up.
The next 12 – stretching from Dover to the Bristol night race – make up what I call the Summer Season (even though by calendar, the official start of summer is still a month off). During this period, teams that that have posted their best bonafide effort in the first third of the season attempt to solidify their holds on the top-12 points positions that make up the Chase for the Championship. Some may falter, allowing a few underneath them to rise to the occasion and enter that exclusive territory; but realistically, the top 12 at the end of the summer will look very much like the top of the standings now.
The final portion of the season, the Fall Drive, features California and Richmond, then the 10 races that make up Brian France’s failed and flawed method of determining a champion – the Chase itself.
But before looking forward, it’s time for a quick glimpse back at the season so far, along with the drivers and teams that have been the players to date.
One big question going into the season was how the Joe Gibbs Racing entries would fare with their switch from GM to Toyota. Quite frankly, I figured they’d struggle mightily for the first half of the season… but that hasn’t been the case. The three Gibbs cars came out of the chute hot at Daytona, and haven’t cooled off since. Denny Hamlin won at Martinsville; Tony Stewart hasn’t won yet, but then again, he’s always showed more strength in the middle and late parts of the season. Once the temperature heats up, Stewart gets hot – and with four top-five finishes, things are just fine over at the No. 20.
But certainly, the story of the season to date has been Kyle Busch coming into his own. He won at Atlanta, Talladega and Darlington, and he’s led 628 laps. In addition, Busch has won four Nationwide races and two Craftsman Truck events for a total of nine victories in NASCAR’s top-three divisions. Even by Jeff Gordon’s 1998 standards, Busch isn’t just off to a hot start – he’s full nuclear. In fact, the only driver who seems to be able to beat Busch on a regular basis is himself. But as the season progresses, it remains to be seen how Busch’s success as a Hendrick castoff will ruffle the feathers of the other two roosters in Joe Gibbs’s henhouse.
Along with his rise to the top of the points, Mr. Busch the Younger has rapidly become NASCAR’s chief villain, a role he seems to cherish and cultivate. Yeah, yeah, he wrecked the No. 88 car, but that doesn’t explain the degree of loathing many fans have adopted towards him. It’s not often a driver has to be sneaked out of the track lying under a blanket in the rear of a van with deep-tinted windows. There’s something about the cocky arrogance of this guy – especially at his age – that makes some fans downright rabid.
The other star player to date is Jack Roush’s young shoe: Carl Edwards. Like Busch, Edwards has won three times: at Fontana, Fort Worth, and Las Vegas in March. Yet despite those three wins, Edwards finds himself mired in sixth in the standings, in large part due to a 100-point penalty for a tarted-up car. I feel it’s of note that all of Edwards’s wins have come on similar tracks – all 1.5 to 2 miles in length – while Busch’s victories have come at three different types of speedways. And while Busch currently seems ascendant, Edwards seems descendant. He hasn’t led a lap since winning at Fort Worth in April – and we are looking down the barrels of June. That’s not to say Edwards is running badly of late; he has posted top-10 finishes in the last three races, and finished second to Busch at Darlington. Right now, the betting money seems to be on a Busch-Edwards battle for the title – with Busch currently holding the upper hand.
As the sport’s highest profile driver, naturally a lot of preseason attention was focused on the fortunes of one Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his switch from the eponymous team his stepmom owns to the Rick Hendrick organization. How’s Junior doing so far? Just fine, thanks. He’s already led 527 laps this year compared to 433 in all of last season; to date, only Hamlin and Busch have led more. And then there’s a little thing called consistency. Last year, Earnhardt managed just 12 top-10 finishes in 36 races, or 33%. This year, he has nine top-10 finishes in just 12 points events, or 75%. I’d call that a pretty fair improvement. Junior is currently third in the standings and looks to be a championship contender, barring a meltdown that would make Chernobyl look like a brief blast of flatulence in a meadow. No, Junior hasn’t won a race yet – but he’s in been put in position to win. Trust me, those wins will come. And a championship? Well, you know once he’s done drinking for the evening, Brian France gets down on his fat little knees, clasps his cloven little hoofs together, and prays that’s the case.
In my analysis, Earnhardt brought along his biggest handicap from DEI – although I’m not laying the full blame at the feet of Tony Eury Jr. Eury and Earnhardt are cousins and lifelong friends; but let’s face it, Earnhardt has always been the big dog in the relationship. In listening to radio conversations between the two, far too many times I’ve heard Earnhardt bitching and whining about his car, without passing along any useful information as to what the car is actually doing that’s got his panties all wadded up. And Eury, to date, has lacked the intestinal fortitude to reply, “That car isn’t a piece of junk. A lot of good men spent hundreds of hours of hard labor to put that piece together. Now shut up and tell me what we can improve with the car before I hit you upside the head with a 2X4 after the race. Do you want to win, or do you want to do another one of those ‘Oh, my God, is this guy going to cry’ interviews after the race?” Because of the nature of their relationship, this flaw might not be fixable going forward.
In a bit of an oddity, Earnhardt’s two primary teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Gordon, have combined to score just one more top-10 finish between them than Earnhardt. Yes, Johnson won at Phoenix, but Gordon is still locked out of the win column. By this point last year, Johnson had won four times and Gordon had three victories… all of them scored in a four-race period between Phoenix and Darlington. Both Johnson and Gordon have proven abilities to win three races in short stretches like that, and I have no doubt it will happen; but right now, they are both badly off key. Gordon in particular seems to be floundering, and comes off as increasingly confused and alarmed he’s running so poorly. Gordon has already endured three DNFs this season, leading just 25 laps in the last five Sprint Cup point races. While currently just seven points separate Johnson and Gordon in the standings, it does appear that Johnson is likely to pull out of his slump first.
While he isn’t grabbing the headlines, Jeff Burton has been another surprise story this season. Currently second in points, Burton has already won a race at Bristol. He’s got eight top-10 results in this season’s first 12 races – just one less than Busch and Earnhardt – as well as the same amount of top 10s as Edwards. At 40, Burton is once again proving that maturity, old age, and treachery can compete with youth and enthusiasm if given the right equipment. Most notable of all, it’s rare you hear anyone boo him; clearly, Busch and Burton are the ying and yang of NASCAR this year.
In addition to Earnhardt, Stewart and Gordon, other notable drivers who’ve failed to win a Cup race include Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Busch’s year has been particularly disappointing, with just one top-10 finish this season in his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge.
To date, I’d say the big story of the year has been the abysmal failure of the “Car of Horror” to live up to expectations as far as a return to competitive racing. While there’s been a few good races this year, most of them have been simply terrible, practically unwatchable, tedious parades of drivers running several seconds apart in formation, with all the intrigue and action of the World Tiddlywinks Championship for the Blind. Yet, despite those less than stellar events, NASCAR officials have obstinately refused to make any modifications to the “Car Designed By Committee.” It’s their baby, and they’re going to continue entering it in beauty contests even while it eats bananas and swings by its tails through the trees – in between sessions of whacking off in the high branches.
The tepidity of the races combined with the difficulty of passing has led to another big story this year, the dog-trotting cars with the funky rear ends that drivers like Edwards have used to great success. Of course, some teams have decided if a little is good, a whole lot is better – creating a car that’s sideways all over the track. These rides just might have to steal the title of Funny Cars from the NHRA, because they sure do look weird crabbing down the straights. But NASCAR, in their infinitely finite wisdom, has decided to ban the dog-trotters starting at Dover, so expect some more really, really monotonous races to follow. Hell, I don’t care if the teams mount the bodies backwards on the chassis, as long as we finally see some decent racing.
Another troubling trend this season is falling race attendance. The folks at FOX would have you believe that 250,000 fans jammed Charlotte last week for the 600. That only overstates the actual number on hand by about 110,000, including those in the infield. Vast tracts of seats were empty, and a large array of others were covered by advertising banners simply to hide that fact. If a track as good as Charlotte, with a promoter as good as Humpy Wheeler, can’t sell out an event, what chance do snooze-fest tracks like the Glen, Fontana and Joliet have? It would seem the economy is finally catching up with NASCAR and its once loyal fans. Yes, TV ratings are up; watching a race from your couch costs less than throwing the ball and chain and the ill-mannered brood into the Family Truckster for the ride to the racetrack. Times are tough these days; and until NASCAR begins a more equitable distribution of TV money, the teams themselves are going to start having problems both making the payroll and hauling their iron to the track.
Recent headlines have involved Bruton Smith and SMI buying the Kentucky track and pledging to hold a Cup event there. My take? I think Mr. Smith is starting to go soft in the head. That’s his right. Remember, this guy is so old that he got a senior citizen’s discount at Denny’s during the War of Northern Aggression.
Well, that’s my look back at the first third of the season. Next week, I’ll preview the upcoming Endless Summer season.