NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Matt Kenseth’s Collapse, Scheduling Snafus & Best Bets to Spoil the Chase

Did You Notice? The philosophy of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” That’s exactly what NASCAR is saying to us with the 2010 Sprint Cup schedule; they don’t think there’s anything wrong with both declining ratings and attendance, so there’s no need to mix up the schedule a bit to address a problem they don’t see.

After all the rumors and speculation, it was very surprising to see absolutely zero change for 2010. And that goes across the board for all three of NASCAR’s top divisions; the only change is the Truck Series coming to Pocono on July 31st, replacing the flop at Auto Club Speedway which about five people came to watch at the end of February. Two words for that move: Thank God.

But other than that, just about everything else remained the same. Here’s a quick recap of the changes:

  • Daytona 500 qualifying moves to Saturday, February 6th (excellent choice; I don’t think it was ever a good idea to try and hold it on Super Bowl Sunday to begin with, and now it’s great promotion for the Bud “Whoever wins the pin the tail on the donkey tournament at Las Vegas gets to race” Shootout that Saturday night.)
  • Dover moves up to the week prior to the All-Star Race instead of two weeks after due to Memorial Day’s place on the calendar. (Doesn’t make much of a difference to anyone.)
  • Phoenix and Texas swap dates in early April (another small but good move; now, the Cup teams will deal with going out West after an off week instead of heading to Texas first only to go back east and then fly another 3,000 miles to Arizona.)
  • But in the midst of these minor changes was total ignorance of the big ones for fans and competitors alike:
  • Why is the series starting on a one-month swing – again – that takes teams from their hub of Charlotte to Daytona Beach for two weeks… then 3,000 miles away to California, Las Vegas, then back to Atlanta… to start the season? Why continue with a tightly-wound arrangement that leaves no room to maneuver in case of a rainout and drains pretty much everyone involved?
  • Was there no thought whatsoever given to Atlanta’s nearly empty stands in March? Or California’s embarrassing display of attendance?
  • What about Darlington getting moved back to the date fans really care about? (OK, well, y’all kinda killed that one by nearly selling out Atlanta this Labor Day).

At the moment, though, it looks like the sport isn’t worried about any or all of those things. So, for right now, what we’re going to get is the status quo… like it or not.

Did You Notice? With the schedule getting next to no fixes, let’s look at some teams that have some fixing to do over the next 10 races. While 12 teams make the Chase, there’s another 30-35 who are still busy finishing out the rest of the year, working hard to get better and actually make the field for 2010. So let’s give them a little press, shall we? Here’s a few Kanye Wests who should steal the spotlight from the Chase’s Taylor Swifts a time or two:

Kyle Busch – Well, duh. I say four wins, three DNFs, two temper tantrums and a partridge in a pear tree (what the hell is a partridge, anyway?)

Kevin Harvick – Turns out he’s trapped at RCR another year after all, so might as well make the best of it. Happy scored back-to-back top 10s for the first time all year at Atlanta and Richmond, and should have won the former if not for a late caution. If that’s the setup for the No. 29 for all five intermediate tracks… watch out.

Marcos Ambrose – Here’s a tongue twister for you: Awesome Australian absolutely awful on intermediates. But there’s still a short track and Talladega left on the schedule, two good places where you might see this guy finally eke out a win.

Joey Logano – Quietly working on attempting to finish the year in the top 15. Loudon won’t be a repeat, but the rule of thumb is rookies get significantly better when they head back to tracks a second time. And Greg Zipadelli knows how to win under this 10-race format… even though he’s not a part of it for just the second time in his career.

Bill Elliott – That’s right, you heard me! The Wood Brothers are at the top of their game, and the team is almost certain to be the guinea big for Ford’s new engine in October. That should make them faster than ever… as long as it lasts for 500 miles.

On the flip side, expect these five teams to tank even further now that they’re being sent into the land of obscurity:

Matt Kenseth – Should have changed crew chiefs this off-week (see below). Big mistake that’ll cost them when they flounder the rest of the year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Will be changing crew chiefs at the end of the year (you heard it here first!) Does that make the last 10 races a “lame lame duck” season?

Michael Waltrip – He announced his retirement in July, but it took until Bristol in August for people to actually realize he was still driving until the end of the year.

Jeff Burton – I know, this one’s the last person you expect to mail it in. But there are problems in RCR-land, and a lame duck crew chief and too many internal changes will not leave him running up front.

Reed Sorenson – He’s hard enough to motivate when he actually has a ride. Now that he’s a lame duck, the No. 43 will get none of the resources as that’ll all be directed to the Chase-contending No. 9 team at RPM.

Did You Notice? The weird strategy in play during Kenseth’s Richmond flop? Under the last caution flag of the night, Kenseth did the wave-around in a desperate effort to get himself back on the lead lap. But why didn’t they try that strategy with 80 laps to go, after the No. 17 finally had the fuel to go the distance? At that point, the team had nothing to lose by staying out; and although hindsight is 20/20, a caution flag almost immediately afterwards would have kept them back on the lead lap, allowed them to pit for fresh tires and perhaps given the momentum boost needed to make at least a semblance of a late-race charge.

Instead, getting that lap back with less than 20 to go was too little, too late for a team increasingly in turmoil. What I glean from sources and simply watching this group in action is there’s exactly zero confidence in their decisions or their racecars right now. I never thought I’d say this after the way their partnership started, but crew chief Drew Blickensderfer looks like a man whose job is in jeopardy. Respect is eroding rapidly between them, highlighted when Kenseth chastised both crew chief and car chief Chip Bolin for their poor pit selection on the radio.

You know who wouldn’t put up with that type of crap on top the pit box? I’ll give you a clue: he works as a Roush Fenway GM, and he’s not all that happy with his job! Could Kenseth convince Robbie Reiser to return for a second go ’round? If I were him, I’d go knocking on that office door sometime this week….

Did You Notice? The problem when “start-and-parkers” don’t start-and-park? Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 is the latest shining example of why it’s difficult for these teams to kick the habit and get back to the business of racing.

On the surface, Nemechek looks like he had an excellent weekend. When Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center gave him some extra cash, NEMCO Motorsports decided to take the plunge and run the full 400-lap distance – just the second time all year they’ve done that with Nemechek behind the wheel. Coming home in 35th, they finished four laps off the pace but collected plenty of notes and experience to build on for the future.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Well… not exactly.

Turns out Nemechek earned $69,575 for his performance, but he used several sets of tires, put 300 miles on his engine and his car through general wear and tear. In the meantime, Dave Blaney at PRISM Motorsports had some dinner plans he just couldn’t miss. Parking his car 36 laps in to run off and grab some Buffalo Wild Wings (hey, the games never end there, do they?) his team earned $68,022 – without undergoing several of the same expenses.

So there you have it… just a $1,553 dollar difference between a team that gave 110% and one that was 110% committed to going to watch college football. Heck, that difference isn’t even enough to pay for an extra set of tires.

I think you see where I’m going with this one. It’s not like Nemechek signed a million-dollar sponsorship deal, so he’s simply trying to break even while his closest competitors in the garage get busy making money hand over fist. Now, while Nemechek struggles to the next race PRISM can take the money they earned to buy better engines, build better technical alliances, and come up with a top-10 qualifying setup that’ll guarantee them to crack the starting lineup – where they can park it again after just a few laps on track.

No wonder it’s gotten to the point teams will actually collect sponsorship money and still park their cars due to the benefits. Right now, I think it’s gotten to the point the only way NASCAR will buck the trend is to give teams extra incentive for running the whole race. And over on the Sprint Cup side, $1,550 isn’t going to cut it.

So how about basing the purse on laps completed during the race? You run less than 200 laps, well, you get half the purse money. Or perhaps in this day and age where true DNFs are at a premium, teams can get a bonus at the end of the year for races completed?

Something, anything would be better than the current system we have in place. Too many owners are leaving morals at the doorstep because the money’s too good to pass up, and you can’t expect that to change – and if NASCAR doesn’t step up to the plate, things are just going to get worse instead of better.

Did You Notice? Right now, we’re on the verge of losing one full-time team for 2010? Let’s look at additions and subtractions for the upcoming season:

FULL-TIME ADDITIONS
No. 78 – Regan Smith
No. ?? – Boris Said (RCM)

FULL-TIME SUBTRACTIONS (AS OF NOW)
No. 26 – Roush Fenway Racing
No. 96 – Hall of Fame Racing (no team alignment yet)
No. 43/44 – Richard Petty Motorsports (one car lost in the Yates/RPM merger)

That puts us in a position where we could have 35 fully-funded teams at best entering 2010. And if we cut ourselves down to 34… we could have a full-time start and park car guaranteed money each and every race.

Ruh-roh.

Did You Notice? Roush’s counterattack? Sure, a whole ton of people have talked about the Blue Oval coup in bringing a big talent like Kasey Kahne and a big name like Richard Petty back into their camp. But when you break down this deal, the biggest winner isn’t even anybody directly involved.

His name: Jack Roush.

Roush, of course, has sat through his worst slump in two decades after starting the year going two-for-two in both the Daytona 500 and California the following weekend. Kenseth looked like a championship contender, but ever since he’s wilted to his current spot outside the Chase while the rest of his five-car operation went winless. In the meantime, Hendrick reasserted its dominance atop the Sprint Cup ladder, winning eight times and putting three of its four cars inside the Chase.

But that’s not counting the newest contender on the landscape: Stewart-Haas Racing, with engines, chassis, and technical support from Hendrick that make them a “B” team in every sense of the word. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart’s success gives HMS-supported cars five spots in the 12-car field, while Roush is sitting there with just two: Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.

Hendrick’s success with SHR is what Roush has wanted to do for years with Yates… but the talent and overall support just wasn’t there. Now, with the addition of a talent in Kahne and the funding of a big time sponsor like Budweiser, the pieces are in place for the organization to benefit from a true “B” team just like Hendrick has. It’s a total of eight cars that can share testing information, equipment, engines, chassis… and as we’ve seen in the Cup Series lately, the more people you have working at it the better off you are, especially with the testing ban cutting down on the on-track opportunities to figure things out.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, that puts the 2010 full-time owner lineup like this:
Roush-supported cars: 8 (Roush, Yates/RPM)
Hendrick-supported cars: 6 (Hendrick, SHR)
Childress-supported cars: 4 (plus engine alliance with EGR)
Penske-supported cars: 3
Michael Waltrip-supported cars: 3
Joe Gibbs-supported cars: 3
Red Bull-supported cars: 2
Earnhardt Ganassi: 2

For those of you counting at home, it’s a total of eight owners controlling the majority of operations for 31 cars on the circuit. Might as well start referring to NASCAR as “Formula Lite….”

Did You Notice? No Chase champion has won at New Hampshire since 2004? Instead, it’s usually the Cinderella who puts on her slipper there instead. Consider the winners over the last three years:

2006 – Harvick (finished fourth in points)
2007Clint Bowyer (finished third in points)
2008 – Biffle (won first two Chase races, finished third in points)

Three in a row makes it a trend in my book; so with that in mind, if you’re a betting man I’d put your money on Denny Hamlin this Sunday. Hamlin’s charging into the Chase with a whole lot of momentum on his side, and he’s won at this track before (back in June of 2007). I don’t think realistically the team has what it takes to contend over all 10 races, but with a relatively small track in Dover up next I can easily see him making a whole lot of noise in the first few weeks.

And as for everyone else? Here’s a quick look before we go…

Can’t Afford A Bad Start: Stewart, Newman, Mark Martin
The “I’m Going To Totally Suck This Weekend So You Think I’m Not A Contender” Award: Jimmie Johnson
You Won’t Hear A Peep From Me: Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kahne
Bonified Sleepers: Edwards, Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon
Best Bet On A Top-10 Finish: Kurt Busch

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)

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