Race Weekend Central

Ten Observations and Questions On The Season So Far

It’s only three races into the year, but already NASCAR is plenty full of intriguing storylines to carry us through a full season. With the ratings up, on-track passing increasing and some surprising winners to start off the year there’s no shortage of things to talk about; so with plenty of ideas floating in my head, let’s narrow it down to ten of the biggest newsmaking incidents that have defined the 2011 season to date:

*Horrible Timing for an Off Week:*
Since he’s in the news this week, having signed a two-year extension as lead “analyst” (I’m using that term lightly) for FOX Sports, I’ll start with the inveterate tweeter himself, good old DW. Here’s what the three-time champ said on Sunday: “Home from Vegas, love a tail wind, I never thought I’d say this but glad to get a week off, Daytona and 2 west coast trips, need some rest!” I’d have to say I completely disagree. If anything it’s horrible timing for an off week so soon into such a grueling schedule. At least we have Thunder Valley to look forward to on the 21st.

*Sports Center Victories:*
You’ve had three absolutely made-for-ESPN Sports Center highlight victories in three races: Trevor Bayne, the 20-year old kid in his second race winning a 98th race for the legendary Wood Brothers and returning them to Victory Lane for the first time in a decade. Next up was the original four-time Big Daddy Jeff breaking a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix and then this past weekend you’ve got the whole back flip thing with Cousin Carl. For a sport keen to attract that all-important M18-34 demographic you just can’t beat “today’s number #1 highlight” on the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

*Great Start for Junior:*
Sure we didn’t get the storybook Daytona 500 victory for NASCAR’s eight-straight-time Most Popular Driver but the early signs are promising for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. A solid top ten at Phoenix and an eighth place run in Vegas make this the best Junior’s started since his career year of 2004. Yes, it’s ludicrously early but more tellingly the communication that was absent with McGrew appears there already with the upbeat Letarte. “I guess the best thing that we did (Sunday) was the adjustments. I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed … and he was hitting on it every time. It’s fun in this hauler, man. When you’re running good everything is easier to do.” I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again NASCAR needs Dale Junior to do well and as the man himself points out: “Failure at this point is completely unacceptable and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make it work. If it don’t work with (Letarte), I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really, than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony (Eury) Jr. and those guys.”

Dale Earnhardt. Jr. is off to a fast start in 2011-and ratings aew way up. Coincidence? Probably not.

*Edwards looks like the “Real Deal”:*
After winning nine races in 2008, including three of the final four in the Chase, Edwards was the hot favorite to dethrone then-two-time champion Jimmie Johnson. It didn’t work out as planned with Edwards going 0-fer in the win column and missing the Chase altogether. He rectified the Chase making part in 2010 but was never really a factor and his long winless streak continued. Then came the two victories in the final races of 2010 and Sunday’s win at Vegas giving him three wins in the last five. The Ford FR-9 engine looks to be strong and the king of the back flip knows how to close out races; the acrobatics might become a regular feature again this year.

*And speaking of real deals: Trevor Bayne:*
Whilst I’m on the subject of real deals, a quick word on Trevor Bayne. A number of friends of mine who have zero interest in NASCAR but know I write this column have asked me about him so it was good to see him bounce-back from a (not that surprising) wreck and a 40th place finish in Phoenix with a solid top 20 run at Las Vegas. Coupled with his 17th place debut run at Texas in the Chase last year, it’s been an unbelievable start to a Sprint Cup career for a kid just weeks out of his teens. Don’t expect it not to continue.

*Phoenix: A Much Better Post 500 Second Race:*
The trouble with having your biggest race to start, rather than end, the season is that whatever comes next, to use the old British expression feels like “after the Lord Mayor’s show.” In recent years Fontana has proved to be a reliable dampener on early season optimism generated by the Great American Race — remember the 24-hours of weeper gate in 2008, or the stultifying second race of 2009? Right, exactly. Simply put, Phoenix is a much better option and although the race wasn’t a classic it was good enough, and the “feel good” ending for Jeff Gordon, not to mention his amusingly lame attempt at a burnout, was an added extra.

*Double Digit TV Rating Increases:*
After three years of pretty much precipitous decline, TV ratings are up for each of the three races and not in single digits either. The numbers for Daytona spiked some 17% on 2010 and 13% at Phoenix (when compared to Fontana as the second race in 2010). The Phoenix rating was, in fact, the most watched race in the track’s 23 years on the Sprint Cup circuit. This past weekend, in atypical Las Vegas style, the numbers were even better – a 29% increase on last year’s corresponding third race. Again, it’s early days but no doubt it’s promising.

*The Best Two Months on the Schedule:*
The upcoming stretch of eight races prior to the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is, perhaps, the best two-month stretch in the entire season. You’ve got Bristol and Martinsville, two oh-so differently constructed but always compelling short tracks; Saturday night under the lights at Richmond; and Mother’s Day weekend – also under the lights – at the legendary Lady in Black, Darlington Motor Speedway; not to mention five hundred miles of restrictor plate madness at Talladega. Even the so-called cookie-cutter, Texas Motor Speedway, produced one of the best races of the entire season last year. In short: It’s a good few months to be a NASCAR fan.

*Records for Danica:*
I wrote before the start of the season that it was crucial for NASCAR to see Danica get some success. She led a lap at Daytona but more importantly finished fourth in Las Vegas – the highest ever finish for a woman in a national NASCAR race beating her previous best of 14th. (The record Danica beat was held by Sara Christian who finished fifth at Heidelberg Raceway, Pittsburgh, PA in a 1949 Ford in one of her seven total starts.) Say what you will about it being fuel mileage (and so the knock goes for her lone Indy Car win) but NASCAR needs Danica to do well because she will attract not just new fans but a different segment of the target audience as well – both of which are critical for the longer term success of the sport. The day will come when she has to decide and make the move full time but for now three solid runs to open the season have done nothing but good things in that regard.

And finally, just in case you haven’t and it seems strange you wouldn’t have if you’re reading my column (and not under duress to do so), but “please read our site editor’s story”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/32940/ on losing his job with SI.com. Yes, we are here to report, analyze and comment on the news but on the rarest of occasions when our site _is_ the news, it’s certainly worth highlighting one more time…

Roll on in Thunder Valley.

“Contact Danny Peters”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14362/

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