*Did You Notice?* … These statistical oddities that tell us the story of the Cup schedule halfway through this season. Predicting the future can be dicey business, but these quirky trends stand out to me:
– No driver is on track for more than *six wins* this year. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the circuit, with three apiece although they’ve gotten there in entirely different ways. Busch tops all drivers with 1,060 laps led, while Harvick sits 14th with just 130. In fact, during Harvick’s three victories he’s paced the field for a _total_ of just nine laps.
If that pattern holds, it’ll be the lowest amount for any win leader since Kasey Kahne’s six trophies led all competitors in 2006. It’s part of a “spread-the-love, pass the trophy” year when it comes to drivers visiting Victory Lane; already, we’ve had a dozen different wheelmen take the checkered flag first, astonishing over just 18 events to date. In comparison, a total of 13 drivers scored a victory in _36_ races throughout the entire 2010 season, a number we’ll likely surpass by early August. And check out the list of drivers still winless in 2011: Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
– So far this season, we have *three first-time winners:* David Ragan, Regan Smith, and Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 upset. That’s the largest total since 2009, when Joey Logano, David Reutimann and Brad Keselowski all visited Victory Lane; but of course, the interesting note about that trio is they were considered one-hit wonders, never coming close to making the playoffs while enduring inconsistency in the remainder of their Sprint Cup starts. Well what do you know, check out what’s happened with this year’s crop of freshmen winners: Ragan’s 15th in points, the highest of the bunch and the only one with a realistic shot of making the Chase. Smith has struggled under the weight of mechanical problems, while Bayne chose to run full-time in the Nationwide Series instead and even had to step out of his car for a month with a mysterious illness. Translation: one win does not a superstar make, even during a time where the sport is desperately in need of new blood (see: national Beatles-like phenomenon over Bayne post-Daytona 500).
– By all accounts, *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* has had a comeback year while equaling his top-5 (three) and top-10 totals (eight) from 2010 in just eighteen races this season. But the problem with the No. 88, while consistent has been their inability to run up front. As it stands, Junior’s on track to lead *just 86 laps,* the worst total of his 12-year Sprint Cup career. And when you don’t lead laps, it’s a lot harder to sustain confidence you can run up front that has led to additional challenges during this month-long, momentum-draining slump he’s been in.
– Chevrolet still holds the lead in the manufacturer’s race, but it’s a slim one: just 12 points over Ford, who’s clearly had a renaissance year. With five victories, already their best total since 2008 there’s a chance they’ll have up to four cars in the Chase, posing the biggest threat to Chevy’s eight-year hold on the trophy. The Impalas may have the higher car count, giving them an edge but Fusion horsepower and handling have proven superior, with Carl Edwards leading the standings for the majority of the season’s first half while the manufacturer holds the series crown jewel: the Daytona 500.
– *Manufacturer parity. Victory Lane parity. So why does it seem like it’s same old, same old?* Nine of the drivers in the top 10 in points at halfway have made the Chase within the last two years (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the lone exception). David Ragan, if the wild card holds would be a first-time Chaser but all it takes is a win by veteran Clint Bowyer this weekend to knock him out. Also, just thirty drivers this season have top-10 finishes, running chassis from roughly ten different teams at most. The others – and we’re talking a good 30% of the field here – lug around most days outside the top 25, or simply choose to start-and-park. NASCAR 2011: Rich, poor, no middle class.
– It’s a tough year *to be over 40* in this sport. Greg Biffle? Out of the Chase, winless. Mark Martin? Winless, causing more accidents than at any point in his career and (gasp) perhaps losing a step at 52. Jeff Burton? Without a top-10 finish through 18 races, enduring a mountain of bad luck and on track for his worst season since joining the Cup Series in 1994. Bobby Labonte? Armed with the money to compete, yet stumbling with just one top-10 result in what was supposed to be the year the 2000 Champ proved he still had it. Joe Nemechek? Start-and-parked in 17 of 18 events this season. Michael Waltrip? The cause of Daytona’s “Big One” and the recipient of an embarrassing Kentucky DNQ. Even Tony Stewart, turning 40 this year remains winless and on the cusp of missing the Chase. I guess Jeff Gordon (also 40 this year) hasn’t realized he’s over the hill yet?
– And finally, for those wondering if *Jimmie Johnson* is lagging behind the competition don’t be fooled. Just one win in 18 races, with six top 5s and 11 top-10 finishes actually comes as _an improvement_ over numbers in 2008, where he made the turn with one victory, four top 5s, and eight top 10s, respectively. You never know where the No. 48 really stands until Chase time, leaving them the prohibitive favorite as they’re already a lock for the postseason this year.
*Did You Notice?* … How the Chase wild card, love it or hate it is inciting race teams to take more risks? That mentality appears to be behind the Greg Biffle – Greg Erwin crew chief change that happened Monday. That duo, their pairing now four years deep was longer than the average “racing marriage;” it’s clear, despite Biffle’s love for his head wrench the cohesion between the two had run out. So if you’re Jack Roush, with the Biff 14th in points why not make this change now? If there’s enough of a jolt, the No. 16 team scoring a victory or two in the next eight races you make the Chase regardless of how the points wind up – automatically salvaging the season. And if the last 18 races show little to no improvement, well, that’s a heck of a better sample size than the final ten to decide whether to keep rookie Cup crew chief Matt Puccia on board. In the past, you would think this type of decision would be made in early September, when it was clear Biffle and Co. would have absolutely no chance to climb back into postseason contention. Not anymore.
And for the record, I think there’s no need to overanalyze what happened here. You can count the driver/crew chief relationships lasting four years or more on two hands these days: it just doesn’t happen all that often. With David Ragan, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards clearly a step ahead, all of them visiting Victory Lane the pacing of the No. 16 had fallen behind. Plus, you add in the issues with refueling – while not necessarily Erwin’s fault – and someone has to take the blame on the crew, right?
*Did You Notice?* … There’s quite an uproar over the Kentucky situation compared to other, comparable experiences. So what makes this one stand out?
*Kentucky vs. Great Daytona Pothole of 2010*
At Daytona, fans were already in their seats and enjoying the race until the pothole. There was no seven hours of boxed in traffic, which lessened their overall frustration (at least they got to see _something_ instead of being turned away).
While the red flag was frustrating, fans that stayed could not complain about the end of the race, one of the closest, most exciting finishes in Daytona history that produced an upset winner (Jamie McMurray). With that in mind, some might argue the pothole, while an incident that shouldn’t have happened had a minimal impact on the race’s overall outcome, like experiencing little more than a weather delay. Should we be saying that, blowing off the misstep considering that great asphalt disaster was 110% preventable? Probably not; but compare these circumstances to Kentucky, where 400 miles of single-file action and a ho-hum finish did little to distract you from what happened _away_ from the track. There are no shiny little objects to distract you from Kentucky… and that’s why it’s gotten so bad.
*Kentucky vs. Texas and Las Vegas Traffic Debacles, Late 1990s*
In theory, these other racetracks, both Bruton Smith properties that experienced similar nightmares their first race should have sunk along with Kentucky. But in 1997 and 1998, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and the Internet was just reaching universal status. NASCAR also had yet to sign its big-money TV package, leaving fans with their local paper, RPM2Nite on ESPN and a limited stream of feedback information to choose from. So in many cases the traffic issue got glossed over as national reporters ignored it; in their defense, both races left them with plenty else to focus on instead. At Texas, a multitude of accidents and track-specific problems (let’s just say Fontana’s weeper issues paled in comparison) hampered race activities all weekend. In the case of Las Vegas, Mark Martin routed the competition but there was so much pomp and circumstance surrounding Sin City complaints died within the big-money, entertaining casinos people went to blow off some steam.
Also, consider the time frame for those incidents: in the late 1990s, it seemed no matter what transpired NASCAR could do no wrong. It was a time of tremendous growth for the sport, new owners and sponsors sprouting up faster than Republican candidates for president these days as the money, market share, and automatic excitement made watching the sport the “it” thing to do. Ever have the buzz over something be so overwhelming any negative feedback just goes in one ear and out the other? If you own a Pokemon, a hackysack and the home version of _The Weakest Link_ then you know what I’m talking about. An air of invincibility was created then, one it doesn’t have in 2011 that makes the sport incapable of holding off the punches over this mess.
*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before we take off…
– Not to pile on Junior, but his average finish at Loudon last year was 6.0. If he can’t get it together this weekend, well, it’s going to be hard to stop this downward avalanche considering August obstacles like Pocono (that June sixth-place run was an anomaly for him) and Michigan (the track that started this mess) lay ahead.
– Good for J.J. Yeley, subbing for Travis Kvapil this week on the Front Row Motorsports side. But isn’t it disheartening, even saddening to have a full-time driver declare how excited he is to actually be able to run the distance? Such is the life when 15% of Cup / Nationwide drivers these days are out there to run a few laps and park.
– In the last eight races at New Hampshire, we’ve had seven different winners. Clint Bowyer is the only driver to win twice, in the Fall of 2007 and causing “template gate” with his victory turned 150-point penalty last Fall. Guess who really needs a win after an awful race at Kentucky? Guess who fell out of the top 10 in points and is still winless? You guessed it: Clint Bowyer. And in case you’re wondering, there’s a runner-up for “driver that gets his season jumpstarted this weekend:” Tony Stewart. He was the class of the field at NHMS last Fall before running out of gas on the last lap.