*Did You Notice?* … Why so many races have switched towards a fuel mileage strategy? In the last few months, it’s the number one question/concern/complaint I get from fans, eager to know why the multitude of this year’s races have been won via a calculator, feathering the throttle and shutting off the engine – seemingly the opposite of a sport built on speed.
For answers, it’s pretty simple. Let’s go to the quotes of the drivers themselves.
*Jimmie Johnson, Pocono.* “Track position is everything [here]. And every driver is at 10/10ths, trying to get what they can, when they can, because you can’t pass.”
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Indianapolis.* “Track position was everything like I thought it would be. You couldn’t pass. You could run as fast as the guys in front of you were running and that was it.”
*Bobby Labonte, New Hampshire.* “We fought track position all day. These guys — we put two tires on, four tires on and we weren’t faster than a lot of guys — it was just track position.”
*Matt Kenseth, Kentucky.* “You could pass better than I thought. In practice it was pretty rough and I thought if you were quicker than somebody, it was really hard but you could pass a little bit at least. You could still get it done tonight if you were faster.”
There you have it; notice a pattern for the last four races? Passing, through pure speed is somewhere in the neighborhood of difficult to impossible, to the point that when you can do it, it’s like Santa Claus giving you a gift on Christmas. Blame it on parity, the tires, the car, whatever but the reality is you can’t fall back to 20th, armed with the fastest car and suddenly work your way through the field over the course of a green-flag run. (Latest example: Denny Hamlin at Pocono. 17th after a loose lugnut – wound up 15th after 16 laps to work on it).
So how do crew chiefs, especially those with poor qualifying cars make up the gap? Simple: when you’re stuck behind someone with an aero push, get two tires for clean air, get up front and then simply outlast them by staying on track down the stretch, making one less stop than everyone else. More than ever, teams have realized late-race fuel strategy is their one, best chance for not just a win but a top-5 finish if they’re stuck back in the horror of aero traffic; and what’s worse, we haven’t had a lights-out charge from midpack to win a race and prove them wrong. Racing is a copycat business, and right now since passing is at a premium strategy’s going to be all the rage; with a road course (Watkins Glen) and the king of fuel mileage, Michigan ahead don’t expect these antics to ebb anytime soon. Who knew NASCAR would come to this point, the competition so “tight” people think the only way to get ahead is by running at 80% to save some gas?
*Did You Notice?* … Sedate Season 2011 – that’s what I’m calling this year’s Silly Season, with few if any drivers switching rides – is taking its biggest toll on the sport’s youngest drivers. For two years now, ever since Joey Logano entered the series in 2009 we’ve searched for a viable “impact” Sprint Cup rookie, to no avail. And with Edwards’ re-signing, we face the prospect that, as of right now there are _zero_ – that’s right, zero – Rookie of the Year Candidates for 2012.
That’s a shame, since there’s plenty of promising young talent simply waiting in the pipeline for their chance. Which prospects stand out above the rest? Here are the four drivers I feel could be full-time Cup ready now with the right support system:
*1. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.*
*Resume:* 2 wins, 3 poles, 14 top 5s, 17 top-10 results in the Nationwide Series. Current point leader in that division despite having just 61 career starts.
*Cup History:* 1 Previous start: 11th in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 for the Wood Brothers (subbing for Trevor Bayne).
*Analysis:* Some people go through a sophomore slump; Stenhouse, midway through his second season in NASCAR’s “triple-A” division is perfecting one of the great comebacks in recent history. Let’s not forget, this same driver began last season with wrecks in each of the first five races he entered as a rookie. That number jumped to ten crashes by June, to the point he lost seat time with Roush while his future with the organization nearly turned the color pink – as in pink slip. In this NASCAR “win now” era, nearly any other owner would have sent him to the showers but Roush saw something in the youngster, just enough to keep him through a third-place finish in Daytona that July. Stenhouse hasn’t looked back since.
The stats, really have been amazing when you think about it; five DNFs in his first 12 starts last season followed by just one in his last 42 (a restrictor plate crash in Talladega). He’s outraced Carl Edwards not once, but twice down the stretch in Iowa, including a brutal ending Saturday night where throwing the block with a blown engine gave him the victory – and a totaled race car. With 421 laps led, he’s the top Nationwide Series-only driver in the category; no other points-earning regular has more than 146. He’s even had off-track personality development, with “rickyvstrevor.com”:http://www.rickyvstrevor.com/ putting him on par with uber-outgoing teammate Trevor Bayne.
Yet his car, like so many these days has a blank hood more often than not. Roush committed to running the youngster unsponsored for several races this year; will he do the same for a full schedule in 2012?
*Best Chance For Cup In 2012:* *Roush’s No. 6.* David Ragan won Daytona, but an inconsistent season despite improvements puts the UPS sponsorship at risk. Especially if Matt Kenseth comes up empty, they’ll need something to finance the No. 17 and that could leave Ragan on the street. Will Roush keep backing his talented young Cup driver… or will Stenhouse impress enough for the owner to make a switch? Both he and Bayne were finalists for the No. 99 before Edwards re-signed. For now, based on recent comments from Stenhouse the plan will likely be a part-time Cup deal, either under the Roush Fenway banner or with Richard Petty Motorsports come 2012.
*2. Austin Dillon.*
*Resume:* 3 wins, 11 poles, 12 top 5s, 24 top-10 finishes in 41 career Truck starts. Currently first in the Truck Series standings following a six-point penalty assessed to Johnny Sauter after his truck failed post-race inspection at Pocono.
*Cup History:* None. Dillon will make his series debut this Fall, running a No. 98 owned by Mike Curb and sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Foundation’s Centennial Celebration.
*Analysis:* Dillon’s full-time Truck debut, in February 2010 had an auspicious start; he caused a “Big One” just half-a-lap into Daytona’s prized 250-miler. Criticized by other competitors, a lesser teen would have wilted; instead, the next race a 19-year-old Dillon ran 10th. Three straight poles as a rookie produced his first win, at Iowa that July; if not for a slower-than-normal start he could been a darkhorse title contender in year one.
Now, “the real deal” isn’t just Richard Childress’ grandson; he’s a weekly Truck contender edging Johnny Sauter as an odds-on favorite to win the championship. Grandpa doesn’t want to rush things, knowing the pressure others like 21-year-old Logano have faced in Cup. But if Dillon keeps winning…
*Best Chance For Cup In 2012:* *Clint Bowyer’s No. 33.* I know, I know… how could Childress put one of his best-performing drivers, a guy who’s made the Chase three out of the last four seasons out to pasture? Well the problem comes in holding onto Jeff Burton, recently re-signed to a long-term deal with support from sponsor Caterpillar; he may have zero top-10 finishes, but the 44-year-old’s leadership value is irreplaceable.
Bowyer, on the other hand, has yet to find the funding that’ll land him in an RCR Chevrolet come 2012 (and the other two rides, held by Kevin Harvick and family-funded Paul Menard are untouchable). If Dillon impresses late in the season, wins the Truck championship and Bowyer just isn’t “the guy” for Fortune 500 execs, perhaps Dillon could sneak up to Cup a year early? All indications are, though, it’ll be 2013 at least before we’ll see him at NASCAR’s top level full-time; expect a promotion to the Nationwide Series instead.
*3. Trevor Bayne.*
*Resume:* Four poles, nine top 5s, 21 top-10 results in 67 career Nationwide starts.
*Cup History:* Well-known. 12 starts, just one top-10 finish… which happens to be a win at the biggest race on the schedule.
*Analysis:* Cup racing’s “next big thing” has taken a chill pill as of late. February’s Daytona 500 upset for Bayne, making him a Cup Series winner at age 20 was met with the cold shoulder in the boardroom; no sponsors signed up for the full schedule, either in Cup or the Nationwide Series and Bayne was forced to slug it out in obscurity for most of the spring and summer. Struggling in his part-time Cup starts, running no better than 16th since Daytona he’s also been hampered by health issues; an illness his doctors now believe was Lyme Disease sidelined him for nearly a month.
Still, while not putting up the stats of teammate Stenhouse there’s no denying the talent Roush saw in Bayne last season. With six top-10 qualifying runs in a row, it seems the Nationwide performance has picked up as of late; he’s just yet to have the finishes to show for it.
*Best Chance For Cup In 2012:* *Richard Petty Motorsports.* Bayne still wants to run for the Wood Brothers, and will but their single-car status and marketing handicap means if Ford won’t support ‘em, well, no one will. Motorcraft will never back more than a half-time schedule for the No. 21, so if I was in Bayne’s shoes I’d go to one of the few new innovative, creative NASCAR owners on the circuit in Andrew Murstein. Here’s a guy that wants to construct a track in New York City, build up the sport’s diversity program and change the perception of stock car racing on a national scale. A guy whose Daytona 500 victory alone caused a three-race ratings boost, a clean-cut, churchgoing figure (in NASCAR’s family image) that has a following seems right in his wheelhouse. Sponsorship, as always is needed for a third car at RPM but if Murstein could find the money, no doubt Bayne ranks high on his list.
*4. Justin Allgaier*
*Resume:* 2 wins, 3 poles, 17 top 5s, and 43 top-10 finishes in 96 career Nationwide Series starts. 2008 ARCA Series champion, fourth in this year’s Nationwide Series points.
*Cup History:* None. Allgaier tested and practiced a few times for Penske Racing, but a Cup deal never came to fruition.
*Analysis:* Short in stature, the 5’6″ Allgaier is often overlooked, both on the racetrack and off. Talk about gettin’ no respect, NASCAR Rodney Dangerfield; after a win, 20 top-10 finishes and a fourth-place finish in 2010 Nationwide points Roger Penske’s response was to dump him on the street the second sponsor Verizon fell through. For months, Allgaier’s future hung in the balance with too many potential employers pulling the “good, just not good enough” line at crunch time.
Enter Turner Motorsports, a promising Nationwide-only team that picked up a free agent steal. Allgaier has been outstanding this season, jockeying with teammate Reed Sorenson for the championship while posting a victory at Chicagoland. If not for some bad luck, mechanical problems hampering the No. 31 it would be Allgaier, not Stenhouse or Elliott Sadler as the overwhelming favorite to take home the title trophy.
What’s great about this kid is his ability to run consistently on all types of tracks: short, intermediate, restrictor plate and road course. Armed with the type of car control you can’t teach, his ability to take care of equipment could help any Cup team tired of cleaning up wrecked race cars every Monday.
*Best Chance For Cup In 2012:* *Turner Motorsports.* Allgaier’s the type that no one believes in, so he’s better off to keep proving people wrong right where he’s at. Over the long-term, this operation expects to go Cup racing and if they move up slowly, but surely Allgaier is their man to lead the way. Unlike Sorenson, he doesn’t have a black eye on NASCAR’s top level and a seven-race schedule is the perfect baby step to see if he can handle it.
*Did You Notice?* … That road ringer hiring is no longer en vogue? At Watkins Glen last year, just five ringers were hired with only Boris Said having a realistic shot at pulling a victory. This time around, we’re at about the same with only six out of the 46 fitting the bill; and that includes Terry Labonte, whose past champion’s provisional and not past “turn-right excellence” is the main reason Front Row Motorsports hired him for the weekend.
There’s plenty of reasons we’ve seen the decline, most notably that teams inside the top 35 don’t have contractual wiggle room to dump their driver for a race. But the Car of Tomorrow, a beast all its own has been a struggle for the road course veterans to handle as well. Since the CoT’s inception, in 2007 we’ve seen just two top-5 finishes by ringers in nine road course races: Ron Fellows, running fourth in the now-defunct Hall of Fame Racing No. 96 while Marcos Ambrose was third for the Wood Brothers in 2008 (some may say that doesn’t even count; he was already running a partial schedule for the team). Add in two top-10 performances by Boris Said, and there you have it… not exactly a sterling track record by experts hired not just to compete but to win.
How different were the results back in the day? In 2005, road course ringers took four of the twenty possible top-10 spots, including two top-5 finishes – by Boris Said and Scott Pruett – at Watkins Glen. This year, Said and Fellows are back but they’re older and driving middle-class equipment at best. And once they finally choose to hang it up? There’s no real road course specialist that’s proven himself consistently to race at the Cup level. In five years, based on the current direction of the sport don’t be surprised if this concept comes close to dying on the vine.
*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before we take off…
– Last year, Jeff Burton was a Chaser. This year, he doesn’t even have a top-10 finish. Why are we not talking more about this? It’s one of the worst one-year turnarounds in NASCAR’s modern era…
– Here’s how last year’s Chase bubble drivers finished at Watkins Glen last year. Greg Biffle – 24th (although he was fifth the year before – darkhorse). Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 26th. Clint Bowyer – 32nd. Denny Hamlin – 37th. Underwhelmed? Clearly, it’s an opportunity for Tony Stewart (seven road course victories) and Paul Menard! (16th last year) to gain ground.