*Did You Notice?…* The circumstances behind Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s fantastic finish? If NASCAR needs a road map for its return to national prominence, have officials watch the last 10 laps at Atlanta, let their mouth drop and make that the standard for how any race ending should unfold.
The sad part is the situation creating the drama is just as rare: neither Johnson nor Gordon had any “title concerns” to worry about. Both found themselves solidly inside the playoffs, clinching their spots one week earlier at Bristol and were simply focused on a three-point Chase bonus for the victory. If the No. 48 lost it on Turn 4, giving 110% that final lap? No big deal; Johnson’s DNF would affect nothing but the body shop, forced to rebuild a car that probably wouldn’t get back on-track the rest of the season anyways (NASCAR won’t visit Atlanta again until next Fall).
But let’s stop and reset the circumstances a minute. We’re three races into the Chase, at Kansas and the Gordon-Johnson duo is running 1-2. But Johnson is five points to the good on everyone else running for the title, sitting pretty while Gordon is a discouraging 20 points behind. What do you think happens at the end? What type of finish do you think we’d see?
We’d see Johnson a second behind Gordon, trumpeting the victory of the No. 24 while using that consistency to pump himself up towards another title. It would be the type of teammate 1-2 victory no one would like to watch… but the one we’ve discovered seemingly nine times out of ten as of late. So, NASCAR, take note of how you can create a fantastic finish from here on out. These guys are racers, and if going for the victory is on their mind they’ll take a chance. The key is eliminating caution, tweaking a system that encourages consistency over courage during the final ten weeks of the season…
*Did You Notice?…* NASCAR’s first “Race To The Chase” under the new system is turning out rather anticlimactic? In the sport’s defense, sometimes circumstances work against you no matter how much you try and promote competitive balance – honestly, the move to change the postseason system, adding two “wild cards” for wins is the best long-term solution if we’re keeping this format. Typically, it’ll allow more drivers fighting for the playoffs to stay “eligible” for longer, keeping sponsors happy and fans paying a little extra attention to their drivers’ seasons.
But clearly, going into Richmond this 2011 setup is not exactly what the doctor ordered for drama. Nine of the twelve drivers have clinched Chase spots, with only Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart capable of being knocked out of the top 10 in points. Earnhardt, Jr. and Stewart must finish 20th and 18th, respectively to lock in a spot but in a weird twist, the man they’re fighting has already secured a bid through the “wild card” format in Brad Keselowski. That leaves Keselowski less willing to take risks, knocking out his mentor in Earnhardt (probably the most vulnerable considering Stewart’s third-place finish at Atlanta) unless the No. 2 Dodge shows up to Richmond with a winning car. That’s unlikely; considering Keselowski has an average finish of 26th in four Cup starts at the three-quarter mile oval, anything more than a top-15 result would be considered a major accomplishment.
That leaves the twelfth spot, held by Hamlin on the strength of his sole victory this season at Michigan. Surely, with an underdog like A.J. Allmendinger surging combined with perhaps Clint Bowyer’s desperation an upset could be in the cards for the struggling No. 11 team… until you remember Richmond is one of his best tracks. The hometown hero, Hamlin even finished second during the midst of his Spring slump this year – so even if, say, Allmendinger wins it’ll be difficult to impossible to beat Hamlin on the points tiebreaker. Plus, the drivers who can earn a spot with a second victory are running far too weak to be considered serious contenders: Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, and David Ragan are acting like a ragtag bunch as of late.
That means this regular season’s finale will be more about going for broke instead of postseason positioning… not necessarily a bad combination for a short track. But don’t be discouraged if this format stays intact for 2012, because for every dud like this year I’m thinking we’ll have three to four where a dozen drivers will enter the final race fighting for postseason bids.
*Did You Notice?…* The number of major sponsors set to back Carl Edwards’ No. 99 car next season? AFLAC, UPS, Fastenal, Subway, and Kellogg’s are either signed or nearly definite as a primary sponsor for at least one race next season. However, they’re all companies who either have the money to go full-time or have supported teams as a full-time primary sponsor in the past.
Thinking about all the economic troubles these teams face, like within Roush-Fenway itself – just two of its four cars have funding for next season – and you wonder if NASCAR could take the unprecedented step of limiting a team to one sponsor on the hood for next season. Think about it: they standardized what point system drivers can run for, so why can’t they put a check mark next to what business the owner of each car is allowed to put on the hood? That would force greedy multi-car teams, asking for money companies will no longer give to cut back the price tag in order for UPS to partner for all 36 events instead of eight. That would also free up four different companies, if sold on the talents of someone else to sponsor other cars and keep struggling teams afloat. Of course, there wouldn’t be enough to support the 400+ employees at Roush Fenway, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, etc… but is having five teams with 2,000 people good for the sport in the long run? 20 teams with 100 employees, the same number might be good for long-term growth even if NASCAR takes a short-term hit in the number of jobs available.
What about those underdogs like Tommy Baldwin Racing, you ask, who sometimes use a number of one-race sponsorships to keep their team afloat? Under this theory, the companies “let loose” by this policy would hopefully be more than enough to keep them covered. In fact, looking at the long run it adds to more stability at the back of the field – teams won’t be surviving “week-to-week” or start-and-park if they know going into the season exactly how much backing they’ll have from one company.
For me, some sort of sponsor limitation makes only too much sense in a sport with limited options on how to contain costs. But then again, why should NASCAR bother? UPS just signed up as the “Official Delivery Company…” so they’ve got their money in the bank. As long as the profits keep rolling in, there’s no financial reason to help others until their bottom line starts dipping in the red.
*Did You Notice?…* Time for our typical selection of “Quick Hits” before practice starts this morning…
– There’s no mention in the RCR / KHI Nationwide merger about a team for *Austin Dillon* for 2012. With *Clint Bowyer* potentially heading elsewhere next season, opening up a spot at the Cup level it’s an omission that makes you go “Hmmm” considering the 21-year-old has outgrown his current series.
– Once again, NASCAR’s crowded schedule reared its ugly head with the 72 hours of rain delay at Atlanta. Why can’t we have an open week after Richmond, at the very least to put an extra race if one gets rained out? It’s better for the fans, only marginally more expensive for the teams and creates extra revenue for a track in AMS that got hit in the pocketbook by Mother Nature this week.
– David Ragan’s not worried about his future? Somebody must have done a real good job saving their money…
– As I wrote “this week over at Athlon Sports,”:http://www.athlonsports.com/columns/garage-talk/marked-man who’s at fault in the Clint Bowyer – Juan Pablo Montoya mess is pretty debatable. But after Montoya’s ugly tweet about it all “I heard that Bowyer wasn’t too happy… I guess next time he’ll give me a little room” the fact this man never takes the blame for anything is not.
– There’s been so much criticism leveled at *Jeff Burton* after an ugly 2011 season without a top-5 finish. If Bowyer leaves, some will scratch their heads over the decision to keep the 44-year-old veteran instead, but Burton’s put in his time and helped rebuild the RCR franchise. Plus, Luke Lambert has quietly been righting the ship, resulting in consecutive top-15 finishes which has this program potentially on its way back to Chase-contender status next season. Only concern: Childress tries to stretch the finances of three cars and keep a four-car program intact.
– Bravo to Andy Hillenburg and Rockingham Speedway for creating an improbable reunion with NASCAR next season. But I agree with colleague “Amy Henderson’s”:https://frontstretch.com/ahenderson/35386/ assessment; the fans now have to practice what they’ve been preaching. 500 fans at a Truck Series race, which was the case for a lower series event this year at Rockingham just won’t do…
– The four drivers had their reasons for not attending the President Obama “Meet ‘N’ Greet” on Wednesday. I understand, and the whole thing was blown out of proportion. But let’s not take that simple _invitation_ for granted… as Denny Hamlin claimed in a post-meeting interview, the whole process is one of those “right of passage” moments that verifies how much the sport matters. Remember what a big deal it was for Richard Petty to first come up to the White House in the late 1970s?
Next season, let’s not lose sight of that and think ahead so there’s no excuses. Maybe NASCAR can coordinate with drivers well in advance of the date, making sure sponsors are aware and everyone has the ability to go?