*Did You Notice?…* All the attention showered on the championship this week? Considering the three-point gap between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, the national media scrutiny is well deserved. But you’re sadly mistaken if you believe those two are the only ones with something to fight for this Sunday.
Here’s a look, going down the standings list at some other streaks, goals, and major accomplishments your Sprint Cup faithful are looking to achieve:
*Kevin Harvick.* It’s no secret the Chase hasn’t gone as planned for the No. 29 team. But despite a winless postseason, Harvick’s four victories remains tied for the Cup Series lead with Stewart and Kyle Busch. A fifth would give him that “title” for the first time since entering the Cup Series in 2001.
*Jimmie Johnson.* Sure, Five-Time’s reign is over but from his perch in fifth, there’s still plenty to fight for. In the past nine years, since his first full-time season as a rookie Johnson has never finished outside the top 5 in Sprint Cup points. Sitting just two points in front of Matt Kenseth, at a track where the No. 48 has never done all that well (stroking to the championship, in many cases) this one’s going to be a dogfight to the finish.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* It’s a longshot, but sitting seventh in the standings Earnhardt has an outside chance at finishing inside the top 5 in points. The last time he did that, Teresa Earnhardt was his owner, Martin Truex, Jr. was his teammate and Austin Dillon couldn’t drive on your cul-de-sac, let alone a Camping World Truck. Of course, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will also be looking to end a Most Frustrating Winless Drought; it’s lasted since Michigan way back in June of 2008. But even leading a lap or two would be enough to avoid a dubious statistic; despite a “comeback” year for this team, they’ve led only 52 laps which as of now is Earnhardt’s lowest yearly total since running a five-race schedule in 1999.
Guess we know what Steve Letarte’s list of goals will be for 2012! #1 – Get out front… in any way possible.
*Ryan Newman.* Tied for eighth in the standings, Newman’s gunning for a solid points finish but qualifying, not the race will be where the tension lies. Already capturing three Coors Light Pole Awards this season, a fourth would put Newman on top in that category for the first time since the eight he won for Roger Penske’s team back in 2005. It would also be the 50th pole of Newman’s career.
*Denny Hamlin.* Entering tenth in points, Hamlin will try and avoid a career low: the worst he’s ever finished is eighth since jumping full-time to the Cup Series in 2006. But with Kyle Busch struggling, nearly guaranteed 12th in the Chase – dead last – simply staying in front of 11th-place Jeff Gordon would be an achievement. It’s up to him to keep JGR’s incredible streak alive; they’ve put a driver inside the top 10 in points every year since 1996, when Bobby Labonte wound up 11th. Ironically, that year Labonte won the season finale, salvaging a lost season while brother Terry finished behind him to take the title.
*Kyle Busch.* Clearly, November has not been Busch’s month. But even now, sitting 12th in the standings he could still lead Sprint Cup in victories (five) with a Homestead triumph. Already, he’s clinched the laps led category with 1,439; Jimmie Johnson, in second with 1,113 isn’t even close.
*A.J. Allmendinger.* The ‘Dinger, sitting 16th in points has already set a career high with ten top-10 finishes. Should he knock down the door of Victory Lane – and this team has been knocking hard the past few weeks – it would make him the 19th Sprint Cup winner, tying the all-time record set back in 2001. With an outside shot at “best of the rest,” 13th in the Sprint Cup standings he’s already clinched the highest points position for the No. 43 car since John Andretti (11th) in 1998.
*Mark Martin.* Sitting 20th in points, the 52-year-old is finishing up a disappointing last full-time season in Cup (how foolish do those people who gave him a retirement rocking chair back in 2005 feel now?) Unfortunately, despite the benefits of Hendrick equipment the veteran was also saddled this season with the ineptitude of Lance McGrew. That means he needs to jump three positions, to 17th to avoid the lowest points finish of his Cup career when running all the races (dating back to 1982). His previous low was 17th, set in 2003 with the Viagra car that just wouldn’t get up to speed, no matter how you tweaked it.
*Jeff Burton.* One of the hottest teams in Cup as of late, Burton’s also trying to avoid his worst points finish since 1995 (32nd). He sits 21st in points right now, despite three top-10 finishes in the last four races to pull out of a failing grade and into the “D” range for 2011.
*Andy Lally.* This season’s Rookie of the Year by default (Trevor Bayne is ineligible… who came up with those rules?) currently has a best finish of 19th. If he fails to better that this Sunday, he becomes the first rookie in the 50+-year history of the award to win it without a top-15 finish. Heck, even Kevin Conway had one last season (14th at Daytona) while running with a fake NASCAR license.
*Did You Notice?…* How ever so quietly, sports car racing in this country is taking off? GM made a major announcement Tuesday, pairing with NASCAR’s Grand-Am Series to unveil a Chevrolet Corvette prototype that’ll race beginning with the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. To say their final version is slick is an understatement; let’s just stop, take a breath and look at that picture above for a minute. If you don’t think that’s the most sleek-looking race car you’ve seen in the last decade, other than perhaps the Nationwide Series’ Dodge Challenger introduced in 2010 I think you might be following the wrong sport.
“It’s a game-changer,” says Jose Gonzalez, one of the lead Corvette designers in this “snazzy video”:www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wJlVDtM1MzA promoting the new prototype. “It’s something that other designers want their designs to come to be.”
I’ll say. The car does more than just sit and look pretty; it connects with the mainstream sports car enthusiast in a way the NASCAR CoT’s can’t quite do. More importantly, it’s the first ever “prototype” car built by a manufacturer, General Motors sending a strong signal to the series by pouring dollars into overall development. Their commitment, with this car being run by four teams next year could spur rivals to offer the same type of financial support and development. Could you imagine a Ford Mustang prototype? How about a Ferrari? More importantly, when have you seen that type of major commitment from a new manufacturer on the NASCAR circuit? (Answer: not since Toyota in 2007). It’s a sign that for those looking towards the future, well, Grand-Am appears to be a place where everyone is investing with the hope of major growth. (Keep in mind this series is also owned by NASCAR; President Mike Helton and CEO Brian France were among those on hand for the GM announcement).
Of course, any good investor already has evidence to back up their gamble. SPEED TV averaged 305,000 viewers for the Rolex 24 last year, numbers that approach some IndyCar telecasts on VERSUS and a 12% increase over the year before. Most importantly, TV ratings overall increased 28% year-to-year, with at-track attendance just as healthy; a whopping 95% of fans surveyed at the races said they’d return the next year. Now that’s what you call a retention rate.
Those numbers won’t come close to the roughly six million expected to watch NASCAR’s season finale; but in this Twitter/Facebook world where gaining a foothold is half the battle, Grand-Am is making strides in its quest to become “the next big thing” in a weary motorsports world. Don’t underestimate its possible explosion these next few years, especially in the wake of an IndyCar series grappling with the Dan Wheldon tragedy, Danica Patrick’s departure and an overall sense of direction. There’s room for a new “number two…” so can this announcement be the jumpstart Grand-Am needs to attempt that climb?
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off…
– I don’t remember a title race that was more of a toss-up than this Sunday. I could spew out a bunch of stats, talk personality but honestly, flip a coin between Stewart and Edwards based on how they’re running as of late. Maybe, as an expert that’s irresponsible; but be honest. Would you be surprised if either one came out on top? Just God help us – and NASCAR – if Smoke misses out while Edwards fails to win a race during the Chase. Just try and explain to somebody how a driver had four victories in the playoffs, the other person had none but the guy who finished second and third all the time came out on top? Yeah… that’s going to go over well.
– All you need to know about Tuesday’s Daytona testing, summed up in one quote by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “I think we’re all in agreement that we probably won’t totally rid ourselves of the tandem racing, but I’m confident we can get to the point where it will not be the norm.” Uh-oh. One test and you’re waving the white flag on this weird speed-dating thing? Didn’t the fans make it clear they’re done with it? When the restrictor plate guru gives answers like that, on an experiment where surrender is not an option you know things didn’t exactly go so well.
– Looks like it’s going to take a lottery winner to save Ron Hornaday’s career in the Truck Series… literally. Reports are Joe Denette Motorsports – with the Virginia millionaire made famous by that lucky ticket – will be the place he’ll end up for 2012. Good for the sport.
– With Phoenix ratings up, seven of the nine Chase races have posted Nielsen TV increases. But how much have those numbers really improved? The drop from 2010 was so pronounced, only one of those six events this season (Martinsville, and deservedly) had numbers that were better than the 2009 Chase. Translation: there’s still a long way to go. A lot of people will also be watching the numbers on this finale; you can’t get a tighter championship battle than this one. So the numbers should be skyrocketing through the roof if fans like the Chase… right?
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