_After relatively lackluster trips to three of the best tracks in the sport – Richmond, Talladega and Darlington – in the last three weeks, the Sprint Cup circus heads back to the home base of Charlotte for a week of festivities prior to this Saturday night’s All-Star race. And that’s where I’ll start this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder._
*ONE: Next up – The All-Star Race: No Points, Just One Big Prize.*
I’m not even going to attempt to understand whatever format it is this season or how the system has been gerrymandered this year to ensure Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is in the starting field, but I am excited to see some no-points racing under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Saturday night. With just the one juicy prize to speak of – first place pays over a million bucks – we should see drivers take some risks they wouldn’t in a regular Cup Series race as they go for all the marbles. Given the way this long dreary green flag of a season has gone so far, that sounds like manna from heaven for the NASCAR faithful. Let’s hope the wheelmen who have qualified see it the same way, and if they do maybe some luster will be restored to an event that in recent years has become something of an afterthought as the prelude to the Coke 600, the sport’s longest race. Most of all, though, we really need something to talk about (and I’m not just saying that as a journalist, honest.) Here’s hoping the All-Star event once again lives up to the “One Hot Night” moniker first established in 1992 when it was run under the lights for the first time.
*TWO: The Double Century Arrives At Last.*
Given some of the voluminous commentary I’ve read on the quest for a 200th victory for the mega-team that is Hendrick Motorsports, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a delay longer than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s personal quest to find Victory Lane. It is, that being said, apropos that Jimmie Johnson won the 200th race, snapping his own hideous winless streak of a massive 16 events.
Fact is, the win should have come a lot sooner than it did – Martinsville being a good example, where Johnson and Jeff Gordon were both taken out by a dive-bomb move courtesy Clint Bowyer at the end of the race. The good news is that at least win number 200 is now scribed in the history books; the commemorative caps have finally seen the light of day after being lugged thousands of miles around the country since HMS’s 199th win, and the world can go back to spinning on its axis. Most of all, though, I’m just glad I don’t have to read or hear about it anymore… well, that is until the next big milestone comes along for NASCAR’s biggest team.
*THREE: The Pit Crews Take Center Stage on Thursday*
One of the best aspects of the All-Star week festivities is this Thursday’s Pit Crew Challenge. It’s a chance for some of the unsung heroes of pit road to step blinking into the limelight and show exactly why they are so good at what they do, and for the lucky winners a chance to line their pockets some. For the last two years, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota crew has finished as top dogs, and you can be sure that team will be busting a proverbial gut to make it a three-peat.
Hamlin wryly noted last year, after his team repeated their 2010 victory, “We know where the weakest link is, obviously.”
It’s also a great event for families and friends of the crew members; a rare chance for them to celebrate their loved ones as they go about their “day jobs” with the focus firmly on them and, for once, not the actual driver. The other crucial facet of the Pit Crew Challenge is that the results help define pit stalls on pit road at Charlotte for the All-Star race. Rolling off pit road in the premier spot could make all the difference when it comes to crunch time in the final segment of the event.
*FOUR: Great news! Only two more races on FOX*
And now, for some really great news; with eleven races of the Sprint Cup campaign in the books, we only have to endure two more NASCAR on FOX broadcasts. Granted, one of those is the sport’s longest race – the Coke 600 a week from Sunday – but after that race and a trip to the Monster Mile in Dover, we make the switch to TNT for six races before ESPN and their pre-planned storylines take over for the remainder of the schedule. I’ve long been an advocate of TNT and it’s my opinion that they are the best broadcasters of NASCAR by a country mile. Of course, the competition doesn’t set the bar high and nowhere is that more the case than FOX.
Look, I love old DW, but a great TV broadcaster he most certainly isn’t. I’ll give him a pass over his incessant love festival toward June Bug, but when he grades Danica Patrick as an A+ for finishing six laps down in 31st — remember, six cars started and parked –- frankly, it beggars belief. This is not the analysis you expect, not by any stretch of the imagination and to put it bluntly, it’s just embarrassing. Having his brother Mikey alongside him just compounds matters. How FOX can’t see that having the younger and tremendously less successful brother is a huge conflict of interest (being a current team owner) is beyond me. And as for Jeff Hammond (a man so orange he should be banned from the tanning salons,) well it’s clear that not even FOX is sure what to do with him. His hodge-podge, mish-mash of a role this season has not done anyone any favors.
I’ll grit my teeth for the next two races and look forward to TNT’s midseason segment with great gusto.
*FIVE: Hoping for Better After a Poor First Third of the Year*
Following on from my previous point about substandard broadcasting, the same basic theme could also be applied to the season so far. With caution flags rarer than members of the Kurt Busch fan club, TV ratings that are slipping or at best sluggish, and a paucity of excitement on track, 2012 has not been a season to stir the blood of even the most avid fan. In short, (I almost feel bad typing this) it’s been boring. Now don’t get me wrong, look back at my four and a half years of columns and you’ll see that I almost always accentuate the positives. I try to look on the bright side, but I’ve got to be honest when I say I’m struggling to keep interested this year.
Perhaps a sign of the times was the hoopla surrounding Matt Kenseth’s new partial sponsor press announcement. It’s crazy that a driver of his caliber, a past champion and the current Daytona 500 winner is struggling so badly to put together a sponsorship package and when his team has to resort to gimmicks (the press release alluded to a number change) to get interest for what amounts to a four-race deal, well… that tells you what you need to know.
I’m not blind to the fact that NASCAR can’t always be phenomenal, but I’m really hoping that things trend upwards from here. If not, come Chase time, there might not be many watching.
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