*Did You Notice?…* The biggest story in NASCAR right now, in my opinion isn’t the Silly Season move of Matt Kenseth but Michael Andretti. One of the most famous last names in open wheel racing has been openly courting Dodge, looking for money and manufacturer support to start a NASCAR Cup team beginning in 2013. While Kenseth is unlikely to land there, just the name raises eyebrows and could attract at least a “B” level free agent (Ryan Newman? Kurt Busch post-rehab?) towards an organization that would come out of the box at least mildly competitive. Even with a single car, there’s no doubt if that “celebrity name” is coming to NASCAR racing they’re not going to settle for running 30th every week.
For Dodge, if they choose to spend the money landing Andretti, despite the fact that Andretti has no stock car experience as an owner, it would be a coup of epic proportions. With Richard Petty’s team also at the bargaining table, could you imagine a flagship duo composed of racing’s most recognizable names? It’s perhaps the one way this manufacturer can remain relevant when its rivals in Ford, Chevy, and Toyota are trotting out somewhere around six to twelve well-funded cars each race.
But the ramifications here run deeper. For two years, since Andrew Murstein and Doug Bergeron saved Richard Petty, NASCAR has been dealing with contraction the likes of which the sport has never seen. A field that once had 45 fully-funded cars attempting to qualify is now down to about 35; the rest start-and-park each week, for reasons and arguments we won’t get into here. Any new ownership groups that have come into NASCAR during that period have appeared to be overmatched at best, with big ideas that often fall into empty bank accounts by the time they try and hit the track. Right now, the hierarchy of Cup teams has never been clearer, composed of an upper and lower class to the point at intermediate ovals, you can accurately predict where teams are going to finish each week. That’s a dangerous way to do business, piling on to the other problems we’ve seen in 2012 like lack of passing, points racing, caution controversies, etc.
For Andretti to make the move in the midst of all that helps stem the tide, more than an expansion at Joe Gibbs Racing or one of these other larger programs ever could. It’s something the sport can hang its hat on, saying to potential investors, “Hey, we’ve got one of the biggest names in open-wheel staking his future on our side of the fence.” As we’ve seen with the tepid interest since Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s victory, new fans need to be attracted to the sport by new people and ideas. Yeah, the Andrettis are no Mark Cuban, but they’re a start.
And if it doesn’t happen? Now that the news is already out there, a “no” could be more devastating to the sport than you think. It means Dodge may very well pull out of the sport, and with sponsorship questions at some of the few mid-level teams left out there we could see the car count drop further in 2013. That’s not the way a sport moves forward… let’s watch and wait.
*Did You Notice?* … The confusion surrounding Austin Dillon’s post-race inspection penalty? NASCAR sent a mixed message yesterday in docking the Nationwide driver six points while fining his crew chief $10,000 for the car coming in too low after Friday night’s race at Kentucky. Yes, the consequences are in line with what we typically see under these circumstances; under the old system, it’s the equivalent of 25 points and that’s what we always used to see. Maintaining that type of consistency is what the fans are looking for.
But this penalty also comes with concerns. As “Amy Henderson explained perfectly the other day,”:https://frontstretch.com/ahenderson/40232/ how can a crew chief not be suspended for an additional violation while already on probation? That’s like the judge assigning the sentence and then allowing the robber to take his money before leaving the courtroom, without penalty. Kurt Busch, as we saw a few weeks ago had an incident while on probation and was suspended immediately for the infraction. Shouldn’t the same rule apply to mechanics?
The second, more important problem is one NASCAR’s had for awhile: explaining the difference between this infraction and a much larger penalty. For fans that watched the race, all they can tell you is Dillon dominated, leading 192 of 200 laps only to be caught “cheating” in some form by failing post-race inspection. Trying to explain why they keep the win is hard enough, but how about letting Dillon accumulate the same number of points as a second-place finish? How does being too low differ from, say, the postrace penalty Clint Bowyer suffered in the Chase a few years back, one that reduced his win at Loudon to little more than a last-place finish?
If you ask the fan base, 90% of them wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference – and there’s no public rulebook to explain. That’s why NASCAR needs to do itself a favor and go the route of the NFL, having clear definitions of penalties and their consequences. Knowing is half the battle, and while some will forever be uncomfortable with drivers keeping the win under these scenarios they’ll at least understand what’s going on. Instead, it looks like Dillon somehow still got away with one and that’s not the impression you want to leave.
*Did You Notice?…* That in just the first nine races of the season, Greg Biffle was able to put an 86-point gap on eleventh place in the standings? Considering there’s nine races left to the Chase, that’s a good benchmark to figure out if any of those currently outside the top 10 can make up enough ground to claw their way in on points.
Let’s quickly look at who remains inside that “cutoff” behind 10th-place Brad Keselowski:
*10.* Brad Keselowski 537
*11.* Carl Edwards -34
*12.* Kyle Busch -42 (1 win)
*13.* Paul Menard -60
*14.* Kasey Kahne – 74 (1 win)
*15.* Joey Logano -74 (1 win)
*16.* Ryan Newman -74 (1 win)
*17.* Marcos Ambrose -81
*18.* Jeff Gordon -84
Notice the last name on that list, a certain four-time champ who’s put together three consecutive top-6 finishes. It’s a tough hill to climb, but Gordon, like teammate Kasey Kahne is in better position to make the Chase than anybody thought. Just ten points behind the “wild card” slot, it’ll take just one win or the type of consistency he’s shown of late to start putting pressure on those above him. And if Biffle could create an 86-point gap in nine races, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a driver who puts together a string of top finishes could make up 86 points in the next nine races.
That stat also gives hope to Carl Edwards, whose team has been floundering as of late. The Fords certainly have the speed; his team just needs to put a whole race together from start to finish.
*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before we take off…
– For teams that start-and-park all the time, pulling in early at Daytona Saturday night is what frustrates me most of all, a true revelation that they’re out for money and not to market themselves. It’s one of four plate tracks all year where you can hang with the draft, experience parity with the bigger teams and put yourself in position to gain exposure for a full-time sponsor. Dave Blaney was the perfect example of that last year; his Talladega run convinced sponsor Golden Corral to back his No. 36 for the remainder of the season last Spring. Isn’t that what the goal of a start-and-park team is supposed to be? Pick your spots to get exposure so the right company can come calling?
– Keep an eye on 1988 Cup champ Bill Elliott in his return to the sport Saturday night. Turner Motorsports has Hendrick support, Elliott can still drive at 56 and NASCAR has courted sponsor Wal-Mart for years. That car’s not going to come to the track off the pace.
– Here’s Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s stats over the last five Nationwide Series races: zero top-5 finishes, one lap led and just two lead-lap finishes. Can you feel the title slipping away? The Cup ride is his, but sponsors still need to be impressed…
– In the “like it or not” category: Danica Patrick has put together three straight top-20 finishes for the first time this season. Victory Lane? Not exactly. But there’s something to be said for recovering after a tough start.
– If you take the restrictor plate races away, Jimmie Johnson hasn’t finished lower than 12th all season. Those finishes are the only reason he’s not leading the points right now and with Earnhardt’s limited title experience (as in, not contending for one in a half-dozen years) he’s got to be the favorite right now with the Chase just over two months away.
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