The 2013 season is just four races old, and already we’ve seen some things to think about as the year rolls forward. From who’s at the top of the standings to who’s closer to the bottom, what the Gen-6 can—and can’t—do, and attendance falling as TV ratings rise, the last month has been full of surprises. While it’s definitely too early to accurately answer a lot of the questions that this season has already posed, we do know some things…and are still completely in the dark on others.
So, while we don’t know which teams are going to get ahead with the Gen-6 cars and therefore be the biggest title threats, how that car will perform say, 20 weeks from now, or whether the ratings will continue after the early-season hype wears off, there are some truths that you can just about take to the bank as the season progresses.
1. We’re past the point where a new car can save the sport. While the Gen-6 has its good points and some that still need to be hammered out, many people had started 2013 hoping it would be the one thing that could turn the sport around, bring back fans, and make every race a barn-burner. Let’s face it: that was never a realistic expectation.
There might have been a time when revamping the cars could make a major difference in the sport, but that time is simply past. There are too many factors in NASCAR that the car doesn’t necessarily play a starring role in. For one thing, there are too many teams that have little to no advantage in the areas of money, equipment, or innovation. Part of that is by NASCAR’s own design—there are very few areas where teams can work on the race cars any more, and the inspection process gets tighter every year. Not to say teams should be allowed to blatantly flaunt the rules, but if they can’t be creative anywhere, eventually all of them arrive at the same conclusions in the areas they have a say in, and then you have so many cars that are so equal that it plays a role in the racing. As much as we hate to see a few teams with a big advantage, seeing them all so equal that nobody can gain any edge isn’t the answer either.
Also, the Chase has radically changed the game in the last nine years. It was supposed to make the competition for the championship closer, but what it has actually done is make a lot of fans eye the validity of the championship with suspicion and doubt. It has also changed the way teams approach the season. Before the Chase system and the points reset in September, it is true that teams raced for points; that system rewarded consistency even more than a lot of wins, too. But now it’s even worse. While the teams who are realistic Chase contenders do seek to win a couple of races to improve their seeding in the final ten races, the focus is more on getting into the Chase field and on experimenting with setups and packages that will give them an advantage in those ten races, so that it diminishes the importance of the first 26 races of the season. No car is going to change that. The current points system would provide a close enough title battle without having to manipulate the points; the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series should prove that. Using the current system over the course of the full season, but with a larger points bonus for winning would go further to improving the on-track product than any car ever could.
The time is simply past when the race car that teams race can make a huge impact without other rules changes and changes to the way wins are rewarded.
2. It’s time for NASCAR to have a frank discussion with Goodyear about tires. If the new car was perfect in every way, it still needs four tires to run on. And the tires we’re seeing now don’t have the right balance of durability and wear necessary to make tire strategy part of the race most weeks. The current tire is extremely durable, for the most part. From a safety aspect, that’s good. However, the tide has shifted entirely too far in that direction. Right now, we’re seeing a tire that can last at least a full fuel run, and sometimes much longer, and that makes for a couple of things: fuel mileage races and sudden tire failures, like we saw at Phoenix. Those tires weren’t wearing out at the treads; they were overheating and the bead was melting.
What Goodyear needs to create is a tire compound that is durable enough not to blow out after 25 laps but that wear so significantly in the first half of a fuel run that the car’s handling goes away drastically, forcing teams to make the decision to pit early for new rubber and lose time on pit road or to stay out for the fuel run and lose time as their lap times fall off. Think back to the days when the surfaces at Darlington and Rockingham were so rough that it eroded tires to the point where drivers were crying to their crew chiefs after about 25 laps on a good day. Reintroducing tire strategy would put the racing more in the hands of teams and eliminate at least some of the long green-flag runs where little change takes place in the running order.
3. Brad Keselowski will be a title threat for years to come. While it’s way too early to pick a 2013 favorite, with some teams not hitting their stride and others having one or two strange issues playing a bigger role in their points standing than they will over time, Keselowski is going to be a threat this year and every year because of something he does better than any other driver on the circuit right now: defying expectations. Keselowski showed last year that his past performance at any track was not an indicator of how he’ll do the next time around. He can have a terrible record at a track and come in and contend for the win (think Texas last November).
The other thing that Kesleowski does exceptionally well is a hallmark of other recent champion Jimmie Johnson, and is why the two of them race so exceptionally well against each other: they race others the way they are raced. Rarely will you see Keselowski start something (though he will most certainly finish it if he deems necessary), but never will you see him give an inch. And that dogged pursuit of every single position is why Keselowski and Johnson are so successful. The difference is that Keselowski shows the same fire off the track as he does on it, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. That might not win him a second title and it might turn some fans off, but it’s good for the sport as a whole. The mental aspect is also one place where Keselowski stands out—you can’t beat him outside the car by playing head games or with bad luck.
4. Sometimes finishes aren’t a great indicator of talent. This actually shows up in a couple of areas this year, but look no further than some of the drivers mired between 20th and 25th in points after the first four weeks, chiefly Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Ryan Newman. Between them, they have seven Cup titles, 150 Cup race wins, and three Rookie of the Year titles, among other things. These are three elite drivers here…and their current performance is not indicative of their talent or that of their teams.
On the flip side, we’re getting a glimpse of some talented drivers this year whose performance hints at more talent than their equipment often allows to show. AJ Allmendinger, in particular, has shone in his limited schedule, finishing 11th and 13th in two races in Phoenix Racing’s underfunded No. 51 car. Usually, the equipment will trump the skill of the driver most weeks, but Phoenix Racing, along with Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing, are showing that when the big teams haven’t yet figured out an advantage with the Gen-6, the talent behind the wheel of the smaller ones can really shine bright. And that’s good for the sport and for the fans.
5. NASCAR desperately needs to revamp the schedule. No matter what NASCAR does, there will be a faction of fans who don’t like it. But one thing that has been true so far this year is that the tracks that have gotten the best reviews from observers are the ones that we don’t see very many of on the circuit—and perhaps that’s where NASCAR needs to take a long, hard look. The so-called cookie-cutter tracks simply don’t produce the product that fans want to see. In any other industry, if something produced an inferior product, it would be replaced with one that performed to expectations. But in NASCAR, the status quo is simply allowed to go on and on without question from the sanctioning body.
And in a day where fans need incentive to tune in, what better reason than to see close-quarters racing? There are tracks that produce great racing that would need work to be on the Cup schedule, but could be, like Rockingham and Iowa. If the CWTS race at Eldora lives up to expectations, why not look at adding a couple of dirt tracks to at least the Nationwide Series docket (after overseeing the installation of SAFER barriers, of course)?
There should be more races on tracks of a mile and shorter, road courses, and unique tracks like Pocono and Phoenix and fewer on the 1.5-2 mile tracks. The races on those types of tracks consistently produce closer racing and the type of finishes fans say they want to see—look at the fender-to-fender racing seen at Bristol and Martinsville or the last lap at Watkins Glen in 2012. That is what race fans want to see and what will make fans tune in each week. If fans tune in, advertisers take notice and that improves things like race and team sponsorship. In other words, it means more money coming into the sport from all angles. And isn’t that the end goal of any company, even if it does mean replacing equipment that just doesn’t do the job anymore?
As 2103 rolls on into summer and autumn, we’re sure to get a clearer picture on some of the questions surrounding the sport right now. But it’s as certain as anything can be these days that these five things will still be true when the autumn wind turns cold and eyes turn to the Chase and then the offseason. For some things, you don’t need very long to know the truth if you look for it.
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