Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Key Moments For Roush, Junior, Short Tracks

Did You Notice?… Roush Fenway Racing is at a crossroads? Heading to Texas, where they’ve won the last two spring races, they’re still waiting for last year’s winner Greg Biffle to break through. Without a top-5 finish yet this season, he’s sixth in points but has been nearly invisible up front as Ford’s once unquestioned top organization has taken a back seat to newcomer Penske Racing.

They’ve also lost their most successful star. Gone is Matt Kenseth, moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he’s been immediately successful, winning once and contending in several other races. While RFR was struggling Sunday, at a short track that’s long been one of their weakest tracks, Kenseth was busy trying to lap them, a contender to win from the drop of the green until a late-race fade to 14th. After a 2012 rift some still struggle to explain, he’s run circles around his former organization right off the bat.

In the end, though it turns out one of the Roush cars, driven by Biffle, slotted ahead of Kenseth in ninth. You’d never know it, because Biffle’s low-key personality doesn’t result in trash talking or weekly media quips. Add in rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose biggest story to date in 2013 revolves around his girlfriend, and RFR has itself a very different feel of trying to find its niche in NASCAR’s new world. Even Carl Edwards, whose Phoenix win raised eyebrows (it’s the only one the Fusions have with the Gen-6 car), hasn’t garnered a high level of media attention to date.

For the first time in recent memory, is Jack Roush on the outside, looking in at the top teams?

Instead, this year we’ve seen JGR, along with Hendrick Motorsports, stay one, maybe two steps ahead most weekends. If there have been any Fords making news, of course it’s the ones driven by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Keselowski has been gutsy, producing the highest average finish on the circuit despite struggling in horsepower, handling and luck. Logano, while at times being featured for all the wrong reasons, is putting his best foot forward to make the Chase. Denny Hamlin’s injury, if it knocks him too far down ironically opens the door for his rival to make it.

Think about how different a story it was a year ago for Ford, when RFR was leading the points early with Biffle and Kenseth. Yes, Edwards wound up struggling, but early in 2012 he was holding his own, still riding the high of “tying” for a championship the year before. It’s a notable slide, considering Penske’s arrival challenges the Blue Oval pecking order over the long-term. For so long, RFR was the reason this manufacturer made it to the track on Sundays: the Wood Brothers, Richard Petty Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports are just a few who survive on their chassis and engine packages.

As RFR takes a step back, ever so slightly, those feeder teams are struggling, too. RPM, between Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, has led a total of just one lap. Trevor Bayne, two years removed from Daytona 500 glory, has finished his last seven Cup races outside the top 20. The perception, fair or not, is that once unquestioned horsepower numbers are slipping a bit.

That’s why this track is so important. RFR, at another intermediate track they’ve dominated in the past (Las Vegas) was never a factor in 2013. Only Stenhouse led a lap, as Kasey Kahne and Kenseth (there’s that name again) ran circles around the competition. Failing twice would start to make you wonder.

I still think the team has done well considering all the adversity they’ve been through. Carl Edwards and Jimmy Fennig, the best driver/crew chief combination amongst the trio, is new. Biffle has kept himself in there despite cars that, on paper, should be running about 20th most weeks. But NASCAR is a world with high expectations; there are plenty of teams in contention for this Chase. RFR needs to showcase that they can turn it up a gear when the need arises.

Did You Notice?… There appears to be a disconnect between the races fans “enjoy” and the actual numbers of people who watch? Every year, we routinely trumpet the benefits of the bullrings at Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville. But if you look at the Nielsens, those ovals also produce the lowest-rated races for FOX. Quick, what are the two worst overnights of 2013? None other than Bristol and Martinsville. People may complain about Las Vegas, yet their audience seems poised to be half-a-million higher than the Virginia paperclip that typically produces more on-track action. This Sunday, there was also limited sports competition for the race as the NCAA Tournament was over. Could an off week have really hurt that much?

It’s not just a one-time deal for these short tracks, either. A quick look at FOX’s numbers last season also reveals a surprising statistic. The lowest overnight number, of all their races televised… was Richmond, posting a 3.4 that tied the track with Auto Club Speedway. Yes, Richmond, the very track most drivers call their “dream speedway” and which is lauded for the perfect mix of speed, racing grooves, driver contact and pit strategy got the shaft.

It’s that last word of “strategy” that makes me wonder. The racing popular throughout the world, Formula One is defined not by on-track passing but the strategy that goes into getting up front. Could it be fans are actually more interested in that type of stuff, along with the engineering and aerodynamic side as the beating and banging on a short track? My heart tells me no, that so many experts, vocal fans, and drivers in the garage wouldn’t all be wrong about what style of racing produces the most enjoyment.

Still, the television numbers don’t lie. At some point, there needs to be an explanation as to why these races are in the bottom tier when they’re also advertised as the series’ best.

Did You Notice?… Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has an important race ahead? Martinsville came paired with high expectations at the No. 88; quietly, he entered as the point leader. But while teammate Jimmie Johnson, out of the same shop, led 346 laps, Earnhardt’s Chevy, which has been in contention to win here in recent years, looked like an afterthought. Late-race contact led to a spin that put him two laps down; Johnson sped by to ensure there would be no “Lucky Dog” for Junior this week. Instead, he ended the day 24th, slipped to third in points and failed to lead a lap for the fifth time in six 2013 races.

That’s the biggest concern for Junior, one he’s openly stated despite a seemingly comfortable fit with the Gen-6. When Johnson has won twice, including Sunday’s dominating performance and you’re coming up short those have to be filed as missed opportunities. As we saw with Edwards above, a strong start to any season is no guarantee you’ll be a title contender down the stretch. I certainly expect the No. 88 to turn it around at Texas – he’s had four straight top 10s there – but Steve Letarte might need to do a little cheerleading.

Did You Notice? … A few quick hits before we take off…

– Congrats to Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra on the heels of announcing they’re having another baby. The due date, in September, is interesting timing considering the start of NASCAR’s Chase, but don’t expect the driver to get distracted. Back in 2010, when Johnson’s first child Genevieve was born, he still won a fifth straight championship.

– It seems like the “lame duck” era at Richard Childress Racing is starting to catch up to Kevin Harvick. The bizarre Sunday postrace contact, with Brian Vickers while seemingly protecting future teammate Danica Patrick may have been borne out of his own frustration. So far this season, he’s led only once, for one lap and has yet to score a top-5 result. Consistency and conservatism has led to a handful of top 15s, but 15th place will never be satisfactory for Mr. Harvick.

– Jeb Burton. Chase Elliott. Famous last names, but make no mistake: Martinsville showed these kids have what it takes. Very impressed by both so far, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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