NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Silly Season Checkup And NASCAR’s Youth Problem

Did You Notice?… How already, nine races in, we can make some judgments on NASCAR’s Silly Season moves? In an unusual 2012, there were only three deals in which drivers moved into different major rides: Matt Kenseth, to the No. 20 of Joe Gibbs Racing; Joey Logano, to the No. 22 of Penske Racing; and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to the No. 17 of Roush Fenway Racing.

Let’s tackle each one at a time. Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing was dictated, for him, by sponsorship security: Home Depot and Dollar General will provide the funding for the No. 20 to race for years to come. In contrast, he was dealing with piecemeal backing at his longtime ride, the No. 17, and had changed crew chiefs several times since Robbie Reiser was promoted at the end of 2007. The loyalty, despite a strong relationship with the last of those replacements (Jimmy Fennig) just wasn’t the same.

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While his move to Joe Gibbs Racing provided Matt Kenseth with stability, Kenseth repaid JGR with immediate performance in the No. 20.

Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing wanted to see if, after four years of struggle following the departure of Tony Stewart, it was the replacement, Joey Logano that was the problem. They had changed virtually everything else, from crew chief (Greg Zipadelli to Jason Ratcliff) to engines to engineering, but the No. 20 car always seemed to lag behind its two counterparts. Logano went 0-for-4 on making the Chase, winning just two races, while teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch would sometimes double that total in the course of a month.

Nine races in, it seems like JGR made the right choice. Already, Kenseth is blowing Logano out of the water in every category imaginable. In fact, Kenseth’s numbers in just under three months are outgunning Logano’s stats over three years:

Laps Led
2009-12 (Logano): 337
2013 (Kenseth – in just nine races): 622

Wins
2009-12 (Logano): 2
2013 (Kenseth): 2

Poles – Season High
Logano: 2
Kenseth: 2

Average Start – Season High
Logano: 11.9
Kenseth: 9.6

Those last two numbers, especially, tell the tale as Kenseth was never a strong qualifier. He only had eight career poles entering this season, in 14 years, and won his only Cup championship (2003) with a mediocre average start of 21.7. It’s clear that there’s been instant chemistry here, with JGR and both driver and team are motivated to prove their worth.

So does that mean Sliced Bread was a bust as a prospect? Well, it’s hard to say. Here’s a look at his numbers this season, driving the No. 22, compared to AJ Allmendinger in 2012 and Kurt Busch the year before:

Wins
2011 – Busch: 0
2012 – Allmendinger: 0
2013 – Logano: 0

Top 5s
2011 – Busch: 1
2012 – Allmendinger: 1
2013 – Logano: 3

Top 10s
2011 – Busch: 5
2012 – Allmendinger: 1
2013 – Logano: 3

Average Start
2011 – Busch: 16.0
2012 – Allmendinger: 12.8 (one pole)
2013 – Logano: 15.7

Average Finish
2011 – Busch: 12.4
2012 – Allmendinger: 20.7
2013 – Logano: 16.3

As you can see, the results are all over the board; Logano, despite three top-5 finishes, has not yet flashed the consistency of Busch nor qualified as well as he did with the No. 20. At Penske, he’ll get more benefit of the doubt, especially following the roulette-calling type of driver merry-go-round that happened with the Shell / Pennzoil car. But of the three main drivers, Logano trails in laps led (45) and has not been in contention to win besides Fontana. Meanwhile, Sam Hornish, Jr., the other candidate to fill this seat, has won once in the Nationwide Series, leads the standings there and qualified fourth in his only Cup start this season (Kansas). Was it worth it to spend the money for Logano over going in-house? There’s a long way to go, just yet but based on these results you’d have to say that’s debatable.

And as for Stenhouse? The rookie, through nine races has posted a mixed bag of results. He’s got seven top-20 finishes, establishing an important level of consistency you don’t normally see out of first-year Cup drivers. At Kansas, he led 26 laps and could have been in position to win without an untimely caution flag. A look inside the stats shows he’s smack in the middle compared to some of his recent contemporaries:

Cup Series Average Finish – Through Nine Races of Rookie Season

Jimmie Johnson: 12.6
Kevin Harvick: 15.4
Kasey Kahne: 17.1
Greg Biffle: 17.6 (plus one DNQ)
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: 19.3
Juan Pablo Montoya: 21.3
Denny Hamlin: 21.6
Ryan Newman: 22.3
Kyle Busch: 23.6
Joey Logano: 26.9
Regan Smith: 30.1

The difference between Stenhouse and these others is almost everyone had at least one top-10 finish at this point. That’s the difference in his competition versus girlfriend Danica Patrick, as well; he’s actually losing the Rookie of the Year race by one point. Perhaps the most damning statement, though is that 19.3 average finish pales in comparison to Kenseth’s 8.7, through nine races last season in the same car. The former champion had already won twice, secured five top-5 results and led 135 laps.

It’s hard to expect that type of production from a rookie. However, it’s clear that Stenhouse, while keeping the car in one piece still has a long way to go in order to reach NASCAR’s top-tier level of competition.

Did You Notice?… The disastrous TV ratings numbers amongst the 18-to-49 age demographic? I mention this point because the Daytona 500 seemed to showcase an uptick in NASCAR interest amongst the younger crowd. There was an eight percent increase amongst men in that age group watching, up to a 6.4 rating while for women 18-to-49 it was a robust 3.2. Needless to say, those numbers have faded drastically since. The audience at Richmond posted just a 1.3 in that category, paling in comparison to the 1.8 posted by Round 1 of the NBA playoffs (on an unimportant night, to boot). Other programs with higher numbers, from this Monday night alone included the WWE (1.7), Love and Hip Hop Atlanta 2 (a VH1 show – 1.5), and MTV’s Teen Mom II (1.7).

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Quality side-by-side racing at Richmond, in the closing stages wasn’t enough to keep young fans tuning in.

Add that to one of the most powerful articles written in 2013, a Monte Dutton piece about the current malaise within NASCAR and its youth problem is no longer hiding under a rock. So why are young people looking elsewhere for entertainment? Monte claims they’re not just into sports; but as part of that generation, I respectfully disagree. Virtually everyone I know in Philadelphia has a deep-seeded allegiance to a professional team, whether it’s the Eagles (football), the Flyers (hockey), or the Phillies (baseball). NASCAR just isn’t a part of their radar screen.

“Why” is something I’ve also given a lot of thought to, as of late as one of the few people still young enough to be in that age group writing consistently about the sport. My answer always goes back to evolution. Take the Eagles, for example; after a few bad seasons, Andy Reid is out as coach and Chip Kelly has come in with a whole new offensive philosophy. The NFL Draft guarantees seven new players on the team, at minimum; personnel turnover, year to year always changes the game and gives different reasons to watch. Sure, the best players (LeSean McCoys) of the world will stick around, for up to a decade but the roster is never exactly the same.

Let’s compare that to NASCAR, where for three seasons we had a Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year that did little more than start-and-park. For three-plus years, there have been no new ownership groups that have come in and made a serious impact. Jimmie Johnson has won five of the last seven championships; his employer, Hendrick Motorsports has captured ten of the last eighteen. That type of stability at the top, with little room for new faces to come in and grow helps feed into the idea the product is stale. Driver development, with no new competitive cars reached a standstill; superstars merely switched teams or locked themselves into long-term deals. The economy, combined with expenses priced sponsors out of the market, limiting new opportunities for well-known companies to get involved. Even if they did, it was for a one-race deal, limiting the loyalty fans have for sponsors they used to throw their wallets at. The Car of Tomorrow, limiting innovation put crew chiefs in a box and led to the same speeds and the same setups. NASCAR’s Chase, limiting the effectiveness of the regular season ratcheted down the aggressiveness for top teams; 26 races turned into little more than a six-month test session. Add it all up and you’ve got a ferris wheel, working perfectly that flat out stopped in the middle of the ride.

It’s been that way for several years. What would you do if you were stuck? At some point, you’d stop waiting for the ride to resume and simply get off. That’s what the old fans have done; and for any new ones? They’re looking for shorter games, flashy personalities, fast-paced action. Single-file, for 300 of 400 laps just doesn’t cut it when college basketball can compact two halves of quality competition into two hours. NASCAR, other than trotting out Danica Patrick doesn’t have the type of new, shiny objects that appeal to the ADD generation. It’s also notable the sport is behind in terms of diversity. Jason Collins became the first gay athlete in a major professional sport this week; NASCAR is still waiting for its first, impactful modern-day African-American. When you can count the number of non-white contributors on one hand, that’s a major problem. The world is changing, and while NASCAR is trying (see: Gen-6) too many of its practices are stuck in the 1950s. Change is coming… but it needs to happen quicker. You can’t have yearly declines forever and then expect the same types of cash in your next TV deal.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off:

– Juan Pablo Montoya’s fourth-place finish may have saved his job at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, especially if the NASCAR team is potentially on the block to be sold. The big question now is, if both he and Jamie McMurray keep performing will there be enough money to expand to a third car with Kyle Larson?

– Paul Menard is having one of the quietest “good” seasons in recent memory. Who would have expected he’d be the only one to complete every lap of every event after nine races? With Richard Childress Racing coming out on top Saturday night, with Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton showing signs of life with Luke Lambert there may be time yet to salvage their year.

– No one needs to avoid the “Big One” more this weekend than Tony Stewart. Everyone thinks the No. 14 car is just going to wake up, midstream and start winning races. Did we forget the gigantor distraction that is running the first NASCAR dirt race since 1970, at Stewart’s track in the middle of the summer? Wake-up time needs to happen, fast and you don’t want to be 20th in points in a year where it’s going to take two, maybe even three victories to crack the “Wild Card” category.

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