Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling

Before this sarcastic-laden column begins, I’d like to start by offering my deepest sympathies to the Petty family. Matriarch Lynda Petty was, by all accounts, the glue that held them together, her warmth and southern charm defining NASCAR’s first family for multiple generations. One of the sport’s good people, she will be sorely missed.

Thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected.

HENDERSON: Five Ways Lynda Petty’s Death Has An Impact


Did You Notice?… Saturday’s scintillating finish in the Nationwide Series briefly put to rest fan criticism over Cup drivers dominating? It’s the same way in which Jimmie Johnson’s failure, during the final laps of Sunday’s race, tempered fan complaints over tires going kaboom as fast as your local fireworks show. If the competition’s good, and there are a few new faces mixed in instead of the usual favorites, fans perk up and watch television rather than sitting there wondering how fast they can change the channel. Everyone watching is a race fan, after all.

It’s great to see Larson succeed, proving his worth quickly against the top drivers in Cup competition today. But as the Nationwide Series enters its first off week, the four-alarm fire of letting Cup drivers run rampant over the competition remains. Sure, they’re not running for the title but here’s a look at the current standings if Cup drivers were included this season…

1. Kyle Busch – 221
2. Penske Racing’s No. 22 car (Keselowski/Blaney/Logano) – 215 (-6)
3. Kyle Larson – 207 (-14)
4. Matt Kenseth – 186 (-35)
T – 5. Regan Smith – 185 (-36)
T – 5. Trevor Bayne – 185 (-36)

Kyle Larson’s run in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday was one of the feel-good stories of the weekend, but it has become a rarity for a Nationwide Series regular to put up a fight against the Cup Series guys.
Kyle Larson’s run in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday was one of the feel-good stories of the weekend, but it has become a rarity for a Nationwide Series regular to put up a fight against the Cup Series guys.

In reality, the title race is a blowout, with Busch on a pace in which he could miss a half-dozen races and still easily outscore all rivals in the point standings. Sure, we can play “pretend” and put that (i) next to those guys in the running order but fans aren’t stupid. They know a bunch of sixth places, scored while the Cup competition is running circles around full-time regulars, doesn’t add up to a championship season.

That’s why, more than ever, events like Larson’s phenomenal win need to be part of a limited schedule. The NFL succeeds in large part because it’s kept its season short enough that fans end the year always wanting more. How about if you saw the Larson victory, then knew that battle with Busch couldn’t happen again for another month in that series? That might make their next start more special, getting you to tune in while other races without them help develop the series’ other drivers.

The Truck Series, where Busch does run a fairly limited schedule, has it right. There’s not enough “butting in” by other drivers to keep the top 5 a list of the same names you see on Sunday. At the same time… Busch does come in and challenge the field on occasion, causing veterans and rookies alike to step to the plate and compete at a higher level. And for every Kyle Busch victory, there’s likely a Truck Series regular fighting alongside for second instead of another Cup guy. That translates into a win-win for everyone involved in this division.

So, yes, head into the Nationwide off week thrilled for Kyle Larson and his Turner Scott Motorsports team. Just know it should be a one-time deal we see once in a blue moon involving them. Having that race every time, between the same two combatants will wind up putting the series in the same boat within another couple of weeks.

Did You Notice?… It’s the third time in five years Denny Hamlin is dealing with a health problem? Last week’s sinus infection, keeping the driver out of the starting lineup at Fontana, is the latest in a long list of “hard-luck” illnesses and injuries. We had 2010, a torn ACL while playing basketball nearly derailing a season until Hamlin chose to play through the pain after surgery. While performing brilliantly, using that setback as motivation to run second in the championship, things could have just as easily gone the other way.

Then, there was last season, a back injury suffered at Fontana turning 2013 into a virtual loss. No Chase, just one victory would follow, combined with a litany of DNFs and pain so excruciating, offseason surgery was considered before healing finally accelerated a bit last November. Now, we have this sinus infection, which sources at press time told me won’t prohibit Hamlin from racing Martinsville but proves disturbing nonetheless. Several have reported the driver was losing vision in one eye and even failed the finger test before being carted off to the hospital.

All of this history begs the question: Is Hamlin considered an injury risk? It’s a shame, because bad luck seemingly dogs him health-wise in a way it hasn’t for other superstars such as Johnson, Kevin Harvick, etc. But in the world of business, where sponsors must be concerned about the bottom line, the resume of “bumps in the road” is growing. In the NFL, fair or not, this type of health record would cost Hamlin millions in salary. Will FedEx grow concerned their driver can stay in the seat for all 36 races per year, especially with a guy like Carl Edwards sitting on the free agent block and currently leading the Cup standings? Remember, JGR made a bid for Edwards back in ’11, only for Ford to pay millions to keep their star. This time around, former teammate Kenseth resides at JGR and Ford has other options, including Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who are both younger. Edwards, while a great marketing pitchman, doesn’t have to be their number one pick anymore.

Hamlin’s career, as mentioned by a colleague here, could eventually draw comparisons to Neil Bonnett. Bonnett, who was one of the sport’s budding stars in the 1980s, always seemed to have a black cat sitting with him inside the race car. Serious wrecks led to injuries, at times when he was a title contender, and he was eventually knocked out of Cup competition full-time in 1990 following a vicious hit at Darlington. Bonnett, whose career and life was cut short prior to the 1994 Daytona 500 due to an on-track incident, was a tragic tale that could have ended with a potential Cup championship in the mid-to-late ’80s with a little better health and luck.

There’s no rhyme or reason why someone like Brett Favre stays healthy, for years at a time while another player sits out five of seven seasons. Unfortunately for Hamlin, he’s got a limited form of hard luck and it’s going to be interesting to see if it costs him.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

– Parity, parity, parity is the name of the game with five different winners in five races thus far. If I’m Kevin Harvick, especially with a parts failure every other week leaving myself outside the top 20 in points, that leaves me slightly concerned. So many drivers have shown muscle this season, with 24 of the top 25 drivers in the standings earning at least one top-10 finish. (Clint Bowyer is the odd man out). A top 10 in the running order puts a driver in position to gamble for a win, like Cassill did at Fontana, and have a better shot at getting away with it down the stretch. The feeling that we have more than 16 winners this season is growing, slowly, inside the garage.

– Not much has been written about Landon Cassill’s gamble to stay out front at Fontana. Personally, I thought it was brilliant. What better way to not only get your sponsor TV time but risk some unlikely route into the Chase? The odds were long – very long – but you never know when you’re out front. Some absurd wreck that happened behind Cassill and he could have gotten a top 15 out of the deal or better. It’s an unintended benefit of NASCAR’s new format and a great way for the underdogs to make an appearance, on-air since the double-file restarts always keep the lapped cars (or really slow ones) sitting at the rear of the field.

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, and Denny Hamlin all feel like they have something to prove after Fontana. They all have fantastic track records at Martinsville. You couldn’t ask for more heading to the series’ shortest oval on the circuit. There’s just something nagging at me that Martinsville will produce one of the best races in recent history. Can TV ratings finally stage a turnaround and follow suit?

– Speaking of, I’ve watched the television surveys floating around with interest. I often wonder if fans will ever get what they want. You’re not going to have any network, no matter who’s covering the sport, outwardly bash the product they’re covering every week. “Hey guys, welcome back to Fontana! We’re here with a bunch of empty seats and the last 20 laps, all the cars have been running single-file. What a dud as we head down to Steve Byrnes for an update on how the No. 88 car is simply running in place.”

If you were a non-NASCAR guy flipping through the channels, why would you stop and watch? These channels are paying millions to broadcast the product that’s put in front of them. You really think they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot and not earn a small chunk of their money back? More objectivity is one thing, but if you expect every analyst to turn into some NASCAR protest hawk calling for change each and every Sunday, you’re asking too much.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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