NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Things We’ve Found Out So Far in 2014

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCARand produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy has five things we can take to the bank seven races into 2014.

1. Tire management makes for better racing

After making fans endure years of tires only slightly softer than Fred Flintstone’s, Goodyear has been working on creating compounds that wear out in a shorter time than a car’s fuel window. Ultimately, that makes a difference in the way these cars race. Teams have to walk a fine line between speed and durability. Tip too far in one direction and they risk a flat tire; too far in the other, and they can’t keep up with the leaders. Tire strategy was once a key part of racing at any tracks with an older surface, with Darlington and Rockingham legendary for being hell on Goodyears. Drivers would lose grip after a fairly small number of laps, and the handling of the cars would be seriously compromised. That’s a good thing. In recent years, strategy became less and less a part of the sport, and its comeback has been, for the most part, a welcome change.

Goodyear is producing tires that force crew chiefs to make strategy calls, a move Amy Henderson says provides better racing.
Goodyear is producing tires that force crew chiefs to make strategy calls, a move Amy Henderson says provides better racing.

It hasn’t been perfect. Tires were a ticking time bomb at Fontana after just 20 laps. Tires should be making the cars handle like a snowplow by then, but they shouldn’t be blowing out left and right, either. That’s mostly on teams to manage, and the last thing the sport needs is people spooking Goodyear into going back to the rocks. Yes, there’s work to be done, and hopefully that will happen without resorting to the harder compounds. But overall, the tires are a big part of the improved racing for 2014.

2. TV ratings aren’t indicative of the quality of competition

The racing this year has been, for the most part, very good. There’s passing, including for the lead and under green. There have been enough cautions to keep things interesting, most of them not for made-up debris, but for actual necessity. There have been seven different winners in seven races, none of them named Jimmie Johnson. There are several teams capable of winning, and some of them aren’t necessarily the usual suspects. Strategy has been a big part of the game, and what worked a year ago doesn’t necessarily work now. Cars change throughout a race, and different contenders emerge throughout an event. We’ve seen the best ofNASCAR this year, a reminder of what the sport can be.

But the television broadcasts haven’t been nearly so good. They still focus too much on the leaders and a few other drivers they think fans (or, more likely, advertisers) want to hear about. They show someone with a big lead, making laps rather than a fierce battle for position deeper in the field. They rarely mention the smaller teams at all unless they’re involved in a crash, and even then, they don’t follow up with those drivers — only with the bigger names who were involved. Often, they don’t even update fans on whether those drivers are hurt. They feature personalities who would rather be a part of the show than to make it about the racing.

Ratings are down… and it’s possible that’s because fans are sick of the way the racing is presented, not the racing itself. The competition is better, the broadcasts are the same, ratings are down… you be the judge.

3. Team Penske has the new rules figured out

There’s been a lot of talk about the strength of Stewart-Haas Racing lately, but really, nobody has the new rules package down like the Nos. 2 and 22. Yes, Brad Keselowski’s had some rough luck (and some of that, like Sunday’s pit road speeding penalty, was of his own making) in the last month, but his finishes haven’t been indicative of how he’s run. Kes has started on the front row five times this year and scored three straight top-3 finishes to kick off the season. Teammate Joey Logano has been even better, with four top 10s, the victory at Texas and an average finish of 11.9 despite coming home 39th in Fontana. Sliced Bread’s currently fourth in points and is looking like he could easily reel off a string of wins this year.

With both teams already winners, Team Penske is establishing itself as the team others will have to go through to get to Victory Lane. Only Stewart-Haas Racing also has two winning teams in 2014. Hendrick Motorsports has just one, as do Roush-Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year’s title contenders, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, have failed to win in 2014. And while SHR has two wins, they don’t have a single team inside the top 10 in points, while both Logano and Keselowski sit inside the top eight. Until Keselowski’s 2012 title, Team Penske was the team who could win, but not put together the whole package. Now, they look like they could put UPS to shame.

4. Meanwhile, Hendrick and Gibbs aren’t quite up to speed

Matt Kenseth is second in points this season, with a pole in Fontana but remains winless after a career-best seven victories in 2013.
Matt Kenseth is second in points this season, with a pole in Fontana but remains winless after a career-best seven victories in 2013.

Each organization has a win, but each one also has teams who should be capable of winning who haven’t been able to get the job done. A year ago after Texas, the two teams had combined for six wins in seven races among four drivers. Not exactly a bad start to the year, by comparison but not quite what was expected of these powerhouse teams, either, especially from Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who fought for the title just a few months ago. Bad luck has played a role, but so has bad strategy. What’s worked in the past doesn’t necessarily get it done anymore, and the players have changed so far this year.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Well, it might be for those teams’ fans, but in general, seeing something different is good for the sport as a whole. The first seven wins were spread among three organizations and five teams a year ago. This year, it’s four organizations and seven teams. Only two drivers who had a win at this point a year ago (Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch) have one so far this year. If variety is the spice of life, then what we’re seeing is a good thing. More winners should keep more fans interested if the complaints of drivers “winning too much” are valid. Even if they’re not, it’s good for fans of different drivers to enjoy their favorites winning, because they’re more likely to tune in if they know their guy has a shot every week.

5. The new Chase has a side that’s not pretty

On Sunday, speculation of an ugly kind reared its head as a direct result of the “win and you’re in” Chase system. As the laps wound down and Joey Logano led with Brad Keselowski closing, Darrell Waltrip wondered on air if Keselowski was going to “let” Logano have the win since he had one and was already in the Chase. Some well-known media members asked essentially the same question on Twitter, and fans got in on the speculating as well. NASCAR got lucky with a late caution so that question didn’t have to get answered, but it’s sure to come up again. And it should never, ever be a question.

Team orders have been going on for years, it’s true. Things came to a head at Richmond last year with allegations of wheeling and dealing among three teams for finishing spots with Chase implications. There is a clear difference between team orders which alter the outcome of a race, and something like letting a teammate lead 50 laps into an event for a bonus point and then getting the lead back. The latter is no big deal. The former is nothing short of ugly. In the past, the former was done, before Clint Bowyer took it to a new level by intentionally spinning himself out. It was even done blatantly. In one Chase race a few years back, Hendrick Motorsports driver Casey Mears was told on the radio to let then-teammate Kyle Busch pass him for position in the closing laps. Mears did so after letting his team know what he thought of the order. Letting one driver grab a bonus point early isn’t going to affect the outcome of a race, nor is it going to alter the championship under current rules. But altering the finish certainly could.

After Richmond, you’re not going to hear a “let him win” order on the radio, and let’s all hope it’s not happening off the air either. But this week’s race did raise that question, right or wrong. It’s another flaw with the system that could have been avoided by listening to what fans really wanted all along.

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