Did You Notice?… It’s now time for old school fans to step up? NASCAR’s 2015 schedule, as expected had few major changes aside from Darlington’s move to Labor Day Weekend. To accommodate, Atlanta jumps to the second race of the season while Bristol takes the Darlington date in mid-April. The new adjustments create a third off week, put on the weekend of August 30th (two races before the end of the regular season) put in place to increase the drama before the Chase.
While Bristol’s weather is nice, the most important adjustment is bringing back tradition to NASCAR’s “Lady In Black.” From 1950-2003, the egg-shaped oval tested man and machine with a grueling 500-mile race the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Cutting that off, beginning in 2004 was a decision critics point to when railing against modern NASCAR.
So now, in 2015 everyone gets what they wished for; at least, the most vocal ones. The question is whether they’re all living close to Darlington, still excited to go to the racetrack and willing to follow up NASCAR’s decision with their financial support. Keep in mind it’s now been 12 years since the last “Southern 500.” That’s nearly a whole generation’s worth of difference, meaning thousands, if not millions of new fans have never been introduced to the Labor Day Weekend experience. They don’t know why it’s special, the same way they don’t know what words like “Intimidator” “Boy Wonder” or “The Iceman” truly mean.
I look at the way Rockingham Speedway was treated when getting its spot back on NASCAR’s schedule, a few years back. Sure, only a Truck Series race was run there but excitement over the track’s return died within the first few seasons. The Speedway had to close, currently back in mothballs because the general public never backed up their words with their wallets.
I think everyone who works in the sport, from the garage to the media center is excited that the “real” Southern 500 is back. The key now is for marketing at Darlington to convey that tradition to a new generation of fans while the old ones? It’s time for them to plan a trip next September. A “small market” is still a “small market,” financially no matter how special a spot in holds in your heart.
As for the rest of the schedule? Daytona, Sunday night in July, that’s a good thing; NBC will market the one-year change like it’s nobody’s business. On the flip side, Atlanta is in trouble; it may be running its final season of NASCAR competition next year. The way that track has been run, combined with dwindling attendance has now been paired with a horrible weather date (remember last winter? They’re lucky if the track isn’t covered in snow). Look for Speedway Motorsports, Inc.’s Bruton Smith to close that speedway while advocating a second date for Las Vegas, preferably inside the Chase or the season finale. That’s when I hope to see major changes on the schedule, as you can’t go to Las Vegas back-to-back. Other dates to watch are Dover’s and Chicagoland’s as the gremlins of track attendance keep popping up.
Did You Notice?… Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s return to the racetrack, at Bristol several laps down, with a wrecked racecar even though he’s locked into the Chase? It was making a statement, in the midst of a mediocre night the No. 88 team won’t give up. Despite a bashed driver’s side door, courtesy Denny Hamlin’s front bumper every crewmember, to a man worked double time as practice for when “their races really count.”
That fire drill was important, considering the lack of true championship experience on this team. Yes, the No. 88 car has made the Chase four years in a row. But how often were they in contention down the stretch? How much pressure did they really have at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead? Last year, the title was off the table by Chicagoland, mechanical failure leaving them scrambling to salvage the postseason the rest of the way.
In the final year for crew chief Steve Letarte, there are no “do overs” for this group as presently constructed. So why not practice an emergency scenario, when faced with a racecar in need of repair on a night that doesn’t really matter?
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off…
– Looking for a break from Hendrick-Penske domination? Last year’s top 5 Atlanta finishers offer some hope. Two of them, Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Newman have yet to win a race this year. Another two, Kurt and defending winner Kyle Busch are in need of a morale/confidence boost heading into the Chase. The fifth? Joey Logano, who has a potential top seed in hand with a victory. Among the other big names who ran well last Labor Day Weekend: Carl Edwards and a still-winless-in-2014 Clint Bowyer.
– Two drivers from major teams have gone all season without leading a single lap: Truex and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. For Truex, considering his Chase “bubble” position last season earning one top-5 finish, by comparison with single-car Furniture Row Racing has to be one of the biggest busts this season. Of all the RCR-aligned programs, FRR slots in third behind new additions JTG-Daugherty and Germain Racing, making it seem like Kurt Busch made all the difference. While JTG has clinched their spot in the postseason, Truex sits 154 points behind Greg Biffle, mathematically eliminated weeks ago and must try to sneak in through an upset victory.
As for Stenhouse, his future is secure at Roush Fenway Racing but too many people are asking why, even after a sixth-place performance at Bristol. Outside of that track, where he’s got a 4.0 average finish in 2014 his only other top-10 results have come in restrictor plate races (Daytona, Talladega) and the one-mile flat track in Loudon, New Hampshire. Keep in mind this team is less than two years removed from three wins, 480 laps led and 19 top-10 finishes with Matt Kenseth at the controls.
– Count me among those who believe NASCAR did the right thing by not fining Denny Hamlin for his HANS Device throw. But doing nothing at all? That’s a bad decision after their new rule clarifying on-track violations. Check out Section 9-16, installed after the Canandaigua Motorsports Park tragedy in August:
The driver [after being in an accident on-track] should proceed to either the ambulance, other vehicle, or as otherwise directed by safety personnel or a NASCAR/Track official. At no time should a driver or crew member(s) approach any portion of the racing surface or apron. At no time should a driver or crew member (s) approach another moving vehicle.
Hamlin, of course, clearly stepped across those boundaries the second he jumped on the apron and threw something at Harvick’s car. So even if it’s probation, considering the magnitude of the offense NASCAR had to do something small to set a precedent. You can’t put a rule out there, on paper and then blatantly ignore it. That says to the general public, “We put out some changes, to calm you down in the wake of a tragedy that left you angry but we never felt it was needed or worth enforcing in the first place.” If that’s how you really feel, don’t make the rule, I guess. Putting it out there, then expecting everyone else to forget just makes you look silly.
– It’s now been two-plus weeks since the tragic incident between Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr. Police said, immediately afterwards there was no evidence of criminal charges. So if there’s not going to be an arrest in this case, why is the wrap-up investigation taking so long? With every day that goes by, both the pace and persistence of law enforcement would concern me if I’m in Stewart’s camp.
– Matt and Katie Kenseth publishing a children’s book on bullying. That’s great! But you think Kyle Busch found a little gift in his mailbox this week? They’ve tried just about everything else at Joe Gibbs Racing…