Did You Notice? … The team/manufacturer breakdown inside the Chase? Right now, it sets up as the following…
Hendrick Motorsports – 4
Stewart-Haas Racing – 2
Richard Childress Racing – 1
JTG-Daugherty Racing – 1
Penske Racing – 2
Roush Fenway Racing – 2
Richard Petty Motorsports – 1
Joe Gibbs Racing – 3
Clearly, three teams stand out above all others when creating this breakdown. Toyota, in a down year with only two victories is relying solely on the shakiness of Joe Gibbs Racing’s inconsistency to keep them relevant. Ford, whose Roush Fenway team and chassis continues to decline can put all its eggs in the two-car juggernaut of Penske Racing. And Chevrolet, with token appearances by two Richard Childress-based programs is owned by the powerhouse of Hendrick chassis and engines, making up six of the sixteen cars (38%) of NASCAR’s expanded Chase grid.
Hmm. A playoff, designed for 16 participants but whose victor will almost certainly come from one of three organizations. Is this the “expanded” playoff pool NASCAR was thinking of? In a way, considering the chokehold multi-car teams have on the sport you could make a case there’s less parity in this playoff than recent years. Even if there’s an absolute miracle, with an underdog like JTG-Daugherty’s AJ Allmendinger making a splash the team still needs to rely on a bigger one (Richard Childress Racing) to stay afloat. Instead of 16 different, unique teams there are blurred lines and weird alliances that come into play.
How does NASCAR increase diversity atop its grid? At this point, with any type of breakup of individual teams near impossible – especially with the RTA – more manufacturers would certainly help. Right now, it looks like each has its favorite and until that changes, the number of teams truly able to contend for the title will be somewhat limited.
Did You Notice? … How to predict who will advance through Round 1? NASCAR has already run at Loudon and Dover this season, so I took those finishes and combined them with Chicagoland last Fall for each driver. Here’s the final totals I came up with, based on that recent history for Round 1…
Brad Keselowski: 2,012 + 129 = 2,141* (Loudon winner)
Matt Kenseth: 2,000 + 131 = 2,131* (Chicagoland winner)
Carl Edwards: 2,006 + 95 = 2,101
Jimmie Johnson: 2,009 + 90 = 2,099* (Dover winner)
Kurt Busch: 2,003 + 94 = 2,097
Jeff Gordon: 2,009 + 87 = 2,096
Kasey Kahne: 2,003 + 90 = 2,093
Kyle Busch: 2,003 + 89 = 2,092
Kevin Harvick: 2,006 + 84 = 2,090
Denny Hamlin: 2,003 + 87 = 2,090
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: 2,009 + 79 = 2,088
Aric Almirola: 2,003 + 85 = 2,088
Ryan Newman: 2,000 + 87 = 2,087
AJ Allmendinger: 2,003 + 72 = 2,075
Greg Biffle: 2,000 + 64 = 2,064
Joey Logano: 2,009 + 49 = 2,058
* – Automatically advances based on victory
As you can see, the biggest surprise is Logano, whose 6.00 average finish the last four races leads all contenders heading into the Chase. Bad luck bit him twice at these tracks, wrecking at both Loudon in July and Chicagoland the previous Fall. No amount of season-long success will help you survive two trips behind the wall under this new format.
So will one of the favorites wind up falling flat? We’ve seen it happen nearly every year as one driver has a mechanical mixup, a mental mistake or a combination of both that kills their chances. Last season, it was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his blown engine at Chicagoland; the year before, it was Jeff Gordon’s wreck at the same track. The competition, in the middle of the pack is close enough that one bad break may be enough to put you in a difficult position. The difference between 7th and 13th in the standings, under this projection is just six points… you don’t want to have to fight through that muck in order to survive to the next round.
That means you should keep an eye on the “big guns,” no matter how much of a “lock” they seem to make the season finale at Homestead. One of them, almost certainly is bound to hit a roadbump these next three weeks. Will NASCAR’s new format allow them to overcome a bad mistake? I’d say yes, in Round 1 but two bad breaks and you’re sitting on the outside looking in… no matter how good your regular season was.
Did You Notice? … That recent TV ratings, in the midst of NASCAR’s decline, show stock car racing is inching back toward its regional roots? So far, ABC/ESPN has covered seven Cup Series races this season, listing their top 10 most popular markets right along with the main Nielsen rating each week. Just two markets so far in those statistics have been located north of the Mason/Dixon line. Buffalo, NY showed up the weekend of the Watkins Glen race, its home market, while Indianapolis is consistently within the top 10 most popular. That’s it; cities like New York, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, major population centers have NASCAR as a nonexistent blip on the radar screen.
What cities do find themselves within the top 10 each week? Charlotte, NC. Greenville, SC. Knoxville, TN. Greensboro, NC. You get the picture… all of them are condensed within the Southeast region, located from the Bluegrass of Kentucky, to rural Tennessee right down the Bible Belt through rural Alabama and Mississippi. NASCAR, built from the rough-and-tumble short tracks in the rural Southeast, still maintains its core base there.
I mention this phenomenon because this weekend, in the midst of the Chase’s new format, the sport once again has chosen to kick off the postseason at… Chicagoland. Instead of playing to their strengths, building momentum within a popular region, NASCAR’s decision is to heat things up by traveling right to the North Pole. Let’s delve deeper: A sparsely attended race, held an hour away from a city that doesn’t care all that much about stock cars, on an oval that’s one of the least competitive on the Cup circuit. That’s their formula to build an audience for the postseason.
In the future, why not start at Bristol instead? Move that night race to the start of the Chase? Or what about Martinsville? Yes, in theory you’re headed to a small market. Playing around in Chicago, by comparison, is linking up with the “Big Fish,” hoping corporate bigwigs in town pay attention the same way holding the banquet in New York City used to be NASCAR’s way of dangling a hook toward Fortune 500 companies. But right now, the fish aren’t biting; instead, the perception is the sport’s on the downswing. So why not pull a different approach, setting up a week’s worth of special events within a popular market that cares about racing through and through.
No doubt, these suggestions will fall on deaf ears as the 2015 schedule is already in place. The philosophy, it seems, is to keep hoping against hope, planning on a natural turnaround instead of making radical changes to evolve the way this sport is perceived. How low do the ratings have to go before there’s a shift in thinking?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
– The move to switch Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart’s pit crews, prior to the start of the Chase, was absolutely brilliant. For Harvick, he gets a brand new set of crew members who won’t be secretly hating him after months of berating slow pit stops and costly penalties that have kept the No. 4 car from multiple victories. His new pit crew, after a month of stress from the Stewart-Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy now gets to refocus and rally around their team’s best hope for a championship. Plus, making the move before Chicagoland allows the team to build cohesiveness while sleepwalking through a first round they’re almost guaranteed to advance from. Should Harvick make the Final Four, there’s no question it’s this move that gets him there.
– I wouldn’t worry too much about Jimmie Johnson’s health heading into Chicagoland. It’s not the first time we’ve seen drivers collapse due to exhaustion and it certainly won’t be the last. Remember the Bristol races of old, where half the field had substitute drivers by the finish under the hot, summer sun? Johnson, one of the best-conditioned athletes on the circuit, has a great support system for recovery and won’t put himself in a poor position going forward. Oh, and did I mention J.J. has a 6.25 average finish the last four races? Only Joey Logano has a better one across all Chase contenders. The No. 48 team doesn’t appear to be as far off as people think.
– With the pressure on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this week, following his inability to act effectively on the Ray Rice domestic abuse video I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to NASCAR. In this case, Goodell might lose his job because the other owners, with their stake in the sport have the ability to hold him accountable. Brian France? As NASCAR CEO, the head of a family-owned private company there’s no such system in place. Without franchising, teams having a real stake in the sport itself the head of the most powerful race series in America has unchecked power. Brian France has to answer to… Brian France, and potentially some stakeholders of International Speedway Corporation. That’s about it.
One wonders if that setup, in general is good for the sport over the long run. Can a multi-billion dollar enterprise function in this modern world while being run as a family-owned business? It’s the type of structural issue where the Race Team Alliance, in the long term may come into play in helping shape the future of stock car racing, off the track as well as on it in the coming years.