Welcome to Friday Faceoff! What do you get when you take some hot-button NASCAR topics and hand them over to our dedicated and… er, opinionated staff? A little disagreement and a whole lot of thought-provoking insight! Check out this week’s edition to see what everyone is arguing… um, we mean, discussing this week!
1. Many fans have said that winning a championship under the Chase system cheapens the title because the points are reset before the final 10 races. Is a Chase title really worth less than one won under the old, full season format?
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I don’t think it cheapens the title at all. If there had been a similar format throughout the history of NASCAR, drivers and teams would have made the adjustments to that as well. I actually like this Chase format a bit better because if a driver has a bad race in one of those first two or three races, there is still a chance to get to the next round and stay in the title hunt.
Matt Stallknecht, Assistant Editor: The fans who say that are wearing rose-colored glasses and are stuck in the past. There is/was nothing inherently more or less prestigious about winning a title “the old way.” The three formats all simply require different strategies in order to be successful under them. This argument has honestly gotten old at this point; the season-long championship formats that many motorsports series use are completely littered with their own sets of flaws. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt that Matt Kenseth‘s one-win championship, the one where he essentially stroked it for half the season in the back half of the top 10 every week, was a far bigger sham than even the current system could be construed to be. The reality is that there is no right way to crown a champion in ANY sport. The most deserving champion is the one who most effectively exploits whatever the title format is; thus, any title under any format is prestigious to me.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I believe that any championship structure that challenges teams each and every week is a valuable one. The old days of padding points and playing the numbers game seemed to lessen NASCAR’s true potential. By putting the emphasis on winning and tossing an elimination-style format at Cup teams, I think the title circa 2014 will mean much more when compared to how championships used to be determined.
Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: In no way does this new Chase format cheapen this championship. To me, this new format rewards both winning and consistency evenly. Although I am not a big fan of the new format, it sure beats the days of when the championship was decided with five races to go.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: The Chase format is just as effective, if not even more so, than the traditional points system. A champion is one for a reason. It requires consistency for 36 weeks, and in this new format – nothing short of perfection in the final 10 events. With this new format, no one truly knows what to expect. However, the level of excitement has certainly been heightened, and these next 10 races will show why it is going to be one of the most important title races in NASCAR history.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: It isn’t from the standpoint of the current points format, and there were indeed different methods used to calculate points before the Latford system that was used from 1975-2003. But it truly does cheapen the first 26 races of the season, including the four marquee events (the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600), as well as both road course events. The reason for it is something I have always had an issue with. It wasn’t that the previous systems were unfairly awarding titles, it was just that the outcomes were less than nail-biting in 2000 and 2003, and NASCAR was looking for a way to draw in more fans and compete with the NFL in the fall. Both have proven to be filled with folly and a colossal waste of time, because if it hasn’t happened after 10 years – it is not going to.
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: From a broader perspective, what does “worthless” mean? Pretty sure that the history books will show that whoever won under this format was still the champion. Now if the question is meant to ask whether the new Chase format is one that succeeds in crowning the “right” champion, it’ll be Homestead that lets everyone know. But NASCAR has what it wants, which is the equivalent of a wild card team in the NFL being able to run the table and lift the big trophy.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: It’s hard to compare eras in NASCAR; the era in which Richard Petty won his seven titles was largely a time when teams could cherry-pick races at their best tracks with less serious competition, Dale Earnhardt won his seven championships at a time when the competition wasn’t as deep or parity as close as it is today, and if Jimmie Johnson wins a seventh, they will be Chase, not full-season titles. But I’ve heard the arguments about competition being closer than ever and how everyone in the field is bound by the same rules… and I can’t help but think that the last 10 championships are weaker, somehow, than those won where excellence over the course of an entire season meant that a hot streak at any time of the year was no guarantee of a title (and, conversely, one bad race at the wrong time didn’t guarantee all was lost). I just can’t quite hold the Chase champions in the same regard as the full-season winners, as much as I’d like to, because it’s not their fault that they race in an era where hype is more important than substance. The new Chase is even harder to take-one driver could be consistently the best for nine races… and lose it all in one week. I think that does cheapen the title. And I think many fans feel the same way I do.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Absolutely. Racing is not a stick and ball sport. Historically winning a championship in racing is about performing the best over the entire season. It isn’t about getting hot at the end of the season or at the right time. Racing is about being the best over the long haul. Changing the format so that it is the best person over a string of predominantly mile-and-a-half tracks with no road courses certainly made the title different. It is now about the driver who gets hot at the end of the year, and the latest iteration is really about who can get hot for four races out of 10, provided each of the four races takes place in a different segment of the Chase.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: It’s arguable that the newest format cheapens the title even more than the previous versions of the Chase. In Chase 4.0, you could essentially win at Las Vegas and take six months and coast if you wanted to. You couldn’t do that in the past to anywhere near the degree that you could in 2014. In the past, winning didn’t guarantee anything, other than the bragging rights and pelvic thrusting that comes with winning. As far as I’m concerned, the championship as presently constituted does not reward full season excellence. It’s stilted toward racing on intermediate tracks and dependent on “peaking.” At the same time, a championship is a championship. Whoever’s waltzing out of Homestead with the trophy in November gets the same trophy that he would have gotten had it been a regular full season title chase.
2. The focus on Saturday was on the drivers and teams who made this year’s Chase, but some notable names were not on that list after Richmond. Which team not making the Chase will go down as the biggest disappointment so far in 2014?
Jeff W: Not having Tony Stewart in the Chase for the second straight year is a major disappointment. Even before the sprint car incident in New York where Kevin Ward, Jr. tragically died, Stewart was on the very fringe of making the Chase. I thought with 16 drivers allowed to make it in this year, he would be an easy pick to make it. While missing the Chase each of the last two years was because of unique (and tragic) circumstances, it’s a shame not to see Stewart competing for the title.
Mark: Not having Kyle Larson in the Chase seems like a great disappointment. Not only would it be great to have a rookie in the post-season, but Larson is proof that NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program is more than just wishful thinking about diversifying the sport. Larson’s got the talent, he’s got the team and he’s got the fan appeal as a youngster to help bolster NASCAR’s future. It’s a shame he didn’t make the Chase.
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: It would’ve been nice to see Kyle Larson in there, but it wasn’t really expected. We expect Tony Stewart to be part of the Chase picture. So many things have conspired against him over the past year; I know he can’t be at the top of his game. Hopefully avoiding the glare of the Chase media circus will give him time to heal, in many ways.
Joseph: Clint Bowyer has been the biggest disappointment of 2014. The entire Michael Waltrip Racing team has not adjusted well to the new aero package and it has shown with not exactly poor results, but finishes not to their standards. Although he has had some strong runs, the driver of the No. 15 Toyota just isn’t where he needs to be. Moreover, another disappointment this year has been Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He has fallen victim to Roush Fenway Racing‘s abundant struggles, but has slowly made gains this year. Stenhouse is mired in the 27th position in the standings, and has yet to prove he is capable of winning races at NASCAR’s highest level after entering this year with high expectations.
Vito: Clint Bowyer and the MWR No. 15 team in a landslide. It was bad enough they got their teammate booted from last year’s Chase, and effectively their largest sponsor to boot. A few weeks ago things looked like they were going to be fine, but as they have all season, one botched pit stop or mechanical short-coming after another has the team that had two cars (momentarily) in the Chase last season with just none this year. Can’t really blame Michael Waltrip for wanting to go dance on TV to get his mind off things.
Kevin Rutherford, Senior Editor: Michael Waltrip Racing just got sad this year. One can argue the team never fully recovered from last year’s Spingate, and there’s probably some merit to that argument. But this year, the organization only had two full-time teams to focus on for the season and couldn’t get either of them – one of them a winner last year, mind you – into the Chase. Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers haven’t been awful this year, but their inability to produce under the new format is fairly damning. We might be witnessing the beginning of the end for Waltrip’s team in terms of competing with the top-tier organizations.
Phil: Arguably Clint Bowyer. He worked his buttocks off to get in at Richmond, but he really hasn’t performed all that well this season. Remember, just two years ago, Bowyer finished second in points. He fell a bit to seventh last year, but that fall was at least partially due to the stupidity surrounding Richmond. The whole team is in a funk right now. Richmond was Bowyer’s best run of the year. It’s the only time all year that he’s really been anywhere close to winning.
3. NASCAR heads to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend to kick off the Chase. Is that intermediate track the best place to kick off the title run, or should NASCAR move the opening round of the playoffs somewhere else?
Matt: I am of the opinion that the Chase opener should be a marquee type event to really kick the playoffs off in style. Bristol, Indy, Darlington, Daytona… the sport needs to have a big-event kind of race to really get momentum built for the last nine races. So with that in mind, Chicago doesn’t really fit the bill for what I’d like to see for the Chase opener.
Mark: Start the post-season with some fireworks – open the Chase at either Daytona or Talladega. Tracks like Chicagoland (or should I say “Jolietland”) blur with other intermediate-sized layouts and provide an often-lackluster start to what is intended to be Sprint Cup’s major showdown-to-the-death. If fuel mileage or pit strategy are necessary evils to challenge a team, make it at a place where those variables really mean something. Opening at Chicagoland seems to diminish the atmosphere of what Brian France wants to accomplish.
S.D.: Well, why not? It doesn’t have the cache associated with some of the other NASCAR tracks, but if the sport is trying to build its Midwest market, it’s a decent choice. It’s really up to the track to assist in making itself into the indispensable kickoff location. They should call Texas and ask how it’s done. I don’t love the racing in Texas, but I love the hype the promoters bring to their shows.
Justin: Chicagoland is one of the biggest borefests of a 1.5-mile track that we go to. I say let’s spice things up and make either Road America or Iowa as the opening race. Too many 1.5pmile tracks in the Chase as is, with little wow factor.
Joseph: Chicagoland Speedway is certainly a good track to open the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It has a twist with high speeds and a backstretch that isn’t fully straight, providing a little more excitement. With the track’s location in close proximity to one of America’s largest cities, there aren’t many other places that fit the start of the Chase. Like the saying goes: it doesn’t matter where you start, but it’s where you finish.
Vito: There is no reason to have the Chase start in Chicago other than that it is a major media market. The only place more anti-climactic and uninspiring to start the playoffs would be Kentucky, or where it used to start, New Hampshire. At least the Bears are on the road in San Francisco next weekend and maybe a few of the kielbasa crew will show up to the track. Speaking of San Francisco, there’s a track up around that way that would be a pretty nifty place to host a Chase race as well, but that just hasn’t happened. The same holds true for upstate New York, and Elkhart Lake, Wis., as well.
Huston: The obvious answer is that any track that’s not a mile and a half or bigger would be a great place to start the Chase, but after the tepid sense of competition at Richmond, it doesn’t really matter. Heck, why not start things off crazy and go with Talladega? Chicagoland has seemingly become one of those friends from college/work that you attempt to forget but shows up when least expected. You’re not thrilled to see him/her, but it’s tough to just walk away with indifference. The governing body still needs to pump enthusiasm into the Midwest but Chicago has never really been a hotbed for NASCAR and the track doesn’t quite jump out as marquee.
Amy: NASCAR really could not have chosen a worse venue to kick off what’s supposed to be 10 weeks of excitement. Any of the intermediate tracks would be a poor choice to start the Chase, where some casual fans may tune in to check out the playoffs, because the racing is just not likely to live up to fans’ expectations. While at least Chicago doesn’t overhype the excitement of its race a la Texas, getting the Chase underway at Dover or Loudon (or better yet, by getting Talladega out of the way), would help keep fans engaged in the racing.
Kevin: Who cares? Under the new format, the first race is pretty bereft of much intrigue, since the same 16 drivers are in until after Dover. To that end, the races at New Hampshire and Dover are probably going to be far more interesting regardless of track, so why spend too much time worrying about where the series kicks off the Chase? In fact, Chicagoland’s probably one of the better choices; if past races are any indication, it’s going to be a boring race, so putting it in a low-intrigue spot suits it, rather than making it, say, the final race of a given round.
Phil: There’s probably 15 different tracks on the schedule that would be a better place to start the Chase than Chicagoland Speedway (not to mention a few places that aren’t on the schedule).
4. With all the talk about title favorites, one team that hasn’t been on that list much is Joe Gibbs Racing. The team also seems to have lost a step in the Nationwide Series this season. Why is JGR having so much trouble getting up to speed?
Jeff W.: Sometimes an organization just seems to lose its edge and it could be for any number of reasons. You wonder if too many people are getting comfortable being in the same roles. You wonder with the organization working to get a fourth team up to speed for next year, if that took just a bit of time away from the normal operation for some key people. You wonder too if not building its own engines has taken a bit of that personal touch away from the shop, making it a little more difficult to be personally invested in what’s happening on the track.
Mark: Joe Gibbs Racing needs to get its house in better order. All teams experience ebbs and flows of staffing and overall management, so what’s going on at JGR (whatever the issues might be) strikes me as being quite natural and rather expected. It’s the operations that never seem to suffer from stress or strife that make me highly suspicious of what’s going on behind the shop doors.
S.D.: There is one JGR team that can still do this: the No. 20. The only thing Matt Kenseth doesn’t have this year is a win, but it’s not like he wasn’t up in that top 5 every single week. I wouldn’t write him off. The No. 18 – well, it’s pretty clear Kyle Busch has checked out. He’s not on board for even figuring their mess out. Denny Hamlin has been a distant shadow in the mix this year. There is something missing, but not all of their teams are done for the year.
Huston: It’s possible that TRD is part of the problem here as MWR hasn’t really shown speed all season either. Combine that with JGR’s move to four teams for next year and maybe the organization didn’t keep all of its focus on this year. Or maybe things go in cycles and they’re just having a down year and need to tinker with the engine-aero combo.
Amy: Toyota’s horsepower disadvantage is the subject of a lot of garage scuttlebutt, and if they are as far behind as has been speculated, it’s no surprise that Joe Gibbs Racing (along with Michael Waltrip Racing) is behind the 8-ball; they’ve even lost a step in the Nationwide Series. But I’m not convinced that’s all that’s going on. JGR is not a team known for its chemistry between drivers and even drivers and crews at times, it’s got a new driver (with a sizeable ego) coming on board to shake things up, a crew chief who was suspended for six critical weeks after some creative engineering to add some downforce, so it’s clear to see that this organization has some complex issues to solve if it hopes to contend for a title.
Kevin: It’s all about RD and its inability to perform in 2014 – just look at Michael Waltrip Racing, which is struggling as well. I wouldn’t call it a rebuilding year for the team in the Cup Series, but there seems to be just a few ingredients missing – and maybe the organization’s imminent expansion is partially the culprit. That said, Gibbs slotted all three teams into the Chase and have won races this year, so if its teams can clean the wounds and get focused, we may be talking about them come November after all.
Mike: It is hard to say one thing is the problem at JGR but every team has maintained that the organization is off in the speed department. Generally speaking, speed comes from the power under the hood. JGR disbanded its engine department three years ago, or at least turned most of the engine work over to TRD in Costa Mesa, Calif. Initially that partnership seemed to result in improvement of their engine package but, in the third year of that partnership, it seems the product out of California has fallen behind the competition. Whether ramping that engine department back up would bring more speed is debatable, but one thing is for sure: the Toyota camp is chasing Penske and Hendrick when it comes to ponies under the hood.
Give us your Chicagoland prediction!
Jeff W.: Jimmie Johnson gets the win, and all of a sudden everyone is saying, “oh no, not him again.”
Matt: My pick for Chicagoland is Mr. Joey Logano.
Mark: Clint Bowyer. Too much, too late….
S.D.: Kyle Larson – why not? If he didn’t make it into the Chase, he can at least make a splash in it.
Justin: It’s go-time, which means it is time for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team to be at their very best. I look for Johnson to strike first and cross Chicagoland of his bucket list.
Joseph: Jeff Gordon has been on a tear this year, but I believe Joey Logano is going to go to Victory Lane as Team Penske continues to ride high on momentum.
Vito: Kevin Harvick. The addition of the Stew Crew will prove that Harvick’s rampant bitching all season long was justified.
Huston: Brad Keselowski.
Amy: With a new pit crew and his first title within reach, I like Kevin Harvick to win this week.
Kevin: Joey Logano.
Mike: Kevin Harvick
Phil: I’m going with Brad Keselowski for No. 5. Yep.
Frontstretch Staff Predictions 2014
Welcome to our seventh year of staff predictions! Each week, our experts take the end of this column to tell us who the winner of each Cup race will be. But as we all know, predicting the future is difficult if not completely impossible… so how do you know which writer you can trust when you put your own reputation (or money) on the line?
That’s why we came up with our Predictions Chart. The scoring for this year is simple:
+5 – Win
+3 – Top 5
+1 – Top 10
0 – 11th-20th
-1 – 21st-30th
-2 – 31st-40th
-3 – 41st-43rd
Federated Auto Parts 500
|Amy Henderson||Joey Logano||6th||1|
|Mike Neff||Kyle Busch||14th||0|
|Phil Allaway||Jamie McMurray||4th||3|
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|Mike Neff||17||– 12||15||0||6||8|