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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s Biggest Nightmare: Predictable

It was supposed to be a history-making moment. NASCAR’s first ever “Chase elimination” race, the lynchpin of its new format was supposed to make Dover a “Game 7” atmosphere, knocking potential title contenders out of the prizefight early. After Loudon, where top drivers got knocked around like pinballs, the bar was set for aggression, strategy, even panic as so many hovered around the “cutline,” whittling an expanded postseason field from 16 to a far more manageable 12. Dover’s Monster Mile, known in the old days as a “survival type” track, provided an opportunity to build on that momentum, drivers jockeying for position late, using whatever means possible to keep their hope alive for a championship. Jeff Gordon? Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? One bad break, one bout with the wall and they would be in serious trouble. Fans weren’t immune to that potential at Dover; the crowd Sunday, lacking for the past several races was the best one the track had drawn in years. Everyone was looking for a memorable moment.

Instead, what we got was… monotony.

Once the smoke cleared, Jeff Gordon comfortably taking the checkered flag, the Chase landscape had changed… hardly at all. Gordon rounded out a 1-2-3 trio of drivers, joining Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski who were arguably strongest heading into the postseason. Apparently, this year, everyone was showing their cards because the names topping the podium don’t seem to raise an eyebrow to date.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
It was a valiant effort by AJ Allmendinger and his single-car team, JTG Daugherty to try and advance onward in the Chase. But on Sunday, AJ was eliminated as expected… part of a far-too-predictable Sunday at Dover. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Nor do the four drivers we saw eliminated Sunday. AJ Allmendinger? A valiant effort, for certain this season with JTG Daugherty, but for that single-car effort, just making the Chase was their championship. Ditto for Aric Almirola, whose Richard Petty Motorsports team could have made it but suffered from a mechanical mishap right off the bat. Neither one was on anybody’s list to make the Final Four at Homestead.

As for bigger names? From bigger teams? Greg Biffle made the field on points, after a season of struggle with Roush Fenway Racing but only has three top-5 finishes. Never higher than seventh in the standings, all season long his No. 16 team is clearly several steps behind. And Kurt Busch, despite a summer of building consistency, dug himself a hole so deep, early on he nearly fell outside the top 30 in points during spring. That would have kept him out of the field even with an impressive spring victory at Martinsville. The No. 41 Chevrolet, in its first season running full-time, recovered well, sneaking inside the top 20 in points by Chase time but could never run at the level of its biggest rivals: Penske Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.

All those drivers made the final 12, easily, on a day where their only drama surrounded Harvick’s broken valve stem. That bad luck moment, cutting down a left-front tire, kept the No. 4 car from leading 300+ laps and coasting to the finish line on his own planet. Keselowski, Logano, third-place Jimmie Johnson, and winner Gordon paced themselves up front, keeping time while knowing they’re all equal, again next week under NASCAR’s new format. In their case, knowing one mistake was all it took actually hurt the competition rather than helped it; why take a chance? If the goal is simply to “move on,” well, slamming the wall and running 41st by being aggressive isn’t the way to do it.

Of those drivers expected to contend for the title, only Earnhardt, Jr. heads into the next round with a series of major question marks. The 12-driver field remaining is mostly what everyone expected: 100% Hendrick (four cars), 100% Penske (two cars), 100% Gibbs (three cars), and a sprinkling of “best of the rest.” (Harvick, Carl Edwards from Roush Fenway Racing and Ryan Newman from Richard Childress Racing, respectively). Unless you believe in Newman, who’s made it this far by top-10ing everyone to death, your Cinderella stories have all turned into a pumpkin rather quickly.

It was a day when Goliath beat David, the mammoth weight of simply “making it” to the next round beating down the racing at a track where the Goodyear tire compound has been off for years. Passing is impossible, then at a one-mile oval where the cars are just running too fast; running in place, to the point of boredom is the “new” Dover, with speeds far too close together. 40 of 43 cars finished the race, only one DNF was due to a wreck (Michael Annett) and bouts with the wall were so minimal, Dover could realistically have run all 400 miles caution free.

Sure, there was a bit of drama surrounding Kasey Kahne, a loose wheel and his fight to get back into “Chase contention.” His late climb, running down several drivers for position to scrape back up to 20th and inside the top 12 in points was some quality competition worth watching. But it also seemed to be the only thing worth paying attention to in a race that had just 10 lead changes, the fewest for any Dover race in five years. The fireworks just weren’t there; a race billed as “must watch” wound up driving fans to “must sleep” status.

After the race, I typed “NASCAR boring” on Twitter just to gauge a quick experiment on fan reaction. I saw nearly two dozen comments, fans frustrated over what they saw and urging the sport to make changes to the playoff system – or ditch it for good. I then put in “NASCAR exciting” and got… a grand total of about five comments. Some of those were actually tongue-in-cheek, making fun of the sport instead of praising it. A check once again, at press time saw a few more comments trickle in, although it’s notable a few of them were from “official” NASCAR-aligned personnel (like Team PR people, for example).

I can tell you one thing I never saw trending on Twitter all day, and that’s the AAA 400 or anything associated with Dover. The NFL, the Japanese volcano, Americans appeared to be interesting in just about anything else. The momentum, three races into the Chase, had fallen flat.

Perhaps the Russian Roulette wheel of the Chase’s second round, ending at Talladega will perk up interest and lead to a few big surprises. But so far, three races in, the favorites are still the favorites. They all start next week created equal, the points reset to 3,000 and there’s no real incentive to stand out from the pack… just simply survive, then conquer down the line.

Note “survive,” not entertain. And in a year with a new playoff format, designed to make the sport more entertaining the end result fizzled quickly into the type of single-file slogfest NASCAR’s been known for lately – not what anyone’s been aiming for.

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22 thoughts on “NASCAR’s Biggest Nightmare: Predictable”

  1. The real question people should be asking are why were those 4 drivers eligible for the championship to begin with. They all had crappy regular seasons and were only contenders by virtue of this goofy new playoff system. All that the first round of this stupid chase has confirmed is that these four didn’t belong in the chase to begin with.

    Very surprised that there weren’t more incidents on the track. Dover has definitely lost it’s bite. I really do think it may be the tires. Although it’s hard to tell with the way ESPN presents the race. You really need to be able to follow the entire field to see who is falling back or going forward on a 70 lap green flag run to gauge what effect tire wear is having and we viewers don’t get that kind of information. On the other hand, you never know what kind of race is going to unfold. No one expected New Hampshire to be that much of a demolition derby but it can go either way.

    • I wonder how much of Dover’s “lost bite” is actually a product of chase racing. A bad finish is likely fatal for those chasers on the bubble, and non-chasers don’t want to do anything too agressive and take out a chaser. I agree that the tires are likely a part of the problem, but not the only one.

      • Neither race at Dover (spring & fall) has been exciting for a number of years. Dover used to be a favorite of mine to watch (along with Richmond), and both have been dullsville the last few years.

    • I was at the race, Bill and about 55 laps into a run, Kez would start to back up – that’s when Gordon seemed able to catch him, so that was more than half of a fuel/tire run.

      Carl D, the lapped traffic presented the most challenge for the front of the pack all day. Catching and working their way through those cars was the only part that was interesting to watch. Harvick, Kez and Gordon seemed to have the best cars all day. KyBu and Johnson were “ok” but didn’t present much of a challenge during the day. I didn’t really see anyone just “riding” per se, it seemed more like what Tom said in his column, everyone at the same speed and it was just running in place.

      • I don’t believe that the problem is in any way the tracks, or even tires. Take 43 GENeric 6 cars and make them so aero sensitive that passing (racing) would be nearly impossible even if engines were not provided by fewer than a half dozen builders. This is the result. Now if we just could come up with a restrictor plate with a new name. That would be the ticket! PS: I gave myself a Frontstretch TimeOut because I thought I was getting too negative. Looks like I might need to send me back to my room.

      • I think the crappy racing is due to a few things . Hard tires because Goodyear is too afraid to have one blow and get bad PR . And 8 inch spoiler which sticks the cars too the track so tight you almost cant spoin them out if you tried . Even next yeart with a reduction to 6 inches is still too much . It needs to be 4 with a 60 degree angle IMO . The splitter on the front hits the track causing the car to become tight instead of loose . On top of all that they have designed the sides of the cars to promote a massive amount of side force on the right side so cars wont get loose when they are racing around each other , which in my opinion made the race way more exciting when a driver had to get up on the wheel to pass someone . Now its just follow the leader nonsense and coming froma 20+ year fan I just cant take much more .

  2. We went to Dover for the race, not because we expected excitement but because we already had the tickets in hand. Well, there was not a moment of excitement to be had – other than enjoying watching Gordon pass for the lead. I’m sorry I wasted my day and I won’t be going back. The past 5 years I’ve been bored out of my mind but it is a track that is a reasonable drive for us so it made sense, but after this, I want my Sunday back and that is that.

    The race, even at the track, where I could watch the entire field was absolutely dull, dull, dull and that is with MY favorite, Gordon, running well and finally winning the race.

    This “championship” format is so darn stupid, the only words I find to describe it are not ones I am willing to write down on a public forum. So, big whoop, Kez, Logano and Gordon won and what does that get them? Absolutely nothing as the advance to the next round equal to the people who just barely squeaked in.

    I have no idea why we Gordon fans are now supposed to be a “nation” , that’s another idiotic touch from whoever it is doing PR for NASCAR. They and Brian France, should worry more about putting on a good race and less about “format”.

    But wait, there will be more rule changes for 2015. Oh yeah, I’m sure they will help. No actually I’m sure they won’t because the person running the sport hasn’t got a clue.

  3. Dover isnt the only track that has lost it’s bite. Ive been going to Richmond since the early 90’s but this year was my last. The last 5 or 6 races there didnt deserve to be called races. A show car parade would be appropriate. I think the problem is a combination of several things. Tires, generic cars, and drivers who are points racing from day one. NASCAR is clearly broken. All one had to do was take a look at the empty grandstands at Dover yesterday. Elimination race? Ha!

  4. It was a pretty snoozy race. Poor camera coverage so you never got a fan-in-the-stand’s perspective. A bunch of tight shots on one or two cars for the most part.

    They really need to get rid of splitters and front valences. Just go back to the mechanical grip you get from the tires. Sure the speeds will drop some but the better handling cars will be able to pass. None of these aero-push parades that NASCAR tries to hype as entertainment.

  5. Why couldn.t they take the splitter off and a fixed size spoiler and be able to vary the angle of the spoiler like back in the good old days. Lower the compression ratio of the engines to educe speeds and longer engine life.

  6. The answer is simple, Put some clearance under the cars, that will eliminate the debri cautions, except for big ones, and it would allow for passing and re passing. Go watch videos of NASCAR in the 60’s, real wheel to wheel racing, David Pearson and Paul Goldsmith passed and re passed each other at least a dozen times in a stirring battle at Darlington in “66 and it was for 2nd. place!

    • Point taken, but unfortunately the ’60’s also saw a fair share of races with only one or two cars on the lead lap. In 1973, Richard Petty won Daytona by two laps.

      Fact is, most if not all of the cautions yesterday were unnecessary.

      • Why is it that even with all the parity in today’s Nascar, people still think the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s had better racing, even though there were only a few cars on the lead lap at the end of races?

  7. What was wrong with the racing on Sunday? Were there too many green-flag laps? Fans complain when NASCAR fixes the races by throwing a million debris cautions, but then when they let it run its course, fans complain that it’s boring. So what is that you want? It’s racing, cars are going to spread out over long green-flag runs. And as far as the cutoff drivers being predictable, isn’t that a good thing that none of the contenders who truly deserve to compete for the championship were knocked out in the first round?

    • There is one contender a LOT of people wouldn’t mind seeing get eliminated, and the sooner the better. But then Brian would probably change the rules again, because he can.

    • Brett, slowly put down your weekly NASCAR talking points. With your hands where I can see them, move slowly to your computer. Now with no sudden movements read the comments again. They are all very similar. Fans realize that every now and then someone will just get it right and blow away the field. It can even be interesting when it happens. What we dislike is cars that are inherently “pass challenged”. Remember the analogies portion of the SATs? Here’s one to help you better understand what fans want. Passing on pit road is to passing on the track what watching a 75 year old stripper is to watching a 25 year old stripper. Motor (and limber young ladies) Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

    • Well by virture of a “‘win” some are still in the “Chase”..the bottom feeders of the 12 remaining had a horrible season and DO NOT DESERVE to be in the “Chase”. A Talladega win from Hamlin? A win for Kahne, who interesting enough went right back to his normal 20-25 finishing position. The race was a snorefest. Clean air was the big winner. Let them race till Homestead. The points reset is a insult to the hard work the top 3 teams have accomplished. Just like today’s world with the lame thinking..’everybody has to be on a even play field’. Brian certainly subscribes to that liberal mentality. Trophies for all!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Have been saying for ever Start with the MFG (Toyota/Chev/Ford) & which ever one has the most OE down force that will be the start #…Then Add 10% to that # & thats your total down force & its all mechanical grip ..(wind drag is another issue tho) When there is no giant splitter (requiring air to get frt end stick) & no giant rear spoiler(making giant hole in the air to bring in the vortex) the vehicle will be less effected on its frt end grip & if your car is right & you can drve..You Could Pass & that would equal racing / entertainment. But no instead we’ll knock down the horse power (reduce aero dependancy & it will slow the cars down) to slow the cars down…Of course if you enter a corner slower you will ultmitely have a slower exit speed & that will equal a slower straightaway speed…& The last race of the year should be highest point total not best finish in one race..Jus 1 opinion..Earner

  9. The way the rules for “this” years musical chairs version of the ( cough) “Chase” are written, it would be possible (obviously not likely) but still — POSSIBLE, for a driver to win EVERY SINGLE RACE up until Homestead, ( all THIRTY FIVE races) , and then, finish SECOND at Homestead, to one of the other “anointed four”, and then, that driver, with THIRTY FIVE WINS, and a Second place finish, out of 36 races, — would NOT ——- “NOT” —- be the Champion !!!!
    Just THINK about that !!!!! Brian came up with this stupid idea, — and the lemmings around him, agreed it would guarantee a “true Champion” because — “WINNING COUNTS” !??????!!!!?!?!?!?

  10. I think ole Brian’s grand plan has had the opposite effect of his “Game 7 moments”. Drivers are more likely to play it safe than try anything crazy, if Dover is any indication, and this is going to lead to boring racing for the rest of the Chase, especially the last races of each round. At homestead, I’m sure the champion will be content to finish 25th, if it allows him to win the championship. Not much of a Game 7 moment I’m afraid.

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