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 NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five questions that there are no clear answers to this year.
1. What does winning mean, really?
That’s become the million-dollar question as the new Chase format is put to the test. With three races left to decide the season champion, two of the top 4 in driver points have zero wins between them. Ryan Newman, who’s currently second, has the same number of top-5 finishes as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who is not in title contention, has race wins this season. In January, when NASCAR announced the new points format, the sanctioning body was adamant that winning would be everything. But so far, it hasn’t exactly played out that way. There was some press given to the number of different winners to start the season, but in reality that wasn’t an unusual number by any stretch. There were a couple of unexpected winners, and that’s always good for the sport.
The other part of the question is whether fans would truly embrace a winless champion. Based on a lot of social media postings out there, a large number of fans are pulling for either Newman or Matt Kenseth to win the title, some admittedly because it would show the flaws in NASCAR’s controversial system. But, to be fair, there were fan complaints before the Chase format was devised who didn’t like that a driver with one win could win the title over a driver with several more. It could go either way, and that makes it harder to diagnose any flaws in the system.
2. Why are ratings are still falling?
This trend is puzzling and alarming. On paper, the season has been everything race fans should hope for. With the possible exception of the title format looming over the races, the season has been pretty good. Certainly some of the races have been stellar, including this past weekend’s show at Martinsville Speedway.
Yet fewer and fewer people are watching. Of the seven Chase races so far, only two, New Hampshire and Chicago, have seen a ratings increase, and Chicago’s increase may be attributable to a rainout in 2013 rather than attracting new viewers. Martinsville numbers weren’t out as of Tuesday, so there’s an opportunity for another boost as well, but overall, the numbers are dismal.
And while some of that can be attributed to NASCAR being a trend a decade ago from which many have moved on, can all of it be placed on the shoulders of those jumping onto the next bandwagon rolling by? Maybe. But maybe there’s more to it, and that’s something that needs to be answered not just in the interest of the fans who remain loyal, but to the sanctioning body and its sponsorship partners as well as teams and their sponsors. For those sponsors to remain involved, there needs to be a return on investment, and for that to happen, people have to watch.
3. Has the guard changed?
This question is a tough one to answer. Certainly, a couple of drivers who’ve been in the championship picture as recently as last year have seen a noticeable drop-off in performance. Jimmie Johnson has been barely mediocre in the Chase, despite winning the title last year and having three wins on the season. Tony Stewart, the 2011 champ, hasn’t won at all this year. Neither Stewart nor Johnson is getting any younger, and neither looked like they could figure out the cars this year in any consistent manner. Meanwhile, Joey Logano has finally arrived and a few other younger drivers have made a splash.
On the other hand, Jeff Gordon is having a resurgence at Stewart’s age and Johnson’s shopmate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is contending at a year older than Johnson. Team Penske has emerged as Ford’s top team; of that there is little doubt. Hendrick Motorsports is still Chevy’s flagship, but they have slipped a little this year. Is it the cars? The Chase? Or is Penske poised to be the new dynasty? With more new rules just around the corner for 2015, this question is one that can’t be answered yet but should still be on everyone’s radar.
4. Are seven titles or 105 wins attainable in today’s NASCAR?
Well, the answer a year ago is not the same as it is today. When Jimmie Johnson won his sixth title last year, seven seemed easily within reach. But as badly as Johnson has stumbled in 2014, it’s suddenly not simply a matter of time. Johnson will have to prove himself all over again to win a seventh and tie the record currently held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, two of the sport’s biggest legends. Johnson’s good; there should be no questions surrounding his talent anymore, but is he that good? That’s something that won’t be answered for at least another year.
On the other hand, David Pearson‘s mark of 105 Cup race wins, second all-time, seemed like it might be safe forever. In today’s ultra-competitive NASCAR, that number of wins looked unattainable. Johnson isn’t close enough to be a threat, and Jeff Gordon seemed to have fizzled. Then came 2014 and the rekindling of Gordon. His four wins this season put him at a career total of 92. 13 more could be a stretch, but suddenly, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Gordon is already third on the all-time wins list.
This conversation does come with a little twist. If you’re among those who believe that the non-chase standings would stand in other years (and that’s debatable), then Gordon, not Johnson, would be staring down that seventh championship in 2014, and he’d have a 42-point lead with three races left.
5. How healthy are the Nationwide and Truck series, really?
Well… ratings and attendance aren’t pretty. But that’s in comparison to Sprint Cup to some extent, and that’s an unfair comparison. AAA baseball games don’t draw the same crowd as a big league game, and it’s not realistic to expect Nationwide or Trucks to stand up to Sprint Cup. So those comparisons are misleading.
But the series aren’t exactly growing either. NASCAR announced cuts to the Truck Series field next year because it simply is not getting 36 trucks most weeks. Martinsville was an exception, but for the most part, that series is struggling to attract new entrants. Nationwide is faring better in that department, but it’s hard to ignore the fans’ rumblings over the Sprint Cup drivers winning many of the series’ races in top-level equipment.
On the other hand, there are some talented drivers in both series right now, and more are just getting their feet wet until they’re old enough to run a full schedule. Last weekend’s Truck race at Martinsville featured 18 rookie drivers and some of them were impressive. Chase Elliott is beating the socks off some of the Cup drivers at times in the Nationwide Series, so there’s a lot to look forward to. Perhaps the answer lies in rebranding those series into something more autonomous… but it can’t be said that they’re on life support, either. At least not yet.
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