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 ‘s got a few things you might have missed as the media have turned full attention on the Chase.
1. The racing itself hasn’t changed much
Despite the smoke and mirrors of postrace drama and eliminations, the on-track product hasn’t changed much in 2014. There have been some really good races and some clunkers…just like every year. The string of different winners to open the season wasn’t really much different than any other year, and neither were the couple of surprise winners we saw. The rules changes at the beginning of the year made for a revolving door of teams at the top as someone would find something and then someone else would find something more. Passing is still at a premium in NASCAR. Clean air and aerodynamic dependence still trump much of the drivers’ skills. NASCAR’s heavy-handedness with the yellow flag in the Cup Series changed the landscape in some races, and fans didn’t buy it.
NASCAR would like everyone to think the racing is a thrill a minute, but it really hasn’t been. There were a couple of outliers—New Hampshire in September was a wreckfest, but it’s hard to say that happened because of the Chase. Talladega and Martinsville were…well, Talladega and Martinsville. Texas was a snoozer until the final laps. The postrace fireworks at Charlotte and Texas make it seem like the races were more exciting than they were, but it just doesn’t play out. Yes, some drivers have made desperation plays, but there has also been plenty of points racing. The format itself may be novel, but the racing hasn’t really changed that much. The emphasis on drama makes it seem as though there’s been excitement at every turn, but that doesn’t really hold up under closer scrutiny.
2. One of the drivers tied for the Chase lead is just 17th in points earned in 2014
There’s been a lot of talk surrounding Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth as championship contenders despite not having a race win in 2014, but another piece of the puzzle that’s gone largely unnoticed is that Denny Hamlin, who’s currently tied for the points lead with Joey Logano, is just 17th in season-long points earned. Without virtue of NASCAR’s resets, Hamlin would be long since eliminated from contention sitting behind, among others, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, and Austin Dillon, none of whom made the Chase. Others who benefitted from the win-and-in format include Kasey Kahne, who’s 16th in full-season points and Kurt Busch, who’s 20th. Sure, you can say they’d have raced differently under a full-season format, but to race differently enough to be legit contenders? It just wasn’t their year. And that’s ok. Would fans accept Hamlin as champion? That remains to be seen, if it should happen.
For the record, winless Chasers Newman and Kenseth are sixth and seventh, respectively, on points earned all year. Both would also have been eliminated from contention.
3. But he’s king of the road on the restrictor-plate tracks
Depending on whom you ask, restrictor-plate racing is either a skill that some drivers have more of than others, or a complete crapshoot where luck alone determines a driver’s fate. The truth is somewhere in the middle—some drivers are better at it than others for sure, but luck does sometimes play a role in who finishes unscathed vs. who gets caught in a crash. Still, the cream rises to the top over time, and the cream of this year’s crop might be surprising. Of the drivers who competed in all four plate races in 2014, Hamlin had, by far, the best average finish at 6.75, making him one of just two drivers who averaged a top-10 finish at the two superspeedways. Hamlin’s Talladega win in the spring got him into the Chase, but he had two stellar runs at Daytona as well, finishing second in the Daytona 500 and sixth in the summer race. He finished 18th at Talladega this fall, but his overall average is still tops.
The other driver with a top-10 average? Germain Racing driver Casey Mears, who finished outside the top 10 just once on a plate track this year, coming home 14th at Talladega in the spring but finishing 10th in the Daytona 500 and the fall Talladega race and fourth at Daytona in July. After Mears, Austin Dillon (10.5), Marcos Ambrose (13.75) and Brian Vickers (14) have the best superspeedway averages of 2014. Remember Landon Cassill’s top-5 run at Talladega? It wasn’t exactly a freak result—Cassill falls seventh on the list with three top 12 finishes. It’s not a particularly important statistic in the overall scheme of things, but it is an interesting one, and it reminds us that things aren’t always as cut-and-dried as they seem.
4. Winning is a still the main goal
The Chase didn’t change that. It made some wins perhaps more meaningful in terms of the season as a whole, but it didn’t change that nothing feels like a win to a driver. For their teams and sponsors, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger making the Chase might have been number one, but for the drivers, getting their first wins was special no matter what else they did this year. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s emotional win at Martinsville a couple of weeks ago didn’t mean less because he wasn’t in title contention. Neither did Jimmie Johnson’s Texas victoy. If anything, they may have meant more to two drivers out to prove they’re better than the Chase says they are.
What has changed is the emphasis put on the championship by NASCAR and much of the media. At your local short track, most guys don’t care about the track championship; they just want to pull in as many race wins as they can. Really, that’s what the Cup teams want, too, but the money a title brings means pressure from owners and sponsors to do what it takes to win it, even if it means points racing some weeks, or testing something for the Chase during others. Fans now think championship almost from the green flag at Daytona, whether they want to or not, because it’s what they’re told is important. But take all that away, and what’s left is teams and drivers who want to win races. Find a way to put the emphasis on winning individual races and make the title an afterthought, and the racing would improve week-to-week in a way that no championship format can try to force.
5. NASCAR is still translucent at best
When NASCAR came up with a structured penalty system for 2014, it seemed like the sanctioning body was finally conceding that transparency and consistency
were important. The problem was, NASCAR could still assign penalty levels at will, and there’s still little consistency in how they do things. Look at how NASCAR has handled three separate post-race confrontations as an example.
After the Richmond race in May, Marcos Ambrose punched Casey Mears in the face after Mears grabbed him by the arm in the garage. NASCAR fined both drivers (with Ambrose getting a heftier one) and placed them on probation for a few weeks. Ok, so grabbing a guy is wrong and punching him is really wrong. Seems like that’s the message NASCAR was sending.
But then came Charlotte, where no punches were thrown (or at least connected) but Matt Kenseth jumped Brad Keselowski from behind and attempted to put him in a headlock after the race. OK, grabbing a guy and instigating a fight was a $25,000 fine and probation, right? Not anymore. Kenseth wasn’t penalized at all. Ok, so grabbing a guy is wrong unless you’re a championship contender and then it’s ok because it’s the Chase and all? Sounds a little arbitrary, but whatever.
And then Texas happened, and while neither Jeff Gordon nor Brad Keselowski landed a punch, Gordon did grab Keselowski, who reacted by getting in Gordon’s face. Both teams came to the defense of their driver, along with a random guy from Kasey Kahne’s team who apparently wanted some of the action. Both Keselowski and Gordon came away with bloodied lips. NASCAR fined a few guys from Gordon’s team and that random Kahne crewman to the tune of $25,000. That’s the same as Mears got for grabbing Ambrose’s arm and half of what Ambrose got for his punch. But crewmen make less, so…but the crewmen were suspended for three races, meaning they can’t return until after the Daytona 500 next year. Crew chiefs Alan Gustafson and Kenny Francis were also fined for failing to control their crews, which has been standard. But what about Paul Wolfe? No matter who instigated the fight, Gordon got his bloody lip from someone…so why wasn’t the No. 2 team penalized for their role? Ok, so now it’s a penalty if you instigate a fight as long as you’re not a Chase driver, but it’s ok if you’re in the Chase. It’s also ok to rough up another team’s driver if he comes up to your driver after a race but not if your driver is the one confronting the other driver. Throwing a punch is always bad, but if you’re a crewman it’s punishable by suspension, while if you’re a driver, it’s a slap on the wrist and a “Way to go!” behind closed doors. Got all that? Clear as mud, right?
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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