NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Things You Might Have Missed Amid the Chase Hype

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

2014 Texas II CUP Jeff Gordon Brad Keselowski postrace brawl CIA

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

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Was there a double-standard with the penalties this season? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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?

 

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Jim

Great article I have been watching since 1985 when Bill Elliott won 11 super speedway races dominated and embarrassed the competition and lost the Championship to Darrel Waltrip who won 3 races. No one back then cared about the championship. You wanted to win the most races and the big ones, Daytona, Charlotte, Darlington Talladega. That is why David Pearson and Cale only ran the big races. Only when Earnhardt started getting close to Petty 7 titles did any one talk about. As for crewman jumping in afterwards scuffling is one thing but once crewman start throwing punches and landed must be suspended. Period . Just put in the rule book under your penalty section a crew member who throws a punch 15 races, $100.000 fine, car owner $500,000 Crew chief 10 races $300, 000. See how quick they not such tough guys . Especially when there in a gang. I like the emotion and can appreciate the pushing shoving , we keep this crew garbage up every other week is it Jerry springer. We will so how tough these drivers are if they knew there crew couldn’t jump in. You know for sure Harvick would shut his mouth he is the biggest woose there is. Let the drivers handle it push shove wreck each other on the race track there for you can cost your car owner money and your crew longer hours repairing cars But can you Blame Brian France for having to create this . These guys have been riding around for the last 10 years or so getting fat and rich not trying to win. amazing how the drivers told us before how hard they where driving. Humpy wheeler said earlier this year the day of the silver spoon driver will be over in about 5 years with this you must win format. Love it

Brian

Yep pretty much the racing has suffered as the end all be all is now the season championship instead of the races themselves.
I think Kulwicki won more in race purse than championship in 1992 and pretty sure Elliot won more money that Waltrip got in 85.

I think part of this truly happened as ESPN grew and brought a stick and ball sport championship mentality to NASCAR racing.

JohnQ

Serious question. When was the last time NASCAR handed out anything other than a show penalty? I can’t remember anything they’ve done that has had a real “don’t do that again” deterent effect. The non sanctioning body seems all smoke an no flame to me.

Brian

I think the penalties after Richmond (2) 2013 to the Waltrip teams did serve this notice. Waltrip actually lost a high end sponsor and had to reduce the team size to 2 teams. Even with this stupidest yet, form of the Chase it appears that the teams are either a) not manipulating the results and allowing NASCAR’s own stupidity take care of that on its own, or B) are a whole lot better at disguising any shenanigans that manipulate the race results.

Russ

Waltrip lost a sponsor because they didn’t think it would become public knowledge. Then they couldn’t find another company willing to spend the same amount of money.They realize now that there is no such thing as secure radio, or even cell phone traffic.
Do you not consider Logano’s move at the end of the Talladega race manipulating the outcome?

Dennis

Surprised Harvick got away scot free. I don’t think that brawl would have happened otherwise. I see some crew members got suspended for 6 races. I don’t think that’s nearly enough. A 12 month suspension would probably stop this. Don’t think 6 will do that. Drivers throwing punches at each other is one thing. Crew members hitting drivers is something completely different. I’d also like to know what the crew member for Kasey Kahne was doing there.

Brian

Yeah the no penalty on Harvick was the biggest shocker of this situation. He was not directly involved in the on track altercation, actually benefitted from the ensuing restart and has caused his own share of issues amongst drivers in the past.
On another site one of the things that was brought up was the perception or reality that Keselowski seemed to “blow off” Gordon’s yelling at him. He did come off a little aloof. One can’t but wonder if he interacted (conversed) with Gordon about the on track incident if the whole thing does not happen.

Flip side is Gordon’s crew needed to realize that Jeff was more at fault and tried harder to let Gordon cool off and then confront Keselowski later. The one crewman from Kahne team needed a longer suspension as that was completely bushleague behavior on his part. Sucker punching someone from behind has no place in any sport.

Bill B

#1 – I’d rather have a boring, honest race than one being manipulated to create manufactured excitement. At the end of the day I may say that it was a boring race but that is just stating a fact and not to imply disdain (I can say the same about other sports on any given day).

#4 – I agree. Too much emphasis on the championship. I’ve said it before as have others, take 90% of the championship money, divide it by 36, and add that to the payout for winning a race.

#5 – I think it’s pretty obvious that NASCAR has been unwilling to penalize a chase contender. In other sports this is called “swallowing the whistle” and it is quite prevalent in both the NFL and NHL from what I have seen (maybe other sports as well, but I don’t watch them so can’t make that statement). Maybe that a good thing and maybe it isn’t, but it’s a fact.

Bill B

I left out the part about where “swallowing the whistle” only comes during playoff time, not during the regular season.

salb

It’s not the fans who are talking about the championship from race 1, it’s the media. Every race now is put in the context of how it may affect the title hopes of a team. De-emphasizing the importance of winning a race as opposed to winning a lottery style title has hurt the sport. It’s like the whole kerfuffle about Kenseth winning a title with one win…again, it was the media who started that bandwagon, not the fans. This whole ‘chase’ scenario in all it’s iterations has been a disaster. But, if all you want is publicity and not an improved product, I guess it’s working?

Brian

Well put. Well put.

GinaV24

Well said!

Carl D.

Three other things you may have missed amid the chase hype:

#7 There are 27 other drivers still racing besides the initial 16 that made the chase. 26 of those are not named Kyle Larson.

#8 For the “shippers”… In the eight races run since the start of the chase, both Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse each have 4 top 20’s, no top 10’s and no wins. Danica’s best finish was 16th at Kansas and Ricky’s best finishg was 15th at Martinsville. This is a racing couple meant for each other.

#10 Michael Waltrip was eliminated from “Dancing with the Stars”. Waltrip continues to find new endeavors that highlight his mediocrity. That’s three and counting.

John C.

#11 SHR did a driver swap with Danica and Kurt to find out if it’s the driver or the team. I think we found that answer. No way Danica runs up front all night like Kurt did if she had her team back. One more nail in the coffin. Now it’s time to dig the hole.

Russ

you know that isn’t going to happen as long as the checks keep coming in regularly. Gotta think Stenhouse is as big a failure as she is.

GinaV24

Agree, Danica in the car is all about $ and publicity, not what she actually does on the track. Stenhouse looked decent in Nationwide but sure hasn’t lived up to that potential in the 17 car, but then again he is racing for Roush and that organization is not what it was. Kenseth made the right move in leaving.

Russ

Goes back to the age old question, how much is the driver, how much is the car? As spectators we can only guess, but both of these (maybe throw Kasey Kahne in as well) seem to be under performing.

rascalmanny

Just when I think Nascar can’t become even more of a joke, they prove me wrong. In that regard they really are amazing.

But hey, their bellies and bank accounts are full.

GinaV24

NASCAR is translucent at best? Ha, I don’t think so. Brian France is getting exactly what he wanted, the media talking about the sport, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

You are very right about the racing not having changed, but when the last 10 laps or a post-race fight occurs, most people forget that 95% of the race was sleep inducing.

Harvick, who deliberately touched off the brawl, gets nothing? He should have been fined for instigating, but wait, there isn’t a real rule against that is there? Although NASCAR uses actions deterimental as their catch all penalty.

Winning is the main goal? Not really, the relative positions of Hamlin, Kenseth & Newman in the “chase” prove that it is not all that important, just do enough to get in and stay consistent. Of course avoiding “other people’s problems” is also important. Ugh.

buggy

The chase and the france family moneygrab

FACTS:

the final chase racetrack, homestead, owned by france family
the 3rd round final racetrack, pheonix, also france owned
the 2nd round final racetrack, talladega, also france owned
last race to get in the chase, richmoned, also france owned

France family make mo money.

Old Farmer

Who does JG think he is? He leaves a hole big enough for a semi to drive through, then drops and side-slams BK for going through the hole, then starts a fight in the pits. Hendrick drivers apparently can get away with anything, including KK, who stayed on the track after wrecking about a hundred times and causing the last caution. Little Jeffy should have kept his mouth shut, and KK should have been in the garage. That would have solved last weekend’s problems.

Bill B

Yeah, you never see any driver stay out there driving around in a wrecked car and causing multiple cautions. It’s only the HMS drivers that do that.
Nice objectivity.

Old Farmer

Thanks, happy you understand. In all seriousness, KK caused a lot of trouble on the track Sunday.

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