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. Now that the 2014 version of the Chase is on the books, let’s analyze the format: what worked, what didn’t, and should there be any changes for 2015 and beyond.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Like it or not, the 2014 Chase format was a winner. The drama and trauma put NASCAR back atop the sports pages, and most of the Chase events led to water cooler talk come Monday. The elimination-style system seemed to motivate and infuriate teams, and the bracket-based structure seemed popular with fans. Homestead provided Brian France with the “Game Seven” moment he’s been craving for years, and all parties involved have to be happy about the increase in both ticket sales and TV ratings. The “three-and-out” approach to culling the field likely cost NASCAR even more attention (and cash) when the Holy Trinity (Johnson, Gordon, and Junior) were rendered irrelevant by the final race. As for changes, here’s a thought: to eliminate the chance that a winless driver actually take the championship, change the rules so that only drivers who win races during the first 26 events move on to the Chase. You may only have eight or nine teams running for the title come Race 27, but at least they’re winners, and not purely strategists who’ve learned to beat the system.
Ashley McCubbin, Contributing Writer: The Chase format did what NASCAR intended – brought forth a dramatic end to the season, and some drama along the way with each elimination round. So obviously it did what they wanted, right? The problem is that they made some fans mad in the process due to not crowning a traditional champion. Stock car racing has always been separate from stick and ball sports in that all champions are crowned on season long basis. So while Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon had the best seasons among competitors, only one of the three had a shot. Is that the fairest way? In trying to keep the balance for having a dramatic conclusion to the year while pleasing the old adage ways of crowning a champion, the Chase qualification rules that were used this year should be instilled for future seasons –win and you’re in, points fill final spots. Then reset with 10 races to go and leave it with no more resets. It’s the balances the goal of winning, and the proper crowning of a champion.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: The sense of urgency in some of the Chase races was exciting to see. What NASCAR needs to do is find a way to ensure that same desire to win in all 36 races. There was drama, all right, but it was manufactured drama. Of course you’re going to have a tight points race if you reset the points every couple of weeks and hand gusy points they didn’t earn. It’s hard to call someone who did not earn the most points in 2014, who was actually fifth in that category, and who would have been eliminated a week earlier based on what was actually earned, a true champion. Perhaps it’s time to break out an asterisk for the Chase title winners. NASCAR won’t recognize the achievement of the driver who earned the most points in any way, shape, or form…so does it matter what they do with the format next year? All it will be is more smoke and mirrors.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The popular refrain has been that this year’s Chase was an unqualified success and that it worked. Judging by fan comments and reaction, the message gets a bit muddled. A quick peek at the ratings over the past three seasons shows that overall ratings were down to flat against last year, and down significantly from 2011. The final few races did see an uptick in viewership, no doubt fueled by the lip-bloodying mayhem on pit road at Texas. What doesn’t work is a driver with one top 5 heading into the Chase qualifying as “Championship” material. I understand that we have scored points differently throughout the years, even at one point using prize money as a metric. Whatever the case, consistent performance has always been the mark of a champion in any form of motorsports. The new mantra of win at all costs to the point where guys are throwing punches on pit road serves a short-term gain, but in the end sets us back 30 years and makes everyone look like the stereotypical hillbilly that NASCAR fought for so long to overcome. Is it exciting? Sure it is. But so is getting shot at or being chased by a bear. It doesn’t mean it’s something that promotes long-term survival in either case; as this is the system we’ll have in place for the foreseeable future, let’s give it a few years to mature to see how things play out.
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: No problem with the round by round aspect, if that’s what NASCAR wants to do, because it helped create interesting moments. But the organization still needs to create a separate points system for the Chase drivers as related to the rest of the field.
2. Kevin Harvick has now scored a Sprint Cup championship. Add that to his resume that includes two Nationwide Series titles, a K&N West championship, and Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins… and is Harvick a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame?
Mark: Kevin Harvick’s career accomplishments make him a lock for the Hall of Fame, but so should his rise to Cup competition: the fact that he assumed the seat vacated following Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. One week after Earnhardt was killed, here’s a young (and stunned?) Harvick climbing into the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet at Rockingham. Two weeks after that, he’s drag racing Jeff Gordon down the frontstretch and visiting Victory Lane at Atlanta. The story sounds like the plot of a movie, but it’s what steered Kevin Harvick toward the pinnacle of the sport where he stands today. He’ll likely be a first ballot selection.
Amy: Since the standards for the Hall are already on the low side (Dale Jarrett? Really?), Harvick will probably be enshrined when all is said and done. Right now, he has just 28 Cup wins, not really Hall of Fame numbers, but he’ll pad that number at least to Jarrett’s level in the next few years. He has an outside shot at 40+ wins, at which point, he’ll be truly worthy as a Cup driver. The second-tier titles are pretty meaningless since Harvick was already a Cup regular in superior equipment when he won them, but he’s also made some solid contributions as an owner. Right now, he’s borderline, but if he gets to 40 wins, he’s deserving.
Vito: He has the stats for sure to back it up. A Daytona 500 and a Championship are virtual locks to get anyone in.
Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: Harvick can go ahead and get his induction speech ready. He’s won a cup series title, 2 Xfinity titles, Won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Southern 500, and Coke 600. Mighty stellar resume.
Huston: Done deal. Daytona 500 win. Brickyard win. Championship. Two Busch/Nationwide/Grand National/Xfinity title wins. That resume’ will get him in.
3. Entering the off-season, NASCAR has implemented some rule changes for 2015, but implemented a testing ban for teams. Will the test ban make the competition closer as teams figure out the new package?
Mark: The test ban will help the “have nots” keep pace with the “haves” a bit better, although the playing field will remain far from level. If no one can test, than no one can log laps trying innovative ideas. Sure, the mega teams will have their engineers and computer folks burning the midnight oil, and that luxury will keep the smaller players behind the curve, but banning testing should tighten the competition next season. Expect practice sessions to take on a whole new meaning. If I were a car owner, I’d be asking my sponsors to film television commercials of my car on the track (think Jimmy Johns and their “freaky fast delivery” motto); while cameras capture footage of my car at high speed, my engineers would be capturing data and trying out new developments. It’s only cheating if you get caught.
Ashley: The test ban will only make the gap between competitive and not competitive wider. Some teams, like the HMS/SHR alliance, have more people focused on discovering what is needed, versus some of the smaller organizations. If someone is able to hit on it through off-season research or trial and error early in the year, they will grab a quick advantage and separate themselves from the others. In contrast, if testing was allowed, you could see teams practice and work at improving to close the gap, as witnessed by Joe Gibbs Racing getting stronger throughout the year this past season.
Justin: Even though there is a testing ban for 2015. I fully expect Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart Haas Racing to be far ahead of the curve simply because of their people and resources compared to other teams. It is going to take awhile for the other teams to get caught up.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributing Writer: The testing ban is going to make the bigger teams have an edge. Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports arguably had the best cars throughout the year. The ban should help some of the teams that were struggling, such as Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, who has obvious weak points at intermediate tracks throughout the year. The underfunded teams are always going to be a few tenths off of the ones with multi-million dollar sponsors, but the testing ban should help them since they can’t afford to test much to begin with.
Huston: Ha. The teams with the money have already had their dynos, programs, and engineers working on this one. The teams with less money won’t have the resources to compete in the same regard. This situation will just illustrate the gap between the rich and the poor – ya know, like the 1% and everyone else. Run amok capitalism.
4. 2015 also marks the beginning of NASCAR’s new television contract with FOX and NBC. What should fans expect…and what should be different from what they’re seeing now?
Mark: You say “tomato” and I say “tom-ah-to”…. The network switch will result in more of the same coverage we’ve come to love/loathe in NASCAR. Didn’t we say our tearful good-byes to ESPN a few years ago? Call me a cynic, but TV deals are more about profits and personalities than they are about providing the kind of coverage fans really need (not want, but need). Last weekend’s coverage of Homestead made me think there were only four cars in the race; the other 39 were reduced to rush hour traffic getting in the way. I like NBC’s seemingly new dedication to motorsports, but I fear NASCAR might get shoved into the network’s cable hinterlands, especially as the afterglow of this year’s Chase fades into the doldrums of 2015.
Ashley: FOX’s coverage looks to be the same – same group of people, same babbles from Darrell Waltrip and Larry MacReynolds that have either been applauded by or angered fans in the past. Hopefully the new year will bring better coverage for Canadian fans. SPEED turning into FOX Sports 1 left many Canadian fans missing truck races throughout the second half of the year due to no coverage, with the Canadian Broadcast Council not accepting FOX Sports 1 due to it being an American network and because of competition with their key networks. One can only hope that TSN (The Sports Network), Canada’s lead sports broadcast channel, gets a contract in place to show the truck races, as they already show Nationwide and Cup. Moving forward to NBC, they seem to be putting the right people in place and taking a good approach in forming the best broadcast team possible.
Amy: Unfortunately, fans can probably expect more of the same: tight camera angles focusing on one or two cars, broadcasts focusing on the leaders and a few predetermined drivers, little mention of anyone else, lots of commercials to pay for it all. That means fans won’t see a lot of close battles on track because the cameras will be on the guy leading by three seconds with no challenge. NBC has a great cast, but unless they take a totally new approach in broadcasting races, what you will actually see on the screen is probably about the same.
Vito: I’m looking forward to NBC’s coverage with some new voices and blood in the booth with Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte on hand. It will be interesting to hear from a driver and crew chief with relevant experience and exposure at a competition level. Not to disparage the familiar faces on FOX, but much has changed since the late 90’s and early 2000s — a fresh perspective and insight from behind the wheel and atop the pit box will be welcomed.
Justin: Really looking forward to NBC’s coverage with Rick Allen, Steve Letarte, and Jeff Burton. Not only do they offer a fresh perspective for race fans it will be nice to hear more voices with on track experience. I would like to see FOX and NBC offer more non-stop coverage to allow race fans not to miss a moment while on commercials.
Joseph: NBC is really going to be a great addition to the NASCAR world. They already started up their NASCAR coverage with “NASCAR America.” Expect to see a lot of digital platforms from NBC with apps for smart phones, and maybe even the possibility of live streaming events. Ratings have declined with people being able to watch races online with Race Buddy, Race View and Twitter.
Huston: Some half and half. FOX will barely change — and that’s for the worse. NBC may be the hope here. They’ve become, in many ways, Speed Pt. 2. They’re covering F1. They’re covering IndyCar. They seem like, holy crap, they care about motorsports. With Jeff Burton, Steve Latarte, and what constitutes much of the old Speed crew, the may actually present some good stuff. Or that may just be a fingers crossed attitude.
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
Ford EcoBoost 400
|Amy Henderson||Jimmie Johnson||9th||1|
|Phil Allaway||Brad Keselowski||3rd||3|
|Vito Pugliese||Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||14th||0|
|Joseph Wolkin||Kyle Larson||13th||0|
|Mark Howell||Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||14th||0|
|Huston Ladner||Jeff Gordon||10th||1|
|Mike Neff||Jeff Gordon||10th||1|
2014 Final Standings
|Writer||Points||Behind||Starts||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
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