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. NASCAR announced this week that Sprint will not return as title sponsor for its premier series after the 2016 season. Who could be in line to replace Sprint, and could there be major changes in store for race teams and fans in a couple of years?
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: I’m not sure who’s in line to take over that sponsorship—it’s not going to come with a small price tag. As for changes, it will depend on what happens in the series in the next few years. If ratings stay stagnant or fall, it’s a possibility that it could mean the end of the Chase, especially if a large number of fans remain adamant about their dislike of the system. Whether that means a return to a more traditional tally or a new playoff system is a toss-up at this point. If they increase (or possibly if they remain stable), things will likely stay pretty similar to what you see today.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: It will be interesting to see who steps up to be the next sponsor. I guess you would have to make the big corporations such as Verzion, AT&T, Pepsi, Coke, or someone like that. It would be interesting if it turns out to be Disney since ESPN/ABC won’t be showing the races any longer. If it is hard to find a deal for the kind of money that NASCAR wants, it could lead to some changes for fans and especially teams. Maybe NASCAR will have to incorporate more cost-cutting measures. Maybe fans can actually get internet service at races after 2015, which could be a big boost to the sport in the world of social media.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Verizon would be a logical choice, and as many in social media have joked, at least you might get service at the track now. While NEXTEL and Sprint never seemed to have the same cache or ring to it that Winston Cup had, the next sponsor will have some work to do with trying to bridge the past that and memories of old that Winston still carries among long-time fans. It will need to be a company with deep pockets, and in today’s economy that kind of narrows it down between banks, brews and telecommunications company. The Facebook Cup or Twitter Grand National Series probably won’t work — hopefully it’s at least something with a cool name.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: While it’s sad to see Sprint leaving the sport in two years, it also seems quite expected; the company has been undergoing a state of evolution recently and being saddled with the premier division in American motorsports has likely not been painless from a financial standpoint. That said: whoever steps in to take the title reins will need to be in solid economic shape. One thing about Sprint is that the company brought connectivity to the racetrack; adding cell towers and encouraging smartphone usage gave NASCAR Nation a new lease on racing — going to an event meant not going away from the access fans knew, loved, and expected. The company that takes over must strive to be family-friendly (which R.J. Reynolds wasn’t), relevant to today’s culture (which R.J. Reynolds wasn’t, in the later years), and willing to try innovative public relations initiatives. As the economy grows, so will the roster of possible players.
Huston Ladner, Assistant Editor: No idea who could take over from Sprint. It’s a tough role to fill as the sponsor will have to form bridges amongst a number of different factors — technology, young fans, older fans, the ability to have a sustained and meaningful marketing platform — and those are just to name a few. Google has enough money to do whatever they want but it’s doubtful that they’d have any interest, as noted by the fact that they’ve yet to have any presence. The big aspect is hoping that whoever signs on doesn’t inhibit other sponsors from being involved at the track as Sprint’s exclusivity deal did to other cell providers.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: With the sheer expense that would be involved in being the title sponsor for the current Sprint Cup Series, it serves as a significant limiting factor. My best guess is that, similar to the soon-to-be Xfinity Series, NASCAR won’t be able to get as much money for the rights, which in turn would lead to lower purses at races. As for who might want in, it’s anyone’s guess. The list of companies that can afford a near nine-figure outlay each year (including activation) is not very long. I feel like a company like Bank of America might want in. They’re big in Charlotte (headquarters of most of the teams), have a large amount of money and could afford it.
2. Joe Gibbs Racing recently announced a shakeup of its driver-crew chief combinations for 2015. Were the moves necessary, who will reap the biggest benefit from the changes, and will any team be hurt by a change in chemistry?
Amy: Chemistry is a funny thing. One driver may thrive with a certain crew chief while another might never quite click. On the other hand, JGR did need a shakeup, because they were falling short for much of the 2014 season. While Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff remain together and may get a quicker start, all three new pairings have potential. The biggest gain might be by Carl Edwards, because Darian Grubb has won with every driver he’s worked with on a full-time basis (Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Casey Mears) as well as with Jimmie Johnson as an interim. But Dave Rogers, who will replace Grubb with Hamlin, is no slouch, and you can’t argue Kyle Busch‘s success with Adam Stevens in the Xfinity Series with 19 wins in two seasons. If all three teams can make the chemistry come together, 2015 is looking good at JGR.
Jeff: I would say Kyle Busch has the chance to reap the most benefit. He has had such success in the Nationwide/Xfinity series with Adam Stevens. But things generally went so well with the Nationwide ride, that even when they didn’t, Busch could be a little more patient. But now, with the Sprint Cup ride, their relationship will be tested. Busch is still lacking the championship he wants and if he has a series of bad races where the setup is not just perfect, how will he react with Stevens. But with all the success in that second series, you would think that Busch will have some confidence in Stevens to figure out the right setups and strategies when things aren’t going well.
Vito: Since none of them have won a Championship since Tony Stewart left to start his own team six years ago (and win another championship), absolutely. Kyle Busch is starting to wear the moniker of being a really good Truck and Xfinity Series driver, but not really a championship threat. Denny Hamlin went down to the last race this year with a shot to win the title, but was a non-factor much of the season. Keeping Kenseth with Jason Ratcliff is a smart move, but what was just plain stupid was letting Darrell Wallace, Jr. out of the JGR family. Absolutely inexcusable move by both Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota as well.
Justin Tucker, Contributing Writer: To me the big winner of the JGR driver/crew chief shuffle were Carl Edwards and Darian Grubb. I really believe that they will form a chemistry capable of being able to race for wins every week and compete for a championship when it comes time for Homestead. However the organization was crippled after letting Darrell Wallace, Jr. out of his contract. It makes absolutely no sense to allow your future franchise star to just walk out the door.
Mark: Carl Edwards must have been a good boy this year, because Santa is putting Darian Grubb under his tree. This combination has “championship” written all over them, and Carl must be thrilled about the possibilities. Joe Gibbs Racing is undergoing some changes that should pay dividends for the overall operation, but I was saddened by the fact that Bubba Wallace will be driving for someone else. I had high hopes for his affiliation with JGR.
Phil: It’s debatable whether the crew chief moves were necessary. However, Kyle Busch does seem to have the ability to burn through crew chiefs like no one’s business. Because of that, he needs new blood on the pit box every couple of years. Since Stevens is a known quantity to Busch, I think he’ll benefit him, but he might be surprised that Kyle’s demeanor might be different on Sunday afternoon as opposed to Saturday afternoon.
3. Kevin Harvick became a first-time champion in 2014, taking his name off the list of successful drivers without a title…who does that leave as the best active driver without a Cup title…and will that change in the near future?
Jeff: I’m not sure if “best” fits here, but in terms of most popular, that would be Dale Earnhardt Jr. With his early season run and three victories this year, many thought this would be his chance. But not even a revamped format could help him. Now, he’s on to a new crew chief again with Steve Letarte heading for the TV booth. And with Junior turning 40 this year, the list of drivers to win a title at age 40 or older is short. And while there can be exceptions to the rule, as disappointing as this might be Junior Nation, I don’t see him winning a title.
Vito: Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch probably tie for this one. Between the two, Edwards has the best shot of changing that. Rules changes next year probably play into Toyota’s favor with regard to horsepower and engine configuration, so expect these two to be in contention throughout the Chase next year.
Mark: History suggests that Kyle Busch should be the next big deal to win a Cup title, but we’ve been waiting for that other shoe to drop for a few years now. Carl Edwards has been painfully-close to a Cup championship, so if his new deal with JGR gels quickly enough, my guess is he’ll finally reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Huston: Carl Edwards. Kyle Busch. Denny Hamlin? Greg Biffle? Danica Patrick?! Ha. Just checking if people were reading. The three drivers who fit the description best are probably Edwards, Busch, and Joey Logano. Judging by how Logano performed in 2014, he may be in the best position as Penske has stability and showed they could compete with HMS.
Phil: The best current Cup driver without a championship is more than likely Kyle Busch. We’ve seen him beat up on lesser competition in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, not to mention his exploits in late models. However, he’s never really gotten it done in Cup. He’s shown flashes of dominance in the past (2008 is a good example of that), but he has some trouble holding it together for a full year. Busch would never admit it, but perhaps all those ancillary races that he runs wears him down. 2015 brings a lighter non-Cup schedule, but also impending fatherhood. We’ll have to see what happens to the Shrub.
4. The debate has gone on for years about whether Richard Petty or David Pearson ranks as the best Cup driver of all time—so, Petty, or Pearson? And does Jeff Gordon belong in the conversation as he approaches the 100-win mark that only Petty and Pearson have eclipsed?
Amy: It’s really, really hard to compare drivers across different eras of the sport. Points systems change, the way races are approached changes, the overall level of competition changes. Petty vs. Pearson is always going to spark a lively debate. Overall win totals can be misleading, but during the 550 races in which Petty and Pearson competed against each other, they come out much closer—Petty beat Pearson 289 times, while Pearson finished ahead of Petty 261 times. Quality of equipment comes into play as well, as does the schedule…so many variables, and you can make a valid argument for either driver. And then there is Gordon, who, as he approaches the 100-win mark, absolutely belongs in the conversation. The last two decades have seen some of the fiercest competition the sport has ever had, the schedule is shorter than it was in much of Petty and Pearson’s heyday…it’s harder than ever to win races. 100 wins in any era makes a legend, and as Gordon closes in, he’s in elite company for a reason.
Vito: Richard Petty is the greatest driver of all time — and to be fair, I don’t even think it’s even open to discussion. 200 wins — 7 championships — 7 Daytona 500s; the belt buckle says it all. While some dismiss the win total by saying many were on dirt tracks or during when they were racing 2-3 times a week, my reply is typically, “So what?” He showed up and ran all the races, traveled to all the tracks, signed all the autographs, driving with a broken neck, half his stomach missing, and concussions galore, doing whatever it took to be a winner, a champion, and the face of the sport. Petty’s heyday during the early-mid 70’s was during a time when Chrysler was circling the drain and he was running a 2-3 year old Dodge Chargers, still winning races and championships. He won his final two races driving for a team other than Petty Enterprises, with Mike Curb as the owner. He was in line to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 1986, but STP nixed the deal at the last minute. Can you imagine how insane his record would have been had he ended up at HMS?
Justin: I am going to catch a lot of flack for this, but Jimmie Johnson, to me, is the greatest driver to ever strap on a helmet. Six championships and 70 wins in the most competitive era in NASCAR history is the stuff legends are made of. As for Gordon. he has been in the discussion for years. He has been in the top three of all time after capturing his third cup in 1998. So regardless of whether he gets his fifth title or 100th win Gordon has easily cemented his place as one of the greats.
Mark: Jeff Gordon certainly belongs in the “greatest driver ever” discussion, but adding him to the Petty or Pearson debate is a matter of apples and oranges–Gordon’s career has been during the contemporary schedule of 36 championship-driven races, while Petty and Pearson campaigned during the era of 50-60 events per season. Even then, Richard Petty amassed most of his wins by choosing to run more events than Pearson. A testament to David Pearson’s talent is the fact that “The Silver Fox” won as many races as he did while driving a fairly selective/limited schedule each year. And so it goes….
Huston: Howell may have stated that it’s apples to oranges but it’s more like apples to kumquats. Different eras. Different rules. Different, well, except for the fact that they are still driving cars, everything. How the cars are scrutinized and engineered is just another aspect. Rather, let’s just look at the pillars of the sport and with Petty, Pearson, and Gordon you’ve got three, Earnhardt, Sr., then gets added with Jimmie Johnson probably becoming the fifth addition.
Toni Montgomery, Open-Wheel/NHRA Editor: The Petty/Pearson discussion will never have a definitive answer because both drivers have their camps and their backers and both have valid arguments for their guy. Petty is the King. He’s won more championships than Pearson and nearly twice as many races and also holds the record for most wins in one season with 27. Pearson’s backers fire back that their guy ran a much more selective and part time schedule than Petty so while he does not have as many championships or wins, he did what he did in far few races than Petty. Bringing Gordon into the discussion is even more challenging because he comes from a different era–at least Petty and Pearson were contemporaries so they are apples and apples, while Gordon is an orange. But bringing Gordon in is also interesting and there are some good arguments, particularly about the differences in the eras, that play in his favor too. Take the 1967 season where Petty scored his 27 wins. He ran in 48 races to do it. One more thing about the races in those days–they raced several times per week at tracks all over the map, sometimes even holding races at two tracks on the same day. The bottom line is there wasn’t one schedule all the teams and drivers followed where they competed against each other every week. Which means there is an argument, and a strong one, that Petty had the ability to cherry-pick his races that year, running where he was best or where the competition would be weakest. Jeff Gordon won 13 races in 1998, only half as many but he didn’t get 48 races to do it either–he got 33, which was all the races on the schedule, and he had to race on all the tracks, whether he was good on them or not, and he had to race ALL the other drivers every week. So if you really want to get picky, Gordon hasn’t had the opportunity to run as many races and hasn’t been able to be selective about which ones he would run as Petty and Pearson could, and maybe that means there is a strong argument for his place among them because he’s done what he’s done under more challenging circumstances than either Petty or Pearson.