Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! 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 says there are some good reasons to be optimistic about the new season.
It was hard not to be impressed by the performance of Brett Moffitt in Atlanta last weekend. In a one-off fill-in role for Brian Vickers, Moffitt posted an eighth-place finish in the 500-mile Sprint Cup race. Moffitt outraced several of the sport’s biggest names en route to that finish, turning some heads in the process.
And Moffitt is far from the only one. The sport is awash with youngsters making an impact. Even Joey Logano, with a few years’ experience under his belt, is a member of the under-25 set, and with up-and-comers like Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Erik Jones… the list of new talent is long and it includes a group of solid drivers. That’s important for the sport as it strives to attract a new generation of fans; young fans will be looking for drivers to pull for and having someone their own age is something that can pique a lot of interest. That only holds true, though, if those drivers perform on the track, and that’s what’s exciting about the current crop of drivers – they can perform, and they’re fun to watch.
At the same time, though, the performance of the sport’s veterans is important to their many fans. In that area, it’s a mixed bag this year. Most of the usual suspects are doing what’s expected of them. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne are all off to a hot start, while Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon are in somewhat of a come-from-behind position.
But right now, that’s actually OK. It lends a little drama to the mix, and it will bring harder racing in the coming weeks. The sport has struggled for something different in recent years, and having the top stars all over the place, at least for now, adds an interesting element to the game.
If it’s true that every dog has its day, then there are a few underdogs using the new rules package to their advantage. Among those making appearances in the rarified air of the top of the points are Martin Truex, Jr., Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. While it’s unlikely that all four will stay in the top 15, it’s a good thing while it lasts, both for those teams and for fans. For fans tired of the same drivers and teams dominating, these teams are worth a second look. For the teams, the early success translates into television time which can in turn bring in more sponsor dollars, helping to elevate them further.
Every sport needs teams to pull for outside of the mainstream. NASCAR’s smaller teams provide that while bringing in some new and different personalities. For fans who are tired of the attention given to the same teams every week, these teams have something different. The stakes are different and in some ways, higher. The little teams race for survival. That makes them unpredictable and interesting. (Author’s note: hint for fans – want to meet a driver? Spend some time near these teams. Many of them will take the time to speak to fans and sign autographs)
In their hands
It’s still too early to judge the new rules package fully; it’s only seen one race and as always happens, some teams will embrace it immediately while others take longer to grasp it. That’s actually part of the fun. But one thing this package looks like it will do is put a little more back in the drivers’ hands. For the fan watching at home, that’s always a good thing. The driver is the face of the team, and right or wrong, he’s the one fans identify with. Leave too much up to the engineers behind the scenes and it makes the sport seem foreign and elitist.
Sunday’s race showed some of that. Drivers could run different lines. The driver-controlled track bar adjustments worked better for some than others. The ones it worked for seemed to also be drivers who communicated with their teams about the changes they were making, so the crews could work with them. All in all, if it’s more about the drivers and how they can handle the cars and less about a car that handles perfectly, a subtle but important distinction, it makes for better racing and competition that fans can relate to.
So far, so good…
Finally, it’s only two races into the season, and things will settle down, but the racing has been very good to open the season. At the end of the day the racing and the drivers are what fans watch, and the racing end has been enjoyable. Daytona featured relatively little wrecking and lots of jockeying for position. Atlanta featured lots of hard racing, and it looked as though cars could pass each other throughout the pack. No, there were not a huge number of lead changes. But if racing for the lead is the only racing you think is important or exciting, you might be better suited for drag racing. Over 500 miles, racing plays out throughout the field, not always for the lead, and there was lots of it Sunday. Teams were able to move forward from the back and middle of the pack and challenge one another. Would more passing up front be ideal? Of course, but history tells us that it doesn’t always play out that way. A hard battle for fifth or tenth or 25th is still great racing. There was a good bit of that on Sunday, and hopefully it’s something we will continue to see.