ONE: Get well soon, Steve Byrnes
Easily the best piece of NASCAR-related news I read in the last week or so was the report that the upcoming Bristol Motor Speedway race has been renamed to the Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up To Cancer. When I say easily, let me be clear: what I actually mean by that is nothing else came even vaguely close news-wise. It’s a wonderful and well-deserved tribute to the veteran FOX Sports broadcaster, both his continued and courageous fight against head-and-neck cancer. We’ve already seen drivers wearing Byrnes’ name on their helmets and on their cars but the change in the race name is another level of tribute and honor altogether. “The support I have received from my teammates at FOX Sports, drivers, team members, track officials, NASCAR and the fans has been overwhelming,” said Byrnes of the honor. “So many families are affected by cancer, and to play a small part in raising awareness is an honor to me.” Fittingly, today Byrnes celebrates his 56th birthday. Here’s hoping the festivities and celebrations this week are a sign of many better things to come for him: a full recovery, a return to the track and the sport he loves, and also the sport that loves him just as much back.
TWO: Harvick vs Johnson
That’s two wins apiece now for six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and reigning titleholder Kevin Harvick just seven races into the 2015 season. Already, there is much talk amongst fans and of course on Twitter – the arbiter and barometer of all things NASCAR – that this season’s title will come down to a battle of the two veteran champions. Yes, I do expect both California-born drivers to challenge deep into the playoffs but the fact remains that with the new Chase format anything can (and probably will) happen in the final ten races. We saw this drama play out last season when Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman all made the Final Four. I don’t have the empirical data to back this up, but I’m pretty certain no one who made a Chase bracket had those four names duking it out at Homestead-Miami Speedway. So yes, both Johnson and Harvick look like nailed on contenders. Harvick, in particular, has been scary fast absolutely everywhere. But there is plenty of racing still to come, not to mention oodles of tension, unforced errors, pit-road miscues and rash decisions to follow in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. So is it Harvick versus Johnson for the big prize? It’s way too early to tell just yet.
At this stage last season it was all about Charlie Sheen’s favorite hashtag word: #Winning. Seven races had produced seven different winners and by the time we completed the 12th and longest race of the season – the 600-mile extravaganza at Charlotte Motor Speedway – three more had won races, meaning 10 drivers had penciled their names into the playoffs. With 14 events still to run, including the summer Daytona race and the two road courses, there was a strong possibility that more than 16 drivers could notch a victory. As it turned out, we ended up with 13 winners and three drivers (Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Newman) making the big dance courtesy of their point totals. This year, whilst we still have 19 races to run before the Chase begins it seems really unlikely we’ll even hit the 13 mark, let alone 16. All told, we’ve seen five drivers book their Chase tickets so far, but if you look at the list of winners it’s fair to say we’ll see more victories for each before the Chase gets underway. That means points are going to come into play, in a big way and amongst all the talk of winning it’s good, solid points days that will get it done for several drivers. Just ask Mr. Newman how that could play out….
FOUR: The Coliseum
Next up, we head to Bristol Motor Speedway for the “day” race at the famed Thunder Valley for 500 laps of Sunday afternoon mayhem. This race will be number 109 at the Cup level, a streak that runs all the way back to the 36th contest of the 1961 season. The inaugural event was won by Jack Smith in a ’61 Pontiac, a driver who ended up with 21 victories in a 15-year, 264-race career. The records also show that he had some help that day by way of a relief driver, Johnny Allen; it’s a driver who won once (this win didn’t count for his official records) in a 13-year, 173-race career. Back in 1961, the track was exactly half-a-mile in length and it wasn’t until 1969 that it was reshaped and re-measured at the slightly odd .533 miles it is today – just .06 miles longer than the shortest track, Martinsville Speedway. All told, 42 drivers have taken the checkered flag at Bristol with FOX Sports’ own Darrell Waltrip atop the charts with 12 victories. Both the Busch brothers and Jeff Gordon have five wins, tied for the most among active wheelmen. Bristol is a track that rarely disappoints (although in the interests of full disclosure, it does sometimes) and I’m expecting another barnstormer of a race this time around. Looking forward to it already.
FIVE: Channel Hopping
Finally this week, I have an abbreviated word on the channel-hopping situation this season. As you already know, both major broadcasters FOX and NBC are using their sports channels – FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network, respectively – for multiple races. At Martinsville, we had the first race of the year on FS1 while last weekend, we were back live on the main FOX channel where we’ll remain for the next four races until we hit Kansas Speedway in early May. I know in the past, we’ve had a situation where we have multiple different broadcasters so at least this scenario is better, but I can’t help but wonder how many NASCAR fans don’t have FS1 or NBCSN in their cable packages. If the low ratings at Martinsville are anything to go by, it might be quite a large number – more sizable than perhaps the powers that be expected. I realize nothing is going to change here but it is a point worth pondering. If, like me, you watch your races on DVR just make sure you’re setting the channel right.