Did You Notice? Qualifying has become a point of emphasis for top teams? None other than Dover winner Jimmie Johnson spoke about his struggles in that department, one of only three drivers this season to win a race after starting outside the top 10.
“Raw speed hasn’t been our strong suit,” he admitted in the midst of celebrating his win. “That’s set us up for some long Sundays.” It was a point echoed by crew chief Chad Knaus, who emphasized “Friday improvement” as the biggest goal the team was looking to achieve halfway through the regular season.
A package where it’s difficult to pass has definitely harmed drivers who find themselves at the rear. Take Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started 43rd at Dover but at one point had the fastest car on track. He got lapped before the first caution, needed pit strategy to earn it back and was still never able to crack the top five more than 250 laps into the event. That’s how tough it is to move up, with clean air dirtying the chances of anyone who starts the day stuck in traffic.
So far this season, eight of 13 races have been won by drivers starting inside the top 10. At first, that doesn’t seem like much of a difference compared to past years…
But maybe that’s exactly the point. Now, let’s change things up a bit. Here’s how many races, through 13 events, were won by a driver starting outside the top 20.
Those numbers should surprise you, considering how much NASCAR likes to harp on parity. Turns out the qualifying problem isn’t a new one after all; it’s just an issue we seem to be focusing on more this year due to some particular superstars getting stuck in the back – and staying there. A better analogy concerns a driver’s average start. The top-three series leaders in that category – Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch – also are top three in laps led. That dominance translates into the standings, as well: Logano is third in the points, Harvick is a dominant first and Busch, without his suspension would average enough points to be listed inside the top three.
As Johnson has proven, even with Mission Impossible Aerodynamics, moving through the field can be done with the right car. It just takes a little luck, great restarts, a whole lot of pit strategy and a much longer amount of time than in past years. That’s part of the reason, perhaps, why the racing has been so dismal to watch in 2015. When a car starts 30th, it’s become a chess game for them to move up to 10th over 100 laps as compared to being able to slice through the field in exciting fashion. What would you rather watch: a guy capable of going three-wide to make a few passes, based on raw speed or someone taking five laps to get side-by-side with a guy? Let’s put it this way; there’s a reason why chess wasn’t televised.
Did You Notice? The depth of the sport’s sophomore slump? While Kyle Larson had himself a strong Sunday (more on that later) he still sits significantly worse in the standings than he did a year ago. In fact, let’s look at where all the rookies stood in 2014, through 14 races compared to where they are now…
2014: 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 10th in points.
2015: 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 20th in points. (-10)
2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, Daytona 500 pole, 15th in points.
2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 0 poles, 24th in points. (-9)
2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 30th in points.
2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 1 DNQ (had to buy a ride), 34th in points. (-4)
2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 29th in points.
2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 3 DNFs, 30th in points. (-1)
2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 31st in points.
2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 29th in points. (+2)
2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 0 DNQs, 35th in points.
2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 1 DNQ, 33rd in points. (+2)
Rarely have we seen such a consistent lack of success across the board from the previous year’s rookie class. The other two not listed, Ryan Truex and Parker Kligerman don’t even have full-time rides in NASCAR. Their problems have also contributed to the difficulty in hyping up the sport to new fans. A series that needs new faces in new places has its “new faces” running around virtually invisible. The news got bleaker for 2016, too, within the last few weeks as Ty Dillon revealed he may not run the Cup Series full-time yet. That leaves Chase Elliott as the only clear Rookie of the Year candidate, poised to run away with it unless someone like a Ryan Blaney gets proper funding.
When all these drivers move up, then fall short, we’re left with a lack of pure evolution up front. At some point, even the great Petty and Pearson got challenged, and we’re waiting for the next generation to come knock Johnson, Harvick et al off their perches. Will it happen eventually? Yes. But the fact is it’s going to be a few more years, at least looking at the current landscape doesn’t help matters much.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off….
- Pocono this weekend offers up a great chance to see a new Chase bid punched. Hendrick Motorsports has swept the last five races at the Tricky Triangle: Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kasey Kahne have all won there within the last three years. As Earnhardt and Johnson are solidly in the Chase, the focus shifts to a winless Kahne and Gordon, both of whom have shown signs of life over the last month. Kahne was a season-best fourth at Dover, but it’s Gordon who has the better Pocono track record as of late – he led 63 laps there last August and was dominant at times before fading to sixth by the finish. And on the underdog front? How about Hendrick-aligned Larson? The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was a season-best third last week at Dover, won the pole at the Pocono race last August and has a career average finish there of 8.0.
- Harvick, with nine top-two finishes so far this season has tied a NASCAR record through 13 races. Only Bobby Allison (1972) and Cale Yarborough (1977) have matched that start in NASCAR’s modern era.
- The FOX Sports 1 overnight rating for Dover, a lowly 2.3, should send shivers running down the spine of NASCAR execs. Remember, just seven of the final 20 races this season are televised by big NBC. The rest? They move to NBC Sports Network, nearly as difficult to get as FS1. In fact, from now through the end of August just one Sprint Cup event will make its way onto network television: Daytona in July, the official return of NBC to covering the sport. So if you thought the audience was smaller now, just wait for the news we’ll get the next 10-12 weeks. It’s hard to imagine any race besides the Coke Zero 400 posting an increase even though a lot of these summer events have been broadcast on cable in recent years.