1) Dale Earnhardt Jr. is getting married. Kasey Kahne is becoming a dad. Here’s one thing we don’t hear about anymore: young drivers who are 20-something and single. Does that hurt NASCAR with the 18-34 crowd, causing a disconnect? Or are these growing families a good sell for NASCAR’s wholesome image?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: NASCAR has a wholesome image? When did that happen? Why didn’t I get the memo? Those of us who follow the sport know better but the public perception of stock car racing and its fans is that it’s still a bunch of dentally challenged, brew-swigging rednecks sitting in the cheap seats waiting to see the wrecks. As for the drivers, well, there’s a reason they’re called personal lives: they’re personal. From where I sit I don’t give a fig if a driver goes out and clubs baby seals Monday to Saturday, as long as he can drive the wheels off a racecar on Sunday. Mi amigo fue mordido por un burro una vez. Él dijo que esto realmente dolió.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I don’t think it affects the sport one way or the other. For years, drivers broke into the sport at an older age than is typical now, and the lack of single, young, good-looking drivers didn’t hurt things. Some drivers have gotten married (some more than once), had families, or whatever, and the sport has gone on. As long as they’re doing their jobs on the track, that’s what fans should care about.
Joseph Wolkin, Senior Writer: I don’t think that hurts NASCAR at all. If anything, it takes away some of the stereotypes from the sport. Drivers are well-educated, and they really want to have their lives together at a decent age. Having more families in NASCAR will provide something that other sports don’t have, and that’s the family aspect from the athletes. You see it in baseball more than anywhere else, and if NASCAR can catch up to that, things should go well.
Aaron Bearden, Associate Editor: Man, Earnhardt Jr. is in his 40s and Kahne’s been in the Sprint Cup Series for over a decade now. I don’t think these off-track changes from veteran drivers have much effect on the casual fan’s view of the sport. These sorts of things have always happened, they just seem to be more publicized now. Most people will forget or stop caring within a month.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I think it’s good to see this baby boom as, from a cultural perspective, the traditional family dynamic in America is changing. Junior is rather old-fashioned in that he’s getting married before siring children. Such emerging families just might appeal to the young adult audience NASCAR needs to insure its future.
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: A few points. One: If the racing on the track was good enough, we wouldn’t be talking about fatherhood for drivers or who’s going to crash Dale Jr.’s wedding. Last I checked, the highest-rated NBA Finals since 1998 had little to no mention of whether LeBron James’s wife was pregnant. Too much other stuff to talk about. That said, I’ve talked at length about how the majority of NASCAR drivers are 30 or older. Makes it hard to connect with an 18-34 crowd who isn’t always thinking marriage, kids or settling down yet. The other reality is that the white picket fence life of family, kids and the American Dream can also be, well, boring from a marketing perspective (and that’s coming from a family-oriented guy). The Kardashians might be crazy but unique also sells on television. Look at the ratings.
2) NASCAR is introducing rain tires into the Cup Series for road courses this year, although the chances they are getting used at Sonoma are nil. Is this shift in thinking a trend the sanctioning body should be applying to oval tracks as well? Can you ever see NASCAR racing in the rain on ovals?
Bearden: Look, I love rain racing. It adds an interesting spin to things in IndyCar, and it made for some exciting shows when the Xfinity Series threw on wets at Montreal and Road America. However, these cars are WAY too heavy to run wets on an oval. It’d be a crapshoot. For goodness’ sake, IndyCar doesn’t even run wets on ovals.
Howell: What happened to the idea we saw years ago when we used to talk about Cup teams carrying brake lights, wiper blades and rain tires for use when rainy days threatened races? I recall trying these pieces in the Xfinity Series many years ago at a limited level, but maybe age has blurred my thinking. If rain delays hurt TV coverage and fan attitudes, maybe trying rain gear on ovals is worth a try. We’re already changing the aero package; what do we have to lose?
Henderson: Absolutely not. You don’t see any series running ovals in the rain and there’s a reason for that: safety. Not only would the racing suffer greatly (it does on wet tracks with rain tires, too), but the risk of serious injury, or worse, is just too great. Rain tires were never meant to be used on ovals. Driving on banking, in the rain, at the speeds they run, would be disastrous.
McLaughlin: Simply stated, that’s never going to happen. Oval tracks tend to be banked. Even slight banking means running not stationary water on the track surface. An oval track race in the rain would be the biggest farce in the sport’s history since the 2008 Brickyard. El agricultor fue enfurecido. Él mató al burro.
Allaway: Anyone who wants to know what a NASCAR race in the rain would be like at a superspeedway needs to look at the 2003 Grand Prix of Brazil from Interlagos – in particular, the multiple incidents at the bottom of the hill where a river ran across the track. That is more or less what you would get. That’s not going to work. Also, that race was a wreckfest.
Wolkin: Definitely not. Putting rain tires on oval tracks would be uglier than watching the Mets collapse again. It just won’t happen. There’s a big difference between a road course and an oval, especially with the steep banking at the majority of NASCAR tracks. I mean, maybe it could happen at a track like Loudon, but that would just be NASCAR doing something that’s rather gimmicky, and the sanctioning body is better than that.
3) NASCAR’s pit road closed rule (red vs. green light) came under scrutiny this week in the Xfinity Series, but it’s not the only one that irks people inside the garage. What do you think is the silliest rule NASCAR has right now?
Henderson: There are a lot of rules that I’d like to see change, but top of the list is still the Chase. It cheapens the championship when unearned points are handed out like candy after Richmond, and that’s not what the sport is about. It’s also changed how teams approach races, depending on whether they “need” a win or not. Fans also see less of the actual race on a broadcast as the TV networks get caught up in a few contenders and incessant talk of who’s in and who’s out starting in Daytona, before the first raced is even on the books. It’s time to admit this is not a stick-and-ball sport and was never meant to be one.
Allaway: Probably NASCAR’s insistence on continuing with group qualifying at tracks longer than Gateway in the Camping World Truck Series. Every week, it’s the same stupidity. If you don’t have a draft, you’re darn near last in the round. It’s looney tunes. NASCAR needs to kill that and just go back to single-truck qualifying. Drives me nuts. The format is to blame for darn near half the drivers in the final round each week failing to put up a time because of the draft.
Bowles: The way cars get their lap back. I’ll get screamed at for safety reasons but I miss the old racing back to the yellow. At the very least, put the lapped cars back on the inside so people have to fight for their lap back the hard way. Magically earning five laps back through rules, as Kyle Busch did years ago at Watkins Glen, is ridiculous and makes a farce of the show.
Howell: The silliest Cup rule is the qualifying process. It may not be good for TV, but it’s even worse for establishing starting grids. Call me antiquated, but I like the way we used to do qualifying.
Bearden: I’ll take the “March Madness from September through November” approach to the Chase, with an honorable mention to the “written warning, you miss practice” headaches. I may be a purist, but I know I’m not the only one that wishes NASCAR would leave the Final Four to the NCAA.
Wolkin: The only rule that I really don’t agree with is the Final Four to win the title. Just imagine how much criticism NASCAR would have had if Kevin Harvick didn’t win the championship last year. It still doesn’t settle well with my stomach, and there was nothing wrong with the old format. Yes, the eliminations create a sense of urgency, but at least award the regular season points leader, along with enabling drivers with wins to carry the bonus points over to each round instead of just the first one.
McLaughlin: I’d like to see them send the wave-around rule to the scrapyard. Yes, it gets a bit complicated when the leader has to restart behind a bunch of cars on the tail end of the lead lap. It was tough to explain to the new fans. Well, the new fans have gotten on their rocks and rolled. They decided they hated NASCAR racing and they hated us. They even stole our lawn gnomes on the way to the door. As I see it, with restarts providing most of the action in most races, having the dominant driver having to fight his way through a pack of drivers determined to stay on the lead lap would be great. Fenders would get bent. Tempers would get frayed. You know, it would almost be like stock car racing or something. Él dio a mi amigo la cola para la sopa. Esto era la sopa muy Buena.
4) A lot of drivers on the outside looking in are checking off Sonoma as their best chance of stealing a win and making the Chase. Which winless driver do you have an eye on this weekend and why?
McLaughlin: To date Jeff Gordon‘s retirement tour has gone over about like a Milli Vanilli reunion tour. My guess is that this week the former champion take the bit between his teeth and reasserts himself as a contender on the road courses, after which he’ll likely go out and club baby seals with stolen garden gnomes using the new Windows 10 marine mammal tracking app. No hay nada como un pedazo bueno de la cola.Wolkin: I really wouldn’t be surprised if Casey Mears brings Germain Racing its first win this weekend. He has been amazing at the road courses, and having the alliance with Richard Childress Racing has helped that team dramatically. Jamie McMurray might be a threat to win, along with Tony Stewart, who should start to heat up with the summer months. Jeff Gordon is still looking for his first win in his final year, and I think he’s going to be very strong this weekend. He’s been the runnerup at Sonoma in each of the last two seasons, and a win would give him the momentum that he needs to be a title contender. Oh, and don’t count out Clint Bowyer, who has seven top 10s in nine starts at the road course.
Howell: Of all the drivers with a shot at winning this weekend, my money is on Gordon. He’s been enjoying trips down memory lane out west and putting his career in perspective. One more win at Sonoma will put the emphasis on one more championship.
Allaway: I picked Busch to win this weekend, but he cannot make the Chase just by winning on Sunday. He has to win the race and continue to put up good results. Of those who are in the top 30 in points and can lock in with a win, I’m keeping my eye on AJ Allmendinger. After a hot start to the season, he’s cooled off significantly. He’s also about the only road course expert that’s still full-time in Sprint Cup after Marcos Ambrose went back to Australia (Note: I don’t count Sam Hornish Jr. as he was only ordinary on road courses in previous series). In Allmendinger’s case, he’s better at Watkins Glen, but road racing is his bread and butter. There’s a reason why Michael Shank considers Allmendinger to be a ringer at the Rolex 24 every year.
Henderson: There are a couple on the radar who might surprise. McMurray is actually a very good road racer, and his team has been right on the verge this season. Two others who could pull off an upset are the two RCR affiliates without wins, Allmendinger and Mears, both strong road racers. Of the pair, Mears is a bit better at Sonoma, with Allmendinger having the edge at Watkins Glen. Finally, as dismal as his season has been, Stewart is just too good at Sonoma to count out.
Bowles: I didn’t pick him officially in the Frontstretch pool but don’t you get the feeling Kyle Larson is waking up? He’s the type of driver with the talent to break out at anytime. Not the favorite at Sonoma, by any means but if he jumped out and won it wouldn’t surprise me.
Bearden: This one’s easy! It’s Ambrose… Err…. Juan Pablo Montoya!… Oh wait… Fine, I’ll just say this: Busch. Busch has been phenomenal on road courses in the past, and needs a win as bad as anyone in the field. I’d expect Rowdy to be up on the wheel this weekend.