Did You Notice? NASCAR enters Richmond without a compelling “make the Chase” story for a second straight season? Two years removed from the “Spingate” scandal we have yet to produce a sense of urgency that makes the regular season finale the “must see” event it used to be in the early years of NASCAR’s playoff format.
Last season, Greg Biffle entered Richmond on the bubble but sitting with a comfy 23-point lead over nearest competitor Clint Bowyer. This year, it’s Bowyer on the bubble but his lead is even stronger: 28 points over mediocre competition. No offense to Aric Almirola, but I don’t think he’s in position to pull off a miracle with season numbers that include one top-10 finish and only three laps led. Compare that to part-timer Josh Wise, who’s run just 19 races with a handful of underfunded teams yet has the exact same resume. Talk about a watered-down playoff system…
But I digress. Technically, Almirola joins Kasey Kahne and over a dozen other drivers who can enter the Chase field by winning Richmond. Sure, Kahne has won there in the past; others, like Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson have been running better overall as of late. However, a quick look at Richmond’s recent races shows the chances of someone breaking through are miniscule. Since 2007, this short track has run 17 races, and 13 of them have been won by just five men: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. All of them are safely locked into the playoff field this season and are in position to run up front Saturday night once again. If they fail, Kurt Busch (who dominated the spring race) and the Team Penske cars of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski (defending race champion) enter this weekend on top of their game.
For those seeking an upset, the only winless driver this season who led laps at Richmond in the spring was Jamie McMurray. But even McMurray, after years of missing the Chase is set to end his record 0-for-11 streak of missing the playoffs by simply starting the Richmond race this weekend. Others who will make the Chase on points, like Jeff Gordon have run strong in the recent past there as well.
What does that mean for guys on the outside looking in? Like Kahne, Larson, Biffle? They’re the longest of longshots, making it more likely this race will be about preserving momentum for the playoffs instead of trying to establish it, a limited number of major moves by teams focused on the week ahead instead of what was once one of NASCAR’s “can’t miss” tracks. There’s a reason big NBC chose to televise the Darlington race and not this Saturday night finale….
Did You Notice? How the Darlington race had a ratings increase over 2014? The 3.4 overnight Nielsen number is one of only a handful of events NASCAR can point to this season as a major success. The track itself was over 90% capacity, filled with fans cheering their new low-downforce package that has produced quality competition every time out.
Fans will point to the new package and the return of Darlington’s race to Labor Day Weekend as the reason for the increase. I think those elements have already been well documented both here and by others; if NASCAR ignores the positive response here when considering the 2016 rules package they’d be foolish. But there’s another, simpler reason NASCAR should note as it sets the schedule for 2016 and beyond: the race occurred on a Sunday night. Rather than stick with the “Saturday night special,” stubbornly adhering to the one night where the 18-34 crowd is away from the television more than ever these days the sport put a race on a Sunday night where people are likely to be home, either working the next day or preparing for a Labor Day BBQ. Sometimes, it’s not about what the entertainment is but serving it at a time and place people are capable of watching.
It’s a lesson NASCAR needs to learn in the face of shocking numbers like the 1.9 Nielsen overnight filed after Bristol’s iconic Saturday night race. That should have been one of the sport’s most popular events and instead? It’s made to look like Bristol is dying on the vine. I know a Sunday night event might be more difficult for people to attend but if the sport wants to keep some of these night races going for television that’s when they’ve got to be. Just like you’re not going to compete against the NFL, stock car racing will always play second fiddle to the long list of entertainment options for today’s generation during a typical Saturday.
Did You Notice? How the Sprint Cup field is currently set to lose two teams for 2016? Michael Waltrip Racing’s official filing to cease operations reveals a sobering reality their two-car team isn’t going to be bought; instead, it’ll be dissolved into pieces with no investor riding in on a Superman coat ready to start anew. It means that if recently released Bowyer can take his sponsors and merge with another team instead of starting over (HScott, despite repeated denials and Richard Petty Motorports are the hot rumors in my world) we’re going to be stuck at 42 full-time teams entering the 2016 season unless someone like Ryan Blaney can step up to run all 36.
The alarming cutbacks have NASCAR considering options from franchising to simply cutting the field from 43 to 40 cars. I think both need to be considered carefully. Sure, in the wake of MWR’s demise there’s a natural desire to start protecting the race teams you have left. But at the same time, doing so while making it difficult for new owners, cars, and manufacturers to enter the sport dooms stock car racing over the long-term. What’s going to happen when Penske, Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick aren’t around anymore? Father Time is the one race we never win. NASCAR needs to find a way to entice more Rob Kauffmans to come in at a bargain price instead of balancing too far the other way. Yes, Hendrick, Penske et al deserve to keep their fortunes but not at the price of seeing the sport die off as soon as they retire from racing.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off…
- Kahne has now gone nine races without so much as a top-10 finish. For a Hendrick Motorsports car that’s the equivalent to Code Red Emergency Status; if I’m them, Keith Rodden sits atop the pit box for the final time Saturday night. Why not try out a different head wrench the final ten races to see if that’ll spark some life into the No. 5 team heading into 2016? Kahne, not the most aggressive personality looks like he needs a jolt. He’s way too comfortable with the way the season has turned out for a program who judges its success or failure on championships.
- Speaking of Hendrick, Chase Elliott ended his five-race debut season in Cup without a top-15 finish, wrecking at Darlington and winding up 41st. Does that mean his rookie season is doomed replacing Gordon? Not necessarily. After all, Johnson ran no better than 25th during a limited schedule in 2001 before challenging for the title in his rookie Cup season. Here’s the difference though; Johnson was in his mid-20s upon ascending to Cup while Elliott turns 20 in November. I suspect the learning curve here, especially considering the youngster’s winless season in the Xfinity Series is going to be bigger than initially expected.
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has now finished four of the last seven races in 34th or worse. With Chris Buescher leading the Xfinity Series championship standings how much longer will Jack Roush wait to announce a change for 2016? Team morale within the Roush camp is at an all-time low and Stenhouse shows no signs of stopping his downward trend.