The Bojangles’ Southern 500 was by most counts a success with the new aero package and tires matched to it; ratings were the best for a Labor Day weekend show since 2007. Can NASCAR sustain the success of the Southern 500 and in general, and what could be done differently?
Summer Bedgood, Senior Editor: I think NASCAR can sustain the success of the Southern 500 in future Darlington races by maintaining a sort of throwback theme at least for the next few years. The race did feel like a prestigious event for the first time in a few years and it was due largely to the fact that the weekend was dedicated to honoring the sport’s past. I know that you can only do so many throwback themes before you have to break out the carriages and buggies, but I think at least maintaining the premise of honoring the sport’s past might help the race regain some of its prior glory over time.
As far as maintaining the hype following the race, I feel like that will be very difficult. I remember how difficult it was to watch the races at Loudon and Indianapolis following the low-downforce racing at Kentucky. I’m thinking the only reason we won’t have that letdown this weekend is because it’s the final race of the regular season and there is always hype around that race. Otherwise, I sort of expect that it will be hard to maintain the level of excitement that was present in Darlington.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I thought the Southern 500 was a big step in the right direction. There is still work to do, but the whole weekend was great. NBC did a great a job broadcasting the race, and the segment with Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett was terrific. I would still like to see the gear rule revoked, but I think that’s asking too much.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: NASCAR can keep the love flowing by encouraging racetracks to get creative with event marketing/planning and keeping Cup cars on softer tires. Even with the low-downforce package, it seemed as if the softer tire made for better competition. Granted, the Southern 500 will do another throwback weekend in 2016, but NASCAR should explore options for other kinds of creative promotions across its many series. Last weekend was proof positive that NASCAR can still attract mainstream audiences, especially if smart decisions are made.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Well, I have high hopes for Richmond, one of the sport’s most perfect tracks, but after that it’s back to the status quo with the good ship NASCAR sinking back into the depths of mediocrity with the house band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on the stern. If Darlington was a throwback weekend, likely New Hampshire and Chicagoland will be throw-up weekends. But at least we have the Chase to pretend to be excited about. In case you missed the memo, NASCAR is now billing it as “the ultra-exciting Chase.” You must include this when you write, just as it must be “dreaded” aero push.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I though both NASCAR and NBC handled the weekend well. Aside from the better racing the 2016 rules provide, the weekend was fun. We saw a more relaxed side of many drivers and media, and the retro theme was definitely a lot of fun to see. The professionalism in the booth from Ken Squier and the Jarretts made that segment of the race a level better. I’d have liked to have seen more of the drivers hamming it up like Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola did, and showing a little more of their personalities. It’s fun to throw in a little nostalgia once a year at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
The second trial of the low-downforce package produced a lot of side-by-side racing as well as some spins. It looks like a go for 2016, but does it go far enough or should there still be tweaks?
Caldwell: I still think there is a possibility to see small tweaks to the rule package in 2016. I think getting a softer tire is a lot better than what we’ve seen and the drastic change in setups and the way you raced caused the cautions. As we get more and more time with this package, I think this package will be really good. Again, I believe taking away the gear rule would be a bigger step in the right direction.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: There should be some tweaks. Based on tweets that were released on Thursday, NASCAR is in the process of making those tweaks. A higher splitter appears to be in the cards for 2016. Let’s just hope that the drivers can learn better car control by next year.
Henderson: It’s a good start, and my guess is that it will only improve during a day race. Keeping tires that wear out is critical. But what’s missing is getting the front of the cars up off the ground significantly, allowing air to flow underneath as well as over the top. That would go a long way in reducing the advantage of clean air. The other thing missing is some of the choices that made racing a risk: gear and suspension choices that teams could make between fast and fragile or a tick slower but more durable. A little uncertainty makes a race more interesting to watch.
Bedgood: I don’t think anyone thinks the package is perfect. I think there is still work to do be done on the tire compound and I keep hearing various people say that the nose needs to be raised even higher. Also, while watching the race, I felt like the front car still has a little too much of an advantage. The other car had to be right up behind the front car in order to make a pass, or at least it felt that way. It was a huge improvement, no doubt, and I honestly would be okay if they left it the way it is. I’m of the mindset that the lead car deserves to have an advantage. But I definitely won’t complain if more is done to make side-by-side racing more of a reality more than it already is.
McLaughlin: Tweak hell. Time to shake up the etch-a-sketch and start over. The tires are a key component to the new package and they need to track specific. While they’re burning the midnight oil in Akron (and what the hell else are you going to do in Akron?) they should come up with a standard longer wearing tire and an alternate high grip high wear red letter tire with teams getting three sets of reds for the event. Yeah, it’s a lot of work but they can always sell a couple dirigibles. For the record, Goodyear no longer has blimps. They have dirigibiles.
Reports have Clint Bowyer headed to HScott Motorsports next year and then replacing Tony Stewart in the No. 14 in 2017. Is this the right career move for Bowyer, taking a step back for a year – and for Stewart, stepping down?
McLaughlin: It’s not like Hendrick decided not to renew Jimmie Johnson‘s contract so he could offer Bowyer the No. 48 ride. He’s got to grab what he can, and it’s slim pickings. As for Stewart, he needs to seriously consider if he wants to go through another year like this one. Like Neil Young once wrote, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
Henderson: It’s a good move for Bowyer for sure if he ultimately winds up in the No. 14. It’s also looking more and more like the writing is on the wall for Stewart as his time in the driver’s seat grows short. If he can’t pick up his performance significantly, it’s time. There’s nothing sadder than a driver hanging on far too long.
The other part of the equation is what HSM gains, and that’s questionable — sure, it gets some input from Bowyer and probably some cash or technical support from Stewart-Haas Racing, but it would put three drivers in one of its cars in three years, which makes it hard for a team to grow and gain momentum. The most successful smaller teams are those who have stuck with a driver for two or more seasons as they work through the growing pains.
Howell: Given the current state of NASCAR, I think this move is not only good, but necessary. Bowyer deserves better than what he’s getting from Michael Waltrip Racing, and HSM seems like it’ll be a decent fit for him. It just might revitalize Clint’s career.
As for the rumors surrounding Stewart’s plans for 2017, I think that move, too, is necessary. Smoke’s spate of injuries, operations and legal woes seem to have sapped him of his famous enthusiasm. Toss in NASCAR rules that have the No. 14 team struggling most weeks, and it looks like 2017 can’t come quickly enough.
Allaway: I have no idea how such a move would work. HSM seems like it wants to keep Michael Annett (probably for his sponsorship, because he really hasn’t brought much to the table results-wise). The team either doesn’t want to expand, or can’t. If he ends up there, he’s replacing Justin Allgaier, despite the fact that Allgaier is the better of the two current HSM drivers. History shows that the No. 51 is not a terrible place to end up. Perhaps he could get something going with Steve Addington; he could do worse.
I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up at Front Row Motorsports next year in the No. 34, or as Sam Hornish Jr.‘s replacement in the No. 9. Heck, if there’s a team that needs sponsorship, it’s Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 9. As it stands, anything available to Bowyer would be a step down from MWR. He’s just going to have to accept that and hope he can charge next year.
Bedgood: Does he really have much of a choice? Unless there is a better team than SHR available right now (which, if it was, he would have taken it), I think it’s absolutely in Bowyer’s best interest to race for a smaller team for a time. If there were more good rides open, then I wouldn’t see the point. I’d wait one year to get Stewart’s ride if it were me.
As far as Stewart stepping down, I’m surprised this isn’t happening sooner. Between Stewart’s injuries and the dirt-track accident, he’s had a rough go of it and he never seems to have recovered. Oh yeah, he’s regained some of his personality back, but not completely, and he certainly isn’t the driver he used to be. At the same time, I feel like he would be getting close to retirement at this point even if he hadn’t had those things happen. He’s won three championships, 48 races, and he’s 44 years old. Honestly, only Stewart knows if it’s the best move for him to retire or not. From my perspective, I’m not really surprised to see it happening.
NBC returned to NASCAR in July, along with cable partner NBC Sports Network. Now that we’ve had time to see how its coverage stacks up, how does the network rate?
Henderson: While NBC is decidedly better than FOX (way better personalities in the booth, for starters), there are a lot of areas for improvement. They show more of the racing in the pack than FOX does, but still not enough. If there’s a heated battle on track and fans are watching someone leading by more than a second up front, that’s not good race coverage. NBC at least attempts to go through most of the field during a broadcast, but there’s still not enough info if someone it doesn’t deem worthy gets in a crash or drops out. At the very least, they need to follow up every single time a driver is involved in a crash to let viewers know if he’s OK, preferably with an interview if the action is slow. I give NBC a B- so far.
Allaway: NBC has a completely different technique to covering races as compared to FOX. It is still very modern, but has old-school touches as well. Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte are not really attention seekers; they want to bring the excitement to viewers. So far, I’m pretty happy. Having said that, I do have some gripes. They’re not as numerous as my issues with FOX, or with ESPN and Turner Sports in the past, though.
Howell: From what I’ve seen, the move to NBC has been a good one, but that’s given what I’ve actually been able to see. For those of us with very basic cable packages, NBCSN is like the Loch Ness Monster: it’s rumored to exist, but I have yet to catch a glimpse of it. And while NBC is a fixture of network coverage on even the simplest of cable packages, NASCAR events there seem to be overshadowed by other sporting events.
McLaughlin: At first after having been drowning in FOX’s maelstrom of self-promotion, ego stroking, lame attempts at humor and general stupidity anything else was like having your your heard break the surface for a gasp of fresh air. Now it’s like Dead Mule ND, something smells pretty bad around here. Seriously NBC seems determined to beat the Dead Mule of the Chase as if it can make it win the Kentucky Derby. Expect breathless reporting that Jeff Gordon must finish 17th or better to be in the Chase Saturday. Yep, if Aric Almirola finishes second and leads the most laps he must. Sigh. And for the love of God, STOP YELLING AT US!
Caldwell: I like NBCSN. There are always things you can nitpick about any coverage but I love the commentators on NBC as well. I think Burton and Letarte do a great job and Allen is nice as a play-by-play guy. It is also good at respecting the history of the sport, which is pretty awesome as well.