NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? When To Move On As NASCAR Enters Playoff Stretch

Did You Notice? Roush Fenway Racing drivers are thriving… elsewhere? On the heels of the Cup program missing its first Chase since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff format in 2004 is the awkward reality their team just isn’t very good. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle have combined for just three top-five finishes this year, a total that’s smaller than the four wins accumulated by Chase top seeds Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

What’s more troubling for one of the sport’s storied programs is how quickly its former drivers have found success elsewhere. Take a look at how the last two to leave the team, Kenseth and Carl Edwards compare to their replacements since leaving RFR….

Kenseth after RFR: 11 wins, 35 top-five finishes, 58 top 10s with Joe Gibbs Racing (2013-present)

Kenseth in final year (2012) with RFR (No. 17): 3 wins, 13 top-five finishes, 19 top 10s, fifth in points

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in No. 17 car (2013-present): 0 wins, 3 top-five finishes, 9 top 10s, no Chase appearances

Edwards after RFR: 2 wins, 3 top-five finishes, 9 top 10s with JGR (2015)

Edwards in final year (2014) with RFR (No. 99): 2 wins, 7 top-five finishes, 14 top 10s, ninth in points

Bayne in first year replacing Edwards (No. 6): 0 wins, 0 top-five finishes, 2 top 10s, 29th in driver points

As you can see, the gap between the superstars and their replacements suggest that at least some small part of the problem has to be in the driver’s seat. So will Roush be compelled to make a change? Stenhouse is signed through ’16 but appears to be the most expendable of all drivers at this point; former RFR young gun David Ragan is available on the market to replace him. Strong options in-house like Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chris Buescher could also move up with proper sponsorship. Bayne, meanwhile seems like he deserves another year and crew chief Bob Osborne is still relearning the weekly grind atop the pit box.

Of course, RFR could still stick with the status quo. But at this point, every internal personnel shift they could make has been done; mechanics are tired of getting threatened, shifted and released. It’s clear drivers like Stenhouse are the problem and a 10-race ticking clock has begun before major changes will reign down on the team going forward.

Did You Notice? 5 of the 16 drivers in this year’s Chase enter it without a victory? That leaves us a 31% chance at the moment that the Cup Series could have a winless champion. Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer have all qualified despite totaling 13 top-five finishes this season between them. Kevin Harvick, by comparison, has 18 in the first 26 events of the season.

The numbers aren’t good for those worried we’re going to have another 2014 Newman-like incident, one where a driver makes the Final Four at Homestead through consistency and not first-place finishes. What’s troubling is within that group there are drivers like Menard, a first-time Chaser who’s led one total lap all year and hasn’t won a race since the Brickyard 400 in 2011. Could you imagine a champion who’s led fewer laps than Brett Moffitt, Alex Bowman and Josh Wise? Menard is the least likely to take home the big trophy, but he’s still got a chance to do so nonetheless.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off….

  • Wal-Mart has emerged as a one-race sponsor for Sam Hornish Jr. and the No. 9 Ford this weekend. It’s always been confusing why the country’s largest discount department store has never made an investment in NASCAR beyond dipping its toe in a few times, most notably sponsoring Bill Elliott at Daytona a few years back. For Hornish, rumored to be on the way out in favor of Ragan or even Bowyer in 2016 it could be a last-ditch effort to impress. The biggest obstacle for the former open-wheeler in keeping his job has been attracting sponsorship support; there’s no better way to change that than by a top-five run for a company that boasts one of the deepest pockets in America.
  • It’s not surprising the Richmond race, considering its ho-hum competition and minimal playoff storylines drew a 1.7 Nielsen rating, down a whopping 37% from last year. But what’s interesting is how badly college football beat it, in particular the 5.0 rating scored by ABC’s Saturday night primetime broadcast. Even ESPN, putting out a 1.9 rating for LSU/Mississippi State outgunned NASCAR coverage. With that type of competition on tap the rest of the season, you wonder how low the bar could be set with so many Chase races still remaining on the harder-to-find-on-cable NBC Sports Network.
  • As if it’s not tough enough for NASCAR to draw fans to Chicagoland, the city’s NFL team has a home game Sunday. Despite a history of poor play as of late, the Bears will draw a sold-out crowd against the Arizona Cardinals while at least a few NASCAR fans for the region will switch their allegiance to Soldier Field. It’s yet another reason why the playoff opener shouldn’t be held in a metropolitan area that not only doesn’t care about the sport but holds its marquee race on one of the worst tracks to pass in America.

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Steve Cos

It is almost 50 miles from Chicagoland Speedway to downtown Chicago. It sits in Joliet, IL which is far more famous for its roll in the Blues Brothers than for any of the races there. I cringe with every mention of Chicago during the broadcast like they were right next door to Soldier Field or Wrigley Field.

Steve Cos

Your comments about Paul Menard show us which driver we need to root for this whole chase. If a guy who has led ONE LAP all year (and maybe that was a yellow lap) has a chance to win the championship than by golly we need to root him to the victory. Then and only then might NASCAR see how the Chase really is and that something else needs to be changed. Or eliminated.

Jerome

Right on Steve;

If we are going to have this shi@@y method to crown a champion I would at least take someone who has run every race-even if he has only led one lap-over someone who misses a large part of the (I choke as I write this phrase) regular season. I too am going to root like heck for Menard.

Jerome

Upstate24fan

I still find it unlikely that a winless driver will get the championship or even qualify for Homestead this year. Gordon, McMurray or Newman could do it, but it will take a huge turnaround in performance. Newman got there as much by other team’s mistakes than by performance alone. They should still make some sort of rule that you have to win by Phoenix to qualify for Homestead no matter what.

I agree, Chicagoland should be replace as the Chase opener. How about Watkins Glen? On the Richmond ratings, to be expected with the race being NBC Sports and not NBC over the air. However, I’m sure NBC is happy with that rating considering what they would normally get on NBC Sports on a Saturday night going against College Football.

russ

Explain to me again how Walmart, the number one retailer in the country (although Amazon may dispute that) can benefit by putting money into Nascar?

Bill B

Or any sponsor with the ratings as low as they are.

Steve

And why would Walmart purchase full season sponsorship when arguably the demographic they are looking for are already nascar fans and already shop at their stores?

russ

excellent point. No company is obligated to support these race teams by giving them money. They have to get something in return, and its more difficult to see how that is happening from motorsport.

GinaV24

Yes, the chase is a complete joke but will still be stuffed down the fans throats as though everyone loves it. I know some do and that’s great for them but I despise it and always have.

I think Steve Cos has it right about how “right” it would be to show up what nonsense this whole thing is by rooting for Menard, although it simply isn’t possible for me to do that. I’d love to see Gordon win the crapshoot in his final season although it pains me to say that based on this year’s performance and the fact they are going back to the 2015 package, I think that it is an unrealistic expectation on my part.

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