Anyone else underwhelmed by the first round of the Chase, er, playoffs?
The race drew just a 1.8 rating, which means somewhere in the neighborhood of three million fans tuning in to enjoy the action. On a positive note, that number also put the race as the most-watched sporting event that wasn’t football (Reminder to everyone, football rules the world). Perhaps underwhelmed is the totally wrong word, as the race had everything that the powers-that-be want right now. So let’s look over the checklist really quick, because it looked like the race at Chicagoland hit all of the pertinent boxes in the NASCAR playbook.
First, drama. There are a number of ways to think about this aspect but there are a few that stand out as prime examples of what provides compelling storylines. Denny Hamlin spins in the first few laps and looks like he won’t be a factor. Jimmie Johnson ruins Kevin Harvick’s day in a tussle in between two championship drivers. Pit-road speeding violations for everyone! Good stuff all around.
Second, restarts. If there’s one thing that NASCAR loves, it’s restarts. Of course, restarts also mean that some kind of pause in the action occurred, which may be tied to another of the the sport’s current loves: debris cautions, the things that seem to pop up in an arbitrary manner, though possibly could be called at any time, yet often shouldn’t be.
Restarts are the hot topic right now. Did Jeff Gordon jump? Well, did Matt Kenseth at Richmond? But look at all the wonderful stuff that happens on the double-file restarts. That’s right, drivers that otherwise would not have been in contention jump out of nowhere to earn finishes that seem disingenuous to the rest of their day. While that continues to smell fishy, it’s what they want, or else they wouldn’t have the rules written as they do. (Please direct vitriol to: firstname.lastname@example.org, the official email address for fans to contact NASCAR.)
Third, Cinderella. Hamlin coming back to win from being almost two laps down is quite the story and makes for good copy when the national media throws the story out there. The one question that this column asks is: who is it, other than some fans in southern Virginia, that roots for Hamlin? Wherever you are, congrats.
There’s probably fourth, fifth, sixth and other points to be made, but by now the hope is you get the gist of things.
Happiness Is… Wussiness. The sanctioning body got one of those other things it has loved as of late: a feud between two drivers with a little bit of hot-headedness thrown in for fun. With Harvick shove-punching Johnson, the footage showed that, yes, these drivers do get emotional and that they also don’t know how to or don’t really want to fight. Harvick is a blackbelt in something but didn’t look like he was going to break out any of those special skills. Think back to last year’s Chase, er, playoffs, and we can see that Kenseth isn’t bringing UFC beatdown madness, nor is Gordon or Brad Keselowski. Basically, the drivers get confrontation, push each other around and then they get separated and life goes on and they’ll probably say something boisterous to a reporter or on Twitter but nothing will really come of it; it’s been the same story for a while now.
The governing body plays right along. It has to love the attention brought to the sport when these feuds happen, just like MLB loves bench-clearing brawls and the NHL loves its throw-downs. It’s easy advertising. Thus, there’s no surprise here in the fact that NASCAR announced that everything was copacetic and that no one will be penalized. If anything, it’s thanking Johnson for making things interesting. Still largely ignored is Joey Logano’s role in the on-track incident.
Happiness Is… Handling. Getting out of the NASCAR world for a moment and jumping to Formula 1, the race this past weekend, the Singapore Grand Prix, brought about some rather interesting results from start to finish. To begin, Mercedes failed to win the pole for the first time in 98… OK, 23 races. One mark away from the record, Mercedes struggled to find speed in the practice sessions and it showed as the two drivers started in fifth and sixth, or what would be considered amazingly slow for the silver arrow team.
During the race, Lewis Hamilton’s car succumbed to gremlins forcing him out and allowing for teammate Nico Rosberg and race winner Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari to make up some ground. It should still be noted that Hamilton’s lead is almost a stout two races wins ahead of those two, so it’s not likely he’s freaking out. However, if Mercedes doesn’t return to the form it’s known, that might change. And that’s the question following Singapore: Was the race a glitch for the team or has Ferrari actually caught them? The bigger question after Singapore is: What the hell was the dude thinking who emerged on track about two-thirds of the way into the race?
Happiness Is… the B-series. Kyle Busch won yet again in the Xfinity Series this past weekend, inspiring another collective yawn from much of the NASCAR fanbase. That Busch battled Kenseth for much of the race shows that the Cup regulars, and even more so with Gibbs drivers, continue to dominate the series. While it’s hard to ignore the fact that Busch banks 74 B-series wins, what’s also dubious are the next names on the list, wins in parentheses: Mark Martin (49), Harvick (46), Carl Edwards (38), Keselowski (33), Jack Ingram (31) and then Kenseth (29). Most of the names on the list continued accumulating heir wins after securing a championship or a solid Cup ride.
Consider this: since 2007, only one time has the driver who won the championship also driven the car that won the owners’ championship. That’s kind of crazy. What this hodgepodge of information indicates is that the series has no idea about its own identity. Is it a playground for everyone? Is it supposed to be the strict spot for young drivers to hone their skills? If it needs the Cup drivers to keep things solvent, then where is all the new contract money going? NASCAR’s attempt to limit Cup driver participation has been a rule with no fangs and needs imaginative reworking. The good news, however, is that the next Xfinity race, at Kentucky this weekend, doesn’t feature the usual cadre of moonlighting Cup participants. Enjoy.