Say what you will about the 2015 Cup season, and a lot of you have had some very unkind things to say about it this year, but inarguably, it’s over. Sunday’s season finale probably won’t make many fans lists of “greatest races” ever, but at least it signaled the end of another season, a year in stock car racing that started out slowly and then petered out all together at times.
Welcome to NASCAR Gen 3. Owing to a fundamental disconnect between what the powers that be think the fans want and what those fans actually want, a once-proud sport that muscled its way to the head table with the stick and ball sports has gone into freefall, sliding from the much-heralded every race on network TV back to cable and then onto third-tier cable with ratings plummeting like Wile E. Coyote’s latest Acme rocket-skates experiment gone horribly wrong.
In an attempt to spice up the proceedings a bit, NASCAR has tossed the rulebook aside and quietly added an all-but-mandatory “debris caution” at the end of Cup races to liven things up a bit. Sunday, I could only shake my head and guess given that the race’s time slot had been extended to 8 p.m., the dwindling amount of laps left to be run, and the fact a pair of non-Chasers were running up front, that one of those debris cautions would fly with ten laps left to go. That was terribly cynical of me. The flag for debris actually waved with nine laps left to run. I have no idea what the debris was, but it sure did look like a soda straw and whatever it was it was launched into the ionosphere by the first passing car. It clearly posed no threat. It’s just a fact of life. In any corner of any race track during any event you can find debris if you look hard enough and it suits your purposes. Thus all debris cautions are legitimate. Usually completely unnecessary, but legitimate.
What I find irksome is right before that caution flew, there was actually some semblance of a race breaking out. Fans had endured yet another rain delay (any more questions as to why driver intros aren’t normally broadcast… they are painfully tedious to watch) and a processional excuse at a race but finally there was some legitimate drama. Kyle Larson, pretty in pink plaid, was driving the wheels off his car trying to run down race leader Brad Keselowski, brushing and banging against the wall on occasion as Larson threw caution to the wind… before NASCAR threw a caution for a soda wrapper that is. There’s no telling if Larson would have run down Keselowski or, if he did, if he’d been able to pass the No. 2 car. But it was a faceoff between a young driver who has endured a substandard season and was looking for his first Cup victory against a more seasoned former champion who has lost several shots at wins lately and has endured a season that by his own lofty standards has to be considered substandard too. Add in the fact that neither driver was in points contention so they didn’t “have to do what they had to do” and it likely would have been an interesting and physical nine laps of racing. But having a non-Chaser win the season finale and the new champion finishing third or fourth would have called into severe question the legitimacy of this whole Chase elimination farce of Brian France’s, a Rube Goldberg excuse of a points system that has taken stock car racing from a legitimate sport to a reality show equal to Survivor with fast cars. Yeah, OK, I didn’t have a case of Chase Fever on Sunday, but it seems an inoculation of common sense prevents that dreaded brain disease.
Why Keselowski chose the inside line for the final restart is beyond me. He’s got a long offseason ahead to consider the wisdom of that move. Could it be that Keselowski just decided the deck was stacked against him? If he beat Kyle Busch to the first corner, NASCAR would issue a penalty for going before the restart zone, and if Busch jumped the start to get to the first corner with the lead NASCAR would swallow their whistle. Who knows? The eventual outcome was Busch and Kevin Harvick running one-two with the big prize seven laps away. You could almost hear NASCAR officials crowing “Didn’t we tell you this was what was going to happen?” Yep, and they saw to it that it did, too. There was in fact some hard racing in those final seven laps. Jeff Gordon made a Quixotic charge from 10th to sixth, perhaps hoping that another caution would give him one last chance. But the cameras were focused on Busch and Harvick as Busch waived a jaunty little goodbye and drove off into the distance. Yep, that was the big payoff for those fans who did stick out the season, Busch, 2015 Cup champion by 1.6 seconds over reigning titlist Harvick. Didn’t you read the headlines this morning? Oops, sorry, there were no headlines about the race, not even on the sports pages. Those pesky folks at the NFL wouldn’t even sit out Ford Championship Weekend to allow NASCAR to grab the spotlight. The audacity of those people!
No reasonable person is going to argue that Busch is an extremely talented wheelman capable of winning just about any Sunday on any track anywhere. Only his family members and members of his fan club (who all showed up in a Pontiac Fiero for the race) will argue that when things don’t go his way Busch is often a reprehensible prick whose childish tantrums have long since worn thin not only with many fans but with his former car owners. In any sport, if you play by the rules and prevail, victory is yours. But one has to question whether Busch was entitled to be championship eligible this year after missing the first 11 races. Yes, Busch broke his leg and foot in a savage wreck during the NXS season opener at Daytona after hard contact with a concrete wall unprotected by a SAFER barrier. NASCAR felt awful about that. After all Daytona is owned by International Speedway Corporation, which is run by the France family, much like NASCAR.
I hate to see any driver get hurt. I legitimately do. But perhaps the chance of getting injured running a Saturday race and having it effect their day job is what keeps some Cup regulars on the sidelines for the NXS and truck races rather than cherry-picking in the lower divisions. As I see it it’s like someone winning a triathlon only he didn’t have to do the swimming portion of the course because he had an ear infection. Yes, Busch had to make his way into the top 30 in points to be eligible. Are there really 30 teams good enough to make that cut? More importantly he had to win a race, and Busch managed to win four of them in a five-race period. I’d be willing to debate that based on that alone, he should have been Chase-eligible, but I think that NASCAR has opened a can of worms here they’ll regret down the road. Either way, Busch is the Cup champion. My guess is he’ll do a far better job defending that title on the track than he will as serving as an ambassador for the sport off the track. But that’s only fair. He signed up to drive racecars, not serve as an ambassador.
The race, as you might have heard mentioned somewhere, was the final Cup event for four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Yes, it would have been pure Hollywood if he’d managed to win the title in his final race, but the odds were pretty much stacked against that happening. Face it, Gordon won only one race this year, one of just five top-five finishes Gordon earned. That’s the lowest amount of top fives in his entire Cup career. For comparison’s sake, Gordon scored 26 top fives in 33 races back in 1998, one of the dizzying set of record stats he’s managed over the last 23 years. While Gordon’s inclusion in the Final Four made for good copy, it also calls the sanity of Brian France’s elimination system into serious question. Joey Logano had six victories, one more than Gordon’s top-five total, and Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson had five wins, but none of them made the cut. They tell me something similar could happen in football. Which is why I don’t watch football.
Over the years Gordon has developed a massive fanbase and it will be interesting to see how many of them stop following the sport now that he won’t be competing any longer. Several posters here have already said once Gordon is gone they are too. (For those of you in that number, so long and thanks for the fishes. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with you and appreciate your support over the years. And I absolutely promise no one will taunt you if you still decide to watch an occasional NASCAR race on a rainy chilly afternoon and comment on it afterwards. That’s not how I roll. We’re all bros here at Frontstretch. Well bros and sisters of course.)
Of course, Logano and Kenseth had something to do with one another not making the Final Four. Yep, two or three years from now when asked if they recall any particular instant from the 2015 Cup season, the one most people will recall is Kenseth pile driving Logano into the wall at Martinsville. Yes, there was mixed opinion about what Kenseth did, whether it was just flat out despicable or “quintessential” NASCAR racing, but at least the dustup got people talking about a NASCAR race on some other topic other than “how bad did yesterday’s race suck? NASCAR birthed kittens because the wreck was one of those all too rare un-scripted moments of excitement this season. The poor flagman seemed confused. He was forced to throw a caution and it wasn’t 10 laps to go! NASCAR dropped the hammer on Kenseth, but I think the move might have backfired. Going by drive intros at Homestead Kenseth was loudly cheered as a driver who had been wronged while Logano’s reception was a bit chillier. If you want to embrace victimhood, you’re better off on a college campus than in the garage area.
What else can we take away from the 2015 season? Well Michigan and Indy were just awful, all but unwatchable. Those races featured an experimental aero package which presumably was taken behind the woodshed and humanely euthanized with a single large caliber shot. Kentucky (once they got things going) and Darlington were far better. Those races featured an alternative aero package with lower downforce, one that presumably will be in place for most races next year. That package was loudly applauded by fans and drivers alike. Why they didn’t adopt that package for the Chase to spice things up legitimately? I can’t tell you. I think NASCAR said that it wouldn’t have been fair. So when in the last couple decades has NASCAR been fair?
The scariest wreck of the season was Austin Dillon’s hitting the catchfence hard on the final lap at Daytona in July. (For those who’d been able to remain awake after yet another lengthy rain delay, as opposed to Phoenix, when NASCAR saw to it fans got to bed at a reasonable time.) That wreck could easily have been tragic not just for Dillon, but for fans seated in the affected area trying to dry out their shoes. The second scariest wreck was Busch’s crash in the NXS race at Daytona. Campers, what did those two wrecks have in common? If you guessed “they both happened at plate tracks” you get a free bag of Cheezy-Poofs. So what does NASCAR plan to do to make the drivers and fans safer at the plate tracks? Well… um…. they’ll limit GWC attempts to one… or at least one attempt and one “kind of sort of but not really cause we say so” restart. See Brian France is on record as really, really liking pack racing, an opinion he’ll probably hold until they bolt a passenger seat into a racecar at Talladega or Daytona and have him ride along.
The race that epitomized 2015 for me was the fall Dover race. Harvick “had to win” to continue in the playoffs and he won. In fact, he led 355 of 400 laps, occasionally by margins over 10 seconds ahead of the second-place runner. Afterwards NASCAR and the TV types were ecstatic. That was a Game 7 moment. See, Harvick had to win and he did! Wasn’t that exciting! Actually it was stultifyingly boring. I have that one saved on my DVR for this winter in case a bout of insomnia interrupts my long winter nap. Yet, another glaring example of that fundamental disconnect between sizzle and steak. Afterwards Harvick backed his car into the wall doing doughnuts. Kind of hard to measure the car after that happened to ensure it was legal. As it stands written in the Book of the Dead, “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.” Yep, between that move and what he did at Talladega on the “this time we really mean it” last restart if NASCAR continues turning the sport into The Whacky Racers, Harvick, not Kenseth, will get the nod as Dick Dastardly.
So, yep it’s finally over. The 2015 Cup season adds fuel to the fire that the Cup schedule is WAY too long and needs to be trimmed back to a more manageable size. What does 2016 hold for those who choose to continue following the sport? I’m genuinely curious to see how the new low-aero package effects the races. I’m sure there will be some debacles as drivers and teams (and Goodyear) get used to the new package, but my gut tells me the ratio of classics to clinkers will be much better next year. It would be hard to imagine it could get any worse. As Gordon’s fans celebrated his final season on the circuit, so perhaps Tony Stewart’s fans will want to follow their boy’s final circuit of the merry-go-round next year. Of course some casual fans I’ve talked to were surprised to hear Stewart is retiring at the end of 2016. They thought he’d left a couple years ago. Stewart had no wins, no top fives and just three top 10s in 2015. He led a whopping 24 laps. His last win occurred at Dover in June of 2013. Stewart apparently thinks his crew chief is to blame. Yep, that’s got to be it.
Off the track, it will be interesting to see how things play out with this new owners’ organization. NASCAR has historically shown little tolerance for the peons storming Bastille Daytona. (Am I the only one that thinks the owners’ council should have decided on what penalty Kenseth had earned for wrecking Logano?) Higher up the food chain there’s that fledgling team owners association as well, and talks about franchising, though lately it’s been called “medallions.” And of course NASCAR has to come up with a new title sponsor for the Cup series. Sprint is leaving. In fact I’m told they’d have liked to leave this year but no suitable replacement could be found. With ticket sales and TV ratings down substantially overall this year, it’s going to be a tough sell. The current tracks on the schedule are locked in for five years, and the owners want those medallions. Sure sounds to me like they’re circling the wagons and getting ready to endure some tough challenges ahead at least short term.
Think what you might of the current state of stock car racing and the 2015 season. At least it’s over and that’s one more reason to offer thanks at the table Thursday evening. There’s only so much “quintessential” NASCAR some of us can take.
Yeah, it’s over before you know it,
It all goes by so fast,
Yeah, the bad nights last forever,
And the good nights don’t ever seem to last,
But wherever you are tonight,
I wish you the best of everything in the world,
And buddies, I hope you find,
Whatever you were looking for…….
-Tom Petty- (30 long years ago)