Did You Notice? … No Sprint Cup race has had more than eight caution flags all season? The 51 laps we ran under yellow at Martinsville were the fewest for that track since 1996; overall, the number of slowdowns have dropped significantly for the first six events.
TOTAL CAUTION FLAGS – FIRST SIX RACES
It’s a 39 percent decline over 2015, green-flag momentum that began with this year’s relatively clean Daytona 500 and continued through Sunday’s Martinsville race that featured mostly one-car incidents. The drop is impressive considering the numbers through the years have been fairly consistent: six times over the past ten years we’ve had between 54 and 59 yellow flags during this opening stretch.
What gives? It’s a small surprise considering NASCAR’s new rules package has made the handling package more challenging for the drivers over a long green-flag run; we’ve seen more people just “lose it,” like Denny Hamlin Sunday than we have in quite sometime. But for every self-induced incident, we’ve seen a sharp reduction in the number of DNFs and also a pretty strong track record by Goodyear (with the possible exception of Fontana). When your engine doesn’t break, your tires hold up and your speeds are controlled – pole-winning times have been down in four of six races thus far – chances at running a clean race rise significantly.
The new rules package has also provided an added bonus from the officiating tower: better racing means less boredom and reduces NASCAR’s tendency to try and manipulate races through “mystery” cautions. At this point last year, a whopping 24 of 56 yellows (43%) were caused by either fluid, “debris,” or a flat out competition stoppage openly declared by NASCAR.
This season? Those numbers stand at eight of 34 (23.5%). Most of those have been for real debris, too easily shown on camera and identified as a natural occurrence. The disappearance of “debris,” litter on the track that could be found virtually any lap, anytime is a refreshing occurrence. The more the officials stay out of racing decisions, the better….
Did You Notice? … Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is tied for 19th in average start this season? It’s yet another sign the sport’s new rules package allows drivers to work toward the front. Johnson’s only qualified in the top 10 once this year, at Phoenix last month but has a net gain of +63 spots during the race from where he starts on the grid.
It’s a promising sign someone with that poor a Friday could come back to fly through the field on Sundays, winning twice thus far and sitting second in the championship standings. By comparison, each of last year’s Final Four contenders ranked 11th or better in the series in average start; it was a necessity as passing was near impossible.
While we’re at it with Johnson, let’s take a look at oft-criticized teammate Kasey Kahne driving the same Hendrick Motorsports equipment. Kahne has an 11.7 average start, good for sixth-best on the Cup circuit but has a net loss of -48 positions on race day. Just once this season has the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet wound up in a better spot than he started, a marginal gain from 24th to 22nd at Phoenix. With Johnson across the way dominating on Sunday setups it’s another question mark in a line of them for why the No. 5 team can’t get it together.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- There’s been so much focus on NASCAR ratings this year but even a down market for stock car racing can boost other national series. With the Martinsville race as a lead-in NHRA competition from Las Vegas posted their best television rating Sunday in 14 years; 1.3 million viewers tuned in for their finals action from Las Vegas. Drag racing has seen an increase across the board since jumping to FOX and pairing the product with NASCAR has paid major dividends. Are you listening, IndyCar? (Cough, why aren’t you bending over backwards to get more NASCAR drivers to pull double duty Memorial Day weekend, cough)
- Speaking of ratings, NASCAR’s Martinsville event was the first to post an increase in viewership for 2016. Considering how far the sport had fallen, ratings down as much as 27 percent year-to-year for the second race of the season at Atlanta the ability to “catch up” is a promising sign. Perhaps the new rules package is paying dividends? What I don’t understand, though is the barrage of empty seats we saw at Martinsville. Yes, it was a little cold but the fall version of that event only produced perhaps the best NASCAR race ever run at the track. The ticket prices are reasonable, the racing is always good, they have a world famous hot dog… why do fans not go to this short track? I want answers.
- When will Matt Kenseth’s luck turn around? At this point, his bad luck situations at the end of races are borderline comical. The No. 20 team could now be easily overlooked this year; this poor start that will almost certainly leave them with one of the lower point totals of drivers who make the playoffs. I’m not fooled though. This team has clearly shown the speed that could see them go on a two or three-race run; perhaps this Saturday at Texas is where it starts?