NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: It’s Always Something

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Since all NASCAR races are run out of doors, sometimes it’s going to rain. It’s just unfortunate it had to happen prior to the season’s first night race, one already starting late here on the East Coast due to Texas’s Central Time Zone location. Having a race end in the early morning hours back when I used to be watching Creature Double feature in a cloud of cannabis smoke during my misspent youth isn’t going to boost this season’s already sagging TV ratings. But postponing the race until Sunday was never an option. That would have put the Texas Motor Speedway event up against the Masters. Golf? Really? Remember when NASCAR told us that stock car racing was the second most popular sport in America and within a few years they’d be beating the NFL in the ratings? But on a brighter note, this same race was rained out two years ago and had to be held on Monday.

As most of us predicted this year with the new low-downforce aero package, it was almost inevitable that one or two teams and a couple drivers were going to get their arms around the new challenge first and would dominate early in the season. Clearly Joe Gibbs Racing – and its satellite organization, the No. 78 bunch – have done so. Saturday night Martin Truex, Jr. led 141 laps, and JGR’s Carl Edwards led 124 of 334. Kyle Busch led the final 33 circuits after a series of late race cautions turned pit strategy into a high speed game of musical chairs. The official margin of victory was just under four seconds, an eternity in a stock car race. All five JGR drivers finished in the top 12. Kyle Busch scored his fourth victory in a NASCAR touring division race in just eight days. Yep, it would seem JGR has adapted best to the new rules. And few people are going to recall Saturday night’s race as an instant classic. Five out of six beer rating? Really, compadre? I wish you’d been grading my high school science projects, Mr. Neff.

NEFF: Thinkin’ Out Loud – Kyle Busch’s Late Push Snatches Victory in Texas

But all hope is not lost. All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished in the top 8. And given the nature of NASCAR racing over the past five decades, any time one or two teams start dominating, the other teams step up to the plate and a competitive balance is restored. In addition to being well paid in most instances, the crew chiefs and engineers in the Cup garage are a prideful bunch. If it’s difficult for fans of those teams to watch their favorite drivers getting their faces rubbed in it, it’s even worse when the guy who signs your paycheck is looking at you at the Monday morning team meeting wondering why his cars are running like rhinos on roller skates.

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)
Martin Truex, Jr.’s team is reaping the benefits of a new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing this season.(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

The cooler temperatures during most night races also provide better grip at most tracks than would a race run on a hot summer afternoon. The rain was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Going into the weekend the forecast only called for a 10 percent chance of rain Saturday night. While the rain wasn’t Biblical like it was at some tracks last year, it did rain hard enough to wash away the rubber put down on the track surface during practices and the support events, throwing a monkey wrench into the team’s setups. The real test of the low downforce package will be at the mid-sized tracks this summer when the midday heat turns the track surfaces greasy and loose. That’ll give us all a better indication of which drivers are the cruisers and which are the wheelmen. Few reasonable fans expected the new rules package to be an instant and constant panacea for all that’s ailed Cup racing the last half decade.

I do find it amusing that if somehow Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had found a way around the No. 18 in those final 33 laps, a large portion of the alleged NASCAR Nation would have hailed the race as the best of the season. For more reasonable longtime fans, the best races are the ones you still recall in detail despite the fact your favorite driver blew an engine 20 laps into the event.

Nor can I adhere to mindset that any event Kyle Busch wins was a lousy race. I agree he’s single handedly sucking all the fun out of the Saturday races, but then I’ve never cottoned to the top tier of Cup drivers cherry-picking the AAA series races on Saturday. The track promoters claim they need the big name drivers in the Truck and XFINITY series races to sell tickets. I’d point out that those grandstands look to be about a quarter full on Saturdays anyway, and with the winner almost preordained week in and week out, the TV ratings are in freefall.

I still consider myself an avid race fan but on Saturday I managed to do my taxes, run through a load of laundry and download Windows 10 onto my phone during the course of the NXS race and I don’t feel like I missed a thing. Busch has run five NXS races this season and won four of them. He’d almost certainly have won the other one were it not for a blown tire late in the race relegating him to a second-place finish (and a king hell hissy fit afterward as a result.) He’s led 776 of a possible 913 laps in those five races and won the pole for three of them; he qualified third for the other two. In fact to date, all six NXS races have been won by Cup regulars. That leads to an awkward scenario where none of the 16 drivers who qualify for the inaugural NXS Chase will have won a race. Yes, some Cup drivers can use the extra laps run on Saturdays as part of the learning curve for their day job – drivers like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson come to mind – but I feel, as I always have, that any driver in the top 12 in Cup points shouldn’t be allowed to race in the NXS or Truck series. Perhaps Bass Masters/Remington could come up with a unique trophy for Cup drivers who win support races, a submersible, sighted shotgun for shooting fish in a barrel.

But as far as winning on Sunday, that’s what the younger Busch brother gets paid the big bucks to do. No, he’s not very popular (though of course there are growing numbers of KyBu fans out there….bless their pointed little heads) but that’s not unprecedented. In their primes drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had armies of detractors. When one driver is winning constantly, that means all the rest of the drivers are losing constantly and their fans sometimes don’t take it well.

While he was all but canonized after his death, what I remember best about Dale Earnhardt in his prime was like or him or loathe him, fans always kept an eye on that black and silver No. 3 car because towards the end of the race he was likely to be bulling his way to the front WFO and taking no prisoners as he advanced. Of course that wasn’t always the case. A lot of times he’d already taken the lead early in the race. It’s interesting that even as a seven-time champion, Earnhardt won the Most Popular Driver award just once, posthumously, in 2001. His son, who has never won the title, has won the award for thirteen straight years. Given a choice between titles and popularity, I’d suppose just about every Cup driver would prefer the former to the latter.

And like most of the drivers who’ve been roundly booed despite success, Busch has spent years claiming the negative reaction from fans doesn’t bother him. I think Earnhardt himself summed up his reaction to the booing following his very controversial win at Bristol, the “rattle his cage” race, when he told the TV reporter, “If they ain’t cheering they damn well better boo.” DW took it a step further once challenging all those fans cheering his misfortune at Charlotte to meet him at the local K-Mart to settle the issue with their fists. The fact he’s alive today indicates someone smarter than him, which amounts to almost everyone else in the world, talked Waltrip out of making that trip. But eventually it does get under those drivers’ skins and as of late, Busch has been trying to get touchy-feely stories about himself out there, perhaps most notably with the YouTube video of him surprising a fan with an autographed ballcap while stuck in traffic after the Martinsville race. Hmmm. Maybe if he could ask Junior to make a sandwich with Hellman’s mayonnaise and M and M’s on plain white bread he’d get even more popular… with everyone other than dentists of course.

But just as I won’t vilify Kyle, nor will I join the small cadre of his devotees beating their drums that Busch is the greatest NASCAR driver ever given his recent success. There’s no doubt Busch is on a roll. Just last year he won four of five races between Sonoma and Indianapolis en route to one final win at Homestead that sealed his championship. And there’s no arguing that Busch is an adaptable driver given that he won the first race in the lost and unlamented “Car of Tomorrow” as well as the first race (Kentucky last year) with the new low-downforce car. Notable achievements all, but not enough to earn the best ever status, just best right now.

In 1967, Richard Petty won 27 of the 48 Cup races he ran, He won everything from the Southern 500 to the 2/10ths of a mile bullring at Islip, NY to the 9/10th of a mile dirt track at notoriously violent Hillsborough Speedway. From Aug. 12 at Winston-Salem through Oct. 1 at North Wilkesboro, Petty won 10 consecutive Cup races at the wheel of that now infamous bright blue Plymouth GTX. He won six of the eight races leading up to that unbelievable streak of 10 straight wins. And for the record the King raked in a total of just over $150,000 that season, about half what Tony Stewart earned for finishing 42nd at last year’s Daytona 500. But, some of the historical revisionists will try to tell you, Petty was a factory Mopar driver and he had no real competition. Yeah, except for maybe David Pearson, who won the championships in 1966, 1968, and 1969 as well as his 105 career victories. Or Bobby Allison who racked up 85 career victories. Or that year’s Rookie of the Year, Cale Yarborough, who went on to win three consecutive titles.

My point here is that the hot streak Busch has enjoyed early this season is enviable and notable, but hardly qualifies him for the status of legend quite yet. JGR is on a roll, but other teams are sorting out this new rules package as well. And until they do, and be mindful JGR won’t be resting on their laurels waiting for the other teams to catch up; occasionally there’s going to be a blow out like Saturday night’s race at Texas.

Oddly enough even among the drivers and teams struggling to get back up to speed this year, I haven’t heard anyone suggesting it would be best if we went back to last year’s rules package, or maybe Brian France’s vision of a new higher downforce rules package as run at Indy and Michigan last year might have some merit after all. I once dated (briefly I assure you) a young lady who was such an optimist she made Pollyanna look like Ted Cruz. She even saw the good side of having a bad cold or the flu telling me you had to get sick occasionally to truly appreciate feeling well the rest of the time.

So maybe we as fans have to endure an occasional race like Texas with an eight-second gap between the first and second place runners for much of the race and only 14 cars left on the lead lap to truly appreciate better races that doubtlessly lay ahead. Perhaps the promoters at Bristol could use the ever-effervescent Vickie’s mindset to sell tickets this coming weekend with a marketing campaign like “Honestly, what are the chances our race could suck as badly as Texas last week?”

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)
Does the Chase give teams enough incentive to race hard early in the season? (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

I’m still concerned if perhaps this whole Chase concept the sport is currently saddled with is having a negative effect on the quality of racing. Earlier this week, International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s track-owning sister entity, admitted early-season ticket sales are down in part because fans were opting to attend races during the Chase and not earlier in the season.

Clearly Busch could go hells bells there at the end in Texas because he’d won a race already this season, almost certainly qualifying him for a Chase berth. For Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in second, a win would have been nice to get his dance card punched, but he’s doing well enough in the points anyway the risk-reward ratio was skewed. For a driver like Jimmie Johnson, who has already won two races this year, a couple pit road issues and the near-miss in the Dillon accident probably tempered his decision making. Oh, he passed teammate Chase Elliott right there at the end but my guess is if the circumstances were the same and Johnson had had to win the race to advance in the playoffs he’d have driven harder in an attempt to score his fourth consecutive TMS win.

For a driver like Trevor Bayne, who more than likely won’t win a race this year, a long shot gamble to stay out on worn tires, make one less pit stop and hope the yellows flew at the right intervals to let him sneak a win was interesting. I suppose that’s a valid strategy given the way the entire RFR outfit has struggled of late, but it brings up another troubling possibility. What if at a future race, a driver who hasn’t contended all day or in fact all season, happens to be leading during a green flag sequence of pit stops and takes the lead just as rain begins to pelt the track, leading to a red flag that ends the race for the day? That driver is now in the Chase displacing another driver who has been running solidly all season. Unlikely? Recall Joey Logano won his first Cup race at New Hampshire in 2009 thanks to Mother Nature. If the current Chase format were in place, he’d have made the cut that year when in fact Logano ended up 20th in the points considering that win was one of just three top-5 finishes and seven top-10 results he earned all year.

So while I remain convinced the new aero rules package will lead to better racing down the road, to get the sport back to the level of excitement the fans are hoping for, the Chase concept has to go the way of whitewall tires and New Coke. I’d like to see them go back to the old Latford points system last used in 2003 with a few important updates. First there would be a 75 to 100 point bonus for winning a race. An additional 1/10th of a point would be added for each green-lag lap led. For example if a driver led the race start to finish at Texas Saturday he’d get 33.4 points towards the title. I figure that would get drivers needing points back up there battling for the lead lap after lap like hungry hounds trying to grab hold of a T-bone steak. And finally I’d let each driver throw out their worst five or six finishes of the season when the year end points were tallied so an occasional high risk attempt to get a win that ended badly wouldn’t doom his or her title chances.

A Few More Thoughts on a Soggy Night in Texas:  While Truex, Jr. and Edwards dominated the race at TMS other drivers enjoyed some strong runs at well. Perhaps most notably Elliott scored the first top-5 finish of his nascent Cup career. Elliott had been running fourth up until the final lap when he was passed by his HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson coming to the stripe, a pass not shown on TV as FOX heaped hosannas on race winner Kyle Busch. It’s widely held that an up-and-coming driver must begin stringing together top-10 finishes before he can reliably finish in the top 5. And once a driver routinely finishes in the top 5 he can realistically have a shot at winning. Elliott has now racked up four top 10s in this season’s seven Cup races. Recall that the scion of the Elliott clan won the NXS race at Richmond last fall, beating none other than Kyle Busch himself to the line.

Elliott’s teammate Kasey Kahne finished eighth Saturday night/Sunday morning his best outing to date this year in the Cup series. While Trevor Bayne’s team’s pit strategy gamble didn’t pan out, his 15th-place finish was his best of the season too. Matt Kenseth’s seventh-place finish was his second best result this year though he’s typically been running up front for the majority of the races. Jamie McMurray’s 13th-place finish was his second-best result this year as well. (McMurray finished seventh at Phoenix.) Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s second-place finish also matched his best result of 2016 to date.  

The less said about the pre-race invocation the better. Saturday night’s race was the last with the Duck Commander sponsorship, which was actually less controversial than the previous NRA sponsorship in some people’s minds. Eddie Gossage and his merry band will have to shop around for another title sponsor next year. Hmmm…maybe the American Furriers “Baby Seals Actually Enjoy Getting Clubbed” 500? While we’re on the topic, there’s simply no reason both TMS races couldn’t be shortened to 400 miles. There may be no limits at TMS, but there are decided limits in fans’ attention spans devoted towards largely processional races with 20-second gaps between the leader and the driver in fifth. The Southern 500, the Daytona 500 and World 600 are the only three races that tradition dictates should remain at their current lengths. And the Southern 500 and World 600 need to be moved back to afternoon races as well.

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Bill B

“What if at a future race, a driver who hasn’t contended all day or in fact all season, happens to be leading during a green flag sequence of pit stops and takes the lead just as rain begins to pelt the track, leading to a red flag that ends the race for the day?”

It actually has happened Matt. Aric Almirola did that in 2014 in the July race at Daytona. That race was rain shortened and at that point he wasn’t in the top 16 (according to my NASCAR Sprint Cup 2014 Yearbook).

DoninAjax

Did you notice who posted the article?

Broken Arrow

Funny that now the detractors are resorting to “Kyle isn’t the Greatest Of All Time,” “Kyle isn’t a Legend,” “Kyle isn’t Richard Petty,” “Kyle will never be MPD,” when 18 months ago, the cry was the that Kyle can’t win the big ones; Kyle can’t win a championship…….Oh, how far the boy has come in raising the stakes of hatred!

Kyle’s driving talent speaks for itself, but the popularity issue is interesting. Kyle actually DID finish in the Top Ten in MPD voting last season. He is among NASCAR’s leaders in Twitter and Facebook followers. Dale Senior would never have won an MPD if he hadn’t died in action – and if Bill Elliott hadn’t taken his name off the ballot in 2001, even that posthumous honor would likely never have happened.

This site is apparently dedicated to the proposition that everything about Kyle Busch is bad for the sport, bad for America and bad for humanity. But every story needs a villain and there are millions of people who routinely cheer for the bad boy.

As for Kyle dominating the NXS Series, look at the actual results of the Texas race. Four of the top five finishers were Cup regulars and the other one was driving JGR equipment. It is the teams of JGR, Penske, JRM, RCR, and Roush who dominate NXS races. Nobody is stealing wins from the “little guy” because the little guy is lucky to stay on the lead lap against the big money teams. When Kyle finally sits out an NXS race, some other Cup regular or one of their teammates will win. Will that make everything right with the world?

And how about last season? Kyle missed the first half of the NXS season with injury, yet who among you remembers who won the races he missed? You don’t care about the “little guys;” it’s just one big guy you hate – and that’s YOUR problem.

raceaddict

Absolutely love reading your stuff, Matt.

Roxy

If Bruce Springsteen can cancel a concert in North Carolina (a political statement) due to LBGT issues and not raise an eyebrow, why can’t the Duck Commander man make his political views apparent in his prayer?

Old_Timer

Matt … since this is one of the best articles you’ve ever written (and I can’t recall even one “bad one”), I don’t really have any comments (at this time … I am sure I will think of something later … LOL).

So … I will just add these tidbits … … …

A) … … I have long suggested any driver in the TOP 35 (or some other fair number) in their division’s Driver Standings can not drop down and compete in a lower division … meaning also Xfinity regulars can not drop down to the Truck Series, no one can drop down to K&N, etc. As I tell everyone … when I go to an Atlanta Braves game (yeah, so what they’re 0 and 6 … LOL) I want to see the ATLANTA Braves; when I drive up the road 25 miles to see the (AAA) Gwinnett Braves, I want to see the GWINNETT Braves! I attended the Xfinity/Camping World double-header last month at Atlanta Motor Speedway and, as my “date” for the day — my MOTHER(!!) — said it best: “This (the Xfinity race) would have been a good race if all those Sprint Cup drivers weren’t in it!” BTW … she has been attending races for 72 years — I think she knows what she is talking about!! Then again … this is The South! Mothers ALWAYS know what they are talking about!!

B) … … I would pay good money to see a rhino on roller skates!!

C) … … Re: “Creature Feature” … and its “amenities” you mentioned … in the ’70s I used to watch SHOCK THEATRE from a TV station in Augusta … who had a host who was out in a foggy graveyard and he rose up from a coffin dressed like Dracula … and the character’s name was COUNT JUSTIN SANE … … but, the best part, was “Count Justin Sane’s” REAL name was … get this … ROBIN GRAVES!! … … you can look him up if you don’t believe me (though last I heard he was a “Guest of The State” in South Carolina” … he AND his wife were doing something they ought not have been doing involving some underage kids … but, I digress … … …) … … … …

Keep up the fantastic work, my friend!!

— Old_Timer

Old_Timer

One more thing … Cale Yarborough never won Rookie-Of-The-Year … … I believe 1967 was the “year in question” when Donnie Allison was RoY. I forgive you, Matt!!

Old_Timer

Oh … … the comment of shortening the Texas races to 400 miles … … I am 100% in FAVOR of changing ONE race to 400 miles … … … I was always a fan of when a track hosts two races, the two races be of different lengths … … only Daytona and Charlotte still do that … but, once upon a time so did Darlington … Atlanta … … … I would love to see Pocono, Michigan, and Dover move ONE race to 500 miles … ONE at Richmond to 500 laps … shorten one Martinsville and Bristol race (yeah, shoot me about Bristol) to 400 laps … yes, even shorten one at Talladega to 400 miles (I would say lengthen one to 600 miles, but that takes away from the charm of the WORLD 600) … New Hampshire — not sure if to raise one to 400 laps — or, shorten one to 200 laps (how about a 250 and a 350?)! Phoenix did run a 600K a couple of years ago. Riverside ran a 500 and a 400 (which were later shortened to 500K and 400K). Also, in 1969, they scheduled a 600 at Michigan, but only ran about 330 miles due to rain … the other was a 500 … and they ran 500 for a couple years, then went to 400 … … … so, Darlington … we got the SOUTHERN 500 back (almost) on Labor Day … now, bring back the REBEL 400 (which was originally the REBEL 300)!! Oh … and bring back a 400 and a 500 to ROCKINGHAM (my favourite track of all times)!!

I just don’t like both races at a track looking the same.

— Old_Time

Old_Timer

I knew I would think of something else!! POINTS SYSTEM!!

Here is the Points System I would like to see (and for several years kept a “fun standings” using just this) … …
first off, you must finish in the Top Ten to receive any points at all … and the points are paid as follows:
10th … 1 point
9th … 2 points (double the next lowest position)
8th … 4 points (again, double the next lowest position)
7th … 8 points (are you seeing the pattern?)
6th … 16 points
5th … 32 points
4th … 64 points
3rd … 128 points
2nd … 256 points
1st … 512 points

Imagine the battles up front when the driver knows by moving up one position he doubles the amount of points he or she gains … not just gets one lousy additional point! Plus, the battles to just get IN the Top Ten!!

And … throw in Matts idea … revive the “Laps Bonus” from the 1972 and 1973 seasons … except it would be for “Green Flag Laps Led” instead of laps completed … … but, it would really have to be weighted depending on the size of the track … … … this was how the “Laps Completed” bonus looked for ’72 and ’73:

Tracks under 1 mile………………..0.25 point per lap
1 mile tracks…………………………0.50 ” ” ”
1.3 mile track(Darlington)…………0.70 ” ” ”
1.5 mile tracks………………………0.75 ” ” ”
2 mile tracks (Michigan)……………1.00 ” ” ”
Tracks 2.5 miles and over…………1.25 ” ”

So … for Texas, the driver would receive 0.75 points for every Green Flag lap lead … … but, at Daytona the driver would receive 1.25 points for every Green Flag lap lead … … … … …

Just a thought and I would LOVE to hear everyone’s opinion!!

— Old_Timer

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