Did You Notice? … That with Ryan Newman‘s signing Monday, the veteran reaching a contract extension with Richard Childress Racing 2016 has become the quietest Silly Season in the modern era? Other than a retiring Tony Stewart, whose replacement (Clint Bowyer) was announced late last season, it’s possible we won’t have a single change among any of the major programs for 2017.
Assuming you take Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s recovery at face value, putting him on track to get back behind the wheel at Daytona, everyone sans Stewart in well-funded rides will start February in exactly the same place they are now. Silly Season was so tame it could be summed up in just one short paragraph….
Stewart retires. His team switches to Ford. Clint Bowyer replaces him in the No. 14. A bunch of drivers sign long-term deals. Furniture Row expands to a second car next season with rookie Erik Jones.
Annnd we’re done. Read that to yourself for a second as that list might not take more than a 30-second soundbite on the local news, and it’s for the entire top level of the sport. No new ownership is listed in there, no new manufacturers. Just one full-time rookie is listed (although there’s still hope Ty Dillon will move up full time). No new major primary sponsors are listed; in fact, the title backer for the Cup Series hasn’t even been announced yet.
When Sprint gets replaced, that will be one final wave of major news but Newman’s signing means pretty much everyone is staying put behind the wheel. Some might argue such stability is good for the sport; it’s not like we’re reporting on a bunch of cars closing up shop after the first year of franchising. But for a brand that was desperate for change in 2016, hoping to showcase better rules, new drivers up front and better competition the last storyline it needs is the status quo.
No Silly Season means the drivers that made the Chase this season are the same ones expected to contend next year. It means a more limited level of offseason reporting; how many times are people going to read about a series that’s exactly the same? Unlike the stick and ball sports, where yearly drafts combine with natural evolution to bring us new athletes NASCAR appears to have frozen in time.
Joe Gibbs Racing? They’ll enter their third straight season with the same four drivers. Richard Childress Racing? If Ty Dillon doesn’t move up they’ll be on their fourth with Newman, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been paired together since 2013… you get the picture. And most of those drivers, clinching their playoff spots early in the season through wins or running away on points will have a good four, five, even six months to get settled in.
A few years back, the sport’s dragging popularity was blamed in large part on Jimmie Johnson winning title, after title, after title. The theory was people got sick of seeing the same champion, fans assuming every Chase there was no use watching because the No. 48 team would come out on top. Well, now we have two dozen Jimmie Johnsons; it’s the same people in the same places consistently, minimal shuffling and the same schedule every year. NASCAR has become the epitome of the corporate environment the sport courted while collecting millions in Fortune 500 sponsorship.
There’s just one problem with all that; people don’t turn in to Joe Smith going to work and sitting in his cubicle (unless, of course that person is Kenneth Bone). That’s not the definition of sport, one half athletic achievement and one half glorified entertainment. There needs to be a continual evolution within the sport, somewhere for people to latch onto it. The way you bring people back during a time of declining at-track attendance and television ratings is by offering them something new.
Too bad this NASCAR Silly Season is offering everyone something old.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Five of the eight drivers currently positioned for the next round drive Joe Gibbs Racing chassis. Johnson has been the most successful man so far this Chase but a Final Four filled completely with Toyotas out of the same stable is not inconceivable. Right now, Johnson may be the only hope of preventing it unless Kevin Harvick can make a comeback and sneak into the next round with Stewart-Haas Racing.
- The fiasco the Dillon brothers pulled in the closing laps at Charlotte is a warning salvo for NASCAR during the Cup Series Chase. Had that type of strategy pull been successful on the Cup side, we’d have “Spingate” all over again and it’s a good thing few fans were paying attention with the delay. Let’s hope officials sent stern reminders to teams this week about playing fair with this playoff system.
- NASCAR had no choice to postpone the race until Sunday with Hurricane Mathew. You just wish their contract had some sort of provision that in the event of a rain delay the sport could have a “makeup” date featured on NBC. Charlotte’s race was good, arguably the best of the Chase and it was a missed opportunity to captivate an audience despite the simulcast on NBC and NBCSN. A 2.1 rating combined? More than ever, that shows you’re just not going to compete at the same time as the NFL.
- For a ten-race playoff starving for a storyline we head to Kansas with a bit of a role reversal compared to last year. It was Matt Kenseth who had an awful Charlotte, needing to win in order to move on in the Chase. Joey Logano made contact while battling for that victory, causing a rift that spilled over into the infamous Martinsville payback.
This time? It’s Logano in need of a boost after tire failures left him limping into Kansas. Can these two create a Battle Royale sequel in the closing laps Saturday night? The sport desperately needs it.
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