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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR Parity Not the Answer

Did You Notice? … This season has produced more parity than at any time in recent NASCAR history?

To answer that question we look no further than this year’s edition of the Championship 4. Each driver has either three or four victories; they’d all be inside the top 10 in points without the Chase. You can make a case for Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or Joey Logano winning the title without much of a complaint from the fan base.

That parity has a trickle-down effect despite a year where Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-car team has had an edge. While it’s true JGR put two cars in the Championship 4, the first time in the history of the format a team has done so its final numbers aren’t as dominant as they first appeared. In fact, just one JGR driver is among the five currently tied atop the series with four victories apiece: Kyle Busch joins Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

It’s possible none of those drivers emerge victorious at Homestead, keeping the season high for wins at four. If that happens, it’s the lowest total to lead the series since 1950. That’s right; Curtis Turner had four victories that season to lead the series in only its second year, when the sport ran just 19 races including its first Southern 500 at Darlington Speedway.

On paper, you’d think that was a good thing, parity trickling down across the board and representing Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota. But fans, turned off by homogeneous cars, also appear to be unmoved by the same set of rotating faces up front. While a number of different drivers are winning, they’re also the same ones we’ve seen year in, year out. Just two first-time winners broke through – Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher – and both were eliminated after the Chase’s first round. The other first-time postseason participants, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, both failed to make the Round of 8.

(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)
Kyle Larson joined Chris Buescher as a first-time Cup Series winner this year but his impact on the Chase was limited after a first-round exit. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

That left the fans with the same merry-go-round of drivers sharing time at the front. Apparently, seeing the same faces there combined with the same car owners, teams and a drop in lead changes meant there were a limited number of compelling new storylines other than the surge of Truex and single-car Furniture Row Racing.

It should also be noted that just one win almost certainly guarantees someone a spot in the postseason; it may make fans care less about who accumulates two, three, four or more. Whatever the reason, there’s a disconnect because NASCAR is losing its fan base at a time when it’s produced one of the more competitive years the sport has ever had to offer.

Did You Notice? … Kevin Harvick‘s comments regarding the retiring Tony Stewart? Harvick said last week racetracks “haven’t done a good job giving credit” toward his Stewart-Haas Racing boss for what he’s achieved in not only NASCAR but also the sport of auto racing. While Stewart has received a handful of gifts, among them a 6-foot-tall bobblehead from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, the celebration around his pending departure from the driver’s seat has been muted. And when you compare it to Jeff Gordon? Stewart looks like a second-class citizen, not a three-time series champion.

To be fair, Gordon’s final season also came with a surprise push toward a title, one that resulted in the highest Homestead-Miami Speedway television ratings the sport had seen in a decade. Stewart, thus far hasn’t done much beyond a brief summer surge that accompanied his Sonoma Raceway victory; a first-round Chase flame-out has left him frustrated, limping toward the finish line with five straight finishes outside the top 10. Smoke has led a grand total of two laps since last visiting Victory Lane in June; his organization, preparing for a transition to Ford in 2017, was shut out of the Championship 4 altogether.

But I think it’s important to note the elephant in the room here with Stewart. Gordon, the epitome of NASCAR’s transition to corporate culture, was just as comfortable co-hosting with Kelly Ripa as he was behind the wheel of a racecar. Gordon’s white-collar mindset in a blue-collar world associated him with a crossover fan base; he knew how the business side worked, a Fortune 500 company’s dream. No wonder why on the way out this four-time champ earned the type of gifts you’d see from an executive after retiring from the CEO position after 40 years with the company.

Stewart, by comparison, is old school, and these days he comes with baggage. The tragedy involving Kevin Ward, Jr. will haunt Smoke forever; every day, he has to live with the fact his vehicle struck and killed another human. The public relations fallout is one the veteran never completely recovered from as his temper, often on display during his early years of driving Sprint Cup, was laid bare in plenty of past incidents revisited for all to see.

That death, rightly or wrongly, clouded the fanfare of Stewart’s final seasons. He’s also never achieved the same success since his devastating leg injury in mid-2013; since then, he’s visited Victory Lane only once and collected just eight top-5 finishes in nearly 100 starts. Aggravation has set in, the 45-year-old disillusioned with the modern era of NASCAR and homogeneous cars that give engineers, not driving talent, a leg up at most tracks on the circuit. Despite being a car owner, those disconnects add up, and it creates a reality that people in the sport don’t appreciate his contributions as much as they should.

That’s a shame, for Smoke’s impact and accomplishments make him not just a NASCAR Hall of Famer but also a once-in-a-generation type of driver. He had the talent to win the Indy 500, capturing the open-wheel IRL title before winning a NASCAR championship in multiple formats. He’s won at every active Cup Series track except Kentucky Speedway and Darlington, and only Gordon has more than his eight road course triumphs. Stewart’s final championship, completed as an owner/driver in 2011, may be the last time we see such an achievement at NASCAR’s highest level.

Stewart did it all, traversing across the country with the type of passion and emotion we just don’t see from the majority of the NASCAR garage anymore. He never hesitated to speak out; journalists, sometimes repulsed by him sniping at stupid questions, would still come running for a quote when they needed honesty. Even when you’re on the wrong side of Stewart’s gripes, you never lose respect; the kind, charitable side of the man often goes unreported. I don’t think he would have it any other way; giving under the radar but keeping that quiet allows his critics to go straight for the bullseye.

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Perhaps at Homestead, Stewart will finally get his due. The Chase overshadows a lot but hopefully isn’t large enough to obscure his final drive.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

  • Koda the Cheetah picking a NASCAR champion? Really?? Who thinks this stuff up? Like, who is actually employed and says, in the middle of the day, “You know what will bring our fans back? Finding a random cheetah in the zoo and asking him to pick our series champion!” Amazing.
  • Monster Energy is the latest rumor in the search for a company to assume the sport’s title sponsorship in 2017. At this point, it doesn’t matter if it’s them or the Loch Ness Monster — time to get a deal done. There’s been an exodus of sponsorship stage right in recent months (Dollar General, Albertson’s, Farmers Insurance, Thrivent Financial), and NASCAR needs to put its foot down with a public pronouncement that there are still companies out there willing to spend big money to be involved in its sport.
  • Brian Scott’s retirement at age 28 opens the door for someone to sneak into a middle-class ride at Richard Petty Motorsports. The bigger problem is who’s in Ford’s development pipeline. Elliott Sadler is too old. Ryan Reed and Darrell Wallace, Jr. are tied to Roush Fenway Racing. Who does that leave as a potential replacement? And who would have the funding needed for the ride? Perhaps RPM will think outside the box? It’s always been aggressive in free agency but has never been able to land that big name.

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10 thoughts on “Did You Notice? … NASCAR Parity Not the Answer”

  1. Is anybody else getting sick of athletes announcing their retirement and expecting to be fawned over during the last season til their last event?

    • Wow people have some serious reading comprehension issues. Either that or severe memory lapses. First, Tony isn’t one complaining about it. This writer mentioned Harvick said something about it. Not sure where you get that Tony is one upset over this? Second, he specifically asked at the beginning of the year NOT to be fawned over like Gordon was last year. Brians comment above is absolutely correct. I swear everyone has liberal media Trump derangement syndrome. Take something said and twist it to suit your agenda, and present it to everyone as fact, even if there are no facts to back it up.

  2. Actually it is a weird scenario Harvick brings up because did Stewart himself not ask to have the tracks and people not make a big deal out of this being his last season? I remember reading something about that during the lead up to the 500 in February.

    There has been a lot made about Bowman not having a Cup ride after sub duties this year. Would he not be an option for the 44 car?

    So the whole title sponsor issue (fiasco) obviously has not awoken the brains of NASCAR leadership. It is obvious to pretty much everyone not in NASCAR’s ivory tower that the value of NASCAR has significantly declined since the 2004 change over from Winston to Nextel/Sprint. The fact that NASCAR even believed it could ask for 100 million a year after how things have dropped off since 2008 is head in the sand stuff that as such has caused an even greater drop off.
    Honestly the only potential way back is to revisit what the true goal is. It used to be much more about winning the race and oh here is a reward for being the best over the season. How it has gotten to the point of who gives a S**t about the race so long as team is contending for the Championship.

    The racing might get better if winning races was more important and financially meaningful than winning the season. This is not stick and ball sports where you play certain teams only a few times and thus have the playoffs to bring teams that maybe have not played each other but had successful seasons play to determine the “best”. NASCAR’s model has everyone racing each other every race so essentially we already know who the best are. This leave the championship like in other sports more to luck towards the end than skill set.

    Radical idea time:
    What if NASCAR divided the teams up into two divisions and then had the first say 30 races be at the tracks but those with multiple dates one division ran one date and the other division ran the second date and only had certain very specific races be together, 500, Indy, Darlington. Then tracks that only have one date could be the last 6 races to determine who the best teams are. Keep in mind that say the top 12 of each division would be running the last 6 races. Yes teams would be eliminated from running the whole season but isn’t that how the stick and ball sports do it?

    There would be no eliminations with the last 6 races as teams self eliminate based on finish. Would this not then in theory pit the best teams against each other and have every race be important? There also would be no passes just for winning. Points wise I would envision a significant bonus for winning but still have to prove consistent over the 30 races as well.

  3. the cheetah picks the champion? Parity = boring Same drivers competing for the crapshoot prize = boring. TV broadcasts that focus on small number of drivers = boring.

    Yet NASCAR continues to insist everything is wonderful, all evidence to the contrary.

  4. If NASCAr pursuits more parity it does so at its peril we can watch the stands become more empty, television ratings fall and I will watch F!.

  5. First of all, Tony, himself, has expressed that he does not expect or want any hub-bub or hoopla. Did Har-ick did not get that memo? Regardless, Stewart has been an ogre this season & last too. And, I think, a detriment to the category. Important to note, I do NOT consider the Ward incident in the least when saying that …& the following, nor to I think it has had the impressionable affect on how Nascar’s fans & corporate partners are treating his retirement that Mr. Tom clearly believes. Double regardless, who, that has no friends & goes, literally, out of his way to make new enemies, expects a surprise birthday bash? Hmmm?
    He & Hark-ick ought’a be thankful he has not been suspended for the remainder of the ’16 season. If not for this actions at Darlington (unprovoked hooking of the #44 into a wall at high speed, intentionally), then for his actions at Richmond (intentionally wrecking #31, that resulted in wrecking 5 or more competitors) – OR – for the repeated searing jaw-jackings of Nascar, like an insipid 5 year old. In my opinion, no one needs or wants that kind of person in the category, be it a former “Champion” or a newbie.
    Heck of a wheel man! No doubt & no one can deny that. But between the ears, very early on in his career, he displayed how much of a whack-o he is. On his actions, this year alone, he/they ought’a be thankful Nascar is allowing him within sniffin’ distance of their events. And I am very surprised his sponsors have not bailed on him entirely.
    Btw, Har-ick is of the same cloth. Thru HIS words, actions, decisions & behaviors, HE is indignant & a detriment to the category. Unlike Big E, who would rough you up on the track, but then climb out of the car afterwards & put a smile on it & dress it up & see to it that it was redressed & palatable for Nascar, the public consumption & fellow competitors. That is the part that is woefully absent from the SHR act in recent years.
    Like JG was …JJ, Jamie Mac, The Biff, Lil E, etc., etc., etc. …will be greatly appreciated when they turn in their fire suits. These are consummate professionals that respect & appreciate Nascar & their competitors thru & thru. MK, TS, & KH have earned their underappreciated status thru THEIR OWN contemptible voluntary actions. And in the waning hours of their careers, they have shown next to no appreciation, if not an every growing spitefulness & vitriol for their fellow competitors & the purveyors of their livelihood.
    So, where do they find the gall to expect anything other than reaping what they have sown? Yeah, it don’t work like that & I find it highly hypocritical, if not sadly comical, to voice an expectation of appreciation from anyone. On behalf of Ricky, Trevor, Aric, Brian, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan & all those you have needlessly abused on & off the track …good bye, good luck & good riddance Mr. Bi-polar Roller!

    • You lost me at “he has no friends” and pretty much stopped reading your mile long run-on sentence after that. Usually we agree on things but no friends? Really? Tony is one of the most liked drivers in the garage….and one of the most giving as well. Just because he actually shows emotion as a competitor and speaks his mind, doesn’t mean he is not liked. Are you watching the same sport I am?

      • I agree with everything you said Steve but you have to admit, Tony can be a real dick when things don’t go his way or someone pisses him off. And while all drivers may wreck someone on purpose a couple of times during their career, Tony has done it more than most. I am sure that leaves drivers (and fans that don’t have “Tony Stewart” tattooed on their ass”) a bit conflicted with how they feel about him.

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