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.
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.[yop_poll id=”27″]
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.