1. Is the guard changing before our eyes?
Brad Keselowski is on top of the point standings three races into 2017, and there are some other veterans in the top 10 as well: Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray have been around the track a few times. But take a look at the youngsters. Joey Logano is a veteran in terms of experience, but he’s just 27. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney represent the under-30 crowd in the top 10. The last couple of years have had strong rookie classes, and 2017 is no different with Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez leading the charge. They’ve struggled so far this season, but don’t be fooled. They have excellent backing and will be a factor for years to come.
Meanwhile, reigning champion Jimmie Johnson is mired in 18th. Take that with a grain of salt, though. He’s not going to stay there, but at 41, Johnson isn’t a kid anymore either. The sport is in the best shape it’s been in in a while in terms of talented young drivers in good rides. As twilight descends on the Johnson era, the sun is just rising on some promising careers.
2. Is the racing better?
NASCAR’s new extra-low downforce package was supposed to deliver closer battles on track, but has it lived up to the billing? Well, yes and no. Anyone who expected the changes to make clean air not matter or a lead change every lap is disappointed for sure. In fact, the races at Atlanta and Las Vegas both had significantly fewer lead changes than in 2016. That was certainly not the expectation with this package.
But minor changes were never going to magically make the racing whatever each and every fan wants it to be. What they seem to have done is twofold. One, it looks like passing is easier in the pack, and preferred lines are changing. If the main gripe with the old package was that it was too hard to pass, this one is an improvement. Clean air at the front has been a huge advantage for years now, and it’s not just going to be eliminated overnight. In fact, it’s not going to be eliminated completely at all, though it can and should continue to be lessened.
Two, the changes seem to have helped some of the smaller teams make improvements and become more competitive. That’s always a good thing for the sport.
3. Where’s the clarity?
In last week’s Friday Faceoff, I praised NASCAR for putting some rock-solid rules in place for teams and following up on them. For an issue like loose or missing lugnuts, teams and race fans know exactly what the penalty will be. That’s outstanding. So, why can’t there be similar rules for fighting after the race, such as what we saw this weekend?
Brad Keselowski was fined $50,000 and placed on probation for a 2014 incident at Charlotte, and Hendrick Motorsports crewmen received six-week suspensions for being involved in a scuffle at Texas that same year. Earlier that year, Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears also got fined for a postrace dustup. For the record, Ambrose may have landed the best hit of any of these, including Busch Sunday.
So for NASCAR to turn around and not penalize Busch now seems out of line, and not suspending the No. 22 crewmen, one of whom appeared to stomp on Busch while he was down, seems like it would be an even bigger mistake. If there can be a clear-cut policy for lugnuts, there is no reason not to have one for physical altercations involving drivers and crewmen, or for there to be a double standard of coming down harder on crew guys.
And while I appreciate the sentiment of letting these sorts of things take care of themselves, the penalty shouldn’t be nothing, because if it’s nothing, what’s the incentive to not do it? NASCAR doesn’t need every angry driver turning the garage into a boxing ring.
4. Are short fields a problem?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s a problem because it means that fewer people see value in owning or sponsoring a team in the sport. It’s too expensive and non-chartered teams get less prize money. Plus, the risk is much higher than the reward for the first few years for most teams. A decade ago, sometimes upwards of five teams went home, maybe even 10 for the big races. Now, even the open teams don’t worry about making the show most weeks. It’s a bit troubling when viewed in the light of the sport’s overall health.
But to the average fan, it doesn’t make much of a difference to the on-track action you see every weekend. For the fans who don’t follow the smaller teams, it’s simply a matter of quality over quantity, and it doesn’t make much difference overall.
5. Where do we go from here?
That’s kind of the eternal question. If it were up to me (and it’s decidedly not), I would say that NASCAR needs transparent rules, but fewer of them in terms of giving teams more areas to work on cars. That’s a key aspect that is missing lately, and it does have an impact on what fans see each weekend. More choice in suspensions and gears for teams would mean attrition and a difference in what fans see on the track as well.
Where do we go from here? We’re still navigating the new NASCAR and all it entails. Perhaps at the end of the season, or later in it, the answer will become clearer. For now, we’re just along for the ride.
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