Did You Notice? … The sport’s oldest drivers are the ones having the hardest transition into NASCAR’s new point system? Matt Kenseth (45), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (42), and Jimmie Johnson (41) are the three oldest competing full-time. (Sorry, Derrike Cope. 1990 was a loooong time ago.)
The trio, despite being competitive at times has come up with a grand total of one top-five finish (Kenseth was third at Atlanta). None of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today, making the way for newcomers Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and Trevor Bayne.
Does that mean a changing of the guard is at hand? Not necessarily; I would never bet against a seven-time champion like Johnson to get the job done. But there’s certainly some growing pains as these guys get used to early-race bonuses in the form of stage points.
Veteran drivers have a tendency to hang back, working through crucial late-race adjustments to push their way to the front. Johnson, for example, won two of his five races last season leading 25 laps or less. The No. 48 team, earning a middling average start of 12.1 during their championship run, took nearly the whole day to get their car exactly right. (See: Homestead.)
In 2017, that costs you up to 20 points in stage bonuses. Matters are made worse when you qualify poorly; Johnson, in particular has a horrid average start of 21.8. Coming from the rear with these short stages makes it almost impossible to reach the top 10 in time. That just creates a cycle where these three get further behind in the standings, minimizing the impact even top-15 finishes could have over the long-term.
You’d think guys like Kenseth, who crashed at Auto Club, will get themselves together to earn a win. Johnson, in particular has some great tracks like Texas coming up on the schedule that could snap his victory drought before Easter. But their struggles early, along with their racing styles, may put them in a position where winning will be a need, not a luxury for them in the playoffs. Consistency just won’t be worth as much anymore if you can’t find a way to get it until Stage 3.
Did You Notice? … The dropoff for NASCAR for television viewership in just the last four seasons? Since moving to the current format in 2014, the 16-driver elimination system over the final 10 races fans have recognized the regular season has less impact.
Check out the four races after the Daytona 500 from 2013, the last year of the “old” Chase format and the viewership we saw in 2017.
2013 Track & Rating 2017 Track & Rating
Phoenix – 5.6 Atlanta – 3.8
Las Vegas – 4.7 Las Vegas – 3.6
Bristol – 4.6 Phoenix – 3.3
Fontana – 4.7 Fontana – 2.9
Each of these races experiences a decline of over 20 percent over the last four years. In the case of this weekend, the Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) numbers are stunning – especially since the track has been highly competitive. 2013, in fact was the race in which Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tangled, starting off a run that made some argue this two-mile oval is the best intermediate on the circuit.
So why might fans be tuning out? The new aero package certainly qualifies; Fontana’s 17 lead changes were the fewest there since 2013. But I wonder if fans recognize early playoff spots minimize the regular season. For guys like Kurt Busch, they’re already testing for September; a victory ensures their spot. Earnhardt, the sport’s Most Popular Driver has struggled as we detailed earlier but most believe he and Johnson will get in easily.
So what storylines does that leave? How much will people care about playoff points? I think the answers we have right now are “still searching” and “not much.” As for qualifying, the grid has been at 39 cars (less than the 40-car maximum) so there hasn’t been drama there. No new teams have even showed up since the Daytona 500; Martinsville’s entry list has the total number down to 38.
No wonder the sport is courting a new manufacturer. The energy of Monster as new title sponsor combined with a strong Daytona 500 needed to be backed by some type of other, outside momentum. NASCAR appears to still be looking for it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- It’s no secret 2017 has been a struggle for Toyota’s top team in Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s what makes Martinsville so important this weekend. Hamlin’s last top-five finish? It was third at this racetrack last fall. Kenseth? He led 176 laps here last fall en route to fourth. And Kyle Busch, much maligned this season, is the race’s defending champion. If JGR can’t be competitive here, at a track where aerodynamics get thrown out the window, then they’re going to be in trouble long-term.
- Martinsville is also a place where AJ Allmendinger has three straight top-11 finishes. And if there’s a team that needs to turn it around more than JGR, it’s the No. 47 of JTG Daugherty. They’ve struggled through expansion with Chris Buescher and the ‘Dinger has posted four straight finishes outside the top 15. A third-place finish in the Daytona 500 has been wasted; he’s sitting 30th in points.
- That brings up another point with NASCAR’s celebrated-turned-criticized stage format. For the top drivers, those stage bonuses allow them to quickly pull away and minimize the damage from a bad finish. A third-place run from an underdog like the ‘Dinger has little effect when a favorite who slumps to 22nd, let’s say has 18 bonus stage points in his back pocket. This points system is quickly becoming an example of the rich getting richer. And for a guy like AJ? It’s clear he can still get into the playoffs one way and one way only – winning stage 3. Not stage 1 or stage 2. Stage 3, the one that earns the big trophy and the equivalent of an automatic bid.
- Kevin Harvick dropping the appeal means NASCAR’s strictest penalty system hasn’t run up against a stiff defense… yet. Will that give it more authority when the consequences really count in the playoffs?