Order has been restored to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. With Jimmie Johnson earning his 81st victory this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, all the pundits can breathe a sigh of relief in discovering that all of the words used to question or doubt Hendrick Motorsports have been for naught. The empire has struck back, now it’s up to Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to follow. You might include Kasey Kahne but no one’s quite sure what he’s up to half the time anyway. Two things will now unfold: 1) Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will tinker away with finding everything they need for the playoffs and turn the rest of the regular season into a big testing session, and 2) the focus will now move to Joe Gibbs Racing and what’s ‘wrong’ with them. Or are we already onto the second one?
Happiness Is… Alonso. Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown made what is likely the biggest announcement of the motorsports year on Wednesday. Alonso will be foregoing the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the Indianapolis 500. This news is big, really big, and affects a number of parties. So let’s give a quick look at what is happening here.
Alonso is giving up his seat in what is considered to be the premier F1 event to race in the vaunted Indy 500 – a style of racing he has never done, in a car he has never driven. To add to the mix, he has just under two months to get ready; as does his team.
While this looks like a move by Alonso’s team of McLaren and Honda to placate the driver as he suffers through another season where their car just isn’t good enough, there’s, as there usually is, more to it. For Alonso, he is able to avoid the ignominy of finishing the bottom half of the running order at a race he loves to move to one where there is little pressure (even if Alexander Rossi made winning the 500 look easy last year). For McLaren/Honda there is the benefit of feeling out the IndyCar series as they float the idea of running a factory works team in that series in the near future. Running Alonso will give them all the free advertising they need to gauge reactions while sussing out their own feelings regarding performance. For them, it is a giant test session with one of the best drivers in the world behind the wheel.
Should Alonso leave Indy healthy, then he’ll rejoin his F1 team when they should be implementing massive improvements to a car that has failed to match expectations. There are two true winners here though.
First, IndyCar gets to revel in and celebrate the fact that they’ll be sporting a double F1 world champion in the line-up of their most prestigious race. Though Alonso’s presence isn’t likely to bring a massive change in the audience numbers in the U.S., the international attention that is likely to be gained should not be ignored. The second group benefitting from this news are the fans. Alonso is not going to be a likely candidate to win the 500, in reality, just finishing would be outstanding, but he’s sure going to make things interesting just by being there.
Happiness Is… Options. The format for the Cup All Star race was announced this week and blah blah blah, wake me when it’s over. All Star games are pretty lame to begin with and the All Star race hasn’t been interesting in a while. Changes to the format are not going to hide the fact that fans can watch these same drivers do the same thing on any other weekend they race. The announcement that the field will be cut to 10 drivers for the final stage is just as silly – if anything, NASCAR should be increasing the field by having race winners from the Trucks and XFINITY series join in. The more cars on the track the better; let’s see who can drive through that mess!
Disdain for the race aside, NASCAR could have used the weekend to make things interesting by adding some component of the road course, making it either a preview or test for its possible inclusion in the future. The one area that they chose to show advancement is in the tire allotment.
By allowing teams to choose a softer compound tire at some point, they have advanced the notion of strategy, which could make things interesting. This idea is one that needs to carry over into the racing on a week-to-week basis. Whether or not it will be something that NASCAR actually pushes for or is just trying out will be something to watch, because a change like this would certainly add a new element to late stage racing and make those crew chiefs get thinking even more.
Happiness Is… Um. In a move that seems just peculiar, NASCAR announced that Bret Michaels will be giving a pre-race concert before the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September. While Michaels, nee Sychak, is a fan of the sport, the dreamy former(?) lead singer of Poison seems a strange one for that event – or any event for that matter. The reason for that statement regards the question of just what audience the powers-that-be are targeting, because it doesn’t seem like the focus is on the younger generation. But hey, everything is retro now, so maybe he’s a perfect fit and he’ll sing songs the era that will be celebrated by the paint schemes on the track.