For some it feels like the 2017 Cup season is just getting underway. For others it already feels like it’s been going on a very long time. (It’s 87 degrees outside as I write this Easter Sunday afternoon. It was 22 the day of the Daytona 500.) Mathematically, six races into a 36 race season we’re about 17% through (or there’s still 83 % of the season left to go for you “glass half-full types.) Below are some thoughts, ramblings and the usual vile pontificating about the season so far.
Next Stage Out of Town Remember back in the days of yore when the points system at least made a bare modicum of sense. I’m thinking way back to 2016. I’d long been advocating some sort of points overhaul and scrapping the “Chase” championship format. Well, the Chase is gone. It’s now called the “Playoffs.” Remember that. There will be a quiz. Once NASCAR itself figures out what the hell is going on. (Or “what they have wrought” for you literary types.)
As for stage racing and the new points system one thing that could be said about last year’s points system, imperfect though it was, the winner always got more points than five other drivers or the same amount of points as the fellow who finished 12th.
Back when they started trying to explain their new enigma NASCAR told fans to give the stage racing and new points system some time. Once they got used to it, they’d love it. Because after all it was exactly what those same fans had been asking for for years. The bloody Hell it was. And for the vast majority of race fans I communicate with the jury isn’t still out on the new Stage format. In fact that jury went ahead and convicted the Stage idea of grand-felony assault on common sense and auto racing, sentenced it to be hung, pitched in to dig a six foot hole then pissed on stage racing’s grave.
I think I have a memo buried somewhere in the Everest of paperwork cluttering my desk suggesting that in the interests of the long term health of the sport I follow along like a pilot fish I ought to try to be more positive about NASCAR occasionally. The scary thing is the above paragraphs are the most positive thing I could come up to write about the subject matter. You don’t want to hear my thoughts when I’m in full “veins and tendons” mode.
Some Rise, Some Fall, to Get to Terrapin Every year some unexpected drivers come out of the gate hard and some prohibitive favorites to do well stumble heading into the first corner.
This year’s star overachiever has to be Kyle Larson now competing in his fourth year or full-time Cup competition. Larson showed some sparks late last season at Michigan and a total of three second place results including one at the season finale in Homestead. Still the only reasons you usually heard about Larson until this year were A) He was running a higher line than anyone else out on the track. B) He was running down the leaders and had fresher rubber C) He’d just slapped the wall hard yet again and surrendered another chance at Victory. When a driver’s fan club is offering T-shirts that read “Kyle Larson- At least I don’t suck as bad as Juan Pablo Montoya did in this nag of a Chevy” you know it’s time to start looking at career options.
This year Larson started the ball rolling with leading awhile right up until the penultimate lap of the Daytona-Dag-Nab-It 500. He’s finished second in four of the five races since and won at Fontana. As such Kyle Larson is leading the Cup series points to date this year. I still haven’t gotten my Word 2017 Update so my computer is underlying that last sentence in green as an impossible misstatement of fact but in this case it’s the alternative truth! Of course when some sites and organizations tabulate the points standings they give the nod to Brad Keselowski because he’s won two races and leads in “playoff” points if those same sites have half a clue as to WTF is going on with that mess.
Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray is also enjoying a better than expected start to the season so give Chip Ganassi’s outfit the “most improved” outfit hardware to date.
Prior to his winning at Texas last time out, some folks were writing the eulogy for Jimmie Johnson’s career. It’s an annual rite of passage that comes with the turf. Johnson’s career has peaked. He’s losing interest. He’s ready to retire to Aspen. You had to offer fans hope back in the era when Johnson was stringing together win after win and title after title. Last year everyone wrote about how Johnson’s summer-long slump had doomed his chances at an eighth title. And we all saw how that worked out. Jimmie and Chad have figured out how to game the system. Right now they’re in full Tripper Harrison Meatball’s mode because as of yet the races just don’t matter. They know what needs to be done to make the post-season. They know what they have to do to take a title once they do. Until then, let the mere mortals sweat the details.
Johnson’s three teammates have enjoyed varying degrees of success this year. Chase Elliott has certainly performed up to the rather lofty standards being set for him though he has yet to learn to close the deal and win a race. (To be fair, he has won race stages, but as I might have hinted I’m not fond of stage racing.) He does have top 10 finishes in five of this season’s seven Cup races and finished third at Las Vegas and Martinsville. Martinsville had been a problem track for Elliot who did in fact win the truck race at the tiny track so obviously he’s a quick study. Currently Elliott is second in points by my count or at very least the highest ranked driver this year without a win. Kasey Kahne had three top 5 finishes in all of 2016. He already has scored one this season. While he’s been running better than he finishes Kahne’s average finish is still a disappointing 16th this year.
Then of course you have the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Perhaps NASCAR needs Junior to succeed as badly as Junior would like to. Earnhardt sitting out last year recovering from multiple concussion syndrome (can we stop using the term “concussion like symptoms” now?”) There’s a quiet but growing faction of the sport’s fan base that think maybe Junior should have just gone ahead and retired instead of risking further injury down the road. He’s a newlywed and certainly isn’t hurting for money. A fifth place finish at Texas was a real boost for interest in the sport overall and the schedule directly ahead contains some tracks that Earnhardt typically runs well at. Maybe he’ll find his groove again. NASCAR certainly hopes so. If the loss of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart cost the sport a bunch of fans, the loss of Earnhardt would be cataclysmic.
A lot of folks wondered if the switch to Fords was going to cost the SHR organization a few steps. They wondered right up until Kurt Busch went ahead and won the Daytona 500 in his Focus that is. But even that win can’t raise Busch’s average 2017 finish to date above 19th. Busch’s stablemate Kevin Harvick still hasn’t scored a win to date but he and his team have struggled hard to find various ways not to win one yet. Clint Bowyer is still running around like a man just released from indenture after last year’s debacle. And Danica Patrick is finally making noises like she’s realizing she’s a one trick sparkle-pony that hasn’t lived up to the hype especially in light or her ongoing sponsorship woes. It sounds like she’s preparing for her next stage in life doing something she’s actually good at….like not selling fig snacks.
Even the two remaining Roush Fords have been running better this season. You know they’re running well because you actually see one of those cars time to time on TV. (Even while fans in the stands are still scratching their heads and wondering where the heck Greg Biffle is.) For the last several years the Roush teams and drivers have been stranded on a virtual Gilligan’s Island unseen and unheard from.
To date the biggest surprise as far as failing to achieve expected results is Joe Gibbs Racing. Daniel Suarez gets a bye because he’s a rookie thrust unexpectedly into a prime Cup ride weeks before the season started. (Maybe old Carl Edwards saw the writing on the wall that isn’t fully evident to the rest of us yet.) But that still leaves Gibbs with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, two Cup champions and a perennial title contender. Between those four drivers JGR has managed just three top 5 finishes out of a possible total of 28. None of them have won a race. Last year JGR won 12 races, 33% of the points paying events and scored a combined 44 top 5 finishes. So what’s the deal? Stay tuned. It just may be JGR had the old aero rule package figured out the best over the last couple years and now they’re struggling to find form. But it you want to claim it’s a disadvantage to the Toyota’s old Martin Truex has been running pretty durn well up until this point. Go figure. As a big damn Camry fan it breaks my little heart all to pieces.
After years in the doldrums RCR is showing some signs of life as well with Austin Dillon perhaps quieting some talk about his being his granddaddy’s “let’s pretend” race car driver. But it was Ryan Newman who broke through for RCR with his win at Phoenix and to him we’ll give this year’s Springsteen Atlantic City award because “everything dies, baby that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back…..” Newman’s career may prove to be a prime example.
But sometimes an old railbird has to go out on a limb and make a pick based on experience. From what I’ve seen week in and week out it’s the Penske Racing team that seems like they showed up at the park ready to play every weekend. Keselowski has two wins to date this year. Joey Logano hasn’t won a race but he’s scored four top 5 finishes……more than the four JGR drivers combined. The duo has also combined to lead 376 laps to date this year. If there’s any potential fly in the ointment it still seems to me that Keselowski and Logano just don’t like each other much. It’s not that they’re outwardly hostile but nor do they cut one another a break often out on the track. Oh, well. Both drivers are after all running for a Cup championship not the “cutest couple” award.
Still Dreading that Aero Push When the new aerodynamics package was tested a few times last year there seemed hope it would lead to more passing and better racing. The reality so far is that hasn’t often been the case. A faster car can run down the leader, sometimes by over a second a lap, but once the trailing driver gets within sniffing distance of the lead driver’s rear bumper, he loses air off the nose of the trailing car and can’t complete a pass. I don’t think the notion behind the new aero package was wrong. The drivers themselves by and large were in favor of the idea. But the reality is, whatever new aero rule NASCAR comes up with the teams are going to tweak on it, learn about it, and make improvements, some more rapidly than others. I’ve heard people WAG (the first word is wild, the third is guess. You figure out the middle) that the teams are already back up to 75 to 80 percent of where they were with last year’s package. So you might argue that the new rule is actually working in that if the teams still were able to use last year’s aero-package they’d have developed it still further and the racing would be worse still.
Aero rules might be at their limit, absent a sane decision to just make the three car brands run the same stock sheet-metal their street counterparts use and to hell with parity. (While they’re at it, basing the race cars on rear wheel drive cars would help put some “stock” back in stock car racing as well.) But perhaps we need to put aside aerodynamic grip awhile and concentrate on mechanical grip. Mechanical grip can be found with wider, softer, lower profile tires. We’re talking really wide and really soft tires though I’m not going to advocate fitting Cup cars with dubs.
Who Are You? Monster Energy drinks arrived a bit late to the party as the Cup series new title sponsor and it would appear they’ll still figuring out exactly what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. I didn’t see the pairing as a match made in Heaven, but admittedly I’m an older guy probably well outside of the demographic Monster wants to market to. If they’ve even unveiled a series championship trophy yet I haven’t seen it. Hopefully it’s not made out of Legos. For fans at home so far the transition in title sponsors has been barely noticeable though I’m told Monster puts on quite a hullabaloo at the track weekly in some sort of “fan zone” which may be Austrian for an area where impressionable young adolescent males are shown a variety of ways to main themselves on dirt bikes. Back in my day, we were self-taught idiots on our XR and CR Hondas, TM Suzukis, MX Yamahas and an occasional Hodaka Dirt Squirt,
Some fans have objected to the scantily clad models Monster brings to the track but to date there have been no wardrobe malfunctions or marriages torn asunder I am aware of. Then a MMA (mixed martial arts……a scripted form of combat not unlike the old WWF except for two really ugly people with WAY too much ink are allowed to kick each other as well as slap their competitor silly) outfit decided that they were going to stage matches at some NASCAR events in the aforementioned Monster Energy Zone. In doing so the outfit ignored the first rule of contemporary stock car racing. If you’re going to use NASCAR’s name even peripherally you have to pay them lots and lots of money even if you’re in tight with the title sponsor. Someone at Monster should have known that by now and whispered in their pals’ ears.
Perhaps in the long run it’s too much to expect the Monster folks to make as big a fuss as the phone company(ies) that previously held the title did when they kicked off their tenure. Monster is paying only a fraction of what Sprint had been. To be honest their yearly financial commitment to be title sponsor is barely more than it would cost a company to sponsor a single top flight team with genuine title chances annually. They’ll likely realize a decent return on their marketing dollars without spending huge sums to “actualize” it, which is NASCAR’s way of saying, “We’d like some more money and so would our friends at FOX and NBC”)
Foxes and Peacocks You want to know what’s keeping NASCAR afloat in this era of declining attendance, interest, and fire sale pricing on their series sponsorship? It’s the TV rights fees from FOX and NBC that dwarf all other sources of income for NASCAR. To a degree the networks, both of whom are in the midst of long term contracts with the Daytona Beach mafia, have been patient in an era of declining TV ratings as they tried to kick-start and grow the FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network brands to do battle with perennial sport’s powerhouse ABC’s ESPN family of networks. (Which to be fair are showing some battle-damage themselves.) But it would seem as of late the network types are beginning to lose patience and want to try some new things to regenerate some interest in the sport. That’s why race fans are facing later start time for most races this year despite some obvious hesitation on the part of track management.
The stage racing is another sop to the networks providing them with the NFL’s equivalent of “TV Time Outs” during a race. And likely the TV types had to sign off on SMS’s decision to sack a date at New Hampshire and move it to Las Vegas. As of late there’s been discussion of introducing various compound tires at the Cup races next year if the experiment works in the All-Star race (does the event have a name this year or is it still looking for its forever home?) next month.
Giving teams a choice between a tire that provides faster lap times but wears out more quickly and a more conventional tire more stable in speed and wear characteristics has worked out well in F1 and American open wheel racing. Could it also add some drama to Cup racing? We can only hope. Curiously both Indycar and F1 use red sidewall lettering for the soft compound tires but Goodyear has decided to go with green raised letter tires for NASCAR saying it provides the best contrast. Say what now? Oh, yeah. Wait a second. Green on black. There’s that new title sponsor again. So it would seem the sports “steak”-holders are concerned that not only are the “steaks” smaller for everyone they’re being served hamburgers off the value menu rather than the prime rib that was promised. As for the fans? Go ahead and pass the catsup, please. We’re used to this.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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