Did You Notice? … The sport’s DNF total has ticked up this season? In a year of transition for the sport on top of the point standings, there’s also been an increase in early trips to the garage.
Just look at how the DNF totals have increased for the best drivers in the sport.
Total DNFs – Top 10 Drivers in Cup Series Points Through 19 Races
2013 (the last year before the current format): 15
2014 (first year of a win gets you in): 14
The last two years have produced the highest numbers, by far, during the playoff era that began in 2004. And they come during a time where mechanical reliability is at an all-time high. Just 18 cars have failed to finish this year due to engine failure, an average of one per race, and five of them have come from just one underfunded team (Cole Whitt).
So why are top drivers failing to finish more? The new NASCAR rules on wrecks could have a lot to do with it. The five-minute crash clock has cut down on the number of damaged cars looking to run for points. If you can’t fix it in time, you’re out; it’s as simple as that.
But the number of top drivers wrecking was trending up before those adjustments this season. It makes you wonder whether teams have taken on a boom-or-bust philosophy under this playoff format. Once you win, you’re in; we haven’t seen more than 16 regular season winners in this current system.
That means guys like Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch gain little if they run for seventh. With the addition of stage racing and playoff points for winning, it only matters if you finish first. So who cares if you get a little too racy on a restart, lose it while fighting for fourth and wreck out of the race? You’re still in the playoffs come September, and consistency matters little right now.
That could explain Johnson’s weird stat line through 19 races: only three top-five finishes, all wins, to go along with three DNFs. The No. 48 team has suffered through a number of uncharacteristic penalties and wrecks. But you could look at their rollercoaster year another way. Is this seven-time championship team just playing around? More than ever, each race becomes a test session unless they can put themselves in position to win. There’s no reward for placing 10th, so why try and ride it out there?
The dreaded aero push could also be to blame. More and more, races at cookie-cutter tracks are defined by frantic moves on restarts. It’s the only time drivers can pass a bunch of cars at once within a handful of laps. So you see aggressive, sometimes desperate moves, creating the type of race-ending wreck that left Keselowski incensed at Kentucky Speedway a few weeks ago.
The upside to this trend is that DNFs produce unpredictability. For the first time in ages, there’s the chance of a late-race caution caused by something other than an invisible hot dog wrapper. There’s an extra level of aggression we’ve seen at the front of the field, both at the end of stages and after restarts.
The downside, perhaps, is fewer drivers caring about consistency. Other than Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and maybe an on-the-bubble Joey Logano, no one is worrying about regular season points. Is that a good thing? The trends say no, that NASCAR is still losing its audience, but you wonder if over the long-term a shift toward win-or-bust is the type of competition booster the sport needs.
Did You Notice? … Pocono CEO Brandon Igdalsky got rewarded for a decade of hard work? Igdalsky was named the managing director of event marketing and promotion for NASCAR Tuesday after a good 10 years spent turning family-owned Pocono Raceway around.
During a time where NASCAR attendance has declined, a challenge at tracks across the country, Igdalsky stemmed the tide at Pocono. He was constantly thinking outside the box, from a dog park for pet lovers to a regional Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. His off-track attractions kept fans interested even if the on-track action, as it often does at Pocono, turned into single-file competition.
Igdalsky also was a presence on social media, recognizing its upside long before other track owners and promoters. And by adding a solar farm, he produced another major revenue stream for the company while helping NASCAR’s push to be more enviro-friendly. It’s a position that’s a good fit for his strengths, coming at a time when the sport badly needs a P.T. Barnum type to get creative in luring fans back to the stands.
Brandon’s brother Nick will do a great job running the raceway in his absence. Pocono is an important part of NASCAR but these talents were needed on a national scale. It’s one of the sport’s better hires.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off.
- Another trend under the current playoff format is the team who’s hot in February is rarely the one we see holding the trophy in Homestead-Miami Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing knows that feeling all too well; last year, they started 7-for-18 and sent two drivers to the Final Four only to lose out to Johnson. This year? They were 0-for-18 until Denny Hamlin reached Victory Lane Sunday. Could getting over the hump be the start of a summer climb? Kyle Busch is the two-time defending winner at Indy, Matt Kenseth is hungry to win while auditioning for 2018 and Hamlin has a great road course track record lately. Suddenly, at JGR things are looking up.
- Last year, Hendrick Motorsports went to Indy in the worst shape they’d been in during the Chase era. Four months later, Johnson emerged as series champ. You could argue 2017 is only slightly better. Johnson has been feast or famine despite a series high three victories. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just one top-five finish. (Kyle Larson has more penalties in just the last two weeks.) Kasey Kahne was getting outrun at New Hampshire Motor Speedway by Matt DiBenedetto, a team with maybe 10-20 percent of Hendrick’s financial resources. And Chase Elliott has been beaten to Victory Lane by rival Ryan Blaney. How have they fallen so far behind?