If you live in the northeast, you know the sound, especially if you live beneath a tin roof like I do in my humble abode. At first, it just sounds like rain drops, but there’s a peculiar metallic ting sound that can only mean one thing… ice pellets.
A close look out the window reveals those tiny pellets ricocheting off the glass and beginning to coat the branches on the trees a glossy color. Some primal instinct forces you to turn the heater up a few notches and dive for cover beneath the comforters in bed. (Shortly after which, this weekend at least, there was the sound of a huge tree branch falling and taking out the electric power for 40 hours.)
Yep, winter is upon us and the NASCAR season has come to an end albeit only too briefly. It’s time to start gift shopping for the holidays, put the snow tires on the Cherokee, and attach a new spark plug in the generator. Shovels aren’t needed yet but it’s best to dig them out of the corners of the garage now because they will be soon enough. But before starting a long winter’s nap, it’s time to take a moment and have a quick glance back at the 2017 Cup season.
Like every other Cup season I can recall, 2017 included some classics (both Martinsville races and the second Phoenix event) as well as some real clinkers (The World 600 or the second Michigan race). Overall, I’d say the season was somewhat below average perhaps because the 26 regular season races were no longer as important as those in the Chase… oops, sorry, playoffs. That proved especially true for drivers who’d already won a race to qualify. (My New Year’s resolution this year is to stop using the term “punched his ticket” in referring to NASCAR® racing. It was so overused this year, it’s already become hackneyed and a symptom of lazy writing as surely as adding the term “dreaded” in front of “aero push.”)
Yes, I dread aero push will continue to ruin stock car racing as we once knew it. But I’ll come up with a new modifier. Perhaps I’ll use something bordering on vulgarity next time I want to launch a boot through my computer as the second-place runner closes on the leader by a second a lap… until he gets to him. Then, the chaser can’t do anything with his prey due to the lack of front downforce.
This year, it seems to me that NASCAR finally concentrated rules changes on procedures rather than the race cars themselves. Perhaps the biggest single adjustment to the sport in 2017 was the addition of stage racing. When NASCAR officials first announced the new points system, they admitted that it was a bit unwieldy and tough to understand. But they urged fans (and I am nothing more than a fan of the sport) to give it a chance, watch how it unfolded, and it would become clearer to them.
That never happened. In fact, I can put a day to the moment I decided stage racing was a pig in the poke. On March 19, Ryan Newman won at Phoenix by gambling on fuel mileage. Newman earned 42 points for the win. Second place Kyle Larson had won a stage and was awarded 53 points. Third place Kyle Busch received 47 points. Heck, ninth place Chase Elliott got 42 points, the same number as Newman. You tell me in what other sport the ninth-place finisher gets the same benefit as the winner.
That was it for me and stage racing only four races into the season.
It was also hoped that the “breaks” between stages would turn into “TV timeouts”. By using the breaks as commercial segments, we were told we’d see more green-flag racing. If so, that was not apparent from my house. NASCAR said they hoped that the stage breaks would be about five minutes. In practice, they often dragged out twice that long or longer when NASCAR had difficulty sorting the running order out. That led to long, boring stretches of time with nothing of interest taking place. Someday, historians may trace the decline in NASCAR TV ratings to the remote control and channel surfing.
As for NASCAR’s new “five-minute” rule when it comes to repairing crash damaged cars, the jury is still out. On one hand, I like the idea that badly damaged cars can’t return to the track to get in the way of the field, just trying to accumulate a few more points. On the other hand, some fans have told me they hate the rule. And naturally, since NASCAR runs the clock and there’s no independent verification, some are suspicious if the rule is fairly applied. Either way, there’s still a lot more outrage about the Lucky Dog and wave-around welfare system that need to be addressed before the five-minute clock.
One instance that was undeniably stupid this year is the penalty on Matt Kenseth at Kansas. Kenseth was parked for the rest of the race because he had too many men go over the wall to attend to his beat-up Camry. Yes, there have always been rules about too many men over the wall or having crew members over the wall too early. But in this case, the penalty didn’t seem to fit the crime. Holding Kenseth a lap or two for the infraction would have seemed more appropriate despite the current rule.
Keep in mind there used to be rules concerning equipment being brought outside the pit box. (Particularly if that equipment was still in the hands of a team member.) And we all saw how that worked out for Jimmie Johnson. NASCAR later said they’d changed the rule in the interests of safety. They apparently did so without advising any crew chief other than Chad Knaus.
Speaking of Kenseth, apparently he won’t joining us for next year’s reindeer games. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had already announced his impending retirement at season’s end, ominously predicted that in the new financial realities of NASCAR driver salaries and perks would fall by the wayside. Kenseth seems to be the first victim of that new world order.
I’d guess that Matt could have found a ride for next year but not a ride he felt would offer him a competitive chance at winning, one that paid a salary worthy of a former Cup champion. But there’s a larger crisis at hand here. Before the season even started, NASCAR lost Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Now Earnhardt, Kenseth, and Danica Patrick won’t be back next year and NASCAR stands to lose their substantial fan bases. We don’t even know if Kurt Busch will be back. If he is, it might not be in the No. 41 car and all he did was win the 2017 Daytona 500 to start the year.
With the prospect of losing so many big name drivers (recall over the last couple years Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart also packed up their rocks and rolled) NASCAR at least has some new potential stars of the future waiting in the wings for their shot at a championship. Chase Elliott did everything but win a race this year, finishing second five times and staying in contention for the title until Denny Hamlin sent him into the wall at Martinsville with a move that was loudly booed by those on hand.
Elliott is still a bit dour at times but then his dad was never the most gregarious guy either. The scion of the Elliott clan just needs to toss in a few “I was tickled to death” quotes and he’ll be fine. Meanwhile, Ford rival Ryan Blaney did, in fact, win a race at Pocono in June. Journeyman driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was another first-time winner, scoring victories at Talladega in the spring and in the Firecracker 400.
Daniel Suarez had a decent rookie season and was showing improvement towards the end of the year. Erik Jones will move in-house with JGR next year in the ride Kenseth was forced to vacate with the team that won at Phoenix a few weeks ago. (Ask me to choose a cover shot for the 2017 NASCAR yearbook and I’ll go with one of Kenseth standing atop the No. 20 car with the sunlight fading in the background.)
And of course, Darrell Wallace Jr. will be joining the Cup ranks full-time next year driving the legendary No. 43 car. Before anyone judges him too harshly, too early next year take a look at how many races Petty’s team has won in the 25 years since the King retired. There’s just eight wins (Two by Bobby Hamilton, one by John Andretti, one by Aric Almirola, two by Marcos Ambrose, and two by Kasey Kahne.)
One driver who apparently won’t be getting a lot of enthusiasm from the crowd next year is Denny Hamlin. Such is the fate of someone who chooses to wreck a rising second-generation star. And when Earnhardt made his comments about how drivers should be ready to expect substantial pay cuts, Hamlin opined that drivers, in fact, deserved to get paid a lot more. He proposed salary figures like in the big ball sports which can reach into nine figures for a five-year deal.
Yeah, good luck with that, Denny, when 30 million dollar a year sponsorships have gone the way of the Dodo in NASCAR. Maybe self-professed and proud of it bad boy teammate Kyle Busch told Hamlin he, too, could get away with just about anything. Have your PR hack write up an act of contrition and Coach Joe will say a few prayers to that God that likes rich people the best and it will all be fine. Elliott who?
Up until now, Hamlin has always been a bit of a journeyman driver with undeniable talent but a reputation as a bit of a China doll when it comes to injuries and missing races. With a veteran and champion teammate and two new rising stars in the JGR lineup, well, surely Hamlin knows who gets the ax the next time there’s a new hot prospect in the Toyota racing development pipeline.
The Most Improved Driver award goes to this year’s champion, Martin Truex Jr. While he dominated on the mile-and-a-half tracks, Truex ran well just about everywhere (except the plate tracks) to end the year with a 9.4 average finish. I mean, come on, Truex winning on a road course? Where did that come from? (OK, he also got his second ever career win at Sonoma back in 2013.)
Any other outcome in the championship battle Sunday would have been a true travesty, even if you don’t go getting all maudlin about some of the off-track circumstances surrounding the championship. (Leave that stuff to People magazine.) While Truex might not have been atop many fans’ favorite driver list I think a large percentage still pulled for him when their own boy couldn’t win. They remember the screwing over he got at Michael Waltrip Racing in the Richmond Spingate affair.
While Truex did not participate in the shady shenanigans, he was the only driver to lose his sponsor and thus his job in the fallout of the incident. Moving to a team based out of Colorado? Yeah, that didn’t sound like a recipe for success. (Get well wishes to Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser having been through my own heart bypass surgery this summer. It wasn’t much fun but it beat the alternative.)
Runner-up in the “most improved” category would go to Kyle Larson. Entering 2017, Larson had only won one race. This year, he won four of them and posted top-five results in 15 total events. Oddly enough his primary sponsor, Target, decided to bail on Larson and the No. 42 team. Due to the vagaries of the playoff system, Larson slipped to eighth in the final standings despite a stellar season. The wheels fell off his little red wagon with four consecutive disastrous finishes at Kansas, Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix. It’s not just if you’re good, it’s when you’re good.
Now, we look ahead to a 2018 world without some of the sport’s biggest names. What worries me most is the powers that be at NASCAR don’t seem to realize the depth of the challenges they face. Or perhaps, in the modern political environment they can use “alternative truths” to replace cold hard facts that can be studied and analyzed to show reality. After last year’s disastrous “State of the Sport” address featuring our very own Brian France, NASCAR decided to send in some backup for the boss in the form of series president Brent Dewar. You remember last year’s PR debacle, right? It involved France sweating profusely, throwing his arms around like one of those inflatable tube people on a used car lot. He cut off reporters, refused to answer some questions, and ended the affair 17 minutes into a scheduled 30-minute session.
In the course of this year’s slightly more orderly presser France went ahead and stated that attendance at racetracks for NASCAR events was actually up in “22 or 23” cases. Oddly enough, the main track owners in NASCAR, SMI and ISC, are publicly traded corporations and as such they must release quarterly reports on their earnings. In both cases, the facts and figures seem to contradict what France claimed. In addition, despite claims Sunday’s race was a sellout there were clearly empty seats at the event.
Nor does France think there’s a long-term problem with the TV ratings in the sport. He contended, not for the first time, that a declining television audience actually reflects that more people are using alternate forms to “consume” their NASCAR races on the computer or on their phone. But recently, those “add ons” have been included in some ratings reports and they do not hike the numbers significantly. Sunday’s NBC broadcast from Homestead earned a 2.7 rating (down from a 3.3 last year), better than most events lately but still a long way from entering the pantheon of major sporting championship events.
I still don’t get it. NASCAR claims 80 million fans but only around 2.5 million of them watch any given race? What are the other 77.5 million fans doing on Sundays? Perusing the shelves of the local grocery store for branded products? Whose manufacturers sponsor NASCAR teams, done out of their legendary loyalty to those sponsors that some still claim exists? Sure, NASCAR has added 12 corporate sponsors as of late. But perhaps I fail to see the importance of being the Official Urinary Catheter of NASCAR.
While Mr. Dewar seemed a bit more grounded in reality than France, one of his comments convinced me that the sport is in real trouble. “We try to put a process in place to get the best inputs to allow us to make the best decisions,” he said. “We started with the manufacturers, the OEMs, and then we went to the team owners and the drivers and the tracks, and then we come together collaboratively, bring all those things together, and you see some of that hard work.”
Car manufacturers, check. Team owners, check. Drivers (those of them who are left), check. But where’s the input from the fans, the fans that NASCAR claims to love so dearly, the ones whose hard-earned money actually finances the sport? Despite some repeated and heated protests against some elements by the vox populi those protests are ignored.
There were at least hints that some big changes might be coming. Dewar stated “One last comment, and that is we’ve really got a big change for ’18. Remember again, we’ve got five-year contracts with our track partners, and we’ve got a big change for ’18 in terms of the schedule, worked closely with the tracks and the broadcast partners to do that.”
Hmmm. They’ve already tried the later start times at the network’s request. To be polite, that hasn’t worked out too well and hasn’t been universally embraced by the fans just yet. In fact, when they write me some fans use very hurtful and profane terms to describe races starting at 3 p.m. rather than the traditional 1 p.m. ET start times.
We’ll give Dewar the benefit of the doubt here. Since the 2018 NASCAR schedule has already been released and there were no big changes we’ll suppose he’s talking about 2019 and beyond with the adjustments to be announced next year. Stay tuned.
But to paraphrase Mr. France, if you haven’t checked out NASCAR in the last five years, you haven’t watched a once-proud enterprise going down the tubes awash in a flood of greed, indifference, and ineptitude. It’s a damn shame to watch.
As always, my thanks to you my readers for sticking it out with me for another year. It’s through your comments that I’ve learned to be a better writer and after 20 some years of plugging away at this craft, I think there’s a chance I might be able to get the hang of it given some more time. I never make up my mind about returning for another swing at the piñata before taking a month off to decompress. Meanwhile, enjoy whatever winter holiday you celebrate and enjoy time you get to spend with family and friends. I got an all-too-close look at mortality in July and it helped reset my priorities. It’s the love you share with the people closest to you that matters. Everything else is just a sport.