Some weeks a topic for my weekly column is self-evident and screams for attention. Some weeks (Hell, most weeks) I hear more of a whisper….or the sounds of silence. Thus this week I present some random notes based on topics I scribbled down in my notebook over the course of the weekend.
In Summation: The Las Vegas Cup race was like a college English lit class. It began with Great Expectations but ended up to be Much Ado About Nothing.
Digging a bit deeper, there were in fact two late race passes for the lead a relative anomaly in modern NASCAR racing. Brad Keselowski wrested the lead from teammate Joey Logano on lap 240. On lap 244 Logano took it back. While it seemed obvious that the leader with his nose in clean air had a decided advantage over a driver just behind him (a state of affairs that has lasted all too long) in both instances lapped traffic came into play.
When trying to dispatch with a “lapper” a driver no longer can pick his line and no longer does he have “clean air” on the nose of his mount. Superman meet Kryptonite. Already this season we’ve heard a lot of drivers making snarky comments about lap(s) down cars interfering with the outcomes of races. That’s not unprecedented in our sport but the volume, frequency and vehemence of the complaints has been cranked up to “11” so far this year.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of the growing gap between the “haves” and “have nots” out there running on the same racetrack. I’m certain most of those lap down drivers are pedaling as fast as they can, but as the cost of stock car racing has gone from troubling to obscene those without the big dollar sponsors fall further off the pace. Certainly that’s the case under the hoods of NASCAR stock cars. To return to the jargon of my hot rod clan those Penske Fords are “all et up with motor.”
But perhaps the new aero-packages and a full court press to sort them out is also widening the performance gap. Certainly the better funded teams have more (and presumably better) hands-on-deck in their engineering departments. In a perfect world there’d be 38 well-funded teams putting competitive cars out on the track every weekend and lappers would no longer be an issue.
But here in the real world…meanwhile while the big teams are doubtless booking hours upon hours of wind tunnel time to speed up the process (and their cars) the lesser funded teams may be using a really big exhaust fans and fistfuls of confetti to figure out the aerodynamics of the new packages.
Back in the era of the (first?) Cold War there were analysts who studied somewhat mundane looking photos to try to figure out what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. In the day they were called Kremlinologists and they’d study those photos endlessly noting which Soviet officials were standing closest to the “Esteemed Leader” and which officials were moving from the center of the photo to the outer edges. When anyone spoke the expressions on the faces of the others on stage were analyzed. Guys who moved from the center of the photo to the edges and whose comments seemed to inevitably draw frowns or scowls often went missing entirely from those photos in the near future. Usually they were off wintering at some Gulag in Siberia. Thus I found it interesting which drivers the FOX promotional ads seemed to center on leading up to this weekend’s race. On the Cup side, and face it, that’s where the action is, the Big 5 this weekend were Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Logano.
As reigning champion Logano was an obvious pick. Busch and Harvick won the most races last year so naturally they were included. Since Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and most especially Dale Earnhardt Jr. all retired from Cup racing in relatively short order, the general consensus is the sport really needs a new face to emerge, someone who can not only win an occasional race (recall Junior won just 26 races in 631 career Cup starts and never finished higher than third in the standings) but who for whatever reason(s) wins the affection and backing of younger and newer fans.
Given his last name and his “aww shucks” attitude, many pundits had anointed Elliott the “Next Big Thing” role. His wins last year certainly did seem to stir up a majority of the fan base (especially among the element of fandom too young to recall driving cars with window cranks and bias ply tires.) But the Hendrick team is off to a slow start this year and with the exception of those race wins by Elliott last year wasn’t much of a factor in 2018 either.
Does Blaney’s inclusion in the promos indicate FOX is starting to hedge their bets on who is going to be the next big thing? Blaney is the son of a former Cup racer as well though his dad Dave never won a Cup race in 473 attempts. Blaney Sr. is perhaps best recalled as the driver who might have won the already weather-delayed 2012 Daytona 500 had the massive inferno triggered by Juan Pablo Montoya hitting the jet dryer damaged the track too badly for the race to continue.
Speaking of rising NASCAR stars, I was very surprised to find prominent news stories about Hailie Deegan’s K&N West series win on Thursday night on the two websites I rely on for non-racing news daily. Neither site gave even a blurb on the main page to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win a couple weeks ago.
Are we looking at “The Danica Factor Part Deux?” I do recall attending a neighborhood party on the Memorial Day weekend of 2005 in that all too brief time slot between Indy and Charlotte. That Sunday everyone was asking me “how did the girl do at Indy?”
Of course the downside is Patrick never exactly lit the world on fire in either series. But imagine what a female contender who actually ran routinely up front could do for the sport. Thursday’s win was actually the second K&N triumph for Deegan.
There are some ideas so abhorrent that no reasonable person would even bother debating them. Chris Buescher picked up a sponsor in Natural Light’s new strawberry lemonade flavored beer. Did I mention it’s a light beer as well? Yeah, that pretty much goes without saying. That such a product even exists has me sending up the white flag. Technology has trumped taste. We’ll see how it does but I learned a long time ago the quickest path to failure is finding the answer to a question nobody is asking.
Perhaps it would be a bit much to think a main stream news sight would invest the research and column inches to a story on the new NASCAR aero packages and how they might change the face of NASCAR racing. To a casual observer other than that huge rear spoiler on the rear of the cars there isn’t an obvious difference between the aero duct package cars and the brake cooling duct cars. Obviously to more technically inclined race fans there’s a clear difference and this season could be a seminal point in the sports history if things go as planned. This blurb is being written Friday evening prior to the truck race while I’m killing time waiting for that Dan Fogelberg moment when the snow turns into rain here in NW Philly ‘burbs.
There is even speculation as to which drivers might adjust to either of the two packages or both to their decided advantage while others might find the changes harder to adjust to and have their careers go Casey Jones and jump the track because of their inability to adapt.
More notes from Friday night (And it’s now officially raining.) I watched qualifying. Or at least I watched some terribly disjointed and wholly confusing on track “action” that set the field for Sunday’s race. It certainly didn’t look like any Cup qualifying session I ever recall seeing, though the Truck Series used to hold similar group qualifying sessions. Everybody hated it, particularly the drivers. Thus NASCAR quickly scrapped the group qualifying sessions.
I’m still trying to sort out what I saw. It seemed to have elements of that old 50s daredevil driving stunt called “playing chicken.” Some of it reminded me of an old Three Stooges short; “No after you. By all means after you. No, no, I insist, after you.” Someone was bound to get a pie in the face and it was Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. I suppose the intent was to make qualifying more entertaining for fans who by and large have stopped showing up to watch qualifying anyway. If I was sitting in those grandstands watching 12 cars with their engines off not venturing out onto the track minute after minute I very much doubt I’d have been entertained. Enraged perhaps but not entertained. NASCAR seems determined to increase the “entertainment” aspect of the sport even at the cost of making the races less sporting. So what we’re left with is “entertainment so enraging that it’s deranged” or perhaps “enterangement.”
But we certainly haven’t reached the point NASCAR found itself in in the mid to late 70s with two different sorts of race cars for at least the GM teams. Back in that era the GM teams tended to run Oldsmobile Cutlasses (which were more aerodynamic) on faster tracks while having the same drivers compete in Chevy Monte Carlos (which had more downforce) at other tracks. The difference between the two model cars was so profound a lot of teams ran the Oldsmobile’s at Daytona in February when the weather tended to be cooler and thus the track had more grip but would break out the Chevys for the Firecracker 400 where hot temperatures made the track slicker than in the 500.
In 1981, NASCAR made a major switch to the shorter wheelbase cars and a lot of drivers (most notably Darrell Waltrip) weren’t pleased with the new cars which in fact did have an unfortunate tendency to go airborne when they got sideways. The Buick Regals won 22 of 31 races in 1981 and 25 of 30 races in 1982. In 1983, Buick won just six of 30 races after Chevy introduced a new more aerodynamic nose for the Monte Carlo and Ford introduced a new Thunderbird that made the older model Fords look like the crate they were shipped in.
Last week I proposed that stock car races be shortened to around two hours of length and caught hell from some of you for saying so. While some of you agreed the races needed to be shorter some felt my proposal was too radical. And of course some folks insisted that if the races were shorter ticket prices would have to drop by a corresponding amount. I can’t totally agree there. If you’re seeing a three-and-a-half-hour race where the drivers actually only run hard for the first 25 laps and the last 25 laps, are you more entertained than seeing a shorter event where the drivers get after it from the time the green flag drops until the checkered flag waves? And as always, a half-pound of prime rib is going to cost more than a full pound of chipped beef.
Others got a little testy saying that they wouldn’t drive three hours in each direction to see a two-hour race. You’re preaching to the choir there, brothers and sisters. Horrific race day traffic going towards and from races has probably hurt ticket sales for Cup races as much as any other factor. No less an authority than the late T. Wayne Robertson (who spearheaded Winston’s involvement with Cup racing) was saying that way back in the mid to late 90s before his untimely passing in 1998.
So I did a little research (or race lengths, not traffic). In 2017, the last year I could find verifiable stats for, the average Cup points race was about 3 hours and 15 minutes. That same year the average Major League ballgame was 25 minutes shorter than an average Cup race. Oddly enough, the average NFL game in that period was 3 hours and 12 minutes, close enough for rock and roll to be equal to a NASCAR race.
So I’ve revised my proposal to shoot for an average race length, green to checkers, to 2.5 hours. How sayeth you, gentle readers? Seriously I think we can get down to that figure mainly by just eliminating the stage breaks. At 70 mph(and I think pace car speed is actually 65 mph) it takes 12.9 minutes at Daytona to complete six laps during a stage break.
For those of you keeping score at home: next week’s race is at ISM Raceway, perhaps still better known as Phoenix. The package for next weekend’s Cup cars includes the larger tapered spacers and brake cooling ducts not the “Aero-ducts” like the ones used at Vegas this week. Yes, this is the fourth different “package” in four races, but the following weekend at LA (now officially Auto Club Speedway) will revert to the same package used this week at Vegas. Get your program, you can’t tell your players without a program.
One thing I think all race fans and anyone granted even a dollop of common sense at birth can agree needs to be shortened is pre-race coverage. There are few things as likely to end badly as a bunch of people with too little to say and too much time to say it. If NASCAR has decided to emphasis “entertainment” over ‘sport,” apparently FOX has decided that pre-race coverage is more comedy than sports. Back when I was on the road all the time there were frequently evenings I had a few hours to kill after dinner but before bed. Being out of town and knowing no one I’d often head to the lounge of the hotel I was staying at to catch a band or a comedian’s show. Have a few beers, flirt with the waitresses, have a few laughs and be back in your room early enough you could answer the alarm clock’s call in time to make it to the airport by 5:15 for the flight home.
Only a lot of times the comedians weren’t at all funny. They were often crude, nasty, self-involved and repetitive. I recall the longest two hours of my life trying to tune out the comedian and catch the bartender’s attention in a hotel lounge just outside of Merle Hay, Iowa. If you’ve ever endured that sort of evening let me ask you a question. Did you ever go back?
I think I’m speaking for the majority here in saying that I don’t give a rat’s ass about Darrell Waltrip catching a Celine Dion concert over the weekend. Yet even confronted with crickets and slack jaws from his coconspirators the man just kept right on plowing ahead giggling at his own wits and insight. I’ve always liked Mike Joy. He’s a throwback to the era when just having stock car racing on TV was a big deal and I sense more than once he’s not entirely comfortable with his role as straight man to DW. But I could get over liking Mike Joy real easily if FOX can’t pull their pre-race coverage out of a smoking tailspin real soon. If DW’s trademark is really poor and tortured pun (Fine time loose wheel et al) Gordon’s new schtick seems to be his wide-eyed stunned silence watching the DW train wreck beside him. The new aero-ducts will cool the tires? Gordon isn’t even going to replay to that any more than he’ll subscribe to the Vortex theory.
For better or worse in this era of declining ticket sales (and TV ratings), the race coverage fans see that has them decide if a race was a good one or a bad race has to do with how the presenting network chooses to cover the event. If there’s a dramatic battle for the lead but fans at home miss it due to a commercial break or if a driver who was penalized on pit road begins charging back through the pack most fans are only going to take note of it if that charge is shown and documented. On the other hand it does no good to have an announcer hollering about how a driver is quickly running down the leader when anyone who can find their reading glasses quickly enough can note from the ticker the gap between the two drivers is actually increasing not decreasing.
I’ve suggested it before, and I do in fact dislike gimmicks in sports coverage, but I think FOX really needs to replace “Crank it Up!” coverage with “Shut Him Up!” segments that offer race fans five blissful minutes of not hearing about what DW did earlier that weekend or talking over his booth-mates often repeating exactly what they just said and then chuckling at his own wit for being so clever.
So Vegas and a tired string of gambling analogies are finally behind us. Now it’s time to head to Phoenix and doubtless a lot of cowboy routines because it’s difficult to work in jokes about well-tanned elderly couples riding around their neighborhoods in golf carts having relocated from North Jersey for better weather and lower taxes. Then it’s off to LA and endless movie star references potentially even including a few snarky Beverly Hillbilly’s jokes. Someone turn out the lights, I don’t wanna see anymore.