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(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

Did You Notice?: Indy 500, Coca-Cola 600 Worlds Apart Once Again

Did You Notice? … The 2019 Indianapolis 500 starting lineup will have little, if any, crossover with NASCAR? Just two of the 33 drivers in this year’s field have any experience driving high-level stock cars. James Davison and Conor Daly have made a combined five Xfinity Series starts, none of them on oval tracks as neither pursued a NASCAR career. Davison did well, posting two top-10 finishes on road courses (including a fourth) in his limited run. But that’s not enough to make a true connection for stock car racing fans.

Instead, the story at Indianapolis this year has been the Formula 1 crossover gone wrong with McLaren and Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s spectacular failure to qualify gripped the sport of open-wheel racing these past two weeks to the point it became a national story. Fans of both IndyCar and Formula 1 were riveted to the drama, a quest that ended with one of the world’s most successful programs falling short.

Notice NASCAR was lost in the shuffle despite a better-than-expected All-Star Race. Long gone are the days where drivers would attempt the Indy-Charlotte double: 1,100 miles of competition in one day. Kurt Busch was the last to do it in 2014, running sixth in the Indy 500 before blowing his engine at Charlotte. But at least recent years have seen some sort of connection to the NASCAR realm. Danica Patrick used last year’s Indy race as her swan song after six years running NASCAR full-time. Juan Pablo Montoya ran Indy from 2014-17 with Roger Penske (winning once) after his NASCAR opportunities dried up.

It remains a shock both sides don’t work together to encourage more double duty. Viewership for both these races have been sagging in recent years; last year’s Indy 500 was the least-watched and lowest-rated ever. The 2018 Coca-Cola 600, on its end, delivered the smallest ratings and viewership this century. So much for Memorial Day weekend’s focus on racing, right? NASCAR was so dissatisfied with the competition at their home base the fall event at Charlotte was turned into a road course (with great success).

It’s a problem that comes with easy solutions, too. We have powerhouse owners here, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, who play ball in both divisions. Each one employs stock car drivers with open-wheel backgrounds who’d be interested in an Indy 500 try. Penske’s Ryan Blaney is on record doing the double is on his bucket list. All-Star Race winner Kyle Larson talked Indy as recently as last summer. The resources and racecars are readily available for them to cross over.

NASCAR’s postseason system also provides them an opening. The 16-driver field makes the barrier to entry minimal for top-tier drivers; all they need is a win to lock down a spot. It’s not like losing focus during Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte could wind up costing them a shot in the championship. At least during the pre-Chase years, when every race counted, you could say a loss of momentum was costly in a 36-race regular season.

Not anymore. Creating a storyline that crosses over, as we saw with Alonso, can only result in positive publicity for both sides. So why can’t NASCAR and IndyCar get their act together and recreate 1,100 miles of magic?

Did You Notice? … Winning the Monster Energy All-Star Race can solve some problems? Larson’s victory has fans hoping it’s enough to get his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet back on track.

There is some correlation to All-Star victories and ultimately turning your season around. Here’s a look at how the last decade has gone for All-Star winners…

ALL-STAR RACE WINNERS

2010: Kurt Busch. Won Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 the next week, then went winless the rest of the year. 11th in points.

2011: Carl Edwards. No wins the rest of the year but lost the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker.

2012: Jimmie Johnson. Four of his five wins came after the All-Star Race. Third in points to Brad Keselowski.

2013: Jimmie Johnson. Won four more races and the Cup championship.

2014: Jamie McMurray. Went winless the rest of the year en route to 18th in the point standings, missing the postseason altogether.

2015: Denny HamlinWon once the rest of the year and ultimately finished ninth in points.

2016: Joey Logano. Won three times after this race, making the Championship 4 and finishing runner-up in the title chase to Johnson.

2017: Kyle BuschWon five times after his Charlotte triumph, becoming a title force and ultimately finishing second in the points to Martin Truex Jr.

2018: Kevin HarvickThree of his career-high eight points-paying wins came after the All-Star Race. A Championship 4 appearance ultimately led to a third-place finish in the final standings.

2019: Kyle Larson. ????

It’s a good track record for Larson to be a part of. Six of the past nine winners were serious title contenders, including the last three, and just one (McMurray) failed to make the postseason. NASCAR’s system is also forgiving for a driver like Larson who’s suffered from terrible luck. All it takes is that one win to lock down a spot, especially in a year where there are only six drivers who’ve visited victory lane in 12 races. The Cup Series is almost certain to have 16 winners or less, meaning Larson just needs one good night like the All-Star Race to be around come September.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • It’s great that Alonso didn’t buy an opportunity into the Indy 500 field. Those spots should be reserved for those who qualify on speed; you don’t put Usain Bolt in the Olympics 100-meter final “just because” if he can’t make the cut. Hopefully, the sanctioning body recognizes the drama surrounding their Bump Day this year and keeps from creating provisional spots for this race in 2020.
  • My fear for Bubba Wallace is his top-five Charlotte boost will be short-lived, causing false optimism and bigger problems. It’s a lot harder to replicate that performance with 40 cars on the track running for points over 600 miles. Consider the next four tracks on the schedule were also difficult for Wallace last year: he earned a best finish of 19th in the Pocono-Michigan-Sonoma-Chicagoland summer stretch. Add in continued rumors about the future of Richard Petty Motorsports (denied, but distractions nonetheless) and I don’t think we’re done with the drama at the No. 43 team.
  • Sure, the Clint BowyerRyan Newman fight gave us all something to talk about this week. But Newman needs to make sure he doesn’t get distracted. While Bowyer’s a postseason lock, Newman’s overachieved to this point in his first year driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing. He’s the first driver on the outside looking in by just eight points. But this time in 2018 was when Newman lost his mojo last year, tumbling outside the top 16 with a 35th in the Coca-Cola 600, a season-low point. The last thing RFR needs, especially with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. struggling, is to start a feud with some of their top-tier Ford counterparts. Could the once superglued Blue Oval crowd be in need of a few teamwork lessons from Chevrolet in recent weeks?
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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