*Did You Notice?* … The wonderful decision by Sprint to bring back some type of million-dollar bonus competition for winning? The $3 million Sprint Summer Showdown, announced Sunday at Loudon is a great way to keep the excitement high throughout all of NASCAR’s 30 or so teams capable of competing for victories. Long story short, the winners of the next five events – Indy, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol will have a chance to earn $1 million if they win again at Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day Weekend. $1 million will also go to a lucky fan paired with the driver, along with an additional million to that driver’s charity of choice.
*Did You Notice?* … These statistical oddities that tell us the story of the Cup schedule halfway through this season. Predicting the future can be dicey business, but these quirky trends stand out to me:
– No driver is on track for more than *six wins* this year. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the circuit, with three apiece although they’ve gotten there in entirely different ways. Busch tops all drivers with 1,060 laps led, while Harvick sits 14th with just 130. In fact, during Harvick’s three victories he’s paced the field for a _total_ of just nine laps.
*Did You Notice?*… How one little divorce can cause so much controversy? The back-and-forth on Kurt Busch’s separation from wife Eva has caused a furor on both sides of the fence, a spirited debate on whether such news should even be reported based on individual privacy. Fans appear divided on the issue, too, with “Dustin Long’s Backseat Drivers Fan Council”:http://hamptonroads.com/blogs/dustin-long reporting in at 46.9 percent yes, we want to hear about the Busch problems while 53.1 chimed in at “No / I don’t care.” Clearly, there’s a case to be made for both sides, so before forming an opinion let’s examine each one:
*The Case For Reporting It:* As in any job, when a driver struggles (or succeeds) their personal life can often influence said result. Just look at what happened with Tiger Woods in golf, post-Elin or on the positive side Brett Favre of the NFL, who looked superhuman a mere 24 hours after losing his father. Personal adversity becomes part of the story, because after all, sports are 90% mental, right? (Or at least that’s what Yogi Berra used to say).
_Welcome to another edition of “Did You Notice?” This week, I will be subbing for Tom Bowles… but don’t worry, loyal readers, Tom will finally be back for good next week. Until then, here’s some things about last Sunday’s race at Infineon Raceway that you may or may not have noticed._
*Did You Notice* … Kurt Busch’s impressive performance marked the official one-eighty turn-around of the Penske organization after their early season woes. Ever since the Coca-Cola 600, both Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski have turned a corner performance-wise in 2011. The fact of the matter is that Team Penske has won two of the last three races. They have employed fuel strategy and pit strategy in those wins, but the performance has picked up by leaps and bounds. Busch has gone from a driver struggling to stay in the top 10 in points to a legitimate championship contender while Brad Keselowski has made an equally impressive metamorphosis from somewhat of a Sprint Cup disappointment into becoming a legitimate force to be reckoned with, not to mention being a driver with an outside shot at a wild-card berth in the Chase for the Cup in the past few weeks.
*Did You Notice?* … How one bad break, however small can change the course of a race team forever? The latest example comes in the form of an ugly Divorce Court, crew chief Pat Tryson having the rug pulled out from under him Tuesday after Michael Waltrip Racing grew concerned about their underperforming premier driver, Martin Truex, Jr. Perhaps the quietest, most mild-mannered Cup driver on the circuit the New Jersey native had been agitated in recent weeks, launching into an angry tirade over his pit crew at Richmond after a penalty during a green-flag pit stop cost the team a top-5 finish. Two replacements came within a week, but the damage was done; inconsistency has remained the theme for the No. 56 Toyota ever since.
Still, a closer look reminds us that the Tryson-Truex duo spent the first part of their tenure together turning heads… until an unfortunate incident at Infineon last June. It was there that Jeff Gordon spun out Truex, taking a possible winning car and throwing it deep into traffic where it would later become an innocent victim of a multi-car wreck. The NAPA driver blew his lid back then, insinuating disrespect on Gordon’s part while vowing on-track revenge that never truly came to fruition. The crux of the issue, according to the driver was he wasn’t being showcased any on-track respect despite being one of the cleaner, easy-to-race-with drivers on the Cup circuit.
*Did You Notice?* … The inconsistency of NASCAR’s Sunday caution calls at Charlotte? Let’s review what caused a yellow flag and what didn’t:
– Jamie McMurray blowing an engine on Lap 182. (oil on the track)
– Jimmie Johnson blowing an engine with five laps to go. (oil on the track)
– Debris cautions three times: Lap 76, Lap 172, Lap 283.
– Green-white-checkered wreck where cars were slowing and/or spun around in Turn 1. Jeff Burton’s No. 31 car clearly put debris on the racetrack, limping around simply to complete one of two laps and end the race. No caution thrown.
*Did You Notice?* … How the next wave of stock car drivers don’t come from stock car backgrounds? Danica Patrick joins Kimi Raikkonen as two highly-sought, open-wheel experts that NASCAR would love to put behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup vehicle with minimal training. Heck, all it took was just one top-15 finish in a Truck race to drop Raikkonen, the former F-1 champion into a Nationwide ride on Saturday; now, Cup rumors are spreading faster than that Lauren girl lost her voice before Tuesday’s _American Idol_ finale.
In one sense, can you blame this sport for digging outside the box? The pool of rookies recently has dried up faster than the Arizona desert. (Last time I checked, Andy Lally was turning more heads with his MMA training than on-track performance to date.) Certainly, the addition of Patrick, who is rumored to make the NASCAR jump full-time next year and Raikkonen add a bit of star quality to their future. The problem is, in the midst of those courtships, the powers that be may not realize their short-term impatience leads to long-term consequences NASCAR’s _own_ development series (and drivers) will suffer.
*Did You Notice?* … Three days after Dover, and all we can talk about is NASCAR’s decision to allow split-screen commercials? Like a network War of the Roses, mere days after FOX one-upped ESPN with their own experiment the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” unveiled a specific side-by-side plan they’d been working on for months.
In reacting to this stuff, fans have been hitting the Twitterverse, Facebookland, and whatever iPhone app they fancy nonstop, pulling a virtual rushing the basketball court as if they’d pulled off some sort of major upset. I think that’s the most interesting thing, if you’re NASCAR to take from this phenomenon, the degree to which they made fans excited by actually _listening to them._ Think of all the issues people in the stands feel slighted on these days: Ticket prices. The Car of Tomorrow. The Chase. Losing that Kasey Kahne commercial with the Allstate girls. Gaining that NAPA Nasty Commercial with Michael Waltrip’s… you get the picture.
*Did You Notice?* … That when it comes to short tracks, there’s a trio of drivers who clearly stand out over everyone else? Let’s take a look at who’s collected wins at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond – the short track swing which makes up six events on the sport’s 36-race schedule – since the start of the 2008 season…
*Did You Notice?…* The new trend in NASCAR’s Silly Season? It’s called “sticking with the status quo.” That’s a dramatic change from the last few years, when around this point in the season we’ve had at least one major announcement a driver was switching rides:
*2010:* Kasey Kahne announces he’s leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for Hendrick in 2012. (April 14th)
*2009:* Martin Truex, Jr. rumors start flying he’ll replace a retiring Michael Waltrip in the NAPA car (early May).