NASCAR: Winning Isn’t Everything, Growth Is

Bubba Wallace captured the Camping Series Truck win at Michigan

Bubba Wallace captured the Camping Series Truck win at Michigan

NASCAR’s top three race series delivered action-packed finishes in Michigan and Ohio, yet the meter continues to stall on NASCAR’s growth quandary.

Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, made a brilliant, daring set of moves, splitting the front row on a restart in the Pure Michigan 400, to seize the race win, where drivers soared into the oval banks at entry speeds of 215 MPH.

Also at Michigan, The Camping World Truck Series put on a showcase of drafting and passing over the final ten laps, with almost foregone, but not forgotten, Bubba Wallace capturing the victory with a gutsy inside dive into the corner in the final laps.

And another “super-sub” driver, Sam Hornish Jr. delivered a precision driving clinic to win on the highly technical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Despite superb finishes and surprise winners, there’s unfortunate irony that these three drivers currently lack full-time sponsorship to fund their 2018 racing careers.

Earlier this year, Wallace knew his NASCAR XFINITY Series ride with Roush Fenway Racing was ending because sponsorship dollars weren’t available to sustain it. He’s been in limbo, a young potential star trying to stay relevant, taking a one-off ride in the Truck Series where he last raced full-time in 2014.

Hornish is primarily a substitute Penske Racing driver for the XFINITY #22 team when full-time Cup drivers Joey Logano or Brad Keselowksi can’t cover the ride.

Hornish, a NASCAR regular whose had mixed success, captured a strong win at Mid-Ohio

Hornish, a NASCAR regular whose had mixed success, captured a strong win at Mid-Ohio

Kyle Larson, while sitting solid in the Chip Ganassi Racing Team stable, recently had sponsor Target Corp announce a complete bailout on auto racing after this season. Larson’s success in the Monster Cup Series wasn’t enough to keep Target committed to motorsports. The Minneapolis-based superstore left Ganassi’s IndyCar team last season after a 27-year run, and now departs NASCAR after 16 years at the end of this season.

No doubt that Larson, one of NASCAR’s most promising future hotshoes, will secure a new sponsor (or set of sponsors); yet, it’s still disappointing to see a major long-time sponsor like Target step away from the sport’s future stars.

Underscoring the challenges, Kevin Harvick, 2014 Cup Champion, attacked Dale Earnhardt Jr’s reputation, claiming that Junior’s popularity “has stunted the growth of NASCAR.” Basically, Harvick’s contention is that NASCAR’s most popular driver doesn’t win enough.

For a driver that leads his fan base with both class and humility, Earnhardt Jr admitted the words were hurtful in his final racing season.

So what actions (aside from tweaking playoff formats and aero package rules) might be ways to ramp the next wave of NASCAR growth. Game changers are hard to find, but let’s start with a few far-reaching ideas:

New Tracks: For starters, more road courses. As a minimum tweak, add one more road course to NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, and put it somewhere in the ten-race playoff season. Road courses, like Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen, have been among the best attended and most exciting races over the past several years. These challenging circuits put the driver’s skill to the “eye test”, where the course dynamics really showcase racers being on the edge of grip and performance,

The Next Manufacturer Entering NASCAR: Still pending, yet adding a new partner beyond Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota would validate that investing in NASCAR is worth the return. The auto industry is global, and NASCAR continues to stress that “conversations with other manufacturers” are ongoing. A recent NASCAR Fan survey sought out opinions on several auto makes, likely gathering intelligence to share with potential new partners.

Kevin Harvick claims that Earnhardt's departure is stunning the growth of NASCAR.

Kevin Harvick claims that Earnhardt’s departure is stunting the growth of NASCAR.

NASCAR’s acknowledgement that they are aggressively pursuing new manufacturers leads to rampant speculation, but getting a European powerhouse like VW, or a brand known for its racing prowess among enthusiasts like Mazda, could go a long way to stimulating new interest in the series. The long-standing rumor that Dodge is eyeing a comeback continue to persist as well. Any of these would be welcome and broaden the series appeal.

Team Headquarters: Virtually all Cup teams are based in North Carolina. That leads to a provincial view of the sport. Yet, a satellite team like Furniture Row Racing, based in Denver, with a successful, affable driver like Martin Truex Jr., is a platform for stimulating new fan interest in the local community.

In other sports, many fans affiliate with their local sports teams. Yes, having drivers from other regions and countries builds interest, but seeing a few teams mimic the FRR model in other parts of the country, particularly in the Western US, could generate additional attention and coverage of the sport. Surely, there are logistical challenges, but it can be done.

Future Stars: Highlighting the fresh up and coming drivers that connect with the next generation of fans in unconventional ways. Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Bubba Wallace have not only showcased their driving talents, but have ability to connect with fans in newfangled ways through social media that share their interests beyond the core racing experience.

Adding diversity to the equation, Daniel Suarez, 2016 XFINITY Champion (who hails from Monterrey, Mexico) is currently leading the Monster Cup rookie of the year stats, having quickly made the jump to the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when Carl Edwards abruptly retired. Suarez continues to improve every race, amassing four straight top 10 finishes until being unceremoniously being taken out at Michigan in a wreck. Suarez is young hotshoe who exhibits the infectious enthusiasm that Helio Castroneves inspires in the Verizon IndyCar series.

Sure, these ideas need prioritization, and require collaboration among all of NASCAR’s stakeholders, including sponsors, competitors, the sanctioning body, track operators, and fans. But it’s a better place to start than pointing fingers at NASCAR’s most popular driver.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

NASCAR: Monster Lessons from The Daytona 500

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

With the kickoff of last weekend’s Daytona 500, NASCAR is back on the track after having undertaken a radical transformation of its race series during the off-season.

The Daytona 500 garnered substantial attention for multiple reasons: All three series featured the new three stage race format, where both regular season and playoff points are available. Secondly, Speedweeks showcased the return of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, after being sidelined for the second half of 2016 with a concussion. Additionally, the Daytona 500 featured the debut of Monster Energy as the entitlement Cup sponsor. Without a rush to judgment, several lessons stood out from the crowd.

Segment Racing Might Not Charm Fans with Short Attention Spans

With the Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup series all in action at Daytona, we witnessed extended lapping breaks between segments. When combined with the clean-up from wrecks, all three races required a lot of couch time. Both the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup races produced over 100 miles of total caution flag lapping, with the Daytona 500 approaching 3 ½ hours in duration.

While only a limited sample, some drivers, as well as fans believed that several “big ones” in the early stages were a result of overly-aggressive driving and a lack of patience sometimes needed in restrictor plate racing. Leave it to Jimmie Johnson, 2016 Series Champion, to sum it up after being wrecked out with a 34th place finish: “Just a lot of aggression, way too early in my opinion.”

While the segment racing may ramp up the in-race excitement, it is still a foreign concept to explain to a new fan and will take time to accustom to for old-school fans as well.

Bring Your Calculator to Understand the New Point Math

The new Segment format can create some wacky point outcomes. Kevin Harvick ended up finishing 22nd at the conclusion of the Daytona 500, but thanks to his segment two win, he is 4th in overall regular season points. Some fans are still having trouble getting their mind around that one.

Under the new point system, a driver that finishes 3rd in all three race segments would mathematically outpoint the race winner, if the race winner fails to place in the top 10 in the first two segments, even though winning the race is arguably the most important outcome.

No doubt the TV partners’ on-screen point graphics are going to get a workout as the regular season winds toward the 10-race playoff later this year.

The Monster Energy Girls created quite a stir throughout the Daytona 500 week. Image Getty Images

Ford in the Championship Hunt This Year

Ford last won a NASCAR Cup championship in 2004. With Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500 in Ford’s inaugural race with the recently-converted Stewart-Haas team, Ford teams showed speed throughout the weekend, with six of the Top-10 finishers in a Ford, as well as the victory of Ryan Reed in the Xfinity Series race the day before.

Last year, Ford-backed teams won only 20% of the Cup races, with almost all those wins captured by the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. With the switch of Stewart-Haas’ four teams from Chevrolet to Ford, expect Ford to ramp up the win total, as already evidenced the Kurt’s Busch’s maiden victory.

Monster Energy Will Not Generate an Immediate Boost

Aside from pockets of outrage over the Monster Girls’ attire that was not firesuit approved, Monster Energy is taking a studious approach to ramping up its activation with the sport. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the partnership coming together late last year, even though NASCAR had been seeking an entitlement sponsor for almost two years.

NASCAR’s expectations are high that Monster can ideally attract a younger, “edgier”, demographic and raise the excitement level at events. So far, there has been no television advertising directly promoting the connection between the sport and the beverage company.

Monster Energy representatives have said they are still developing an understanding of the marketplace and letting fans adjust to a new Cup sponsor. Perhaps smart, given that NASCAR core fans are a passionate bunch. However, let’s keep the faith that we hear more about Monster Energy’s commitment to the sport than the heat around the female attire in victory lane, which is still more than most NFL cheerleaders showcase.

Ratings Up, Perhaps Due to the Dale Jr Bump

The Daytona 500 sold out in the week leading up to the race, no doubt driven by the star power return of Dale Earnhardt Jr to the track. Earnhardt Jr qualified on the front row for the start of the Daytona 500, and demonstrated his prowess early in the week by leading 53 of 60 laps in the precursor Can-Am Duels.

Fox Sports’ coverage delivered a 7% ratings bump over the 2016 event, but that’s starting from a low base. Overall, TV ratings are nowhere close to where they were a decade ago for NASCAR’s premier event.

It remains to be seen whether this initial viewership and attendance interest will lead to a renaissance for NASCAR over the course of the 2017 season. The next few races, featuring a new aero package and continued segment racing, will be more evident of whether viewers are intrigued by the changes and willing to tune-in based on driver Brad Keselowki’s bold assertion that the new format will showcase “the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Swipes 7th Sprint Cup Championship

during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida

7 Time Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson had never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, despite having amassed 80 Sprint Cup career race wins. But then again, Johnson had never needed to win at Homestead in his past quest for Sprint Cup titles.

On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Seven titles in the past 11 seasons is surely a stellar triumph across any sport. For a true barometer of Johnson’s greatness, look towards next year’s Daytona 500 when race cars will roll on the grid.

Johnson will be NASCAR’s only multi-Championship driver when the green flag flies to open the 2017 season. No other active driver will even have two Championships, with the recent retirements of both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Truly, this surreal, fairy-tale ending sprung from the shared Chase elimination playoff format that now applies to all three of NASCAR’s top racing series: Sprint Cup, XFINITY, and Camping World Trucks.

NASCAR’s Chase playoff can be simply exhausting and exasperating. When this Chase playoff was first introduced at the Sprint Cup level in 2014, I didn’t care for it.

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On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

However, seeing the Chase play out once again this year, I have been painstakingly assimilated as a convert, like the invasive Borg from the Star Trek television serial.

Watching an entire season of the Sprint Cup Championship come down to a final race restart for the Championship 4 drivers, instead of tracking “points racing” tallies, was truthfully just like reveling in a playoff game where anything can happen and the outcome was hazy until the very last lap. Drama delivered, for sure!

Maybe NASCAR has nailed it here after all, in the era of short attention spans. For the third year in a row, the Championship 4 “winner take all” finale delivered strategy, amusement, drama, and controversy, after Joey Logano dropped low on the track and Carl Edwards threw the block, wrecking both drivers and effectively parting the seas for Johnson’s quest for a “come from behind” victory.

Consider that the cream rose to the top in all three Championship series finales:

  • In the Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200, Johnny Sauter secured his first Championship over his 13-year racing career with a gritty third-place finish at Homestead-Miami, with the other three Championship contenders finishing 7th, 8th, and 9th.
  • In the XFINITY Series, Daniel Suarez took the checkered flag in Ford EcoBoost 300 to capture the XFINITY Series championship. With the win, Suarez became the first International NASCAR champion of any touring series once the Mexican-born driver nabbed the title. The remaining three Championship contenders finished 3rd, 6th, and 9th, but were running in the top 5 throughout the day.
  • In the Sprint Cup Series, with 60 laps remaining in the Ford EcoBoost 400, the Championship 4 contenders were clustered together with Logano 2nd, Edwards 3rd, Busch 4th, and Johnson 6th. With 10 laps to go, the Championship 4 were still tightly packed among the top six running positions on the track. When the final race results were racked, Johnson was crowned both the Homestead race winner, as well as Sprint Cup Champion, for the third year in a row under the revitalized Chase format.

But while purists may continue to whine about the playoff format, maybe these fans just require a little more time to “soak in”.

For an unknown, inexplicable reason, the Chase elimination playoff elevates the Championship racers to showcase their cadre of talents in a “winner takes all” battle that compels drivers to take big risks for big rewards, and not rest on their point cushions.

Whether you’re a proponent or not of the Chase playoff format, greatness was delivered by Johnson. Revel in it during the short offseason!

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

NASCAR: No Sponsor Yet, Logano Locks Into Chase

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Having shed the “Sliced Bread” moniker, Logano delivered the goods

Finally! For the enduring fans wondering where the drama had gone in NASCAR’s Chase elimination playoff, the penultimate Phoenix Raceway CanAm 500 delivered. It only took eight snoozer races prior to Phoenix to wake the Sprint Cup contenders up.

With the Championship 4 now set, Joey Logano vs. Jimmie Johnson vs. Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch is the best final roster yet under the new playoff format instituted in 2014. Two previous Champions, and two top stars who each fell just short in prior seasons.

Having shed the “Sliced Bread” moniker, Logano delivered the goods, being one cool customer by holding off former Champion Kevin Harvick, who had advanced in every Chase elimination cut-off until this year. By winning in Phoenix, Logano became the winningest driver under the current Chase format, having amassed 7 wins in the 28 Chase races since 2014.

Heading to Homestead, the script is solid with Logano looking to give Captain Roger his second NASCAR title to celebrate Team Penske’s 50th Anniversary, complementing the IndyCar title that Team Penske captured earlier this year. In Johnson, we have the perennial six-time Champion who will polarize the sport even more if he nabs his seventh, thereby binding his legacy with the two immortal icons of Petty and Earnhardt in career titles.

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Logano held off a charging Harvick to lock in for the Homestead season Championship final.

Yet, why was the build-up to this point so tedious? Fans have wholeheartedly ignored most of this year’s Chase playoff, which was intended to bring excitement and ramp-up intensity. Just look at the last three races: Compared to 2014, television viewership ratings have nosedived with Talladega off 28%, Martinsville off 35%, and Texas off more than 50% (partially forgettable due to a six-hour rain delay).

My suppositions on the biggest pain points are:

  • No Cinderella Story Left in Play. Marveling at how the Cubs vs. Indians World Series doubled viewership to 50MM viewers for Game 7? In contrast, halfway through this Chase, NASCAR’s playoff had eliminated all the potential surprise contenders, including four Chase rookies.
  • Established Superstars are Vanishing. Having Jeff Gordon make the Championship 4 in his final season in 2015 juiced up fan interest. Although Tony Stewart will bid farewell in next week’s race at Homestead, Stewart was not a factor in this Chase with his early elimination.
  • The Earnhardt Jr Effect. Having the sport’s biggest star yanked away for ½ of the season due to his prolonged recovery from concussion symptoms has devastated fan interest. Fans are intensely loyal, and losing the sport’s most popular driver for 13 years in a row is a heavy blow to the body.
  • The Return of the Downforce. The legion of race teams’ engineers has recovered the much of the downforce package reduction instituted at the start of the 2016 season. Teams now lock in their grip on the track, thereby relegating many races to single file parades and few cautions. Optimistically, the 2017 Sprint cup rules package, already tested this year, conceivably could have commenced early at the outset of the Chase to put more action on the track back in the drivers’ hands.
  • No Game 7 Moments or On-Track Feuds. Through the first three rounds of the Chase, the biggest battles were fought by the teams not beating themselves with untimely pit calls, on-track penalties, or mechanical detonations (Martin Truex, Jr., anyone). Sadly, with Joe Gibbs Racing having four qualified drivers in the final round of 8, their idiosyncratic personalities were handcuffed by “team orders”.

These disturbing headwinds make it easy to see why NASCAR has struggled to land a title sponsor for 2017. It’s obvious that the asking price is too high or that a consortium of entitlement sponsors may be necessary to cover the cost. Either way, a cut is coming after a 13-year deal with Sprint that generated a $75 million influx per year.

NASCAR is going to need a sizable miracle of its own to turn 2016 around. Will Jimmie Johnson’s breakthrough to Homestead, his first Championship 4 appearance in three years, move the ratings needle? Hard to say, but Gordon’s final Championship appearance last year captured the imagination more than Johnson has. But then again, if Johnson wins, will lingering fans deem the fix is in?

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

NASCAR Driver Limits Won’t Boost Xfinity Series

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Now, in what cynics tag the “Kyle Busch Ban”, NASCAR has announced caps for Cup drivers participating in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series events.

NASCAR is struggling with brand identity for both the Xfinity and Truck Series, so the sanctioning body is taking a deeper dive into unchartered waters with further rule changes for 2017.

At the start of the current season, NASCAR extended the Chase playoff system down to both the Xfinity and Truck developmental circuits to intensify drama and hopefully get fans to pay attention to the upstart talent in each race series.

Now, in what cynics tag the “Kyle Busch Ban”, NASCAR has announced caps for Cup drivers participating in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series events.

Beginning in 2017, Sprint Cup drivers with more than five years’ experience will be limited to ten Xfinity and seven Truck races. Furthermore, those Cup drivers also will be ineligible to compete in the final eight races in each series, including the Chase playoffs.

The Xfinity Series motto drives home the narrative that “Names Are Made Here”, intending to showcase popular, up-and-coming racers that will bond with the next generation of fans.

However, NASCAR TV ratings are still slumping, and a viewer only needs to tune in to a race to see that fans are not exactly beating down the turnstiles to attend these support events, even with the today’s cut-rate ticket prices.

Certainly, these driver restrictions address fears that Sprint Cup drivers have been dominating the races in the “lower” series. Cup Series regulars have won nearly 75% of the Xfinity races since 2011, including 21 of the 26 regular-season races this year, which surely creates a predictable futility and overshadows the emerging stars of the future.

At the start of the current season, NASCAR extended the Chase playoff system down to both the Xfinity and Truck developmental circuits to intensify drama and hopefully get fans to pay attention to the upstart talent in each race series.

At the start of the current season, NASCAR extended the Chase playoff system down to both the Xfinity and Truck developmental circuits to intensify drama and hopefully get fans to pay attention to the upstart talent in each race series.

But the real problem is the product on the track is lackluster and mind-numbing, with races where a small cadre of Cup drivers runs away from the pack. Exhibit A is Kyle Busch, last year’s Sprint Cup Champion, who has already dropped down to win 9 of 16 Xfinity series races in 2016, extending his win total to 85 victories over his entire Xfinity career. With Busch crushing his competitors and often lapping 75% of the field, the anticipated storyline is known before the wave of the green flag.

Per Jim Cassidy, NASCAR SVP of Racing Operations, the new rule is designed to aid the up-and-coming driver talent, and not target any one competitor or team.

“Certainly, we’re not going to focus on any one participant and make a rule based upon that,” Cassidy said. “What our approach is in this case is making sure that the brands of these drivers have a chance if they are successful on-track, that people understand who these drivers are and that they continue to have a chance to build their brands. The goal is to strengthen the entire sport.”

Then again, capping experienced Cup drivers does nothing to solve the monetary predicament that these developmental series are now dominated by a few mega Cup-owners with large racing budgets. So far in 2016, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has captured the checkered flag in 17 of the 30 Xfinity races among its stable of four cars.

I remain skeptical that these new guidelines will have much impact. A Cup Series regular may still participate in up to ten Xfinity races, and the powerhouse teams such as JGR can cycle through its fleet of Cup racers to uphold their dominance. When you have a dominant team with an annual racing budget that is 10X the size of its smaller competitors, the restrictions on drivers is not going to change much.

Additionally, the wave of successive rule modifications may result in fan confusion as well as unintended consequences, such as sponsors stepping away from these series entirely.

Ideally, instead of relying on the five-year experience threshold, NASCAR could have made a major statement. With the new Chase elimination playoff, the Xfinity and Truck championships should be exclusive to drivers who have declared their eligibility to earn points and compete for a championship in that series at the start of the year.

Regrettably, NASCAR’s hands are bound, as many sponsor budgets are already set for 2017, so it would be unrealistic to completely ban or overly restrict Sprint Cup driver participation. So, instead of Kyle Busch, we can look forward to a rotating parade of Cup stars with less than 5 years of experience, such as Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney, dropping down to steal the thunder from the Xfinity Championship contenders.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson Tops First-Time Championship Contenders

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time.

Kyle Larsen is finally paying dividends.

The NASCAR regular season concluded at Richmond International Raceway, showcasing the continued supremacy of the Toyotas. Like 2015, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing stable of defending Champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have all qualified for the Chase playoffs, along with the affiliated Toyota Furniture Row team of Martin Truex, Jr.

It’s a supreme overflow of riches for Toyota, given they have won 13 of the 26 regular season races. On Sunday at Richmond, winner Hamlin and the other Toyota drivers led 385 of 407 laps.

If NASCAR’s Chase playoff is to deliver any surprise moments during its final ten races, we may need to look for the four first-time qualifiers to possibly break the Toyota juggernaut, given all of these newbies have been competing in the Sprint Cup series for less than three seasons.

Given that three of the rookie qualifiers are previous champions in NASCAR XFINITY ladder series, how do these young guns stack up in their potential for securing one of the final four spots at the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale that will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Champion?

Chris Buescher

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Despite talent, it’s doubtful that Chris Buescher makes it past the first Chase round.

Without doubt, the greatest shock was rookie Chris Buescher qualifying for the Chase by using a fuel strategy gamble to win the race-shortened race at Pocono. Completing his work-study program at Front Row Motorsports while Roush Fenway Racing leadership evaluates his future potential, Buescher is the only driver within the extended RFR family to have qualified for the Chase.

As a result, expect both Ford and RFR to be more willing to throwing human and technical resources behind Buescher’s long-shot bid for a Championship.

Regardless, his playoff stay will likely be short, as Buescher drives for small team in a Chase full of Goliaths. Including his victory, he has only two top 10 finishes with a season average finish of 26.7, and it is difficult to foresee him continuing beyond the first Chase round.

Austin Dillon

As most improved over the past three years, Dillon leads the Richard Childress Racing team as the sole contender to this year’s Chase, with veterans Paul Menard and Ryan Newman having failed to repeat this year as qualifiers.

A primary reason that Dillon locked in his first Chase berth is his increased consistency during 2016. He’s posted a seasons average finish of 14.6, as compared to a career average of 19.3 through his first two seasons. That consistency could carry Dillon through the first two rounds of the Chase, as Dillon has posted ten top 10 finishes during the regular season with only one DNF.

Right now, Dillon seems to manage his equipment well and make smart decisions; he just needs a little more speed to be in contention for wins. With a majority of intermediate tracks in the Chase, speed will be critical and the Dow No. 3 Chevrolet team still seems a little stunted in this department.

Chase Elliott

Taking over the iconic ride of the semi-retired Jeff Gordon, Elliott’s rookie season has been volatile with plenty of ups and downs. Still, Elliott collected enough points to qualify 14th. At times, Elliott has run exceptionally well. Elliott has delivered the most top ten finishes among the four first-timers, with thirteen top 10 and seven top 5 finishes.

Still, Elliott has not yet closed the deal with a regular season win.

He finished 2nd twice at Michigan, 3rd at Dover, and 4th at Bristol, but poor restarts have been his nemesis. Nonetheless, Chase Elliott may just still the best and biggest surprise of the newcomers, if he can just stop spinning the tires on restarts, given how critical restarts are to controlling the race in the closing stages.

My take is that Elliott will fall just short of the Homestead finale, with elimination in the 3rd round of playoffs. As a former XFINITY Series Champion, Elliott just needs a little more experience under his belt before he fulfills his potential.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time. Closing out the last three races of the regular season, Larson has finished on the podium each time, with a 1st at Michigan, 2nd at Darlington, and 3rd at Richmond. Larson has ramped up with an average 10.6 finish in the 2nd half of the season, as compared to the 1st half season average of 20.3.

I respect Larson’s aggressiveness and his ability to experiment early on with new racing lines. He has confidence from his recent breakthrough win, and Larson is a strong collaborative position with teammate Jamie McMurray also having qualified for the Chase, which is a first for the Chip Ganassi Racing contingent. Additionally, the CGR team has been testing several new car chassis, and may just have a few extra bullets in the chamber for the Chase playoffs.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent; if he can keep it clicking with his new crew chief Chad Johnston during the playoffs, a few well-timed strategy gambles may just carry him to the Championship series finale.

The Chase playoff can be a wild and stressful ten-week stretch, with four successive elimination rounds to the Championship. These young guns must take it one race at a time, given a race victory in any round provides the golden ticket to automatically move on. But then again, wouldn’t it be a stellar narrative if one of these drivers can break through to spice up the NASCAR Championship?

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

 

NASCAR Trucks: Cole Custer Gets Chase Hopes Crashed in Canada

Cole Custer is the son of Joe Custer, an executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing and chief operating officer of the Haas F1 Team.

Cole Custer is the son of Joe Custer, an executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing and chief operating officer of the Haas F1 Team.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series made its annual road course stop at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for this weekend’s Chevy Silverado 250, but fans were left to wonder if they witnessed a full-contact American football game, with the most electrifying battles having occurred on the grass rather than the track.

With a brazen series of jolts and shoves through the final last lap turn, John Hunter Nemechek, driving the #8 Chevy Silverado, stole the victory by knocking Cole Custer, driver of the #00 Chevy, into the grass and consequently pinning Cole Custer against the wall as both trucks engaged in an off-road wheel to wheel drag race to the finish line.

Yet, the fury did not end there, as NASCAR took almost 10 minutes to declare Nemechek the winner. Not surprisingly, Custer was raging as he anticipated the final ruling. When Nemechek attempted to claim the checkered flag, Custer sprinted toward him and knocked Nemechek to the ground with a flying tackle that would have inspired the legendary Oakland Raider defensive back, Jack Tatum (aka “the Assassin”).

Custer, all of 18 years young, has a strong family racing pedigree. Cole Custer is the son of Joe Custer, an executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing and chief operating officer of the Haas F1 Team. SHR co-owner Gene Haas’ company, Haas Automation, sponsors Cole. While Custer lays claim to being the youngest winner in the history of NASCAR’s national touring series at 16 years, 7 months and 28 days, he has yet to win this season, which is crucial to his Championship hopes.

Similarly, John Hunter Nemechek is all of 19 years young and a native of Mooresville, North Carolina, with deep family roots in the sport. John Hunter is named after his uncle, John Nemechek, who was killed in a Truck racing accident at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His father, Joe Nemechek, won the 1992 Busch Series, and earned his nickname “Front Row Joe” for his penchant in the late 1990s to be a regular contender for a front row starting position.

John Hunter Nemechek is named after his uncle, John Nemechek, who was killed in a Truck racing accident at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

John Hunter Nemechek is named after his uncle, John Nemechek, who was killed in a Truck racing accident at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

You might expect these drivers to have a certain level of decorum and respect for the traditions of auto racing, but perhaps that is expecting too much in today’s NASCAR.

No doubt these young guns in NASCAR’s Truck series are learning straight from the script that NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France envisioned when he cascaded the Chase playoff down to both the Xfinity and Truck divisions at the start of this year as a training mission for drivers that might ultimately compete at NASCAR’s highest level.

“The idea is pretty simple,” France said at the time of introduction. “When we looked at how successful the format is with the Sprint Cup Series, and the fact that drivers trying to win a championship in those lower divisions are trying to come up to the Sprint Cup, we know the way to win in the future … you’ve got to beat people, you’ve got to be winning, you’ve got to be in the crosshairs of elimination at any given moment.

And that’s how we want our young drivers, at a very early stage, to understand the latest in the competitive style of NASCAR. So no better way to do that than to have our championship formats consistent, and that’s one of the main reasons we did that.”

At the time the playoff format was extended to NASCAR other series, I was skeptical of how it might alter the racing product on the track, but decided to take a “wait and see” approach before rendering my viewpoint.

Last season in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series, we saw the Chase playoff pop-off valve explode when Matt Kenseth, eliminated from the Chase and attributing his displeasure to previous aggressive racing by Joey Logano, literally engage in a demolition derby by pile-driving the race leader Logano into the wall at Martinsville Speedway to end Logano’s playoff hopes, even though Kenseth was nine laps down and out of contention. NASCAR was forced to respond to Kenseth’s blatant intentional act by suspending him for two of the final three races of the season.

Apparently, the NASCAR next generation in the Truck series have fully embraced the Chase playbook, given this elimination format puts a premium on each and every race.

For Custer, he was squeezed by a “win or go home” position by NASCAR’s new Chase playoff for the Trucks. With only one race now remaining before the playoffs begin, Custer cannot qualify on points and heads into Chicagoland Speedway needing a victory to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase.

Conversely, Nemechek secured his second victory of the season, solidifying his entry into the Chase playoff.

Perhaps I’m just naïve and appreciate watching a skilled race car driver execute a pass, but NASCAR appears to have fully embraced the standard that “anything goes” on the last lap when drivers are competing for a win. Unlike the Verizon IndyCar series, NASCAR has no rules against “avoidable contact”, but now we have ratcheted the ante up to tolerate the “deliberate” takeout. This precedent surely sets the tone for the upcoming Chase playoffs that begin later this month in all three NASCAR series.

If this new playbook is executed to perfection, I fully foresee that Cole Custer will subtly (or not so subtly) deliver payback such that John Hunter Nemechek does NOT win the Championship.

Or, perhaps we will eventually soak in the lesson that Daniel Suarez, the savvy Joe Gibbs Racing driver from Mexico, tweeted out shortly after the conclusion of this fiasco: “Sometimes respect is better than a trophy…Maybe somebody will learn that very soon.”

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Jeff Gordon Remains Best Stand-In for Earnhardt Jr. At Watkins Glen

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Not that I yearn for Jeff Gordon to make a full comeback, but the storied four-time NASCAR Cup Champion surely has a lot left in his tank.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. having missed three races as he carefully recovers from concussion-like symptoms, Jeff Gordon has already covered for Earnhardt Jr. at two races in admirable fashion, ensuring the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy delivered a solid finish of 13th at Indianapolis. This past weekend at weather-shortened Pocono Raceway, Gordon finished 28th after suffering a seat belt malfunction, having worked his way up to 8th on the final restart before the race was called.

Several reporters have carped on having Gordon sub for Earnhardt Jr., but, in fact, this tag team make perfect sense. Critiques have centered around the one-year delay of Gordon’s hall of fame eligibility (no doubt he is a first ballot Hall of Famer) or that Hendrick Motorsports should concentrate on using a development driver to build its talent pipeline.

Still, approaching the upcoming weekend at Watkins Glen is a different beast altogether. The Glen is a mecca of North American road racing and extremely popular venue among both fans and drivers; a swift road course that can produce challenging side by side racing as well as violent crashes. And, with wrecks that have the potential for head-on barrier impacts, The Glen would surely not be a good match for Earnhardt Jr. to return even if he is medically cleared of concussion symptoms.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

“The difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen are tremendous,” says Jeff Gordon, who has nine wins across the two road course on NASCAR’s schedule. “Watkins Glen is very high speed, much faster overall average speed, so you’re carrying a lot more speed through the corners. You rely more on the downforce there than at Sonoma.”

For Gordon, the timing sequence of his jumping in the car is right in his sweet spot of both his experience and past successes. Just consider Gordon’s career victory statistics:

  • Indianapolis: 5 wins at the Brickyard (1st among active drivers)
  • Pocono Raceway: 6 wins at the Tricky Triangle (1st among active drivers)
  • Watkins Glen International: 4 wins (2nd among active drivers)

Likewise, NASCAR gets a much needed boost, even if fleeting, by having the #88 Hendrick Chevy filled with an iconic all-star driver of Gordon’s caliber, rather than a development driver. The power of having Gordon in the #88, as compared to Alex Bowman who subbed at New Hampshire, is evident in the TV ratings for the Brickyard 400.

With Gordon back on the track, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 scored a double-digit ratings increase over last year, with viewership up 11%. Even more surprising, the Brickyard 400 broadcast was the highest rated program in the history of the fledgling NBCSN cable network. For the upcoming weekend, NBCSN yet again can promote the continuation of Gordon’s stellar career, as he would achieve yet another milestone with 800 career starts (having retired last year with 797 starts)

And, just to put the icing on the cake, there are compelling driver and team benefits of having Gordon in the #88 Chevy.

Gordon’s knowledge of the race car is priceless, and he can contribute to the Hendrick organization more intangibles than any other available backup driver. Jeff is also the right driver in terms of not putting extra pressure on Dale Jr. to return too quickly.

With Gordon having previously swapped his helmet for a microphone during the first half of the broadcast season for TV partner FoxSports, being in the car gives Gordon relevant knowledge of how the current NASCAR downforce package is playing in the car, which only ups his ability to share that fresh insight with fans as NASCAR kicks-off the 2017 season.

For the #88 crew chief Greg Ives, he gets to work with an iconic driver of the sport, a perfectionist who can help push along Hendrick Motorsport’s efforts to improve the #88 car’s performance and remain in contention for the NASCAR owner’s championship.

Earnhardt Jr. encapsulates the opportunity for his team, commenting “Getting a different driver in there that thinks differently, feels things differently, is a great way to get new information. I was excited for Greg and I think this is really helping our team, as unfortunate as this situation is, we need to try to gain something out of it. I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to work with Jeff.”

Of course, both fans, as well as team owner Rick Hendrick are looking forward to having NASCAR’s most popular driver back racing “soon.” Of course, road course racing is unique on the NASCAR circuit, and you never quite know what you will get. With Gordon in the race seat, the guy that Hendrick already has in the car is pretty darn good.

For a true racer, it is tough not to look back on getting out of the car with no regrets. Gordon even admitted that he “jumped” at the chance to get back in the car when he got the text from Rick Hendrick, who he has spent his entire career with. And sponsors surely can’t complain about having a four-time Champion as a replacement driver in the car.

At the Glen, fans will be treated to one more opportunity to gaze upon Gordon’s unrivaled talents in the car. Own it, Jeff Gordon was born to race.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Sonoma Proves Road Racing Deserves Chase Berth

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart’s return to the winner’s circle at Sonoma Raceway was the feel good story of the season for many fans, as the world of Twitter went crazy with shots of Victory Lane, the last lap pass, and burning rubber. Many fans remained in the grandstand after the race to salute Smoke on his victory lap, instead of racing to the parking lots.

Most remarkably, the win virtually made Stewart a lock to earn a Sprint Cup Chase sweet sixteen playoff spot, such that he will be able to pursue a potential fourth NASCAR championship in his final season before retirement.

We saw the fire of Tony the competitor, who took an ordinary kind of car for the day, added a little bit of luck, and a final lap drive with grit to earn his 49th career Sprint Cup race win. Capturing the imagination of many, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti tweeted after the race “Give a champion a sniff of a win and see what happens!!! Nice job, @TonyStewart.”

Upon reflection, Sonoma Raceway showcased even more critically the importance of adding a road course into NASCAR’s Chase Playoff, which is often critiqued for including too many “cookie cutter” 1.5 mile ovals where the cars are still heavily dependent on aerodynamics.

I’ve heard the excuses before, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and make it so. NASCAR needs to make it happen and move this schedule change to its front burner. Road course racing is popular, and NASCAR needs to capitalize on this resurgence we’ve seen across other racing series.

Road courses are rousing for the close quarters’ side by side racing, the inevitable bump and grind of taking different lines to get around your competitors, and the need for crew chiefs to make timely strategy calls. Drivers can really showcase their talents on courses that are less aero-dependent.

Considering Sonoma in particular, this lush Northern California trip to the wine country offers the opportunity to connect with flush tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley. No doubt many global brands headquartered locally were closely measuring the relevance of the NASCAR brand and the platform that the sport could offer for showcasing technology and eyeballs. Microsoft is currently a key affiliate partner with NASCAR in terms of providing technology and communications for teams. As NASCAR expands it use of technology, video streaming, and social media, securing a premier tech company as an Entitlement sponsor to replace Sprint over the next 10 years could definitely offer a boost to NASCAR’s national image and cash flow.

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

From a competitive standpoint, today’s road courses at Sonoma Raceway, along with Watkins Glen International 2,700 miles to the east, are inherently unpredictable where an underdog can win (not just relying on the usual suspects), which opens up wider fan interest in the race outcome. At Sonoma, Tony Stewart took an ordinary car and achieved an extraordinary outcome. Similarly, AJ Allmendinger, who qualified on the front row, and showed strength to win the race, had his pit crew blow the final money stop, thereby basically cost him a shot at the win.

Road course racing features the importance of strategy, with a gusty off-cycle pit call by Stewart’s rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz positioning Stewart to chase the checkered flag over the final 24 laps. Stewart may not have had the best car, but he was given the chance to win by timely strategy.

Sonoma Raceway has been on the NASCAR’s premier schedule since 1989, so many of the current generation of drivers have grown up learning how to craftily handle these cars on such circuits. Spiritly, many NASCAR drivers, such as Allmendinger, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. having trained their skill sets in other road course series. The days of a Road Course “ringer” showing up in a part-time ride to steal the show has not happened in a decade.

As part of NASCAR’s grooming ladder, the NASCAR XFINITY Series showcases three road courses for NASCAR’s young guns to earn their chops. With career progression across NASCAR’s ladders, its seems shortsighted to only have two road course races in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series.

Prior to the current Chase elimination format, NASCAR determined its champion based on consistency in earning points, which perhaps supported the argument of not having a Chase road course. However, with the current “win and advance” Chase playoff format, a road course fits perfectly in amping up the excitement of a dramatic finish in crowning NASCAR’s champion.

No doubt that much of NASCAR’s schedule is “locked in” and would require substantial effort to shift around. But from my standpoint, forget the excuses, NASCAR needs to do everything to spice up the show, and a road course in the Chase would be a great start. Perhaps the idea will grow on NASCAR’s Chairman, given his taste in fine wines, such that we can raise a glass during a future October harvest.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano


 

NASCAR: With 2 Wins, Jimmie Johnson Marches towards 7th Title

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he's going to take a 7th title?

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he’s going to take a 7th title?

NASCAR may be typecast as a blue collar sport; then again, based on the first five races of the 2016 season, its fans are part of the privileged class, with the latest race at Auto Club Speedway delivering another Hollywood ending. So far, so good.

Once maligned as perhaps the least exciting “cookie-cutter” circuit on the schedule, Auto Club Speedway continued its resurgence of sensational finishes over the past five years, with “superman” Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s #48 Chevy, snatching an electrifying overtime victory from Kevin Harvick in the final restart.

At the start of 2016 Auto Club 400, anticipation was sky high that the worn, wide track with multiple grooves and long sweeping corners would deliver compelling theatre, and the race did not disappoint.

Jimmie Johnson soared to the front on the final restart with a power move, but he sowed his victory seeds much earlier in the race. Qualifying 19th, Johnson spent most of the day working up through the field, searching around the race track to uncover incremental speed.

Conversely, I studied Kevin Harvick’s line throughout the race, where he stuck to the high side near the wall, thereby carrying great momentum out of the turns while leading a race-high 142 of 200 laps. Harvick’s car was locked on rails and rock steady on long green flag runs, such that he did not have to vary his line much given the speed he was carrying.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

On the final restart with the front contenders all sporting fresh rubber, Johnson restarted third — on the inside row — and pushed Kevin Harvick into the lead and then dove low to take the top spot and hold off Harvick in the high line once he completed the pass. Not surprisingly, Johnson last lap time was his fastest of the race.

Aside from the surprising finish, the supreme takeaway is that fans are discussing what happened on the track, rather than being relegated to discussing off-track drama (such as restart rules or post-race UFC sessions in the hauler lot).

Why was the day so good? Because auto racing enthusiasts, including those in the packed grandstands who were on their feet for a majority of the race, got most everything you could ask from a race:

  • 26 lead changes among 8 different drivers. But that was only part of the story. Many cars raced side by side for several laps as drivers who were passed looked for opportunities to return the favor. We had comers and goers throughout the field, and FOX Sports actually put its split screens to use by showing simultaneous races for position during course of the TV broadcast.
  • Despite immense effort, TV doesn’t always do justice to capturing all the action on the track as compared to being in the stands. Early in the race, one sequence I found fascinating was the back and forth battle between Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch for position within the top 10. Over the course of several laps, Busch would pass Almirola by drafting low off the front straight before the entry to Turn 1, while Almirola would return the favor by passing Busch with a sweeping arc out of Turn 4.
  • As another illustration, with 38 laps to go and 3 laps into a restart, we had six top drivers (Harvick, Johnson, Logano, Edwards, Keselowski, and Hamlin) still fanning out with different lines through the middle of Turn 4 and within three car lengths of each other. Listening to the in-car audio, you could hear drivers gingerly feathering the throttle throughout the corners while fighting for grip, showing they had their hands full with the low downforce package.
  • Many cars had a “Darlington” stripe on the right side from scraping the wall, except for the fact that they were running at Fontana. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. delivered a solid 5th place finish (his best finish since Bristol last spring), but his sponsors might request a credit given that he rubbed their logos off the right side of his car from working the fence.
  • Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne will likely no longer swap pleasantries after their scuffle during the race. Kahne made contact with the rear of Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high side of the front straight, sending her hard into the outside wall. Patrick questioned the authenticity of the move, given she was completing a pass and generally holding her line into the upcoming corner and the fact that Kayne was a lap down by position, while Kahne contended he had no illicit intent. Kayne, for what it’s worth, seems to have lost his way out on the track, and has become the opaque horse in the Hendrick team stable.
  • Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske #22 Ford, continues to not make any friends in the Toyota camp. Adding to his previous dust-ups with Toyota drivers’ Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 as well as the on-track theatrics with Matt Kenseth last year, Logano allegedly took the air off the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. on the rear straight on lap 151 while both were inside the top 10, loosening him up and sending him into the wall. It was unclear whether there was contact between the two, but each driver had their own viewpoint. Regardless, add Truex Jr. to the growing list of drivers stating their intent to race Logano “differently” from now on.
  • Kyle Larson had a violent wreck on the backstretch on Sunday, reminding us of the ever present risk of this sport, with a straight-on impact that crushed the front end and lifted his #42 Chevy off all four wheels after a tire went down. While dramatic, the benefits of recently installed SAFER barriers along entire length of the Speedway’s front stretch & back stretch walls was evident as Larson walked away from the crash.
  • Rookies showcased a bright future. Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd prior to the final caution flag, while still managing to finish 6th after slipping during the final restart. Ryan Blaney also ran in the top 10 until a blown tire ruined his day.

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1997, Auto Club Speedway has not required a repave, having aged to be one of the gems of NASCAR’s Spring West Coast swing. One can only dream that track owner International Speedway Corporation never needs to repave Auto Club Speedway. With strong momentum, NASCAR now heads to the heart of several short tracks in April, resuming in Martinsville on April 3rd after the Easter break.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

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