NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

 

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 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

 

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Awakens ‘The Downforce’ with Atlanta Win

Johnson's victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Johnson’s victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Jimmie Johnson is back, prevailing in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, even though he never truly left. Johnson’s win is his 76th career Sprint Cup Series victory, placing him in rarified air by tying with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time win list.

In 2015, Johnson also won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, albeit with a different downforce package.

On Sunday, NASCAR debuted this season’s lower aerodynamic downforce package at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the goal of making the racing better. And this race appeared to showcase the drivers’ talents, in spite of a “racers’ race”, with lengthy green flag runs and only one caution flag, prior to Ryan Newman’s tire detonation with three laps to go, which set up the overtime finish.

With 200 plus laps of green flag racing, cars naturally are going to get spread out on the track. With such clean racing, there is virtually no package that NASCAR could develop that could make this type of race much better. For the majority of the race, the lower downforce pack created an atypical kind of racing than previously seen on most intermediate speedways like Atlanta. Managing tire wear triggered drivers to wrestle their cars throughout the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. evidently endorsed the low downforce package, along with Atlanta’s worn track surface. After the race, Earnhardt proclaimed “these cars are fun to drive, sliding around…Driving the hell out of the cars, I had a blast!”

But surely, the story is the reemergence of Jimmie Johnson, who in spite of amassing five wins last season, was the first big name eliminated from the Chase, when he suffered a rear axle seal failure at Dover Speedway. As a result, we were relegated to not debating whether Johnson would achieve his record-setting quest for seven championships, showcasing that there is no such thing as a lock since NASCAR created its elimination-style playoff format.

28 Apr 2000:  A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey  /Allsport

28 Apr 2000: A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport

“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt Sr.’s career win total. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”

Then again, Johnson defines greatness. After the race, ESPN reporter Marty Smith tweeted out a testimonial from Johnson’s Hendrick teammate Earnhardt Jr., “He went 3-wide in the middle of 3&4 & turned sideways & never lifted. Amazing the car control he has.” – Jr., when he knew (Jimmie Johnson) was special.

If the low downforce races proceed like what we saw in Atlanta on Sunday, expect Johnson to definitely be a key favorite in this year’s Sprint Cup Chase. These intermediate races play right into the hands of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus: Long green flag runs to wear out the car and the driver – check. Strategy-based calls on a 1.5-mile speedway by Knaus – check. More importantly, when does Johnson not win such races?

In victory lane, Johnson comes across as polished, corporate, and gracious in thanking all of his team and sponsors. Perhaps a driver becomes comfortable after winning as many championships and career races as Johnson has, including five trips to Atlanta’s victory lane during his career.

However, just once, I would love to see Johnson stand up and acknowledge the greatness that we are all seeing. He exudes excellence and should not be embarrassed to tell the world. Johnson works so hard to stay physically fit, mentally prepared, and knows when to take the right calculated risks on the track for the win.

Then again, should Johnson accomplish his quest for seven championships, his greatness will be undisputed.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now begins its West Coast swing to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon, where Johnson has won four times in the last eleven races. Look for him to be running up front again.

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

 

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