NASCAR: 2015 Is Done, Is 2016 The Year For NASCAR Excellence?

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup season is over and done. Did it rise to level of excellence, no. Did it rise to level of acceptance, yes. The television ratings were down again, but not in a dramatic way, the hemorrhaging has stopped and it’s down to a trickle. That’s actually progress.

2016 will start without Jeff Gordon who gave us the modern era of top notch drivers and competition. That’s a shame, but that’s progress. We move on.

What will 2016 look like given the path laid out for the competitors to win a championship? The first thing that comes to mind is that the teams will become more savvy with how to run their in-season strategy coupled with a flow through plan for getting through each level to the final race.

The Low Down-Force cars should be a learning and driving experience for the competitors as it will more clearly define who are the real wheelmen. It may give those on lesser teams a greater chance to show their skill as aero won’t be a crutch that the teams can lean on.

Don’t get me wrong, every team will take the low down-force cars and try to wring every bit of aero out of them that they can, not to mention the mechanical grip and integration of all of these into a cohesive chassis.

Don't be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

Don’t be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

We shouldn’t expect a miraculous change in the drivers we know are highly skilled such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson. Kurt Busch and many others. They are what they are, great drivers and inveterate competitors.

As for the Chase format, it’s time to quit worrying that it seems false, it isn’t. It belongs to NASCAR, they make the rules and you can either play by them or go elsewhere. It’s up to the teams to decide if they want to compete.

I see it as no different than the NFL. The very best team doesn’t always get to the Super Bowl.

We have to realize that in the grand scheme of the sport we call auro racing, NASCAR is still the 800 lb, gorilla in the United States and will remain so for the foreseeable future. IndyCar has raised it’s game, to be sure, but it isn’t going regain the luster it once had.

NASCAR will still be America’s choice for motorsports and 2016 seems to great promise in it’s ability to deliver a very competitive and exciting product.

We may be past the days of 100,00 people in the stands, but that’s a sign of the times. People want their leisure activity on-demand and they have many choices. NASCAR will have to continue it’s digital battle to capture new fans and retain the ones they currently enjoy.

Expect to see the usual suspects fighting it out, but expect to see a more entertaining battle.

Lewis Hamilton: NASCAR Dream Is A Compelling Fantasy

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale'.

Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon at the Homestead Chase finale’.

Even for the avid fans that only track with NASCAR, Lewis Hamilton is a recognized star. At the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Race that concluded the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamilton made a cameo drop-in with cameras shadowing him throughout the garage.

Having already sewn-up his third Formula One World Championship, Lewis Hamilton prepared for the final race of the F1 season in Abu Dhabi race by spending the off-weekend stateside in Miami in order to support Jeff Gordon’s quest for a fifth NASCAR Championship, which fell short in his final career race.

Most notably at Homestead, Hamilton signaled his aspirations to perhaps follow in Gordon’s footsteps someday when he stated, “It was a really cool event; I hope I get to do one (race) one day.” According to Gordon, Hamilton was filled with questions about NASCAR.

For Hamilton, he would surely have to get past the little matter of a pay cut, which he probably could afford given his career earnings already. Reportedly, the 30-year-old Hamilton earns approximately $42 million dollars per year under his just renewed three-year deal with Mercedes AMG Petronas, which is multiples higher than a NASCAR star typically makes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the highest paid athletes in the world having just inked a three year $140 million dollar salary from Mercedes.

However, Hamilton has continued to drop suggestive nuggets. Earlier in August, London’s Daily Mirror also reported that Hamilton hinted that he wouldn’t rule out eventually trying his hand at NASCAR in an actual event.

Moreover, in a June 2011 Mobil 1 promotional event, Hamilton got a little sampler of NASCAR when he swapped rides with three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart for a day at Watkins Glen International.

Hamilton jumped behind the wheel of a NASCAR stocker weighing more than two times as much as his F1 car. Hamilton fondly recalls that “Tony was an excellent teacher and I quickly found a good rhythm. Those cars are raw and powerful! They are fantastic fun to drive.”

At the same time, Hamilton might even enjoy escaping the politics of the pre-determined team marching orders that seem more obvious among F1 teams than within NASCAR mega-teams.

This prototype for an F1 driver transition has already been tested. Back in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya (at the time, F1 driver for Williams BMW) and Jeff Gordon traded places, taking turns driving speed demonstration laps around the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as another Mobil 1 promotion in advance of the Brickyard 400.

Fast forward three years later to 2006, and Juan Pablo Montoya left F1 for a NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in a relationship that spanned eight seasons. Alas, Montoya had a mostly up-and-down NASCAR career, and was not able to capitalize on early breakthroughs such as his win at Sonoma in 2007.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

Lewis Hamilton: Three time Formula One Champion.

NASCAR certainly wants to be taken serious on the international stage. Illustratively, this week Toyota is pulling out all the stops in celebrating its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship earned by Kyle Busch, with Toyota Racing’s President and General Manager David Wilson calling it “Toyota’s singular greatest achievement in motorsports.”

And Hamilton is undoubtedly a global celebrity, as well as an avid fan of American culture. Hamilton would have no trouble finding a sponsor to back a one-off NASCAR ride given the longer duration of the NASCAR season, or even a complete changeover should he decide he has accomplished everything he has sought in F1.

Yet some NASCAR narrow-minded loyalists have already taken to social media to critique such a possibility. The challenges fall into two buckets: Either Hamilton would not have success in NASCAR (pointing at other open wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, or the brief NASCAR truck tenure of Kimi Raikkonen during his F1 sabbatical); or that Hamilton would not culturally “fit”, because his has too much bling, too much attitude, and too much reliance on F1’s superior technology.

However, all sports are competing for eyeballs and the almighty entertainment dollar. And entertainment is nothing more than a business that requires investment and return. Having an F1 champion, worldwide superstar, and dynamic celebrity take his shot at NASCAR can only serve to expand the pie and draw more eyeballs to the sport, if only for the curiosity factor. Occasionally, NASCAR fans complain that certain drivers are “too vanilla.” While I don’t agree with such assessments, there can be no doubt that a star like Hamilton trying his hand at NASCAR certainly wouldn’t be vanilla.

And the cross-pollination and racing exchange would only broaden motorsports’ overall exposure, while breaking down the parochial stereotypes surrounding NASCAR as a sport full of “moonshiners”.

Hamilton to NASCAR? My retort is: “Now that would be some quintessential racing, so boys, have at it!”

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

 

Kyle Busch Crowned Champion in Candyland Chase, What’s Next?

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

With a season that began in a hospital room and a fear that he might never race again, Kyle Busch stood tall as King Kandy at Homestead-Miami, with the final lap call that “The checkered flag goes to Kyle Busch, and the Sprint Cup Championship goes to Kyle Busch!”

Sidelined for the initial 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and left foot sustained in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Daytona race crash in February, Kyle Busch finished off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after eleven seasons in the sport.

Busch, piloting the M&M’s Racing Crispy Camry, delivered a plethora of “firsts” by winning the season finale. In additional to his inaugural Championship, Busch brought home his first win ever in a Chase playoff race, the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing, the first title for his long-time sponsor Mars/M&M’s after 25 years in the sport, and the first title for his rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.

Shrewdly, Kyle Busch matured this season and realized that he could not get it done on his own, proclaiming “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did if it wasn’t for this injury.” During Busch’s comeback, he showered accolades on his crew chief Stevens. “He’s obviously a great leader of this team,” Busch said. “I love him to death. He’s done a really good job, and obviously we’re having fun doing what we’re doing.” That’s stellar praise from a turbulent driver who hasn’t always a solid rapport with his previous crew chiefs.

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David  Graham)

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Many were surprised by Busch’s resurgence and patience to overcome the turmoil and physical challenges of his comeback. Given his prior success in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series and his self-proclaimed boast that he was “King of the Minors”, the only question mark that remains is how many future titles Busch will capture now that he has finally delivered on the promise of his wheelman talents and demonstrated an appreciation for the collective contribution of his team and partners to his success.

Remarkably, NASCAR closed out a drama-laden second year of its contemporary elimination-style Chase playoff, with the four surviving Championship contenders once again battling up-front in the final laps and facing the necessity to finish first to both close out the season-ending race and capture the Sprint Cup crown. As reigning 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick finished second 13 times this year, including the final race at Homestead, and that still was not enough to secure the title.

The NASCAR Chase Championship playoff seems to have elevated the engagement of fans, with the both of its last two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami being sold-out; as well, the Homestead TV ratings delivered the highest overnights since 2005. So will the storybook finish leave NASCAR fans wanting even more in 2016? As the sport heads to the offseason, NASCAR must continue its metamorphous into a more exhilarating product, inculcate its emerging young stars, and showcase innovative technologies to help revitalize its aging fan base, by attracting new (read younger) fans with shorter attention spans. Amid a plethora of entertainment options, NASCAR remains at a critical inflection point to stay relevant as it looks towards the 2016 season by resolving several thorny matters:

  • Acquiring a New Title Sponsor for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Sprint, and its merged predecessor Nextel, have been the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR’s top series since 2004, so this selection entails a monumental investment and long-term commitment, and is critical to the sport’s continued vitality in staying relevant to its mainstream audience.

Whoever the NASCAR Series title sponsor will be, substantial time will be required to develop customer activation programs, establish corporate on-track hospitality, and build a collective marketing/branding campaign, so NASCAR must move quickly to vet and secure a new partner. At the same time, the dollar investment by a Corporate partner is nothing to sneeze at; only a finite number of companies have the financial resources to be willing to spend anywhere from $75 million to $100 million per season. Ideally, a forward-looking technology company (Apple, Google, Amazon – are you listening?) flush with cash would be a great partner, particularly to showcase the integration of technology into the sport.

  • Success in Implementing the Low Downforce Aero Package. For 2016, NASCAR has adopted a new low downforce aero spec with the expectation that the racing will be tilted back in the hands of drivers. Now, as race teams prepare for 2016 and build a strong baseline of data, the fan anticipation is that the racing will be even better (meaning closer with more passing).

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

Moreover, with the upfront lead time, the new low downforce rules should allow Goodyear to dial-in tire combinations for each track that complement the new package and produces more fall-off, which hopefully leads to more passing. A softer tire, like the one built for Darlington, required drivers to manage their tire while slipping and sliding all over the track. If the new Aero package does not deliver better on-track competition, the Chase drama itself will not sustain the growth of the NASCAR franchise.

  • Elevating Brand Identity for XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. Both series are struggling with attendance and sagging ratings, particularly at stand-alone events not partnered with a Cup race. This weekend, with Roush Fenway Ford driver Chris Buescher only needed to finish 14th to clinch the second-tier XFINITY Series Championship, we got a mostly ho-hum race as Sprint Cup drivers dropped down to whip up on the rest of the field.

Both of these Series have already slashed allowable entries in each race (from 43 to 40 in XFINITY and 36 to 32 in Trucks) to weed out uncompetitive, poorly funded teams and ideally improve the on-track racing and available purse money.

In both the XFINITY and Truck Series, a champion is still determined via a season-long points system. Might it be a time for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship type of system to decide the Champion in these series? Apparently, NASCAR thinks so, with its Official Fan Council of 16,000 members receiving an opinion survey in the past two weeks to float this idea, including a suggestion of restricting regular Sprint Cup Drivers from participating during the playoffs in these two series.

  • Promoting Future Stars and Technologies to Capture the Youth Demographic. NASCAR has a bright crop of talent coming up through the ranks, but now more than ever Sprint-cup rides are limited by sponsorship dollars. Nevertheless, several drivers are breaking through this coming year, including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both of whom come with renowned racing pedigrees and are proving to be the total package.

Elliott, 19, is stepping into the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Jeff Gordon, while Blaney, 20, will run for the Wood Brothers (with support by Ford Performance and a technical alliance with Team Penske). These two young guns have both won races in NASCAR’s lower divisions and present a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to showcase a meaningful battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as a potential breakthrough berth in the Chase.

As well, to broaden its appeal to technology savvy fans, NASCAR is exploring ways to digitally deliver its product, taking fans more into the cockpit and chatter, with the 2016 introduction of the “digital dash”. This customizable dashboard of 16 preset screens is a great way to immerse fans in the driver experience, and the sooner the better. In a sport where it is hard to connect to what the driver is experiencing in the cockpit, fans will benefit from deeper access to more comprehensive real-time data, along with expanded digital platforms to access in-car race broadcasts. The NBCSN HotPass simulcast this weekend was a great starting point, offering a four way split screen of each Championship contender, along with live race communication between drivers and crew.

On our holiday wish list, we hope that NASCAR leads the way in reinvigorating its product with an improved level of on-track competition, promoting new stars with an uncompromising and fresh mindset, and capitalizing on emerging technologies to inclusively bring fans into the cockpit. Otherwise, the waning interest in America’s showcase racing series does not bode well for the fortunes of any of America’s besieged racing series, including the Verizon IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car series.

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

NASCAR and Formula One: Are You Man Enough To Succeed?

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

One more race at Homestead, Florida will decide who will be the 2015 Sprint Cup Champion. Was it a year to remember or a year to forget? It’s a little of both. Will NASCAR actually do what it takes in 2016 to succeed?

The NASCAR fan base is as polarized regarding the Chase format as Formula One is regarding it’s hybrid powerplants. In modern motorsports the wedges that have been driven between the fans has been to the determent of the sport regardless of what discipline it is.

In NASCAR, what started as a small problem, how to make the sport more interesting, resulted in the Car of Tomorrow debacle right through to the wholesale change of normally aspirated engines in Formula One to bizarre, unmanageable hybrid powerplants.

The world of motorsports has become tantamount to a plane crash: Something goes awry and then the pilots keep pushing buttons until the plane crashes.

2015 is a year to put behind us in both NASCAR and F1. 2016 will be a transitional year for NASCAR in that we will move to low down-force cars that are actually harder to drive from an aero point of view rather than hip-hop style camber being required to make the car turn.

For Formula One, 2017 couldn’t arrive too soon. The outrageous costs associated with these Frankenstein hybrids have damn near driven the sport to the brink. No independents can keep up under the current rules which have to be endured until 2017.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want's more.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want’s more.

In NASCAR The Gen 6 car proved worthy, but also too good on sticking to the track, so moving towards the low down-force set-up is a great thing. But is it too little too late? We won’t know until 2016 is mid-season and moves along towards 2017. Darlington’s viewership was down 17% over 2014. That’s very bad, very, very bad.

Redemption wont come overnight, it’s easier to keep fans you have than to gain new ones, but that NASCAR’s challenge. One issue in it’s favor, besides the low down-force, is the new influx of younger drivers. Perhaps they and their social skills can bring along a new group of viewers and fans, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

So, the NASCAR season will end up this weekend either crowning an outgoing champion in Jeff Gordon, or possibly an upset victory for Martin Truex, Jr. In Formula One Lewis Hamilton has taken his third World Championship in a year so mediocre, except for the USGP, that people will be almost forced to watch another year with nearly the same rules. Only the diehard fans may hang around for the ‘Great Engine Change’ of 2017.

NASCAR? NASCAR had better put on one hell of a show from race one in order to stop the femoral bleeding of viewers. I believe they can, however, but it will take an on-track product that dazzles along with very, very savvy social media to nudge the fans back into place and to grab those who never cared.

2016 will be the year of reckoning for both of these sports but will be married to social media like never before if they expect to keep people interested. The presidential elections are going to dominate social media, particularly Facebook and both of these styles of motorsports had better grab as many of those eyeballs as possible.

The political conversation will be dominated by the very same demographic as the motorsports fans for both NASCAR and Formula One. Who will take advantage of that?

As Alec Baldwin’s character in the infamous film, ‘Glen Gary, Glen Ross’ said: “They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

Well Ladies and Gentlemen, are you?

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: Homestead Odds Back Harvick, But Gordon is Favorite

He has no friends to rally around him, but Truex could pull off a stunning upset.

He has no friends to rally around him, but Truex could pull off a stunning upset.

The Championship Four title contenders of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are now poised to hit the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday to settle NASCAR’s 2015 Sprint Cup Championship. Sold out for a second consecutive year under the revamped Chase playoff format, Homestead-Miami Speedway will be sweltering, not due to weather, but instead due to the drama surrounding this season-ending spectacle.

Each of these four title contenders has had a grueling season to get to the finish line, and now that crunch time is here, likely possess a low threshold of tolerance for fellow competitors.

While not at Super Bowl stratospheric prices, a grandstand ticket on the finish line can be obtained for $500, and might just be worth it for the memories, unless you’re a Ford fan.

Paradoxically, the Ford Ecoboost 400 Championship race will not have any Ford drivers in the mix to represent its Dearborn headquarters. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski needed to win at Phoenix; instead, the Team Penske Ford dynamic duo will be resigned to waiting until next year and speculating as to what might have been done differently.

So, with next Sunday’s race commanding prime time slotting on the NBC network, how do the Championship Four contenders rate in their quest to claim the coveted Sprint Cup?

As the reigning NASCAR Champion, Kevin Harvick attained the pinnacle of his racing career by capturing his first Sprint Cup title last season. This, year, Harvick has shown no signs of downshifting; indeed, Harvick is even fierier, with a 2015 season average finish of 9.1, compared to 12.9 in 2014.

Kyle busch, should he win, would be the definition of "The Comeback Kid".

Kyle busch, should he win, would be the definition of “The Comeback Kid”.

At Homestead-Miami, Harvick has the best average finish of all contenders over the last 10 races at 6.7, having won last season’s Homestead race to climax his Championship Chase. Harvick has been the odds-on favorite throughout this season’s Chase playoff, and remains in the pole position heading to Homestead, particularly given how strong he looked at Phoenix, ending up with a rain-shortened second place finish after leading 143 laps.

For Jeff Gordon, Homestead-Miami has not been his most prolific track, having collected only one of his 93 storied career victories back in 2012. However, Gordon has still run strong on the 1.5 mile Homestead oval, with an average finish of 10.6 over his 16 career finishes.

Certainly, the preeminent feel-good Championship story would be for Gordon to definitively fulfill his “Drive for Five” quest upon his retirement. With his superstar career spanning 24 years, Gordon’s crossover appeal helped take NASCAR into the mainstream sports audience. Having an All-Star walk off as a Champion is an extraordinary event, reminiscent of legends such as John Elway, who concluded his 16-year NFL career by collecting his second Super Bowl ring after the 1998 season. For Gordon, the transformer of NASCAR is set to retire with his final shot at obtaining the elusive fifth Championship that he has pursued for the past 14 years, spanning more than half of his career.

Under the pre-Chase point system, some pundits say Gordon might have won two more Championships since his last title in 2001. Gordon laughs upon recalling that when he first learned of the new Chase system back in 2004, he felt that NASCAR President Mike Helton couldn’t be serious. Now, if able to win under the latest reincarnation of the Chase, Gordon exclaims “that would be poetic justice.”

My colleague Michele Rahal calls out that Gordon is the only eligible Hendrick Motorsports driver and that Papa Hendrick has delivered the message to the rest of his stable that they are to do everything they can to push Gordon to the Championship. HMS will make sure that the #24 team is fully prepping its finest car for his final ride. Reiterating his team directive at Phoenix, Papa Hendrick testifies that he is “really excited about going down to (Homestead) with the opportunity (for Gordon) to go out a Champion…if he can finish it off, what a storybook ending.” Hendrick will miss Gordon, and will do everything imaginable to give Gordon the royal sendoff.

Kyle Busch has a slot in the Sprint Cup Series championship finale for the first time in his career. For a racer who missed the first eleven Sprint Cup races of this season after breaking his leg in a devastating Daytona crash, Busch is certainly the Cinderella story in terms of a potential comeback.

Likewise, team owner Joe Gibbs Racing is in the same position as Hendrick in delivering team orders. Having the expansive resources of a four car team, JGR will strive to rally around Kyle Busch with the goal of bringing its first Cup Championship to the Toyota Racing organization.

At Homestead, Busch’s Sprint Cup career stats are relatively anemic, with an average finish of 23.1. His best finish of 4th came in 2012. However, Busch has supernatural talent when it comes to wheeling a stocker, and has shown that he knows how to get around the progressive banking of Homestead-Miami Speedway, at least in the XFINITY Series. In his last six XFINITY races at Homestead, Busch has won twice, and finished no lower than 3rd.

Often, Busch uses the XFINITY Series combo weekends to prep for the main Sprint Cup event the following day. At Phoenix Raceway on Saturday, Busch dominated the desert in his XFINITY ride by leading 190 of 200 laps on the way to a victory. In Sunday’ Sprint Cup eliminator race at PIR, Busch clinched his Championship berth by running strong and finishing 4th. We’ll see if Busch can apply the same sequencing strategy at Homestead.

Surprisingly, Martin Truex Jr. might just pull off the most stunning Championship upset in a long time. At the start of the Chase, Truex was given only a 12% chance of making the Championship Four, and an even slimmer 2% probability of winning the Championship. Yet, Truex has defied the odds all season as the little engine that could. Truex’s team has run steadfast and dependable all season, nipping at the heels of every Chase round on his way to Homestead.

Among NASCAR active drivers at Homestead, Truex has the second best average finish of 7.6 over the last 10 races (second only to Harvick). He finished 2nd in 2006, 3rd in 2011, and 4th in 2013.

Statistically, this season has been the finest of Truex’s career; he has delivered season bests for the most Top 5s (8) and Top 10s (22) during 2015. With those stats, Truex just might be the sleeper that shocks the NASCAR world, given he has only won three races over the entire span of his 12-year career.

Almost impossibly, the longest season in sports is coming to the white flag. Heading to Homestead, points no longer matter; the only goal for the teams in the Championship Four is to win the race!

My Prediction: Being sensible, Harvick seems to have the rest of the field covered. But if Harvick falters, my heart says there is far more fate and fortune surrounding Gordon, and that he will pull out a victory in a miraculous manner, leaving us with a storyline that hums through the off season and that can be passed along to future generations of fans.

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

The Target Is on the Back of Logano At Phoenix

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Amaze your friends and build new bridges is an old adage used in commercials of yesterday, Charlton Heston comes to mind. This, however, does not apply to Joey Logano who will have his work cut out for him at Phoenix this weekend.

It won’t be because Logano isn’t fast, he is, but making too many enemies in a NASCAR Cup field can doom your chances at making a good impression or amazing anyone. There’ll be no magic act or dancing bears.

To make the final four he will have to win and to win at Phoenix you would have to have friends or more accuratley, ‘frienemies’, to do it. He has none, including his teammate, Brad Keselowski who is also going for a spot in the big show at Homestead.

Ford may very well rally the troops who aren’t eligible for the final three Homestead spots, which is everyone except the Penske squad, but their aren’t really any strong contenders for the Blue Oval in the actual race that might make a difference.

The main players here are the Hendrick crowd. They will block and make their cars as wide as possible in order to reduce the risk to Jeff Gordon when crunch time comes in Florida. It’s not a precedent, you saw it in action when Jimmie Johnson stalked down Brad Keselowski at Texas with surgical precision.

Keselowski, Logano's teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

Keselowski, Logano’s teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

There is a true strategy in play and NASCAR knows it. The only thing NASCAR doesn’t want to see is a repeat of the Kenseth hit on Logano, other than that, they want the dogfight we would expect from this caliber of drivers.

Make no mistake, Ford will have rallied it’s teams to do whatever they can to get Keselowski or Logano into the show, but both of these drivers have the GM faction gunning for them. But wait there’s more.

The intramural rivalry between the Hnedrick and Stewart–Haas camps will be in full song as well. The odds on favorite to win at Phoenix is Kevin Harvick and Harvick needs to win just to put the final nail in the box to make Homestead. But Hendrick wold love for him to somehow not make it to the Sunshine State, though that’s unlikely.

Crashes, pit road penalties, finishing orders…all will come into play, therefore the only insurance is to win and that is where Harvick has a statistical advantage, but anything can happen as we’ve seen so far.

For Joey Logano, however, the hoped coronation may have run him right over. No cigar, no champagne and no seat at the big table. He has made many enemies in the field from all sides, including his own Ford camp.

It seems to be more likely that Ford will concentrate on Keselowski, although Logano could run up front all day unmolested, in NASCAR you never know who, or when someone may want to extract revenge for some infraction from the past or leave you alone.

Right now, Logano is the prison concierge, the piñata of the year and each and every one of his competitors know it and are apparently ready to take a swing at him.

Harvick Will Be The Dominant Driver At Phoenix

Gordon's teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

Gordon’s teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

With this weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix looming four drivers will be out of the game and four will be in, Count on Kevin Harvick to be one of the drivers who advance to Homestead for the finale’.

Harvick has had one of those seasons that had the usual ebb and flow we’ve come to expect from top drivers and teams. Periods of excellence that move to mediocre results and then come back with a vengeance aren’t uncommon for those who are in the elite club. The trick is when to peak.

Kevin Harvick seems to be more than at home in Phoenix having won 5 consecutive races at the desert track as well as 8 wins overall. He’s the favorite to win again ensuring his Homestead spot for the chance at his second Cup championship.

There are no more chances, this race is it. Jeff Gordon is ready to go, having won Darlington. The top four drivers in points are: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr, who seems to many to be an outlier.

One thing is certain the games will be in play at Phoenix with virtually all 7eligible drivers getting no help from their teammates and Hendrick rallying it’s team to block as many strong contenders as it can from being a threat to Jeff Gordon’s chances at Homestead.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

We were witness to that type of chess play when Jimmie Johnson so skillfully and stealthily ran down a dominant Brad Keselowski to take away a guaranteed spot for the Penske driver as well as further keep Joey Logano at bay.

That could actually play into Martin Truex, Jr’s hands, though the cards aren’t in his favor as his record at Phoenix are far from stellar and Furniture Row is a one car team.

When it’s all said and done, the money seems to point to Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards making the big show in South Florida.

Edwards has two wins at Phoenix and they are within the last few years rather than a decade old, so count him as a real threat to knock Truex out of the picture.

My picks going into Homestead: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Not a stretch, right?

My real hope is that Gordon goes out as a Champion and we can close the books on these cars with too much down force.

2016 is pivotal point for not only NASCAR but IndyCar and Formula One as well. It can’t come too soon for me.

Johnson Lassos Keselowski Possibly Crushing Chase Hopes

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

During Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, we were treated to a superb showdown between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, two former NASCAR Sprint Cup Champions putting on a relentless driving clinic over the final 18 laps.

Johnson, driver of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet No. 48, took the lead with four laps remaining from Team Penske’s Keselowski, who started from the pole and dominated throughout on his way to leading 312 of 334 laps.

For Keselowski, a victory would have punched his ticket to the Championship 4 final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks. Before the pass by Johnson, Keselowski seemed to do everything right, having punished the rest of the field on dominating restarts as well as long green flag runs.

But Johnson had other plans in chasing down Keselowski, keeping his Chase playoff record perfect, by ensuring he has now won at least one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the 12th consecutive season. His fifth victory of the season was also his record career sixth at Texas.

Both Johnson and Keselowski demonstrated how to race hard but clean, with Johnson patiently stalking Keselowski over the final 18 laps after a restart, smoothly moving around his line at the end to get a big run off the corner and make a slide job in front of Keselowski to take the lead.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Johnson commended Keselowski for their “mean yet clean” racing.

“Honestly, I race people how they race me,” Johnson explained. “Brad’s always raced me clean and hard. He did that again today. We both showed each other that same respect. What’s gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation. How people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today.”

More astonishing was the grandstand reaction from the fans, with many more cheers than jeers for the six-time Champion as Johnson burned it down on the front straight for his post-race celebration. In prior Championship seasons, when Johnson was routinely closing out competitors under the old Chase playoff format, the chant was often “anybody but the No. 48.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at Monday, November 9, 2015  10.05.13 AM (2)Even Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, having a little extra time on his hands due to his suspension last week, jumped in on Twitter to reinforce the point. 

From a Chase perspective, the net impact of Johnson’s victory is that both of the Team Penske drivers sit substantially below the cut line with Keselowski in sixth and Joey Logano in eighth position with only three remaining spots heading to the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend.

This modernized Chase playoff format was altered last season to reward winning, as proven by Jeff Gordon punching his ticket to the Homestead Championship final as a result of last weekend’s victory at Martinsville Speedway. Yet, we are still left to speculate if something is missing from this Chase playoff system, given that several of the most dominant drivers this season have already been eliminated or are on the verge of elimination heading to Phoenix:

  • Texas winner Johnson has now won five races this season, but was already eliminated in the first Chase Challenger round at Dover due to a failure of a $15 rear axle seal that forced Johnson to take his No. 48 to the garage and resulted in a 41st place finish
  • Matt Kenseth, also a five-time winner this season, was eliminated two weeks ago, after an accident at Charlotte in the second Chase Contender round put Kenseth in a must-win situation at either Talladega or Kansas, a race where he mounted a feisty battle that fell just short
  • And then there is Joey Logano, Team Penske driver of the No. 22 Ford, having collected six wins this season, the most of any other driver. After experiencing a massive tire failure only eight laps into the Texas race, Logano now finds himself at the bottom of the remaining eight drivers in the Chase Eliminator round and in a must-win situation heading to Phoenix International Raceway, given that he is 63 points outside of the top four cut-off

So the three most prominent winners this season, assuming that Logano fails to win at Phoenix, are destined to miss the Homestead Championship final and are left to wonder what might have been.

With the extinguishing of each driver’s Championship quest, this new Chase format has validated just how critical all ten races are in the Chase – particularly in this contemporary round by round elimination format.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

NASCAR: For Matt Kenseth, Retribution Comes With A Cost

The crash that has NASCAR and it's fans divided on the future.

The crash that has NASCAR and it’s fans divided on the future.

Last weekend, NASCAR experienced one of those defining moments, and I’m not just speaking of Jeff Gordon’s ninth victory on the historic track of Martinsville Speedway, thereby stamping his ticket straight to the Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in three weeks.

I’m referring to Matt Kenseth, while lurking in the shadows nine laps down, taking aim with his Joe Gibbs Racing #20 Toyota at the rear quarter panel of race leader Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford and shoving him directly into the wall, ending Logano’s bid to win four races in a row and perhaps quelling his bid for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Today, NASCAR reacted in a big way by suspending Kenseth for two races and placing him on probation for six months to recognize that Kenseth’s behavior had crossed the proverbial line, which sometimes needs to be redrawn to recognize the specific circumstances.

NASCAR felt that it had to do something. In Kenneth's case it was to sit out the rest of the season.

NASCAR felt that it had to do something. In Kenneth’s case it was to sit out the next two races of the season.

Kenseth’s unsanctioned assassination of Logano, for what he considered inappropriate contact two weeks ago between these two drivers as they battled for the lead at Kansas, was retribution, pure and simple, and wrong on so many levels:

  • Reflecting back to Kansas, Kenseth chose not to seek out Logano to directly express his stance on Logano’s on-track actions that day. There is nothing wrong with a spirited post-race discussion in pit lane or the motorcoach lot; at least these two drivers would have had the opportunity to vent directly to one another. Instead, Kenseth waged his battle through the media, accusing Logano of “lying” about the on-track contact at Kansas. As such, nothing was resolved and the feud continued to simmer
  • NASCAR judged that the Kansas contact was acceptable, with Chairman Brian France even endorsing Logano’s “bump and run” to win the race as a quintessential NASCAR move. However, Kenseth instead chose to disregard the sanctioning body, and appointed himself both judge and jury, extracting his own vigilante punishment on Logano by booting him to the bottom of the eight remaining Chase playoff contenders
  • Premeditation was obvious in Kenseth’s on-track conduct at Martinsville, and clearly not incidental contact under race-like conditions. His actions were methodical and deliberately measured for an expected result of taking out another driver, without competing for position on the track, which is simply unacceptable
  • After the incident, Kenseth told his own whopper, alleging that he had a mechanical issue where the splitter was dragging and his car wouldn’t turn, while the rest of NASCAR nation could easily see that Kenseth had dropped the accelerator to wreck Logano right into the wall. Frankly, be bold enough to own up to it, Matt, and let the fans know that you ordered the “Code Red”
  • Kenseth’s actions manipulated the final race result, and surely did himself no favors on the track. For those fans that consider what Kenseth did acceptable, would you feel the same if Kenseth was being paid by a gambling syndicate to illegitimately “throw the outcome” of a race where the sport’s Championship was at stake?
  • Kenseth showed no remorse and did not apologize for his poor unsportsmanlike conduct after the Martinsville clash. His actions are damaging to the sport and he should be embarrassed as a former Cup Champion

By suspending Kenseth, NASCAR has placed Joe Gibbs Racing and its drivers on notice that hunting season is officially over. This modern Chase format has raised the stakes of a small trio of races for such silliness to compromise the sport’s integrity.

Otherwise, NASCAR falls into the trap of being seen as manipulating race outcomes, bordering on WWE histrionics. If Logano were to lead again at this weekend’s upcoming race at Texas Motor Speedway, we could witness a replay where Kenseth would have the same motivation to extract revenge again to ensure Logano does not win the Championship. Or Denny Hamlin, another eliminated JGR teammate, who is still stewing over the wreck fest at Talladega, could take aim at Kevin Harvick at Phoenix or Homestead, where Harvick won both races last year to secure his Championship.

NASCAR had to counter in a big way to redraw the line for its competitors and restore credibility. Auto racing, particularly a format that embraces “rubbing is racing”, challenges a driver’s patience and requires a certain degree of tolerance of fellow competitors. With the Chase elimination rounds compressing the intensity into three race segments, all of the sports’ stakeholders are “learning on the job” as unforeseen consequences keep materializing. As such, drivers’ actions can have big-time consequences on Championship outcomes, and NASCAR was forced to clarify the rules of engagement.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

NASCAR: Villains and Heroes At Martinsville Speedway

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

After the showdown at Talladega last weekend, I found myself astonished and speechless, given the dilemma of processing the spectacle that we witnessed on high banks in the final laps. So much transpired on the track that I considered seeking counseling. But the best advice I embraced was to simply “Let It Go”. I’m done with the Dega drama and ready to watch the final four 2016 Sprint Cup races play out.

The NASCAR circus now moves onto Martinsville Speedway for 500 laps on the tight half-mile oval known affectionately as the “paperclip”, with many simmering storylines. Like Talladega, Martinsville showcases intimate close quarters racing where drivers will be able to reach out and touch one another during the entire race. For those racers who have been keeping a mental checklist, the circumstances are ideal for a little bump and grind payback.

Villains and heroes have now emerged, in what had seemed a sedate season until the Contender round of the Chase played out. One of the unique obsessions within NASCAR is that each driver is able to build a reputation that the fans can partake in. With that mindset, I size up the forthcoming Eliminator Round contenders based on the character they have chosen to play in this latest round of theatre. The pressure of the Chase has demonstrated its ability to bring out both the best and worst in the drivers. Claims Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Crispy M&M Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

First, the Villains:

As the reigning Cup Champion, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, was accused by at least four other drivers of triggering the 11-car accident at the end of Sunday’s race to avoid being eliminated from the Chase. NASCAR, however, said a review of the incident failed to show Harvick did anything intentional, and he also rejected his competitors’ claims.

Kevin has shown his icy demeanor, having confronted Jimmie Johnson earlier in the Chicago Chase race when he felt Johnson drove him wrong. On the Talladega incident, Harvick showed no regret. “They can look at it 100 different ways, but you can’t quit. You can’t roll over and be done with it and say, ‘We tried our best.'” And so Harvick remains tight-lipped, perhaps having already said too much on the radio to raise suspicions about his intention on that final restart (or was it the second final restart; I’m still unclear).

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Team Penske Ford, is exposing his greed, having become the first driver to sweep all three races in a Chase playoff round and the first Ford driver to win three successive Sprint Cup races since Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace did it back in 1994. Likewise, Logano eliminated NASCAR’s perennial favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after Junior led the most laps and seemed poised to take the checkered on the final restart until the caution flag flew. Finally, Logano’s “spin and win” move on Kenseth in the final laps of Kansas two weeks ago surely alienated the entire Joe Gibbs Racing contingent of drivers, with two of those drivers hungry to push him aside in order to secure their own first title.

Kyle Busch’s taunting attitude and smug demeanor, together with his ridiculous knack of winning in all three of NASCAR series, make him an extremely reviled dude. Of course, it’s easy to dislike a driver who has supernatural talent when it comes to driving a stock car. This week, Busch stirred up the NASCAR nation by spouting off on Jeff Gordon’s chance of winning his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in his final season by saying: “I don’t see Jeff Gordon winning it this year, I just don’t see him going to Homestead and being able to beat the 4 (Kevin Harvick), (or) the 22 (Joey Logano) right now. Straight race to do that, to beat them, I don’t see that.” Massive speculation from a driver who seems to implode at some point in every Chase he has qualified for.

Lastly, Brad Keselowski is always outspoken and has cultivated an image of a brash outsider excluded from the inner circle, a “blue-collar” driver who has been to the school of hard knocks and paid his dues along the way. Brad is hungry for validation as he looks for his second Sprint Cup Championship to establish his true legacy. In last year’s Eliminator round, Keselowski got into a fight with Jeff Gordon on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway after Keselowski’s aggressive move up the middle while Gordon was leading on a restart in the final laps. “Bad Brad” still isn’t remorseful for the move he pulled on Gordon last November at Texas; in fact, he’s impressed and would surely try it again.

Now, the Heroes:

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season. He has been close several times, but has not won a Cup championship since 2001. Gordon has had a challenging year, having not yet won a race. Yet, for his legion of “Rainbow Warriors” fans, a victory and Championship would be a stellar walk-off for a driver that has given so much to NASCAR.

Kurt Busch has been flying below the radar screen, in contrast to the drama swirling around his Stewart-Haas teammate Harvick. Busch, driver of #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, is running quite well with solid top 10 results, but has stayed out of the limelight given his past PR antics. For a former Cup Champion who lost his Team Penske ride as a result of his hot-tempered attitude, this season has been a renaissance, culminated by adding a new sponsor for next year. With his fiancé, Ashley Van Metre, accomplished in the art of moving in high cotton circles, he’s marrying someone every bit his equal. Everyone loves a comeback story, and Busch’s would be stellar.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, is another comeback story, in more ways than one. Truex lost his MWR ride in 2013 after the Richmond Chase cut-off race debacle, at first believing he had qualified for his first Chase, but subsequently docked 50 points to squelch his Chase playoff qualification. As he recalled, “I pretty much said, ‘Oh crap.’ It was like getting punched in the face. You just didn’t see it coming. It came out of nowhere”. Then consider that Truex has stood securely by the side of his long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, in her battle and recovery from ovarian cancer. Running for the only single car team in the Chase, many counted Truex out at the beginning of the Chase, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He is the classic underdog that has already conquered insurmountable odds.

Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, has been running in the shadows. While his teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth have been flaming in the sport’s headlines, Carl has kept a low profile and let his on-track performance do the talking. Heck, Cousin Carl doesn’t even have a Twitter account; how much more low profile can you get? Edwards is famous for flashing that majestic smile and is one of the best sponsor pitchmen in the business. As a sentimental favorite, Edwards is the same guy who showed true sportsmanship in congratulating Tony Stewart on his 2011 Cup Championship, after Edwards was heartbroken by losing on a point tiebreaker in the final race of the season. He took a big chance this year to leave Roush Fenway Racing and join Joe Gibbs Racing, and it just might payoff with his first Cup Championship.

With the curtain now rising for the third act, NASCAR is racing forward at wide open throttle since its visit earlier this year to the historic Virginia short track. If this week’s race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for a thrilling race, and perhaps a few clashes both on and off the track.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

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