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

F1 OPINION: In Defense of Fernando Alonso and the Future

Two time World Formula One Champion Fernando Alonso

Two time World Formula One Champion Fernando Alonso Image: Sky Sports

It seems to be the cold shoulder du jour when Alonso’s name comes up these days. How quickly we forget. But for 5 incidents, not of Alonso’s making, Alonso could, arguably, be a four time champion. Would have, could have, should have.

Cases in point: (1) Ferrari blundered the team strategy in 2012 at Canada allowing Hamilton to overtake on new tires keeping Alonso out on old rubber. (2) Romain Grosjean set in motion a crash at Belgium that could have beheaded the Spaniard. (3) Kimi Raikonnen took out Alonso at Japan on the first lap. (4) and probably most important in the end, Red Bull’s Adrian Newey had simply created the best car. (5) Fernando Alonso took a heavy hit during the McLaren ‘Spygate’ nightmare, but did he really deserve it?

Of the 5 instances cited, the last is the most insidious reason. Ron Dennis. Can anyone tell me that Ron Dennis didn’t deserve to have his feet held to the fire for giving Lewis Hamilton special treatment over Alonso? Can anyone tell me that if you were in the same position as Alonso that you wouldn’t threaten Dennis over the 780 Coughlin papers as they regarded Ferrari secrets? If you’re playing in an arena this large and you don’t, you are the jailhouse bitch. That’s not Alonso.

Alonso didn’t seek out this information, it was passed to him by De La Rosa. He never went public with it, but when presented with threats from the FIA he did what anyone would do, he cooperated. To not do so would have stopped his career in it’s tracks.

It seemed like a remediated love-fest, but was anything but.

It seemed like a remediated love-fest, but was anything but. Image: Sky Sports

In an interview with AutoSport he said as much: “I did not leave McLaren in 2007 because of Hamilton.” He added: “It was a surprise for the sport, because he was very strong. Unfortunately for the team it was not easy to handle the pressure that was created in these circumstances [of two fast drivers]. Political aspects emerged similar to Verstappen today – he was the symbol of the moment. The result was that we lost both the constructors’ and drivers’ title, due to a situation which was mismanaged.”

“The car was a winner immediately. Starting from scratch was the way to go because 2007 was the year of change as the Bridgestone tyres had different characteristics and the car was very different car to drive, with a lot of over-steer. We had to change the way we drive. All this helped Hamilton and he was competitive immediately. With the best car we lost both championships. And that was a good reason for me to change teams,” explained Alonso.

The real fall came when, during a qualifying round, McLaren’s upstart star Lewis Hamilton refused to let the team’s world-champion driver Fernando Alonso pass him. Alonso retaliated by blocking Hamilton in the pit lane to hurt the rookie’s time. Alonso was immediately penalized — instead of beginning the grand prix in pole position, he would have to start from sixth place. At a press conference that afternoon, Alonso and Hamilton launched into a public argument over what had happened.-Wired Magazine

We can all say that sharing information between teammates is normal, but it isn’t. Not even in NASCAR.

What about Ferrari? What about it. He outperformed every teammate that they presented. They did not, however, present him with a winning car or probably more accurately a winning strategy.

Make no mistake, Ferrari has, as with all top teams, had it’s dark period. But with Alonso it was wearing thin. He has always been driven by the credo “Never give up”, but towards the fifth season with the Prancing Horse, that became more of a tagline than a rule to live by.

Alonso clams that 70 HP would have McLaren back in the winners circle.

Alonso clams that 70 HP would have McLaren back in the winners circle. Image: Sky Sports

Alonso had lost faith in the Red car from Maranello and it’s culture. He had to look elsewhere. The irony was that it become McLaren who courted him. Many think it was the other way around, but it wasn’t. Many, many promises were made by Dennis and, more importantly, Honda.

Alonso made it plain that it had to be a factory effort he was seeking and not a customer car. He had assurances and a fat contract to go with it. But was McLaren up to it? No. When you look at a racing package it’s not only the chassis but the power-plant. They have to work in tandem, if not, they are worlds apart and to date that has been the case. There’s no need to try and disseminate the reasons that Honda has left everyone in the lurch, the reasons are many: Culture, late to the hybrid party and an unwillingness to relocate the power plant R&D from Japan to England where Formula One is a cottage industry- all good reasons.

However, I’ve had first hand experience in seeing Honda come back to life. I was standing in the Rahal IndyCar compound at Mid-Ohio when Bobby Rahal informed Honda he would not return with them for the following season. The next season they dominated. Honda can pull off a miracle. Being a three time IndyCar Champion, I would not purport to question his wisdom. Racing is a bitch.

With McLaren’s options running thin, as in only one choice to stick with Honda the real question becomes: Will Alonso stick with them? He has choices, which are all valid when you are arguably the best racing driver in the world.

IndyCar would love to have him as well as the WEC, but will that satisfy him? Doubtful. Can Honda give a great chassis the horsepower it needs to be competitive? I suppose we’ll all know soon enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Battle of the Beach: IndyCar Wins Long Beach Grand Prix

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe (image credit: Gary Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

With Formula 1, as well as IndyCar, ready to return from their mid-season breaks, the silly season news continues to flow.  Instead of drivers, the latest bulletin revolves around the signature Long Beach Grand Prix that has been a staple of the IndyCar schedule since 1984.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach remains the longest running street race in America, having sustained 43 consecutive years.  While the inaugural Long Beach GP featured Formula 5000, F1 arrived in 1976 and stayed until 1983, when IndyCar took over.

For IndyCar, the Long Beach Grand Prix has been a bonanza, boasting crowds of more than 180,000 over the extended weekend, remaining the 2nd most popular IndyCar race on the circuit, and providing a giant April precursor to the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Given its 2018 contract expiration with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach (GPALB), the Long Beach City Council apparently felt compelled to bestow a $150,000 project to accountancy KPMG for an assessment of competing proposals to host the street race in 2019 and beyond, given an expressed overture to bring F1 racing back to the Beach.

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

Two primary motives caused the Long Beach City Council to open the bidding process: 1) F1 exudes worldwide prestige, and 2) the insider beating F1 drum was none other than Christopher Pook, the visionary founder of the original race back in 1975.

Fortunately, the KPMG report reached the conclusion that the current GPALB is the “most qualified” firm to run the race, snubbing Chris Pook and his World Automobile Championship of California.  The report left no doubt that the WACC proposal was truly wacked.

Bluntly, the entire undertaking seemed ludicrous and hollow from the beginning.

First, the exorbitant investment required to accommodate F1 racing would never have made economic sense for a city of Long Beach’s prominence.  Hosting F1 would have necessitated construction of a semi-permanent garage and pit complex.  Additionally, a reconfigured circuit would require costly expansion for the widened track and safety runoff areas that are necessary to host F1.  It would be insanely expensive, impacting the City with dramatic venue changes.

At the end of the day, what costs the city money…costs the taxpayers money, and most of its citizens are currently stretched.

Secondly, the reason the Long Beach Grand Prix is so successful is the assortment of events and activities, which feature a casual, laid-back vibe.  Many of its attendees are not hard-core race fanatics, but are destination entertainment seekers.

These thrill seekers come for the evening concerts, variety of concessions, and spectrum of races, such as IMSA, Stadium Super Trucks, Pirelli World Challenge, and Formula Drift.  The Long Beach race is a tepid melting pot, and offers something that everyone can partake and find enjoyment in.  And the ticket prices are affordable enough to attract the broad masses.

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

More basic, the WACC bid raised more questions than answers around broadcast rights, sanction fees, etc.  It just seemed unfeasible that WACC could negotiate all of that, honestly.  The death knell was the acknowledgement by WACC that they could not mobilize to host a race until 2020, which would have left the city with a schedule gap and no race calendared for 2019.

And yet, Pook expressed dismay, saying “We’re disappointed.  I don’t understand; apparently the financials weren’t taken into consideration.”  Perhaps that because no realistic numbers were truly on the table.

With the selection committee’s recommendation firmly in hand, we anticipate the full Long Beach City Council will bless these findings when they meet this week and begin negotiations in earnest with the GPALB for a new 2019 contract extension, assuring IndyCar’s leading role in this signature series.

However, one thing is certain: The City Council, having played poker with the best of them, can be expected to seek a more alluring deal with the GPALB, including perhaps a higher rights fee associated with rents for Convention Center and ancillary facilities, as well as neglected road infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Perhaps if we are blessed, this increased cash flow will provide the City of Long Beach with payback of its $150,000 study cost.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Should Long Beach have stayed with IndyCar or pursued F1? 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: Jimmie Johnson Swipes 7th Sprint Cup Championship

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

7 Time Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: No Sponsor Yet, Logano Locks Into Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My suppositions on the biggest pain points are:

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

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

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

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

NASCAR Driver Limits Won’t Boost Xfinity Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

NASCAR Trucks: Cole Custer Gets Chase Hopes Crashed in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

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

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

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

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

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sonoma Proves Road Racing Deserves Chase Berth

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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