Is NASCAR in Viewership Free Fall Again?

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Yes, NASCAR is in free fall once again. Before you break out the pitchforks or water-board, it’s happening to motorsports all across the globe. However, for the purpose of this writing, I’ll restrict it to NASCAR.

To date, which is only two races in, the racing itself seems to be good. The low down-force package that I witnessed at Atlanta made for good solid racing. Those of you expecting to see passing for the lead on every lap will be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be, it’s never been that way.

It will undoubtedly be four to five races in before a verdict can be reached as to whether or not NASCAR has achieved what it set out to do. Make the racing better. In the meantime, expect to see the old familiar faces at the front and why not? They should be, they are the best and they have been the best for the past few seasons whether they’re your favorite driver or not.

The big surprise for me, and a pleasant one, is that Martin Truex was able to be competitive at the front in both Daytona, a restrictor plate track, and Atlanta, a fast slick and difficult track. If he stays on that pace at Las Vegas, it will be real. Hopefully we see that same attack at Phoenix.

NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from Atlanta earned a 3.7 overnight rating on FOX Sunday afternoon, down 27% from last year (5.1) and the lowest overnight for the second race of the season since FOX began airing races in 2001. That’s not good.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

It appeared last season that the bleeding had been slowed to a mild hemorrhage, but that’s not the case. People are not responding to NASCAR as they did in the past and probably won’t in the future. Is it a sport in decline and doomed to fail? No.

My opinion is that we can expect that it will fall to a level that the hardcore fan will keep close to it’s chest. Does that mean it’s doomed to fall back to a regional Southern sport? Again, no. But it will retract to a point where certain demographics may become more dominant than we had seen in it’s hey day. It may not be a true National Sport within a decade.

So what to do? Absolutely nothing. NASCAR has to keep a solid product and remain as hands off as possible in order to keep the fans interest. Tinkering with it any more than they have will be to their detriment.

Moving to a ‘detrimental to the sport’ type of rules packages involving drivers criticizing the sanctioning body only minimizes more of the very thing that made NASCAR unique in the first place and that was out-spoken, bigger than life drivers who were daredevils and rough and tumble, take no prisoners competitors.

That’s gone and that’s too bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

NASCAR: Don’t Expect Joe Gibbs Racing To Chase Off With the Cup

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, 'Little E' has a shot.

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, ‘Little E’ has a shot.

With the NASCAR regular season now concluded, the Chase playoffs are upon us with 16 drivers set to battle for the Sprint Cup Championship. As anticipated, except for a quick push by Aric Amirola to break into the sweet 16 during the final laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400, the Richmond race lacked in suspense, being dominated by a single driver who led the majority of laps, just like the earlier April race.

So, with NBC Sports offering a $16 million bounty for a perfect Chase grid, along with Draft Kings’ promotion of weekly plays, which drivers will steer into the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in November?

Right now, pundits point to Joe Gibbs Racing, which served up a statement race at Richmond. Symbolic of JGR’s dominance was the Lap 126 Richmond restart, where teammates Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards pulled away like LMP Prototypes separating from the GTLM field at LeMans. JGR has now won eight of the last eleven Sprint Cup races.

The Chase playoff, however, is a different animal altogether. While NASCAR has again ramped up a “communication strategy” to explain it, the Chase playoff boils down to three playoff rounds comprised of three races each (nine total), with four drivers eliminated in each round, with the final remaining four drivers competing in a one round “Super Bowl” Championship race at Homestead.

Additionally, the ten Chase races are overweighted towards the larger 1.5 mile speedways that tend to be more aero dependent, where JGR’s dominance was not in evidence earlier this year. With the kickoff race set for Chicagoland this weekend, the full 2015 aero rules package will be back in effect on 1.5 mile ovals for the first time since May. Perhaps the Hendrick Motorsports camp has been in stealth mode working under DARPA-like conditions, knowing that the key to winning the title would be success with the 2015 rules package on such speedways.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

So, which drivers are likely to survive through the various rounds of Chase elimination? In business school, my Finance professor always stressed “seeking the Alpha”; screening for those stocks that deliver the most consistent returns with the least amount of volatility. Applying similar theory to the Chase playoff, where one bad race can ensure a team’s elimination, requires testing one basic principle:

Which drivers have delivered superior, yet consistent finishes over rolling three race segments during the regular season (mirroring the three race Chase elimination format)? 

At the top, five drivers rise above the remaining eleven, with a high probability that at least three of these five will make the Championship 4 finale:

  1. Kevin Harvick – no surprise here, having amassed fifteen top 3 finishes so far this season. That’s about as consistent as it gets
  2. Joey Logano – again, his consistent results are second only to Harvick, and actually slightly better than Harvick during the second half of the regular season
  3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – few experts are picking him to make the Championship 4 round, yet he has been Hendrick’s most consistent driver this year, finishing the regular season third in points. His average finish of 6.1 on the 1.5 mile ovals that predominate in the Chase, combined with his restrictor plate prowess at Talladega, make him a compelling choice
  4. Brad Keselowski – solid but not spectacular this year, Keselowski is a proven Champion that is hungry to win another title and cement his legacy
  5. Kyle Busch – lacking a full season of results, the JGR driver has been on fire since his return, and shows no signs of letting up. Busch can wheel a car anywhere, and already demonstrated the consistency needed to qualify for the Chase in spite of missing almost 40% of the regular season

Conversely, in the initial Challenger elimination round, there is real pain to be had, based on the cards that have been shown so far by the teams. Looking at their three-race season averages, four drivers are at the bottom, having simply not demonstrated the needed consistency to advance in this year’s Chase:

  • Paul Menard – welcome to your first Chase, Paul, but your stay will be short
  • Jeff Gordon – something has just been off for the #24 team this year, having never got a handle on the rules package. Unless Alan Gustafson can figure it out quickly, Gordon and his crew chief will likely need to play the strategy card with some mid-race gambles if he is to advance beyond the first round
  • Clint Bowyer – relieved just to make the Chase, the pressure may now be off, but with Michael Waltrip Racing shutting its doors at the end of the season, Bowyer and team are likely looking for their next gig
  • Carl Edwards – an enigma, Edwards has shown streaks of success but lacks consistency; in the four car JGR stable, he is still the new kid on the block

So, quickly, who is the most consistent, stable Chase driver that we have not yet mentioned? For the second season in a row, Ryan Newman, a Chase qualifier in the middle of the pack, delivers highly stable, albeit not spectacular finishes typically in the low teens. The #31 team has this strategy down pat, such that we now can coin his performance as “Newmaning” the field. He and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, typically do not gamble on race strategy, thereby bringing home solid, repeatable finishes. That strategy worked last year to get him into the Championship round, and don’t be surprised if Newman’s consistency takes him deep into the Chase again.

There is no debate that this has been “the summer of JGR” for NASCAR, particularly with Kyle Busch’s storming return to the track. However, as my colleague Michele Rahal called out in his commentary this week, auto racing is inherently unpredictable and anything that can happen usually does, particularly in light of the Chase elimination format. Last season, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut was expected to dominate the Chase.

Instead, we indulged in a Championship finale at Homestead that didn’t include a single Hendrick driver and went down to the final lap. So sit back, enjoy, as the Battle of Nations is upon us, and hopefully we will once again get the “Game 7” moments that NASCAR intended under this revised Chase playoff system.

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

Jimmie Johnson Is A Greedy SOB

If you aren't greedy, self centered and ruthless....you aren't a professional racing driver.

If you aren’t greedy, self centered and ruthless….you aren’t a professional racing driver.

Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB. He’s a professional racing driver, what else would anyone expect him to be? It’s one of the integral ingredients of being an inveterate competitor. He should be applauded, not scorned.

Jimmie Johnson is no different than an ultra successful businessman, which he is, or an Olympic competitor. He’s not going to give anything away that might intrude on his chances at winning the Sprint Cup Chase.

Would he, at some tracks, give Earnhardt a break to get as many Hendrick cars locked into the Chase as possible? Maybe. But the idea that he gave the win at Talladega to Dale Earnhardt, Jr is absurd. Maybe not to the great unwashed, but to someone who knows what to look for, it’s not probable.

Jimmie Johnson was in the same position as everyone else in the ‘Great Talladega Conga Line’ of 2015 otherwise known as a race. Calling it a race is loosely defined if you care to watch it again on your DVR.

If Johnson had been foolish enough to try and slingshot Earnhardt, he would have been hung out to dry like many others were. Sometimes you need to take the most you can get and live to fight another day. Johnson did just that, he has a win and is putting money into his insurance policy of points.

Had he dropped down, he had a rookie, Ryan Blaney, who may or may not have dropped down with him, not to mention Denny Hamlin. Take note that those cars were a Ford and Toyota respectively. His attachment to the manufacturer had to weigh in on his decision. He had no guarantee that the rookie wouldn’t crash him or drop further down with Hamlin to blow by both Johnson and Earnhardt. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

I read with great amusement the number of fans, mostly Junior haters, who cried foul while espousing multiple conspiracy theories across Twitter and Facebook. It’s nonsense. Johnson would have taken that win if he thought he could have. No question in my mind.

Professional racing drivers are some of the most self-centered, egotistical athletes on the planet. They have to be. Johnson wouldn’t have 6 Championships if he didn’t fit directly into that mold. He may be a nice, vanilla even, type of personality for the cameras, but beneath that veneer lies the heart of a no holds barred UFC fighter. Win at all costs.

The difference is you have to pick your battles in order to win the war. Johnson and, not to forget Knaus, always seem to know what they have, what they’re capable of and then maximizing their package. It works.

The only thing on Johnson's mind is winning.

The only thing on Johnson’s mind is winning.

The Talladega race was an anomaly. It bore no resemblance to any other restrictor plate race I’ve ever seen. I, just like you, expected that with 3 laps to go multiple cars would drop down and go together to form two lines that had a head of steam. It didn’t happen. Why? I have no real answer other than everyone somehow, collectively decided that they would take what they could get without risking a huge crash.

Perhaps they felt that leaving Talladega unscathed or at least with as little points damage as possible was the best course of action. On the other hand, it may be that as a collective, at that moment when things usually heat up, everyone thought the same thing: ‘If I go for it, I’ll be thrown to the back so I’ll stay where I am. Not normal, but in that one moment, possible.

What I don’t find credible is that Johnson would pitch a win just to give it to Earnhardt.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB.

Jimmie Johnson May Be The Best NASCAR Driver In History

Johnson took his 5th win at Texas this past weekend. He may just be warming up.

Johnson took his 5th win at Texas this past weekend. He may just be warming up.

Jimmie Johnson is best NASCAR Sprint Cup driver of the modern era. He may be the best stock car racer that NASCAR has ever seen. That’s a strong statement, I know.

Johnson took everyone to school at Texas this past weekend on how a team is supposed to operate as a unit. Not a cowboy driver, not a great crew chief, not a great team alone can make this level of success happen. It’s all of these components that have to operate in complete harmony to create a team this consistently powerful. Much like that of a modern Formula One powerplant. It’s very complex.

Jimmie Johnson, with the exception of a few hiccups in strategy, driver errors and intermural conflict is the Michael Schumacher of NASCAR. Hands down. Love him or hate him you have to acknowledge that in the modern era he really has no equal.

It was obvious that Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Keselowski and others pressed hard and developed their cars over the course of the Texas race, but when crunch time came it was Johnson who closed the deal.

In the past decade Harvick hasn’t done it, Stewart hasn’t done it and neither has Earnhardt Jr. Though Junior in 2015 is giving a more than a journeyman accounting of himself.

Harvick looked as if he would rule the night, but Johnson closed the deal.

Harvick looked as if he would rule the night, but Johnson closed the deal.

Johnson is almost always calm and even when he and Knaus fight, it’s more like a strong discussion in Starbucks than an out and out verbal brawl.

I’ve always thought of him as a ‘Vanilla’ driver. Not too flashy, very smooth and doesn’t really look that fast. That’s the mark of a champion and the attitude of an above average intelligence driver.

Michael Schumacher did for Ferrari exactly what Johnson and Knaus have done for Chevrolet and for Hendrick, delivered Championships. You cannot argue with success. You can’t.

Watching Johnson seemingly struggle at times in the Texas night race you would be lulled into thinking that perhaps this dynasty was in jeopardy, but you would be wrong. We have to accept the inevitable and that is his team, with the same resources as the rest of the Hendrick organization, which really include Stewart Haas, is just a notch above the rest.

Remember, you never have to drive faster than it takes to win and you never have to lead anything but the last lap.

Will Johnson perform as well in the playoff system this year as Harvick in 2014? We’ll see when the time comes. Granted the new system has created media buzz and better racing, everyone want’s to get into the Chase. The question is what does the dog do after it catches the car?

My sense is that luck will play a part in the final chase knock outs as it did in 2014, but in the world of auto racing you set yourself up to take full advantage of that luck when the wheel spins in your favor. Johnson’s team has that ability and we’ll all just have to see if it plays out for him.

Harvick is delivering a great showing of himself s a driver, but has come nowhere close Johnson’s accomplishments in the last 10 years. He is certainly showing that he can drive, close deals for wins and has managed to operate in that window where all of the components that comprise a championship team are present.

However, he is not at at the 48 car’s level just yet. He may very well defend his title and take another championship in 2015, but then again he may not. If he does, it will be his second Sprint Cup Championship in 14 years.

If Johnson can convert the 48 car’s attributes to a championship in 2015 it will be his 7th in 15 years.

You can’t argue with those facts.

 

And Now, At Last, All Is As It Should Be For Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his third race of the season at Pocono. His three wins and second-place standing in points have assured him a position in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his third race of the season at Pocono. His three wins and second-place standing in points have assured him a position in the Chase.

What is now is what it was supposed to be all along.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was tagged to be the son who carried on his father’s legacy. That would not be easy because Dale Earnhardt won seven championships and transformed into a racing icon – not just in NASCAR, but also for all of motorsports.

It was a huge heritage left for his son.

But after his father died in a crash at Daytona in February of 2010 slowly, after the grief subsided somewhat (not sure it has ever gone away), many of those legions of fans whose intense loyalty was given to “The Intimidator” gave the same to his son.

Their feeling was, and remains, that if the father was gone it made perfect sense to transfer that loyalty to the son – a winner and a two-time Busch Series champion.

And now, after many years, at last I think they have been rewarded. Earnhardt Jr. stands today as a confident, winning driver who, in the midst of his best season ever, has an opportunity to win a championship.

He has been, for over a decade, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. But for so long it’s been thought that he has been something of a disappointment for his followers, known as the “Junior Nation.”

That’s not the case this year.

With his victory at Pocono, Earnhardt Jr. compiled his third win of the year.

Earnhardt Jr. struggled for several seasons after he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. But in 2014, he has had the kind of performance expected of him.

Earnhardt Jr. struggled for several seasons after he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. But in 2014, he has had the kind of performance expected of him.

He is presently No. 2 in points, a mere 17 behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

He is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In fact, at present he is the No. 2 seed.

Simply put, he’s in. He’s a championship contender.

And he’s more than that. He’s a different man.

He has no doubts about himself, his team and his life. In person or on TV, all you have to do is look at him. His eyes are bright; his smile is wide.

No longer does he hold his head down and speak with measured tones.

He will tell you: “Everything about life right now has been great.” And that means professionally and personally.

It did not used to be that way.

There was a time when many thought he would be a competitive bust.

He would be lost in the shadow of his father. Even his most ardent fans found themselves disappointed, week after week.

For seven full seasons after his father’s death, Earnhardt Jr. continued to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

He won 15 races but only once, in 2002 when he finished third in points, did he have a real sniff at a championship.

Many, including me, never believed Earnhardt Jr. was completely satisfied driving for DEI, of which he had little, if any, control.

That was in the hands of his stepmother Teresa. Now consider this: If the son of Dale Earnhardt would think he should have some measure of leadership of the team his father founded, it would not sit well with him if he didn’t get it.

And he didn’t. Earnhardt Jr. stunned the press in Daytona in February of 2007 when he said – as he walked briskly out of the media compound – that he thought he should have ownership of at least 50 percent of DEI.

Few thought that was going to happen. And it didn’t.

So Earnhardt Jr. made the move he believed would be the right one. He left DEI and joined powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.

A happy man, Earnhardt Jr. said he had done the thing that would “win races and championships.”

But for so long it appeared neither was going to be the case.

Earnhardt Jr. won only two races for Hendrick from 2008-2013. His highest points finish was fifth in ’13, a season in which he did not win.

Perhaps the 2012 season was his nadir. Involved in a multicar crash at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. sustained a concussion and had to sit out two races.

That meant he had no chance at the Chase and a championship.

After the winless ’13 season few held hope that Earnhardt Jr. would have anything close to a championship season.

As you now know, that has not been the case.

He already has more wins in a single season than in the previous six combined. To date his top five finishes already match those of the last two seasons – and there are 15 races remaining this year.

But here’s what is most important:

Earnhardt Jr. has ascended to the position he was destined. He is a vastly popular driver, a multiple winner, a championship contender and a very happy, contented man.

He has now found the place for himself that his many fans wanted for him and for which he struggled to find.

And the once powerful DEI, which he departed, is now in the dust, no more than a racing memory.

The son has risen.

He may not be this year’s champion.

But he is already the measure of the driver so many expected of him.

And he revels in it. As he should.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr: Fiery Crash at Texas Could Have Been Much Worse

Dale Earnhardt, Jr in flames after contact with the outside wall.

This past Monday’s running of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway seemed almost surreal in that it appeared to catch a number of drivers off-guard. Crashes, miscues and running the caution laps too close to the jet driers but were a few of the anomalies.

An ex-girlfriend referred to days like this with the statement that “Mercury must be in retrograde”. Obviously that’s bad but perhaps has more meaning if you follow Astrology, which I don’t.

The most notable of the incidents to me was the bizarre crash and an ensuing fire at the start of the race by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

A hit in the points aside this accident could have been far worse than it was with Earnhardt extricating himself at the speed of light, thus earning him the nickname ‘The Flash’ by several of my journalist friends.

What made this so potentially devastating wasn’t that he made a mistake, which is understandable if the “A” pillar actually impeded his view of the apex of the dogleg, but rather what happened after he had dropped a wheel off the track and shot up the banking into the wall. Earnhardt said:

“Just didn’t see the grass. Didn’t know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can’t really see that good to that angle. I just didn’t have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can’t run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. I just didn’t know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake.” Totally believable.

The real disaster potential was once the car had caught fire, he rolled down the track and towards an inside retaining wall, still ablaze, all the while removing the steering wheel and then the seat belts before contacting the retaining wall at roughly 25 to 30 MPH.

Earnhardt, still rolling, removing his steering wheel first.

With the car still moving, removing the steering wheel is one thing, perhaps he had no real control at that point or was so overcome with the thought of getting out that removing the steering wheel was top of mind.

The major problem was that he began removing the seat belts as well. He succeeded at the very last moment in pulling those belts aside and then grabbed the roll cage bracing for the impact.

Had this car been traveling just a scant few miles per hour faster, Dale Earnhardt, Jr could very well have had a steering column impaled into his chest.

Hindsight being what it is would it not have been more forward thinking to have unhooked the belts first? Of course it would have, but after the initial incident, which Earnhardt said was a mistake, and I don’t doubt him, he was already rattled.

But there may very well be a historical reason for his rapid and visibly shaken actions.

One must remember the incident that took place in 2007 at Sonoma when Dale Jr was to co-drive the factory Corvette in the GTS division of the American LeMans series race. Earnhardt tried to negotiated a corner, lost control and back the Corvette into a wall.

Fuel lines were severed and the Corvette burst into a fireball that looked to be all engulfing and potentially fatal. Indeed it was potentially a life threatening incident, with the flames finding it’s way into the cockpit of the car and putting Earnhardt in the middle of a fire.

Niki Lauda’s nearly fatal crash at Nurburgring, Germany in the 1970’s.

This would have shaken any driver, seasoned veteran or not. He suffered injuries that, in the grand scheme of things, were not serious but enough that he was burned on the neck and arms. It effected his Cup performance simply from the pain. The mental damage was, obviously, much worse.

For any driver fire is the one thing that really does scare you, just ask Niki Lauda, who sat in a fire at the Nurburgring for almost one minute and suffered major burns on his face, head and scorched his lungs to the point near death.

In the future when such incidents occur, and they undoubtedly will, let’s hope that the drivers have practiced a way to remove themselves quickly but with some order amidst the chaos.

2014: Earnhardt Jr. And The No. 3 Will Be Under Scrutiny

In 2014, Austin Dillon will race the No. 3 Chevrolet as the newest Sprint Cup driver for Richard Childress Racing.

I think that in 2014 more attention will be paid to all things Earnhardt than in a long time.

There are two reasons for this. First, the hopes of the “Junior Nation” have soared after the son of Dale Earnhardt earned a fifth-place points finish in 2013. No, he didn’t win but he was the highest finisher in the championship without a victory.

He had 22 top-10 finishes, which tied him with Kyle Busch with the most among the top five.

Such a performance has his many, many fans wondering if the coming season will be the one in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. achieves his shining moment.

Will he win? Is there – gulp – a championship in sight?

I say yes on both counts. More about that later.

Earnhardt Jr. will indeed be under scrutiny. But among his loyal fans and many others, perhaps not as much as Austin Dillon.

As you know Dillon, the 2013 Nationwide Series champion, will begin his NASCAR Sprint Cup career in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing.

Dillon will drive a Chevrolet with the white, slanted No. 3 – the number made famous, and so identified with, Dale Earnhardt.

The senior Earnhardt won seven championships and 76 races with the No. 3, driving for Rod Osterlund, Bud Moore and Childress.

He became a NASCAR icon who is held in the highest esteem to this day, nearly 13 years after his death in a crash at Daytona.

Not until now has the No. 3 been seen in NASCAR. And some people say it should stay that way.

Dillon drove for Childress, his grandfather, in the Nationwide Series in 2013 and won the championship.

To have anyone else use the number is an affront to the memory of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

I understand that.

But I think Childress had, for a long time, plans for the number. Dillon is his grandson who moved up the competition ladder and reached the point, with his Nationwide title, where he proved he had the talent and skill to race at NASCAR’s highest level.

Which is exactly what Childress wanted to see. With NASCAR’s cooperation – the sanctioning body owns the No. 3 – he bestowed the number to his own flesh and blood, which was his right.

But there is this: Any driver – yes, any driver – that competes with the No. 3 is subject to intense scrutiny and, let’s face it, pressure to do well.

This includes Dillon. I think he has a huge challenge in 2014. Fair or not, he has to prove he can restore the No. 3 to competitiveness.

As a first-year driver he can’t be expected to pile up victories and pole positions. But with the No. 3 he has to race competitively and earn respect.

It’s not going to be easy. Dillon knows that. He also knows he has to show that his grandfather made the right choice.

Given that, Dillon and the No. 3 will certainly attract more than their share of attention in 2014.

As will Earnhardt Jr.

That he can do exceptionally well has already been established.

He seems to have established a bond with crew chief Steve Letarte that, in part, led to a strong performance this past season.

Although they didn’t win they could have. Earnhardt Jr. finished second five times including twice in the Chase.

Fact is, after Chicago, the first of 10 races in the Chase where Earnhardt Jr. finished 35th after a blown engine (only his third DNF of the season), the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished among the top 10 in eight of the last nine events.

Perhaps Earnhardt Jr.’s accomplishments in 2013 might have been more noteworthy had he not suffered the stumble at Chicago – or he had won a race.

Still, he offered ample evidence he can do well and, perhaps, in 2014 he will do even better.

Frankly, I would not be surprised. I think he has the momentum and confidence to make it happen.

He’ll be watched.

So will the No. 3.

 

 

Look For Earnhardt Jr., And Many Others, To Go All Out At Michigan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a favorite at Michigan in June but he returns to the track still seeking his first victory of the season.

The second date at Michigan International Speedway has arrived for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers – the Aug. 17 Pure Michigan 400.

The brouhaha in June centered on Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly capturing his first win of the season.

He did not.

Instead, Greg Biffle followed his August 2012 victory at Michigan with the win back in June.  Biffle currently sits ninth in points as he comes back to MIS with his one win.

Earnhardt Jr. is still searching for his first win of the season – yet sits rather comfortably in sixth place in the standings.

A win at MIS would do much to boost Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence that could possibly be waning during this winless season.

It also could provide some much-needed momentum – and bonus points – as Richmond, the final race before the “playoffs” is nearing. The Chase is on the horizon.

“Junior Nation” is always supportive of its driver, but the time seems ripe for Earnhardt Jr. to capitalize on his consistent runs.  First he needs to win a few races and then capture the coveted Cup.

It’s the goal for any of the drivers in the series, and for Earnhardt Jr., it’s been a heretofore out-of-reach one.

Brad Keselowski is the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who has yet to win this season. He’s looking to get the victory at Michigan.

Last season Earnhardt Jr. was running decently in the Chase when a concussion sidelined him long enough to end his quest for the Cup.

This could be the year for potential to become reality.

Winning a championship would do much to quell the Junior haters that seem to permeate certain pockets of fandom. Like for any driver, stringing a championship season together offers the type of legitimacy little else can.

With a lot of focus this season on Danica Patrick’s rookie year in Cup, Tony Stewart’s accident that has taken him out of contention, and who may assume Stewart’s vacated No. 14 car on a weekly basis, Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed some relative peace and quiet media-wise.

He’s still a top draw for news stories, but the relaxing of the intense spotlight seems to agree with Earnhardt Jr. But it is time to perform, achieve a win, and put the championship hopes into high gear.

Of course, this can be said for the likes of Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski who both stand winless in the Cup series to date.

Keselowski is the reigning Sprint Cup champion, but Bowyer, like Earnhardt Jr., is hungry to pick up his first championship.

The top 14 in points all have a strong shot at a championship if they get into the Chase. These next four races will determine who gets locked in, who the two “wildcard” candidates will be and how this Chase will shape up.

Once in the Chase the competition gets reset with bonus points and the field is set.

This season is far from sewn up. As history shows, injuries occur, engines blow, DNFs plague teams, and nothing is a “given.”

With Michigan’s fast speeds, re-pave from last year, and proximity to the Chase, teams are putting it all on the table this weekend.

Biffle, Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer, Keselowski, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman are all hoping this race will be theirs along with the rest of the field.

We will all be watching to see what Michigan will bring.

State Of The Sport: On Johnson, Patrick And Earnhardt Jr.

Although many fans proclaim that she hasn’t performed well as a stock car driver, Danica Patrick maintains a huge fan base and is considered one of the most-ably marketed drivers in racing.

The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race was a bust for some of the fans of the sport. They poo-pooed Jimmie Johnson as winner, tried to eschew Danica Patrick winning the fan vote and were once again upset about Dale Earnhardt Jr. not performing better or getting too much coverage.

One friend of mine posted about how the live audience hated on Patrick so badly and was then shocked at the replies the thread garnered. He asked me privately to explore the reasons why women hate Patrick. I wish it were an easy request.

First let’s explore the NASCAR landscape. From 2005-2011 there were only two NASCAR Sprint Cup champions. Their names are Tony Stewart (2005, 2011) and Johnson (2006-2010). Even when not winning the Cup, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are winning races.

Stewart, while performing well earning bookend Cups to Johnson’s unprecedented five in a row, is far less consistent a competitor and although still “in the mix” last year and this, is not a dominant force at present.

The Johnson juggernaut, make that the Johnson/Knaus/HMS juggernaut, is virtually unstoppable. Some may argue that they were stopped for two seasons running by the likes of Stewart and last year’s surprise champion Brad Keselowski. But Johnson was right there in championship-striking distance.

Winning five in a row was the exception, not the rule. Even champion Dale Earnhardt won in couplets rather than all championship years strung together. That’s more “normal”.

What’s happening here is history. Johnson is making it and when you witness it the enormity of his accomplishments can easily be lost to the annoyance of having seen this before – over and over again.

Johnson has, quite frankly, done it all in NASCAR Sprint Cup. Won Daytona 500s? Yes. Won the All-Star Race? Yep, a record-breaking four times.  Won championships? Heck yeah, the only driver to do it five consecutive times. He’s won at the best tracks, the most difficult circuits, and every kind of way. Johnson is, in a word, amazing.

Looking back in history other amazing NASCAR drivers were also loved by many and detested by scores of people. Dale Earnhardt? Even in death and ‘til this day, yes. Richard Petty? Yes, him, too. With 43+ drivers to throw your fandom to, it’s very frustrating to have one dominate so completely. It can be, well, boring.

It appears that Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t getting all the attention he once did – he still gets plenty – however, he’s quietly gone about creating a good start to the 2013 season.

But one day your children and your children’s children will be asking you whether you remember this era in NASCAR and you can tell them yes.  They’ll be awed and ask you what it was like and you’ll chuckle. Revisionist history will kick in and you’ll tell the children how truly exciting it was to watch Johnson and his team rack up the accolades, wins, and championships. Because somewhere, deep down, you know it is awesome.

As for Patrick, I have to say my piece. So many people ask my opinion of this driver. Many times, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I have to defend her to people who wrongly pick on her. Quite frankly, this is frustrating to me.

Does Patrick perform up to the par she, her team, her fans, or I would like her to? Certainly not. But there is a tremendous learning curve coming from open wheel  – IndyCar in Patrick’s case – to NASCAR stock cars.

Patrick has done well enough in her first seasons running NASCAR and certainly does garner a ton of attention. She does for NASCAR what is sorely needed, brings mainstream fans over to our sport.

Informal polling on my part has found that most people I talk to about NASCAR who don’t know anything about our sport know about Patrick. They are drawn to her like the proverbial moth to the flame. Patrick is a headliner, a superstar, and a sublime creature that the whole of America seems fascinated by completely.

And what hardcore, “curmudgeony” NASCAR fans refuse to see is it has nothing to do with her talents in the cockpit and that is OK. The sport needs a superstar. Earnhardt Jr. has filled the role for well over a decade. He is still a mega-star. But the time is now for the diminutive driver with the pretty smile, long locks, and big sponsorship dollars.

Patrick earned the fan vote last Saturday night at Charlotte. She is, by far, the most popular driver out in the field. Little girls, grown men, moms and dads, open wheel fans and all race fans with pure heart root for Patrick. She is a phenomenon who has learned to market herself brilliantly, play up her assets, and assemble a fan base that defies reason. I say good for her.

There was no illicit wrongdoings, cheating, nor subterfuge to allow Patrick to win the fan vote. There didn’t need to be. She won it fair and square as “the people,” the fans, voted. It wasn’t a surprise to anybody because she has that big of a fan base. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Would it have been cool for another driver to get the vote? I suppose, but he would have had to amass an enormous campaign to win and, let’s face it, no one did.

Then there are the complaints that Patrick did nothing in the race. Too true. She didn’t. Patrick is not an all-star because of a fabulous string of wins; she is still a rookie. But the fan vote wasn’t about the best record; it was about putting your favorite in the race. Their favorite is clearly Patrick.

So, back to the original question, why don’t women (and some men) like her? I think jealousy is a big part of the equation. There, I’ve said it. People who are successful are often the target of those wishing they, too, were as successful.

Patrick is very attractive, very wealthy, and living her dream driving a race car for a living. Her path to the “Bigs” was not paved with the same hardships as others. And given her rather lackluster performance in the top tiers of motorsports, Patrick has driven makes people upset that she is still lauded over and still has a top ride.

But as a team owner, having Patrick in your stable is nothing short of brilliant. In an economy that has been suffering for years Patrick still commands huge money. She commands it because the people seek her out.

My theory is this: if the media hadn’t fawned all over Patrick when she first started sniffing around NASCAR and continue to do so with rabid attention when it hasn’t been earned, no one would be as upset about her career.

It’s the over-rambunctious, over-solicitous, overly nauseous media coverage of this driver that makes her the center of such scorn.

The only person who seems to really be benefitting from this is Earnhardt Jr. With the constant limelight off of him – there still is a pretty huge limelight on him and always will be – Earnhardt Jr. has been able to quietly get the racing job done in the last couple of seasons.

The critics of our sport say it’s “boring”, “going in the tanks”, and “not the same product as it was”. Well, no, it’s not the same.

NASCAR has had to modernize, adjust, evolve, and just plain change. From expanding its regional borders to better safety equipment, more money and more media involvement, this sport is nothing like its predecessor. Only it is.

There were always people who complained, argued, and swore they’d never watch again. But the people are watching, the fans are cheering, and the drivers are performing. Johnson is making history, Patrick is revitalizing the sport, and Earnhardt Jr. is, well, Jr. And for Junior Nation that’s all he ever needs to be.

Now, I’ve got to be going, I’m gearing up for the Coca-Cola 600. I can’t wait to see how Johnson, Patrick, Earnhardt Jr., and the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field do! How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Young ‘Phenom’ Jeff Gordon Showed His Worth Early And Often

It wasn't very long after Jeff Gordon made his debut in NASCAR Cup racing that he began to win races and earn a reputation as a young "phenom."

I was watching when a young phenom named Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Winston Cup scene. Young, different, polished and mustached, he was far from the good ol’ boys I was introduced to in my first years of watching Cup.

Gordon was, and looked like, a child but he knew how to wrangle a car. His debut came in 1992 in Atlanta, the very last race of the season and the final curtain call for the sport’s most visible star, Richard Petty.

For Gordon, ascension in the sport soon followed. Words like “dominant,” “unbelievable,” “talented” and “upstart” were bandied about constantly.

Gordon won races, collected championships. Then came gossip about, first, a forbidden romance, then a wedding and later a broken marriage.

When the successful duo of crew chief Ray Evernham and driver Gordon parted after three championships there was talk of the end of a short-lived but stellar era.

But Gordon won again. He won races then another championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Gordon now had earned four titles.

Being a Dale Earnhardt fan I never, in good conscience, called myself a Gordon fan. But, I did like him. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did the man have enormous talent and parlay that into wins and championships, he was, for what it’s worth, my peer. Gordon is only one year older.

At a time when most of the drivers had a decade or more (a lot more in some cases) on me, it was exciting to see someone with whom I could identify win on the track.

This was a time long before drivers may have started their Cup careers in their late twenties or older – like Joey Logano. This was a time when Harry Gant wowed and thrilled race fans with his can’t-lose string in his fifties, earning the name “Mr. September.” Youth was missing and certainly wasn’t dominating.

But I couldn’t help but be dazzled by Gordon. As the Crown Royal Presents The Curtiss Shaver 400 At The Brickyard 400 Powered By BigMachineRecords.com runs this weekend – hold on, I’m tired from typing all of that – my thoughts do turn to the inaugural race run at Indianapolis back in 1994.

Gordon, as you recall, won the race and solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s storied history – at the tender age of 23.

A few years later my father presented my husband a collectible plaque with Gordon’s picture next to a stamp of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the two together. It was a gorgeous piece, but we were Earnhardt fans and found it to be a “dust collector” and sold it at a garage sale years later for a song.

Driving for team owner Rick Hendrick (left), and with Ray Evernham as his crew chief, Gordon went on to win three Sprint Cup championships.

I still kick myself about that. But hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was adamant about Earnhardt as my one and only driver. It was much later in my NASCAR fandom that I grew accepting and respectful of all the drivers in the field.

With four victories to date at Indy, Gordon still holds the record for most wins at the Brickyard 400.

Gordon is sure to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His accomplishments have made me soar. In addition I’ve been pleased for him personally as I watched him fall in love, get married, and create a lovely family.

It’s been difficult to watch him struggle this season. His chances for making the Chase are shrinking. It concerns me that he may not make it or even win a race this year.

Gordon isn’t finished; at least I hope he’s not. There are legions of Gordon fans still waiting to witness the “Drive for Five” so they can celebrate a fifth championship with Gordon. I’ll cheer with all of the rest.

In the meantime, I’ll be cheering loudly for Gordon to revisit victory lane at Indy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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