NASCAR: Chase Hasn’t Helped As Much As Low-Downforce

Edwards pulled out a great win over Brad Keselowski in Darlington over the weekend.

Edwards pulled out a great win over Brad Keselowski in Darlington over the weekend.

This coming weekend, Richmond is the last NASCAR domino to fall before the chain of qualifying events start to come into play. Has the Chase format and it’s subsequent tweaking over the years really helped NASCAR? My opinion is no. The numbers seem to support my opinion. Make the racing better with low down-force and tire packages for the tracks and tell everyone who hasn’t heard, how great the racing is. There is a formula for this sort of issue.

NASCAR suffers from the same problems that befall large corporations, whether they are public or private, and that is gridlock on decision and strategy. Why? Because everyone in their meetings is, no doubt, the smartest guy in the room.

There was a point, roughly two to three years ago, that it appeared as if the Chase would be effective in reviving the numbers of television viewers and those who might consider attending a NASCAR race. It had appeared to stop the bleeding, but the wound is open again and NASCAR is in full triage to stop it.

According to Sports Media Watch: “NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from Darlington drew a 3.4 overnight rating on NBC Sunday night, up 13% from the comparable Atlanta races last year and in 2013 (3.0 both years). Those telecasts aired on ESPN. According to NBC, the 3.4 is the highest for NASCAR on Labor Day weekend since 2007.”

The major networks do matter to NASCAR and it’s ability to effectively reach it’s fan base. Here’s the kicker: NASCAR is slowly returning to it’s status as a regional sport. It may never live in the obscurity that it once did, but make no mistake, the demographics are Southern.

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 5, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 5, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)

What to do? You have to look around carefully at the way we consume media. Mobile and non-traditional means of sports consumption are rapidly moving to mainstream. The cable networks are sweating bullets over freshly minted pimply faced kids creating the next Hulu, Apple TV or Netflix to come along and poach the domain they thought would never end.

My opinion on the racing so far in the 2015 season is that it is demonstrably better and Darlington proved that out. Less down-force has a lot to do with it, however the reduction in horsepower, while designed to cause the drivers to roll faster through the corners, has had a slightly negative effect. They would be much more of a handful with that 100 HP back.

But is that all it takes? Put out a great product and the eyeballs will show up? Not a chance. IndyCar is the perfect example. Some of the best balls out racing on the planet right now and yes, they are growing. They had to, they had no where to go but up and upwards they’re headed, albeit slowly.

But, you have to start somewhere and low down-force seems to be the answer de Jour. According to Carl Edwards, winner at Darlington: “I think we’re at a bigger crossroads than most people realize,” Edwards said after winning the Southern 500. “We can go with a package that makes our cars easier to drive and have a (boring) Talladega every week.

“Or we can make them harder to drive and show off the massive talents of our drivers and crew chiefs in these races. I hope they go with the latter and stay with this package.”

Most drivers believe if NASCAR starts 2016 with the current package and then removes more down-force, the racing will be even better. If you remove enough down-force, then the horsepower issue is diminished.

We should all be looking to see who is going to be the breakout kid in the Chase segment of this years Championship, but we should also be concerned that NASCAR is marketing the improved product with a vengeance.

One can only hope.

 

NASCAR: LESS Down-force, Not More

 Brian France: "There were a lot of things we liked, definitely an improvement on the races that have happened at Kentucky."

Brian France: “There were a lot of things we liked, definitely an improvement on the races that have happened at Kentucky.”

After the Kentucky race, which would rank as one of the better oval track races I’ve seen in a while, NASCAR want’s to continue tinkering with the new aero package, particularly down-force.

The new package seems to be heading for a track specific set of parameters, although in this writers opinion, it doesn’t need it. Goodyear tires should continue their track to track compounds, but the answer seems simpler than changing the aero packages from track to track.

Remove more down-force, albeit one step at a time and alter downforce from style of track to track and not tailor to each track.

Brian France stated shortly after the Kentucky race: “What we’re really looking for is how tight is the racing?” France said. “How many lead changes are there? How much passing through the field is going on? How many more teams are competitive by a given package? What accomplishes those goals the best?

Then, regarding other tracks, specifically Indy, he went on to say: We’re going to try some things coming up here at Indy (with a high-drag package). I’ll tell you what we didn’t see that we would like to see more of is more drafting. We didn’t see as much of that as we would have liked and more pack racing. You saw that on the restarts but not quite as much (as we’d prefer). There were a lot of things we liked, definitely an improvement on the races that have happened at Kentucky.”

Jimmie Johnson testing the packers earlier this year.

Jimmie Johnson testing the packers earlier this year.

So Kentucky is one of the teaser ponies for the future adjustments that NASCAR may make to the new rules. Fine.

What about the idea of adding down-force for the Indy race? Why would you want to go for more down-force, which does cause the cars to run closer, but also makes it far more difficult to initiate and execute a pass.

Here’s a thought:

Have an aero package for short tracks, a specific package for the 1.5 mile races and, of course, the restrictor plate races would stay the same. Each track does not need a tailor made set of rules, it can be more general than is the trial balloon that Mr. France is floating in the quotes above.

Carl Edwards has championed the less down-force issue now for quite some time and his argument has proven itself out, at least at Kentucky.

However, don’t expect these packages to fully implement in 2015. France has stated that select races are being used as a testing bed for where they will ultimately go with these changes and how track specific they may become.

He stated: “We’re going to continue to do that provided we don’t break the bank for the team owners as we go about it,” France told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our goal, beyond safe racing, which is our first goal, is that close, tight racing where more teams have a shot to win if their talents and hard work take them there.”

NASCAR has stated that they will use the same rules packe at the September 6th race at Darlington. The difference will be that Goodyear will provide a specific tire for that package as well as the track, something they didn’t do at Kentucky.

That is the goal of all motorsports series, to provide close competitive racing.

I know that the details count, but it truly seems a simpler process than we are hearing.

For Any Darlington Winner, Favorite Or Not, Victory Is Singular Achievement

Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, has won more races at
Darlington that any other active driver and will be favored to win
again.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Most likely a bookmaker – assuming you might have any interest in what he had to say – would declare that for the Bojangle’s Southern 500, you would do well to put your money on either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson- or both.

Boy, he’s really sticking his neck out, isn’t he? I mean, you would do well to put your money on those guys for any race.

But there is substance to this. In 33 races Gordon has seven wins – tops among active drivers – and 22 top-10 finishes, 19 of them in the top five.

Johnson, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has competed at Darlington 15 times with three wins and 11 finishes among the top 10, eight of them among the top five.

Such numbers clearly indicate that both drivers know how to get around the tricky 1.366-mile track.

Neither Gordon nor Johnson has won this year – a season in which a victory is critical for entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There have been times when fate wasn’t kind. For example, Johnson was involved in a bizarre accident early in the race at Texas and limped to a 25th-place finish.

Gordon could have won that race but was bested by Joey Logano in a green-white-checker restart. Gordon wound up second.
However, Gordon is the current points led by virtue of his consistency – five top-10 finishes in seven races.

Johnson is seventh in points, 31 behind.

But now they are at Darlington and I’m pretty certain each thinks he can earn a first victory this season at a track where they’ve been pretty darn good.

Both Denny Hamlin (left) and Jimmie Johnson have excellent records at
Darlington and loom as contenders for the win in the Bojangles
Southern 500.

After all, it’s only logical.

“I’m excited to be back at the track, one that is a favorite of so many, including myself,” Johnson said. “The sensation of speed is greater than almost any other track we go to.

“And the line and racing surface is so narrow and unique and challenging. It’s real accomplishment to run 500 miles here.

“To qualify well and then ultimately to win the race, well, to look forward to that is what makes it so exciting.”

Johnson added that incidents such as the one he endured at Texas happen inevitably. The key is to focus on the next race.

“We hate to see opportunities slip away but it doesn’t hurt our confidence,” he added. “When you have fast cars and don’t pull into victory lane, well, that’s still a confidence booster.

“The result isn’t what you want or like but you know your cars are fast and your pit stops are good.

“You have all the pieces. It’s just about getting the job done.”

Johnson said that what he looks for ultimately are top five finishes. He believes that if he, or any other driver, runs among the top five, there is going to be a good shot at winning.

Which, he added, is exactly what Gordon is doing.

“Jeff is rock solid,” Johnson said. “During the week when the teams debrief he knows what he is looking for. If he’s able to get what he needs he’s off and you can’t catch him.

“There are times when things don’t pan out and you’re wondering whey he isn’t up front. That’s because he’s set such a high bar through the years of success he’s had.”

While it’s logical to assume the Hendrick teammates are virtually pre-race favorites at any event, at Darlington there are several others to consider. Some of them might be a bit surprising.

Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, for example, has a victory and 10 finishes among the top-10 in only 15 races.

Consider Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing’s solid Darlington record. He’s got a victory and seven top-10 finishes in just eight races.

Wonder how a bookmaker would rate him?

And Matt Kenseth, winner of this race last year, deserves consideration, which he will get.

“I always feel the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year,” Kenseth said. “I always wanted to win here, and to do it last year was really big.

“But to win again – and for anyone to win – you have to adapt to changes. The changes from daylight to night can be significant. You have to keep up with them. That’s the challenge.”

Observers say Kenseth is absolutely right. While the track surface is unforgiving and narrow, which makes passing difficult, adaptations to changes will be absolutely necessary.

Which means that the Bojangle’s Southern 500 winner, pre-race favorite or not, will leave Darlington knowing he has achieved something significant, indeed.

Darlington Victory Caps Very Good Week For Kenseth, Gibbs

Matt Kenseth won the Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington to notch his third victory this season. Kenseth has emerged as a force at Joe Gibbs Racing, which he joined this year.

It was a very good week for Matt Kenseth.

Heck, on second thought, it’s been a very good year.

The newest – and to date the most successful – driver at Joe Gibbs Racing overcame dominant teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps remaining and went on to win the Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

It was Kenseth’s third victory of the season. He also won at Las Vegas and Kansas. His three wins are tops among all competitors.

Now, back to that good week … perhaps it should be amended to say it was a good week for the entire Gibbs organization.

Four days before the race it learned that the stern penalties levied against it by NASCAR following the Kansas race for a light connecting rod were significantly reduced.

Among other things, the sanctioning body stripped Kenseth of 50 driver points. But the appeals panel reduced that to 12. That elevated Kenseth from outside the top 10 in points to fourth going into Darlington.

He’s now third and in contention for a second career championship.

Then in the Nationwide Series race the night before the Sprint Cup event, Busch whipped the field to earn his 56th victory in the series.

Kenseth’s followup performance gave Gibbs a sweep of the weekend’s races.

Fact is, Busch could have easily accomplished the sweep by himself. But it was not to be. More on that later.

Since Kenseth came on board at Gibbs this year after a long tenure at Roush Fenway racing, the Gibbs organization seems to have returned to the championship form it once had with drivers Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.

Jeff Gordon (24) made his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Darlington, where he has won seven times. He ran very well and finished third.

Kenseth is a strong driver who has brought experience and leadership to the team. He replaced Joey Logano, a real talent in his own right but who came to Gibbs as, basically, a relatively inexperienced kid.

It can be said that Gibbs beefed up its lineup – which includes Busch and Denny Hamlin – when it signed Kenseth, the 2003 champion who was routinely contending for wins during most of his time with Roush.

Kenseth’s Darlington victory offered ample evidence of that.

And he feels it is only going to get better.“I think the goal of a race team and an organization is to never peak,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s to continue to keep getting better.  That’s one thing I’ve seen at Gibbs pretty much from day one.

“They’re not standing still.  They’re always trying to build a better car.  TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is trying to build a better engine.  We’re always trying to do that – working on the future.

“I think that’s how racing is.  I don’t have any concerns.  I really feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

The race was something on an anomaly for Darlington, an old, tough and narrow track that has been known to chew up race cars.

However, there was only one caution period in the first 125 laps and two by lap 300 of 367.

But from laps 303-337 things seemed to reflect typical Darlington racing. There were three more cautions in 30 laps.

None of that made any difference to Busch. In a performance reminiscent of his rout in the Nationwide event, the Gibbs driver rolled over the field, leading four times for 265 laps.

But as the race wound to its conclusion, it was obvious the handing in Busch’s Toyota had gone away. Not only could he not hold the lead, he also fell back to sixth place at race’s end.

Busch crew chief, Dave Rogers, reported that his driver had suffered a cut right rear tire.

Hamlin, running his first full race since sustaining a back injury, finished second – which gave Gibbs a one-two sweep and put another feather in its cap.

“It was one of those days where we got our car better, pit crew picked us up positions, took us to the most optimum spot we could get to and that was second,” Hamlin said.

“I’ve gotten pretty sore and tired – mentally tired as well. We’ll have a couple weeks really to rest until the next long event and we’ll be good to go then.”

While Kenseth has a good shot at the title, Hamlin, who missed four races and is 27th in points, likely must count on multiple victories to earn a “wildcard” spot in the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished fourth at Darlington, remains first in points with a formidable 44-point margin over Carl Edwards.

Gibbs and Hendrick Motorsports claimed five of the top six positions at Darlington. Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon (who made his 700th start) and Johnson followed the Kenseth-Hamlin sweep, with Busch in sixth.

Kenseth’s victory at historic Darlington is likely to boost his confidence even more. No one should be surprised if he adds more trips to victory lane this season.

“Honestly, I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said. “This, to me, probably feels bigger than any win in my career.

“I really feel bad that Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief who was suspended for one race after the Kansas incident) isn’t here. This is obviously his team and his effort, but Wally (Brown, interim crew chief) did great job filling in.

“We had a fifth or sixth-place car fighting loose – those last two adjustments were just awesome.  To be able to duke it out with Kyle there – he’s a great teammate and Denny is as well.

“We have a good combination right now.”

After Darlington that should be obvious.

Surprise! Surprise! Johnson A Favorite At Darlington

Jimmie Johnson started the season with a victory in the Daytona 500, which put him in first place in the point standings. He’s been there all but two weeks since.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Guess which driver is going to be a heavy favorite to win the Bojangle’s Southern 500?

Here are a couple of hints:

He’s won three times already including last year, when he gave his team owner, Rick Hendrick, his 200th career Sprint Cup victory.

He’s currently the points leader by a wide margin and is well on his way to a sixth career championship.

The Las Vegas bookmakers list him as the odds-on favorite (5-2).

The fact is, Darlington is one of Jimmie Johnson’s favorites. He says he loves tracks with character and the oldest track in NASCAR definitely has that.

“I think it goes without saying that every team and driver is excited to be in Darlington,” Johnson said. “We know and understand the impact and the meaning of this race track and what it has done for our sport, the early years and everything in between.

“I’m very happy to be here.  I love driving this race track.”

It shows.

It’s been 12 years since Johnson first drove at Darlington, a span of 14 races. He has finished outside the top 10 only four times. His three wins include a sweep in 2004, when the track had two races on the Sprint Cup schedule.

Johnson said he felt comfortable at the track immediately.

Johnson, here with wife Chandra at the NASCAR Awards Banquet last year in Las Vegas, is gunning for his sixth career championship.

“I just remember coming here and the track that I watched on television looked exciting,” He said. “When I came in person to watch it was so much more than what television could do for it.  TV does an awesome job, it is just this track is so narrow and so different.

“The speeds are so high for such a small racing groove that it left an impression in my mind.  Watching cars run through (turns) one and two, I guess it was three and four back then, up on the fence was mind boggling to me.”

It might have been mind boggling, but Johnson was ready for it. He received excellent training during his dirt track days.

“When I had a chance to run Salem, Ind., in the ASA (American Speed Association) series we would run up near the wall in turns three and four there,” he said. “In my mind I’m like, ‘If I ever get to Darlington this is what it’s got to be like’.

“I’m getting experience for Darlington.  Came here and didn’t win in the Nationwide Series, but struggled a lot less than other rookies coming here.

“I think that running at Salem helped and then also my off road background and how abrasive the track was and rough and different.”

Johnson moved quickly into first place in points after his victory in the Daytona 500. He stayed there until Bristol, where a 22nd-place helped drop him to third.

Then his second win of the season, at Martinsville in March, propelled him back into first. He’s been there since. Only once in the last four races has he finished out of the top 10 – 12th at Richmond.

His points lead was once at 43, a huge margin under NASCAR’s new system. He is presently 41 ahead of Carl Edwards, still a very formidable margin.

But Johnson is taking nothing for granted.

“Every year has its own feel to it,” he said. “It’s still so early I can’t draw a conclusion to a year yet.  It’s nice to get off to a quick start.  I always try to check some boxes, to win a race, is a huge one, win a pole, another one.

“I Try to win multiple races now with the seeding process and also the ‘wildcard.’  We have worked through some of those check marks pretty quick.

“As the year wears on the focus still is on making the Chase, which we are probably in good position for with our two wins.

“Don’t want to guarantee anything. So we are really just going down the road right now.”

Johnson can take another positive step forward with a good performance in the Bojangle’s Southern 500.

But that won’t be easy. Ol’ Darlington wasn’t given the nickname “Too Tough To Tame” for nothing.

And Johnson knows it.

“The track is aging and hopefully we get back to that real porous race track that wears out tires and puts on a great show,” he said. “The track is so narrow it’s tough for us to race at times. Especially on new tires, you can’t run side-by-side around here.

“But once we get some laps in and get the tire wear going there is some good passing that takes place.

“It’s tough to pass and I think we will get a good idea of tire wear, but strategy in two or four tires and really probably having enough fuel, the first one to have enough fuel to go the distance will be a key point in the race too.

“All that said it’s a track that has, in my opinion, the highest sensation of speed out of anywhere we go.”

Aric Almirola, No. 43 On a Hot Streak Going Into Tough Ol’ Darlington

To date, Aric Almirola is having a very productive season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He goes into Darlington with four consecutive top-10 finishes, tops among all competitors.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – There was a time when a blue No. 43 car was one of the most successful, and popular, in NASCAR.

The car was perhaps the most familiar in NASCAR. From the early 1960s through 1992 – when the blue paint scheme was trimmed in red – every stock car racing fan recognized the car immediately.

And, I might add, its driver as well.

Richard Petty, a seven-time champion, has always been associated with the No. 43 – which has become symbolic of his illustrious career.

However, after Petty retired in 1992, the glory that was the No. 43 car began to fade – badly.

The venerated Petty Enterprises organization became a shell of itself. Unlike how it was during Petty’s prime, the team went season after season without a victory.

The last time it won was with John Andretti – one of an assortment of drivers employed over the years – in 1999.

Petty Enterprises ceased to exist after the 2008 season. It was 60 years old.

But Petty the man has never gone away. And today – after many financial struggles and organizational realignments – there exists Richard Petty Motorsports.

And it fields a blue No. 43 car.

Don’t look now, but it appears that No. 43 car has shown at least a flicker of what it used to be.

In 2013 the car has become more competitive than it has in years. And its driver, Aric Almirola, can claim a share of the credit.

Coming into the Southern 500 at Darlington, Almirola and the No. 43 have posted four top-10 finishes in a row.

That hasn’t happened before in the one and one-half seasons Almirola has driven for Petty – not even close.

Presently Almirola is seventh in points. He has never been higher. Fact is, his best effort was 20th in 2012.

Fans have taken notice. And for some of the veterans who cheered Petty during his prime, perhaps there are stirs of hope that, at the very least, the No. 43 will return to respectability.

Almirola said he’s not surprised over the team’s surge in performance.

Almirola, shown here with team owner Richard Petty (left) and entertainer Mario Lopez, hooked up with Petty toward the end of the 2010 season and came back full-time in 2012.

“We sure are on a roll lately,” Almirola said. “I think we are the only people that aren’t surprised we are seventh in points and have the longest current top-10 streak in the series.

“Todd (Parrott, crew chief), the guys and I are really clicking.”

Almirola, 29, has had something of a topsy-turvy NASCAR career. He broke into Sprint Cup competition in 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing, for which he drove in six races.

In 2008, he competed in 12 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the next season, he entered nine races for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

He was still a part-timer in 2010. He split time with James Finch and Richard Petty Motorsports, which he joined late in the season.

Almirola did not compete on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2011. Instead he raced on a full Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports.

During his fractured career from 2007-2010, Almirola earned just two top-10 finishes.

But in 2011, with JR Motorsports, he earned 18 top-10 finishes – seven in the top five – and finished a healthy fourth in Nationwide Series points.

That was enough for Richard Petty Motorsports to bring him back in 2012.

And it is paying off.

A year ago, Almirola, who has two victories on the Camping World Truck Series, finished among the top 10 four times and earned his first career Sprint Cup pole position at Charlotte in May.

It has gotten better.

In the 10 races to date in 2013, Almirola earned his consecutive top-10 runs at Texas (seventh), Kansas (ninth), Richmond (eighth) and Talladega (10th).

“We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum that we had going in 2012 and it worked,” Almirola said. “We just need to keep it up and start moving to top-fives and hopefully a win soon.”

If Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports stay hot past Darlington, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment.

The tough, old track has a way of dousing momentum and breaking hearts.

Almirola made his Darlington debut with the No. 43 last year. He started 13th and finished 19th. He has two Nationwide starts at the track and one in trucks.

“Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end,” Almirola said. “We had a decent finish for my first time out and only a few ‘Darlington stripes.’”

Almirola said he would rely on Parrott, a seasoned crew chief with a lot of Darlington experience, to help him have a competitive run.

“Darlington is a long race from daylight to night, so it’s really important to keep up with the track changes and make the right adjustments,” Parrott said. “Our team’s relationship is stronger than ever, which is important here.

“It will be key to have good communication from Aric about what the car is doing, so we can stay ahead of the track with changes.”

If Almirola earns yet another top-10 finish at Darlington, considered NASCAR’s toughest track, even more attention will befall the No. 43 team.

But Almirola is looking for even better things.

“Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing victory lane,” Almirola said. “I think if we can put ourselves in a good position during the majority of the race, we can have a good shot at getting the 43 its first win since 1999.”

 

 

 

Darlington May Be The Start To Jeff Gordon’s Reversal Of Fortune

Jeff Gordon won the pole for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega, which is one of the few highlights he's had during what has been an extremely unproductive season for him.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – It has been well documented that Jeff Gordon is having, what is for him, a horrendous season.

The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, who has won 85 races during his career, has gone through the first 10 races of this season without a victory.

Worse, he has only two finishes among the top-10, an eighth at Phoenix and a fourth at Texas, and currently stands a dismal 23rd in the driver point standings

The word has already spread: Points-wise, Gordon may have too much ground to make up before the Chase begins. Therefore, he must win to give himself a “wildcard” shot at the 2012 “playoff” – and the sooner the better.

The “sooner” is this weekend’s Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway which is, once again, scheduled to be run under the lights.

It could well be the race where Gordon makes something positive happen – even a victory.

Why not? He will surely be listed as a pre-race favorite, if for no other reason than he leads all active competitors with victories at the old, treacherous 1.366-mile track.

He has seven for his career, behind only David Pearson (10) and the late Dale Earnhardt (nine).

His last win came in 2007, the third year after NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race became Darlington’s only event, and was run at night.

As said, it’s been speculated that if Gordon is going to win, and therefore turn his season around, it absolutely must begin at Darlington.

Frankly, given that after this weekend there are still 25 races remaining before the Chase begins, it may not be as serious as all that – at least for now.

But, for Gordon, it’s serious enough. He knows his season has to change for the better by one means or another.

“I think this year we have had some fast race cars,” said Gordon, whose last championship came in 2001. “When you have fast race cars it makes it easier to win.

“But just because you have a fast race car, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win.”

Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team are a testament to that. As fast as they may have been from track to track this season, they have encountered all manner of problems that have repelled victory and sent them plummeting in the standings.

For example, Gordon suffered engine failure after just 81 laps into the Daytona 500, which led to a 40th-place finish. Pit road mistakes took him out of a top-five run at Fontana.

He seemed to have victory in hand at Martinsville, a track on which he has nearly always performed admirably.

He led 328 laps but a late-race maneuver by Clint Bowyer sent Gordon into a crash with teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon finished 14th.

For Gordon last week at Talladega things were, in a word, bizarre. He won the pole but never really contended because he was constantly fighting an overheating problem – which, incidentally, he predicted he might.

Gordon suggested that restrictor-plate rules applied by NASCAR at Talladega were “going to be a big issue here because we all knew how hard it was to keep the water and engine temperatures cool at Daytona – and that was a night race.”

Even so, in the Aaron’s 499 Gordon might have overcome his problems and achieved a decent finish. But any chance to do so was taken away after he became involved in a nine-car accident – not of his own making – after 142 laps. He drifted to 33rd place.

“Man this is one of the most bizarre years that this Hendrick Motorsports team has ever gone through,” Gordon said afterward on national television. “I mean it’s almost comical at this point.

Gordon won at Phoenix in 2011, the year in which he won three times and made the Chase. He has yet to win in 2012 and may be in danger of missing the "playoff."

 

“That was not fun. I didn’t like hitting the wall. I was just cruising by on the inside and it looked like somebody got into Martin (Truex Jr.) and turned him into me.

“That’s just the way our season has been going.”

As a competitor on NASCAR’s top circuit since 1993, Gordon has seen it all. He knows full well drivers can enjoy seasons that are productive – but they can also frustratingly endure ones that are not.

He admits that productive seasons are tougher to accomplish. The level of competition in NASCAR today, along with an established equality in the cars across the board, makes the difference.

“I think these days there is so much more depth in all the teams,” he said. “More than there ever has been.

“And there is more competition because of the car itself. With this car it’s so hard to get an edge on the competition, so everybody is equal.

“There’s a lot of great talent behind the wheel, the crews are training harder than ever before, there’s pit strategy and there’s engineering. It’s harder to get an edge.

“But I don’t think that means it is necessarily harder to win.”

Gordon referred to his previous point – that if a driver routinely has a fast car, no matter how it’s attained, he can, and should, win.

Gordon has had a fast car. But he hasn’t won.

Sure, he’s had his share of misfortune. But he won’t blame that for all of his woes.

“I’m not one to think big about luck,” he said. “I feel like you don’t luck yourself into wins, you work your way into wins. You have to have those fast cars and all that comes with them – pit strategy and all those things. They all play a role.

“We have had a lot of things that have kept us from winning this year. We’ve had parts break and bad pit stops. We have had engine issues.

“But we have always had a fast car.”

If that is the case at Darlington Gordon suggests strongly he will have a very good chance to win. Rest assured, if all goes at it should for his Hendrick team, he’ll say that more than once during this race weekend.

He believes a fast car should be enough – provided, of course, one of those dreaded “things” doesn’t occur.

Again.

Pocono A Track That’s Like No Other, And Always Has Been

All of NASCAR’s speedways have their own design and traits that make them all different from one another.

However, in some cases that’s not easy to determine. So many tracks are of the same length and basic design they look like they came off a factory’s assembly line.

You’ve heard all about the “cookie cutter” speedways right? They are the 1.5-mile dogleg ovals that sprung up with monotonous regularity in the 1990s and into the 21st century.

They all appeared to be little more than clones of Charlotte Motor Speedway and they included Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas and, most recently placed on the Sprint Cup schedule, Kentucky.

It got to the point where some wags begged anyone who had a notion to build a track make it something different – please?

“Hey, can’t anybody build another short track?” they asked. “How about another Bristol or Richmond so new fans could REALLY see something?”

Of course, however it might appear, all the 1.5-milers are not the same – not exactly. As any driver or crew chief will tell you, there are subtle differences that must be accounted for in car preparation.

In other words, it’s highly likely that a car readied for Charlotte isn’t likely going to run particularly well at, say, Texas.

There are several speedways in which the differences are anything but subtle. All it takes is a quick look to discover they are unto themselves. There are no others like them, in some cases, not even remotely close.

There’s the “paper clip” that is Martinsville. Old, venerated Darlington’s oval is egg-shaped. Bristol, a half-mile track, has high banking that is huge and infamous.

Richmond is the only three-quarter mile track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Atlanta may be a 1.5-mile track but its sweeping turns are about as long as its straightaways. At 2.5 miles, Indianapolis resembles a rectangle.

Infineon and Watkins Glen are road courses. That they are is the only thing they share.

And then there’s Pocono Raceway.

There’s not another track like it anywhere, certainly not in the United States.

It, too, is a 2.5-mile track but it’s triangular in shape. There are only three turns. A long straight separates turn one from sharp turn two – the “tunnel turn.” Then it’s a short jaunt to the sweeping turn three before it opens up to the long, speed-building frontstretch.

Outside of the road courses it’s the only track on which drivers have to shift gears, although for a long time the practice became unnecessary. But it’s back.

Pocono is so unique, and admittedly somewhat strange when it comes to speedway design, that at least one motorsports writer called it “the Duckbill Platypus of NASCAR.”

As you might expect, that name didn’t stick.

 

It was built in Long Pond in the lush Pennsylvania countryside near Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and, of course, in the region of the Pocono Mountains.

It opened in 1971 as a target for open-wheel racing. But by 1974 NASCAR came calling. The first Winston Cup race at Pocono was the Purolator 500 on Aug. 4 that year.

The race was the only major NASCAR event held at Pocono that season and it would be eight years before the track got a second date.

Pocono’s debut season was a very turbulent one for NASCAR. It went through points system changes and what seemed to be constant rule alterations that became monumentally frustrating for the teams.

“NASCAR has things so screwed up I don’t know what’s fair and what isn’t,” said Richard Petty, never known a harsh critic of the sanctioning body.

The nation was also strangled by a shortage of gasoline, created largely by a large reduction in oil shipments from the OPEC countries.

To appease the government, NASCAR boss Bill France Sr. asked that tracks reduce the length of their races by 10 percent or shrink the number of cars in a starting field.

Many speedways, including Daytona, cooperated.

Pocono did not. But to be fair, by the time August rolled around, the fuel situation was not good, but it wasn’t a crisis.

Ironically, the Purolator 500 still never ran its scheduled distance of 500 miles.

Bad weather was the culprit. The race was halted for one hour, 22 minutes after it had completed 300 miles, or 120 laps.

When it restarted, Petty sped into the lead on lap 148 and held it for the remaining distance.

Which was eight laps short of the scheduled 200. Another rain shower hit the track and NASCAR felt that to wait it out made no sense.

It was not an auspicious NASCAR debut for Pocono but ultimately it didn’t matter. The track has survived, made multiple improvements in amenities and had its share of memorable moments.

No single driver has dominated Pocono over the years, not like Petty has done at Martinsville and Richmond, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson at Darlington and any driver who raced for Junior Johnson at Bristol.

But there have been competitors who have won in clumps at Pocono, among them Bobby Allison, Tim Richmond, Bobby Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and most recently Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin has won four times since 2006, twice that year and back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. He’s the defending champion of the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 set for Sunday.

Not to state the obvious here, but Hamlin would be very happy with another insurance win this season since he currently stands 11th in points.

He’s certainly proven he knows how to get around the weird ol’ track.

That’s no small feat.

NASCAR’s “Superspeedway Era” Wasn’t Much At First

By the end of July 1960 what was eventually called NASCAR’s “Superspeedway Era” had already made its debut – with decidedly mixed reviews.

That season, three tracks of 1.4 miles or greater in distance became part of the Grand National schedule and joined the two existing big tracks, Darlington Raceway and Daytona International Speedway.

It was a significant occurrence for NASCAR, which, throughout most of its existence, had mostly conducted its races on tracks of half-mile, or slightly larger, both dirt and asphalt.

From 1949-1958, 381 Grand National races had been run, 293 of them on dirt tracks a mile or less in distance.

Obviously the sport had been born and bred on such speedways.

There were exceptions of course. Darlington, a 1.375-mile speedway at the time, ran its first Southern 500 in 1950 and it was still on the schedule a decade later, joined by the Rebel 300.

Raleigh Speedway was a one-mile banked paved oval that joined NASCAR in 1953 but did not survive past 1958.

Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, a huge 1.5-mile banked dirt track, lasted just three years, from 1954-57.

Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta was a notorious one-mile dirt track that was a playground for many of NASCAR’s pioneer drivers. However, it was no longer a part of the Grand National schedule after 1959.

It was in ’59 that the first Daytona 500 was held which meant that 2.5-mile Daytona and Darlington were the only two remaining superspeedways on the Grand National schedule as the decade of the ‘60s began.

Many racing purists thought even that number was too many. It was their belief that NASCAR needed to stick to its heritage else it would wilt and die.

Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder, wasn’t buying the argument. It was his belief that the superspeedways produced high-speed, exciting racing and provided fans with comfort and amenities most of the bull rings had simply ignored.

So France was pleased when three superspeedways joined the Grand National circuit in 1960. Doesn’t sound like many but it was enough for some observers to declare NASCAR was in the midst of a “superspeedway boom.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta International Raceway and a track with the unlikely name of Marchbanks Speedway all staged races in 1960.

Two of them were fortunate to make it. Charlotte and Atlanta experienced financial and construction problems so great that their original debut dates had to be pushed back several months.

Charlotte, the brainchild of Bruton Smith and superstar driver Curtis Turner, was the most ambitious of the lot.

Smith and Turner, as befits their bravado, wanted Charlotte to have the longest and most grueling race on the Grand National circuit. They came up with a 600-mile event to be known as the World 600.

 

However, they had to get the 1.5-mile track built. The two encountered all manner of problems, particularly in construction, and were virtually out of money well before the race’s planned date of May 29.

The event was pushed back to June 19 so that pavement could be completed. It was on the morning of the race – well, completed maybe but not nearly suitable for racing.

The asphalt had not had time to settle and the cars tore huge holes in the track. Patchwork was done daily but the drivers still complained, knowing it would not hold up for 600 miles with 60 cars in the race.

They were right, of course. Chunks of rock and other debris flew everywhere. Teams attempted to avoid the worst by putting screens over the grill and windshield of their cars to keep stuff out of their radiators and elsewhere.

Somehow Joe Lee Johnson managed to avoid the chuck holes and went on to win the inaugural World 600 after Jack Smith, who at one point led Johnson by five laps, was sidelined when flying debris tore a hole in his fuel tank.

Atlanta was supposed to run its first Dixie 300 in November of 1959 but construction delays and a weak cash flow threatened the facility for over eight months.

Finally, finishing touches were put on the track on the week of the race, just as it was at Charlotte. There was not a blade of grass in the place and tents were used as shelter in the garage area.

Nevertheless, the Dixie 300 took place and was held on a truly unique Atlanta layout. The speedway was 1.5-miles in distance but had wide, sweeping turns which accounted for a mile of its length.

Fireball Roberts won the race when he shot past Cotton Owens with just 12 laps remaining.

But perhaps the most unusual of the superspeedways that came along with 1960 – and one probably best remembered by racing historians – was Marchbanks, located in Hanford, Calif.

B.L. Marchbanks, a self-titled sportsman who, obviously, named the track after himself, supervised construction.

Marchbanks, the track, had been part of NASCAR since 1951 but, now at 1.4-miles, it was going to be something new. Its first race was set for June 12, ahead of Charlotte and Atlanta, and, at 250 miles, was publicized as the biggest race west of the Mississippi.

Well, drivers and fans didn’t think so. Many of the top Grand National stars didn’t make the trip to California, thinking the first-place prize of $2,000 from a $17,425 purse would hardly cover expenses.

Rex White, however, snuck out to California. He finished eighth and earned 456 points, which helped carry him to the 1960 Grand National championship.

Marvin Porter, a Californian, won the race competing against mostly drivers from what was then known as the Pacific Coast Late Model circuit.

As for the fans, Marchbanks might have been something new but they could not have been less interested. Only 7,000 of them showed up for the races, largely because of the 104-degree heat.

It was pretty much the same thing at Marchbanks in 1961. This time the race was held on March 12 but still paid only $2,000 to win.

What makes Marchbanks a part of NASCAR lore is that the 1961 race was won by Fireball Roberts, who led all 178 laps and became the first driver in NASCAR history to lead the entire distance on a superspeedway.

After 1961, Marchbanks was no longer on the Grand National schedule. Charlotte and Atlanta, however, survived after many problems and upheavals.

They were among the first of the “superspeedway boom” that, obviously, continued in NASCAR well beyond 1960.

Regan Smith Wins: Busch Harvick Brawl Meaningless

Regan Smith’s victory at Darlington this past weekend shouldn’t be overshadowed by a brawl that wasn’t. Pushing, shoving, cursing. Big deal. Regan Smith, a Mike Mittler graduate, beat his friend Carl Edwards in a Green/white finish. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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