NASCAR: Monster Lessons from The Daytona 500

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

With the kickoff of last weekend’s Daytona 500, NASCAR is back on the track after having undertaken a radical transformation of its race series during the off-season.

The Daytona 500 garnered substantial attention for multiple reasons: All three series featured the new three stage race format, where both regular season and playoff points are available. Secondly, Speedweeks showcased the return of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, after being sidelined for the second half of 2016 with a concussion. Additionally, the Daytona 500 featured the debut of Monster Energy as the entitlement Cup sponsor. Without a rush to judgment, several lessons stood out from the crowd.

Segment Racing Might Not Charm Fans with Short Attention Spans

With the Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup series all in action at Daytona, we witnessed extended lapping breaks between segments. When combined with the clean-up from wrecks, all three races required a lot of couch time. Both the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup races produced over 100 miles of total caution flag lapping, with the Daytona 500 approaching 3 ½ hours in duration.

While only a limited sample, some drivers, as well as fans believed that several “big ones” in the early stages were a result of overly-aggressive driving and a lack of patience sometimes needed in restrictor plate racing. Leave it to Jimmie Johnson, 2016 Series Champion, to sum it up after being wrecked out with a 34th place finish: “Just a lot of aggression, way too early in my opinion.”

While the segment racing may ramp up the in-race excitement, it is still a foreign concept to explain to a new fan and will take time to accustom to for old-school fans as well.

Bring Your Calculator to Understand the New Point Math

The new Segment format can create some wacky point outcomes. Kevin Harvick ended up finishing 22nd at the conclusion of the Daytona 500, but thanks to his segment two win, he is 4th in overall regular season points. Some fans are still having trouble getting their mind around that one.

Under the new point system, a driver that finishes 3rd in all three race segments would mathematically outpoint the race winner, if the race winner fails to place in the top 10 in the first two segments, even though winning the race is arguably the most important outcome.

No doubt the TV partners’ on-screen point graphics are going to get a workout as the regular season winds toward the 10-race playoff later this year.

The Monster Energy Girls created quite a stir throughout the Daytona 500 week. Image Getty Images

Ford in the Championship Hunt This Year

Ford last won a NASCAR Cup championship in 2004. With Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500 in Ford’s inaugural race with the recently-converted Stewart-Haas team, Ford teams showed speed throughout the weekend, with six of the Top-10 finishers in a Ford, as well as the victory of Ryan Reed in the Xfinity Series race the day before.

Last year, Ford-backed teams won only 20% of the Cup races, with almost all those wins captured by the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. With the switch of Stewart-Haas’ four teams from Chevrolet to Ford, expect Ford to ramp up the win total, as already evidenced the Kurt’s Busch’s maiden victory.

Monster Energy Will Not Generate an Immediate Boost

Aside from pockets of outrage over the Monster Girls’ attire that was not firesuit approved, Monster Energy is taking a studious approach to ramping up its activation with the sport. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the partnership coming together late last year, even though NASCAR had been seeking an entitlement sponsor for almost two years.

NASCAR’s expectations are high that Monster can ideally attract a younger, “edgier”, demographic and raise the excitement level at events. So far, there has been no television advertising directly promoting the connection between the sport and the beverage company.

Monster Energy representatives have said they are still developing an understanding of the marketplace and letting fans adjust to a new Cup sponsor. Perhaps smart, given that NASCAR core fans are a passionate bunch. However, let’s keep the faith that we hear more about Monster Energy’s commitment to the sport than the heat around the female attire in victory lane, which is still more than most NFL cheerleaders showcase.

Ratings Up, Perhaps Due to the Dale Jr Bump

The Daytona 500 sold out in the week leading up to the race, no doubt driven by the star power return of Dale Earnhardt Jr to the track. Earnhardt Jr qualified on the front row for the start of the Daytona 500, and demonstrated his prowess early in the week by leading 53 of 60 laps in the precursor Can-Am Duels.

Fox Sports’ coverage delivered a 7% ratings bump over the 2016 event, but that’s starting from a low base. Overall, TV ratings are nowhere close to where they were a decade ago for NASCAR’s premier event.

It remains to be seen whether this initial viewership and attendance interest will lead to a renaissance for NASCAR over the course of the 2017 season. The next few races, featuring a new aero package and continued segment racing, will be more evident of whether viewers are intrigued by the changes and willing to tune-in based on driver Brad Keselowki’s bold assertion that the new format will showcase “the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

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

NASCAR: Daytona 500 Dazzles in Race Season Debut

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Restrictor plate racing is an acquired taste. Some do not enjoy it, not all (including some drivers) look forward to it, yet most everyone is willing to pay attention to the last lap to see who will be crowned Daytona 500 Champion. For firsthand experience of this maxim, I observed that my wife, ever the casual fan, sat down to take in the last lap and was cheerily surprised by what she saw.

With a great last lap move to pull out of line from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, committed to the top and chased down teammate Matt Kenseth, brushed off a block and bump, and then wedged between Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. to squeak out the tightest finish — 0.010 seconds — in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.

How often do we get a photo finish where we must slow down the tape to see who won? Bottom line, this Daytona 500 finish will be remembered for years.

No doubt, certain racing purists see sheer boredom in superspeedway cars that have been “restricted” since 1988 from reaching their upper limits at Daytona and Talladega in the interest of safety, where stockers are confined to running in large packs and no one can generate a serious performance advantage over the duration of the race.

Daytona looked like it's old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Daytona looked like it’s old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Yet, Sunday’s Daytona 500 delivered in abundant ways for the start of the NASCAR season:

  • Hamlin wasn’t content to get a top 5 finish and solid points day, but gambled for the win. Hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy has always been a dream of this 35-year-old driver, with Hamlin’s mother Mary Lou tweeting out the essay that Hamlin wrote when he was in 2nd grade, declaring he would win the February 1998 Daytona 500. A dream realized, albeit 18 years later than planned.
  • We had genuine sportsmanship among the drivers at the end. Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t sure who had won when he and Denny Hamlin crossed the start-finish line, but maintained perspective. “I feel like we were in really good position just doing what we did,” Truex acknowledged. “Circumstances didn’t work out quite as well as they should have…I felt like I should have run Denny up the track a little bit. Two years ago I would have been sitting here with a sourpuss on my face. Today was (still) a great day.”
  • The validation of the $400 million DAYTONA Rising project was a crown jewel redevelopment, with all 101,500 stadium seats spoken for in the self-proclaimed World Center of Racing. Some on social media commented that they could see open seats in the aerial shots, but plentiful fans mingled on the interior concourses throughout the race. The new Daytona Rising stadium has captured the spirit that fans now look to attend social events centered around sports, given that tracks most offer something beyond the pure HD experience of watching on one’s home theater.
  • The weather was perfect, with no rain throughout Speedweeks to inflict havoc on scheduled race events.
  • We did not get the typical carnage of the “big one” associated with many superspeedway events, and cars remained on the track and not in the catch fence. Just once, it was a relief to not have to hold our breath after the finish with anticipation as to whether drivers would emerge safely from scattered sheet metal. Gratifyingly, there was no spectacle of jet dryers exploding from impact with an errant race car.
  • Strategy calls were evident throughout the race. Teams struggled with grip on the high banked corners. Handling was at a premium in the draft, as the daytime weather and slick track contributed to cars being tight in the corner. New rubber was at a premium, as teams had to speculate on whether to take two or four tire pit stops.
  • At plate tracks, the top drivers now rise to the top and have demonstrated sharpness and shrewdness at this time of racing. Leaders must showcase the command of the draft and which line is working best, often maintaining their position by taking the air off one lane, then moving to the other, thereby stalling out potential moves by the competition.
  • This year, we saw several of the sport’s top drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and pole sitter Chase Elliott engage in epic slides on their own coming out of Turn 4, showcasing that cars were indeed on the handling edge. Elliott completed 18 laps Sunday before his Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet was taken to the garage with heavy front end damage, the result spin and infield nose-dive.
  • And if you wish to recreate multicultural last lap drama, check out the Fox Deportes Spanish language telecast of the finish. Victorioso is exciting in any language, and this clip will surely leave you smiling. https://twitter.com/FOXDeportes/status/701524567190171649

Plate races are a limited, distinct piece of the NASCAR schedule, but a legacy component of what NASCAR is. Daytona Speedweeks was a stellar start for the season, with fans at least talking about what happened on the track. The NASCAR show now moves forward to the real heart of the season. Bring on the new low downforce race pack for Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

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

 

NASCAR: Will Magna Charter Be Holy Grail for the Sport?

Petty  is pleased with NASCAR's new 'Charter' system.

Petty is pleased with NASCAR’s new ‘Charter’ system.

NASCAR’s anticipated charter system has been rolled out, tackling governance, economics, and participation at its premier top level series of professional stock car racing. Certainly, the Charter agreement is a seminal shift in how the sport has been managed. For fans, it may be much ado about nothing, or perhaps not.

During the announcement, no less a luminary than the King Richard Petty called it the second most important day in NASCAR history, second only to the founding of the sport’s sanctioning body back in 1948.

The nine-year life of the 36 available charters (which are fully resalable) runs concurrently with NASCAR’s television-rights deal through 2024. Currently, that $8 billion contract with Fox and NBC shares 65% of the rights money with racetracks, 25% to the competitive teams (who are paid through the race purse), and 10% to NASCAR.

The biggest breakthrough for the 36 teams possessing a charter is a guaranteed spot in the field for every race, starting with the season opening race at Daytona. These privileged teams now have more stability in their business model, which supports their quest to build their long-term brand. At a base level, an annuity revenue stream for 30th place running team participating in all the races has a floor value ranging from $3 to $5 million per year (using the total purse results for Trevor Bayne, 29th in points, and Alex Bowman, 33rd in points, as proxies from last year). That’s cash an owner can now count on.

Stronger teams may just make for a better product on track, allowing teams to invest more in their performance and their future growth in the sport. With a more secure business model, team owners may have more leverage in locking up sponsors and more willingness to take a chance on up-and-coming driving talent.

Rob Kaufmann, former owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, has several Charters in the process of being sold.

Rob Kaufmann, former owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, has several Charters in the process of being sold.

The revenue stream from purse winnings that is linked to TV rights deal ensures that Charter teams are guaranteed the ability to be on the stage of every race for the next nine years, providing a base annuity return for a Charter franchise.

As a key principal that helped broker this agreement, Rob Kauffman, majority team owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, confirmed his intent to sell two charters now that MWR is out of business. The anticipated buyers include Stewart-Haas Racing for Kurt Busch’s #41 team and Joe Gibbs Racing for Carl Edwards’ #19 team. Kauffman ventured that “If you had to ask me right now, what do I think they’re roughly worth, I would say, single-digit millions, individually.”

At face value, all seems splendid. Like many of NASCAR’s changes, fans may not ultimately care much, unless the law of unintended consequences surfaces. And this is auto racing, inherently unpredictable, where anything that can happen often well.

Play out one possible team scenario for full effect.

Sprint Cup rookie Ryan Blaney, now full-time driver of #21 Ford Fusion for the fabled Wood Brothers racing team, is one of the teams on the outside looking in who will not start the season with a charter-guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. And most all charters this year are spoken for or already have been sold, leaving Ryan Blaney needing to qualify on speed based on the four unsecured spots in the 40-car starting grid.

If Blaney wins a regular season race, thereby qualifying for the Sprint Cup Chase playoff, the Wood Brothers could find themselves in the precarious position of needing to qualify for every Chase race to remain in championship contention. One bad qualifying effort, and they might just be packing up and going home.

As a worst case scenario, picture Ryan Blaney making it all the way to the Homestead Championship finale and suffering a mechanical issue during qualifying such that the #21 team misses the cut and is unable to compete for the Sprint Cup title in the final race of the year. It would be fascinating to see how NASCAR Chairman Brian France would justify that bizarre outcome. For sure, many fans would ridicule that travesty. Perhaps NASCAR will implement some type of provisional qualifying allowance to address such hitches.

So, what is the hidden gem in all of this? It’s called the Team Owner Council, where the Charter teams will have formal input into decisions made by the sanctioning body.

Leave it to Richard Petty to plainly call it out, “It’s sort of like the democrats and republicans, they’ve been doing their thing, we’ve been doing our thing, meeting in the middle a little bit. We’re getting rid of that. We’re all going to be in the middle of the deal now.”

The new agreement also provides Charter teams with new revenue opportunities including a greater interest in digital operations. And that just may be the golden goose for everyone.

Right now, when you check out a race team’s site on-line, there are as many approaches to fan interaction as there are race teams. Some engage with fans, some don’t. Some readily sell team merchandise, some don’t. Some have team highlights and interviews, some don’t.

And that is where the future revenue generation and engagement potential just may be. Major League Baseball is a prime model of successful integration, so much so that MLB Advanced Media is a separate business that partners with other sports leagues (including the PGA, NHL, and WWE) on the management of their digital media rights. Digital technology is huge for leagues. It allows fans to consume events when they want, how they want and with whom they want.

And that may be the blessing in this Charter deal for everyone. If NASCAR learns from the MLB model, thereby capitalizing on emerging tech developments, developing a fully integrated global hub with behind the scenes action, and capturing fans who embrace being at the forefront of these interactive media experiences with deeper access into the sport through sharing the stories of both drivers and teams.

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

NASCAR: Daytona 500 and Bandicoots On Acid

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

This past Sunday the 57th Daytona 500 was held and Joey Logano can finally be comfortable with the “Sliced Bread” moniker given him several years ago.

It was a strong indication that Penske Racing is going to be a factor in 2015 and is the default ‘Factory’ team for Ford.

The weeks leading up to the storied event, however, weren’t so kind to NASCAR.

A change in the qualifying was in order and NASCAR certainly changed it, to the chagrin and openly critical display of the drivers.

To NASCAR’s credit something had to be done. Three hours to qualify for a race is simply too long and takes up far too much valuable broadcast air time leaving a potentially new audience who might tune in to the marathon with a feeling of boredom.

“If qualifying is this boring how much more interesting could the race be” was the comment that I heard most. The problem was that NASCAR simply isn’t Formula One and can’t use a knockout style format with the same level of execution, there are simply too many cars and too many desperate drivers to not have carnage. Carnage they had.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

As posted in a previous article our technical expert, Bill Marlowe, suggested the following format, which is worth repeating:

(1) Have all 48-50 cars line up diagonally on pit road.

(2) Each qualifying group would consist of no more than 8-10 cars

(3) In a blind draw, the first 10 cars are selected 5, maybe 8 minutes before they run. This ultimately gives a total of about 5-6 groups.

(4) In a second tandem blind draw, each car selected is given its starting position from pit road.

(5) The 1st ten cars have 5 minutes to line up on pit road.

(6) When the signal is given to go, group 1 has 5 minutes to accelerate, get up to speed and set a time.

(7) While the 1st group is out the blind draw process repeats itself.

(8) While the 1st group is on its cool down lap and coming to pit lane the 2nd group is already being released.

This format would take approximately one hour allowing for any engine failures, crashes or debris on track stoppages.

"The Lunatics Are in the Hall"- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

“The Lunatics Are in the Hall”- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Let’s hope that something is changed for Talladega.

On Saturday Kyle Busch, during the Xfinity race, exited the racing surface and laterally contacted an inside retaining wall that did not have the advantage of a safer barrier. He broke his left leg and his ankle. He’s fortunate not to have lost his life.

You have to believe that the only reason there wasn’t a safer barrier in place is that NASCAR has become so large in its bureaucracy that by committee it couldn’t have foreseen such an accident. That’s what happens when delegating authority too quickly or by committee is employed. After all, the wall was certainly in place for the next day.

How hard was that? Not as hard as Busch’s crash.

Then comes the story that had everyone from TMZ to Al-Jazeera writing about it. Kurt Busch’s indefinite suspension from NASCAR due to a restraining order obtained from his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll.

It’s no secret that Kurt Busch has an anger problem. It’s no secret that NASCAR really has no warm and fuzzy feelings for the elder Busch. It’s no secret that by all outward appearances, both he and Driscoll are crazier than a pair of Bandicoot’s on acid.

However, it seems that NASCAR does, from time to time, exact revenge on it’s detractors or troublemakers. Travis Kvapil really screwed up. He plead guilty of domestic abuse and was given probation and no disciplinary punishment handed down by NASCAR.

Again, NASCAR may have had every reason, and they certainly have the right, to kick Busch to the curb.

It does seem, however, on the surface, to be a bit hypocritical. Maybe yes, maybe no. No one can argue that domestic abuse is both unacceptable and appalling, but how often is it used for revenge? Often enough.

How easy is it to manipulate the courts? Damned easy many times.

Having been a witness in a Florida Capital Case I can tell you that what you hear in a courtroom is not necessarily what happened. Truth becomes an abstract. I watched a very guilty person walk away.

But this is NASCAR and not a courtroom. They are a private, not a public company.

They have stabilized, to a large degree, their loss of viewership. Perhaps not the actual attendees to the race, they may never return, but NASCAR and it’s cadre’ of high paid lawyers weren’t going to take the chance that Kurt Busch could, and he certainly could have, won the Daytona 500 only to be charged with a crime later on.

Ms. Driscoll has exacted her pound of flesh, for now, NASCAR has saved face in the American public’s eyes and there is now a safer barrier where there should have been one all along.

The Daytona 500 went off without a hitch and perhaps NASCAR has listened to the suggestions of others erudite in technical matters regarding qualifying on large tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

Oh, and Joy Logano won his first Daytona 500 with authority.

Who Will Win The Daytona 500? NASCAR

It would be foolish to rule our Brad Keselowski taking a Daytona 500 win.

It would be foolish to rule our Brad Keselowski taking a Daytona 500 win.

Every year the journalist, pundits and fans, with not enough to do, come up with their predictions of who will win the Daytona 500. Frankly it’s a hollow exercise.

The Daytona 500 is one of two-restrictor plate racing tracks on NASCAR’s schedule; the other is Talladega, the famed Alabama track.

Despite the rule changes for 2015, Daytona and Talladega wont be subject to them, apart from bending the fender skirts out to achieve any aerodynamic advantage. It’s disallowed and the outlawed practice will be monitored by a new sophisticated video monitoring system

This means the same show we’ve seen since NASCAR restricted the engines. Pack racing.

So what are we to make of the predictions we’ve seen from NASCAR’s ranking system? Not much other than we know the top teams will have the best equipment and will have the greatest chance of victory.

If you look at NASCAR’s ranking system of the top ten driver ratings at Daytona it does have a reasonable algorithmic feel. About ten steps above Facebook’s timeline news feed.

Fear is a great motivator. Kurt Busch could be on the edge of disaster with his legal woes.

Fear is a great motivator. Kurt Busch could be on the edge of disaster with his legal woes.

It’s still worthy of consideration but leaves out a few drivers that have shown, so far, that they have more than just a chance. NASCAR’s rankings are legitimate, but don’t take the element of luck into consideration. You cannot leave out the looming ‘Big One’, or two

Kurt Busch is in NASCAR’s top ten, but let’s face it, he has to go for it harder than a gazelle with a Somalian Cheetah chasing him.

He may have restrictive order against him, but that won’t get him fired. If the District Attorney in Maryland files criminal charges against him, Stewart–Haas Racing has a contingency plan. It’s called “You’re Fired”! Fear is a great motivator.

Carl Edwards showed himself to be a hard charger in the Unlimited but he’s still getting used to working with his team. It won’t take him 500 miles to figure that out. He has more than a shot at the 500.

Marin Truex, Jr also showed his skills in the Unlimited with both speed and race craft. Don’t rule him out, rule him in as a distinct possibility.

Kyle Larson isn’t on the list but has every bit a chance to win as Danica Patrick, probably more so but she too could pick up her first win at the famed oval.

Brad Keselowski doesn’t appear on the list. Perhaps his aggressive nature is to blame, but frankly, if you’re going to race at the top level, then I frankly don’t want to see a Tupperware party but a driver who will go for any spot that he can. Keselowski has every skill to win this race.

Tomorrows (Thursday) Duals will tell more about what we may see in the 500 based on the way the Duals are lined up this year.

3 drivers in the first Dual and 3 drivers in the second Dual have to race their way in. Out of all 6 drivers Ryan Blaney, in my opinion, has the best chance of racing his way in. Virtually all of the other drivers have got a great chance of making the show. 13 of them are locked in by way of points, provisional or front row locks, etc.

It’s the drivers who are desperate, are having problems during the race and have to defend or those that simply feel that starting near the front is going to be of some great advantage over those who pose the biggest risk of knocking out potential contenders in a catastrophic crash.

It’s a 500 mile race that if you make the show, you have a shot. Luck truly plays a huge role in this race and having steady information delivered during the Duals as to where everyone is has paramount importance to several of the drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Jr is among them having been disqualified from the group qualifying.

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race of the year and 2015 is no different. It needs to show who really has done their homework with a race set-up that will evolve throughout the event.

A lot of press has been given to the ‘Knockout Group Qualifying’, much more than in years past so the big question is: Whose going to win the Daytona 500?

NASCAR, that’s who.

 

Daytona 500 Qualifying: Needs Tweaking, Not Twerking

Jeff Gordon sits on the pole for the 2015 Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon sits on the pole for the 2015 Daytona 500.

I’ve never been one to have a great sense of tradition when it comes to auto racing. However this past weekend’s NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying procedure may be swaying me towards a more “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Maybe.

Restrictor plate races do not need to employ ‘knock out style group qualifying’ as a means for ginning up the fan base leading up to NASCAR’s biggest auto race.

After forcing myself to watch an excruciating display of confusion, attempts by the teams to game the new system and pointless equipment destruction I’m left with a sense of the airline pilots who, when faced with a simple problem, continue to push buttons, compounding the problem until the plane crashes.

One has to ask why more ‘excitement’ was needed when the old system of qualifying for the front row followed by the Duels needed tweaking? What I saw was more akin to twerking.

The answer is it’s qualifying for the Daytona 500. The biggest NASCAR race of the year.

It was by far and away more interesting to me to see who had the fastest lap without any benefit of drafting and then know that the teams have to give their best efforts at setting the cars up for the Duals. What we have now is far less intriguing.

Smoke speaks.

Smoke speaks.

According to Tony Stewart: “Today use to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it a complete embarrassment for our series. That’s not a show, it’s a joke and you know it.”

Obviously, the drivers dislike it to the degree of showing no fear of reprisal from NASCAR.

Even NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president, said:

“I think what (NASCAR Chairman) Brian (France) has said is that you can take us on,” O’Donnell said. “We’re NASCAR, that’s part of our job. When I look at the comments that Clint made or Tony made, those are based on wanting to see the best racing out there. Certainly tough to hear but those are things we have got to have conversations with them and work with those guys to figure out if there is a better way to do it. We will do that. It’s not something we are going to fine the drivers for.’’

There is, however, another side to the story.

It takes approximately three hours to run a qualifying session at Daytona with 48-50 cars. The downside of this is that track conditions change, wind changes direction, barometric pressure rises or falls and a myriad of additional variables.

It’s a matter of luck. What isn’t luck is that it was boring and the broadcast airtime for past qualifying was a media bust. No one watched and the stands were empty. Hence the reasoning behind running group sessions, to shorten the amount of time it takes to qualify a full field on a track the size of Daytona.

Unfortunately, with the new group sessions, there are too many cars on-track at once vying for position causing the mayhem we saw this past weekend.

Our technical expert, Bill Marlowe, has a suggestion for NASCAR. Bill should know as he’s sat on the roof spotting and keeping track of the competitors for many years as well as engineered for Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Bill Elliott and Kurt Busch.

Here’s his suggested format:

(1) Have all 48-50 cars line up diagonally on pit road.

(2) Each qualifying group would consist of no more than 8-10 cars

(3) In a blind draw, the first 10 cars are selected 5, maybe 8 minutes before they run. This ultimately gives a total of about 5-6 groups.

(4) In a second tandem blind draw, each car selected is given it’s starting position from pit road.

(5) The 1st ten cars have 5 minutes to line up on pit road.

(6) When the signal is given to go, group 1 has 5 minutes to accelerate, get up to speed and set a time.

(7) While the 1st group is out the blind draw process repeats itself.

(8) While the 1st group is on its cool down lap and coming to pit lane the 2nd group is already being released.

This format would take approximately one hour allowing for any engine failures, crashes or debris on track stoppages.

No one knows what spot or group they’re in until the last group and even then, none of the groups will have enough time to make deals or pick partners with another, the permutations would be too great.

The window of weather, temperature and wind speed/direction would be minimized.

The amount of pack racing is minimized based on starting the clock from pit road and no more than ten cars are running at once.

In summary, if these are the very best drivers in NASCAR, 10 cars on track at once should minimize the crashes and the nervous behavior of running in a pack for any extended length of time.

When it’s all said and done, you have the front row locked out and you can then move to the Duals later that next Thursday.

The excitement is there, the track and air time isn’t wasted and the chances of destroying equipment en masse is reduced.

You can save that carnage for the Duals, which is a normal occurrence.

Finally, the teams won’t have time to game the system.

 

 

For Jimmie Johnson, Daytona Starts Quest For 7th Title

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson starts his quest for a seventh title in the Daytona 500, which he won last year.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Let’s talk about Jimmie Johnson.

I can assure you many, many people have during the approach of the Daytona 500, the season’s opening NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Johnson is the defending Daytona 500 champion. He is a two-time winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race and, in fact, swept both Daytona races in 2013.

Last season he won his sixth championship. That’s one less than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who share the NASCAR record for most career titles.

Among the storylines created at Daytona – those of Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart – one of the most prominent has been the start of Johnson’s quest to win a seventh championship.

He and all other competitors will face a new challenge in the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format. Among other things, 16 drivers will be part of the “playoff” and there will be an elimination system over the final 10 races.

The Chase has been modified at least three times. Johnson has won a title in each.

If he wins this year he will have, in a sense, beaten everything NASCAR has thrown at him.

He comes into the Daytona 500 as a favorite to do just that. Virtually every team will tell you that if they want to win a championship, they are going to have to beat Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports organization.

One driver said, “If any of us want to be champion we are going to have to figure out how to beat that animal.”

Johnson’s Chevrolet erupts in flames after it ran out of gas and was clipped by Jamie McMurray, which started an eight-car melee.

Johnson is well aware of his status. But he’s not overly concerned about it – and he hasn’t paid much attention to it.

“Since the Awards Banquet, I haven’t given the championship a lot of thought,” Johnson said. “At the banquet, and some of the stories that were around it and the questions that were asked, my mind was much more present with it.

“But I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all.

“So, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. It would be awfully cool to get it done. But it’s been out of my mind for a couple of months. So I don’t have anything too relevant to discuss.”

Johnson’s week at Daytona hasn’t been a particularly good one – in fact, it’s been miserable.

He crashed on the last lap of his Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20. He finished 16th and will utilize a backup Chevrolet and move to the rear of the field in the 500.

Johnson ran out of fuel and was clipped by Jamie McMurray’s Chevy. Eight cars became involved, including Clint Bowyer’s Toyota, which did a 360-degree turn in the air before landing on all four tires.

“I feel terrible and apologize to everyone,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out of fuel because my guys warned me about it – and it did.”

 

Johnson also crashed in the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited after just 28 laps. No one else was involved. He finished 17th in the 18-car field.

“I was trying to experiment in the Unlimited when I spun out,” Johnson said. “I was truthfully trying to pass Denny Hamlin off of Turn 4 to see what would happen from the exit of 4 to the stripe and how things would play out.

“But I didn’t make it very far and ended up wrecked. Looking at how small the field was toward the end of the race and the fact there was some passing, it is really leading toward a revolving door.”

As do other drivers, Johnson feels the Daytona 500 will be a good race with plenty of side-by-side competition. But there will be challenges, given the alterations to the Gen 6 car, among other things.

“I think Chad (Knaus, crew chief) pointed out to me that all of this kind of goes back into the sweet spot of drafting that I’m good at,” Johnson said. “It certainly showed that last year with the two wins at four of the plate tracks and a threat to win all four of them.

“It’s more of my style than necessarily the rules package.  The rules haven’t been changed that much coming back this year.  I think the goal was to create more passes for the lead and I’m feeling good about that.  I think that is going to happen.

“It will be interesting to see what drivers do. Right away in the Unlimited, when the lead car had control of the race, he went to the top and got us all single file. If you went to the low side and didn’t get help, you would drop far back into the pack.

“I’m not sure you’re going to want the lead until you come off of Turn 4. Somebody’s going to have a run, the second car back or third car back, and come up through there.

“So, I think there’s a chance for a lot of passing come Sunday.”

While it’s certain Johnson has, and will, get more than his share of attention, it does appear the native Californian isn’t a dominant figure in the garage area – certainly not like Petty and Earnhardt. And he’s not the fans’ favorite. You know who that is.

Johnson doesn’t mind.

“I think a lot of people are tired of hearing my name,” he said. “It’s not bad to have the attention go somewhere else.

“I hope to be back in everyone’s mindset come Sunday evening because I’m the winner of the Daytona 500.”

And thus the quest for victory, and championship No. 7, begins today.

It’s Likely, Very Likey, Much Scrutiny Will Befall Stewart, Dillon

Austin Dillon, the 2013 Nationwide Series champ, will enter his Sprint Cup rookie season driving a No. 3 Chevrolet for RCR.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In my opinion, the two drivers who are going to bear the most scrutiny – by far – this season are, first, a past champion who is returning from a major injury and, second, a young rookie who will compete with NASCAR’s most iconic number that is readily identified with its most iconic driver.

Tony Stewart shattered his right leg seven months ago in an accident in a Sprint Car race. The two-time champion missed 15 races as doctors rebuilt his leg and he fought a bout with infection. He underwent rigid rehabilitation.

“The good thing is with all of that our therapy has been going really well and in the last few weeks we’ve made huge gains,” said Stewart, whose four-car team includes drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. “I don’t know how we could be more prepared, honestly, than what we are right now.

“The perfect scenario, everything would be healed 100% and we wouldn’t be talking about it.  The bone is still about 65% healed right now.

“But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be.”

Stewart admitted some internal changes were made to his Chevrolet to make it more comfortable for him. Fact is, inside the car is where he is most at ease.

“I’m actually more comfortable sitting in a car than I am laying in bed at the end of the day,” Stewart said. “Sitting in the race car the last couple weeks, getting everything done, it feels even more comfortable than the street car.”

Stewart’s first laps in his car came during Sprint Unlimited practice on Feb. 14. He said he felt a sense of joy and relief to be back on the track.

“I think once we got the relief of knowing we weren’t hurting any more it was just the joy of being out there again,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I had been gone for seven months.”

Stewart posted the fourth-fastest 10 consecutive lap average speed of 194.212 mph.

Tony Stewart spent months rehabilitating his broken leg. It is not fully healed, but he will drive again in 2014.

Stewart knows he’s going to be under the microscope. People will be curious to see how he races with an injury that is not quite healed They will wonder that, if at some point, his performance – or lack of it – will cause self-doubt.

“No, there are no gremlins, honestly no,” he said. “The reason for that is right off the bat the surgeon, the therapists, they’ve all said, ‘You’re going to have 100 percent recovery.’  With that, from day one, it took that doubt out.

“Instead of having the doubt, it’s a matter of when is it going to be 100 percent, how long is the pain going to stay, am I always going to have pain, questions like that.

“There is no doubt about being able to do what we love to do.”

Austin Dillon is 23-year old rookie who won the Nationwide Series championship last season.

He comes from excellent racing stock. His grandfather is team owner Richard Childress, for whom Dillon has raced for several years.

He will race for Childress on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2014. And he will do so in a No. 3 Chevrolet.

It will mark the first time the No. 3 has been a part of Sprint Cup racing since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. It was Earnhardt who drove the No. 3 to glory for so many years.

That the number has returned does not sit well with many fans. They steadfastly believe the No. 3 is Earnhardt’s alone – and should never be raced again.

But that it is back is, partly, the result of careful planning between Childress and Dillon.

“I think both of us for years now, running the No. 3 in the last four years (in multiple NASCAR circuits), it kind of prepared us for any kind of question or opportunity that arises,” Dillon said. “The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just, you know, taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way.

“We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”

Dillon is nobody’s fool. He knows that to continue the legacy of the No. 3 he has to perform well. It’s that simple. And there are those who want to see him fail simply because of his car number.

“I think Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today.

“But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but also because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.

“As for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on.”

Make no mistake Dillon will feel some pressure as he undergoes scrutiny. People will want to see if he can indeed continue the legacy of the No. 3.

It’s simply the way it is.

—- Dillon made a very auspicious and popular Sprint Cup debut when he won the pole in the No. 3 Chevrolet on Feb. 16. It offered some evidence, however slim, that Dillon may indeed be able to continue the legacy of the number used by Earnhardt.

—- Stewart, meanwhile, did not experience similar fate. He was involved in an eight-car crash in the Sprint Unlimited and finished 11thamong 18 starters. Stewart wrecked hard and there was concern he may have re-injured his leg. “No, there’s no pain,” Stewart said. “We’ll see in about an hour after the adrenalin wears off but so far, it feels good.”

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With Elliott On Board Came The Greatest Showdown In NASCAR History

In 1992, Bill Elliott drove for Junior Johnson and put together a solid performance that made him a championship contender virtually all season long.

When Junior Johnson hired Bill Elliott as one of his drivers in 1992 he felt very confident he had found the man who could bring him another championship.

Sure enough, Elliott was the hottest driver early in the season. He won four consecutive races – all in March of that year.

But that effort did not bring him and Junior Johnson & Associates the points lead. That belonged to Davey Allison, the Robert Yates Racing driver who won the Daytona 500 and finished among the top five in the next five events.

Johnson knew consistency was the key. That was what NASCAR’s point system rewarded.

Despite his hot start to the season, Elliott was not always consistent.

But it evolved that toward the end of the season, he had clawed his way into first place in the standings, ahead of Allison and a fading Alan Kulwicki – who was having his best career season.

It reached the point that with two races to go, all Elliott had to do was keep it all together and race for points.

It seemed a simple enough task.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

 

Again, I’ll mention that in 1992, Bill won four races in a row during March and despite that, he still was not the points leader.

Davey Allison, who had a 98-point lead over Bill after Bill was involved in a wreck at Daytona, put together five top-five finishes in five races.

As a result, even after the victories, Bill could take away only 50 points from Davey’s lead.

The only reason I bring this up again is to emphasize the criticism the NASCAR point system received at that time.

The system rewarded consistency more than anything else. OK, fine, but shouldn’t victories count for more?

In 1984 Darrell Waltrip – driving for me – won seven races yet finished fifth in the point standings behind first-place Terry Labonte, who won just twice.

And in 1985, Darrell won three times and won the championship. Bill won 11 races and was an also-ran.

Davey Allison won the Daytona 500 in ’92 to put him atop the point standings. He remained among the leaders all season and was the favorite to win the title.

Darrell was delighted that he won the title, of course – it would be his last – but even he couldn’t understand how he did it.

“There’s not enough incentive to win,” Darrell said. “Bill should have been the Winston Cup champion in 1985.”

I knew that, the system being what it was, Junior Johnson & Associates could not afford a series of mediocre to bad finishes if it was to win the championship with Bill.

Heck, that was obvious after the early part of the ’92 season. Bill finished 27th at Daytona – where Davey won – and even after four straight wins, Bill still couldn’t overtake Davey in points.

It was obvious that Bill and my team could not make mistakes. Mistakes ruin consistency – and it was obvious consistency would win the title.

And if we could not be consistent, we had to hope that the teams we were fighting for the title were less consistent than we were.

I’ll give you a perfect example of that. In only the sixth race of the year, at Bristol, Bill had all kinds of problems.

He spun on the 31st lap after an incident with Ted Musgrave. He spent a lot of time in the pits while the guys made repairs and finished 20th.

But get this: Davey took a hard shot into the wall and broke an oil fitting. His car was ruined and he retired from the race in 29th place.

As a result, as rough a day as Bill had, he GAINED points. He was 48 behind Davey going into the race and just 29 behind, and in second place, afterward.

The championship strategy was obvious: Be consistent. If you can’t, be better than the other guy. Wins are great, but they don’t guarantee anything.

Junior Johnson & Associates was not the model of consistency. At the 10th race of the year, Charlotte, Bill had all kinds of problems and wound up in 14th place, four laps off the pace. He fell to 111 points behind Davey.

Things got a bit better at the next race, at Sonoma, where Bill finished fifth, well ahead of Davey, who was 28th.

That race was held on June 7, 1992 and that morning we got the word that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had passed away at his Ormond Beach, Fla., home.

My thoughts were not unlike virtually everyone else’s: Without him, we wouldn’t be here. It was that simple.

The season went reasonably well for Bill afterward. Maybe that is an understatement. By the 23rd race of the year, at Dover, Bill finished second to Ricky Rudd. Bill had already moved to first in points and after Dover he built up a 154-point lead over Davey.

No, Bill hadn’t won a race in a long time but his regained consistency was, obviously, proving very beneficial.

I felt very confident we were in line to win the title.

My confidence was re-enforced when Alan Kulwicki, who was having a great season, wrecked at Dover and fell well behind Bill and Davey in points – more than 200 points.

“I guess this finishes it for us,” Alan said.

Although he didn’t know it at the time – and I didn’t either – he was wrong.

Bill was in great shape after Rockingham, the 27th race of the year. He finished fifth – his first top-five in a month – and his point lead was 70 over Davey, who finished 10th, and 80 over Alan, who finished 12th.

There were two races to go. We were in comfortable shape.

I mean, if we could run like we did at Rockingham over the last two races, we would be in excellent shape.

We didn’t have to race hard. All we had to do was gain points.

I didn’t know it at the time but that was going to be difficult to do.

And I also didn’t know this: The season would end with perhaps the greatest championship showdown in NASCAR’s history.

Daytona 500 Delay Not Good, But Once It Might Have Been Far Worse

Daytona avoided bad weather for so many years that some joked its founder, Bill France Sr., had a direct line to a "higher power," through which he made requests for good weather on the day of the Daytona 500.

As you now know, what has transpired at Daytona International Speedway has never before taken place.

The track held its inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, 53 years ago. As incredible as it may sound, for all that time the race was never rained out until, of course, this year.

Oh, the rains came. More than one 500 was cut short because of bad weather. But none was called off completely and rescheduled for another day.

Until, course, this year.

The race’s ability – fortune, really – to avoid bad weather year after year was ultimately a matter of luck. No one can control the elements. Mother Nature pretty much does what she wants and we just have to go along with it.

For reasons of her own she decided to leave Daytona pretty much alone season after season.

Until, of course, this year.

There we a lot of media wags who felt it was a mere mortal who assured reasonably good weather for Daytona for years and not some type of mythical spirit.

It was believed, cynically of course, that “Big Bill” France, the man who founded NASCAR and built the mammoth 2.5-mile Daytona track, had a direct line to, shall we say, “The Man Upstairs.”

That had to be what it was. Otherwise, how could France’s showplace track avoid the weather scourges that sometimes plagued every other speedway?

There were times when skies were black and distant thunder rumbled as us media types headed to the speedway during the early morning hours.

It was so ominous that we just knew the skies would open up and there would be such a tumultuous rainfall there was no way the 500 was going to start – much less finish.

But as the cars lined up on the grid awaiting the command to start engines, darkness would dissipate and not a single drop of rain fell for 500 miles.

Or if it did, it stopped and the racing surface was dried soon enough for the entire distance to be completed.

Or it began to rain only after the event had passed its halfway point and was thus official, no matter what happened afterward.

Bottom line – Daytona avoided a complete postponement year after year after year.

We just knew why. France had gotten on his direct line to Heaven and made a request that was honored. A force stronger than Mother Nature told her to lay off. Ol’ France had real power on his side.

Seems that power had been passed on to his son Bill Jr. and other high-ranking NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. executives.

Until, of course, this year.

I’ll grant you that Daytona, in fact all NASCAR competitors, fans and media, have been very fortunate indeed that the 500 avoided postponement for so many years.

There was a time that if the race had been called off a particularly awkward and expensive scenario would be created.

For many, many years, NASCAR did not have a “next clear day” rule for postponements. A race that could not begin, or officially end, was not rescheduled for the next day.

For example, a Sunday race was not automatically slotted to run the following Monday.

Instead, the race was rescheduled for the next “open” weekend. And if that did not come seven days later, it would have to be the following two, three or four weeks afterward

The weekend had to be an open one. A track’s race date was not moved aside to make way for one lost by another.

The main reason it was this way was to satisfy the concerns of most race promoters.

At that time few of them felt a race on Monday would succeed and, as a result, they would lose money.

They argued that fans had to work and would not come back a day later – they simply couldn’t. At the least that meant a loss of concession income.

The promoters said they had a better chance at a profit if they could take some time to market the race again and rely on a weekend’s worth of new activity to lure back the fans and their money.

So NASCAR enacted the “next open weekend” policy.

However, it could play havoc the schedule, as tracks whose race dates were in late winter or early spring were highly susceptible to bad weather.

After Daytona, races at Rockingham and Richmond followed in quick succession, although sometimes not in that order.

Tropical breezes don’t blow in Rockingham or Richmond in late February or early March.

North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham was a handsome facility. But it was often plagued by rain, which forced several postponements and some awkward rescheduling. Hope this helps.

Many times their race weekends were plagued with rain – or even snow. It happened so often at Rockingham, located in the Sandhills area of Southern North Carolina, that it became known as “Rainingham.”

When it happened, a Rockingham race was obviously reset for the next open weekend. Trouble was, it was very seldom seven days later.

Often it was two or three weeks before one of the track’s postponed races could take place.

And there was always this thought: What if Daytona, Rockingham and Richmond were postponed it successive weeks? It was a possibility after all and, as a result, the open-weekend policy would create an unimaginable mess.

Uh, run a rescheduled Daytona 500 in May or June?

Fortunately that never happened.

Eventually common sense took over.

First, teams decried the open weekend policy, saying it cost them a heullva lot more money to pack up and leave a track rather than just stay overnight.

To resupply, re-pay for weekend’s worth of rooms and meals and to absorb all the travel costs therein – again – was simply flushing the budget for what was essentially going to another race.

To compete on the full schedule was expensive enough without having to pay for what amounted to one, not to mention maybe two or three, more events.

Fans also expressed the opinion that it cost them less to stay one extra day, if they could, than to repack, rebook and refuel for another weekend.

NASCAR agreed. It was logical and practical.

This isn’t to say the next clear day rule is the perfect answer. Racing on a Monday most decidedly has many inconveniences.

And, as we know, if that Monday proves unacceptable, the race moves to a Tuesday. If that does not work out things get pretty darn dicey.

Well, we now know that won’t be a possibility at this point of the season because the 500 was run, thankfully, last night.

Maybe, just maybe, it was a bit late before Mother Nature got the message to lay off.

But, finally, she did.

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