Is NASCAR in Viewership Free Fall Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s gone and that’s too bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

Earnhardt Jr. At His Very Best In Thrilling Daytona Victory

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 for the second time. It was his first victory since 2012 and the win puts him firmly in the “new” Chase.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – I think we all knew this was coming. So many wanted it to come sooner than later. But honestly, we didn’t know when – or how.

But it finally happened. And it did so in such a raucous, thrilling way in prime time on NASCAR’s biggest stage and in its most prestigious event.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver who carries a legacy that has both buoyed him and burdened him like a horse collar, won the Daytona 500 to end a losing streak that began after his victory at Michigan in the summer of 2012.

His victory brought rousing cheers from the fans. It was celebrated by the “Junior Nation.’ He was offered congratulations from his Hendrick Motorsports teammates and rivals alike.

He gave a virtuoso performance. In fact, it was the best race he’s ever run. He managed to avoid several smoking multicar accidents that literally destroyed many cars and eliminated an army of competitors.

The race was delayed for over six hours because of rain (the longest such delay in Daytona history). He actually dominated in a wild, three-car scrap in every turn. He was perfect in sometimes-treacherous restarts.

He lead six times for 54 laps, including the final 18, during which his rearview mirror was filled with the likes of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag as a caution flag flew on the last lap. He finished ahead of Denny Hamlin (11), Jeff Gordon (24), Brad Keselowski (2) and Jimmie Johnson (48).

He won under caution – created on the last lap by yet another melee, this one involving Reed Sorenson, Carl Edwards, A.J. Allmendinger, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick – which happened behind him.

Makes no difference. He would have won easily. He was not to be denied. No, not this time.

“When you’re close enough to the front to win races, there’s a lot on the line, it’s a big race, and you want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Especially inside of 20 laps to go, you’re in the top five, you realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching.

“There’s so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it’s a heavy weight.

“When you finish second or you fall short, it’s really disappointing.  You’re disappointed because winning’s all that matters when it comes to Daytona.  They won’t really remember you for running second a lot.”

The Daytona 500 win was a defining moment in Earnhardt Jr.’s career because it refuted the notion that he couldn’t win, even with the powerhouse Hendrick organization, which he joined in 2008 with the belief he “could win races and championships.”

He hit bottom in 2009 when he finished 29th in points. But he was never again that low. Last season showed more promise than ever. He finished fifth in points, his best with Hendrick.

That prompted the belief that he was on the verge of victory.

And, after his struggles, Earnhardt Jr. knew it.

“It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver,” he said. “It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver.

“When people say you’re the face of the sport, you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.

“This brings me a lot of joy.  I look forward to going and doing all the media all week long and representing the sport.

“I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did tonight.

“Monday is going to be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation.”

Earnhardt, at last, has the right team around him – members of which he thanked profusely after the race.

Key among them is crew chief Steve Letarte who has help guide Earnhardt Jr.’s improvement and has helped create the unity between them.

“He’s been giving 100 percent for a long time,” Letarte said. “He’s now getting better. He’s doing a better job. I’m doing a better job. Everyone has. It has added up to a stack.

“Coming here today, we decided if someone was going to win it, they were going to have to pass us.  We wanted to be the leader at the end.

“That strategy worked.  It only worked because Dale held it.”“It’s such a great feeling,” said Earnhardt Jr., who must feel if a boulder has been lifted from his shoulders. “It’s such a great feeling.  You want to do it again.  I’m grateful to have done it twice now in the Daytona 500.

“I was grateful to have won it once (in 2004).  In about six months, I’ll be as urgent to try to do it a third time as I was after the first.

“Just when you think things are as good as they can get, they get better.”

 

 

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.

The Weather Is Hot, So Watch For Tony Stewart To Heat Up

On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Tony Stewart (14) got a huge push from Kasey Kahne to move past leaders Matt Kenseth (17) and leader Greg Biffle (16). The victory was Stewart's third of the year.

Judging from his thrilling, last-lap victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it looks like Tony Stewart is back on his game.

Now that I’ve said that, I wonder if he was ever really “off” his game.

Maybe he was a bit or maybe he just appeared to be.

Stewart has earned a reputation as a Sprint Cup driver who heats up when the weather does.

It seems for most his career Stewart has gathered most of his victories during the second half of a season.

Remember 2011? By the time the 26th race of the season at Richmond rolled around, Stewart was winless and barely holding on to a spot among the top 10 in points.

He wasn’t happy. He groused that, “This team doesn’t deserve to be in the Chase.”

But in the 10-race Chase, which began after Richmond, Stewart ripped off five victories to win the championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

From September through November, Stewart won half of the scheduled 10 races. Talk about a late bloomer. His reputation for winning during the second half of a season was enhanced.

This year things began quite differently for Stewart.

He won two of the first five races of the season, at Las Vegas and Fontana, and rose to as high as third place in the standings.

He didn’t wait around until the weather warmed up to start winning. For him, it was the “Merry Month of March,” not May.

But afterward, Stewart’s hot start cooled down. He finished outside the top 20 five times in 10 races following his Fontana victory.

He experienced a rash of engine problems relating to the new electronic fuel injection system. It seemed he suffered more EFI woes than any other driver.

But he also had five finishes among the top five following his win at Fontana. Most important, he managed to remain among the top 10 in the standings, holding on to No. 9 as the season rolled into Daytona.

Stewart started off with a bang as he won two of the first five races of the year. One of them was at Las Vegas. Stewart routinely starts winning in the second half of a season - as he did in Daytona.

After five months perhaps many of us thought Stewart had peaked early.

But it’s hot in July in Daytona – and when it’s hot it is time to pay close attention to Stewart.

His Daytona win was his third of the season, which ties him with Brad Keselowski for the most this year. Stewart is all but assured a place in the Chase lineup.

“I think every time we come here, the field is more competitive,” Stewart said at Daytona. “And it’s proven by how many guys have a shot to win the race.

“Guys that you won’t see up front next week were guys that you saw at some point that were in the top 10 tonight.”

Like Stewart, perhaps.

“It shows how good a job everybody does at the restrictor plate tracks,” Stewart added. “And it is proof that everybody has a shot to win these things and to run in the top five when they get here.

“It’s just a matter of getting that luck on your side and being at the right place at the right time and having that opportunity.”

Stewart knows what he’s talking about. On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400, Stewart was on the high side of leader Matt Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle.

The Roush Fenway guys had proven to be a formidable combination throughout the race. Kenseth, in fact, led 89 laps, more than any other driver. Biffle led 35.

Stewart got a tremendous shove from Kasey Kahne on the final circuit and that allowed Stewart to eke out the victory.

He had luck on his side, was at the right place at the right time and had an opportunity – as he told us.

“I knew I had a good car behind me with Kasey Kahne, obviously,” Stewart said. “Knowing that those two guys were going to be teamed up with each other on the bottom, I was surprised we got as good a restart as we did.

“Kasey did a great job of getting hooked on the bumper right away, and it seemed like we actually held our own and actually we were better on the outside than those two cars were.”

Stewart said that he and crew chief Steve Addington have had to make adjustments this season due to racing circumstances – engine problems, for example – but now all that’s left is take it as it comes.

“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department,” Stewart said. “I’m really pleased with the first half the season.  Yes, there were some races that we lost some opportunities on, but I think there were races that we capitalized on that we haven’t been able to in the past.

“I think on the average, we’re really looking good right now. Again, I’m proud of the effort with everybody. On the average, I feel like we’re making gains.

If Stewart thinks his team is making gains, perhaps all should take heed.

After all the weather is still hot. And it’s going to remain that way for quite some time.

 

Victory In Exciting Daytona Nationwide Race Is Redemption For Kurt Busch

The Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway was exciting and had its share of wrecks due to pack racing. Kurt Bush (No. 1) escaped this one and others to win the race.

(Editor’s Note: Mark DeCotis is a veteran journalist who spent 37 years in the newspaper business before beginning a second career combining leisure and earning a living.

He covered 26 Daytona 500s, numerous Pepsi/Coke Zero 400s, Busch/Nationwide, Trucks, more than a few Rolex 24s at Daytona, season finales at Homestead, Kevin Harvick’s emotional first win at Atlanta, IndyCar, sports car, NHRA, motorcycle, ATV and power boat racing.

His favorite race car driver interviews of all time were with 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force).

 

DAYTONA BEACH. Fla. – After more than half the field wrecked in six separate incidents in Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, Kurt Busch played the role of survivor and won the Subway Jalapeno 250 in overtime.

He managed to get through two big wrecks including the startling one in which pre-race favorite Danica Patrick walloped the inside retaining wall off Turn 2 with such ferocity that it drove the steering column in her JR Motorsports Chevy nearly to the roof.

The lap 83 wreck was unnervingly similar to the one Patrick was involved in coming off Turn 2 during practice for February’s Daytona 500. Fortunately for her, her team and the sport she walked away.

When the smoke and sparks finally dissipated Busch found himself in victory lane in a car damaged in one of the earlier wrecks. His smoky burnout capped a wild and entertaining evening which at times saw the field running four-wide on Daytona’s narrow racing surface and, not surprisingly, ended in a wreck involving Austin Dillon and others as the field came to the checkered flag.

At least 25 of the 43 cars were damaged in wrecks and24 of the 101 laps were run under caution. But the race did set a track record for lead changes with 42 involving 16 drivers.

Danica Patrick qualified and ran well in the race and might have had an excellent shot at victory had not she been involved in one of the race's multi-car crashes.

Unfortunately the attendance was sparse by Daytona standards. And those who stayed home missed a show that left Kurt Busch emotionally spent in victory lane – and his brother Kyle steaming in his wrecked car that he skidded to a stop just yards away while heading the wrong way on pit road following the finish.

If NASCAR was planning to penalize the sport’s premier pouter for the bonehead move was not immediately determined.

All that didn’t faze Kurt Busch.

“We just won at Daytona,” he exulted. “I’m hoarse because I’ve been screaming so loud. This is awesome.”

The victory marks a step toward redemption for the volatile Busch. He was suspended from his James Finch-owned ride in the Sprint Cup Series in June after a run-in with a reporter that followed his being put on probation after a run in with driver Ryan Newman and Newman’s team at Darlington.

He was retained after the Finch team voted to keep him in the driver’s seat and hopefully the victory was his first payment on the debt he owes.

“I’ve got only a couple of things to give and that’s heart and that’s passion,” Busch said.

Surely Finch will accept his driver’s effort and the first-place check that can only help his underfunded and understaffed operation.

While the riveting action up front kept the crowd on its feet, Dillon came from the back after his Richard Childress Racing Chevy failed post-qualifying inspection that negated his pole-winning run.

He eventually led and finished fourth sliding sideways across the finish line. It continued a wild two weeks that saw he and his team penalized for a failing post-race inspection following his first career victory at Kentucky.

“I never got really worried about getting to the front, I thought we had a car capable of getting there,” Dillon said.

As for the penalties: “We made another mistake that’s two in a row,” Dillon said. “My grandfather (Childress) is upset with the guys. It’s like ‘Man, we’ve got to stop doing that. We’ve got to be on our game.’ ”

Kurt Busch was surely on his game in winning for the fifth time in 23 career Nationwide starts and for the second time this season, the first for Finch. He won at Richmond in a Kyle Busch Motorsports car.

“It means more to me but it means more to these guys,” Busch said of his team. “I’m happy we were able to deliver. I couldn’t be more proud of this team effort tonight.

“We didn’t give up. It’s not vindication. You want to win for James Finch.”

As for his up and down career that has seen him lose Cup rides at Roush Racing and Penske Racing due to his mercurial nature, and whether the victory could put him on the right path, Busch maintained Friday night was not about him.

“When you win for James Finch in just a few starts in the Nationwide Series for these guys that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I don’t care about me right now.”

 

JUNIOR SAYS: At Charlotte, Darrell Won At Last And ‘Awesome Bill’ Wasn’t So Awesome

Darrell Waltrip finally broke through a losing streak in 1985 with Junior when, at Charlotte, he not only won The Winston, but also the Coca-Cola World 600.

Darrell Waltrip won the first running of The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1985, to get his first victory of any kind that season.

Until NASCAR’s version of an “all star” race, the only driver in the Junior Johnson & Associates stable to win a race was Neil Bonnett, who won twice in the year’s first 10 races at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.

 Junior felt – knew – it was time for Waltrip and his team to pick up the pace if they wanted to earn a third Winston Cup championship.

But even that might not get the job done. Young Bill Elliott was on a tear. He won five superspeedway races through the early portion of the season and stood in first place in the point standings.

He was also poised to win a $1 million bonus. If he could win the Coca-Cola World 600, the final and most important event of race week at Charlotte, the money was his.

For Junior the perfect scenario at Charlotte would be for Waltrip to win the race and, in so doing, take the measure of Elliott.

It wouldn’t be easy – if at all possible.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com

 will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

I don’t care how controversial the finish was – the engine in Darrell’s Chevrolet blew just after he crossed the finish line – winning the inaugural The Winston was a real tonic for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Darrell finally won a race in 1985 and while it wasn’t a points-paying event, it removed any doubts that he could get the job done and the team could prepare a winning car for him.

I reckon the only concern I had was if we could provide a car that would let Darrell win a 500-mile race instead of one that lasted just 105 miles.

It turns out we couldn’t – seems we gave him a car that won a 600-mile race.

When Waltrip swept Charlotte in his Budweiser Chevrolet, he not only provided momentum for Junior's team, he also stalled, briefly, Bill Elliott's dominance.

That race was the Coca-Cola World 600, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, the day after The Winston.

The atmosphere for that race was unlike any other I had experienced. It seems the media, fans – heck, everybody – had a very strong interest in the outcome.

That’s because Bill Elliott came to CMS with the chance to win The Winston Million, which was a program that awarded $1 million to any driver who could win three of four selected races.

Bill had already won five superspeedway races coming into Charlotte and among them were the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500.

If he won at Charlotte he’d pocket that $1 million before the season was half over.

So all eyes were on Bill. I felt some sympathy for the guy. He told everyone he dreaded coming to Charlotte and I could see why.

He didn’t get a minute’s peace. He was hounded by the media and his fans almost everywhere he went – pits, garage area, you name it. I don’t think he had much private time at all.

Now, while I felt a little bit sorry for him, I wasn’t all that sorry. After all, the guy was No. 1 in points. He was the driver we had to beat to win another championship and, through the first 10 races of the season, we hadn’t come close to doing it. No one else had either, for that matter.

I thought that all the distractions he endured at Charlotte might just take away from his race preparation. Of course, I wasn’t sure. But I was sure that if Darrell was in the same position, well, it wouldn’t be a good thing.

Danged if Bill didn’t win the pole. So much for distractions.

I had never seen as many fans attend a Charlotte race as I did when the 600 began. I don’t think there was an empty seat in the place and the infield was full. I was told later there were 155,000 or more in attendance.

Bill sure had strong drawing power, I’ll say that.

But those that came to see Bill win $1 million were disappointed, and in very short order.

He did lead the first 13 laps but he quickly fell off the pace – which was something no one had seen so far in 1985.

Bill had to drop out of the race with brake failure. And by the time his team made repairs and got him back on the track he was 21 laps down.

He wasn’t going to earn a million bucks that day.

Meanwhile, Darrell raced to the front and was quickly in contention for the victory.

Harry Gant – it seemed that guy was always up front – led laps 328-390 of the race’s 400 laps and then pitted for fuel. That gave Darrell the lead.

Then, after Darrell’s stop for gas, his wife Stevie, who was in our pits figuring gas mileage, got real concerned. She said she didn’t think Darrell had enough fuel to finish the race. He was going to be three or four laps short.

Here we go again, I thought. Once more we may lose a race we should win.

I decided to let Darrell remain on the track. If he was gonna run out of gas, durn it, it would be while going for the win.

I thought he could make it. Well, let’s say I hoped he could make it.

He did, barely. He beat Harry and then ran out of gas on the cool-down lap. That’s cutting it close.

The victory was a real relief for Darrell and me. It was our first points-paying victory of the season. It ended an early-season slump and gave us some real momentum for the remainder of the year.

By sweeping the weekend at Charlotte, we earned nearly $500,000. It ain’t a million bucks, but it’s big-time money. I didn’t mind that a bit.

Like I said, the 600 victory was a big boost for us.

But then, while he might not have been able to do much at Charlotte, I had the strong feeling we hadn’t seen the last of Bill Elliott.

 

Shootout Evidence: Big-Pack Racing May Mean Exciting Daytona 500

dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. likes the big-pack racing that has returned to Daytona. But he thinks that for it to have fewer incidents, drivers are going to have forget about blocking.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If the racing we’ve seen so far at Daytona International Speedway is any indication, this year’s Daytona 500 may be one of the best ever.

Sunday’s opening events, the ARCA race and the Budweiser Shootout, provided plenty of evidence that the 500 could again produce a close, exciting finish.

Both races saw wild, unpredictable conclusions. And the Shootout brought back the high-speed, big-pack racing fans demanded. Pack racing returned with a “bang” – get it?

Bobby Gerhart, who owns ARCA events at Daytona, emerged as the winner in that sanctioning body’s first race of the season.
The veteran started 42nd – due to a penalty after qualifying – and then played ideal fuel strategy to snatch the victory away from several cars ahead of him on the last lap.

Admittedly, Gerhart was helped when a few in front of him, including leader Brandon McReynolds, ran out of gas.
But his improbable victory thrilled the fans. Gerhart has now won the Daytona ARCA race eight times, including the last three in a row.
The Shootout brought back many memories – not all of them good.

Gone was the tandem drafting so prevalent at Daytona and Talladega and so reviled by many, drivers and fans alike.
Instead it was back to the old days of the tight packs, when cars raced two and three abreast, lap after lap.

But remember the “big one?” You know, that metal crunching, multicar wreck that often took out many of the top competitors?

Well, it’s back. We saw that in the Shootout – more than once.

But we also saw about 60 percent of the field decimated by wrecks and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon involved in the most frightening accident of his career.

Gordon’s Chevrolet slid and barrel rolled two and one-half times due, he said, to a lack of downforce and bump drafting. He was uninjured.
Kyle Busch displayed some remarkable skill as he twice saved his car from spinning out.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver then drove his smoking and sparking Toyota past Tony Stewart at the finish line to win by 0.013-second, the closest finish in Shootout history.

Yes sir, it was all good stuff on Sunday at Daytona.

And hopefully it will be the same in the Daytona 500.

However, there are some issues.

As thrilling as its finish was, the Shootout was still a thumping, bruising mess that tore up several cars and left one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers on his roof.
This is, again, what we have now after the tandem drafting of last season.

The two-car drafting on a roomier track isn’t what everyone – including drivers – wanted. They preferred the packs. They wanted the fields to be knotted up. They wanted the higher risk of mangling, multicar wrecks.

The Shootout had all of that but it also had the type of finish that has characterized NASCAR and made Daytona what it is.

So, to me, the ideal solution would be to have a race that features all that everyone wants and still allows most of the cars to finish.
Can that solution be found?

Frankly I don’t think there is much NASCAR can do and I am not sure it intends to do much of anything. Which, I think, is fine with the competitors. They have their preference.

“I like this racing better,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the victim of a crash. “I think we have really made a lot of improvements and I have more of my destiny in my hands in this type of racing.”

“This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff,” said Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion. “You are still going to see two-car stuff at the end of the race, I think.

“The good thing is it is a lot more fun running in the traditional pack than what we have had here in the past so I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun week.”

While it might be fun, it certainly can’t be fun when a driver is taken out of a race – and his car wrecked beyond repair – by being involved in a “big one.”
And that will happen in big-pack racing.

There doesn’t appear to be a solution.

But several competitors maintain there are ways the number of negative elements of big-pack racing can be reduced – and they fall on the drivers’ shoulders.
First they have to know, and appreciate, what they are getting into.

Kevin Harvick thinks drivers are going to have to bump draft only when proper and use a lot of patience in the race if mishaps are going to be avoided.

“I think the biggest problem is that in tandem racing, it has been so easy for these guys to stay attached and some of them haven’t raced in big-pack racing,” said Kevin Harvick, also involved in a wreck. “You get those big runs and things are going happen a lot faster than they used to.”
Second, they have to learn what not to do and exercise patience.

“There really is no place for blocking any more,” said Earnhardt Jr. “If a guy got a run on me I just point him to a lane so he knew where he could safely go. I would get him back if I could.”

“When the closing rate is that fast it’s hard to know where to put anybody. But I do know you can’t be blocking like hell.”

“All the wrecks in the race were caused by people hitting the left rear of the car,” said Harvick, referring to improper bump drafting. “You just can’t hit guys in the left rear. “It takes a little bit of patience and a little bit of thinking on the parts of everybody. You just have to be patient.”

Perhaps the Gatorade Duels on Thursday will be a bit saner given that drivers may have learned, or re-learned, about racing in big packs.
Perhaps.

And it could be that the Daytona 500 is as exciting as anticipated without any mayhem.
Yeah, it could be.

But consider that in big-pack racing all it takes is one mistake, one mental lapse or a lack of patience – which will be abundant with, say, five laps to go – to create a melee.

Which is likely to happen in the Daytona 500.

“It’s a heavy race,” said Earnhardt Jr. “It’s a pretty big deal to win and there are going to be a lot of guys excited about their prospects of winning it. Maybe being 500 miles, the guys might use a little better judgment.

“But I doubt it.”

A Realization: It Is Finally Time To Let Dale Earnhardt Go

 It’s time to move on now; time to make peace with the past, heal our gaping wounds and start living our lives again.

I was his biggest fan. Well, one of his biggest. When we lost him I walked away from the sport.
Over the years I wrote about him and that helped.

Whenever I saw a program about his life and career I would wind up weeping. I was compelled to watch and I watched it all. Movies, interviews, documentaries, specials were all watched, taped, saved and purchased.

Eventually, after a six-year, self-imposed break, I was pulled back into the sport. It was a tough transition and I found I had no one to root for that I felt passionately.

I still wrote; I wrote about NASCAR and about him.

I found that I could embrace the sport easily if I was merely a fan of NASCAR itself and not concern myself personally with individual drivers. This allowed for a lack of bias that strengthened my effectiveness as a writer.
Still, my heart was heavy and my willingness to let go staunch.

He was not so much my hero although I loved his heroism. It was the fact he was revered by so many. For moments in his life he seemed not only incredibly talented but also invincible. I saw him walk away from a horrendous crash in Talladega and put his car on the pole at Watkins Glen the very next weekend.

Invincible.

Except, he wasn’t.

When he died I was incredulous. How could he be taken?
The NASCAR Nation mourned collectively.

We took cues from point man Darrell Waltrip who showed we could cry whenever the mood struck. DW also showed us we could keep going; life didn’t stop for the rest of us.

NASCAR kept moving. The fans cheered for his son. I was despondent; nobody was him.
I took a hiatus that I thought might last forever. But, seeing my husband’s passion for the sport we had once shared continue without me, I realized I better make a move to regain that connection. All too often spouses grow apart; I didn’t want to be a statistic. I love my husband far too much.

Watching races wasn’t high on my list of priorities, but I listened to pre- and post-race programming. I learned the new cast of characters’ names, memorized car numbers in relation to drivers’ names, and tried to stay current with who was running well in the NCWTS and NNS, the future stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

I courted Tony Stewart in 2008, but broke up with him as my driver before the year was over. My boys became fans of Jeff Gordon who I always liked from the time he ascended to Cup, but he wasn’t my driver.

Over the years I realized that I am a “fan” of any driver at the top level – NCWTS, NNS, or Sprint Cup – who has the potential to win at any given race. I admire the level at which they perform and what it took to reach this pinnacle of their career.

Now I enjoy writing about all NASCAR topics, from the era in which I began watching (1990), to the distant past, to the present.
And I was finally able to let him go last year, the 10th anniversary of his death. I could finally lay him to rest.
Sure I still miss him, will watch specials about him, and smile wistfully when I see his black No.3 Goodwrench Chevy, but I’m ready to face a future without him.

It’s time.
It’s long past time.

So I close the chapter of Dale Earnhardt as I smile bravely into the horizon. NASCAR has become a huge fabric in my life. Earnhardt will always have a place in my heart, but now I need to move on entirely.

It’s time to let go of Dale.

http://chief187.com

Change Is Inevitable And More To Come Soon In 2012

One of NASCAR's goals this year, as it makes - again - competitive changes, is to find a way to eradicate the two-car drafts that have become the norm at Daytona and other superspeedways. If it does so, hopefully what results is a better product.

As it is with everything and everyone, change is inevitable. This is, obviously, true in NASCAR.

Since the end of the 2011 Cup season the stock car landscape has been altered considerably. You don’t have to be reminded about the teams that no longer exist, the sponsors that have jumped ship, the crew chiefs who have switched jobs and the drivers who have new rides for 2012 – or none at all.

Yes, change is inevitable. But when enforced by NASCAR, everyone does not always accept it. In fact, it’s safe to say that many competitors, fans and media members have taken serious issue with the sanctioning body’s decisions.

Expect more competitive changes in 2012 – perhaps as early as Daytona testing later this week and almost certainly before the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

Last season we saw a new phenomenon on the superspeedways. It was the two-car draft; created when teams discovered they could go faster when they hooked up one-on-one rather than run in the long, freight-train packs they once did.

The strategy was simple, really. All had a driver had to do was find the right “dance partner” and, under certain circumstances, they could pull away from the rest of the field, which could catch up only if it did the same thing.

Rival teams even chatted via radio offering strategy – like which “partner” should assume the lead because the other’s water temperature was rising.

Everyone did not accept this phenomenon, yet another change, competitors, fans and many media members included.

Now the teams that ran well amid this new style of racing didn’t hesitate to praise it. Fans of drivers who won or whose performances improved found it satisfactory.

Of course, drivers who didn’t do well, and their fans, were displeased with the situation. The media? Well, the media is always cynical, but their opinions varied.

Reckon NASCAR didn’t like what it saw, either. It’s been trying to get rid of the two-car draft ever since it came into existence.

In other words, it is attempting, again, to enforce change.

In 2011 it addressed this situation with changes to carburetor restrictor plate sizes and alterations to the cooling systems, among other things. Nothing worked.

That hasn’t deterred NASCAR. It has come up with more changes that are intended to break up the two-car draft. Among other things, smaller openings and radiators will affect engine cooling.

That’s just a small part of what teams will have to deal with in testing.

The coming season will be the first in which fuel injection will be required. Rear springs are going to be softened. The rear spoiler has been shortened. And, yet again, there will be changes to the restrictor plates.

These are dramatic alterations from this same time last season. They are going to put a burden on the teams during a three-day test. But it’s likely they will have it all figured out before the 500 – unless more changes are enacted, of course.

Will it all mean the successful end to the two-car draft and be replaced by something new at Daytona?

That remains to be seen, of course, but in one man’s opinion, it’s not likely.

If there comes a new style of racing on the superspeedways hopefully it will be one of which the majority approves.

I have been fortunate to see just about every style of racing on the superspeedways over the decades and, in my opinion, none was better than what I call “the original.”

There were no restrictor plates. Cars were, at first, aerodynamically inferior. The constant was the draft and teams utilized it masterfully, making passes and changing positions lap after lap.

The finish was usually exciting and routinely featured the “slingshot” pass the draft created, made by the second or third-place driver on the last lap. Almost always the leader was a goner.

But when speeds increased to well over 200 mph and cars could more readily be involved in frightening, airborne crashes – drivers (and insurance companies) were keenly aware and wary of this – NASCAR had to make changes.

Speeds had to be dramatically reduced. Thus the carburetor restrictor plates came into existence.

The cars were indeed slower, however, most races were boring. Drivers hooked up in the draft only to stay there, creating the long packs of side-by-side racing.

If he could help it, a driver never attempted a pass without drafting help from others. To do it alone meant to be shuffled to the rear of the field. The “slingshot pass” was long gone.
Without that pass, many times the guy leading the field on the last lap stood the best chance at victory. Seldom did we see anything exciting or unexpected.

If nothing else, the current two-car draft allows for more drama. It is fascinating to see a couple of drivers hook up and outrun everyone else – at least for a time.

The drama comes in when the time comes for the two-car hookups to contend with each other; when one or more behind the leader has to make a move.

And 2011 showed us that one positive element of the two-car draft was that it had a tendency to allow anyone the chance to win.

How else could you explain the fact that Trevor Bayne and Jeff Gordon drafted so well together that Bayne became the totally unexpected first-time 500 winner?

Hey, put Boys aside. The point is that it could have been anyone in a two-car draft. The possibilities were endless.

One thing negative about this style of racing is the constant chatter between teams. Teammates doing so are acceptable, but when rivals do it, it’s bogus. That NASCAR wants to do away with it should be one change universally praised.

Since it is obvious the sanctioning body has its sights set on eliminating the two-car draft, the hope here is that it what it does results in something better.

However, whatever happens, NASCAR won’t please everybody. Never has and never will.

If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

Print This Post Print This Post